Love among the Cheeses

Lidija Haas

  • The House in France: A Memoir by Gully Wells
    Bloomsbury, 307 pp, £16.99, June 2011, ISBN 978 1 4088 0809 2

What would it have been like to fall in love with the young Martin Amis, ‘the most fascinating man’ Gully Wells had ever met? ‘Only the most awful clichés,’ she tells us, ‘could possibly do justice to the way I felt.’ He was ‘very funny and very clever’; ‘he made me laugh and told me things I didn’t know.’ She is a bit more specific about his clothes: his skintight black velvet ‘strides’, snakeskin boots, or for the beach, ‘snug little pale blue shorts, a chiffon flower-patterned shirt, unbuttoned’. Wells’s memoir has more to say about cheeses: ‘a soupy Reblochon and a gamey Epoisses’; ‘Brie … drooling over the edge of the marble slab’; ‘more varieties of goat cheese than I knew existed: some smooth and blue with a hard crust, others covered in fresh herbs, tiny pyramids of sharp flavour, logs of creaminess, and none of them had travelled more than 20 kilometres to arrive at our table.’ To accompany them, ‘pink-and-white peaches with the complexion of a Boucher milkmaid’ and ‘figs so ripe their purple skins had started to split open, threatening to reveal their juicy, red, pornographic interiors’.

The House in France is Wells’s account of life with her mother, the journalist Dee Wells, and her stepfather, the philosopher A.J. Ayer. Using their holiday house in Provence as a starting point, she wanders between family stories, anecdotes of mid-century London society and the sort of travel writing that mixes picturesque scraps of history with hymns to the local food and drink – all of it described in much the same tone of voice.

Dee Wells had escaped her own family, ‘positively Dostoevskian in its misery’, at 17, leaving Massachusetts for the Canadian army. She met Al Wells after the war, working at the American Embassy in Paris, and despite finding him ‘short on imagination and with about as many shadings in colour as a piece of white drawing paper’, married him in 1949 and had a daughter, Alexandra, in 1951. On their way to a posting in Burma, they encountered a magician or ‘Gully-Gully man’ in Port Said: the words ‘Gully-Gully’ stopped Alexandra crying, and the name stuck. Within a couple of years, Gully’s parents divorced. Dee took her to England, borrowed a house and wrote about ‘London life’ for the New York Times, until the Sunday Express hired her as its book reviewer. Gully’s father took her for holidays ‘in his snappy white Mercedes convertible with the red leather seats’, and it all suited her ‘admirably’: though both parents had a string of lovers, she was the centre of attention as a ‘double only child’.

Gully’s account of her childhood is resolutely cheerful – even her metaphors sound comfy. At three or four, she accepted Dee’s latest boyfriend, a Cambridge economist, as if he were ‘a nice new sofa that had just been delivered by Harrods’. She grew ‘very attached to it’, but when ‘the Harrods van turned up again on our doorstep and took the sofa away’ she was not upset: ‘No sooner had he gone back to the Trinity warehouse in Cambridge than another, equally delightful gentleman caller appeared to take his place.’ The newcomer was A.J. Ayer, known as ‘Freddie’, whom Dee took up with at an Oxford dance in 1956: ‘So far as I can gather from his books etc he’s the big deal in logical positivism etc,’ she wrote to a friend. Freddie’s womanising – then and later – only made him more lovable. ‘Since I adored him,’ Gully says, ‘it made perfect sense to me that all those other girls had too.’ He was a celebrity – he appeared on TV with Eartha Kitt – and an old-fashioned playboy-philosopher: he liked eating, drinking and seducing. He wasn’t so good at driving, cooking or other people’s feelings (‘Oh dear. I don’t imagine you are up to cooking,’ he told Dee when she returned from a week in hospital. ‘I suppose I’d better dine at my club’). He was also – outside his work – keen to avoid a row, which seems to be how Dee persuaded him to marry her.

Dee’s ‘Siege of Freddie’ took several years and many meals (‘rosy pink leg of lamb’ etc). Gully quotes from Dee’s letters to friends: ‘He is a nimble one he is, but I have never lived far away from the abattoir and learned early that there’s more than one way to skin cats’; ‘I want to find the house to pop him in quickly and slam the door.’ She even got Gully’s father to complain about his daughter living with an unmarried couple. When Freddie’s friend and former mistress Liz von Hofmannsthal seemed to oppose the match, Dee wrote: ‘Wish somebody would poison that f––ing Lady L. von H … She has just had a baby stuck in her tubes and I wish to god it had popped her off. But modern science has pulled her through and she is sitting around in feathered bed jackets getting in my way.’ Another of his exes published a book, which Dee savaged in the Express: she ‘could not resist sticking the knife in and twisting it around, especially with an audience of five million readers’.

Gully is full of admiration for her mother, ‘the sharpest, funniest and most generous person on earth’, and claims to find her antics hilarious, but darkness and aggression show through. ‘When she wasn’t shouting, my mother was more fun than anyone,’ Gully says, and ‘nobody minds being called a “cuntburger”, as long as it’s done with grace and good humour.’ Still, Dee reduced the hired help to tears, tried to force her sister to have an abortion and neglected Gully’s half-brother, Nick, who was smoking at ten and eventually developed drug problems. On one occasion she sold up and left the country without telling him (he was a teenager at the time), leaving him homeless. It’s as if the author of Mommie Dearest had decided to look on the bright side.

At times Gully seems to be profiling her parents for a fashion magazine (‘At the sizzling, red-hot start of their liaison … ’); at others she’s using them as upbeat examples in a how-to-keep-your-man column (‘men should be associated with excitement and happiness, and never with guilt and angst’). In 1960, Dee succeeded in her campaign to get Freddie, marrying the ‘pear-shaped Don Giovanni’, as John Osborne, a rare Freddie dissenter, called him. By then he was Wykeham Professor of Logic, leaving for New College on Tuesdays and coming home on Fridays. Dee moved from the Express to the leftier Daily Herald, which suited her ‘Bollinger/Socialist/Limousine/Liberal’ tendency: she judged Miss Coal Mine for the Miners Union in 1962. Then, ‘just after Nick was born’ in 1963, she ‘started appearing five nights a week’ on TV. Their house was the place for parties, where guests included Norman Mailer and Spotted Eagle, a Native American chief who liked ‘radical-chic pussy’. Still, the Sixties didn’t do the Ayer-Wells marriage much good: Dee increasingly saw Freddie as an ‘uptight old fart’ and he thought her ‘a loudmouthed harridan’. In 1967 Gully found a piece of paper on which Freddie had listed his sexual conquests in chronological order by their initials – DW wasn’t all that near the bottom. It later turned out that Dee was involved with Bobby Kennedy around the same time.

Though in her own eyes ‘the prissiest, most conservative girl in all of swinging London’, Gully never wants to be seen to disapprove of anything her parents do, and is careful to let us know how tolerant she is: ‘not particularly upset or shocked’ by Freddie’s list, she later finds a love letter in the bin addressed to him – ‘intimate, thrilling, pornographic, touching’ – and is impressed that ‘wicked old Freddie, happy old Freddie, clever old Freddie’ is still at it. She herself is a late starter with bad skin, winning the ‘Acne Scholarship in Modern History’ in 1969. The question is: will she lose her virginity before going up to Oxford? ‘Everywhere I went I was tortured by the sound of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin breathlessly coming and going between each other’s kidneys, reminding me that I had only three weeks left.’ She managed it in the nick of time – after a party in Provence, with an older man who turns out to be Dee’s hairdresser, a ‘rabid supporter’ of the Front National, whose wife is pregnant – but the anecdote itself is surprisingly colourless, considering. She doesn’t make of her casual encounters what Martin Amis used to make of his.

Oxford is next, and – nearly halfway through the book – at long last funny, clever Amis. They’d met before, but now they fell in love, with the help of Special Brew and Led Zeppelin. There is no dialogue; she mentions his ‘sardonic throwaway remarks that never missed’, but doesn’t share any of them. They try some drugs: she breaks a teacup; Amis throws her record player in the Cherwell. She can’t bear to leave him for a week-long skiing trip and comes back after one day to stay at his house in London, where we learn all about the contents of larder and freezer, and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s ‘ethereal blanquette de veau, sublime risotto with wild mushrooms, juicy magret de canard, spicy Sicilian bouillabaisse’, but nothing at all of what people are saying. The next summer they go to Italy – Martin takes her to an arcade instead of the Vatican – and France. Gully the narrator is cheery and indulgent about the bit in The Pregnant Widow when the hero ‘spends the summer with his pots-and-pans girlfriend, Lily (me)’ but ‘quite understandably, lusts after her tall and lubricious friend’. Amis soon dumps her to concentrate on getting his First. We don’t hear much more about him, although they got back together on and off. In Experience, he says it lasted a decade; Gully reckons not so long (she got married in 1978), but she is ‘oddly happy to think he remembers it that way’.

At Oxford, Gully bumps into Nefertiti-like Vanessa Lawson, wife of Nigel – she of the ‘thrilling’ love letter – on her way to an assignation with Freddie. Dee retaliates, having a very public affair with the young, black American designer Hylan Booker, whom she brings to parties in place of her husband, by now ‘Sir Freddie’. Gully remains unruffled: ‘Had she not married my two favourite men in the entire world? So I didn’t doubt for a moment that this improbable but amazing-sounding creature was a good thing.’ By 1973, when Dee published her bestselling novel, Jane, about a woman like her juggling several lovers, Hylan was living in from Tuesday to Friday. They split the Provençal summers with Freddie and Vanessa (the day of overlap was called ‘Checkpoint Charlie’).

Meanwhile, Gully holidays with boyfriends and becomes George Weidenfeld’s publicity director – more parties, more delicious food to catalogue. She marries Peter, who has ‘the most seductive voice on earth’ (everyone turns out to be the most, the best at everything). They move to New York and struggle to conceive until, ‘barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen – I had finally been allowed into heaven.’ Then, hey presto, Harry Evans shows up and offers her what must be her ideal job at his new magazine, Condé Nast Traveller.

Throughout, Gully talks about people as if she barely knows them. If she can get away with describing someone as ‘clever and funny’ or ‘funny and clever’, she will – from Martin Amis (see above) to her husband Peter (‘that absolutely fatal combination of cleverness and funniness’), from George Melly (‘warmhearted and extremely funny’) to Claus von Bülow (‘clever, kind and funny’). We learn that Anna Wintour had slim legs and thick hair, that Christopher Hitchens smoked a good deal and got lots of phone calls. (Dee’s ‘cuntburger’ is as close as we get to something memorable.) She meets Lévi-Strauss in Paris, and ‘that night in bed I went over every single detail: the scent of the jasmine, the bitter chocolate on top of the profiteroles … the conversation between our host and Lévi-Strauss (what they actually said had floated way above my head and up into the warm summer sky).’

One effect of focusing on the house in France is that there are summer skies on every other page and everybody seems to be endlessly holidaying, having a whale of a time. Gully wonders if she should feel guilty about the way she lives her life, but tells ‘my conscience to fuck off’. Bad things do happen: Freddie and Dee divorce acrimoniously; Freddie marries Vanessa Lawson but she dies, at 48, of liver cancer; Dee’s leg has to be amputated. Yet these things are dealt with briefly, whereas every restaurant visit is lovingly rendered. The stakes are low; most miseries, it seems, can be alleviated with a nice meal: ‘My mother was sick and everything was falling apart … What we all needed was to go out to dinner that night, and the place we needed to go was called l’Oursinado.’