Magazine article The Spectator

Beaton in the Sixties: The Cecil Beaton Diaries as They Were Written

Magazine article The Spectator

Beaton in the Sixties: The Cecil Beaton Diaries as They Were Written

Article excerpt

A picture of Dorian Gray BEATON IN THE SIXTIES: THE CECIL BEATON DIARIES AS THEY WERE WRITTEN introduced by Hugo Vickers Weidenfeld, L25, pp. 434, ISBN 0297645560

A good diarist must have a retentive memory, a keen eye for detail, descriptive powers, a streak of malice without tedious spitefulness, a wide circle of interesting acquaintances and a clearly defined viewpoint on the world. Chips Channon was not nearly as intelligent, cultivated or generous as Harold Nicolson but he was a better diarist. Cecil Beaton is another Channon.

During his lifetime Beaton published six volumes of his diaries, bowdlerised so as to omit the offensive comments about his smart friends, whom he fawned on when in their presence and reviled on paper. Hugo Vickers has already rehabilitated the diaries that cover the last decade of Beaton's life; now he moves back to the five previous years, 1965-69. He has done an excellent job. His linking passages are informative and often enjoyably gossipy; his footnotes identifying the dramatis personae are admirably thorough - sometimes, indeed, a shade too thorough; not many of his readers will need to be told that Winston Churchill is Rt. Hon. Sir Winston Churchill KG (1871-1965), nor that the Queen is 'Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (b. 1926).' It is possible too that his designation of Harold Pinter and John Osborne as 'noted playwrights of their generation', though literally true, may not seem to Pinter to reflect his present standing.

It is easy to see why Beaton felt he must censor his private opinions. He had a sharp pen, took offence easily and nourished grudges. Lord Snowdon annoyed him by including him in a film about old age: on his next appearance in the diaries he became 'common little Lord Snowdon, who was wearing his hair in a dyed quiff'. Beaton was fascinated by Greta Garbo but resented the fact that she had little time for him: 'All the nicest things about her are lost in a haze of selfishness, ruthlessness and incapacity to love.' Mariga Guinness was treated savagely: 'There was the mal occhio, mad, frightening and horrible Mrs Desmond Guinness with old artificial flowers in her bird's nest hair and like some mad female impersonator creating alarming ambience wherever she wandered.' He enthused about Kenneth Clark's Civilisation series on television but couldn't resist a jibe at the man himself: 'He knows too much and he knows that he knows more than others. He's offhand, arrogant, unloving and therefore unlovable. He is a cold snake...'

Garbo's physical decrepitude appalled Beaton: her wrinkles, her double chin, 'but worse, the upper lip has jagged lower and the skin has perished into little lines, and there is a furriness that is disastrous. …

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