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High life

I think I just went to the greatest ball in history

Plus: What Paul Johnson (maybe) said to Simon Jenkins

5 July 2014

9:00 AM

5 July 2014

9:00 AM

To Fort Belvedere for a ball that most likely will discourage any more balls because of its brilliance and perfection. Galen and Hilary Weston, who lease the historic house that was once the playground of Edward VIII and the venue where he signed the Instrument of Abdication in front of his three brothers, are amazing hosts. In this age of gushing exhibitionism, their restraint and good taste leave one speechless upon arrival. On a brilliant June evening, with the weather holding, some 400 guests arrived at Windsor Great Park and walked down the immaculate rolling lawns of the Fort.

On the right, on a perfect grass court where once upon a time I used to play regularly with Galen, a mixed doubles game was in process. The ladies wore long 1900s dresses and large hats. The men were in impeccable long whites. The rackets were made of wood. But there was something wrong. This foursome could play. On a wet slippery court, in long whites and dresses, the four of them whacked the ball back and forth and the rallies were longer than the queue waiting to greet the Westons. They were obviously pros hired by Galen to add to the weekend house party atmosphere. It was an exquisite touch only spoilt for me when I told some wise guy that I had played a lot on that court and he asked me what the Duke of Windsor’s game had been like.

Galen never ceases to amaze me, and I’m not the type that courts business tycoons. He’s not only the number one in his profession, but he was also as good an amateur tennis player as he was a polo player, and by that I mean top-class. He’s a bit younger than me and the last time we played it was a tie, the difference being he’s brilliant in business and I have trouble with subtraction and spent 40 years just playing tennis. But back to the party. If there was a theme it had to be Arcadia, the dream-like vision of pastoral harmony with nature. Hilary Weston was lieutenant-governor of Ontario, a place one can fit my country into ten times and still have lots of room to roam, and her cherry-blossom garden with tree trunks planted on the ceiling had me confused even after only three double vodkas. So I asked my friend Debbie Bismarck whether it was age or had someone spiked my drinks. ‘It’s a mirror, you fool,’ she answered rather rudely, but thinking about it later on, how was I supposed to know these things. Everything that led to anywhere was festooned with roses, something a philistine like myself when it comes to decoration noticed without Debbie’s help.


Most beautiful girl who once again ruined my evening by giving me a slight kiss on my cheek and then running away quicker than you can say Bolt: Sophie Windsor; most tolerant by far: Debonnaire Bismarck, who compared me to an annoying younger brother who clings, as I cut in on her seven times straight until nobody bothered to ask her any more. Most gracious: the Prime Minister, whom Philip Treacy introduced me to, and who flashed a broad smile at my drunken antics and remembered that we had met at The Spectator summer party a few years before. Philip Treacy, incidentally, made my little girl’s wedding headdress, a Mercury wing-like thing that made her look absolutely beautiful. Dumbest remark of the evening? That’s an easy one. Someone asked the multi-billionaire South African tycoon Johann Rupert, who had flown the day before to Stuttgart and back in two hours, what airline he had flown. The last time Johann was inside a commercial plane he was still in short trousers, and, by the way, he is a true Afrikaner and a wonderful tough guy, whom I adore.

The music was the best ever, a full orchestra belting out Cole and George and every Thirties hit, and then on came Julio Iglesias to sing more romantic stuff that had us all swooning. I got home at daybreak and came out of bed to write this column. Two days previously, the very handsome and gentlemanly banker Rupert Hambro, who failed to tell us it was his birthday except we had read it in that morning’s Telegraph, gave a wonderful lunch in honour of Conrad Black in the private room of Wiltons, which I believe he owns. The great Paul Johnson, Barry Humphries, the ex-Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Lord Powell, Lord Black, Dan Colson, you get the picture. Welcoming Conrad back was a gracious gesture by Rupert, and all the guests appreciated it. Paul Johnson had just finished his 50th book, one that I’m reading as I write. It’s on Mozart. ‘Mendelssohn is next,’ he told me. My first proprietor, when I joined the Speccie 37 years ago, Henry Keswick, misheard and sort of loudly expressed surprise that the great writer would be writing on Mandelson. Loud guffaws all around. And it got better.

Barry Humphries, in excellent form after a gruelling tour while retiring Dame Edna, told us that he had overheard a conversation between Sir Simon Jenkins and Paul Johnson. Simon asked Paul why he, Simon, although a lifelong conservative, found himself being more and more left-wing as he got older. The sage answered right away. ‘Because you’re a cunt.’ End of lunch.

PS. In last week’s column I committed a boo-boo. I wrote about Olga Georges-Picot and said that she must be an old lady by now. Olga, suffering from deep depression, committed suicide in Paris in 1997. RIP.


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