Fashion Flashes

Zoë Heller

  • Kenneth Tynan: Letters edited by Kathleen Tynan
    Weidenfeld, 669 pp, £22.00, November 1994, ISBN 0 297 81076 6

This must be a brave letter. No exotic quotations; no miserable, ignominious echoes of Swinburne, no trace of silvery, erotic decadence; no Musset; no motif of Delius – nothing but lucidity ... There’s a programme of insouciant, lilting French cabaret songs on the radio as I write and I have just lit a cigarette. Try and see me.

Kenneth Tynan, aged 18, writing from Edgbaston, to his girlfriend Pauline Whittle

We are suspicious of elegant letters. In personal correspondence we expect some trade-off between sincerity and style. The thrice-repeated adjective, the nerdy exclamation mark, the poignantly misplaced comma: these speak to us of candour and spontaneity. Too many well-turned phrases have us wondering how many drafts the writer went through before joylessly making out his fair copy. It is rather unsettling to this engrained prejudice to read the letters of someone like Kenneth Tynan, whose most dandyish prose is the truest expression of himself, who is never more affecting than when preening his affectations. When his writing doesn’t put on the Ritz, when he strains for a less crafted, overtly confessional style, he sounds merely phoney – like an exhibitionist seeking out a bushel for his light, or a virtuoso trying madly to muffle his own trumpet.

This volume, edited with great scrupulousness and style by Tynan’s widow Kathleen, who died earlier this month, offers the full span of Tynan’s correspondence, from his first precocious fanmail to Arthur Askey to a final letter of humorous verse to his son Matthew. But it is Tynan’s school and university days that represent the golden age of his letter-writing career. The letters written during this period, particularly those to his friend Julian Holland, are lordly communiqués, full of cinéaste aperçus, literary pastiches, prancing fashion flashes – ‘I now carry a black silk umbrella with a red silk ribbon wound spirally round it’ – and livid accounts of his sexual conquests. Tynan’s adult writing on sex was almost always gruesome – lecherous twee interspersed with purple pretension. The schoolboy stuff, however, is very funny in its breakneck, pseudo-sophisticated way: ‘Gwens breasts are as firm as belltents in a light breeze incidentally she is masochistic she likes to have her breasts squeezed quote until it hurts unqu i am still faintly chagrined at having to reach her clitoris by way of her buttocks a case of after the dustcart comes the lord mayors show dont you think?’

Always his own best fan, the teenaged Tynan also uses his letters to document his most recent bons mots: ‘My best remark for years. Bill Moore is probably going to India in the autumn and displayed some doubts about the voyage which he refused to specify. Whereupon I: “I know what it is, Bill: you’re sicklied o’er with the pale thought of caste.” ’ Occasionally, his gaze slips from his own delightful reflection and he finds time to bestow a glancing, gloriously patronising compliment on someone else. (‘Last night Dilys Powell addressed the Film Society. A fascinating woman, as refreshing and sustaining as a douche of iced consommé.’) His censure is better though, and more plentiful. ‘O God the bottomless tedium of Dostoevsky ... his Russian salad-ness, his Peter-the-Great-would-have-loved-it-ness, his Catharine-loved-being-whipped-why-shouldn’t-you-ness at all times, his lead-me-to-the-Urals-ness, his Hells-eggs-why-aren’t-you-terrified-ness – he is too interested in the reader to be a good writer.’

There is a lot of energetic striving for devilish languor. ‘Woke up realising that from my point of view this war should end in defeat for the Allies,’ he writes in January 1944. ‘Victory will be an anti-climax which my dramatic sense instantly rejects. Defeat alone will satisfy my grasp for things to FEEL.’ But the monstrousness is too candidly experimental, too sweet, to properly appal. ‘I am wondering whether I am really a repulsive character – whether my pose is exorcising the real Me,’ he notes unhappily in one letter. ‘Hope not.’ It is only when his friend inadvertently strikes on this fugitive self-doubt, that Tynan rises to convincing nastiness: ‘You have never been to Oxford and as far as I know, you have no close acquaintance amongst Oxford men,’ he tells Holland, after Holland has dared to comment adversely on Tynan’s criticism of Romeo and Juliet. ‘To talk of “Oxford bawdry” to an Oxford man is in very bad taste and incorrigibly vulgar. As well as inept.’

Here is the authentic monster, the Tynan who sees the point of even the cruellest jokes, except those directed at himself, who champions critical honesty, except when it grazes his tender amour-propre. In some of his adult letters, we find him responding to attack with a wonderfully faked-up ennui, designed to madden his opponent. More often, though, he takes refuge in furious pedantry (there is a whole sub-genre of letters here that proceed, point by pernickety point, in alphabetised paragraphs) or a prissy sort of sarcasm. ‘I am glad to tell you that you will not be called on to spend any more of your time in the company of someone as odious as, Yours sincerely, Ken,’ he writes to Vera Russell, in 1971, after hearing her poor opinion of his ‘erotic revue’, Oh! Calcutta! Six years on, Germaine Greer’s public rudeness about the Oh! Calcutta! sequel, Carte Blanche, provokes more mincing pomposity. ‘You are of course entitled to your opinion,’ he tells Greer, ‘and you are entitled, if you wish, to share it with a million newspaper readers. Whether you are entitled to attend a party in celebration of the show you have just knocked, and to seek a heart-felt reconciliation with the person who devised it, I am not certain. But there is one thing to which I know you will never be entitled, and that is my friendship.’

If these fits of po-facedness stand out, it is partly because they appear among so many exemplars of epistolary charm. Tynan’s first impulse as a letter-writer was to entertain and seduce, even when, as is the case with many of the letters here, his ostensible subject was business. Most of the letters to the Observer and the New Yorker are object lessons in how to give an editor bad news (late copy/egregious expenses/impending holiday) and leave him feeling good about it. Tynan took great pains to honey up his employers, even at the very height of his career, which points less to any freakish pocket of modesty in Tynan than to a truth about his profession: no journalist, however successful or celebrated, is ever much more than an aggrandised serf when it comes to dealing with his editor-king. Other letters here, testify to the fitful phenomenon that was Tynan’s generosity. His comments to Joseph Heller, after reading the proof copy of Good as Gold, or his pointers to Marlene Dietrich on how to write her autobiography, are rare and touching exercises in gentle criticism. ‘AVOID PRINTING WORDS IN CAPITAL LETTERS,’ he advises Dietrich.

Tynan was perhaps most charming of all when corresponding with people grander than himself. One suspects that, in another age, he would have made a very good courtier. He got the appropriate thrill from proximity to famous people (he called it being a ‘talent snob’) and he knew just the right measures of flattery and irreverence with which to put tempery legends at their ease. In writing about his starry acquaintances, he usually took care to preserve a light touch. ‘Yes, we have a daughter called Tracy, five months, slim and mysterious. Yes, K. Hepburn of film fame is her god-momma. And yes, yes, when you rehit town next month we must arrange for you to meet her,’ he writes to Christopher Fry in 1952. This shrugging nonchalance successfully camouflages the scrabbling lengths to which he went in order to forge this Hepburn connection. As his wife tells us in a footnote, Tynan had met Hepburn only once before, on the set of The African Queen, when he engineered a meeting at the house of Rosamund Lehmann, and asked the actress to be godmother to his daughter.

Occasionally Tynan betrays himself, without any help from footnotes. A letter to Terence Kilmartin in 1959, describing his recent visit to Cuba, has the breathless tone of a flighty girl in an Austen novel, relating a first trip to the pump rooms at Bath: ‘I spent my time in Havana with Hemingway (venerable), Tennessee Williams (disturbing) and Castro (excellent, ebullient and a real radical).’ You can almost hear the furious flicking of his fan. ‘I’ll tell you about Castro when I see you,’ he writes later the same month, to his friends, Bill and Annie Davis, ‘but I think Poppa is quite right: his is a good revolution.’ Imagine Bill and Annie’s relief at hearing that.

We get quite a lot of Tynan the earnest politico in these letters: Tynan angry about the Cuban missile crisis; Tynan really upset about unemployment; Tynan lecturing Laurence Olivier on the social responsibility of the Theatre: ‘At a time when – as I Cassandra-like keep saying – audiences even for good theatre are dwindling all over Europe, we are doing nothing to remind them that the theatre is an independent force at the heart of a country’s life – a sleeping tiger that can and should be roused whenever the national (or international) conscience needs nudging.’ Amazingly enough, people are still banging on like this, thirty years later, though it’s long since been apparent that if the national conscience needs nudging, an episode of Cracker, or even a Guardian editorial, does the job rather more efficiently than any number of marvellous J.B. Priestley revivals.

As a schoolboy, Tynan once wrote to Julian Holland, urging his friend to ‘worry about words’ and quoting the French Symbolist writer, Remy de Gourmont: ‘Ideas are well enough until you are twenty; after that only words will do.’ As it turned out, Tynan lived this epigram the other way round – being quite content with words throughout adolescence and succumbing only in adulthood to the lure of theory. He was never a very convincing radical and causes were not, on the whole, good for his prose. There is nothing in these letters quite as damaging as the story in Mrs Tynan’s biography of Red Ken en vacances, interrogating Egyptian felucca-men about their nascent proletarian rage – but there is plenty to bring forth a wince. In a letter to his wife in the Sixties, Tynan asks her not to attend an American Embassy lunch in honour of LBJ’s daughter, Lynda Bird Johnson. ‘Opponents of capital punishment do not, I hope, raise their glasses to the executioner’s daughter ... It isn’t a big thing, but it isn’t so small that we shan’t sometimes remember it. Please think of what we would like to stand for, and find some quiet way out of that silly lunch tomorrow.’ Oh, how time mocks our passions. The mimsy piety of the words has remained, but the idea, once so urgent, has long since faded. ‘I cannot remember,’ Mrs Tynan tells us, in a deflating footnote, ‘whether I attended this lunch or not.’