Remembering Francis King
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 2nd November, 2011
The text of the Address I will give at his Memorial Service at St Luke’s Church, Chelsea, later today:
Remembering Francis King
Francis was a man with many voices. That is, of course, the novelist’s prerogative. But he had multiple personalities as well. Many people only saw his formal side; a short and for many years rather portly figure with Edwardian manners and movements. He’d be immaculately turned out in suit and tie, and more often than not a hat as well, chosen to match the season. His natural courtesy extended to all those strangers he encountered. More than once I witnessed the look of astonished pleasure on the face of a young waitress at the Café Rouge off Kensington Church Street when she handed him the menu and he declared in a voice redolent of the British Raj, ‘Thankyou!’
But those of us who knew Francis as a dear friend were aware of the complex individual that inhabited that courtly carapace. The man who’d chaired International PEN with such flair and tact actually had quite a low threshold of tolerance when it came to bores and time-wasters. It was a source of permanent astonishment and aggravation to him that most human beings were neither as self-disciplined nor as productive as he. Though never rude to anyone’s face, he could be devastating about them once they’d gone. Occasionally the mask would slip, as happened on one of English PEN’s annual summer outings to a place of literary interest. As the assembled party dithered and bickered about which tea-shop they should visit for afternoon refreshments, Francis’s sighs and murmerings got louder by the minute, until Josephine Pullein-Thompson – who ran these jaunts with all the military efficiency of a Pony Club event – exclaimed in exasperation, ‘Stop grizzling, Francis!’
I wonder how many of the hundreds of people Francis entertained in his role as British Council representative in Greece, Italy and Japan realised that their punctilious host also had a side that can only be described as camp. He’d apparently acquired the nickname Francesca da Rimini Pimini while at Baliol College, Oxford, and many of the hundreds of letters that I have from him are indeed signed Francesca, though in recent years he adopted another moniker: Auntie Fanoula. I realised after a while that this was actually a useful device that he’d devised, consciously or unconsciously, to let off steam. Francesca and Fanoula could be as bitchy as they wanted about mutual acquaintances, whereas Francis would never have been so indiscreet.
He did however see a certain affinity between himself and Mrs Thatcher. This conclusion was based not only on their shared Conservatism but even more importantly on the fact that both only needed four hours sleep. When Francis and I travelled together, in places as disparate as Egypt and Romania, I would struggle down to breakfast bleary-eyed to find that he had already written a review for The Spectator, or corrected the proofs of a chapter of his latest book and was now chomping at the bit to go out sight-seeing.
He was able to squeeze a lot into his 20-hour days. Though he went much more rarely to the theatre after he ceased being a drama critic, his social diary in London was packed. He disliked large gatherings, but thrived on lunch and dinner parties, of which he hosted a great number himself. As a neatly embroidered little cushion on the sideboard in the dining room of his house in Gordon Place declared, ‘The Queen Doesn’t Cook’. Catering was invariably courtesy of ‘Maisie Sparks’, the Marks and Spencer food hall in Kensington High Street. In the middle of the round glass-topped dining table sat a Lazy Susan, on which the food revolved, like in a Chinese restaurant. Often Francis had invited too many guests to fit round the table, so chairs were placed along the walls. Dessert and cheese were set out on a second sideboard underneath a magnificent reclining male nude by Duncan Grant.
Afternoons were often spent walking in Holland Park or Kew Gardens, unless Francis had some friend to visit in hospital or in prison. Visiting the afflicted and the convicted was a charitable act that was about as near as Francis got to any religious belief or practice. I don’t think he did this for the good of his soul; the very concept of ‘soul’ was lost on him. But he was fascinated by the human condition, and one often sees that at its most raw when people are vulnerable. He relished details of friends’ illnesses and treatments, as well as stories of the criminal underworld. Not surprisingly, these sometimes later filtered into his novels.
For a man who was so kind and so generous, he was extraordinarily interested in people who were mean or even wicked. They were like specimens under a microscope for him, and he would often be on the phone to me to describe the latest appalling behaviour by some acquaintance. Perhaps he was able thus vicariously to feel sensations that were completely alien to his personality. For Francis himself was one of the 20th Century’s true gentlemen, a wonderful friend and a compassionate confidant. In a nutshell: rather naughty, but so nice.