The composer Lord Berners (1883-1950), as a dozen books of memoirs remind us, was very much a name in the Twenties and Thirties, in the sphere in which fashionable society meets the arts. His father was a naval captain and his mother the daughter of an exceedingly rich ironmaster (this last a fact which, with perhaps a touch of snobbery, he does not mention in his autobiography, First Childhood). His mother’s main, if not sole, interest was the hunting field, and Berners’s boyhood, though in general cheerful enough, was plagued by the cults of the horse and of ‘manliness’ – also, at his prep school, by a sadistic headmaster. Fairly early on, he developed a passion for music, first of all from the mere look of it, ‘these black waves of notes undulating across the page’.
He spent a year or two at Eton, losing more knowledge than he gained, and emerged, he said, with ‘a distaste for the Classics and, what was more serious, a distaste for work itself’. It was a question what, if anything, he was fitted to do, but at last the ideal answer was found: diplomacy – of the unstrenuous kind evoked in Ronald Firbank’s The Flower beneath the Foot. As an honorary attaché, he was in demand to advise on tableaux vivants, and had time at his disposal to cover the embassy registers with facetious drawings.
The war found him in the Rome Chancellery. He was already composing, under the influence of Stravinsky; and in 1916 he got to know Stravinsky in person: a momentous event, for the great man thought Berners highly talented, once calling him the most interesting British composer of the 20th century. Then, in 1918, fortune favored him further. An uncle died and passed on to him both a baronetcy and (through the female line) a barony, together with a handsome inheritance. Soon, with an assortment of houses in England and Italy, a magnificent Rolls-Royce and a superlative cook, Berners was enjoying a glittering social life, the friend of great hostesses, of Diaghilev, and of the Sitwells, Huxleys and Nicolsons. He worked at music when he felt like it, though only then, and his music to a Diaghilev ballet, The Triumph of Neptune, with text by Sacheverell Sitwell and choreography by Balanchine, made a gratifying hit. From time to time, he would lose interest in composing; and at one of these times he took up painting, producing very competent Corotesque landscapes.
Personally, he was far from glittering. He was bald, stocky, with a heavy Habsburg cast of features, and usually somewhat withdrawn and taciturn, though fond of pranks. Virginia Woolf thought him ‘a determined little man, whose rank, I fancy, gives him some consistency, not otherwise his’. Siegfried Sassoon (a feeble judge of character) found him at first ‘unreal, appallingly distant and exclusively intellectual’. He was homosexual but seems not to have had much of a sex-life, remarking bitterly later on that sex had almost always just been a nuisance to him. However, in 1932, he got to know the young, beautiful and dotty Robert Heber Percy, otherwise known as ‘the Mad Boy’, for whom he fell and who became a fixture in his household, eventually inheriting Berners’s estate. ‘No one,’ Mark Amory writes, ‘could liberate Berners himself at this stage, but Heber Percy liberated the air around him.’
Long before this, though, the story had gone round that Berners was a great eccentric; and here we come to something very striking, which Amory draws attention to, but which, I think, leads further than he suggests. There was, for instance, the rich tissue of legends about the spinet, harmonium or grand piano incorporated into his automobile. ‘Lord Berners was a musician whose motor car then  or shortly afterwards was outfitted with a small harmonium,’ writes Miriam Benkovitz in her Ronald Firbank (1969). ‘He composed on it, deriving motifs from the countryside through which he drove.’ In Meredith Etherington-Smith’s Dalí (1992), this becomes: ‘When Dalí met him he was the First Secretary at the British Embassy in Rome, and excited a good deal of interest by driving about the city in a Rolls-Royce specially adapted to take a spinet on which Berners, a talented musician, would compose as the car glided through the streets from party to party.’
The truth, to use Amory’s phrase, is ‘more compact’. According to his chauffeur William Crack, Berners owned a small legless, clavichord made by Arnold Dolmetsch, which he took about with him in the tool compartment of his car, a place where nobody could possibly play on it. This portentous instrument has been a real blessing to both biographers and memoirists, encouraging their fantasies absolutely to riot. A historian, wanting to study ‘incremental repetition’ could not do better than study the Berners phenomenon.
Nor would Berners himself have complained. The character Lord Fitzcricket, a self-portrait, in his novel Far from the Madding War (1941), is described as ‘astute enough to realize that, in Anglo-Saxon countries, art is more highly appreciated if accompanied by a certain measure of eccentric publicity’. This fitted in well with his natural inclinations. Lord Fitzcricket is said to have a collection of strange masks that he used to wear when motoring, and the same was said of Berners himself. Beverley Nichols gave a most circumstantial account of the terrifying apparition sometimes to be seen, glaring from the window of a high-powered car, on the highroads of France and Italy: a ‘chalk-white mask with a shock of orange hair’, a negroid mask, or a ‘mask with a broad forehead and a heavy jowl, bearing a singular resemblance to Beethoven’. William Crack, by contrast, could never remember his employer wearing a mask in the car; though curiously, reported Crack, ‘he put a different hat on going through a town.’
Let me pursue this point a little further. Amory records that, at Berners’s Berkshire home, Dalí ‘had the grand piano placed in a shallow pool on the lawn and chocolate éclairs put on the black notes, before Berners played it to him’. In Etherington-Smith this becomes ‘substituting éclairs for the black keys’. Now, evidently no such thing happened, because – if you think for a moment – it couldn’t possibly have done. What we have here is merely something that somebody said. Much the same must be true of a story about Penelope Betjeman: ‘Her most famous addition to Faringdon was her Arab horse, Moti, which used to come into the drawing-room. “Gerald loved having him there. He was so domesticated.” ’ We need to translate this. ‘Gerald loved having him there’ is (need one say?) a joke, Penelope Betjeman being a wag. What is true is that Berners got someone to take a photograph of Moti at tea with his guests. Amory reproduces it; it is rather nice.
The truth, obviously, is, as Berners explained about Lord Fitzcricket, that he thought it might help his career to manufacture a few eccentricities. Berners was a dilettante but, as Virginia Woolf said, a ‘determined’ one, and eccentricity was something he worked away at. Not a very reprehensible thing – only it did not make him an eccentric, eccentrics being people who do not recognize the category of ‘eccentricity’.
We need, though, to define more positively the role he adopted, for there are traditions in these things – the aesthete, the dandy, the ‘decadent’ and so on. The best known of all his ploys (it seems really to have happened) was to have the pigeons on his estate painted brilliant colours with vegetable dyes. It is not the action of an aesthete, for the spectacle must have been hideous. The same, moreover, is true of his style in indoor decoration, the ‘juxtaposition of elegance and junk’ – a gaudy necklace twined round an exquisite figurine, Corots on the wall and a pink, squeaking Disney pig on the table. It reveals too much the cloven foot of the millionaire, who alone can afford to treat much-prized objects with such disrespect.
Martin Green, in Children of the Sun (1977), classes Berners as a dandy, but this again is wrong, even in the very expanded sense Green gives to the term. Berners certainly had not thought out the elaborate philosophy of dandyism. His poses, in fact, did not mean very much. When, once, he wore a false nose at the dinner table, it was not, we may be fairly sure, to rebuke his guest the Marchesa Casati for wearing inch-long false eyelashes. It was merely a jape, country-house prankishness. His verbal wit, it is true, sometimes had a little more edge, in the Noël Coward style. I liked: ‘Complaining of insomnia, he said that he had had a room next door to Sibyl Colefax, “and she never stopped climbing all night”.’
Mark Amory’s entertaining book leaves one rather liking Berners, a most unpretentious man, but afflicted with a perennial and agonising dread of boredom. Sassoon’s idea that he was formidably ‘intellectual’ could not have been wider of the mark. His novel Far from the Madding War is in general a very thin production (Evelyn Waugh called it ‘the dullest book yet seen’), but there is something engaging in the agreement that its heroine, the bored daughter of a pompous Oxford don, reaches with Lord Fitzcricket, on the pain and impossibility of thinking. For what they know is that, for them, thinking leads to total nihilism. Emmeline has made it her war work to unpick, stitch by stitch, a huge and valuable piece of medieval embroidery; and on the last page of the novel she summons all her energies to think: otherwise, it seems, she cannot get on with her work.
She made a great mental effort. ‘Some people seem to think that life is a striving for positive perfection. Perhaps they’ve got it the wrong way round, and perfection is really negative. All created things are doomed to change and decay and only destruction can give them immunity. And so the impulse to destroy is more reasonable than the impulse to create. Perhaps another day I shall think of something better. It will have to do with the present.’
However, if Berners was not an intellectual, he was undoubtedly an artist. His music, such as I know of it, seems most taking. In his score for A Wedding Bouquet (1937), a choric ballet, to an incomprehensible text by Gertrude Stein, there are whiffs of Stravinsky’s Les Noces, but wittily made over. His melodies (oddly, it was said that he couldn’t write tunes) can be most appealing – for instance, the ‘Adagio’, with its wayward, Satie-esque line, in the ballet interludes for the C.B. Cochran revue Luna Park. Berners may have been a dilettante, but one does not feel, as with Chabrier, that he is an amateur. There is something clear and tough in his music, amid all the dense clouds of mythologising.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.