I remember the 1980 sale of Cecil Beaton's Wiltshire house. It was subsequently owned by Robert Fripp and Toyah Wilcox (just as his first retreat is now the residence of Mr and Mrs Guy Ritchie). Hoi polloi were loosed on this aesthete's estate, rummaging through cupboards and besporting themselves on the lawns where Bianca Jagger and Greta Garbo once reclined. It was a grand equivalent of having someone rifle through your underwear drawer.
Reading Beaton's diaries of the years before that sale gives a similarly intimate glimpse. He was the ultimate snob, mired in a reactionary, bitchy world of his own. His acerbic, tight-lipped, tight-arsed views would now seem supremely redundant. Yet the diaries, charting the photographer's declining years, provide a unique and revealing perspective.
In the 1970s Beaton witnesses the death of coevals and rivals, giving him the opportunity for waspish, if precipitate, obituaries. Truman Capote, already descending into drink and drug oblivion, "really does seem to have gone round the bend in a very unattractive way" – although he would outlast Cecil. Elsewhere, Elizabeth Taylor is documented during a Proust Ball, "her breasts, hanging and huge, like those of a peasant woman suckling her young in Peru".
Then there are the truly eccentric figures, such as the aesthete Stephen Tennant. The man responsible for Beaton's introduction into high society, he became a recluse in his overgrown Wiltshire manor, a Sleeping Beauty lair where Cecil takes David Hockney: "Stephen, like a beached whale, was in bed, fatter than ever, his red-dyed hair down his back, his fingernails two inches long, his beard sprouting through make-up".
Such scenes counterpoint Beaton's own physical degeneration, chronicled in a leg-crossing account of his prostate operation, and his shrinking penis. At such points, the modern world seems ever more unbearable. He seldom lets slip an opportunity to lambast the "loathed Soviets" or their English representatives during the 1972 miners' strike, "these ugly men, violent and belligerent". They are symbols of everything Beaton fears, even as he realises that they represent the future.
But the old world is still in place. There are the balls at Windsor, holidays on the Mediterranean and Palm Beach, all fodder for his filtering lens. The ultimate benediction of a knighthood comes in 1972. Where the Beatles sneaked off to the Buckingham Palace toilets for a joint, Cecil is more concerned to locate the same facilities after a bout of cystitis. Yet even as a major stroke impairs his faculties, Beaton not only resumes his diary, but photographs a punk band. He can't let go, and in that tenacity, there is something to be admired.
A joy of this book is in the editor's linking passages, which offer a running commentary, gently steering the reader through the exalted pages of the Almanac de Gotha and the gossip columns of Eurotrash alike. They exhibit a waspishness of their own – which makes one wonder what revelations Hugo Vickers's diaries might have in store.
The reviewer's 'Spike Island' is published by Fourth Estate
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