N.M. Gwynne’s diary: Old names worth dropping

15 October 2015

2:00 PM

15 October 2015

2:00 PM

As I get older (and my 74th birthday is now close), I get deeper and deeper into nostalgia. I do not fight this, because nostalgia seems to me to be rational as well as agreeable. Things really aren’t what they once were. ‘But people have always said that,’ is often the response. Yes, and for the most part, I maintain, people have always been right. So it is that, whenever I leave my present home in Ireland for a visit to England, what I most enjoy there is seeing the most elderly of my friends. Having been around for so long, they have so much to talk interestingly about. Indeed, I rather wonder whether anyone anywhere could be more interesting — or, as it happens, more name-droppable — than those whom I called on during my recent visit.

First, this time: Perry Worsthorne, now aged 91. As the public’s memory of him fades, it is worth recalling that in his day he was the leading serious journalist in Britain, with, if my memory serves, no rival within sight. From the moment that my interest in politics started, his articles were influencing me, and indeed are responsible for views that I still hold today. That this beacon and I should end up becoming close friends was of course unimaginable. He was a real conservative at a time when the Conservatives had already ceased to be conservatives. ‘England’s problems began with the 1832 Great Reform Bill,’ was his typically pithy summary to me the other day — deliberately extravagant in its wording, of course, but certainly not unseriously intended. In his career, he got to know just about ‘everyone’. For what someone of renown was really like, from President Kennedy to Evelyn Waugh, he is easily my most interesting source.

Next, to Onslow Square for a cup of tea with Joan Reinhardt, aged 90 — a wonderful talker who has had an extraordinary life. Astonishingly, she became casting director at New York’s NBC television network at the age of 23. After initially resisting her urgings to promote her to that important job, her producer caved in — ‘for a couple of weeks until I find someone else’. The two weeks stretched… until not long afterwards NBC needed an exceptionally beautiful woman for some part and Joan recommended a certain Grace Kelly whom she had noticed in occasional bit-parts. ‘Much too drab,’ protested the producer when he saw her in the flesh. ‘I promise, she is very photogenic,’ insisted Joan. Soon after the series started, Miss Kelly was noticed by MGM, and was off to Hollywood where for six years she played on-screen and off-screen with all the leading men, until… Monaco. Joan reckons that Grace’s marriage was another career move. ‘Marrying [Prince] Rainier was probably the right thing to do,’ Grace said rather gloomily, as Joan tells it. ‘I did not want, for the rest of my working life, to be getting out of bed at 4 a.m. to be at the studio.’ Later on, Joan married Max Reinhardt, owner of the Bodley Head press; and she has plenty to say about such authors as Charlie Chaplin and Graham Greene. Someone surely ought to interview Joan.

Next day to Chelsea to see the oldest of my elderlies, Fortune, all of 95, widow of my godfather, the Duke of Grafton, directly descended from King Charles II and the courtesan Barbara Villiers. Fortune spent much of her life first as HM’s Mistress of the Bedchamber and then as Mistress of the Robe, the most senior position. This time I asked her who had impressed her most, of those whom she had met in her travels with HM. For ‘charisma’, Clinton and Mandela stood out, was her considered reply.

Finally to SW11 for a quick visit to Will and Xenia Buckhurst; not elderlies but scarcely less name-droppable — Will’s father’s title-name, De La Warr, is responsible for the name of the identically pronounced American state, and Xenia in her maidenhood was a Russian countess. It was not long before we were discussing when their 20-month-old son William should start learning Latin. ‘Immediately after his third birthday,’ I urged with my usual zeal. He will find amo-amas-amat just as easy to recite as eeny-meeny-miny-mo; he can have most of Latin grammar memorised by the time, aged about seven, he is capable of applying what he has learnt; and, as children do, he will have much enjoyed the learning process.

The Spectator has invited me to include a ‘fiendish’ grammar test. Here goes. ‘She is washing in boiling water yesterday’s washing in the washing machine that she uses for washing clothes.’ What parts of speech (including the grammatical part of any verb) are ‘boiling’ and each instance of ‘washing’? The first correct solution submitted to The Spectator wins a bottle of Pol Roger. See the letters page and Gwynneteaching.com in two weeks’ time for the answers.

Please email your answers to letters@spectator.co.uk

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