Magazine article The Spectator

Keeping the Old Flag Flying

Magazine article The Spectator

Keeping the Old Flag Flying

Article excerpt

OSBERT SITWELL by Philip Ziegler

Chatto, 25, pp. 460

A first glance at this volume strikes one or two ominous notes. On both jacket and spine the biographer is the star, his name twice the size of his subject, whom the blurb darkly describes as `never dull'. In the acknowledgments the book's origin is ascribed to Sir Stephen Tumim, who judiciously wondered in Ziegler's hearing why Sir Osbert was the only one of the three Sitwells never to have been accorded by the bio-industry a full-length life. At once one suspects a murky reason, such as tedium. But known as a biographer for putting the best case for difficult men, Mountbatten and Edward VIII among them, Ziegler at once determined to click the missing panel into the Sitwell triptych. Nowhere does he offer further explanation for devoting a span of his maturity to a man whom he presents, or who here without mercy presents himself, as one of the 20th century's titanic bores.

We have to take for granted Osbert's charm, that most incommunicable of human allures. There was evidently lots of it, as when he said politely to a Jewish lady who had got his goat, `Would you like a cup of tea or some vinegar on a sponge?' But the real vestiges of his sweetness that survive in these pages are soured by his quarrels. Stimulated by his father - Sir George is the anti-hero of the five-volume hymn of hate/love that is his son's elegant autobiography - an appetite for pettiness kept eating into Osbert's brains. Siegfried Sassoon was dismissed for a slight, Michael Arlen was `that horrible little Armenian', J. C. Squire thrust into oblivion for giving him a poor review, not to mention Freud Maddox Fraud, niftily renamed by Osbert for some passing crudity. In a 1923 sketch Noel Coward called the family the Whittlebots and only after the second world war did Osbert shake the Master's hand, but by mistake, on an ill-lit staircase at Buckingham Palace.

This is serious loathing, corrupting (and amusing) only the loather (if not us). No wonder T. S. Eliot, in a letter to Pound, forgot himself so far as to insert a rogue aspirate into the Sitwell name. Meanwhile all modern literature was sat upon by Osbert. Without even knowing that Huxley called his family the Shufflebottoms, he never forgave Aldous for putting him in disguise into a story. D. H. Lawrence was eternally detested for casting him as Sir Clifford, scribbling husband of Lady Chatterley, whose short stories were `clever, rather spiteful, and yet, in some mysterious way, meaningless', a judgment of Sitwell's own work in most genres -- stories, poems, novels, essays -- which, between Ziegler's lines, holds to this day. This man `of princely apartness', as John Lehmann described him, had a talent for getting on the wrong side of other people's genius.

Early self-hype set his generation against him. `They were amiable amateurs playing at being revolutionaries,' comments Ziegler on the Sitwell trio, and that charge irked Osbert through a life increasingly haunted by ill-health and lack of luck in love or work. Without royalties, there was only royalty, which he venerated to excess, hitting it off a treat with the present Queen Mother. `Here we are, back at the old business,' she wrote to him jollily in 1937, `buckling to, doing our best, keeping the old Flag flying hoorah. …

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