Dining in splendour beneath Van Dycks as we forked in the delicious venison, it was hard not to agree with my neighbour that we were in illustrious company and in one of the most beautiful rooms in England. Our hosts had, however, as we agreed, been bold in the choice of multinational guests, many of whom had never met one another. A challenge for the shy. How much easier, we said, were children’s parties. If all dinner parties had conjurors, or games of Pass the Parcel and Musical Chairs, they would lose their terror for those of us who still feel tongue-tied by social demands. Lo and behold! As we swept down the stairs for our coffee in the Great Hall, there stood a smiling young man called Archie Manners, with 20 chairs arranged in rows. There followed an hour of the most brilliant magic. As well as card tricks, he did mind-reading. Some of my fellow guests were inventors of brilliance, but even the cleverest were baffled. When his show finished, we kept Archie up for hours beyond midnight, as he repeatedly bamboozled us all.
The Betjeman Society had a fascinating meeting last week, at which Ian Curteis showed the TV play which he directed and the poet wrote, Pity About the Abbey (1965). I’d misremembered it — wrongly believing the satire ended with Westminster Abbey being demolished to make way for a multi-storey carpark. In fact, it is reprieved, which isn’t such a good ending, but it is still full of bitingly accurate observations of civil servants and plansters. Surely it’s worth rebroadcasting — with Curteis’s spry introduction?
My friend Jill Hamilton died last Sunday, one of the most beautiful and outrageous of Australian imports into this country. She was so beautiful that even in old age, when she walked into a room, everyone gawped. Another beautiful and outrageous Australian, Rebecca Hossack, gallery owner and woman-about-town, told me that the only time she had ever witnessed Jill nonplussed was when they dined, the three of them, Rebecca, Jill and Germaine Greer. ‘I was afraid to open my mouth,’ said Jill — not a sentiment she can often have felt. She will be remembered for many things — her work as a conservationist, her books on the Middle East, and her piety about the first world war. It was she who began the annual service of remembrance that is held at dawn on Anzac Day in Battersea Park, which has now become a big event for Australians in London. She was very proud of her father who had fought in the 38th Royal Fusiliers, known as the Jewish Legion, who reached Damascus before Lawrence of Arabia (pace Seven Pillars of Wisdom) in October 1918. Her book Gods, Guns and Israel (2004) is still worth a look, not least because it shows that Lloyd George played a much bigger role in the Zionist story than did Arthur Balfour.
Jill was married three times, and was what obituarists used to call much-loved. She was married to the 15th Duke of Hamilton some 16 hours after divorcing Edward Hulton, and even after divorcing the motor-racing duke, she styled herself ‘Duchess of Hamilton’. Why not? Her vivid turns of phrase remained in the mind, combining as they did Australian candour with Proustian levels of social boasting. When she fell in love with a younger man who was a Catholic priest, a hitherto dormant interest in religion was born, though it became a little bitter when she learned he was two-timing her with a nun. She died in poverty, deserted by all but a handful of friends, among whom were Prince and Princess Michael of Kent. When journalists lampoon this pair, I think of them loyally visiting Jill last Christmas in her mean little dwelling on Cumnor Hill, just outside Oxford.
The anniversary of the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech by Enoch Powell reminded me of my stint as literary editor of this mag. If you are responsible for finding book reviews each week, you come to cherish the regulars, such as Enoch, who are prepared to review anything. His besetting sin was not racism so much as vanity. He always wanted to cut a dash by saying things, however foolish, which drew attention. Hence his famous, almost invariably ridiculous, opinions — that Our Lord was not crucified, that Shakespeare did not write the plays etc. In delivering the R of B speech he got what he most wanted: attention. No one can remember the mainstream politicians of half a century ago, but the BBC is still making programmes about Enoch, years after his preposterous claim that the black man in Britain would by now have the whip hand over the white man.