Misbehavin’

Susannah Clapp

  • A Life with Alan: The Diary of A.J.P. Taylor’s Wife, Eva, from 1978 to 1985 by Eva Haraszti Taylor
    Hamish Hamilton, 250 pp, £14.95, June 1987, ISBN 0 241 12118 3
  • The Painted Banquet: My Life and Loves by Jocelyn Rickards
    Weidenfeld, 172 pp, £14.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 297 79119 2
  • The Beaverbrook Girl by Janet Aitken Kidd
    Collins, 240 pp, £12.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 00 217602 5

When the London Review of Books began to run a Diary in 1982, A.J.P. Taylor was one of its authors. He always delivered to an exact length, well before the deadline, and often in person. A new editorial assistant, handed copy by the small seventy-five-year-old in a deerstalker who had scaled the steep stairs to our earlier offices, decided he must be a Mercury messenger. In these Diaries Taylor wrote about the early days of CND, his contempt for the New English Bible, his delight in nude bathing, and his belief that if David Owen had stayed in the Labour Party he would have become its leader. All his columns were eagerly followed, but one series excited particular attention. He reported that his wife, the Hungarian historian Eva Haraszti, was in hospital, and chronicled the resulting ‘devastation’: his incompetence at bed-making, his inability to light the oven, the misery of his solitary meals. In the middle of reading one such bulletin, I rang the Taylors’ home to take his proof marks. Eva Taylor answered the phone: she was home and she was better. What had hospital been like? ‘Very interesting. But – I had homesickness.’ Had she perhaps kept a diary? ‘Of course.’ And here it is.

Life with Alan has not been Eva Haraszti’s only life. She was 55 when, in 1978, she left Budapest to come to London as A.J.P. Taylor’s third wife: she was a widow, a scholar, and the mother of two grown-up sons. Her diary reports on the time she has spent as an amateur Englishwoman. She is intrigued by the politics of her dinner-party guests: ‘We spoke about communism. They don’t think it would be a good thing.’ She is dismayed by the reluctance of British women to give their views in front of men. She is pleased by an encounter with a tattooed decorator who asks: ‘What does a historian do?’ He doesn’t get an immediate answer, but this book gives some clues.

Some of her accounts – of attendance at lectures, of Hungarian and British history, of English churches – are dry. Many of her notes are Alancentric: ‘Isis is an undergraduate Oxford paper. Alan was once interviewed for it.’ All her entries are flavoured by an unblinking curiosity. Like her husband – who, she says, has ‘no small talk’ – she finds topics in everything. The Taylors have ‘fascinating conversations’ about Deutscher and Namier. They also have ‘a lovely conversation about the London men’s lavatories’.

This is a benign book, which is written in earnest. Eva Taylor is as well-disposed to the man she photographs in Hyde Park who has been accused of peeing in a public building as she is to Lord Longford, whom she presses into drying the dinner dishes: ‘Frank looked pale ... He said he would note it in his diary.’ She is convivial and an eager recorder of conversations. Talk she considers ‘frivolous’ can be redeemed by the production of a new fact. When the Boothbys come to dinner they discuss Baldwin and his lover Mrs Davidson. Wanda Boothby asks: ‘And was there any good fuck between them?’ Boothby assures the party that there was – ‘which was something Alan did not know’. She also speaks her mind. When Max Beloff takes the huff during lunch and refuses to talk to her, it is ‘a great piece of luck for me’; she notes that Taylor and E.H. Carr ‘once executed together’ one of Beloff’s students. Like her husband, Eva Taylor is sparing with physical description – neither of them, she says, have ‘imaginative minds’ – but her factual summaries carry their own illumination of English life and personalities. Maurice Oldfield features as a shy Cold Warrior with a Communist Party friend and as a ‘round-faced Graham Greene figure’, closely studied by Alec Guinness when he was preparing to become George Smiley; he ‘could never make close ties with people’. Guy Burgess was ‘always dirty and smelt’.

This diary is also a love story: ‘The sun was shining and Alan took my hand.’ Eva Taylor considers her husband ‘cleverer than Macaulay’, whose works he reads to her, along with Gulliver’s Travels and The Diary of a Nobody. What A.J.P. Taylor needs, she says, is an intellectual woman ‘who adores him’. He has found this woman. Eva Taylor watches her husband’s ‘lovely face, fading slowly’, and observes their life together with quizzical affection. When Cynthia Kee visits the couple, she finds Mrs Taylor taking photographs of snails copulating, and Alan Taylor – who since John Betjeman’s death has styled himself ‘the nation’s Parkinsonist’ – lying on the floor recovering from delirium. The diarist comments: ‘Cynthia just did not know what to say: snail sexuality in the garden, delirious dreams – and from outside, the house looked like a very ordinary semi-detached Late Victorian house. Twisden Road.’ It is in Twisden Road that Alan Taylor has enjoyed what he described in the London Review as an ‘uninterrupted round of happiness’.

Jocelyn Rickards is also an expatriate. Her account of English society and English love differs conspicuously from Eva Taylor’s in its taste for the racy. The Painted Banquet is not a benign book. Oscar Lewenstein pronounced its author ‘the wickedest woman in the world’, and Jocelyn Rickards was quite pleased with that, listing among those who would agree an eminent philosopher and the wife of an exlover. This is a book in which Hampshire, Stuart, sits next to Hampshire, Susan, in the index. It is also a book in which the author explains that there is only one man ‘about whom I’ve never held one vindictive thought’. That man is Graham Greene.

Jocelyn Rickards came to London as a sparky and very pretty 24-year-old in 1949. She was born in Melbourne, where she loved most of her family ‘in an offhand way’, and adored her father, into whose figure her lovers melted in dreams. She wore out the knees of her stockings praying in a Church of England school, went to art college in a converted prison, and gained a reputation as a ‘precious’ painter, whose ‘preciosity sold quite well’. In Sydney she set up house with the photographer Alec Murray and a gaggle of painters and sculptors; they gave parties at which Marie Rambert turned cartwheels; they dreamed of going to Europe.

In London her first new friend was the photographer Eric Deakin, who had just been sacked by Vogue for curtseying to Cecil Beaton at a Condé Nast party. Her first new lover was a ‘little professor’ with curly hair and ‘very grand’ friends. A.J. Ayer began their affair by taking her to lunch and encouraging her ‘to order artichaut vinaigrette because he wanted to see how I dealt with the discarded leaves’. A few months later they were spending most of their evenings at the Gargoyle Club, dancing to ‘Oh, you beautiful doll’ while Donald Maclean got drunk. They had, she says, some ‘idyllic years’ together, though the man Cyril Connolly called ‘the London Freddyair’ had his glum moments, waking his partner as he sang in his sleep ‘I’m always on the outside, on the outside looking in.’ She also tells us that the author of Language, Truth and Logic was the ‘only soldier the British Army pronounced incapable of learning to drive’.

Jocelyn Rickards’s talent for turning an anecdote is matched, tainted and sometimes thwarted by her capacity for vituperation: she explains that she found Ayer’s wife ‘irredeemably common, though Freddie assured me she was well-born’. Her own acquaintance among the uncommon of London expanded rapidly. She became friendly with T.S. Eliot, who called her ‘Pixie’; when her Ayer affair foundered, she had a fling with Graham Greene, who fed her on oysters and smoked salmon, and took her to see Charlie’s Aunt and King Lear. When the film star Maureen Swanson wanted 18th-century Chinese wallpaper in her dining-room, but found she couldn’t afford it, Jocelyn Rickards was commissioned to create an oriental effect with her brushes. After two days of painting lotus lilies and bamboo onto the walls, she was confronted by the ‘pink and discomfited’ osteopath who had been orchestrating Swanson’s decorations: ‘I’m afraid it’s rather embarrassing, Miss Rickards. Miss Swanson says the walls don’t look like wallpaper.’ ‘Poor bugger, what a job’ thought Rickards as she pocketed her palette. The poor bugger was Stephen Ward.

By the mid-Fifties Jocelyn Rickards had begun her career as a stage and film designer. She created the costumes for Morgan, The Knack and From Russia with Love; her accounts of her work on these productions are dispatched with less detail and a lot less vim than her descriptions of celebrities. While she was working on the film of Look back in anger she met the ‘golden-haired, blue-eyed Apollo’, John Osborne – a man she declares ‘incapable of feeling either sexual jealousy or sexual guilt’. This incapacity came in handy. When his musical about gossip columnists flopped, he took off for the Continent with his designer – leaving his wife surrounded by gossip columnists. A year or so later he took off from Jocelyn Rickards for Penelope Gilliatt. Rickards, who expresses indulgence towards her lovers, reserves her main darts on this occasion for Gilliatt, who didn’t iron her dresses, cooked watery scrambled eggs and sent express letters daily to Osborne when he was holidaying with Rickards in the South of France. But it is Osborne who comes out least appealingly from the skirmish. He scattered Gilliatt’s opened letters around the bedroom; when his live-in lover protested that she didn’t want to read them, he packed them into a briefcase which he lugged ostentatiously all over the villa. On the way back from London Airport, he climbed out of the taxi murmuring: ‘I’m going to behave badly again, my darling.’

Since separating from Apollo, Jocelyn Rickards has herself ‘behaved badly, though without feeling any guilt’ towards one husband, and contracted a happy second marriage to the film director Clive Donner. She has devised fibreglass helmets for Vikings in Alfred the Great, padded leotards with Kotex for The Bliss of Mrs Blossom, and decorated Sarah Miles with flounces and taffetas for Ryan’s Daughter. Most of her lovers have approved this book; few of their partners will.

When Janet Aitken Kidd turned 18, Churchill threw cream buns at her coming-out party. When she was 28 she discovered Hore-Belisha beaming in her bed during a country-house weekend – and ran away. When she was 60 she helicoptered Margaret Thatcher to meet Anthony Eden: she found her ‘a model passenger’. Mrs Aitken Kidd has been a giddy girl, a pig farmer, a breeder of rare hens, and the wife of one gambler, one philanderer and one good egg. She is also the daughter of Lord Beaverbrook. Her memoirs are prefaced by a tribute to the ‘optimism and enthusiasm’ of the author’s father, and dotted with references to an unaccountable intimacy. She doesn’t convey the unalloyed enthusiasm for Beaverbrook expressed by A.J.P. Taylor, though at one point she says: ‘Without knowing why, I suddenly felt very close to him.’ Janet Aitken Kidd doesn’t make it easy for the reader to know why. She was a horsey little girl whose childhood was punctuated by her father’s bestowing and spiriting away her ponies. A beloved beast might be banished because its owner had trod oil into a carpet; a replacement would appear out of the blue, to be snatched away in its turn: ‘I never knew where I was with him, from one pony to the next.’ When she reached her party-going teens, Beaverbrook played upon her horsiness differently, instituting a grim routine of early-morning canters down Rotten Row: he rode ‘with a kind of clutching obstinacy; all grip and no balance’. His daughter was obliged to write a poem every Saturday evening, and to listen to a commentary on her text the following morning; she was often woken in the middle of the night to recite to a sullen Arnold Bennett. The lavish host who gave Diana Cooper a car for a wedding-present was mean with minor expenses: his daughter wasn’t allowed to leave the tennis court where he’d been triumphing until she’d retrieved a full boxful of balls. The collector of women – Tallulah Bankhead, Gertrude Lawrence and Bea Lillie all draped themselves round his drawing-room – was a prudish parent, who sent his children scuttling out of his film shows as soon as a kissing scene’ threatened. Mrs Aitken Kidd has a killing line – of the ‘very flat, Norfolk’ variety – in encapsulating personality. She found Ian Fleming ‘rather boring’, the future King Edward VIII a man of ‘wide-ranging interests’, and Norman Mailer, who married her elder daughter, ‘dynamic’ Her attendance at the 1936 Olympics enables her to tell us that Hitler had clammy hands, and that the von Ribbentrops owned ‘heavy, Wagnerian sofas’. She says that ‘Father did care, very deeply’, about his family. She says that when a Vickers factory was bombed during the war and 170 workers who had remained at their posts were killed, there were tears in Beaverbrook’s eyes: a week earlier he had urged Vickers’ workers not to take to the shelters when the sirens sounded. There is more persuasive evidence of the magnate’s benevolence in Eva Taylor’s reference to him than there is in The Beaverbrook Girl, and Mrs Aitken Kidd’s plaudits could be seen merely as examples of filial piety. But they may illustrate – as may the accounts of John Osborne’s little domestic difficulties – the triumph of charm over bad behaviour.