Magazine article The Spectator

Gentle Voices Which Bring a Poetic Past into a Prosaic Present

Magazine article The Spectator

Gentle Voices Which Bring a Poetic Past into a Prosaic Present

Article excerpt

Women are better at remembering, especially the little details which you most want to know. As Shakespeare says, old men forget. Or perhaps they never noticed in the first place. Pansy Lamb, who died last week, was born just after the turn of the century. She kept all her faculties to the end, and delighted to dip into her well-stocked memorial larder of faces and incidents to bring you up a succulent tale of naughtiness long ago. Indeed you could not stop her. She had an extraordinary trick of taking a new breath in mid-sentence while talking, so there was never a pause in her flow and no possibility of interruption without discourtesy.

Pansy was particularly good on the interwar years, when she was first one of the Bright Young Things of Vile Bodies, then the young wife of the sophisticated and desabuse painter, Henry Lamb, whose brilliant portraits and pencil studies of the famous gave the couple access to every dark and glittering corner of the great world. But she was good on all decades of the century, and in her mid-seventies she converted to Catholicism, moved to Rome, became a papal groupie and took a modest but strategically placed job at St Peter's. I relished her accounts of Vatican manoeuvring and skulduggery - they were not, strictly speaking, reminiscences, more current affairs. She was acute, exact, unsparing, though not without charity, a warm believer but also a humanist, fair-minded, above all a connoisseur of people in all their weird variety - just what you want from an old lady who has spent a fastidious lifetime among the chattering classes.

Such survivals are a boon to the historian. The court of Queen Elizabeth I harboured an ancient Lady Somebody nobody seems to have known quite how old she was - whose memory went back to Plantagenet times, then much distorted by Tudor royal propaganda. She related that, as a young girl, she had danced with both the handsome but fleshy Edward IV, and his leaner brother, later Richard III. Both were excellent dancers, she recalled, though Richard was the better of the two, quite dashing - a startling but authentic glimpse of a man reputedly crippled from birth. Round about 1960, on my first visit to Poland, I found another living treasure at the Jagelonian Palace in Cracow; an ancient, French-speaking dame who recalled pre-1914 days in Warsaw when Poland was a province of the Tsarist empire, governed by an archduke with his own court. She not only demonstrated to me the gradations of a curtsy, from sovereign to squireen, but taught me how to walk down a flight of stairs with a lady on my arm - not easy until you know how.

My greatest good fortune in this field was to know and like and be liked by Violet Bonham Carter (Lady Asquith of Yarnbury as she became in her last incarnation as a life peeress), who regaled me for hours on end. She must have been a precocious child because her father, the Prime Minister Asquith, seems always to have treated her as an adult and a suitable recipient for his political confidences. There survives a letter he wrote to her, relating in detail some dreadful in-fighting among the cabinet and concluding, `So glad to hear you can now button up your gaiters by yourself.' Violet had fierce opinions, enthusiasms and hatreds. She would never hear a word of criticism of her father, or of Sir Edward Grey or of one or two other favourites, and she would never willingly listen to a word in praise of Lloyd George. Her feelings about Churchill were mixed because, although she adored him, she could never forgive him for not marrying her. …

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