I Once Met An­thony Pow­ell Christo­pher Matthew

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - By CHRISTO­PHER MATTHEW

FEW PEO­PLE can have de­voted more time, care and en­thu­si­asm to dec­o­rat­ing a loo than An­thony Pow­ell. So proud was he of the one in the base­ment of his Re­gency house, the Chantry, in deep­est Som­er­set that he took me down there to see it. One of the most elab­o­rate col­lages I have ever en­coun­tered cov­ered not only the walls and the ceil­ing, but even the wa­ter pipes.

‘There’s Jilly Cooper. Vidia Naipaul. John Bet­je­man. Cyril Con­nolly. Harold Ac­ton … It started off in a se­ries of short bursts, but then I de­cided it wouldn’t do me harm to stretch my legs. I’m al­ways com­ing down and adding some­body.’

Wash­ing my hands be­fore lunch, I felt as though I were par­tic­i­pat­ing in one of those games in which con­tes­tants are re­quired to look at a num­ber of ob­jects on a tray, and then try to re­call as many as pos­si­ble. Lunch was al­ready on the ta­ble and by the time I ar­rived, my score had shrunk to a pa­thetic two – Sophia Loren and Nancy Cu­nard.

Read­ing Pow­ell’s me­moirs many years later, I was struck by his de­scrip­tion of the care with which he chose good wines for his more dis­tin­guished guests. ‘Vin ex­ceed­ingly or­di­naire, I’m afraid,’ he drawled as he tipped rosé from a jug, while his wife, Lady Vi­o­let, a sis­ter of the Earl of Long­ford, served chicken casse­role. As a hack – al­beit from the Ob­server Mag­a­zine, there to puff the eleventh of his ‘Dance to the Mu­sic of Time’ nov­els – I prob­a­bly ranked as a trades­man.

Sev­eral of Pow­ell’s an­ces­tors gazed at each other from heavy frames in the draw­ing-room. The place of hon­our was oc­cu­pied by a hand­some young man in daz­zling uni­form. ‘He’s very hand­some,’ I said. ‘A young Duke of Welling­ton,’ he said. ‘He’s one of Vi­o­let’s rel­a­tives.’

It wasn’t un­til af­ter lunch that we got down to the in­ter­view. Pow­ell lay back on a chaise-longue and talked. About writ­ing. ‘I type out thirty words, then I turn the thirty into fifty, the fifty into eighty and so on, go­ing back over it again and again. It’s ap­pallingly hard work. It would be idle to pre­tend it isn’t.’

About par­ties. ‘In the late Twen­ties there was a boat called the Friend­ship which was moored down by the Thames where a lot of them took place. They con­sisted of a cu­ri­ously in­co­her­ent group of peo­ple. I mean, at one end of the scale there’d be quite smart types. Diana-cooper­ish sort of fig­ures and so on. And then there’d al­ways be a lot of th­ese girls who were liv­ing on the mar­gin – you know, they’d do a lit­tle mod­el­ling; at the same they weren’t quite tarts, but they were be­ing half kept. And then it would tail off into the queer, al­most crim­i­nal world – les­bians dressed as ad­mi­rals, you know, that sort of thing.’

About writ­ing for money. ‘Ian Flem­ing did. I re­mem­ber him telling me years ago that he was go­ing to write a best­seller, and he did. But on the whole I don’t think it’s any good wor­ry­ing about the money if one’s go­ing to write.’

About hav­ing know-how and in­side in­for­ma­tion: ‘The thing is, writ­ing is this odd, in­de­fin­able thing called art, and it takes an artist to make sense of the ma­te­rial avail­able. I mean, if you want some­one to write about sex you’d do bet­ter to ask some hack writer rather than some­one who’s had it, if you see what I mean.’

He ap­peared gen­uinely in­ter­ested in ap­par­ently triv­ial items of in­for­ma­tion. ‘Oh re­ally? How fas­ci­nat­ing that you should live in Prince of Wales Drive. Al­most ev­ery­one one meets seems to have lived there at one time or an­other. Which Man­sions are you?’

It was only as I drove off that I re­alised he had barely men­tioned his own nov­els, let alone the one I had come to in­ter­view him about. He had to­tally dis­armed me, and left me wor­ry­ingly short-changed.

The next day I tele­phoned him to say I didn’t think either of us had done our­selves jus­tice as far as his new book was con­cerned. ‘Oh do you think so?’ he said. ‘Come down again as soon as you like and we’ll fill in the gaps.’ Which I did. The con­ver­sa­tion was sim­i­larly en­ter­tain­ing, but the wine was just as or­di­naire.

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