Books: Wanted: Lords. Must be dotty

First Childhood by Lord Berners Weidenfeld pounds 12.99 A Distant Prospect by Lord Berners Weidenfeld pounds 12.99
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The Independent Culture
W e are painfully short of colourful eccentrics on the national stage at the moment, with the Earl of Longford, at 93, soldiering on almost alone as the archetypal "loony lord" who is both so admired and so lampooned by the English lower orders. Perhaps the current drought is something to do with the forthcoming changes at that long-time favourite nesting ground of such odd ones out, the House of Lords. The hereditary peers, who have been handed a platform in the legislature by an accident of birth and who have repaid the rest of us for this undemocratic indulgence by publicly revelling in their own dottiness, are soon to be sent back to the obscurity of their estates. The life peers who will remain are by contrast generally a bland old bunch of washed-up politicians, pushy local councillors and party hacks.

Some believe this relentless march of uniformity to be unstoppable and so are turning back to larger- than-life figures of the past to quench their appetite for eccentricity. The subjects do not have to be famous or talented - though minor distinction somehow adds to the picture of an inspired amateur - but they must display a continuing disregard for social, sexual and political convention.

Mark Amory, when he published his biography of the late Lord Berners last year, gave it the prophetic subtitle The Last Eccentric. A moderately accomplished composer, writer and artist of the inter- war years, Berners was first immortalised in print by Nancy Mitford in her 1945 novel The Pursuit of Love as Lord Merlin who dyed the pigeons on his estate all the colours of the rainbow. Yet in the half century that followed, Gerald Berners had been a largely forgotten figure, until Amory revived his reputation in a book that went on to be a best-seller.

Today, as a result, there is something of a Berners industry afoot. His music - especially his 1926 score for a production by Diaghilev and Sacheverell Sitwell of The Triumph of Neptune - is once more being performed. His paintings have begun to sell for inflated prices and now his two volumes of autobiography have been reprinted with witty, colourful jackets that put you in mind of those pigeons.

First published in 1934 and 1945, together they tell of the strange childhood that, presumably, contributed to an unconventional adult life. His parents' liaison was brief, with his well-connected, dashing but impecunious naval officer father attracted to his mother, a solid, dull country lady in the Camilla Parker Bowles mould, on account of her fortune. His maternal grandparents were, like their daughter, never happier than when they were on a horse, but his paternal grandmother, Lady Bourchier, from whom he inherited his title, was much more beguiling.

An evangelical Christian who thrust a bible into the hand of anyone who visited her dank, castellated home, she both terrified and amused her grandson and heir. "My grandmother was a strange and alarming spectacle. Attired in a black shawl over a tight black bodice punctuated with buttons of jet, a long black silk skirt with the hint of a bustle, and a black coal-scuttle bonnet which had the effect of concentrating the menacing expression of her features, she looked like Savonarola masquerading as Betsy Trotwood ... I used to believe that there were pulleys concealed beneath her skirts by which she raised them off the ground when she went walking."

There is a gently camp, gently cruel but always intelligent tone to these memoirs that puts me in mind of Stephen Fry. Berners has marvellous fun at his own expense in recalling, without blushing, the denouement of his schoolboy crushes on Adonis-like seniors first at his prep school and then Eton. Longworth, one object of his desires, has invited him up onto the school roof in the middle of the night for a sly fag. Berners has never smoked before, but inhales deeply to impress:

"The light of the moon fell full on his face and made it glow like alabaster ... Suddenly he threw his arm round my neck and drew me closer to him. Then a dreadful thing occurred. Almost before I knew what was happening I was violently sick. Longworth sprang to his feet. `Shut up, you little fool!' he hissed at me. But it was all very well to say `shut up', I was beyond all possibility of shutting up. I lay gasping and retching at his feet."

Schoolboy recollections are, by and large, not a particularly attractive genre, covering ground that is, whatever the differences of place and class, all too familiar to readers. I usually approach them in the same resigned spirit as when waiting for a 13-year-old cousin to reach the punch-line of a witty classroom anecdote, knowing that I will have to react in some way but unable to muster much more than a thin-lipped grimace. This portrait of the artist as a young man is, however, an honourable exception.

First Childhood and A Distant Prospect do have some claim to be social history since Berners is both an acute observer of human nature and a careful but sometimes poisonous critic of the public school system. Largely, however, they are a throwaway delight, worth reading simply as humorous, impeccably written period pieces.