In Simon Raven’s Alms for Oblivion novel sequence, we are introduced to the hopeless young charmer Fielding Gray. His father is remote and sourly reactionary; his mother develops ominous signs of chippiness and puritanism. Young Fielding gets through most of the right hoops but usually in the wrong way. His public school, in other words, is slightly too minor. He is cheated of the joys of Cambridge only to taste them later on. His regiment is raffish rather than distinguished. His career as a gentleman-scribbler is a ropey one, very much circumscribed by the simultaneous eclipse of the British Empire and of the idea of the leisured man of letters. Nor are matters helped by such vulgar difficulties as the need to pay tradesmen, the need to keep up an appearance of sexual continence and the need to maintain a steady flow of copy.
In the Raven world, yin and yang consist of a permanent opposition between aesthetes and hearties, or between the dutiful bores, prefects and ‘officer material’ types, and the dashing, irresponsible slackers and heartbreakers whom the gods are supposed to favour in the short term. Harried by tax inspectors, family solicitors and moral tutors of all stripes – generally found to be practising the politics of envy – young Gray is repeatedly rescued from his difficulties with girls (and boys), and from his own indigence, by wised-up élitists who know how to play the game of life. There’s usually a cynical boyhood friend who has connections at the right college or regiment or publisher, or who (having slavered with the best of them over the early flowering of Jones minor) is now a sleek and rotund editor of something like the Times or the Spectator.
Peregrine Worsthorne, in this rather idle but charming book,[*] strives to come across as a sort of Catholic version of Gray. His father was a member of that Belgian ruling class on whose behalf we used to be told we fought the First World War, and seems to have suffered from a near-terminal vagueness and languor. Mama, in bold contrast, possessed a sense of noblesse oblige that the Koch de Gooreynds had allowed to lapse, and is presented here without undue sickliness or affection as a cross between a Fabian, a bluestocking and a suffragette. Her sense of debt and duty, social as well as personal, seems to have powerfully conditioned the boy Peregrine in the opposite and selfish direction. (There’s no point in asking him, ‘Don’t You Know There’s A War On?’ unless the war in question is a class war.) Despite his mother’s rectitude and parsimony, she did contrive to make a ‘good’ marriage with Montagu Norman, the man who treated the Bank of England’s reserves as if they were his own, and his own as if they were the Bank of England’s. We are afforded the odd glimpse of this old fiscal reactionary, and of some other Thirties dinosaurs like Sir Samuel Hoare. Of the latter Worsthorne reports ‘the personal antipathy everybody felt, including his wife, Lady Maude, to this cold and unattractive statesman’, but adds that at the age of five he himself could see the good-egg side of the man. He misses the chance to quote Constant Lambert’s limerick, especially composed for the nuptial night of Sir Samuel and his lady:
[*] Tricks of Memory (Weidenfeld.290 pp., £18.99,7 October, 0297 81186 X).
Vol. 15 No. 23 · 2 December 1993
In his Diary (LRB, 4 November) Christopher Hitchens has attributed to Constant Lambert a questionable limerick about Lady Maude Hoare. If his text were imperfect, might he also be wrong about authorship? I remember hearing a better version in 1955, while hanging about the Stag, a pub behind Broadcasting House then favoured by luminaries from BBC Radio Features. The text ran:
‘That will do!’ said the Lady Maude Hoare.
‘I just can’t concentrate any more.
You’re perspiring like hell,
There’s that terrible smell –
And look at the time – half-past four!’
Being struck by the power of the piece, I committed it to memory straightaway. Alas, paradoxically, I can’t for the life of me recall who did the reciting. Could it have been Louis MacNeice? Or perhaps C. Gordon Glover? Anyhow, the same voice declaimed several poems, all on the English nobility, and every one of them credited to a ghostly, long-gone creative figure with a name something like ‘Cheatle’. May I hope some scholar will clarify?
Vol. 15 No. 24 · 16 December 1993
I believe the BBC producer the late R.D. Smith may have been responsible for a series of limericks based on names in Debrett (Letters, 2 December).
Vol. 16 No. 1 · 6 January 1994
To answer Warren Wallace’s query (Letters, 2 December 1993), John Cheatle was a BBC producer, whom I knew because he lived in the same converted house on the east side of Gloucester Road as did Audrey Lucas, a friend of my mother’s and, more interestingly, of Evelyn Waugh’s, as may be seen from the latter’s correspondence. Cheatle died by his own hand, of gas-poisoning, in that same flat in, I think, 1983. I believe he was in danger of losing his job because of his drinking habits.
The more usual, democratic and correctly scanned version of the limerick Mr Wallace quotes goes like this:
My back aches, my penis is sore,
I simply can’t fuck any more
I’m covered with sweat
And you haven’t come yet
And – my God! – it’s a quarter to four!
removing it, of course, from the Yang to the Yin, if that’s the right way round.
Vol. 16 No. 3 · 10 February 1994
Marian Sugden’s suggestion (Letters, 16 December 1993), that R.D. Smith may have been the author of the Debrett limericks was a nice try, but I think that Reggie Smith’s exuberance didn’t quite spill over into malice and satire, no matter how gentle. The original enquirer’s memory of a ‘legendary’ character called ‘Cheatle’ is surely closer to the mark.
John Cheatle, a producer of all sorts of programmes for radio, was indeed a legend in his own lifetime, just after the war. Anecdotes of his latest mockeries were circulated with relish, and reached well beyond the pubs around Broadcasting House. My single experience of his adroitness was his production for radio of an adaptation of Max Beerbohm’s ‘Savonarola Brown’. He was clearly too restless to sit behind the glass panel issuing instructions, but preferred to fizz and crackle around the studio during rehearsals and even on the take. His performance of the Clown, singing a song of his own invention, possibly improvisation, while accompanying himself on a keyboard rigged to sound like a lute, was a hilarious turn, never to he forgotten. I doubt if he would be allowed into Broadcasting House these days.
Vol. 16 No. 5 · 10 March 1994
Alfred Burke (Letters, 10 February) cannot have seen John Cheatle just after the war, since he died in 1943, as I should have said in my letter. His production of ‘Savonarola Brown’ took place in 1939. Lady Maude Hoare, born Lygon, was the sister of Lord Beauchamp, known to Asquith as ‘sweetheart’, who was hounded out of the country for unnatural practices by his brother-in-law, Bendor Duke of Westminster.