Literary biographies tend to re-interpret the same old figures again and again - so three cheers for a portrait of a minor but colourfully eccentric character, Lord Berners
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WHENEVER I catch myself day-dreaming of a private income - or its contemporary equivalent, a Lottery win - I always console myself with the thought that it would probably be a curse. With all that money, I'd never find the impetus to get up in the morning and achieve anything.

For half of Mark Amory's enthralling biography of Gerald Berners, this comforting theory was in jeopardy and a binge on scratch cards threatened. Berners did inherit money - plus a title and a minor stately home - but still managed several well-received exhibitions of his paintings, a string of witty novels and acclaim from Sir Thomas Beecham as one of the greatest English composers of the twentieth century. Salvation was at hand, however; as Amory makes plain in the latter sections of the book, without the cushion of never having to work, Berners could have made much more of his God- given talents.

His music for The Triumph of Neptune, a ballet conceived and staged by Diaghilev and Sacheverell Sitwell with help from William Walton, was acclaimed by critics when it opened in 1926. Other compositions - "Fantaisie Espagnole", "Trois Petites Marches Funebres" and the opera La Carrosse du Saint-Sacrament - were admired and some are still played to this day. His score for Frederick Ashton's A Wedding Bouquet, brought the house down at Sadlers Wells in 1937.

Yet Berners never quite sustained the promise of these distinctly modern compositions and went off to dabble in paintings and writing. His friend and in many ways closet musical equivalent, Constant Lambert, once recalled of Berners: "at one time he gave up composing altogether and when asked when he was going to write again said that as he hadn't started composing until he was 35, he saw no reason why he shouldn't stop for another 35 years."

It was a typically glib response. Berners delighted in trading witticisms with his fashionable friends and if anything truly distracted him from composing, it was the constant stream of the great, good and ghastly who came to stay at Faringdon, his country estate. It is the account of these house parties and the letters, gossip and intrigue that surrounded them that makes Amory's biography such a wonderful read.

You will have heard of all of the characters before, and all have been so well covered in their own or others' diaries, memoirs or biographies, that you could be forgiven for wanting to pass on yet another re-creation of their useless, parasitical but hugely entertaining world. There are three reasons for giving Mark Amory the benefit of the doubt. First, he is a skilful, unobtrusive but calculating biographer, milking the most out of the situations he describes. Second, given the current fashion in biography publishing for either dreary politicians' accounts of their greatest moments at the despatch box or for the umpteenth re-examination of the heroes and heroines of history and literature, books like this about minor but colourfully eccentric figures should be encouraged for the good of the genre. And third, but most important, Berners himself is far more complex than many of those tireless and tiresome, vaguely arty party-goers of the middle decades of our century.

He had for starters an adolescent schoolboy's disloyalty and lack of shame about whom he sent up. Lady Lavery was one pal who fell victim to the cruel jokes Berners like to circulate. She was a great beauty but tended to over-do the make-up so Berners put it about that the First Lord of the Admiralty, after lunching with her, entirely revised his plans for camouflaging the Mediterranean Fleet. The writer Osbert Sitwell was another target. Sitwell kept a great bowl of ever-replenished press cuttings about himself in the hall of his London house. Berners placed an even larger bowl in his home and put in it only a tiny note from the Times saying that he had returned from abroad.

To bore Berners was to risk a rude awakening. Osbert's brother Sacheverell regaled his host one evening at Farringdon with gloomy and pompous talk about suicide, only later to be awoken by a loud explosion like a gun- shot from outside his bedroom door. He rushed out to find his host clutching a burst paper bag and laughing.

When he himself was the target of gossip, Berners rose to the occasion. Around 1930, someone leaked to the social columns the news that he was about to announce his engagement to Violet Trefusis, whose lesbian relationship with Radclyffe Hall had shocked society. Prompted by his strait-laced mother to put an end to such talk, Berners sent a telegram to the Times saying "Lord Berners has left Lesbos for the Isle of Man".

Open about his homosexuality within his wide circle of friends, Berners shared Faringdon from 1932 until his death in 1950 with Robert Heber Percy, 29 years his junior, whom he lovingly referred to as his "Mad Boy". It was a curious relationship, with Herber Percy sharing few interests in common with Berners, offending some of his highfalutin friends like Harold Acton, but eventually inheriting Faringdon and living there for 37 years until his own death in 1987. Berners - who was an odd-looking man, likened by Lord Sackville to an oyster - and his dashingly beautiful young partner had a largely platonic relationship. Heber Percy, youngest son of a land- owning family, is said to have gone for a weekend to Faringdon, where a night of passion with Berners was not a success. "Shall I leave?" he asked. "Don't go," his host replied. "You make me laugh. I don't mind about the other."

Heber Percy did mind, but not where Berners was concerned, and throughout their long relationship had affairs which his older benefactor tolerated. When the Mad Boy married, Berners even welcomed the new wife and ultimately child in his home, taking to the role of doting uncle and counsellor to the soon disillusioned bride.

Amory labours the point that Berners was never camp and that many of his circle had no idea about the true nature of his relationship with Heber Percy. But tales of the composer swanning about in his Rolls with a specially fitted clavichord in the back, or of his penchant for dying the pigeons on his estate all the colours of the rainbow, do make you wonder if the biographer is perhaps being just a touch protective of his subject and rather patronising about another age's choice to see but not see certain things.

Berners' pigeons became famous when his friend Nancy Mitford included in her 1945 novel The Pursuit of Love both a description of them - "like a cloud of confetti in the sky" - and their eccentric owner, Lord Merlin. The choice of name was not accidental. Mitford saw something almost magical in Berners and his talents. As well as painting in the style of Corot, he also wrote novels, but achieved nothing like the same distinction in either field as he did with his music.

His most remarkable work of fiction was circulated only to friends. It was a cruel piss-take of Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness called The Girls of Radcliff Hall, set amid the crushes of a girls' school dormitory and written in the style of Angela Brazil. Berners was less interested in lesbianism and more concerned with a grand debunking of many of the most eminent men of the period, most of them part of his circle. All were thinly disguised as schoolgirls; Cecil Beaton was so upset to learn that he was the model for the heroine, Cecily Seymour, that he threatened libel proceedings. Berners liked to report that he had sent a copy to Queen Mary who read it as a conventional schoolgirl yarn and wrote congratulating the author - Berners using the pen-name Adela Quebec - on the accuracy of her characters. Underneath his humour, Berners was a subversive and cynical man who no doubt realised the folly of much of his own life and his squandering of his gifts. It adds a tragic but hard element to what might otherwise have been a "nice" biography.

You need know little or indeed care little about the history of English music in the twentieth century to enjoy this book. Indeed it is possible to have nothing but contempt for the gilded world in which Berners and his friends moved and still be amused. Sound scholarship, a contradictory, largely unknown and not wholly pleasant subject and, in Amory, a sensitive author combine perfectly. The sub-title - "The Last Eccentric" - may be a little damning of many figures in the public eye today, but non-conformists are undoubtedly a dwindling bunch. In such straitened circumstances, Amory's celebration of Berners could become one of those admirable books that manage to hit a nerve and find a wide audience.

8 `Lord Berners: The Last Eccentric' is published by Chatto, pounds 20.

8 Peter Stanford's `The She-Pope: A Quest for the Truth Behind the Mystery of Pope Joan' is published by Heinemann in April, pounds 16.99.