Quarrelling

Mary-Kay Wilmers

  • Tears before Bedtime by Barbara Skelton
    Hamish Hamilton, 205 pp, £12.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 241 12326 7
  • In the Pink by Caroline Blackwood
    Bloomsbury, 164 pp, £11.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 7475 0050 9

‘You must explain to me why Cyril wants Barbara,’ Evelyn Waugh wrote to Ann Fleming in September 1955, a year after Barbara Skelton’s marriage to Cyril Connolly had formally ended. ‘It’s not as though she were rich or a good housekeeper or the mother of his children.’ The following year Edmund Wilson asked Connolly, now two years into his divorce, why he didn’t get someone else. ‘I’m still on the flypaper,’ Connolly replied. ‘I’ve got most of my legs loose, but I haven’t yet quite got off.’ A few months later Skelton married her next husband, George Weidenfeld. Connolly took to his bed, where his ex-wife, according to Wilson, sometimes brought him a bowl of soup.

It was very like Connolly to make an ado of his wife once he had lost her and very like his ex-wife to keep a bloke in hand when the one she wanted was still in the bush. Everyone had expected their marriage to be a disaster. It was and it wasn’t. ‘Saturday,’ Ms Skelton tells us, ‘was the gayest day of the week.’ In the morning they shopped, then they had lunch, then they quarrelled. After that, they did some more shopping, went to the cinema, had supper and quarrelled again. Even more than quarrelling, they enjoyed making plain their dislike of each other. ‘Seeing some red wine all over his face, I say: “What have you got all over your face?” “Hate,” says Cyril.’ On another occasion he is lying half-naked on the bed. ‘Is there anything you want?’ she asks him. ‘That you will drop down dead. That’s all I wish, that you will drop down dead.’ At Christmas she goes to Fortnum’s to buy her husband a present and chooses something she knows he won’t like.

Instead of a child, they acquire Kupy, a small animal that bites. It also sits in its hut in the garden eating its tail while, upstairs in his room, a despondent Connolly sucks the sheets on the bed. Other people didn’t often come to the house: for one thing, the Connollys couldn’t afford to feed them. The household had a reputation, however, and sometimes Connolly’s friends wanted to see it for themselves. Ann Fleming, in her malice, arranged for a party of toffs to call in there for tea: ‘A few days later reports of the visit drift back. They were all disappointed a. they had expected our surroundings to be far more squalid, b. because Kupy had not come out of her hut and bitten someone’s penis and c. because I had not been thoroughly rude to everyone.’ With another year of the four-year marriage to go, people were telling each other that they had already separated. Her former lover, Peter Quennell, eager for bad news, invited her to lunch at the Etoile and asked about her sex life. But that day she didn’t feel like doing Connolly down, so Quennell soon got bored and asked for the bill. While Cyril dined out on their quarrels, his wife, recording the insults day by day in her diary, listed the titles of the books he threw at her in his rage.

They were both equally capable of monstrous behaviour (Connolly famously marked his place in a book he had borrowed with a rasher of bacon), but it’s clear from all the memoirs and letters their contemporaries have published over the past twenty years that allowances were made for the boorish Connolly which few people – lovers apart – were prepared to make for his wife. Unlike Connolly, however, who cared desperately about other people’s good opinion, Barbara – vain in quite a different way – appears not to give a damn whether anyone likes her or not. ‘What a terrible waste of time people are,’ she writes in her diary after seeing the Flemings – and the Flemings are the one couple she likes. With Connolly’s friends she finds fault at every turn: their houses are filthy, their butlers incompetent, their cooks a disgrace. Her own friends, too, are a miserable lot: ‘I telephone Jocelyn Baines and meet him for a quick drink ... I think him a silly arse, of course.’ Worst of all, on a bad day, is her ‘slothful whale of a husband’ with his fat, bad-tempered face – ‘Hubby has put on an inch of jowl since Christmas’ – and his ‘Chinese-coolie legs’. He lies in bed all morning shouting ‘Pooey’ so loudly that he can be heard through two closed doors, spends hours soaking in the bath, and keeps her awake all night by muttering ‘Poor Cyril!’ in a stage whisper over and over again (‘while lying sprawled on his back with one eye open to see if I have heard’).

‘Barbara,’ Edmund Wilson decided, ‘is really a bad lot’: so bad that when David Pryce-Jones came to write his memoir of Connolly he thought it best to say nothing about her at all. On the other hand, it is part both of her disobliging character and its attraction that in compiling her own memoirs she does nothing to minimise her outrageous capacity to give other people a hard time. Her evil reputation evidently pleases her and she records her own bad behaviour with the same meticulous delight as she records the slights and disparagements directed at her. No doubt a vast number of ill-natured remarks about her friends, her lovers and her husband have been excised from the diary extracts which make up most of her book: but the many which remain make it plain that she couldn’t care less about showing herself in what would vulgarly be thought of as a favourable light.

Her life before Connolly was a rackety business: a matter largely of frocks and lovers and food. It was the sort of life you could lead only if you had looks: and ‘Mrs Connolly,’ Maurice Bowra wrote to Ann Fleming, ‘is plainly a cup of tea at a high level.’ It isn’t easy to tell from the photograph on this page why she was thought to be such a catch, but she wouldn’t have pulled that face if she hadn’t thought she had something; and that something was good enough for an awful lot of men, beginning with her Uncle Ivan (known in the family as ‘that dreadful dago’). Driving along the High Street, he told her she’d find some sweets in his pocket: but all she found ‘was a hole and something warm and slithery’. Connolly’s friends, who spoke reprovingly of ‘the power over men of her prettiness’, blamed her face for everything: for his fateful decision to marry her and for his subsequently finding it so hard to get his legs – his Chinese-coolie legs – off the flypaper. The funny thing is that, at least in this photograph, she looks a little like him.

Ms Skelton’s mother was a former Gaiety Girl – ‘Mummy was a beauty’ – who married a Regular Army Officer with weak health and ‘no outstanding ability’. Mummy didn’t much like her and Daddy ‘was a great disappointment’ – to which fact ‘a clever Freudian’ (Mummy might have called him ‘a clever Jew’) attributed some of her later proclivities. Neither parent was a match for the infant Jezebel and when she was four she was sent off to boarding-school in the belief that the discipline might do her some good – might stop her, for instance, attacking people with a carving knife when she couldn’t have a second helping of lunch. She doesn’t say much about school, except, characteristically, that there was one from which she was expelled after a bundle of love letters was found in her desk. It turned out that the ‘Fred’ who had signed them was merely a name she had given herself. (In later life she must have had innumerable love letters from one Fred or another: it would be interesting to know what, if anything, she said in response.) At 15, she set out for London, Daddy having agreed to pay for her keep. Thanks to his rich friend Sidney, Daddy didn’t have to go on paying for long.

Sidney found her a job selling dresses in a smart shop in Knightsbridge; then he took her to Brighton for the weekend. She doesn’t say whether she liked him, but she must have done her best to be nice because he gave her an allowance and moved her into a large poule-deluxe flat in Crawford Street with an Axminster carpet and green velvet curtains. A grand tour of Europe soon followed:

A suite at the George V. Champagne luncheons at Fouquet’s ... Holland. Belgium. Italy. Gelati. Ghiberti. The Ethiopian crisis. In Bologna, tomatoes were thrown at the chauffeur seated at the wheel of the Alvis. In Rimini, the hotel was full of Italian beauties dining with German officers à la Stroheim. In Basle we lodged at the Hôtel des Trois Rois.

The litany is nicely turned and gives a good idea of the extent of her interest in the rest of the world: at best, it runs to a verb. On her return, she finds she is pregnant and terminates first the child, then the relationship – ‘for no rhyme or reason, just out of boredom’. Anyone else would have given a passing thought to the abortion – not Ms Skelton, however, who doesn’t really like to be seen thinking at all. It’s more chic (or more upper-class) just to drift from one thing (or one bloke) to another, and to represent one’s life as a sequence of anecdotes. Someone suggested she get a life settlement out of Sidney: ‘Feckless like my parents, I was not cut out for that sort of thing. The future would take care of itself!’

A spell in India, where she stayed with her uncle, a general in the Indian Army, confirmed her dismaying power to cause trouble and think nothing of it. She fell in love with a young poet who was also a captain in the Royal Engineers; when she left India he stowed away on the ship that was taking her home; was discovered, court-martialled and banished to the North-West Frontier. She was staying with her parents in the country when she heard his death announced on the Six O’clock News. Back in London, she finds a last letter from him, which she quotes – and that’s the end of him, he isn’t mentioned again.

It is now the late Thirties. Until her marriage, eleven or twelve years later, to Connolly, Ms Skelton, wishing to keep her age a secret, doesn’t give any dates. She is employed as a model at Schiaparelli, while playing fast and louche in a demi-monde of rich men and excitable women. Gradually the merely rich drop away and the names of the men become more familiar: ‘Another habitué of the Café Royal then was Goronwy Rees. He joined the writer Peter Quennell and me for dinner and, while Peter was engrossed in paying, managed to slip an invitation to lunch between the pages of my book.’ At the beginning of the war Madame Schiaparelli shut shop and Ms Skelton moved in for a while with a Free Frenchman (‘Monsieur Boris was desperate for a woman and I seemed to fit the bill’): ‘Every morning, he prepared the coffee, then dressed in army uniform and a képi and, carrying a briefcase, walked briskly out heading for the French headquarters, where he relayed broadcasts to the French people. Standing at the window, I would watch him stride away, then utterly exhausted return to bed and go on dozing.’ No point in getting up when the news was so awful and the Curzon Street Sherry Bar didn’t open till 12.

Earning a living wasn’t a problem: her lovers did it for her. But she dreaded being put into the WAAFs or the WRENs and so got a job as a secretary with the Yugoslav Government in Exile. (The main thing there was the lavatory: her Yugoslav colleagues were ‘none of them great plug-pullers’.) It must have been during the war that she started keeping a diary and what has so far been a charming but perfunctory narrative is now filled out with a succession of scenes from her life which could also be scenes from a novel about a woman who lived in London during the war and never gave the war a moment’s thought. Lovers are the burning topic and how to divide her life between them: ‘Peter telephoned to say he would come at 11. Feliks rang to suggest he did the same thing.’ In a cast of four or five regulars they are the principal players: Quennell ‘for a feeling of security’ and Topolski for his company. The clever Freudian might have had something to say about the messiness of these arrangements, but what he said wouldn’t have interested her. It wasn’t exactly a good time she was after (though she did like good food), still less true love and domestic peace. Difficulties were the thing she enjoyed, the ones she made for herself and, even better, those she made for other people – which is one reason her marriage to Connolly made more sense than it might seem to.

Sacked by the Yugoslavs ‘for arriving late at the office every morning for two months’, she followed Donald Maclean’s good advice and offered her services to the Foreign Office as a cipher clerk. In due course she was sent to Egypt, where she had an affair with big King Farouk (‘I was never bored’), then on to Italy and Greece. Her tour of duty cut short by the Greek Civil War, she came back to London and more of the same, except that now rich John Sutro was her principal beau, with Connolly in hot pursuit. Predictably what clinched it for Connolly was a holiday she spent in Geneva with Sutro.

The wedding took place, ‘after a year’s talk of marriage’, on 5 October 1950. They quarrelled on their way to the registry office and quarrelled again on the way back. Then they sat down to ‘a cold lunch in sullen silence in Maidstone’. Alastair Forbes, who knows everything, claims that it’s a mistake to make a song and dance of their squabbling. ‘Lots of their friends,’ he said, discussing Ms Skelton’s book in the Spectator, ‘quarrelled as much as they did.’ He knows, he was there. But it may be that in Connolly’s case quarrelling was a natural extension of his endless capacity for self-pity. As for his wife, it was one of the things she did best, in life and in art. When Connolly was complaining about her to Edmund Wilson, he told him that she was busy turning her diary into a novel and that ‘it was intolerable to have this typewriter going all the time, and somebody in the house who took all the paper and pencils.’ Wilson listened sympathetically and suggested that ‘he ought to get a different kind of woman, who would also take better care of him.’ Someone, for instance, who didn’t hog all the paper and pencils.

Connolly, his former wife reports, was keen on the young Caroline Blackwood, though Ian Fleming said, in his ‘blokey’ way, that she needed ‘a damned good scrub’, and Quennell lamented the state of her fingernails. Ms Blackwood, who, both in her novels and in her reportage, has always shown some feeling for states of aggression and what goes on in the minds of the combatants, has now written about the current state of play between fox-hunting and its enemies. In the Pink doesn’t have much news that we couldn’t have gathered for ourselves, but Ms Blackwood has talked to a lot of people and her stories, like Barbara Skelton’s, are often very funny.