The Sunday Telegraph
November 22 2015
Alan Titchmarsh: I have found something to fill the Downton Abbey gap
With Downton Abbey to make just one final appearance atChristmas, a chap must look elsewhere for his early 20th-century fix. I have found mine in a captivating book called The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me.
It is written by Sofka Zinovieff and tells the story of the author, composer and aesthete Gerald Berners, his live-in lover – the “mad boy” of the title, Robert Heber-Percy – and Zinovieff’s grandmother, who was, for a while, married to Heber-Percy and who had a child by him, Zinovieff’s mother. It’s a complicated ménage, but a riveting one. Berners was an intriguing cove; a man who kept doves and dyed them all the colours of the rainbow just to make life brighter.
His house guests included the Mitfords and the Sitwells. He wrote novels and volumes of autobiography, and was a friend of Igor Stravinsky, who encouraged him in his musical composition. I found a CD of Berners’s The Triumph of Neptune, a suite of ballet music he composed for Diaghilev, which was choreographed in 1926 by George Balanchine. Many artistic paths diverge in this story of love and literature. It is lifted even further out of the ordinary by “the mad boy” and his predilection for riding naked through the grounds of Berners’s Oxfordshire estate at Faringdon.
It is a far cry from Downton and the sensibilities of Lady Violet, although every bit as dramatic in its mixture of literati and glitterati who crossed the threshold at Faringdon, from Alice B Toklas and Gertrude Stein, to David Niven and Cecil Beaton. The book itself is beautifully produced. It is weighty and printed on good-quality paper, and the illustrations bring the characters’ faces into sharp focus.
I love the story of Berners taking two weeks to be driven back to Blighty from Rome in his “false cabriolet” Rolls-Royce by his chauffeur William Crack, and the fact that he took a portable Dolmetsch clavichord decorated with flowers and butterflies to allow him to compose en route. Gerald Berners, who was 28 years older than Heber-Percy, died in 1950; Zinovieff’s grandfather (the mad boy) lived on at Faringdon until his death in 1987, aged 75.
Faringdon was left to her in his will. Every now and again one finds oneself immersed in a book that one does not want to end. This is one of them.
The lives of its characters are as far removed from my own as they could possibly be, but they are, none the less, joyful company on these damp autumn nights.
The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me, by Sofka Zinovieff, is available from the Telegraph Bookshop at £25, p&p free