Summer 2021 had a slightly end-of-hostilities feel to it, a sort of weary ‘is it all over yet?‘ aspect. Your correspondent was ‘pinged’ by the NHS app and had to self-isolate for a week, cutting out a quarter of August right there. This left me feeling even more bored and bilious than usual, surveying London from my 6th floor eyrie at Drinker’s Towers like J.J. Hunsecker surveying New York in Sweet Smell Of Success. Fortunately, August had a chance to redeem itself by way of an invite to a country house part in north Norfolk, an annual gathering that skipped 2020 due to Covid. This bash has been a calendar date for some of us for almost twenty years, an opportunity to gather to celebrate the birthday of our cult’s high priest, the one they call ‘Big Chris’. (The slightly ritualistic tone of the proceedings may be discerned from the photos on this page: Peter’s Friends it is not).
North Norfolk isn’t that far from London, it’s hardly like going to Cornwall or Scotland, yet there is a sensation of arriving in a different time zone, a different era even, when you alight from your car. Joseph Losey’s 1971 film of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between was filmed hereabouts, and the sense of suspended time central to that project is still palpable in a landscape little changed since 1900 – except for the odd supermarket or car dealership, and the procession of holiday 4x4s en route to the coast. And it seems that L.P.Hartley’s own model for the house in The Go-Between was Bradenham Hall, some twenty miles south of our party retreat. And Chris’s party always takes place in the same venue: a majestic Victorian mansion with Tudor underpinnings (not to mention a John Soane connection) laid out with formal precision in rich farmland. It is grand yet welcoming, imposing but intimate, an ideal setting for human comedy in all forms.
Meeting many of the participants for the first time in two years was joyous but sobering: was it me or were there a few more grey hairs this year? There were late nights, certainly, but I missed my usual quota, passing out after dinner with alarming frequency. And Chris, a party animal fashioned from titanium, actually went to bed early one night, a development that shocked some of us to the core. And the children have all vanished, replaced by young adults capable of intelligent conversation who made considerate enquiries about one’s welfare (‘How’s the foot?’) and discussed the subjects they were about to study at university. Considering that some of them have been attending the party since they were toddlers, this was hugely significant in itself. This obliges me to quote The Go-Between‘s famous opening line: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.‘ Poignantly true, although it is hard to take this sentiment too much to heart when one is spending an afternoon in the company of a man dressed as Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica. But the most telling moment was on the last afternoon, bank holiday Monday, when Chris and a quartet of grizzled gentlemen sampled a bottle of Mersault that the birthday boy had received from the owner of the house. Amidst the tide of cider and lager and catering Prosecco, this was a moment of reflective drinking that – perhaps – marked the dawning of late-onset maturity for all present. On the other hand, maybe we were just humbled in the presence of a fifty quid bottle of wine.
So apart from the geographical connection to The Go-Between, similarities end there. Hartley’s book is, after all, a study in repression and Victorian class strictures, and one is bound to wonder what he would have made of a country house party in 2021, with a group of non-aristocrats taking over a country pile, dressing up as their favourite album covers, and then getting pissed under the stars. (I fear old L.P. would have been appalled: he didn’t really do groovy or louche.) There may have been signs of advancing age, but there wasn’t much repression on show. And there wasn’t any bitterness either, the sort of corrosive waspishness that you read about in accounts of the ‘Bright Young People‘ and their parties of the 1920s; this lot were just happy to be there, grateful to be able to do something as simple as spend time with old friends or friends you’ve just made. That is always a joy, no matter what the state of your liver might be. And now it’s back to London, back to school, just as we get an Indian summer that has no business showing up now … but there is a bit of Norfolk that is forever Walthamstow. As L.P. Hartley said so memorably: ‘A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous. Got me?’