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Where did the joke end?

Lord Berners, by Peter Dickinson

19 November 2008

12:00 AM

19 November 2008

12:00 AM

Lord Berners Peter Dickinson

Boydell & Brewer, pp.214, 24.99

Lord Berners, by Peter Dickinson

Lord Berners spent his life with his reputation preceding him.  Lovingly fictionalised as ‘Lord Merlin’, he of the multicolour dyed pigeons in Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, less sympathetically rendered as ‘Titty’ in Harold Nicolson’s Some People, Sir Gerald Hugh Tyrwitt-Wilson, 14th Baron Berners (1883-1950), suffered forever from a status imposed from outside.

As a composer, painter, novelist, poet and parodist, Berners’s dilemma was diagnosed accurately by Harold Acton: ‘Had he been less versatile he would have been less charming but more profound’. Berners himself blamed his social life, claiming his music would have been taken more seriously had he accepted fewer invitations to lunch (one of which came from Adolf Hitler). The fact that Berners wore a mask when riding in his Rolls Royce, blew bubbles in restaurants and would affect a bout of scarlet fever to keep a railway carriage to himself hardly helped.

In this new compendium of Berners’ work, Peter Dickinson, himself a composer and writer, capitalises on the material he has gathered on his one-man mission to revive Berners’s reputation. There are revealing interviews with friends and family — from Frederick Ashton to Diana Mosley via William Crack, Berners’s long-suffering chauffeur — and a wealth of appendices and catalogues, together with a glorious colour-plate section of Berners’s charmingly unachieved sub-Corot landscapes. There are nice cameo roles, too, for the modern composer, Gavin Bryars (another Berners aficionado), here glimpsed skinny-dipping in a glass-domed garden pool with Edward James; and for John Betjeman, complaining about his status as national poet (‘It’s this f***ing laureateship, I’m getting six hundred letters a week.’)

As a musician, Dickinson is at pains to reclaim his subject’s reputation as a composer. A 1918 Italian futurist portrait of Berners (then a diplomat in Rome, complete with a villa opening onto the Forum), all angles and abstractions, is a vivid testament to the aristocrat’s place as the pre-eminent British avant-garde figure of the early 20th century. Stravinsky, with whom Berners studied, declared him ‘the most interesting of English composers’. Dickinson agrees; but prefers the notion of a musical Firbank, rather than ‘the English Satie’.

Lord Berners has already been celebrated in Mark Amory’s excellent 1998 biography, subtitled ‘The Last Eccentric’. He was a product of that fantastical bubble of creativity in the interwar period, perhaps the last time that aristocratic whimsy was accorded cultural importance. Yet it was also an age moving into self-publicity — epitomised by the bowl of press cuttings about themselves kept by the Sitwells in their sitting room. 

Figures such as Berners and, to a lesser extent, Stephen Tennant, teetered on that delicate balance. I remember Stephen Spender telling me, when I interviewed him for my biography of Tennant, that when he received exquisitely illustrated letters from the reclusive aesthete, they seemed to him to be the essence of English retention — objects for private consumption, deluxe samizdats. (It is telling that Denton Welch, that ultimately private and unrecognised artist, painted an imaginary portrait of Berners, also reproduced in this book.)

In Berners’s case, as in Tennant’s, the beauty of private jokes was that they could be carried too far. Thus Tennant could have Princess Margaret turned away at his door because he was ‘only seeing fair-haired people that day’; and when Berners published The Girls of Radclyffe Hall, an Angela Brazil-style spoof of scandal surrounding Cecil Beaton, Oliver Messel, Peter Watson et al, the maligned Beaton, unable to bear the joke, tried to buy up the edition and burn it. (Beaton’s biographer, Hugo Vickers, has since fingered Robert ‘Mad Boy’ Heber Percy, Berners’s high-tempered and long-time companion as the more likely arsonist).

Would anyone take Gerald Berners seriously nowadays? In these days of amateurism become public display, when everyone can be a writer, film star, or merely a celebrity on Facebook, one is tempted to look back to Berners with a certain longing. ‘As Lord Merlin was a famous practical joke, it was sometimes difficult to know where jokes ended and culture began’, wrote Nancy Mitford. ‘I think he was not always perfectly certain himself.’

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