Magazine article The Spectator

Darling Flufftail.Beloved Pinkpaws

Magazine article The Spectator

Darling Flufftail.Beloved Pinkpaws

Article excerpt

The correspondence between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy is good for celebrity-spotting but too cloyingly self-absorbed to be of wider interest says DJ Taylor.

The Animals: Love Letters Between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy edited by Katherine Bucknell Chatto, £25, pp. 481, ISBN 97870571241378 There is a fine old tradition of distinguished literary men addressing their loved ones by animal-world pet names. Evelyn Waugh saluted Laura Herbert, the woman who became his second wife, as 'Whiskers'. Philip Larkin's letters to his long-term girlfriend Monica Jones are full of Beatrix Potter-style references to the scrumptious carrots that his 'darling bun' will have unloaded on her plate at their next meeting should wicked Mr McGregor not get there first. Wanting to soften the blow of his sacking by the BBC Third Programme in the early 1950s, John Lehmann went off on holiday with an intimate known to posterity as 'the faun'. But none of this sentimentalising comes anywhere near in its effects to the torrent of effusiveness, personal mythologising and, it has to be said, downright archness uncorked by The Animals.

Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy met in California in February 1953 when Isherwood was in his mid-40s and Bachardy a stripling of 18. Their relationship endured - with intermissions - until Isherwood's death in 1986, and first turned epistolary in 1956 when Isherwood, thinking the privations of his mother's house in Cheshire too austere for an American tourist, left Barchardy behind in their London hotel. Later correspondence was prompted by Don's absences, sometimes abroad but on occasion in New York, furthering his career as a professional portraitist; the most interesting date from a period in the 1960s when, armed with his boyfriend's address book and a highly plausible manner, Don heads to London to study at the Slade while Christopher sits and frets in Santa Monica.

As for the nick-names adopted for these exchanges, Isherwood is 'old Dobbin', a sturdy and mostly indulgent carthorse, Barchardy 'Kitty', an affectionate but somewhat highly strung cat. Over the years these endearments undergo a certain amount of development ('Dear Longed-for Colt . . .

Dearest Catkin . . . Darling Nag . . . Darling Fur . . . Beloved Velvet Rump') but the emotional patterning remains, and Katherine Bucknell, the duo's resourceful editor, is keen to stress its therapeutic value. Isherwood, she explains in the course of a sympathetic introduction, 'believed their animal personae had a mythic power that would keep the relationship alive' by creating 'a world, a safe and separate milieu' in which the two, however detached by distance or temporary fracture, could jointly luxuriate.

There follows a terrific exercise in highcamp call and response. Old Dobbin doesn't sleep so well, missing his tiny cat, Isherwood coyly insists, only to be told by return of post that Kitty 'longs so to be back in my basket . . .

It seems like ages since I left my horse.' Naturally there occasional hints of anxiety ('Dobbin is only happy if Kitty finds consolation - ONLY NOT TOO MUCH') and the clouds of romantic glory are sometimes swept aside by Bucknell's revelations about the various people each is having affairs with while the other's back is turned, but the transparent sincerity of the tone has the vital effect of halting the reader's instinctive response - to laugh out loud - in its tracks.

Well, nearly always ('His dear letter and his precious story has just arrived, both smelling so deliciously of HORSE that Kitty's nostrils are in a state of nervous excitement. …

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