Learning the art lingo: the people, periods and -isms

When she first starts working as a security guard at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Bianca Bosker is so bored that she prays someone will touch the art. ‘Do it, I urged silently from my spot by the wall. Do it so I can tell you not to.’ She’s to stand for hours on end, staring into space, reporting anything that could pose a threat. On the first day she radios her supervisors to alert them to a stray leaf: ‘Not exactly a suspicious package, but I needed something to interrupt the tedium.’ Wheedling your way into a self-contained world about which you know next to nothing is no

You can make anything up about the royal family and it will be printed as fact

There are quite a few things that Tina Brown doesn’t know: what ‘jejune’ means; when Louis XIV came to the throne; what the passive voice in prose is (not ‘recollections may vary’); what members of the aristocracy are called (Lady Romsey becomes Lady Penelope Romsey) or what members of the royal family are called (the ‘Dowager Duchess of Gloucestershire’ puts in an appearance).Another thing she doesn’t know (which she shares with other authors of works in this obscenely overstuffed genre) is what’s been going on between members of the royal family in the period between the death of Diana, Princess of Wales and the death of the Duke of Edinburgh

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

No Rose without a thorn

Kenneth Rose was gossip columnist by appointment to the aristocracy and gentry. He was, of course, a snob — nobody could write a social column in the Sunday Telegraph for more than 50 years without some snobbish instincts — but he was an intelligent one, singularly well-informed, and capable from time to time of administering a sharp bite to the noble hands that fed him his material. It might reasonably be said that his contribution to social history is limited in its parameters, but it is a real contribution for all that. It is also great fun to read. Certain themes recur constantly in the course of his narrative. One

Real life | 3 May 2018

Because my mother is always telling me everything will be all right if I join a tennis club, I’ve joined a tennis club. In fact, I haven’t joined a tennis club so much as joined a group of women with a tennis coach who meet once a week for instruction at a court in Surbiton. A friend of mine is a member of this group and kindly agreed to take me. I borrowed a spare racket of hers and dusted off some dusky pink Lycra hot pants left over from my flirtation with hot yoga. As we gathered on the sunny court down an alleyway between two houses in a

My husband’s ‘gay affair’ with Gove

A few weeks ago I discovered that while he should have been focused on the fight of his life during the referendum campaign, David Cameron was instead obsessing over whether or not his justice secretary, Michael Gove, had had an affair with my husband, Dom Cummings, campaign director of Vote Leave. The story was in the Mail on Sunday, who eked it out across two consecutive issues. On week one it kept Dom and Michael’s names under wraps (for ethical reasons, it said) but revealed the source of the thrilling bit of gossip to be an aide of Cameron’s called Gavin Williamson (now Chief Whip). Williamson had, said the MoS,

Dear Mary | 15 September 2016

Q. At a recent party I was delighted to find my hosts had put me next to one of their most high-profile guests. We had never met before but they knew how much I had to say to this excellent woman. I was consequently dismayed when she failed to — or rather, was unable to — turn. Her first interlocutor, a somewhat physically overbearing character, talked to her with almost pathological intensity throughout all the courses. The dinner came to an end and she and I had been unable to exchange one word. We had been 20 tables of ten. Had one of our hosts been at our table he

In the gutter, insulting the stars

John McEntee — ‘the Chancer from Cavan’, as he bills himself — has enjoyed a long career as a gossip columnist on various national newspapers. Gossip is thirsty work, and in the anecdotes that comprise the bulk of his memoirs he is almost invariably ‘well-refreshed’. That can also be dangerous. He recalls, for example, attempting to introduce himself to Eve Pollard, who was then editor of the Sunday Mirror, in the bar of the Grand Hotel at the 1989 Labour party conference in Brighton. Pollard was talking at the time to Bruce Anderson, who told him, ‘Fuck off, potato head.’ McEntee responded by whipping off Anderson’s spectacles, and Anderson took

Myths and legends

The Ivy is a Playmobil-style faux-medieval restaurant in a triangular building opposite The Mousetrap; of the two, The Ivy is more ancient and threatening. It has mullioned windows, a photogenic lamp post and a parking space for paparazzi to shoot people who want to be shot, as in early Martin Amis novels. It has been refurbished for its 100th birthday, in the manner of an ancient dowager empress seeking new fingers. Of the ‘celebrities’ or ‘notables’ or ‘people who are better than you’ who used to dine here I cannot speak; but apparently it was a live-action re-enactment of a Nigel Dempster diary. Christopher Biggins blah. The pig from Babe blah.

Plutarch on smartphone addiction

Adults, we are told, as much as children, become gibbering wrecks if deprived of their mobiles or iPhones for more than 15 seconds. The 2nd-century ad essayist Plutarch foresaw the problem. In his essay ‘On being a busybody’, Plutarch takes a very strict line on man’s desire to be up to date on every last piece of news and gossip, especially what is ‘hot and fresh’ and, most important of all, scandalous. Joyful occasions — weddings and such like — are of no interest. Country life is even worse, ‘since they find the peace and quiet unendurable’. It is ‘adulteries, seductions, family quarrels, lawsuits’ that a man wants, or if forced to

Dear Mary: How can I spike a gossip-pedlar’s guns?

Q. On arrival at a top level dinner, I was surprised to see at the table a woman who, I have reason to suspect, sells gossip as a sideline. However, clearly no one else suspected her and, assuming it was Chatham House rules, everyone was talking freely. When one man began to regale the table with an anecdote which was bound to culminate in a dynamite piece of gossip, I was paralysed with horror but I couldn’t think how to stop him before it was too late. The consequence was that the item appeared in the press a couple of days later, causing all manner of probable future security problems

Where artists went to drink and die

Once below a time (to quote the man himself) the bloated poet Dylan Thomas slouched back to New York’s Chelsea Hotel in the dead of night and informed his mistress that he had just drunk 18 straight whiskies, which he suspected was a record. He then dropped to his knees, lowered his head onto her lap and mumbled his last words: ‘I love you, but I’m alone.’ On another occasion, during a fund-raising lunch, Jackson Pollock drunkenly vomited on the Chelsea’s carpet, inadvertently improvising, you might say, one of his own drip paintings. On yet another, plastered, the novelists Jack Kerouac and Gore Vidal decided that they ‘owed it to

The ‘semi-detached’ member of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet

John Biffen was mentally ill. This is the outstanding revelation of Semi-Detached, a memoir which has been assembled from his diaries and from the autobiographical writings which he completed before his death in 2007. During the mid-1960s he tried psychotherapy, which he described as ‘lugubrious’, ‘painful’ and ‘not a cure’. He got far better treatment from a Harley Street specialist, Peter Dally, who regulated his lithium doses with blood tests and improved his health to the point where he felt able to join the shadow cabinet in 1976. He served as Trade Secretary under Mrs Thatcher and later as Leader of the House. Biffen loved gossip. He reports a lunch

My family’s better days

The Sargent painting reproduced opposite suggests the wealth and comfort that these three sisters, Mary, Madeline and Pamela, were born to. Their father, Percy Wyndham, was the younger son of Lord Leconfield of Petworth, Sussex. He was his father’s favourite, and was left by him as much of the immense Wyndham riches as was possible. With his inheritance Percy bought a 4,000-acre estate in Wiltshire, romantically named Clouds, where he built a vast country house, designed by Philip Webb. Pamela, the youngest sister (and my great-grandmother), is seated on the sofa, flanked by her two siblings. She was considered the most beautiful of the three, and inevitably, perhaps, she was

Can virgins have babies?

Mrs Christabel Russell, the heroine of Bevis Hillier’s sparkling book, was a very modern young woman. She had short blonde hair which she wore in two large curls on the side of her head, she was wildly social and she was a fearless horsewoman. In 1920 she set up a fashionable dress shop, Christabel Russell Ltd, at 1 Curzon Street. At the end of the first world war she had married John Russell, known as ‘Stilts’ (he was 6’5” tall), the heir to Lord Ampthill, a cousin of the Duke of Bedford. His snobbish and crusty parents disapproved furiously of the marriage. The young couple spent little time together. Christabel,

‘He said you said she said’ — country chatter is exhausting

Speeding down the farm track from my little country retreat, I came across the gamekeeper in his Defender. I wound down my window. ‘Where are you off to in such a hurry?’ he asked, looking askance at the dust cloud and no doubt wondering whether I had collided with any of his pheasants. ‘I’m going back to London for a rest,’ I told him. ‘Oh dear,’ he muttered, lighting a roll-up. Yes, oh dear. Very certainly, oh dear. As he obviously knows only too well, but neglected to tell me when I moved into my rented barn conversion, living in the country is absolutely exhausting. Coming to this tranquil farm

The Rothschilds, the Spenders, the Queen…

The novelist David Plante is French-Québécois by ancestry, grew up in a remote Francophone parish in Yankee New England and came to London half a century ago when still an avid young man. For 38 years he lived there with the late Nikos Stangos, a cosmopolitan of the Greek diaspora, whose father had been expelled from Bulgaria and his mother from Istanbul. Displacement and asylum were so much part of Stangos’s imagination that whenever he saw an old person in the street carrying a suitcase, tears came to his eyes. Stangos’s sensibility, zest and physical grace provide many of the richest moments in his lover’s diaries. Plante began keeping this

Darling Monster, edited by John Julius Norwich – review

It must have been awful for Diana and Duff Cooper to be separated from their only child during the war, but we can be grateful for it because it’s a joy to read the correspondence it gave rise to. The letters in this book span the years 1939 to 1952 and take in the Blitz, Diana’s short spell as a farmer in Sussex, a trip to the Far East, when Duff was collecting intelligence on the likelihood of a Japanese invasion, the couple’s three years in the Paris embassy, and several more in their house at Chantilly, as well as a great number of journeys around Europe and North Africa.

As Luck Would Have It, by Derek Jacobi – review

Alan Bennett once overheard an old lady say, ‘I think a knighthood was wasted on Derek Jacobi,’ and I know what she means. It’s strange how he has always been singled out for prizes and high honours — why not Ronald Pickup, Charles Kay, Edward Petherbridge, Frank Finlay or the late Jeremy Brett? Ian Richardson absolutely hated him — just couldn’t contain his envy and incredulity, at least in my presence. Though I’ve never been able to believe in Jacobi on stage or screen as a villain or as a passionate lover, by being fundamentally unthreatening (and shrewd), he is esteemed — just like the Emperor Claudius, his signature role.

There and Then: Personal Terms 6, by Frederic Raphael – review

Frederic Raphael is forensic in his description of the failures of successful people. He is enviously superior and he is partial to the clever oxymoron: ‘predatory caution’, ‘reticent curiosity’, ‘intimidating reassurance’. It is as though he cannot see an abstract noun without qualifying it with a contradictory adjective. It is a kind of shorthand cleverness, but a cleverness nonetheless. For Raphael is undoubtedly clever, and intelligent, and knowledgeable and smart (and, we learn, good at football, tennis and bridge). It is hard not to envy his certainties. This is a thoroughly enjoyable read. Diaries promise indiscretions, and the joy of gossip. I imagine Raphael’s peers will revel in his malicious