[ This the second part of an essay on the life of
composer Lord Berners. Click here for Part 1. ]
As I have
already mentioned, during his life Berners met and made friends with many
leading lights in the musical, literary, theatrical and art realms. Some
he studied with or collaborated with professionally, others he met
socially only once or twice, but most of the following people visited him
at Faringdon or his London residence (near Belgrave Square) several times.
From the world of music: Thomas Beecham, George
Gershwin, Eugene Goossens, Bernard Herrmann, Constant Lambert, Ivor
Novello, Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, Ralph Vaughan Williams,
From the world of ballet, theatre and motion pictures:
Frederick Ashton, George Balanchine, Diana Cooper (actress), Sergei
Diaghilev, Margot Fonteyn, Ruth Gordon (Hollywood comedy actress), Diana
Gould (ballerina and later the second wife of Yehudi Menuhin), Robert
From the writing world: Max Beerbohm, John Betjeman,
Maurice Bowra (classical scholar), Robert Bridges, Lord David Cecil
(literary critic), Jean Cocteau, Cyril Connolly (author and journalist),
Tom Driberg (journalist and M.P.), Ronald Firbank (novelist), E.M.
Forster, Aldous Huxley, Wyndham Lewis (novelist), Nancy Mitford
(novelist), Beverley Nichols (writer on gardens, male), Harold Nicolson
(author, critic and diplomat), Peter Quennell (writer of biography),
Terence Rattigan, Vita Sackville-West (poet and novelist), Siegfried
Sassoon, George Bernard Shaw, the Sitwell Family, Gertrude Stein, Evelyn
Waugh, H.G. Wells, Virginia Woolf.
From the visual arts world: Harold Acton (aesthete and
patron of the arts), Cecil Beaton, Salvador Dali, Edward James (surrealist
art collector and patron), Pablo Picasso, Rex Whistler (painter).
Additionally, Berners’ crowd included celebrities like
Diana Guinness (née Mitford and sister of Nancy), who became the wife of
English fascist Oswald Mosley, and Wallis Simpson, later the Duchess of
It looks as though to credit Lord Berners for the best
parties you’d ever attended became the equivalent of ascribing your
cleverest witticisms to Oscar Wilde 50 years earlier. Of those parties,
Tom Driberg said:
I’ll be accused of dropping names if I
admitted to having spent the weekend at Lord Berners’, so I deny
absolutely that practically everybody was there.
Stravinsky claimed that Berners had a fondness for
meals of one colour. Accordingly, Mrs Stravinsky once obligingly sent food
dye to Faringdon so that Milord could create a blue mayonnaise. Berners
was in truth a great cook, and could produce quite elaborate banquets. It
is a fact that William Walton dedicated his Belshazzar’s Feast to
Berners (in gratitude for a gift of money), but you have to wonder whether
Walton was providing an ironic allusion there to the legendary Faringdon
The question now arises: why on the dust-jacket of the
biography would he be described as “a great entertainer and deeply
shy”? Whoever heard of an introverted playboy? Amory conjectures that
because Berners had come to believe that his parents had never loved each
other at all, he was left with a sense that all husbands and wives had
non-intimate relationships, a distorted view that might well have
contributed to his debilitating reticence. Mind you, I’d guess that, as
with all bashful people, Gerald Tyrwhitt/Lord Berner’s shyness was innate,
a trait that was fortunately offset by his equally inborn artistic talents
and his sense of humour. And let’s not forget that as a child he made no
close friends of his own age either. (Sounds a bit like Noel Coward, too.)
But with adult friends like those glitterati on the
above lists coming to his lavish dinners, plus his own capacity for
devilment, he gradually came out of his shell, developing not only a name
for verbal waggery, but also a reputation as a practical joker. According
to Amory, he seems to have acquired his fame as a wit “by occasional brief
interjections rather than by holding the table, as Wilde could”.
For example, that celebrated and brilliant description
of T.E. Lawrence — “always backing into the limelight” (it became the
basis for the title of a 1985 Lawrence biography by Michael Yardley) — is
attributed in fact to Lord Berners. (Lawrence had become notorious for his
ambivalent attitude to publicity, to the extent that Noel Coward once
wrote to the desert hero using Lawrence’s Air Force serial number: “Dear
338171, may I call you 338?”)
Apropos of Oscar Wilde, Lawrence of Arabia and Noel
Coward, a word or two would be opportune here on Berners’ sexuality.
While many gay or bi-sexual members of his circle were
known to camp things up, Berners never adopted an effeminate demeanour
himself — just the opposite, apparently. Nevertheless, he soaked up the
gay atmosphere of his fast and fashionable set and revelled in it.
Particularly after he fell in love at the late age of 49 with Robert Heber
Percy, 29 years his junior. Heber Percy became his live-in companion from
1932 till Berners died in 1950.
In some ways they made an incongruous couple. Heber
Percy was handsome; Berners was not. And Berners was shy, while Heber
Percy was wild and a risk-taker: his nickname was “The Mad Boy”.
Similarly, Berners was ultra-conservative in his dress, with Heber Percy
on the other hand being partial to ensembles consisting of, say, scarlet
shirt, blue jumper, green trousers and yellow belt.
On Berners’ plainness, Beverley Nichols was to
He was remarkably ugly — short, swarthy,
bald, dumpy and simian. There is a legend that nobody who has ever seen
Gerald in his bath is ever quite the same again.
Once the flamboyant set got to know of his liaison with
Heber Percy, lo and behold, the engagement of the homosexual Lord Berners
and the lesbian Violet Trefusis was announced in a London social column.
It may have been Berners’ own doing, or Heber Percy’s, or another
capricious friend’s, but in any case Berners’ mother insisted that a
public denial better be made. Berners later claimed that he had to send a
message to The Times to reassure the world that “Lord Berners has
left Lesbos for The Isle of Man”.
As with some of Berners’ funny lines, that message is
almost certainly apocryphal. Here is another attribution. It would appear
that there was a certain opera singer called Oggie Lynn, chubby but very
diminutive. Berners’ observation is said to have been, “her coffin would
be a perfect square”.
This one Edith Sitwell maintained Berners did
One of his acquaintances was in the
impertinent habit of saying to him, “I have been sticking up for you”. He
repeated this once too often, and Lord Berners replied, “Yes, and I have
been sticking up for you. Someone said you aren’t fit to live with pigs,
and I said that you are”.
Berners had taken his seat in the House of Lords in
December 1923, and actually attended once or twice, but rejected
Parliamentary Sessions as all too boring. When asked years later by Diana
Mosley about his experiences he replied, “I did go once, but a bishop
stole my umbrella and I never went there again.”
No wonder, then, that Siegfried Sassoon was able to say
of Berners that he found him to be “consistently inhuman and unfailingly
Regarding Lord Berners’ clever remarks, the examples
just go on and on.
Whether the following was meant mischievously, or was a
serious comment, I can’t be sure. Probably a bit of both, first to annoy
the magazine’s toffee-nosed readers, then to pacify them. In response to a
Gramophone questionnaire in December 1926, Berners, among other
answers, wrote of this his favourite singer: “If by ‘singer’ you mean any
kind of singer, then the one I prefer is Little Tich. But, on the other
hand, if you mean concert singers, please substitute Clara Butt.”
(Little Tich had been a famous turn-of-the-century
comedy singer of the British Music Hall, whose trademark four-foot long
shoes allowed him to dance hilarious stage routines. As a young man,
Berner’s friend Stravinsky had even written a string quartet in honour of
the diminutive clown.)
Berners, indeed, was forever having a go at
establishments. The next anecdote concerns the local vicar. When the
latter came to Faringdon seeking a donation for the poor, Berners replied,
“I’m afraid I can’t help you, much though I’d like to. My parents taught
me never to be associated with failure”.
Naturally, Lord Berners was not averse to sending up
his own visitors. So when guests went into raptures over his
mouth-watering peaches he would say, “Yes, they are ham-fed”. On one
occasion an anxious dog-loving houseguest lamented, “Fido has lost his
necklace”, to which Berners replied, “Oh dear, I’ll have to get another
out of the safe”.
Just as he proudly allowed birds-of-paradise to flaunt
themselves on the Faringdon lawns, so in his London residence he kept
another series of tropical birds. The original bird he had given the name
“John Knox”, and when in bed once with lumbago, he managed to teach it to
turn somersaults. On its death such a talented bird deserved a public
obituary, so, true to form Berners placed this notice in The Times‘
personal column: “Died of jealousy, aged fifteen, John Knox, emerald bird
of paradise belonging to Lord Berners. His guests are asked to wear
Berners’ clever use of language was often put to
“serious” use too. Apart from his novels we have, for example, the poem he
dedicated to Salvador Dali and the parodies he wrote of Gertrude Stein’s
First, let’s read the skilfully constructed poem
Surrealist Landscape, which really does conjure up an image of a
preposterous Daliesque scene:
On the pale yellow sands
Where the Unicorn stands
And the eggs are preparing for Tea
On the pale yellow sands
There’s a pair of clasped hands
an Eyeball entangled with string
And a bicycle seat
And a Plate of Raw Meat
And a Thing that is hardly a Thing.
On the pale yellow sands
That has nothing to do with the case.
On the pale yellow sands
There’s a Dorian Mode
And a temple all covered with Lace
And a Gothic Erection of Urgent Demands
On the Patience of You and of Me.
Equally adroit is this superb Stein parody, entitled
Portrait of Society Hostess:
Give a canary champagne and it spins.
Chandelier drops glitter and drops and are conversation. Bohemian glass is
cracked in Mayfair. Mayfair-weather friends come and go come and go come
and go. The house is always full full full full.
Are you there? Are you there? There!
There! Are you not all there? Many are not quite all there but royalty are
there and lots and lots and lots. Glitter is more than kind hearts and
coronets are more than comfort. She praises and embarrasses she praises
and embarrasses she confuses cabinet minister. Some will not go.
What with one thing and another. What
with another and one thing. What with what with what what wit and what
Squashed bosh is her favourite meringue.
[ Part 3 of our ongoing
saga of Lord Berners will appear in the next issue. ]