Lord Berners
[ Issue 34 ]

Emily Bronto clearly approves of Lord Berners

Bikwil salutes Lord Berners

Lord Berners

Tony Rogers continues his exploration of the strange life and times of Gerald Tyrwhitt, a.k.a. Lord Berners.

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.'.

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A Bikwil Epitaph for an
Extraordinary Musical Aristocrat
— Tony Rogers


[ 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, William Walton.

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 Helpmann.

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 Windsor.

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 spreads.

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 reminisce:

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 declare:

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 agreeable”.

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 half-mourning”.

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 style.

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
Sing Forty
Sing Thirty
Sing Three.

On the pale yellow sands
There’s a pair of clasped hands
And an Eyeball entangled with string
Sing Fifty
Sing Forty
Sing Three.
And a bicycle seat
And a Plate of Raw Meat
And a Thing that is hardly a Thing.

On the pale yellow sands
There stands
A Commode
That has nothing to do with the case.
Sing Ninety
Sing Eighty
Sing Three.

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 not.

Squashed bosh is her favourite meringue.

[ Part 3 of our ongoing saga of Lord Berners will appear in the next issue. ]

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