Alastair Forbes

Well-connected journalist and reviewer celebrated for his long, rambling sentences
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The name of Alastair Forbes came to general attention during the 1970s when John Gross, then Editor of the Times Literary Supplement, had the inspired idea of employing him as a reviewer of Frances Donaldson's biography of Edward VIII (Edward VIII, 1974). The resultant piece was immensely long, and composed in rambling sentences clustered with foreign phrases, dropped names, puns, jokes and libels.

Alastair Cameron Forbes, journalist: born Limpsfield, Surrey 2 May 1918; married 1957 Charlotte Bergsøe (one son; marriage dissolved 1960), 1966 The Hon Georgina Ward (marriage dissolved 1971); died London 19 May 2005.

The name of Alastair Forbes came to general attention during the 1970s when John Gross, then Editor of the Times Literary Supplement, had the inspired idea of employing him as a reviewer of Frances Donaldson's biography of Edward VIII (Edward VIII, 1974). The resultant piece was immensely long, and composed in rambling sentences clustered with foreign phrases, dropped names, puns, jokes and libels.

Readers who had never heard of Forbes must have wondered what manner of man this was, who appeared to be on such intimate terms with the Royal Family that he knew details about them - the practice of female circumcision in the Duke of Edinburgh's family is one example which springs to mind - which would not necessarily have been vouchsafed even to their medical consultants. Did the Duke of Windsor have pubic hair, and was he troubled by the problems of premature ejaculation? If these are questions you feel have been left unsolved by the formal histories of the 1930s then Forbes was your man.

There followed other articles in which Forbes analysed the foibles and characters of royalty, European aristocracy and famous names from showbiz such as David Niven and Noël Coward. The essays, for they were always more than reviews, were of enormous length. He loved to pile on the epithets. "His no-more-than-usually womanising father" - of Prince Philip; "his countless times cuckolded Curzon-born mother" - of Nicholas Mosley.

In time, Forbes also began to review books for The Spectator, extending to the readership of that magazine the puzzlement, and delight, which had at first been on offer only to the readers of the more academic periodical. Subbing Forbes's pieces and cutting them to printable length was a task which took successive literary editors most of their time, and what ended on the cutting-room floor was often of dazzling interest. In spite of cuts, there was more than one writ.

Could any man truly be so well connected, and with such a knowledge of so glittering a world? When the first serious biography of Noël Coward appeared - Coward's name was often invoked in his prose - there were those who seized with some eagerness upon Forbes's absence from the narrative. But this was a mistake. Subsequent investigation showed that his name occurred as a much-loved visitor to Coward's residences in Jamaica and in Switzerland. Coward used to say that there was almost no one whose company he enjoyed more.

Even disobliging judgements of his character - "That awful Ali Forbes" from Princess Margaret - served to authenticate his position as semi- obscene, ever-knowing and often extremely witty chronicler of the facts concealed between the lines of the Almanach de Gotha, Who's Who and Debrett.

Forbes was of American stock, being the third son of James Grant Forbes, of Boston, Massachusetts. Ali was proud to belong to that Bostonian aristocracy where "the Lowells speak only to Cabots, and the Cabots speak only to God". (Robert Lowell and his wives were all, naturally, close friends.) John Kerry, the failed Democratic presidential candidate, is the son of Ali Forbes's sister. Forbes himself liked to speak of "my coz FDR" and he claimed, probably correctly, to have a close friendship with John F. Kennedy, based on shared liberal values and a voracious, and successful, taste for women.

In spite of having easy friendships with homosexuals, Forbes was very decidedly a lady's man. His blue eyes whose laughing brightness was undiminished by age and his dazzling good looks as a young man had attracted those of both sexes, but Fred Ashton advised him, "If you have the choice, go for women. We queens are so cruel to one another when we lose our looks, but women go on adoring men long after they become ugly."

Queens of other kinds gave Ali a wider berth. The present monarch was moved to squeal "Will you please put me DOWN!" when he had the temerity to lift her up during a Highland reel. At another party, during his heyday in the early 1950s, Forbes slipped out into the Mayfair air and encountered one of the professional female inhabitants of Curzon Street. Upon his return to the ball in Berkeley Square he found himself dancing with the Queen Mother, who said, "Everyone else in the room looks so hot and bothered, and you look so calm and - well, relaxed."

Though American-born - he had 10 siblings and he was brought up largely in Brittany - he was given an English gentleman's education. "Did you go to Eton, Ali?" someone once asked him, provoking the drawly and disdainful reply, "I've never been to Eton in my life." He liked to quote an insult delivered to the then Deputy Prime Minister - "Willie Whitelaw was so stupid at Winchester that he used to cheat off Ali Forbes."

He went on to King's, Cambridge, where he was taught by Dadie Rylands. In the late Thirties and early wartime years, he befriended Cyril Connolly and Peter Quennell, two of his closest associates in the Bohemian world of wartime London. Because he was technically an American, he had a while to wait before doing war service. After an initial stint with the Canadian air force, with whom he flew to Finland, he managed to get transferred to the Royal Marines.

Because he was so handsome, however, and so immediately lovable, it was not surprised that many men, particularly those on active service, should have objected to Forbes's staying in London to charm their wives. It was his friendship with Winston Churchill's children, Randolph and Mary, which led him to being invited to lunch at Chartwell before and Chequers during the Second World War.

Forbes was a conversationalist of brilliance when on form and he was easily likeable. He became one of those extremely young men to whom Winston Churchill took a shine. Much material for later gossip was gathered at Churchill's table.

It was at this time, surprisingly perhaps, that he briefly became a Roman Catholic ("to do penance for all the abortions for which I'd been responsible"). He quickly apostasised and would suggest, scornfully in later years, that most of the apophthegms in the Sermon on the Mount were on the level of the mottoes to be found in Christmas crackers.

The religious difference can not have endeared him to Evelyn Waugh, who complained in a 1947 letter to Nancy Mitford, "London is infested with Quennell and Forbes." In another letter, Waugh complained of the difficulty of getting near Annie Charteris (then Lady Rothermere) without crossing the Forbes-Quennell axis. Quennell was Lady Rothermere's lover, Forbes merely her protégé. The connections provided both men with employment on the Daily Mail, and Forbes later wrote a political column for the Sunday Dispatch.

In the 1959 election he stood as a Liberal candidate, but without success. He remained, politically, a committed European liberal, bemoaning the insularity and lack of standards which he felt had befallen Britain after the advent of Thatcher. ("We're all Falkland Islanders now.")

He continued to move in high social and political circles during the 1960s. When, during his old age, a younger friend took him to see the film Scandal (1989), based on the Profumo affair, Forbes found it hard to restrain himself from a running commentary. "Jack never had a Rolls-Royce!" was one such outburst. The long-suffering people in front of him eventually turned round to hiss, "Can you be quiet?" "We'll try," he drawled back.

Yet Forbes's life, for his friends, was always swathed in mystery. Some spoke of him as mixed up with the CIA, but this was surely just a symptom of his ability to keep make himself interesting in the interludes between his appearances at dinner tables and country-house parties. The information he picked up was essentially humorous, not political.

He was good at random jokes. When strolling into the offices of his friend George Weidenfeld in Clapham and looking round at the young, well-bred employees - "Where never was heard an intelligent word, Sloane, Sloane on the Range". "Can't you read?" he once asked a slightly furtive young man whom he glimpsed hovering expectantly near him on the pavement of Jermyn Street. Forbes, with a merry jerk of his thumb indicated the windscreen of a 2CV Citroën with a "No Cruise" sticker.

In latter years, his sad tendency to quarrel with friends and family darkened his life and reduced his social range. For as long as he could afford it, and when two marriages had come unstuck, he had lived in a tiny house, Chalet des Aubepines in Château d'Oex in Switzerland. He used to say that this was because he was like Mr Salteena, who loved royalty and the open air. He must have sent several dozen postcards each day, and he would descend upon London at regular intervals to visit White's and the Beefsteak, his clubs, and to catch up on gossip. Latterly, quarrels made the clubs all but unvisitable and poverty made the Swiss address, however modest, unsustainable. He took to living with relations in England.

A lateish sighting of him by one friend was on a boilingly hot day on the Underground. Ali was in a slight muddle and trying to find his way back to Ealing, home of a niece. He was dressed in very short shorts, which revealed his knobbly old varicose veins, and trainers, but he was keeping the carriage of strangers amused with talk of his nephew John Kerry's chances of becoming the new President of the United States. A friend, who happened to get on to the train and find the colloquy in progress, asked him if he was following Kerry's progress closely. "Of course I'm not following it. He's in Massachusetts and I'm in Ealing."

Forbes was the devoted friend of young children, and was really at his best with them. The rapport was instant, and probably hundreds of children can remember with excitement the moment when Ali would arrive at their parents' houses with well-chosen little presents, and private jokes. "Here's a torch to read - or maybe in your case write - books under the blankets," he drawled knowingly to the shy seven-year-old daughter of a writer friend, who blushed because he alone had intuited her secret.

He liked nicknames - the Bodley Egghead, of James Michie, who worked at Bodley Head, was a typical Forbes coinage. Essex House, the cottage in Badminton shared by James Lees-Milne with his wife Alvilde, became, naturally, Bisex House, while Diana Mosley's Orsay Temple de la Gloire was The Concentration of Camp.

Yet, though he mocked merrily, he was essentially kind. He was also a devoted sickbed visitor and consoler of the lonely and bereaved. He used to say, after he had lost his faith, that remembering one's friends was the performance of a requiem for them inside one's head or in conversation.

For as long as his many friends remember Ali Forbes, with amusement, affection, and bewilderment, the requiem will be chanted, or drawled, in their heads.

A. N. Wilson



Comments