My Oxford Home
My Oxford home for one of my years there was an elegant panelled apartment at the top of the Georgian buildings of Garden Quad. Tall sashed and shuttered windows looked out over the quad in one direction, and into the gardens, bounded at their end by the old city wall, in the other. In the centre of the lawns was a mound garnished by drooping trees which in the mornings still kept a touch of river mist in them. They’ve since been replaced by something more prosaic.
At many odd moments of the day when nothing else was happening, I wandered round the gardens. Often I had a glass of disgustingly sweet ‘Spanish Sauterne’ in my hand. John Ricketts felt it important to warn me against this habit. ‘That sort of thing can lead to rustication,’ said John.
Does anyone else view themselves as they were as undergraduates with that mixture of embarrassment tinged with envy that I feel?
A newspaper account of a college ball at New College describes the ‘red and white striped awnings, floodlights, fireworks, and dance band music amplified to every corner of the grounds.’
The dances began, according to the programme, at 10 p.m. with ‘No.1, Quickstep. If I were a Bell, I’d be Ringing’. At 4 a.m. there was ‘No.22, Quickstep. Baron Barket Bounce’. The dance finished at 6 a.m. with ‘No.28, Foxtrot. ‘Take Back Your Mink’.
One visitor to the ball, says this account, was the Hon. Desmond Guiness. I’d felt flattered to be asked occasionally to his apartment at Christchurch which was hung with Gobelin tapestries and carpeted with Aubussons. Eighteenth century statues of life sized negro servant boys held up trays on which stood cocktails.
I was not the only undergraduate to admire him. He was handsome and the gaze from his piercing light blue eyes could be powerful and disturbing. At Eton scandalous tales had encrusted themselves around him. Above his door, it was said, an advertisement asked; ‘Have You Had Your Guiness (X) Today?’ Another reminded you that ‘A Guiness a Day Helps You Work, Rest and Play’.
As Desmond cruised by at the ball, says the newspaper, and heard his name mentioned, he ‘took a tennis ball out of his pocket and bounced it on the dance floor as he whirled by.’ Evidently I was also at the ball for the account continues with a description of ‘the man of the moment, Mr Remy Sandford, who,’ it says, ‘was wearing his grandfather’s black velvet court levée dress.’
For the guidance of such of its readers who might find themselves at an undergraduate ball one day, the newspaper explained that an appropriate compliment to a good looking dancing partner would be to tell her she’s a ‘rather divine girl’. I think it is correct that undergraduates were using the word divine at this time, often shortened to ‘divvy’. I feel embarrassment about what comes next. The ‘popular word’ with which to express ‘appreciation’, says the newspaper, is ‘bliss’. Oh no, must that be dredged up out of the past? Could I have been spared that memory?
These days the fashionable word in some places is ‘wicked’ or ‘bad’. But at Oxford in the 50s, can our most profound expression of approval have been ‘bliss’? Yes it was. I blush as I write this. I blush even more in remembering that we also frequently used its derivatives ‘blissikins’ and ‘blissy’. ‘What an absolutely blissy firework,’ for instance, was an entirely politically and socially acceptable thing to say.
Fireworks for the dance were provided by John Ricketts who had spent weeks surrounded by explosive wheels and cylinders in an attic on Hollywell. (X) He explained that other colleges lure guests with military tattoos or tunnels of love but that New College offered Tourbillons and Feux de Joie.
Leafing through newspaper clippings, every now and again I obtain further sightings of myself. Emerging fitfully from a cutting from the Oxford Mail for May 1953, I read; ‘The crowd which gathered on and about the bridge to hear the singing from Magdalen Tower was as large as ever - several thousands - but there was less colour than last year.
‘There were no scarves or balloons flying from the punt poles and few undergraduates were in fancy costume, although one man from New College wore the gold-buttoned frock coat which had been the uniform of his grandfather’s postillion.’ It was too tight, I remember, but otherwise was quite smart.
Another sighting, from the undergraduate journal Isis of that same May, goes; ‘In a tête-a-tête with Julian David and two other têtes last Tuesday evening, Jeremy Sandford, Cherwell’s purveyor of the social dirt, gave a public recital in a restaurant. Slithering a treble recorder out of his coat pocket, Jeremy gave a performance that had all the attributes of a screaming choir.’
Cherwell’s purveyor of the social dirt? Now it comes back to me, with even greater embarrassment than that provoked by the word ‘bliss’, that I at that time wrote a gossip column in the rival to Isis, a newspaper called ‘Cherwell’. It was called ‘Julian’s Journal’, named after my friend Julian David whose dark hair, flashing eyes and swarthy complexion inherited from Armenian ancestors seemed to me the height of romanticism.
‘A punt, swaying its heavy way down the channels of Cherwell,’ was how Julian’s Journal described this same May morning, ‘and on the punt a harmonium, and leaning against the harmonium, David Galbraith was the tight-trousered figure who sang among the green tree shadows.
‘Arkadi Nebolsine, whose family relinquished their princely title through modesty in the twelfth century, dipped his long fingers into the keys of the harmonium, and John Rickett as an amorous Elizabethan was half flauntingly launching into the chill air a madrigal of Philip Rosseter.’
I described David joining a group of ‘exquisites’ who ‘toyed with shrimps and chicken’ in the ‘canopied stern’. ‘How the people in England look at one,’ he remarked. ‘Thank goodness I’m soon off for some concerts in Spain. In England even the portraits on my studio walls seem to stare ... But Oxford always brings back memories of my lost youth.’
I asked him if the loss was inevitable. David’s reply probably seemed less deja vu then than it does now; ‘I think so. He just vanished. Vanished behind the gasworks one night.’
‘There were some noble persons present,’ Julian’s Journal continues. ‘Draped in a purple blazer, Stanley Parker led the dance at his tenth successive early May morning party to the tune of Puccini and Enid Starkie; “I don’t say I haven’t been to bed, but I haven’t slept for thirty-six hours,” he was telling beautiful Anthony Rouse. “Bliss!” cried Kanga Cavendish (a habit she has when bored). A wet Triffit watched as Desmond Guiness with a tired-looking face and crimson buttonhole offered a word of vice to Edward Bruce-Waddington who had a tired-looking flower but a crimson face.’
Homoeroticism was a fashionable strand in our culture. It was important to appear to be slightly gay, or ‘queer’, even if you were not. Partly this was because the committing of a ‘queerity’ had the frisson of something that was still illegal, so that the approach from a male who wished to proposition another had to be ambiguous and clandestine. Partly it was that there were very few young women around in that undergraduate void.
I gave a party at which David Galbraith performed on my grandmother’s upright rosewood piano. As I leaned forward to turn over a page of David’s music, he said; ‘That boy over there keeps eyeing me around other people. Past someone else I see first an eye, then a bit of nose, then another eye. What shall I do?’
‘Well, do you find him attractive?’
‘No,’ said David, turning back to the keyboard and playing a resolute chord.
The boy was Teddy Millington Drake (X), known to his friends as Fluffington Duck, and later to become an artist. He threw a small piece of crumpled up paper at David who unscrewed it and his fine nose twitched as he perused it.
‘I like pianists,’ said the note. David, coming from Australia and unaware that Teddy was much sought after at Oxford, took out a pencil and scrawled on the back of the message, ‘I only like young boys.’
He rolled up the paper and tossed it back at Teddy. A huge man, the sort we knew in those days as a ‘rowing type’, caught the pellet and without reading it came over to David. He sat ponderously on the keyboard with discordant sounds coming out from under his bottom. He said; ‘Teddy is my boy and if you send him a single other message I’m going to smash your face in. I want you to hear another thing. Teddy is a damned expensive boy to keep and before you go any further I suggest you consider whether you could afford him.’
There was snobbery in that stratified society. In one clipping from ‘Julian’s Journal’ I see that I quote Michael de Stempel (X), on his favourite subject, explaining that in Spain there are ‘fifty-two barons’ and ‘only four counts’.
Many years later, Michael along with his mother was to serve time in prison as a result of alleged embezzlement charges. (X)
Another edition of Julian’s Journal quotes someone called ‘Raven’ as saying; ‘I then had to spell it out to her that I did not count sexual intercourse as constituting a formal introduction.’
A rival gossip column was contributed by the Hon Desmond Guiness to a journal called ‘Oxford Tory’; ‘Molian’s at large! He told us that he was trying to make a pass degree, but we think he has really come to see if little Mademoiselle Julie would.
‘Last year’s shrub was brought up again by everyone who’s anyone on Friday morning - Salvador and Christian Parker received the guests. Teddy Goldsmith and Mark Zervudachi came along with Susan Parkes, who was staying with Lady Savernake - the smartness! - in Notting Hill (10 Rillington Place?) - but who else came? Well, some Queens from King’s got there with a Boxer, and I saw Enid (Starkie) helping Jeremy Sandford with his Column in a corner.’
The arcane, convoluted, cryptic and often childish and laddish gossip columns that various of us wrote were eagerly awaited, at any rate by ourselves and friends, and gave us the sense that we were important. Here is another sighting of myself, in a role that I find it hard now to recognise; in Isis, Christopher Johnson wrote; ‘Any day at noon a phenomenal, faun-like creature may be heard entertaining his guests at breakfast by playing Clarinet obbligatoes (rhymes with ‘tomatoes’), looking for lost chords on the harmonium, strumming an upright piano from inside with a back-scratcher, essaying the macabre unulations of the flugel-horn, or just nonchalantly tootling arpeggios on the swanee whistle. He likes to appear at parties as Svolkbrod, the cosmopolite composer who is as exiled as Chopin and as much an institution as the Wandering Jew. Like Lautreamont, few of his secrets are known to the public, to whom he is familiar only as an apparition dressed in footman’s livery of the regency period which rushes piping and screaming down the High with a band of Silenuses in hot pursuit.
‘His magazine, “Sic” (sic) will be printed on one enormous sheet of paper, with a different printer working on each corner, and a match fixed to the middle to make disposal easier.’ The highlight of the summer, says Christopher’s article, for this me that I find hard to recognise, would be ‘a season in Venice when for a week a palazzo will reverberate with orgies to which Carlos de Bestegui’s so remarked-on rout would be but a children’s tea-and-buns affair. A preposterous phantasm? No, the real flesh-and-blood, becoming each day fleshier and bloodier, Jeremy Sandford.’
Although we lived austerely by today’s standards, there were also events of conspicuous consumption. One, recorded in Julian’s Journal, was the ‘double dinner’ which the Worcester Dining Club gave once a term. It began with smoked salmon soup, omelette and sweets, ‘followed by liqueurs in a Cocteau-like setting which included huge silver candlesticks and an open fire’. There was then a walk round the garden and guests then returned ‘to begin again with hors d’oevres, pheasants and three sweets, finishing with coffee, liqueurs, and a cocktail party’. The menus were in gold and scarlet.
Those who were confident about their social position kept to the rule of ‘Never talk to a journalist’. I think that I and my particular friends, less sure of where we stood, were ambivalent.
At a party at which most of those present claimed to be trying to avoid the gossip writer from the Tatler, my friend Anthony de Crespigny arranged to fall out of a tree on top of him. Hastily standing up and brushing the mud from his trousers, he tossed out, in the direction of the photographer, ‘Carneggie is my name, Lord Carneggie. Now, were you thinking of photographing me sitting down or standing up?’ Anthony’s full name was Anthony Champion de Crespigny which he said was an old Norman title. His friends called him champignon.
As well as real people, a couple of fantasy or invented people were also important to us. One of these was Edward Bruce Waddington, whose name, which has already appeared in this book, began to crop up in gossip columns and people’s conversations.
Teddy’s provenance was a photograph of young men and boys, above one of whom had been scrawled ‘E.B.W.’ which in fact stood for ‘Eminently Bed-Worthy’. The recipient of this photograph did not understand the reference. He tried to work out what names E.B.W. could stand for and decided that the most likely names were ‘Edward Bruce Waddington’.
So the word got around that Edward, an extremely beautiful young man, was on the scene. We decided to see if we could make him so fashionable that he would be on the invitation list for every party. I wrote about him in Cherwell and he was proposed and seconded as member of a number of clubs and societies.
He failed to make it into the higher levels of Oxford society.
Another imaginary person invented at this time was Erik-Augustin Svolkbrod. Unlike Teddy Bruce-Waddington, he did not have social ambitions. A letter from the composer Hugh Wood ends; ‘Wish I could write more. Did the Fürst von Letislav-Svolkbrod enjoy his visit? (Second cousin of the distinguished composer?) I had a most enthusiastic letter from him, after your invitation had been sent on from his castle at Otvantor (summer months only).
‘Svolkbrod himself hopes to be in England soon, but distrusts the climate until May or late April. Said to be engaged on a new opera - completely underwater setting. No singing at all, but the orchestra is huge.’
Hugh gave a party for Erik-Augustin, for which the invitation read;
requests the pleasure of your company
at a Soirée held in honour of
Erik-Augustin Svolkbrod (born 1898)
on Friday 15th May
at Savile House (C2)
6.30 - 8.30 RSVP: New College
To clarify points about which there was disagreement, Hans Seelig claimed to have discovered what follows in ‘the Lappska Tageblatt of April 24th 1949’.
‘Erik-Augustin Svolkbrod, the subject of this brief memoir, was born in Loderblög, a little village on the Lapp-Swedish frontier, on May 15th 1898. His family, although impoverished, were not entirely of humble origin, for his great grandfather on his father’s side was the younger son of a Finnish noble house, dispossessed after the abortive February risings against Russian rule in 1834. From his earliest years - years happily spent in his father’s ironmongery shop - the lad showed distinct musical talent, and in particular was an adept performer on the Szorgasfif (a kind of Scandinavian oboe - Trans.) But away from this tranquil village life the boy was soon called away to the new horizons opening in front of him. In 1911 he entered Singer-Akademie at Klittorstadt as a Probationary Junior Choral Student (Junngesangirlerntenburs).’
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