Thursday, 25 September 2014

Who Will I Look Up to Now

I am so sad that Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, former 'Mitford girl', has died. She seemed to me to represent everything that was best about a certain kind of English person. If I could emulate even a fraction of her commonsense, wit and good manners, I'd be happy. She was the product of an age that viewed self-obsession dimly. I wish that at least that aspect of the era would return.

For years, I kept a little article about her from a colour supplement, but good old DHL, (yes, I do still hate them), managed to lose it. It had all sorts of interesting bits of information about her, plus photographs, both of her and her collection of Elvis memorabilia. It's gone now though, so, as some kind of rather measly tribute to her, I am reposting a review I wrote a while ago of her book about her life. The review was posted on The Dabbler blog - but today that site seems to be not working - so rather than linking I'll paste the text in here instead.

Somewhere in this blog I think there may also be some quite amusing bits from her letters to Patrick Leigh Fermor. I'll go away and look for them and maybe find the link - if it exists - and put it up tomorrow. Meanwhile, try to get hold of Wait for Me - I was glued, my dear fellow. In fact, I think she wrote other books so I might go off and cheer myself up by buying some of them as well.

1p Review of Wait for Me

Wait for Me, the autobiography of Deborah Devonshire, is worth at least 1p for its first section alone. This part of the book – an account of the author’s childhood surrounded by a Wodehousian collection of relatives, most notably her father, (who it transpires was not only unintentionally hilarious but also, during WWI, quite incredibly brave), and hangers on, (including a governess who spent school hours teaching her charges how to gamble at cards), is so funny you cannot read it in a room with other people, because you are liable either to drive those around you completely crazy with your shouts of uncontrollable laughter or irritate them dreadfully by being unable to resist reading bits of the thing out loud.

Once the author leaves home and we see less of her father, who I still cannot quite believe worked for a time at The Lady, the laughs, although never entirely absent, do grow thinner. All the same, the book does not lose its charm or interest, as the sheer absurd hilarity of the author’s anecdotes about her family is replaced by well-described, often comic memories of life in the upper classes after the war – which, thanks to rationing, does not sound all that much more pleasant than life for any other section of society at the time:

"Mr Thacker [the butcher] let me help him cut up the meat in the back room and get a few scraps for the dogs. Tongue was offal and therefore not rationed. ‘Any chance of a tongue?’ I would ask. ‘You’re thirty-sixth on the list,’ was always the answer … One day a wounded soldier repatriated from Italy brought home a lemon. Such a luxury had not been seen for a long time and it caused a minor sensation when he put it on the post office counter at Ashford-in-the-Water and charged tuppence a smell – proceeds to the Red Cross."

As time goes on the Duchess gets to know a number of famous people, including JFK and Hitler, Evelyn Waugh, Givenchy, Osbert Sitwell, Elizabeth Bowen, Nancy Astor – who she overheard saying, when “a dreary educationalist from the Midwest was droning on and on … "That’s very interestin … but I’m not interested" - as well as many who are less well-known but equally intriguing, - the Howards, for instance, whose father "had a glass eye and used to surprise people by tapping it with a fork at meals". She recounts amusing stories about all of them, and also devotes space to her famous sisters, about whom she is admirably loyal.

While two of those sisters, Nancy and Jessica, have already given us fairly vivid accounts of their father, (about whom it is impossible ever to hear too much), in Wait for Me we are also provided with a clearer picture of the Mitford girls’ mother, who, we discover, enjoyed belting out tunes on the piano from The Daily Express Community Song Book and once, in answer to the question of how old she was, replied "Nineteen …no, sorry, seventy-three", a response anyone over the age of forty-five – or, indeed, nineteen - can probably sympathise with.

Given the fact that the Duchess endured some of life’s bitterest blows – the stillbirth and neo-natal death of several children – this book could easily have become a misery memoir. However, its author is made of sterner stuff. Describing situations where most of us would claim to be heartbroken, she restricts herself to the wonderfully understated phrase, "I minded terribly". Rather than pouring out her heart, she does her best to see the humour in most situations, as well as trying to give us a picture of the England in which she grew up – and the pre-chain store London in which she 'came out' (in the old-fashioned sense of that phrase):

"A coat and skirt from Mr Nissen, tailor of Conduit Street – a major item, but one that lasted, cost 8½ guineas. We were never without Madame Rita's hats. Our hairdresser, Phyllis Earle in Dover Street (reached by a number 9 bus, getting off at the Ritz), charged 3/6 for a wash and set. My shoes, which came from Dolcis in Oxford Street, were cheap and decent to look at but painful after a few nights of round and round the dance floor. Muv gave me some of her elbow length evening gloves made of doeskin, so gleaming white and smart they set off the dullest dress. They had to be cleaned each time they were worn and were posted to a firm in Scotland, so famous that 'Pullars of Perth' on the printed labels was enough of an address."

While even the talented Duchess cannot extract much entertainment from her involvement with a company called Tarmac, she has such a brilliant eye for the interesting or amusing detail that it is only in this episode – mercifully brief – that her writing slightly flags. She claims not have read a book in her life, but she certainly knows how to write a good one. Her tastes are occasionally surprising – she is a keen Elvis fan – but her character is charming and it is a pleasure to spend a few hundred pages reading the story of her life

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