Juliet Ni­col­son re­mem­bers her time as a re­luc­tant debu­tante, at­tend­ing din­ners and dances, boat­ing and balls, be­fore anar­chy took hold and changed the Sea­son for ever

Town & Country (UK) - - CONTENTS — SUMMER 2018 - Juliet Ni­col­son

re­calls the heady days of debu­tante balls and sub­ver­sive so­cial change

The Sea­son was once con­fined to the months when Queen Elizabeth I’s court came to Lon­don for the sum­mer. How­ever, by the early 20th cen­tury, high so­ci­ety’s cel­e­bra­tory time of year had be­come sporty, spilling into spring and au­tumn in or­der to in­cor­po­rate the plea­sures of ski­ing, shoot­ing and horse-rac­ing. But sport and par­ties merely formed the frame­work for what had be­come a mar­riage fo­rum in which aris­to­cratic girls were paired up with aris­to­cratic men and a blue-blooded fu­ture was safe­guarded for an­other gen­er­a­tion. The Queen’s de­ci­sion in 1958 to abol­ish the for­mal pre­sen­ta­tion at court of all girls on the look­out for a high-born hus­band had de­moted the re­gal grandeur of the af­fair. Two years later, vir­gin­ity, once the lead­ing qual­i­fi­ca­tion for a prop­erly el­i­gi­ble nice girl, was dealt a ham­mer blow by the con­tra­cep­tive pill.

How­ever, in the 1970s a less tiara-en­crusted ver­sion of the Sea­son en­dured un­der the pa­tron­age of Tatler’s so­cial edi­tor Peter Tow­nend, keeper of a con­fi­den­tial list of el­i­gi­ble males, and an en­thu­si­as­tic au­thor­ity on fine wine; and Betty Ken­ward, the for­mi­da­ble au­thor of Jennifer’s Diary in Harpers & Queen, her bouf­fant hair en­hanced by a huge, un­miss­able vel­vet bow. Each Jan­uary, Peter wrote in turquoise ink to around 200 aris­to­cratic moth­ers to

in­vite their daugh­ters to join the year’s ‘List’ of debu­tantes. Re­fusals were rare. Most had been iden­ti­fied for in­clu­sion since birth. As soon as the List was com­plete the elab­o­rate pair­ing-up rit­ual be­gan. Fe­bru­ary lunch par­ties were given by the grand­est ma­tri­archs in or­der for other moth­ers to meet each other and, un­der the guise of a shared plover’s egg and po­lite chat, pre­tend that they weren’t com­pet­ing on their daugh­ters’ be­half for the lead­ing ‘debs’ de­lights’, and es­pe­cially the hand­ful of gold-dust dukes.

My mother had long had her eye on a slot on the List for me. I’d never wanted to ‘Come Out’. I was a just-grad­u­ated board­ing-school girl, a non­smoker with tomb­stone teeth, fine hair that hadn’t a hope of staying up be­neath a tiara and a large hered­i­tary nose that spoiled the sym­me­try of pho­to­graphs in pro­file. But my mother had been a debu­tante in the 1940s and wanted her el­der daugh­ter to be launched into so­ci­ety with all chances of land­ing a big catch. Re­luc­tantly I sub­mit­ted to her en­tice­ment that it would be ‘fun’, as she over­ruled my protests that I would si­mul­ta­ne­ously be study­ing for three A lev­els. I would be danc­ing the night away, she ca­joled, with some fright­fully nice new friends. And she made a con­cil­ia­tory of­fer sug­gest­ing that in­stead of throw­ing me the de rigueur dance, the cash might be more prof­itably spent (in terms of at­tract­ing the right sort of mate) on a nose job. I suc­cumbed to the deb­bing, but de­spite be­ing friend­less, plumped for the party.

Then be­gan a year of see­saw anx­i­ety and ab­sur­dity, start­ing with Queen Char­lotte’s Ball, dur­ing which an elab­o­rate card­board cake on a slightly grubby lace­draped trolley was pulled along the Grosvenor House ball­room floor by the six prettiest debs all in Com­mu­nion white. The rest of us, clad as equal innocents, fol­lowed be­hind un­til, un­der our par­ents’ gaze, we dropped the cake a low curtsy. Dur­ing the day­time, dressed in a pair of denim dun­ga­rees, I crammed for my ex­ams, try­ing to mem­o­rise the dates of the Re­for­ma­tion, ex­hil­a­rated by the dis­cov­ery of TS Eliot, blessed to be taught by red­headed Pene­lope Fitzger­ald, years later a Booker Prize win­ner. Af­ter tak­ing the bus home, I would lie down with a ci­garette on the un­for­giv­ing linoleum of the bath­room floor, prac­tis­ing what I hoped was an el­e­gant in­hale­ex­hale tech­nique, dous­ing my­self in patchouli (the scent sug­ges­tive, I’d heard, of a hip­pie rebel) pulling on a flowery long dress from Valerie Goad’s shop in Chelsea and rac­ing out to the first of the evening’s events. All debs were word-per­fect to the Sea­son’s mu­si­cal back­drop of ‘Layla’, ‘Maggie May’ and ‘Amer­i­can Pie’ that ac­com­pa­nied the week­night se­quence of a cou­ple of cock­tail par­ties, a din­ner, a dance, cul­mi­nat­ing in a bop at Annabel’s night­club. At week­ends we stayed in smart houses for the coun­try dances, where the deca­dence of a Floris-scented, bath­time gin and tonic sym­bol­ised the apogee of so­phis­ti­ca­tion.

De­spite not be­ing a sporty per­son, I some­how man­aged to tick off the other day­time fixtures, fit­ting in es­says, re­vi­sion and ex­ams between rac­ing at Royal As­cot, boat­ing at Hen­ley, a cen­tre-court match at Wim­ble­don, cricket at Eton’s Fourth of June, sail­ing at Cowes and one hu­mil­i­at­ing day’s shoot­ing when the gold Biba gum­boots that had been wait­ing in my cup­board for a rainy day sparkled dis­tract­ingly among the pheas­ants.

Out­side the gilded, ex­clud­ing perime­ter of class, priv­i­lege and money, the year un­folded as one of po­lit­i­cal tur­moil. The ef­fects of the coal min­ers’ strikes smoul­dered through­out the early months, IRA bombs de­stroyed lives for some and fu­tures for oth­ers. And life moved for­ward: the UK’S first gaypride march took place, Je­sus Christ be­came a mu­si­cal superstar on stage and the Queen’s un­cle, a King only for a few months be­fore ab­di­cat­ing for the love of an Amer­i­can di­vor­cée, died that May.

The fol­low­ing year I was 18, in love and on my way to read English at Ox­ford, but not be­fore at­tend­ing Queen Char­lotte’s Ball once again, help­ing my un­d­u­cal DJ boyfriend to op­er­ate the turnta­bles in the ball­room gallery. Be­low me as the cake be­gan its jour­ney across the par­quet, a chunk of card­board ic­ing fell to the floor and a well­built girl emerged from be­neath the lace trolley, run­ning stark naked the length of the room. As Peter Tow­nend helped him­self to a restora­tive glass of cham­pagne and Betty Ken­wood’s vel­vet bow shook in hor­ror, deb life was never quite the same again. Over ac­cu­sa­tions of ‘louch­eness’, Queen Char­lotte’s cel­e­bra­tion was aban­doned for the fore­see­able fu­ture in 1976. And debs were de­lighted to be free to fall in love with who­ever they chose.

Juliet Ni­col­son pho­tographed by Ce­cil Beaton in 1971

Above: Queen Char­lotte’s Ball in 1967. Left: the ball’s 1952 pro­gramme

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