Magazine article The Spectator

Half an Arch

Magazine article The Spectator

Half an Arch

Article excerpt

Down but not out on one's uppers HALF AN ARCH by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy Timewell Press, £20, pp. 368, ISBN 1857252012

One of the more amusing characteristics of the English upper classes is their habit of going around disclaiming their upperclassness. Just as Anthony Powell, a lieutenant-colonel's son educated at Eton and Balliol and married to an earl's daughter, used quite seriously to maintain that he was 'a poor boy made good', so Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, an earl's grandson whose father was a Harley Street physician in the inter-war era, spends a large part of this highly entertaining memoir explaining that he is actually deeply middle-class. The general effect is rather like an Edwardian stage play in which the dinner-jacketed exquisite turns out to be a cockney burglar in disguise.

However outrageous at first glance, each of these claims has something to be said for it. Both furnish yet another mark of the extraordinary fluidity of English social arrangements. Whatever the lustre of his affiliations, Powell's early years were spent, by and large, in the company of people richer and grander than himself. Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy's father was a younger son, with the result that a faint air of poor relationdom hangs over these accounts of roseate summers in the Suffolk long grass. The infant Johnny was promised a joint coming-of-age party with his cousin Gathorne: its absence seemed an all too symbolic loss. Things got worse when his mother divided her capital between German and Japanese war bonds. The medical practice never recovered from a partner's death. Adolescence, consequently, was hard-up and peripatetic, and the book owes its title to the Royal Navy air station lodging where one of Gathorne-Hardy senior's temporary appointments took the family immediately after the war.

By far the best part of Half an Arch - dense, elegiac but never dewy-eyed - is the account of the Suffolk childhood spent on the family estate near Snape. If nothing else, what follows is a testimony to the sheer raffishness of a certain kind of well-to-do, early-20th-century English life. Everything one eagerly anticipates is there, from the lickerish grandes dames to the lurking alcoholism, the livers made of brass and the unfeasibly camp uncles with their Wilde-era repartee. Pride of place in this assemblage is occupied by the author's legendary Uncle Eddie, one of whose exchanges with Maslin, the timorously homosexual butler, is faithfully reproduced:

'Do you know what I'm going to do tomorrow Maslin? …

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