Posted by Richard Rawlinson – in sparklingly shameless name-dropping form – ED
‘Thank goodness for inequality,’ quipped a friend with nonchalant disregard for political correctness as we casually admired inequality’s legacy of beautiful architecture lining the streets of Belgravia this weekend.
The plethora of blue plaques adorning these grand houses gave a degree of substance to this seemingly flippant remark: the display of wealth was arguably a consequence of remarkable people doing remarkable things, whether in politics, medicine, literature, art or any other accomplishment that gave them ‘celebrity’ status, or a place in history.
Sunday strolls in London often conjure up memories of those who have gone before, whether a martyr such as John Southworth, executed at Tyburn (now Marble Arch) or simply plaques noting that a Charles Darwin or a Virginia Wolf ‘lived here’. Even swinging through the revolving doors of Claridges might trigger a passing nod to the ghosts of notable guests, whether a Garbo or a Roosevelt.
As I get older, my familiar haunts remind me not just of figures from the more distant past but offer up personal recollections of those who have died. With age, we become more nostalgic as well as know more people who have ‘shuffled off this mortal coil’.
Before she became famous as one of The Two Fat Ladies, Jennifer Patterson and I crossed paths on two fronts: she was cook at The Spectator when I worked there in my 20s; she also lived in a mansion block near Westminster Cathedral that later became my home.
A traditional Catholic, Jennifer rode her motorcycle to Kensington for the Latin Mass at the Brompton Oratory because she disapproved of the Cathedral’s Novus Ordo mass. I attended mass at the Oratory this Sunday, so Jennifer sprung to mind as my friend and I walked to lunch afterwards through streets lined with plaques revealing they were once inhabited by everyone from philanthropist George Peabody to Nancy Mitford.
I recalled Jennifer’s funeral at the Oratory after she died of lung cancer in 1999. By then an unlikely OAP TV star, the ‘Spinster of Westminster’ attracted over 1,000 mourners. The floral tributes around her coffin included a bottle of whisky and her motorcycle helmet, and a speech alluded to her stiff-upper-lip jollity, even on her hospital deathbed. Asked by visiting friends how she was feeling, she’d reply matter-of-factly, ‘I’m dying, dear.’
Jennifer would arrive mid-morning at The Spectator’s Bloomsbury offices, always wearing a smock with a pouch for her Woodbines, helmet in one hand and cigarette in the other, and often still slightly inebriated from last night’s whiskies.
Before settling into the kitchen to prepare a ‘bunny casserole’ for editor Charles Moore’s lunch guests (who could be anyone from Prince Charles to then-Chancellor Nigel Lawson) she would swan around the offices as if she was hosting a cocktail party, offering a welcome distraction from work with her booming voice and madcap small talk.
When she got to my desk, she’d make me blush by grabbing my cheeks with her ringed fingers, then shaking my face while making ‘coo-chi-coo-chi-coo’ noises, as if I was a sweet child or cute puppy.
I was there when Jennifer threw crockery and cutlery out of the kitchen window because the accounts department had left unwashed coffee mugs in ‘her’ sink. Charles sacked her on the spot but reinstated her a few weeks later.
I shared an office with Rory Knight Bruce, another eccentric character and someone I worked with again when he became editor of Londoner’s Diary at the Evening Standard – which leads to other recollections of brushes with dead folk in public consciousness.
Rory, a fanatical huntsman of foxes as well as a newshound, might be considered a bully by today’s right-on standards. He had a bulging contacts book and he’d slam a scrap of paper bearing a well-known person’s number on your desk, and bark at you to call it and ask the most outrageous questions.
I once had to wake up an elderly Quentin Crisp in his New York garret for a quotation about some gay rights legislation. Despite the time zone difference, a reedy voice picked up immediately (‘Crisp here’), and he was charm personified, a lonely, gentle insomniac seemingly content to natter about anything to anyone at any time.
Another diarist was given a trickier challenge. Rory got it into his head that we must contrive an attack on the Turner prize by… Francis Bacon. Amazingly, Rory had the number, not just of Bacon’s agent but of the legendary, chaotic studio of our then greatest living artist.
‘Call him now,’ hissed Rory to a bemused colleague, ‘and ask him if it is really acceptable that a collection of loathsome art-crowd inverts should use the name of Turner to lend substance to this appalling and valueless charade.’
He added for good measure, ‘You must use the phrase ‘loathsome art-crowd inverts’, is that clear?’.
We all watched nervously as the helpless young diarist dialled Bacon’s direct line.
‘Is that Mr Francis Bacon?’
‘Erm, I’m calling from the Londoner’s Diary page in the Evening Standard…’
‘Could you tell me, Mr Bacon, do you think it objectionable that a crowd of loathsome art-crowd inverts should abuse the name of Turner for their prize?’
There was silence. We all anticipated Bacon to scream, ‘Bugger off’, or worse. But instead he chuckled and simply said, ‘I’m afraid I can’t help you’ before replacing the receiver.
Bacon died a year later in 1992 and his last disturbing triptych from 1991 hangs at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Its ghoulish figures blur the divide between life and death. So too do our memories. I wonder if the artist was momentarily disturbed while working on this painting by some timid hack following outlandish orders.