Is the lady your sister?

E.S. Turner

  • An Innkeeper's Diary by John Fothergill
    Faber, 278 pp, £23.95, January 2000, ISBN 0 571 15014 4

John Fothergill, the high-handed host of the Spreadeagle at Thame between the world wars, described himself in Who’s Who as ‘Pioneer Amateur Innkeeper’. Evelyn Waugh, sending him a copy of Decline and Fall, inscribed it to ‘Oxford’s only civilising influence’. To those who, in 1931, goggled and giggled at his innkeeping confessions, Fothergill was the contumacious dandy for ever locked in combat with ‘clients’ who fell short of his standards, a man prepared to track down and rebuke a brigadier-general who, with his wife, dropped in to the Spreadeagle to use the lavatory without a please or thank you. Sharp-eyed in his white jacket and buckled shoes, he was quick to challenge those who aspired to use his premises for unhallowed coupling. (Client: ‘You think you can ask everyone who comes here if they are married?’ – ‘Yes, if I want to.’) To encounter the tyrant of Thame again two generations later is a downright delight. The angry and abusive restaurateur is still with us, as Craig Brown points out in his excellent short introduction, but John Fothergill, for all his eccentricities, snobberies and potty obsessions, had an endearing quality lacking in today’s kitchen boors; and for me this aspect was strongly confirmed by a rereading of his comic tour de force. The plain truth is that the man had a lot to put up with. After the initial shock, new readers are likely to find themselves cheering him on as he strives to tame the vulgarians, bounders and coxcombs of his day. Inevitably, they will wonder how Fothergill would have coped with that scourge of modern innkeepers, the upstart restaurant critic. Would he, on sighting the telltale notepad, simply have taken away the soup and cleared the table, as he did with that party of undergraduates who looked like throwing up? And, bearing in mind his scornful dismissal of a salesman who wanted him to rent a machine for dispensing bromide and aspirins, how would he have greeted a traveller eager to turn his much-abused lavatories into a bazaar of surreal contraceptives?

Fothergill’s ideal was ‘not only to have proper and properly cooked food but to have only either intelligent, beautiful or well-bred people to eat it’. There is nothing despicable in such a policy, though it was probably going a bit far to add sixpence to the teatime bills of those he deemed ugly (if that is what he really did). He turned away dozens of applications for rooms ‘simply because we don’t know the people, or their writing or the address don’t please’. Arrivals forced on him by fog and burst tyres (that constant hazard of the times) had to be accepted with resignation. Fothergill’s policy might seem a recipe for financial ruin, but on a good day the carriage trade in Thame resembled a Riviera concours d’élégance: Isotta-Fraschinis arrived in twos, laden with lovely women; the Sultan of Muscat with his suite came in double-six Daimlers, complete with ‘a perfectly good black slave’; a splendid Hispano-Suiza covered with escutcheons and driven by a chauffeur in silver-grey disgorged two Spanish royals, ‘with three gentlemen who looked like butlers discharged for taking liberties’; a bright yellow Rolls with coronet brought ‘two ladies and a lad’, leaving the chauffeur and footman in fawn livery to pace up and down in formation after lunch. It is sad to read about the day seven chauffeurs mutinied over their treatment by a sneakily parsimonious cook. Two fussy maiden ladies who asked about the cost of stabling their Austin Seven were told ‘If you care to take it up to your bedroom there will be no charge for garage.’ I do not like to think what he would have told me to do with my sports Morgan three-wheeler, with its exposed engine crackling like a Maxim-gun, or how I might have replied to the question ‘Is the lady your sister?’ Had I been admitted to his finely furnished dining-room (where six shillings for dinner was a steepish charge) could I have displayed as much overt and well-bred enjoyment ‘as all honest people would who keep Rollses and Minervas and eat at the Ritz – their jolly good mood’ being ‘their greatest gift’? At times Fothergill seems to be sending himself up; and he could be guilty of higher Pooterism.

Who, then, was this short-fused idealist who took up innkeeping only at the age of 46, his first serious occupation? Craig Brown sets out the essential facts. Born at Grasmere in 1876, he boasted ‘good Westmorland blood, the best in England’. His mother died when he was two days old, his father was a stern, aloof figure. For a single term he played the fop at Oxford, then drifted into the Oscar Wilde circle. He received a presentation copy of The Ballad of Reading Gaol from Wilde and spent six days with him in exile, before taking a calculated decision to drop him. At 21 he inherited money and after a spell at the Slade lived the life of an aesthete-dilettante: ‘with a friend he brought the young Jacob Epstein from America, helping to pay his keep.’ His first marriage quickly collapsed and was followed by a breakdown. His second wife, Kate Kirby, who was to prove his indispensable and warmly-praised partner at the Spreadeagle, was ‘practical and business-like, “masculine-looking with a leonine jaw” ’. From being, in his own words, ‘the best-looking and worst-mannered gentleman in London’, Fothergill was now ‘the worst-looking and best-mannered thing in Thame’.

When he took over the Spreadeagle, 14 miles from Oxford, in 1922, it was a rundown resort of farmers, freemasons, parasitic billiards-players and the sort of commercial travellers who hung their hats on the pictures. All these had to go, not least because they queried every penny of their seriously underpriced meals. Already gone was the live eagle in a cage which had been ‘teased to death by the charabanc crowd’, to be replaced by a fine sign painted by Carrington. Charabancs were the bane of decent inns and Fothergill was the man to deter drunken roisterers from unloading their own beer from the back of the coach. Little more welcome were motorists attracted by the inn’s AA and RAC signs, since they were the sort who wrote whingeing letters to those bodies after rows over lavatories. Other undesirables were people who brazenly brought in and set out their own food and those who enquired whether the beds were well-aired. Guidebooks for travellers sometimes recommended slipping a mirror into a doubtful bed to see whether it misted over. It is hard to picture Fothergill, or indeed any innkeeper, standing idly by during this ceremony.

Oxford sent the best of clients and the worst, the worst being undergraduates who lolled or stood on 18th-century chairs, invited women onto their laps, proposed to bring gramophones into the dining-room or sounded hunting horns in the common room. He preferred them very tall and good-looking, like A.B. who was ‘quite the most beautiful youth we’ve ever had’, with his ‘almost Mongolian face, knowledge of food and wine, and wonderful manners’. The paying off of his huge bills was left to his mother, who mildly reproached Fothergill for allowing him so much credit. If ugly guests deserved to be surcharged, perhaps the beautiful ones should have had their bills discounted. A later candidate for ‘the most beautiful youth we’ve ever had here, besides being 6' 5" in height’, was the Marquess of Graham. All tall male visitors were stood against the wall to be measured, in the way that fathers measure their growing sons. We do not hear of any beautiful giants resenting this; after all, Fothergill was a man to be humoured and this was his harmless fetish. In an attempt to find the tallest man over 6' 10¾" he advertised in the Personal Column of the Times, offering a free meal to any successful applicant. In the main he found tall men to be ‘gracious and modest, some womanly or feminine’. He liked tall women, too, notably the artist Doris Chapman, who had ‘hips up to her armpits’.

Fothergill had varied luck with the military. The colonels and generals who descended on him during manoeuvres queried the details of their bills as assiduously as any farmers or freemasons. ‘With a little experience of staff officers, I believe, with exceptions, they haven’t the vocabulary of graciousness or praise, in which they resemble children along with their innocence in everything else.’ Fothergill and his staff were puzzled by a colonel who arrived with two beautiful girls and ordered expensive champagne. ‘Some suspected’ the girls, ‘others were certain, but I maintained that they were all right though I couldn’t place them.’ A fortnight later the colonel returned with two equally beautiful girls, for more champagne. He turned out to be ‘a fatherly and generous man who took out for dinner annually the Infirmary nurses’ – the prettiest singly or in pairs, the others in a charabanc. Sensibly, he seems not to have brought the charabanc party to the Spreadeagle.

Is it any business of an innkeeper to discourage fornication and adultery under his roof? Fothergill’s line was sensible enough; he did not want his inn to be known as a place of assignation, or an adjunct of the Law Courts. Other hotels might be willing to pack off their chambermaids regularly to stand in witness-boxes. There is a poignant moment one breakfast-time when Fothergill finds a male ‘honeymooner’ who had booked in with his partner the night before in rueful conversation with a fellow guest, now revealed as a private detective. The tale ends with the honeymooners making as decent an atonement to their host as one would expect from well-bred sinners. But how to spot potential trouble at the outset? ‘It must be done and I hate to do it,’ confesses Fothergill. Overtaken by fog, two young men and two ‘handsome girls of the bright young high-brow type’ eat a full dinner and order double beds with fires. In the morning Fothergill tells them he hopes they will never again be delayed by fog, because ‘we are not good here at mixed couples.’ They take this quietly and ‘we parted very pleasantly.’ In a similar situation he leads the ringleader into his office and sets out his policy in ‘a nervous speech of some fifteen minutes’. The response is ‘I quite understand. It was just the same at the Swan at Xton.’ Much less avuncular is his encounter with a journalist who arrives, accompanied by a woman, saying he would like to write up the inn. Persuaded to introduce his companion he ‘grudgingly’ announces ‘Mrs B.’ After a spirited altercation he is left to remove his bags from the single room he has booked and withdraw spreadeagled.

If motoring in Fothergill’s day had its pitfalls for the free-living, consider what could happen in the United States. There the incautious motorist risked having an advertisement inserted in his home-town newspaper informing ‘whom it may concern’ that Mr X. Y. had been requested to leave his hotel in such-and-such a town for entertaining in his room a lady not his wife (for more about this collusive racket made possible under the Mann Act, which was intended to discourage ‘white slavers’ driving women across a state line, see Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise). In many American hotels the rule was that a man should never entertain a woman in his room without leaving the door open, even if the woman was his aunt or his grandmother. If he failed to comply his telephone would ring, or a member of staff would arrive on the pretext of checking the radiator. John Fothergill never ran a reign of terror like that.

Fools will always aspire to be the boniface of a country inn, but An Innkeeper’s Diary should frighten the dreamers off for good. The economics of an establishment conducted on Fothergill lines are impossible. One day he expects sixty diners, and six come, which means that all the fine roasts go into the next day’s stockpot. Another day he expects forty diners and has to cater for ninety. On a really bad day the only food he sells is a fourpenny slice of cake to go with somebody’s sherry. The busy days have the drawback that the host is prevented from mingling with any delightful and well-bred people submerged in the throng, since he is ‘busy in the kitchen doing the work of rotten cooks’. Rotten cooks? Fothergill, while paying tribute to key members of staff, has for seven years striven with a kitchen ‘composed mainly of half-wits, degenerates, dishonests, drunkards and hystericals’. Yet on the day he writes this, the indomitable fellow is thinking of having an aeroplane landing-ground for the benefit of his clients and of Thame.

This Folio Society reissue comes in the expected fine binding and with illustrations by Peter Bailey, but without any notes to identify all the one-time celebrities, half-celebrities or ‘significant people’, as Fothergill rates them, who throng the road to Thame. Many famous names are dropped, sometimes no more than dropped. Literature and art are well represented, but where are those redoubtable road-hogs, Kipling and Masefield? G.K. Chesterton, knowledgeable on sauces, listens patiently to Fothergill defending bread sauce, when properly made, and maintaining that mint sauce is the ruin of good lamb (only the hardiest ever asked for it). H.G. Wells, on being told there is a rat problem, recommends ‘that stuff that makes them so voracious that they eat one another up’. Spying a very short man with a big head (no candidate for measurement) Fothergill says, ‘I think you must be Mr J.M. Barrie,’ to which Sir James, ‘slyly’, says: ‘You are not far wrong.’ Harold Acton, with his ‘Big Ben’ voice, presides at the last dinner of Oxford’s banned Hypocrites’ Club, which ends in much goat-like leaping about, the sort of conduct which would not have been tolerated in commercial travellers. Evelyn Waugh, in the company of ‘the tomboy Rebecca West’, is perhaps unaware that his Decline and Fall is a chained book in the lavatory. Poets of the day include Gerald Gould, who in a forgotten sonnet urged his contemporaries ‘For God’s sake, if you sin, take pleasure in it.’ Humbert Wolfe scribbles a tribute to the Spreadeagle, commending ‘the cool antarctic thrill/Of great Queen Anne in Fothergill’. A ‘pretty and clever lad’, Alan Pryce-Jones, boasts of the Loire castles where he is well received. The editor of the Observer, J.L. Garvin, who calls the universe to order every Sunday, talks his host into a state of near-insensibility; his articles, Fothergill shrewdly says, are ‘too good to read’. All three Knox brothers – the editor, the cleric and the future cryptographer – seem to be regulars. Mrs Gordon Stables must have been the widow of the doctor-novelist who urged readers of the Boy’s Own Paper to avoid thinking in bed, or going on long solitary walks. One of the less conventional soldiers is Colonel (later Major-General) J.F.C. Fuller, whose initials inspired ribald improvisations in the offices of the newspapers which published his prophetic fantasies about tank warfare, and who later became a bit of a fascist. Fothergill tells us that in his early years Fuller wrote a ‘very attractive’ book on Aleister Crowley, the self-styled Beast 666. Visiting politicians include the Liberal Lord Beauchamp, whom Fothergill to his dismay overcharges for a consignment of hock. It was Beauchamp who in 1931 suddenly resigned all his offices and went to live abroad, having been threatened with exposure by Bendor, Duke of Westminster, who referred to him as ‘my bugger-in-law’.

For financial reasons Fothergill had to give up the Spreadeagle. He went on to run the Royal Hotel, Ascot and the Three Swans, Market Harborough, later summing up his experiences in My Three Inns. Craig Brown describes An Innkeeper’s Diary as the least reflective of his works. Rarely does he touch on family matters, other than to complain that ‘a damned school takes your children away one by one.’ He tells a couple of Oscar Wilde stories and can recognise ‘that scarlet intonation of the Nineties’ when he hears it on the lips of a fellow dandy, but is tight-lipped on the subject of homosexuality. He confesses astonishment when a young schoolmaster, the son of a headmaster known for ‘the nice conduct of a cane’, presses a new concept on him: namely, that homosexuality is ‘a salutary factor towards efficiency in schoolmastering’. The times must have really changed, he muses; then says ‘But wouldn’t even that be better than the cane?’ It was an age of reticence and there was no more to be said. In Who’s Who Fothergill claimed to have no recreations, but one of them surely was that of exploring minor mysteries like that of the Two-Headed Patagonian, which could be seen for twopence on the pier at Weston-super-Mare. Eagerly he canvassed expert opinion on whether, or to what extent, it was a fake. Apparently the Patagonian was 12 feet high and would have been a formidable challenge for that measuring wall.