21 SEPTEMBER 1991, Page 29

A real book

Alastair Forbes

WELL, I FORGET THE REST by Quentin Crewe Hutchinson, f17.99, pp. 278 In 1952, six years after coming down from a distractingly hedonist Cambridge, knowing only that he 'wanted to work in some field connected with the arts', Quentin Crewe found himself installed in a villa at Lerici of smoky Shelleyan memory as resident reader to Percy Lubbock, a distinguished but by then almost sightless man of letters (as well as the improbable stepfather of that much better writer Iris Origo). Although this portly and rather pernickety employer had been the author of the wholly estimable The Craft of Fiction, he had become allergic to any examples of the art form, E.M. Forster's excepted, created since the death of Henry James. Irritated by such excessive intransigence, Crewe one day

decided to punish him and told him that I was going to read him a really new book, sure that he would detest it.

And off he went: If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it.

But only a few pages further on Lubbock interrupted with, 'You know what? This is a real book. Let's go on'. And as I myself and so many others did that same summer, they finished at one sitting The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger's only unforgettable and unforgotten novel. Had I been blind as well as just old and portly, I too might have waxed a bit grumpy at the thought of hav- ing to have read aloud to me the memoirs of a journalist hitherto rightly or wrongly best known as only the glossiest of glossy gossipers and. the foodiest of self-appointed foodie inspectors. But, like Lubbock, I should, after the first couple of pages cer- tainly have interrupted with the same enthusiastic cry, 'Do you know what? This is a real book.' It is even the best as well as the most interesting short autobiography I have read for many years.

Thank goodness, Crewe has eschewed Holden Caulfield's dismissal of 'all that David Copperfield kind of crap' and has taken us from his quiet, posh beginnings out through the demi-monde and Grub Street to his new-found vocation as a teller of tales of things and persons seen. His ear- liest auditive memories seem to have been the accurately caught 'er-ur-er' of his par- ents' American car and the scrape of the wheels of the carriages it passed on Paler- mitan cobbles, for his father, Hugh, then Dodd, later, for sensible reasons of finan- cial as well as social gain, Crewe, was at that time British consul in Sicily's principal port and provincial capital. A family picnic beside Segesta's near-perfect Greek temple gave him his first 'consciousness of beauty', as well it might. He proceeds to write half- a-dozen perfect pages about Shane's Castle in Ulster and his holidays there. As to his parents, the reader learns about them from clues craftily and often wittily dropped as in a treasure hunt into his text. His seduc- tively handsome but seemingly incorrigibly horrid father had been the deuxieme noce middle-class choice of his aristo war-widow mother, the daughter of a rich Whig peer who later took as his second wife the rich daughter of Lord Rosebery and Hannah Rothschild.

She once snobbishly remarked to her youngest son that she 'had never seen fish- knives until I got married', 'the ancient lin- eage of the O'Neills', he adds, 'being no protection against such a solecism'. Her O'Neill husband had been killed in one world war, as was to be in another her eldest son Shane, first of the three husbands of the famous-for-nobody-can- now-remember-quite-what Ann Fleming. The news of neither death, nor that of her second son Brian had come to her as a surprise, for she shared with Nostradamus the gloomy gift of being able to foretell such matters. When Lord O'Neill wrote from Italy to say that he had just had all his teeth out, Lady Annabel exclaimed, 'That was a painful waste of time'. 'Why?', Quentin enquired. 'You will see.' The all- too-final War Office telegram followed hard upon. The author's elder by four years brother Colin, born with a cleft palate and harelip which made his parents shamefully ashamed of him, was in due course report- ed missing at Anzio, where casualties were heavy. 'Your mother didn't know', said his father. 'He must be all right.' And so, as a prisoner-of-war, he proved to be. Not the least touching theme running through this book is indeed the constant loving kindness and generosity shown to his younger broth- er by Colin. This went back much further than the former's first clumsy symptoms of the muscular dystrophy that was to take him on for a lifetime's wrestling match after its diagnosis and poor prognosis by a creepy Harley Street specialist when he was six years old. This proved a heavier cross for his mother to bear than Colin's curable condition. (News of a possible, even proba- ble, preventive remedy for muscular dystro-

phy, too late for the author, alas, also came too late for mention in his book). Quentin found his mother 'hard to provoke'. But once when she had told him he was irresponsible, 'because you are sub- normal', he pointed out that she said that about all her children. 'Yes'. 'Then', pursued her son, going in for the kill, 'all your children are subnormal and you dislike them?"Exactly'. 'Next day she said nothing to deny it. Merely. . . "You are never to trick me into saying something like that again" '. (Incidentally, anyone less subnormal than his enchanting half-sister Midi Gascoigne, mother of famous Bamber, it would be difficult to imagine). No wonder he 'felt little grief at his parents' deaths, warmly welcoming, how- ever, his inheritance of an obviously very comfortable 'cushion against financial diffi- culties', as he euphemistically refers to the money involved.

His description of his Education Senti- mentale in far-off unfortunately pre-pill but fortunately pre-Aids days is delightfully funny and as unlike as possible that of the chaste and deathly boring Dr Owen. It is also usefully informative about the night life of those times, at the summit of which stood the charming Mr Rossi, Maitre D' of the 400, whose son Hugh is today a Tory knight. Of the 400, the late Duke of Marl- borough made the good joke that it was 'Too dark to see anything but too light to do anything'. The author, however, found other places to do other things on his mind. He admits to a fondness for the old Prayer Book phrase, 'With my body I thee wor- ship'. That bravest and best of men, the irreplaceable Patrick Lindsay, apparently had a theory that Quentin on the stroke of midnight 'could leap from my chair priapic and triumphant. It seems as good a theory as any'. In fact his disability has always been perpendicular rather than horizontal. And his sweet-talking from the wheelchair in which his publishers have inevitably insisted he be shown on the book's jacket has managed to get plenty of enviably pret- ty girls to drop like golden apples into his lap. He certainly seems to have had little or no difficulty in acquiring a sequence of three attractive wives, 'who continue', he writes, 'on excellent terms with each other as with myself, and who between them have given him some very attractive and intelligent offspring, one of them, Candida, already quite as good a journalist as her father has ever been, and perhaps even on her way to equal the talents of her novelist- mother, Angela Huth.

As I predicted a while ago in these pages, his touching account of his first true love affair, with Sarah Macmillan, Lady Dorothy's ill-starred daughter by Bob Boothby, leaves a pretty thick layer of egg on the faces of both Sir Robert Rhodes James and Mr Alistair Home, but I wonder all the same why he has chosen to caption as 'Sarah' a snapshot I'd bet my all too visi- ble bottom dollar is one of her sister, the late Catherine Amery.

In his time with Percy Lubbock Quentin had managed to get some reviews into that forbidding publication the TLS. The egre- giously repulsive hack John Junor, well described as 'a spade-calling prude' whom he met at lunch with Bob Boothby, on hearing of this observed, couldn'a do that', but nevertheless enticed him rather easily into Fleet Street, or rather Shoe Lane, and the Evening Standard. 'If one wants to keep a job, journalism asks for many compromises with principles', he now admits. It certainly did if you worked for Max Beaverbrook, an interfering propri- etor very amusingly glimpsed by the author in several characteristic situations. That is why I myself perhaps foolhardily preferred to hang on for 15 years to my admittedly grossly underpaid independence under Esmond Rothermere. (When he dropped me overnight without warning, his second wife wisecracked that she had 'never really felt he was behind me except when he was on top of me'.) Poor rich Esmond certainly gets his comeuppance in Crewe's pages. After geaverbrook, it was at the' Sunday Mirror, until it decided to go downmarket and sacked him, that the author's true opinions and civilised liberal feelings were to find honourable and memorable expres- sion in his weekly column.

It is not necessary to share the author's most precious possession, a very high bore- dom threshold, to enjoy his book. The excellent index alone suggests the variety of countries and characters covered. Sir Stephen Spender, who admits to feeling quite ill when he can't find his name in a book, can relax. He is there along with a remarkable supporting cast. Unindexed, however, is the rather louche sexologist Norman Haire who, one of several letters to the author from Lady Dorothy Macmil- lan reveals, fixed Sarah's abortion of the baby which Crewe seems, if I have under- stood him aright, to think was probably his rather than Andrew Heath's. One certainly wants immediately to know much more about the girl indexed with the Wode- housian-going-on-for-Beachcomberish name of Olivia Wentworth-Rump, whose photograph on location in farthest Saharan desert, along perhaps with that of tall, intrepid Rose Cecil, might with advantage have been substituted for one of the two Angela, you're a brickie!' unhappy snaps of Crewe's chum Princess Margaret, in both well past her photogenic best. Of the Queen, however, and the author's time on that magazine, I could have done with rather more of his sharp insights. Old Mrs Kenward, now replaced by the third Mrs Crewe, Sue Cavendish, but in her time almost the only journalist in Britain to spell anybody's name right, gets an excellent reference. Of Jocelyn Stevens he was 'firmly fond, in the way one can love some unlovable friends', possessed as he was of 'that kind of meanness that the poor most resent in the rich'. The late Mark Boxer's 'ice-cold spikiness' is deemed

very telling in its accurate cruelty. . his desire to hurt, with neatly trimmed darts, sharpened mostly by envy and jealousy.

Thank God he never found anything to envy in me, for 1 treasure memories only of his affectionate friendship and kindness.

The book is subtitled 'The Autobiogra- phy of an Optimist':

`Why me?' [he writes] is a question nearly everyone has asked at times of misfortune. But I realised one day that no one ever asks 'Why me?' when they win the football pools or have other pieces of luck. I never thought 'Why me?' again.

He pities less himself than those who have had to strain so much to help him at home and on eccentrically chosen travels and explorations already tough enough going for the mobile and fit. He chooses to believe that 'despite much hideous evidence to the contrary, the world is gradually becoming a better place', adding that 'We no longer go on outings to Bedlam to laugh at lunatics'. I'm not so sure. Few things have disgusted me more than Auberon Waugh's year-in, year-out attacks on the wholly just and overdue demands of the disabled to be given the same facilities in Britain increas- ingly available to them in most European countries. It now transpires that as Crewe's fellow journalist he watched with mounting irritation such simple courtesies as doors being held open for his wheelchair. He has gone so insanely far as to describe this sort of thing as 'the mendicant as bully'. He has gone further. Claiming to have read with care and interest every page of this book, several of which testify to the author's compassionate horror, even in childhood, of anti-Semitism, he has now (surely actionably) asserted in print that 'At Eton, he indulged in the usual Jew-baiting.' Bron's own memoirs will have to be good if they are to be half as good as Crewe's. Perhaps that is the trouble.

I have got both pleasure and instruction (not least about Japan, just now a fashion- able topic) from this civilised book by a most sociable and likeable author, even if I felt on closing it for the third time a little like repeating to him the bitchy Bernard Berenson's once parting shot to Percy Lubbock: 'I do not envy you your life but do envy you your ability to live it.'