Friday Book: `Come out of there, Elizabeth!'

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The Independent Culture



I HAVE chucked the odd bread roll around when occasion has demanded, and I am more than happy to read tales of toffs having a good time. While everyone else motors down to Cap Ferrat to stay with Uncle Teddy, I am happy here with my seat by the parrot's cage reading of agreeable lunches in clubs, followed by tea with m'tutor and a spot of tug-of-war. What I do need, though, is a bit of description. Try 360 pages of this: "We're having wonderful weather and a wonderful term. Last night we had a special drink in Hall, endowed by some rich American, and we had great fun throwing things at high table. On Wednesday I went to the Derby and saw it from the course." Somehow it fails to fill the bill.

For 20 years, from the time he was at Eton until that happy afternoon when he was sitting in the Drones Club and Gussie Fink-Nottle offered him a job at the BBC, Brian Johnston wrote short, jolly, yet very dull letters home to his mum. She, being a fond mother, kept them all. Now Brian's son Barry has topped and tailed them a bit, bunged in the odd historical reference and put them between hard covers.

There are 25 direct references to cake in the book (26 if you count doughnuts as cake, which I do not). But there are plenty more indirect references if you assume, and I think we must, that cake was included in the extraordinary number of teas - often with m'tutor - during this 20-year period. The passage of grey flannel trousers, fresh cream and Agatha Christie novels up and down the country (and even overseas) is also meticulously recorded. Anyone interested in such matters should make a beeline for this volume.

Brian Johnston's inability to describe a scene or convey any emotion in these letters is quite remarkable. In April 1942, 27 people were killed and 71 injured when a Hurricane aircraft used live ammunition during a demonstration and mowed down spectators. Johnners writes: "They don't know whether the pilot was mad, or fifth column. Charles had a bullet through his jaw but is all right. Hope the boys are well and have enjoyed their stay."

He is similarly unmoved by events closer to home. On receipt of letters from his mother informing him of her divorce from Marcus Scully (who had been a good stepfather to Brian), he writes: "I hope things are all right with you now and that you have decided what to do. Marcus hasn't written yet but I presume he will. I think Harrods would be best for my trunk, so please store it with yours until further notice." That's it - not even a cheery "Bad luck, old thing."

Even the truly bizarre and macabre fails to furrow the brow or inspire the pen of the genial Johnners. In 1934 he visited a freak show in Blackpool which included an extraordinary and grim attraction called "The Starving Brides and Bridegrooms". A couple would lie side by side in a coffin and starve for 30 days. If they survived, they got pounds 250. Over to Brian Johnston: "We came on Sunday via Blackpool, where we saw starving brides and bridegrooms, & went on giant racers etc: wonderful value. Two of our matches have been in The Times so far, yesterday and day before, so I needn't give details."

Now the tone that a chap adopts when writing to his mater is entirely that chap's business. Breezy indifference, a limited vocabulary and an avoidance of anything of interest may have been just the ticket as far as Mrs Johnston was concerned. Obviously, she was happy enough with the correspondence, to have preserved it so carefully. But why Chips Weidenfeld and Ooffy Nicolson have thought it worth putting these dutiful missives between hard covers is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps they are hoping that we might buy a copy instead of a cravat as a present for some Old Bean.

Like Bertie Wooster, Johnners was clearly a kindly bird. He is always getting his mother to whizz off cheques, postal orders and presents to godchildren and relatives. He stumps up for Christmas dinners for East- Enders, is thoughtful enough to include in his Christmas largesse evacuees staying with his mother, and regularly helps a family hit by bad health and unemployment. He likes to have a good time, and he likes others to have one, too.

The book ends with the war, during which Johnston distinguished himself with his bravery, efficiency and relentless cheeriness.

People liked him, though some had reservations. "Come out of there, Elizabeth," cried the Head Master of Eton, on finding his daughter fooling around with young Johnners in the rhododendrons. "You can do better than that!"