Lithograph by Charles Keeping for ‘The Mezzotint’ from the 1972 Folio edition of M.R. James Ghost Stories.

The whispering in my house was more persistent tonight.’ – from The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral by M.R. James.

I used to live in a haunted house. Apparently. I never experienced anything. It was a tall, narrow house in Brockley, that much-bombed hinterland where London begins its slow creep into Kent. Friends and lodgers told me – independently – that they were spooked by a spot on the lower ground floor, a location that they described as ‘sad’ or ‘cold’. It was at the bottom of a staircase that descended from the hall to the kitchen, and one friend told me that, one night, when ascending to the hallway after a helping himself to another glass of wine from the fridge, he had a sensation as if something was trying to catch his foot on his way up the stairs. But I never felt anything like that. I do have queasy memories of encountering rodents down there in the middle of the night – and, on more than one occasion, weeping girlfriends belonging to one particular lodger – but nothing that falls into the purlieu of the uncanny. In fact, I have never had any experiences that would qualify as an engagement with the inexplicable. I would describe myself as an atheist who doesn’t believe in ghosts; perhaps that’s why I am so interested to hear stories from those who have stories to tell.

One of the people who noticed the eeriness at the bottom of my staircase was my then girlfriend, who has an impressive array of unsettling sightings to recount. One of these, ironically, also occurred in Brockley, twenty years beforehand, in another Victorian terraced house in one of the streets that swarm over Telegraph Hill. My ex (Katy) had been staying over after a party, sleeping on a small sofa in a room off the kitchen. Around three-ish – the North Pole of any given 24-hour period – she awoke to see a greenish shape in a corner of the room. The shape had the appearance of an emaciated woman and it was moving with a repetitive urgency. Katy describes it as resembling someone ironing clothes, but with in a manner that suggested rage: and the effect was that of malevolence. As she watched the shape grew larger but more diffuse, until it evaporated in a sort of haze. What is especially interesting is the connection between the activity the apparition seemed to suggest – laundry drudgery – and the location of the sighting: Katy was sleeping in what would have been the scullery. The next morning, Katy mentioned it to her host who blithely said, ‘Oh other people say they’ve seen that.’ She, like myself, clearly had not.

One of the most vivid stories of this type I ever heard was from a TV producer I met just once, at his office. (It is usually my experience to meet TV producers only once; but a brightly-lit media suite is the last place one would expect to hear an unnerving story.) A club in Shoreditch was the setting for this one: a large Victorian pub converted into a throbbing gay nightspot. The dance floor was in a large cellar that was always cold, resisting all attempts to raise the temperature. The landlord’s dog wouldn’t go down there, obviously. The person telling this tale had worked there as a barman whilst at college, so he was obliged to spend time in the basement. He said that on one occasion he heard, very distinctly, very close to his ear, a voice saying: ‘This one’s not afraid to be down here on his own.’ On another occasion, he went down to set up for the evening’s rave, got half-way down the stairs, switched on the light and, for a split second, saw a dance floor filled with faces staring up at him. One night a distressed clubber collared bar staff because he’d followed a man into the gents only to see his quarry disappear into a blank wall. As the chap telling the story dryly noted, ‘On some nights you weren’t sure how many punters down there were dead or alive.’ (I should point out, however, that the detail about the disembodied voice in someone’s ear appears to be straight out of the M.R. James story quoted at the top of the page.)

Interestingly, many of the stories I’ve heard have been told by people who were recounting an episode from their youth, or from a time of deep personal trauma. My younger sister recalls an incident from her teens, on a summer afternoon in our parents’ house in the Surrey hills. Dozing on a sofa in the heat of a hot day, she awoke to see what she described as a lilac cloud emerge from a doorway and move across the room before disappearing into a wall. My brother described an experience he had in the same house: in his case, he was woken in the middle of the night by sounds of a cocktail party coming from downstairs. He went down and stood outside the closed door to the drawing room (the same room where my sister’s cloud materialised) and listened to the sounds of a jolly party coming from within: the tinkling of glasses, a buzz of conversation, polite laughter … He steeled himself and opened the door; the room was, of course, empty. Both those stories may be no more than waking dreams; we’ve all had those. But a friend told me a more unsettling story. She had just moved to the UK from Ireland and was trying to make a life for herself in London; and her first job, weirdly, was as a security guard. Her initial assignment was to spend an afternoon guarding a deserted maternity hospital near Archway; and during her shift she became increasingly convinced that there was a presence following her on her patrols of the building. It turned out that every security guard got the creeps working that shift, and she’d been lumbered with it because she was a newbie. (This story that came to mind when watching the recent British film Ghost Stories, which contained an episode so close to my friend’s anecdote that I wondered if the film-makers had heard it directly from her.) Another person I know had some distressing and inexplicable experiences that coincided with a very traumatic episode in her life; but she still finds it hard to revisit that period so I have decided not to include her story here. In any case, it’s the one story of its kind that I am wary of recounting; and I don’t even believe in ghosts.

The sequel to this may perhaps be reckoned highly conventional; but a sequel there is and so it must be produced.’ (M.R.James: A School Story.)

Regarding my old house, I later learned that it suffered bombing in WW2. The admirable site Flying Bombs And Rockets details all the bombsites in the greater London area, and it transpires that my street in Brockley had been hit by a V1 rocket in 1944. It totally demolished six houses, damaged a further forty-five houses and killed nine people. My house was clearly the one they could save: it was the last house in the Victorian terrace but had not been designed as such, and was conspicuously shored up with post-war concrete. I am not, as a rule, a superstitious person – but my sister’s comment about feeling that there was someone ‘trapped’ at the bottom of my staircase is too suggestive for comfort. And I don’t believe in ghosts.

All Yesterday’s Parties

Bright Young Things and the proletariat: Elizabeth Ponsonby fourth from left, Cecil Beaton with pneumatic drill, next to Cyril Connolly.

‘It was an age of ‘parties’. There were ‘white’ parties in which we shot down to the country in fleets of cars, dressed in white from head to foot, and danced on a white floor lid in the orchard, with the moonlight turning all the apples to silver, and then – in a pale pink dawn – playing races with champagne corks on the surface of the stream. There were Mozart parties in which, powdered and peruked,  we danced by candlelight and then – suddenly bored – rushed out into the street to join a gang excavating the gas mains at Hyde Park Corner. There were swimming parties where, at midnight, we descended on some municipal baths, hired for the occasion, and disported ourselves with an abandon that was all the fiercer because we knew that the press was watching – and watching with a very disapproving eye.’ Beverley Nichols, All I Could Never Be (1949)

The Bright Young People were a phenomenon of the 1920s: well-connected if not actually aristocratic, sometimes rich, usually spoilt and occasionally stupid, they came to characterise the frivolity of the decade and have the capacity to irritate even at this distance. Treasure hunts, scavenger hunts, elaborate dressing up, themed parties, the affected speech (‘too sick-making’, etc.) were guaranteed to invoke the displeasure of their elders in proportion to the number of newspaper columns they filled. In many ways, their behaviour was an understandable reaction to the black-edged aftermath of the 1st World War, the assertion by a generation too young to have experienced hostilities that there was more to life than endless grief. And their coverage in the popular press was mostly indulgent – to begin with at any rate. They were good copy. They are also credited with inventing an important social innovation: the bottle party. (This is said to have been introduced by Loelia Ponsonby in 1926, the novelist Michael Arlen duly turning up with twelve bottles of pink champagne.)

The group are remembered mainly because their ‘antics’ fed into the early novels of Evelyn Waugh, and also those by Anthony Powell and Henry Green – none of whom were members of the set but detached, ironic observers. Other associated with the group included the historian Robert Byron and the artist Rex Whistler; and some in their orbit achieved success and social advancement by association. Cecil Beaton and William Walton both benefited by having their names on certain invitation lists. But the core ‘Brights’ seem to have been full-time party-goers. These include Brian Howard, acid wit, alcoholic and under-achiever; Stephen Tennant, aesthete, would-be novelist and lover of Siegfred Sassoon; and, of course, the fabled Mitford sisters, chiefly Nancy, who occasionally wrote novels, and the breathtakingly beautiful Diana, who ended up married to fascist leader Oswald Mosley. All of these individuals turn up as characters in Waugh’s novels, the exotic Stephen Tennant cited as one of several models for Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited

The Impersonation Party, 1927: the Right Hon. Stephen Tennant as Queen Mary of Romania, seated left, Brian Howard in drag, standing next to Elizabeth Ponsonby and Cecil Beaton, Harold Acton kneeling below, Tallulah Bankhead in tennis gear front, etc.

One of the the most significant of the multitude of parties was David Tennant’s Mozart party, 29 April 1930, a do that was reckoned to have cost £3,000. David Tennant, brother of Stephen and son of the first Lord Glenconner, would now be described as a ‘scenester’, a man who had a feel for the times derived from impeccable connections and a fair bit of old money. Tennant was married to the young ‘queen of revue’, Hermione Gingold, and was founder and proprietor of the Gargoyle Club, a nightclub and cultural hothouse that lasted in Soho from the early twenties to the mid-fifties. Tennant  co-opted the defiance and costume of Don Giovanni by giving himself a lavish birthday party after returning from Canada in the wake of a business failure. Taking place just a few months after the Wall Street Crash, this entertainment was held within a chamber adorned with antique furniture and accessories, with music played by an orchestra decked out, like the five hundred attendees, in formal 18th century get-up (and conducted by the young John Barbirolli, no less). While the host appeared as Mozart’s dark anti-hero, another guest masqueraded as Beau Brummel with the original Brummel’s own cane as a prop. The climax of the evening was a surreal and ominous encounter as a group of party-goers emerged into Piccadilly and were photographed next to a group of workmen digging up the street. Amongst the revellers in the costume of the ancien regime posing next to bemused labourers were Cyril Connolly, Cecil Beaton and the most quintessentially bright of all the bright young people, Elizabeth Ponsonby.

Elizabeth Ponsonby, daughter of the Labour MP Arthur Ponsonby seems to have been the group’s lynchpin in their 1920s heyday. She was one of the sponsors of the famous ‘Bath and Bottle’ party in July 1928, at St.George’s Baths, Buckingham Palace Rd., where guests were instructed to wear a bathing suit and bring a bottle and a towel. Unlike some of the set, Elizabeth never wanted to do anything other than go drinking and partying; but she lacked the financial reserves to truly sustain a life of aristocratic frivolity. She was always good copy, turns up as ‘Agatha Runcible’ in Vile Bodies, lived cheerfully beyond her means – also the means of both her baffled husband and her long-suffering father. Elizabeth achieved apotheosis in tragedy, an event that also marked the end of the Bright Young era. This was a ‘White Party’ (everything painted white, white dress, etc.) held at a country house in Faversham, Kent, on a Saturday night in July 1931. Elizabeth went on her own, her increasingly exasperated husband Denis refusing to attend. At the party, Elizabeth found herself the object of affection of two men, both of whom seem to have had long-standing designs on her. A dance- floor quarrel ensued and events quickly escalated. Some time around 5 a.m., Elizabeth and one of her admirers drove off in a car that belonged to her other admirer, who then gave furious chase in a commandeered lorry. Unsurprisingly, this chase through Kentish lanes ended in disaster, as Elizabeth’s car skidded and overturned. Elizabeth was able to crawl out of the window, but her companion was crushed beneath the vehicle and died at the scene, whilst her pursuer was arrested for drink driving. In his book on ‘the set’, D.J. Taylor pinpoints the coverage of the ensuing inquest as the end of the media phenomenon of the ‘ Brights’.

Elizabeth Ponsonby died of the effects of alcoholism in 1940, at the age of forty, in her rented flat in Jermyn Street, a few doors from the Cavendish Hotel, scene of so many twenties’ parties. A respectful obituary appeared in The Times: D.J. Taylor suggests that her grieving father wrote it himself. Evelyn Waugh died, successful but disillusioned and prematurely old, in 1964. David Tennant died in 1968, in Spain, where he had lived for many years; the same year, Hermione Gingold was in Hollywood and Cecil Beaton was photographing Mick Jagger on the set of Performance. (The National Portrait Gallery held a Beaton exhibition last year, centred on his early career, but this major show was cruelly curtailed by Covid-19.) Stephen Tennant became a recluse on his family’s estate and lived long enough to watch a version of himself being played on television by Anthony Andrews in the famous eighties ITV Brideshead (which must be a bit like being embalmed whilst still alive).

Further reading: Bright Young People, D.J. Taylor, Children of the Sun, Martin Green.

Stomping At The Savoy (Part Two)

The Savoy from the Embankment,1900; Claude Monet might or might not be standing on one of those balconies.

A few weeks ago I was going on about Savoy Palace, Savoy Chapel and Bob Dylan’s co-option of same as a location for a Modern Art statement. Of course, Dylan only chose that spot as he happened to be staying at the Savoy Hotel, so let’s wander over there now and see if they’ll give us a room …

The Savoy Hotel was built in 1889, an essay in cutting-edge Victorian hospitality: electric lighting, electric lifts, private balconies offering majestic views of the Thames (put to good use by Monet, who painted fog-shrouded Waterloo Bridge from his), Cesar Ritz as its first manager and Auguste Escoffier its first chef. An early and enthusiastic patron was Oscar Wilde, who proceeded to run up large bills entertaining the likes of Bosie Douglas and an assortment of rent boys, several of which testified against Wilde at his trial for indecency. At Oscar Wilde’s first trial, the following exchange took place between prosecution witness Charles Parker and prosecutor Charles Gill:

PARKER: Subsequently Wilde said to me. ‘This is the boy for me! Will you go to the Savoy Hotel with me?’ I consented, and Wilde drove me in a cab to the hotel. Only he and I went, leaving my brother and Taylor behind. At the Savoy we went first to Wilde’s sitting room on the second floor.

GILL: More drink was offered you there?

PARKER: Yes, we had liqueurs. Wilde then asked me to go into his bedroom with him.

Another prosecution witness was the Savoy’s own ‘professor of massage’, who testified that he saw a boy sleeping in Wilde’s bed as the dramatist was dressing, and a former chambermaid who described sinister stains on the bedlinen. Thirty years after Oscar and Bosie scandalized Victorian society by hustling rent boys in and out of the hotel, there was another Savoy scandal in 1923 when one Marguerite Fahmy killed her husband, an alleged Egyptian prince. This was a quintessentially Twenties murder case, ticking all the right boxes: mysterious royalty, money, a good-looking victim, a doe-eyed murderess, bisexuality, sodomy, dance band music, all sprinkled with a generous dose of racism. The crime fed the English public’s fascination with/suspicion of all things ‘oriental’. Marguerite was put on trial at the Old Bailey where she was defended by Edward Marshall Hall, one of the great advocates of the era. Her defence was that her husband had pestered her for ‘unnatural’ sexual relations, so she shot him. Feeding the jury’s prejudices, Marshall Hall loaded his summation with racist tropes and portrayed his client as practically a victim of the white slave trade .Marguerite was duly acquitted, and there were official complaints from Egypt regarding Marshall-Hall’s astonishingly racist closing statement. Marguerite went back to Paris where she was seen, less charitably but perhaps more accurately, as a high- class escort who’d conned and killed a gullible young man. Whatever the truth, she didn’t inherit any of the prince’s money and lingered on as an exotic Parisian recluse, finally expiring in 1971.

Mr. and Mrs. Charles Chaplin atop the Savoy.

Other 20th century guests included Fred Astaire, who danced on the hotel’s roof, Marlene Dietrich, John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, etc., etc. Personally, I’m most intrigued by Charlie Chaplin’s fondness for the hotel. Chaplin seems to have taken a particular satisfaction in revisiting the locations of his deprived childhood. The photo above shows Chaplin and his implausibly young wife Oona* on the roof of the Savoy at some point in the 1950s, the grand old man of cinema pointing south, presumably dilating upon the haunts of his youth. In Hollywood, Chaplin refashioned traumatic events from his deprived boyhood landscape (his early films featured detailed recreations of ghastly rooms in Kennington and Brixton, rooms he had lived with his alcoholic mother) and created cinema’s first global hero. When he returned to London as world-conquering star, Chaplin based himself at the Savoy and liked to venture, incognito, into south London, then a land of poverty and bomb-damage. But Chaplin would run for cover if recognised; he once ended up catching a boat from Embankment Pier to Greenwich to escape a pursuing crowd, only to find that they’d all got on the next boat to follow him downriver.

[* Perhaps a bit off-topic, but Oona was the daughter of American playwright Eugene O’Neill, who was very unhappy about her marriage to Chaplin. Also unhappy was the young J.D. Salinger, who had once courted Oona and who referred to the 54 year old Chaplin as ‘an old prostate gland’. After Oona married Chaplin (in 1943, when Oona was just 18), Salinger conjured an image of their marital life that is so repulsive that I can’t resist quoting it: ‘I can see them at home evenings. Chaplin squatting grey and nude, atop his chiffonier, swinging his thyroid around his head by his bamboo cane, like a dead rat. Oona in an aquamarine gown, applauding madly from the bathroom.’]

The Savoy is a shrine for cocktail fanciers, its place in drinking history assured by Harry Craddock‘s 1930 masterpiece The Savoy Cocktail Book. Craddock learnt his trade as a barman in the US, returning to England at the start of Prohibition and assuming control of The American Bar at the Savoy. Craddock is credited with inventing a number of cocktails and ‘codifying’ the recipe for the classic dry martini. A later barman, Joe Gilmore, became known for creating ‘event’ cocktails in honour of visiting toffs. One Gilmore original is the ‘Missouri Mule’, consisting of bourbon + Campari + Cointreau + Applejack + lemon juice. That concoction was invented in honour of Harry S. Truman. What effect this beverage had on the Anglo-American Special Relationship is unrecorded. Rather poignantly, he also came up with a cocktail to commemorate Britain’s entry to the Common Market – which of course became the European Union – in 1973. This calls for equal measures of ingredients from all member states, so you’ve got Cherry Brandy (Denmark), Noilly Prat (France), Orange Curacao (Netherlands), Dry White Wine (Luxembourg), Coffee Liqueur (Ireland), Carpano (Italy), Schlichte (West Germany), something called Elixir d’Anu from Belgium, and Sloe gin (Britain), all shaken with ice, strained into a cocktail glass, and thrown in Dominic Cummings’s face.

Portrait of Harry Craddock from The Savoy Cocktail Book 1st edition.