Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Kensington’

The Biographers’ Club

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 11th July, 2013

Clementi house KensingtonWriters are like meerkats; we live in holes to escape the heat of the world outside and to get on with our work, emerging occasionally to sniff at the big outdoors, standing on our hindlegs to savour what we find, before scurrying back to the security of our burrows and our research. So it is a good thing that The Biographers’ Club (originally founded by my literary agent, Andrew Lownie) exists, to provide a forum for intellectual and social contact amongst those of us who spend an unhealthy amount of our time in libraries and archives or at our computers. I suspect I am not alone in having a study at home, surrounded by books, with my desk facing the window but with curtains closely drawn, day and night. That way I can carry on, hour after hour, without distraction. Anyway, every summer The Biographers’ Club holds an annual summer party, which this year was in the stupendous house and garden of one of my publishers (and author himself), Tom Stacey. Once the residence of the musician Clementi — as well as playing host to Mendelssohn — the house is a Kensington treasure, not least because of its large secret garden, in which are displayed Tom’s wife’s sculptures. But this evening, with a jazz band playing boisterously in the main sitting room, where I have had many an editorial meeting over a couple of my previous books, the house was thrown open to a motley crew, including Sarah Bradford (whom I worked with on a book on the Sitwells years ago), the art historian Frances Spalding and my fellow patron of the Oscar Wilde Society, Neil McKenna, whose very racy book on the Victorian transvestites, Fanny and Stella, I am currently hugely enjoying. Such occasions are not just for catching up on who is doing what — and who has died — but more importantly to give us the stamina to go back to our holes and carry on.

[water colour of the house, by Gertrude Keeling]



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Growing Old Disgracefully

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 8th January, 2013

Outsider IIBrian SewellThe Evening Standard’s freelance art critic, Brian Sewell, has established himself as something of a national treasure, even if some of his colleagues in the art world have a tendency to kick him in the shins. He is often acerbic, indeed can be curmudgeonly, and is widely believed to be fonder of dogs than of humans. That not withstanding, he has had an eclectic cricle of professional acquaintances and friends; though I have  never met him, I used to hear about him from his close pal the Kensington Liberal, Colin Darracott, before the latter moved down to Bath. I have entered Sewell’s world backwards, so to speak, by reading the second volume of his memoirs, Outsider II*, before acquiring the first, so have savoured the flavours of an octogenarian looking back on the second part of his life, when his work as an art dealer and expert consultant was largely replaced by his activities as a critic — an ucompomising one, which is why his long essays in the Standard are often such fun, as well as informative. I don’t always agree with his critical judgments, but then why should I necessarily? What he has to say about painters is always worthwhile reading, and in this book one has the added delights of artistic gossip, from his appropriately surreal encounters with Salvador Dali in Spain to his loyal friendship with Anthony Blunt in London and his love-hate relationship with his live-in mother in her final decrepitude. As those who have read extracts of either volume of his memoirs will already know there is plenty of graphic descripion of casual homosexual encounters, from the old guards barracks at Hyde Park to the village boys of Turkey. But if Sewell, like Oscar Wilde, had his feet firmly in gutter he also has his eyes on the stars.

Quartet, £25

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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.

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In Memoriam Francis King

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 7th July, 2011

Francis King, who died at the weekend, was my oldest friend and closest confidant. In the 35 years or so that we knew each other we shared not just our views on everything under the sun but also our innermost thoughts and fears. I suppose everyone has someone like that in their lives, or would like to. I first met Francis in Brussels, at the home of my honorary (not blood) grandmother, Edith Bisch, who wrote novels under the pen-name Edith De Born. When I later moved back to England, Francis helped me settle into literary London, particularly through the activities of English PEN, but also at the many lunch and dinner parties that he organised at his house in Kensington, which became a fixture of my social life for three decades. He had an eclectic group of friends and acquaintances and was extraordinarily welcoming to strangers who were visiting London and who had been given his name. He was also unstinting in the time he was prepared to give to reading unsolicited manuscripts — a degree of self-sacrifice that I found incomprehensible. Though a strong supporter of the Conservative Party, Francis was very liberal in most ways: a gentleman of the old school, in the best sense of the term.

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