Tony, Ray and the Duchess

Alan Bell

  • A Lonely Business: A Self-Portrait of James Pope-Hennessy edited by Peter Quennell
    Weidenfeld, 278 pp, £12.50, April 1981, ISBN 0 297 77918 4

James Pope-Hennessy, who was murdered in 1974 when he was 58, will be remembered for several of his books, among them London Fabric, an architectural study made in the nick of time in 1939, a young man’s book which has worn well; the two volumes of his life of Monckton Milnes, Lord Houghton; Verandah of 1964, with its autobiographical element added to family and colonial history; and the excellent Queen Mary (1959), an unusually sympathetic study. Several diaries and autobiographies have already recalled his charm, his amber good looks (ancestrally part-Malaysian) and his bright and entertaining manner. But the tributes are nearly always tinged with regret that his financial incompetence, his drinking habits, and the penchant for rough-trade homosexuality that was ultimately his undoing, made him a difficult and often an impossible friend. Even in 1942 James Lees-Milne was to write of him as ‘becoming spoilt and too reliant upon his youthful charm’.

This collection of some of his literary remains – letters, a patchy diary and some Queen Mary research memoranda of considerable interest – brings out all too clearly the unevenness of his character and achievement. It is tactfully introduced by Peter Quennell, a friend described by Pope-Hennessy elsewhere in the volume as ‘amiable as always, but fundamentally antipathetic’. Mr Quennell does not disguise the less agreeable side of his friend’s life, but prefers to leave it to the letters to reveal some of the personal difficulties of a man who could rather complacently record ‘one of my worst talents – that of getting through people too quickly, and being unable to stand them afterwards: not an agreeable trait’.

Emotional reactions to new friends changed like a weather-vane. A friend once gave him a couple of parrots, but (as Mr Quennell remarks in a note) ‘he soon found the task of keeping exotic birds more onerous than he expected.’ It was therefore fortunate for him that a pugnacious paratrooper, Len Adams, first encountered in a Holland Park underground station lift in 1948, remained a stabilising influence in his life ever after. Among the Tonys, Rays, Jeffreys, the guardsmen and the convicts, it was useful to have such a friend, along with a number of woman friends who proved to be some of his most regular correspondents.

His letters are quite good reading, but the lengthy topographical descriptions, often preliminary mental workings of colour pieces for his later travel books, have an oddly deadening effect, and his greater skill lies in the sharp depiction of personality. Foreign travel, whether in a detested pre-war period in Trinidad as ADC to the Governor General, with a boring everyone-for-tennis atmosphere about the place, or in Sierra Leone in 1965, where he became briefly embroiled in a political demonstration, is better crystallised by the people than in the travelogue prose. The Freetown Governor and his wife (‘if Osbert Lancaster had been delegated by God to design them, they could not have been more precisely what they sounded like’), or an Etonian in Dominica who had married his black cook (‘a most depraved-looking middle-aged man, straight out of Maugham, with the glazed eyes of a drug addict and the aggressive manner of the socially ostracised’): these are the phrases which best encapsulate his foreign journeys.

Travel for Pope-Hennessy was usually work as well as recreation, and his writing stimulated him out of a natural indolence. The discipline of research, clocking in at regular hours for work in archives and libraries, was salutary. When working on Verandah he reported to his brother John that ‘the time is, as for Queen Mary, eaten up by the research, by the absolute necessity of reading every line of every document so as to absorb; the absorption goes on day and night, sleeping, waking, eating or talking; and I cannot at my time of life change the shape of my brain-pan.’ His professionalism shows through, and it is clear that the Noël Coward biography which he had just started at the time of his death would have been something to have looked forward to from a man who could describe Elsa Maxwell as ‘an ugly, vulgar, fusty, noisy woman with a tumbler of whisky screwed into her knotty fist’, and ten years later as ‘a lumpy creature looking like James Boswell’.

Like the much longer run of correspondence, the diary which Pope-Hennessy kept intermittently between 1950 and 1952 contains material that might have been more useful in an extended personal memoir than it is deserving of publication in its own right. His perpetual money troubles, his sex life and his travel problems dominate the journal as they do the letters. Religion occasionally intrudes (‘said a prayer for the desire to pray, as near as I can get; and not to misuse intelligence’), once in an unexpectedly pious Roman Catholic country-house weekend: but sex is the principal theme. The navvies of Edmonton, excitingly glimpsed on the return journey from a visit to his old nanny, provoke the reflection that ‘I have only three modes of expression: writing, sexual excitement, speech’; and he feels a further frisson of delight when coaxing a broad-shouldered Adonis of a taxi-driver into some plain-spoken (heterosexual) reminiscences.

The book suddenly changes gear when Pope-Hennessy moves from the sleazy demimonde of his diary to some excellent set-pieces in which he recorded a brief exposure to the empyrean beau-monde while working on Queen Mary. The memoranda of his research interviews have a sharpness of focus lacking elsewhere in this collection, and even the minor cards of the European court pack are skilfully portrayed. It is a visit to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor at Gif-sur-Yvette in 1958 that is the clou of the whole book.

Pope-Hennessy was fascinated by the opulence of it all, from the scent-bottles in his bathroom down to the lush green carpet. (‘What a pretty carpet, Duchess; I’ve never seen one like it before.’ ‘I call it mah lawn.’) Harold Nicolson and his wife were appalled by their friend’s admiration of the luxuriousness of the Windsors’ mill, and they patiently explained that they themselves were not snobbish about the place – merely fastidious. Pope-Hennessy wallowed in it all. He set down details useful for Queen Mary: the Duke on his father’s temper or his mother’s coldness, for example, to be deftly adjusted by the courtierly necessities of an authorised royal biography; and there are some valuable glimpses of the documentary materials for the history of the Abdication available in the Duke’s personal archives. As for the Duchess, there are ipsissima verba (on the Queen’s and her sister’s clothes, ‘all screwed up under their arms ... I’d like to take those girls’ clothes apart and loosen them up’) which help to show what if anything lies between the mint imperials in her earlobes. Pope-Hennessy’s admiration was totally abject. ‘My God, what a frightful coat, where did you get that?’ the Duke Woosteriahly asked; and his temporary Boswell Pooterishly set it down at the end of the excellent ex-regal vignette which enlivens a scrappy and disappointing little book.