Why fine titles make exceedingly fine writers

The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold
May I continue my exclusive serialisation of Arnold's Browser's Guide to Bookish Britain? It is, as you will remember, the latest in a long line of literary guides to this inky nation of ours, though it prefers to exclude the coarse and ungainly, concentrating instead on those writers from the better public schools, in particular those whose titles are every bit as interesting as those of their books:

Masters, Brian: Before Masters came along, the literary public was content to place the serial-killer rather low down on the bookshelf, somewhere between Barbara Cartland and Jilly Cooper. But Brian has elevated the serial-killer to his proper level of prominence, so that we may now all speak of Dennis Nilsen and his cooking pots in the same breath we used to talk of Oscar Wilde and his aphorisms. And his soirees! To my mind, Masters is the last of the great literary hostesses, providing interesting and unusual pot-roasts to a rich variety of guests, so that Deirdre, Duchess of Marlborough may rub shoulders with a simply fascinating fellow being treated for compulsive cannibalistic disorders, and Sir Roy Strong (see Strong, Sir Roy) might find himself swapping tips on flower arrangement with Mad Frankie Fraser. On my last visit chez Masters, we sat down to some spare-ribs and a nice bit of knuckle. Then Brian came in and announced dinner.

Mitfords: Britain's best-loved literary dynasty formed of many marvellously colourful characters, among them Decca, the recording artiste; Necca, the nymphomaniac; Pecca, the pioneering anorexic; Mecca, the Islamic fundamentalist; Recca, the anarchist - and the only boy in the family, Becca, the tennis player. Each of them wrote at least one book of memoirs about the others, and fresh leaves from their mutual correspondence are still being discovered to this day. "Met the most adorable little man who is absolutely passionate about politics, dear love," wrote Necca to Mecca from Berlin in 1935. "I found myself telling him he really wouldn't go very far if he didn't shave off his perfectly ghastly little moustache. He seemed to take it well, executing two or three of his Ministers in my honour - sweet of him, don't you think?"

Neil, Andrew: Once the horseplay, the charades and the pocket billiards have finally wittered to an end, there is no surer way of enlivening a civilised English literary dinner-table than by bringing the feisty ex- editor Andrew Neil in on his lead, growling and snarling in a winged collar. He then prowls around the table on all fours, and guests of all literary persuasions jump onto their chairs, terrified lest he take a resentful nip from their ankles! But after 20 minutes, do be sure to return him to the agency - a little goes a long way.

Rees-Mogg, Lord William: The only serious commentator who fully understands the way we live now. His predictions over the years have mixed unusual aristocratic insight with devastating perspicacity. In 1973, he was the first to note that President Nixon would sail through the so-called Watergate Affair; in 1974, he was one of the only commentators to stick his neck out and predict that Anthony Barber would be the next Prime Minister but one, and as recently as 1988 he was among the first to see that, despite the premature optimism of the less sanguine, The Berlin Wall would "remain intact for a century or more".

Sitwells: Chief rivals to the Mitfords as marvellous English characters; Edith twice won the All-England Aristocratic Eccentricity Cup, snatching it by a short head from Lord Redesdale ("Farv"), whose spirited rendition of "Any Old Iron" whilst standing on one foot wearing full Arab dress was considered insufficiently dotty by a panel of judges from the Oxford University Press. The famously colour-blind Sacheverell Sitwell spent a lifetime proving his eccentricity by painting his 2,000 pet doves white.

An old man, he died of a broken heart after a heartless guest informed him that they were white in the first place.

Strong, Sir Roy: Behind his twin moustaches, Sir Roy stores up-to-date historical research about every monarch since 1066. Whenever a literary dinner begins to grow sticky, he will discreetly upend one or the other in search of an amusing anecdote with which to enliven the table. In the New Year, Sir Roy is planning to tune his moustaches to the Internet, giving him the ability to key into the entire pageant of English history, dates included, whilst still supping his moules marinieres.

Comments