Coup de Guinness

Robert Morley

  • Blessings in Disguise by Alec Guinness
    Hamish Hamilton, 238 pp, £9.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 241 11681 3

Alec Guinness got off on the wrong foot. Like a great many actors he had an unsuccessful childhood. In adolescence he tried to be someone else and after a time succeeded. He never forgave his mother for not telling him who his father was. He never forgave his mother – period. She did, however, care for Alec after her fashion and brought him up and sent him to boarding school, and even for a while provided him with a stepfather, who from time to time held him upside down over bridges, threatening to drop him into the running water to convince him that it was in his best interest to persuade his mother to disgorge part of his patrimony. The patrimony came from a mysterious source. Alec was convinced that part of it was a gold watch but never succeeded in obtaining possession from the solicitor who handed out the funds which were supposed to pay for his schooling and indeed did – until he was 18, when everything stopped except his continuing search for a father. His mother emerges as a feckless but not altogether unlikeable lady who conditioned her child to moonlight flits from hotels in the Cromwell Road, and who was constantly explaining to his chums, and everyone else, that she had mislaid her handbag and was short of a fiver. On one occasion, Guinness came home on leave to find Mother Courage had burgled his one-room flat and left a neat docket of pawn tickets on the mantelpiece.

Readers of Blessings in Disguise may sometimes feel that the book is Hamlet without the Prince, but the publishers are at pains to point out that this is not ‘the exercise in egomania purveyed by so many actors and actresses’. It is on the whole a fascinating account of some of Guinness’s fellow performers who fortunately did not possess his continuing thirst for ‘total simplicity’.

At the age of six, left alone in the dark, he had his first encounter with terror and a fellow lodger in a gloomy house in St John’s Wood.

She was old, shrivelled, big-nosed and very white, and she lay, propped up by pillows, under a frayed coverlet on a brass bed.

   ‘So you are the little boy at the top of the castle. I hear your footsteps on the stairs. Why do you always run? A young gentleman should walk, not run.’

   I was more interested in a brass knob on the bedstead, which wobbled as she spoke, than in what she was saying. She was an impoverished Miss Havisham who had lived in a different social world. There was no cobwebbed wedding-cake but under her bed she did have a partially-eaten rice pudding, which she presently asked for.

On a subsequent occasion she danced for him, in a flowered dressing-gown and fluffy slippers.

   ‘You will have to imagine the music. We are in a big theatre, Drury Lane ... Do you hear the fiddles?’

   ‘No.’

   ‘Use your imagination. Hark at the cymbals! And the tinkling bells. And here come the drums! You must applaud, boy. Clap your hands! I am a Persian Princess ... dancing in the Harem to please my husband the Prince ... When you are grown up you will be able to tell your children you saw The Great Deva dance.’

   Upstairs again, I picked up a waste-paper basket and whirled round the sitting-room ... ‘I am a Persian Princess,’ I said. ‘I am dancing in a big theatre. I am in my prime.’

His stepfather was not impressed:

‘The boy’s touched,’ the Captain said.
‘Oh, he’s only being a boy,’ my mother said.
‘Then why the blazes is he pretending to be a girl? Stop it this instant!’ he shouted.

A year later, while spending his summer holidays in comparative isolation in a hotel in the Cromwell Road, he learnt how to work the lift and made friends with an elderly White Russian who had been a champion pole-punter and long before the Revolution had performed on the tight rope before the Tsar.

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