Hugh Massingberd

No dilly- dallying

I have a hazy memory of a 1950s television series on stately homes in which Richard Dimbleby (dubbed ‘Gold-Microphone-in-Waiting’ by Malcolm Muggeridge) would respectfully prompt their Wode- housian owners into trotting out seasoned anecdotes. ‘And this of course is the celebrated Red Drawing-room. Your Grace, I think, ahem, you have a story about that curious

Better than chocolate

Surely the most sought after among what Lord David Cecil described as ‘The Pleasures of Reading’ (a lecture title that lured John Betjeman in the expectation of a paean to the architectural delights of Berkshire’s county town) is the moment when an author articulates a feeling that you imagined was peculiar to yourself, expresses an

Pooter crossed with Wooster

J. B. Morton, a bluff Old Harrovian survivor of the Somme, succeeded his fellow Bellocian Roman Catholic convert D. B. Wyndham Lewis (‘the wrong Wyndham Lewis’, according to the tiresome Sitwells) as ‘Beachcomber’ in 1924 and wrote the ‘By the Way’ column in the Daily Express for more than 50 years. He eventually signed off

The master of mistakes

In more than half a century of television viewing nothing has haunted me so much as what was transmitted on the evening of 15 April 1984. ‘Thanks, love,’ said Tommy Cooper, in mid-turn, to the dancer who had fastened his cloak. Then he clutched his chest and, as if in slow motion, collapsed on to

On the Wight track

In one of P. G. Wodehouse’s stories the attempts made by Oliver Sipperley, editor of the Mayfair Gazette, to inject some pep into the mag are hampered by poor old Sippy’s inability to ward off unwelcome contributions from his formidable prep school headmaster on recondite classical topics. I experienced not dissimilar difficulties when editing the

Master of the picturesque

Listing page content here William Kent (1685-1748) was a Bridlington boy whose training as an artist in Italy was sponsored by squires from both sides of the River Humber including my kinsman Burrell Massingberd of Ormsby, Lincs. Kent’s correspondence with Massingberd is a significant source for any study of ‘the Signior’ and Timothy Mowl has

Harnessing the horses of Apollo

In my ignorance, before reading this most instructive, entertaining and beautifully produced book, I had idly regarded sundials as agreeable garden ornaments with little or no practical purpose. To quote Hilaire Belloc, ‘I am a sundial and I make a botch / Of what is done much better by a watch’. Yet our expert guide

The country of Sir Walter

Although the Scottish Borders contain some of the most picturesque and unspoilt scenery in the British Isles, with the country houses along the Tweed putting up a fair show to rival the ch

Making the surgeon laugh

One of life’s longed-for little twists comes when the nice guy finally asserts himself and reveals a darker side to his personality. Alan Alda, celebrated for having played Hawkeye for 11 years in the television series M*A*S*H* and an actor who always seemed slightly too eager to ingratiate, had his moment of revelation as the

Between the two Georges

Until reading this stimulating and sumptuous study from the archives of Country Life I had only associated the name Edward Knoblock, an American-born dramatist, with one of the best-known anecdotes about John Gielgud’s gaffes. You remember the scene: Gielgud and Knoblock are lunching at the Ivy when Johnny absent-mindedly describes someone as ‘nearly as boring

Diary – 31 December 2005

The other day in Whiteley’s shopping centre in Queensway — somewhere I usually try to avoid — I suddenly found myself engulfed by a gang of over-exuberant and oddly menacing adolescents. ‘Hey, you!’ their leader, a well-fed girl of some 12 summers in expensive sportswear, addressed me. ‘I like your umbrella — where d’you get

A Norfolk not an Ess

A special thrill when visiting country houses — as I used to do every week in the unconvincing guise of what Evelyn Waugh described in A Handful of Dust as a ‘very civil young man’ engaged in chronicling family seats — was the occasional opportunity of handling one of Humphry Repton’s original ‘Red Books’. This

Bring on the Colander Girls

Like Groucho Marx I tend to be rather ambivalent about joining clubs, but last November — in fact, exactly 48 hours before Deborah Hutton, author of this brilliant book subtitled ‘75 Practical Ideas for Family and Friends from Cancer’s Frontline’ — I unexpectedly found myself a member of what Hutton calls the last club in

Sweet Lady of Misrule

To my shame, back in the 1980s, I wrote a less than charitable obituary for the Daily Telegraph of the 13th Duke of St Albans, which dwelt unnecessarily on his unfortunate City directorships. This provoked a volley of letters from his grandson, Lord Vere of Hanworth, couched in intemperate terms. I seem to recall demands

All the way from Folk to Electric

Faced with a choice on election night of staying in to watch the results coming in on the box or heading out to The Anvil, Basingstoke, to catch a live show by The Manfreds — featuring my old school contemporary Michael d’Abo on vocals, as well as his apparently ageless predecessor, Paul Jones — it

Living with the Inspector

In this ingenious ‘double biography’, which covers not only her own life and that of her late husband, the peerless television actor John Thaw, but also their life together, the actress Sheila Hancock has achieved an impressive and affecting work of art. Unfort- unately, though, it is flawed by the author’s self-indulgence in ranting on

Playing the marriage market

Although the publishers assure us that this study of three sisters is ‘one of glamour, money and love in equal measure’, Fortune’s Daughters should not be confused with the new novel by The Spectator’s most decorative diarist, Joan Collins, entitled Misfortune’s Daughters. Elisabeth Kehoe’s book is non-fiction and covers, as the sub-title puts it, ‘The

The geographer of Bohemia

To celebrate the centenary of Anthony Powell’s birth next year an exhibition is being planned at the Wallace Collection in Lon- don, which houses Poussin’s ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’, the work of art that inspired the novelist’s panoramic 12- volume sequence. The official biography, to be written by Hilary Spurling, a former

It’s being so cheerful that keeps me going

When asked why he was always so incredibly cheerful, David Niven (Stowe, Sandhurst and the Silver Screen) used to reply, ‘Well, old bean, life is really so bloody awful that I feel it’s my absolute duty to be chirpy and try and make everybody else happy too.’ Niven’s extraordinary charm and delightfully light touch made

Among the goys and philistines

For some reason, almost every time I plunge into too hot a bath I find myself thinking of my days as a public schoolboy – presumably a ‘tosh’ must have been one’s principal pleasure at an impressionable age – and more often than not a half-remembered line from Frederic Raphael’s haunting School Play, shown on