More Mr Pooter than Joe Orton: George Lucas’s gay life in London

In January 1948, George Lucas, an unremarkable 21-year-old Roman Catholic who had just been demobbed from the Pay Corps, was living unhappily in Romford with his ill-matched parents, who relentlessly taunted him about his homosexuality. He would shortly get a job at the War Office and so embark on a lifetime’s career as a civil servant, commuting to central London every day to work at his desk and spend his evenings in search of sex and companionship, largely among the servicemen who hung around Marble Arch. In later life Lucas would trawl the pubs, streets and urinals of central London, more often than not paying for sex, and always keeping

Four female writers at the court of Elizabeth I

Almost a century ago, in A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf claimed that if William Shakespeare had had an equally talented sister the obstacles to her sharing his vocation would have been insurmountable. Woolf’s argument that a woman needs ‘money and a room of her own’ in order to write proved persuasive. ‘Shakespeare’s sister’ has become a pop-cultural trope. So perhaps it’s unsurprising that the distinguished American scholar of the Renaissance Ramie Targoff should borrow the phrase for a study of four woman writers. Her title offers a shortcut to understanding how significant this immensely accomplished quartet is for readers and writers today. Not that Targoff’s elegantly readable, immaculately

Hanif Kureishi – portrait of the artist as a young man

If any novelist, playwright or screenwriter of the past 40 years could be called ‘a writer of consequence’, to use the literary agent Andrew Wylie’s term, it would be Hanif Kureishi. While not shifting units on the scale of his near contemporaries Ian McEwan, Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie, Kureishi’s cultural influence – through his explorations of race, class and sexuality in novels such as The Buddha of Suburbia and films like My Beautiful Laundrette – is inestimable. In this first major biography, Ruvani Ranasinha tracks Kureishi’s progress from his birth in Bromley in 1954 to a Pakistani father and English mother, through his glittering, always provocative career, to the

Chris Mullin’s eye for the absurd remains as keen as ever

Journalists seldom get to the top in politics. They find it hard to trot out the dreary virtue-signalling that political communication often requires. Chris Mullin, I suspect, finds it almost impossible. He was a Bennite, but the Bennites quickly discovered he was unreliable. The Blairites might have welcomed him had they not suspected, rightly, that he would get the line wrong sooner rather than later.  There’s an endearing vanity in the way Mullin reports every kind remark made about his previous published diaries The only journalist to have made the top job in politics is Boris Johnson, and he crashed and burned. My friend Denis MacShane, who has ability and

Nothing compares with Chips Channon’s diaries for sheer exuberance

‘Why was he born so beautiful, why was he born at all?’ When ‘Chips’ Channon strolled into the House of Commons tea room in 1951, this was the chant with which encircling drunken Labour MPs mocked him. Politically, he was inessential they thought, and epicene. He admitted to being the best-dressed of MPs, but reckoned the young socialist Anthony Crosland to be the most beautiful. As a historical record keeper, though, he has cut a deeper and more ineffaceable mark than any of his tormentors. Nothing compares with the unexpurgated Channon diaries. They are rich, exuberant, copious and shatteringly honest. For those interested in the parliamentary politics of 20th-century England,

We let Hong Kong down: Chris Patten on the end of colonial rule

After 13 years in parliament, rising star Chris Patten had the bad luck to be one of the few Tory MPs to lose his seat in 1992. Had he been re-elected he would probably have become chancellor of the exchequer. Instead, he found himself in the wilderness. But not for long. Within months he had been appointed governor of Hong Kong, tasked with the tricky business of presiding over the transfer of the territory to communist China. It was a lucky break. Had he been chancellor, the odds are that his political career would have come to a sticky end the following September, when the pound fell out of the

The sad fate of Edna St Vincent Millay – America’s once celebrated poet

In June 1957, Robert Lowell attended a poetry reading by E.E. Cummings. Sitting dutifully and deferentially alongside him were Allen Tate, W.S. Merwin and his wife Dido and the classical scholar William Alfred, ‘while Cummings read outrageous and sentimental poems, good and bad of both kinds’. They were not alone: ‘About eight thousand people listened.’ But you can tell from Lowell’s adjectives – ‘outrageous and sentimental’ – that Cummings’s reputation is already on the slide. Edna St Vincent Millay’s diaries record a reading in Waco on 10 January 1930: ‘In spite of icy streets, really dangerous & cold weather, abt. 1500 people present.’ In 1934, Millay took Laurence Olivier and

A reappraisal of James Courage

James Courage is one of those fine writers who, though he enjoyed considerable success in his lifetime, has now more or less slipped from view. None of the eight novels he published between 1933 and 1961 is in print and most of them are impossible to find secondhand. The same goes for a collection of his short stories published in 1973. He is chiefly remembered for A Way of Love, a bold novel about a homosexual relationship that was published in 1959 and became a minor cause célèbre in New Zealand when it was banned there. Courage was born in New Zealand in 1903, but came to Oxford University in

Is Gauguin redeemable? No. Would he have wanted to be redeemed? Absolutely not

‘This is not a book,’ is the first line of Paul Gauguin’s final memoir, Avant et Après, written on Hiva Oa in the Marquesas Islands in 1903 a couple of months before his death aged 54 from syphilitic heart disease. In his dedication to the critic André Fontainas he describes the manuscript as ‘born of solitude and savagery — idle tales of a naughty child who sometimes reflects and is always a lover of the beautiful’. Fontainas failed to find a publisher as Gauguin had hoped, and although a facsimile appeared in 1918 it wasn’t until 1923 that the artist’s eldest son Émile had the memoir published in an English

A glimpse of the real Patricia Highsmith through her diaries and notebooks

There are three ways of knowing Patricia Highsmith. First, of course, she was the author of 22 novels and several story collections published between 1950 and 1995, the year of her death. Then the woman herself: Mary Patricia Plangman, born in Dallas in 1921, long-term resident of New York City, when young a socially and sexually active lesbian, later in life a mostly solitary literary figure in almost constant movement around Europe. Much biographical work has been written about her. And, finally, a revelation: she was the keeper of not only an intimate diary for most of those years, but also workbooks she called ‘cahiers’, all now published in a

Julie Burchill

Why I was labelled a bitch: Joan Collins remembers the old Hollywood days

Readers of this magazine will have enjoyed Joan Collins’s diaries, and her Past Imperfect was one of the funniest showbiz autobiographies ever. (One of her beauty tips: ‘Never eat rancid nuts.’) She started as a Rank teenage starlet who, after being beckoned to Hollywood, was given B-roles because ‘I wouldn’t be “nice” to studio heads and it gave me a reputation of being a bitch’. More accurately, her ex-fiancé Warren Beatty called her ‘Butterfly’ —always fluttering on to some new project, even now at the age of 88. I love gossip and was looking forward to a wagonload of it in these diaries, written between 1989 to 2006, ‘when I

How does David Sedaris get away with saying the unsayable?

These aren’t diaries in the sense that Chips Channon kept diaries, or Samuel Pepys. They aren’t diaries at all, beyond the fact that each entry records an event and has a date and place attached. If a diary is a conversation with yourself, A Carnival of Snackery is a conversation with a crowd, because the observations it contains were written as material for David Sedaris’s shows. The entries, which begin in 2003 and continue to Christmas 2020, are therefore, as Sedaris admits, over-polished, and what we hear on the page is a spoken rather than a written voice. There are many other voices besides, because the book is a record

Chips Channon’s judgment was abysmal, but the diaries are a great work of literature

It is often said that the best political diaries are written by those who dwell in the foothills of power. Henry Channon’s political career peaked at parliamentary private secretary to the deputy foreign secretary Rab Butler, so he was well-placed to document, and sometimes actively to participate in, the intrigues of those who inhabited the Olympian heights. Channon’s other great advantage was that he entertained — on an awesome scale. Scarcely an evening passed when he was not either hosting or attending a party in one of the capital’s grand salons: ‘All London,’ as he put it — by which he meant the great and the fashionable — flowed through

How Cecil Beaton offended the Queen Mother

In December 1979, the 28-year-old Hugo Vickers, dining with a friend, declared: ‘I see little point to life these days.’ The following day, an editor at Weidenfeld & Nicolson rang to tell him that Cecil Beaton, seriously debilitated by a stroke, was looking for a biographer. Vickers visited Beaton three days before his death in January 1980 and, shortly afterwards, was confirmed as his official biographer. This was to give point, along with glamour and excitement, to his life for the next five years. Beaton’s sister, Lady Smiley, exhorted Vickers not to make it ‘one of those gossipy books. There’s so much more.’ He followed her counsel and his biography

Alan Duncan rants about ‘idiot’ parliamentary colleagues and Britain’s waning influence

As a budding political apparatchik, my first job out of university was as a junior parliamentary assistant to Alan Duncan MP. Working for him was never taxing because it was never boring. Nicknamed ‘Hunky Dunky’, he was well known in the Tory fraternity. Too young to be a grandee and too old to be a rising star, he occupied a special space in the parliamentary party, never part of a clique yet consistently present during his 27 years in parliament. We’d often remark — to his annoyance — that he was the Chips Channon of his generation, since both often ended up on the wrong side of the winning team.

Chips Channon’s diaries can read like a drunken round of Consequences

Most of the grander 20th-century diarists had a sniffy air about them, looking down their noses at everyone, particularly each other. Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, so snippety in his own diaries, was sniped at in others’. James Lees-Milne thought him ‘a flibbertigibbet’; to Nancy Mitford, he was ‘vain and spiteful and silly’. Kenneth Rose confided to his diary that Channon was ‘a rather stupid man’. When the bowdlerised Channon diaries were first published in 1967, edited by Robert Rhodes James, Rose could not disguise his thrill at how badly they had gone down in his own smart set. At a ‘luncheon party given by Raine Dartmouth at her pretty house in

The strangeness of voting in the Lords from my bed

Having only recently entered the House of Lords, I must tread with caution, but I had always understood that it is chiefly a revising chamber. By strong convention, it does not reject legislation arising from the election manifesto of the party victorious in the House of Commons. Yet on Monday night, faced with the Internal Market Bill (which helps provide for a full Brexit), it attempted no revision at all. The House was sitting in committee, whose very purpose is revision, but the anti-government majority was on such a high horse that it happily let an amendment from critics of the government fall. It refused to engage. A key feature

Lionel Barber leaves the pink ’un in the pink

As Lionel Barber recounts unrolling his pitch to replace me as editor of the Financial Times to the newspaper’s proprietor Marjorie Scardino, he retrospectively makes fun of his presentation: ‘You have to change the editor,’ he recalls telling the Pearson CEO in the summer of 2005. ‘Otherwise this sucker’s going down.’ Then an aside for readers: ‘Maybe she thought I had been watching too many Hollywood movies.’ Well, yes. There are some cinematic touches to Barber’s memoir of his long reign as FT editor from October 2005 to January 2020. This is true of his own self-portrait (gun-slinging journalistic enforcer in the Evans and Bradlee tradition, friend to the powerful,

Beauty and the beast: Jane Birkin’s love affair with Serge Gainsbourg

I met Jane Birkin’s parents, who flit across these pages. Her mother, Judy Campbell, was an actress in Noël Coward plays and a cabaret singer who’d worked with Charles Hawtrey, and when I invited her to a party once she drove her Mini up the steps and into the hotel lobby. Jane’s father, David, had a good war, his boat picking up pilots and spies hidden by the Resistance on the Breton coast. He told me ’Allo ’Allo wasn’t a comedy, it was documentary realism. He endured many operations on his optic nerve. A piece of hip bone was grafted to his eye socket. His lungs, as Jane says, were

Anglo-Chinese misunderstanding: an Oxford don visits 1960s Beijing

This book is a rather startling depiction of Hugh Trevor-Roper’s involvement with the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU), his sponsored visit to China in October 1965 (just months before the Cultural Revolution got under way) and his efforts to find out who actually controlled and funded SACU. Having been induced to be a sponsor of the society on legitimate grounds of interest in China and its history, Trevor-Roper was a last-minute addition to a delegation visiting Beijing and Xian. He was promised freedom of movement and access, though the reality turned out quite differently. The China Journals thus comprises four sections: Trevor-Roper’s diary of his three-week visit; his diary of