Books: Two of the Last Great English Eccentrics; Lord Berners the Last Eccentric. by Mark Amory (Pimlico: Pounds 12.50). Eddy - the Life of Edward Sackville-West. by Michael De-la-Noy (Arcadian: Pounds 12.99). Reviewed by Richard Edmonds

By Edmonds, Richard | The Birmingham Post (England), September 4, 1999 | Go to article overview

Books: Two of the Last Great English Eccentrics; Lord Berners the Last Eccentric. by Mark Amory (Pimlico: Pounds 12.50). Eddy - the Life of Edward Sackville-West. by Michael De-la-Noy (Arcadian: Pounds 12.99). Reviewed by Richard Edmonds


Edmonds, Richard, The Birmingham Post (England)


Lord Berners and Eddy Sackville-West had the money to indulge themselves in whatever absurd nonsense took their fancy. Berners dyed the pigeons in all the colours of the rainbow to brighten up his lawns at Faringdon, and was once seen hurrying along in the Rolls to visit Gertrude Stein at her house at Bilignin, in central France.

In order to achieve the maximum effect, Berners put on a devil mask and played the piano wildly in the back of the car as the Rolls sped at twilight through remote French villages. The peasants were convinced that Old Nick himself had come amongst them, and not even the comfortable chocolate gateaux on the front seat, purchased in Lyon, for Gertrude Stein's lover, Alice Toklas, dispelled their terror.

The great event at Faringdon in 1935 was the completion of the folly. The Town and Country Planning Committee told Berners the folly was not permissible since it was without object or benefit. Naturally, it was built in all its 100ft glory. Berners himself said: "The great point of the tower is that it will be entirely useless."

And if you think that was fruity, how about the time when Berners invited a horse into the drawing room for afternoon tea. "Gerald loved having him there - he was so domesticated," said Penelope Betjeman (wife of John) whose horse it was.

Berners was a writer, painter, composer and an eccentric millionaire. He was snobbish, totally class conscious and only mingled with his social peers. He was silly, effeminate, a born poseur and probably great fun to be with if you can stand that kind of effete, mannered, dismissive behaviour. Those who could stand it included Salvador Dali, Picasso, Diaghilev, the Sassoons, the Betjemans and so on. And when there was a party - generally in fancy dress - Cecil Beaton was always on hand to take the snaps.

Yet Berners was perceptive. When he met the composer Arnold Schoenberg, the exponent of the twelve-tone technique, and a man who claimed to compose without using the piano, Berners became suspicious. During his visit he noticed a sheet of music paper lying around on the piano in Schoenberg's music room, "With a pencil and india rubber". It was doubtless turned into an anecdote that went down well with the Sitwells and others of the ilk.

Eddy Sackville-West, the subject of De-la-Noy's fascinating biography, was Vita Sackville-West's cousin and sometime collaborator. He too, like Berners, was a writer but Eddy's writings took the form of novels and he was not terribly good at it. But he did shine as a music critic later on in life when he was employed at The New Statesman. Like most of his kind he was on intimate terms with many characters in the Bloomsbury Group, and especially with Virginia Woolf.

But much as you wish to giggle at Eddy's furiously silly mannerisms and foibles, which included the use of mascara and make-up and pursuit - often hopelessly - of attractive younger men, he did have his points. …

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Books: Two of the Last Great English Eccentrics; Lord Berners the Last Eccentric. by Mark Amory (Pimlico: Pounds 12.50). Eddy - the Life of Edward Sackville-West. by Michael De-la-Noy (Arcadian: Pounds 12.99). Reviewed by Richard Edmonds
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