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A summer's social whirl, from Bette Midler to Satan

Nicky Haslam's notebook of a season of laughter and sadness

13 September 2014

9:00 AM

13 September 2014

9:00 AM

This summer brought highs and lows, sadness and laughter, some irritating, some exhilarating. I was fortunate to be uplifted by an encounter with Leslie Bonham Carter, a remarkable woman who seems quite British but is in fact American. She is the daughter of Condé Nast, who founded the company that bears his name. He was born 145 years ago, in 1869. Leslie witnessed the full glamour of 1930s America. When the first world war came, many British grandees packed their children off to America. Young Leslie had opposite plans. All she thought of was how to get to England, to be there in its darkest hour. Diplomatic strings pulled, she sailed, barely in her teens and without either parent, in a battleship across those sub-infested waters. At 8.30 on the morning of 8 July 1943, she ‘saw my first sight of England … the England I have talked, thought and dreamed about … the England I love’. Over 80 years later, despite its glaring faults, Leslie loves it still.

The death of another ardent lover of England has cast a pall on this summer’s lushness. Candida Lycett Green sought out, explored, and wrote about almost every building, lane, turret and copse, horse and cart throughout the land. She wore her knowledge lightly but she cared passionately — both traits she inherited from her father, John Betjeman. She created rooms, houses and gardens that were a miscellany of colourful vividness and gentle erudition. Her parties — and there were many — though planned to a T with her adoring family, had that ineffable ingredient, spontaneity. And then the beauty, the raucous laugh, the lack of swank or self-pity. Some years ago, on a holiday, I was moaning about a slight upcoming cancer operation. Of course she didn’t mention she had that devilish affliction herself.

Believing in Satan has disappeared from our current psyche. No churchman dares mention him. His disturbing image, that horned and tailed creature, is portrayed throughout the ages. Oh, we think smugly, surely he never existed. But perhaps he does. While on a boat in Greece, I read Imaginary Creatures by Jorge Luis Borges, about weird beings rooted in legend. Most of his work is way over my head, though these monsters are fascinating to any numbskull. Were they entirely ‘imaginary’? Or, over centuries, did word of mouth describe what had once been alive? The Djinns — the Muslim creed’s version of devils — appear as smallish shapes of a fire-like substance that evaporate suddenly into an outline of sparks. A recent David Attenborough documentary showed deep-sea creatures apparently doing exactly that.


My charming friend Alicia Castro, the Argentine ambassador, had pooh-poohed my claim, half-remembered from a long article on the author in the New Yorker some years ago, to be related to Borges. Dear old Google proved it true; Jorge Luis was born Borges-Haslam. His grandmother, Fanny Haslam, from Lancashire, was a cousin of my dad. It will be the red carpet at the Casa Rosada, surely.

The co-writer of this magazine’s bridge column, Janet de Botton, played a trump card at dinner in her Provençal paradise the other week; Bette Midler was there. So was her charming husband. Though Bette’s screen persona is huge and flamboyant, she is petite and almost puppy-like in appearance, with the most perfect skin, and darting, beautiful, expressive hands. Wildly funny and self-effacing at the same time, she drew the best out of everyone round the table, encouraged revelations, and added many of her own about the biz of show — particularly that Michael Jackson didn’t talk with that breathy squeak but in a perfectly normal baritone.

Talking of baritones, after some recent in-depth radio news coverage on Israel/Gaza, the presenter announced ‘Now, a comment on the situation by Princess Anne.’ We heard a sensible, cultivated, measured voice speaking surprisingly knowledgably for several minutes. Then the presenter said ‘Thank you, Prince Hassan.’

A fellow guest at a wedding in Northern Ireland this weekend was the artist Mark Adlington. Anyone who has not seen his astonishing paintings of otters illustrating the re-issue of Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water should dash to Daunt’s. One, of a torpedo-like otter streaking forwards, followed by a shimmering wake, is quite extraordinary.


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