Strong and not for­got­ten

De­spite mo­ments of grief and dis­may, Sir Roy’s latest vol­ume of di­aries is hap­pier than his last, says Michael Hall

Country Life Every Week - - Books -

(Wei­den­feld & Ni­col­son, £25)

SIr roy Strong’s pre­vi­ous vol­ume of di­aries is so firmly im­printed on my mem­ory that I’d for­got­ten it came out as long ago as 1997. Cov­er­ing the years 1967 to 1987, it was a sharp self-por­trait of a cul­tural leader at the cen­tre of metropoli­tan life, as di­rec­tor of first the Na­tional Por­trait gallery and then the V&a. this new vol­ume be­gins just after he has—with re­lief—quit the V&a for life as a free­lancer in the coun­try, earn­ing his money from tele­vi­sion, books and jour­nal­ism—not least for Coun­try Life.

Like ev­ery­one in his sit­u­a­tion, Sir roy frets about dead­lines and find­ing enough money to pay the next tax bill, but, com­pared to the last vol­ume, which was eye-open­ingly frank about the mis­eries of run­ning a ma­jor mu­seum, this is a happy book. although it en­com­passes tragedy—the mur­der of his friend gianni Ver­sace—and con­cludes in grief, with the death from can­cer of his wife, Ju­lia trevelyan oman, it is, in essence, a por­trait of emo­tional and cre­ative ful­fil­ment, in mar­riage, friend­ships, work and, in par­tic­u­lar, the cel­e­brated gar­den that he and his wife cre­ated at their here­ford­shire home, the Las­kett.

Sir roy tells us that he of­ten didn’t keep a daily diary, but would write up events that seemed to him wor­thy of record. as a re­sult, there are some splen­did set-piece de­scrip­tions of oc­ca­sions rang­ing from El­ton John’s 50thbirth­day party (‘like an over­grown school­boy dressed as Prince Charm­ing at the ball’) to a con­cert for the Queen Mother at Buck­ing­ham Palace (‘any sense of style and much else seems to have left the place’).

there is plenty of com­edy, of­ten at Sir roy’s ex­pense: when he sits for a por­trait by Lord Snowdon, the re­sult ‘was a cross be­tween heath­cliff and a rent boy in old age, but, as tony said, “there’s the cover for your next book”’. there’s a very funny ac­count of en­ter­tain­ing the ir­re­deemably ur­ban antonia Fraser and harold Pin­ter at the Las­kett—their ‘Mercedes was iced up so Ju­lia went to the garage and brought back her plas­tic scraper. harold stood and looked on as Ju­lia cleaned the win­dows and then, when she’d fin­ished, stepped for­ward and said: “you’ve missed that bit.” Exit Pin­ters’.

gar­dens and gar­den­ers fea­ture promi­nently—susana Wal­ton at La Mortella, Ian hamil­ton Fin­lay at Lit­tle Sparta and rose­mary Verey’s 80th-birth­day party are high­lights. Some­times the ar­ray of names is dizzy­ing: boldly, Sir roy has dis­pensed with footnotes, re­ly­ing in­stead on a (less than com­pre­hen­sive) list of char­ac­ters at the back of the book. at first, I was dis­con­certed, but the ab­sence of notes keeps the book buoyant and easy to read.

there is shadow as well as sun­shine in the gar­den. Sir roy is dis­mayed by the Bri­tish po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment’s in­dif­fer­ence to her­itage, which de­vel­ops an ag­gres­sive edge after the Labour land­slide of 1997. By the time of the 2001 gen­eral Elec­tion, he has come to de­test New Labour: ‘I loathe their de­ri­sion of the monar­chy, Church, law, of any an­cient es­tab­lished in­sti­tu­tion or tra­di­tion.’ that ex­plains why his ma­jor books of the pe­riod, no­tably The Story of Bri­tain, have such a strong po­lit­i­cal agenda.

Sir roy’s lib­eral an­glo-catholic faith is cen­tral to his life and, in 2000, he was made high Bailiff and Searcher of the Sanc­tu­ary at West­min­ster abbey. this gave him an of­fi­cial place at many of the great royal cer­e­monies of the past 15 years, in­clud­ing the ‘ex­traor­di­nary and very mov­ing’ ly­ing-in-state and fu­neral of his old friend the Queen Mother in 2002.

the year be­fore, the royal Maundy had been dis­trib­uted at the abbey: ‘It brought tears to my eyes. the an­cient prayers made me re­alise that these must have been used for cen­turies. glo­ri­ana her­self must have heard them.’ No­body but Sir roy could have writ­ten that and I fer­vently hope that he doesn’t keep us wait­ing another 20 years for the next in­stal­ment.

Sir Roy Strong (cen­tre) wear­ing his robes as High Bailiff and Searcher of the Sanc­tu­ary

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.