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I suspect that most readers will be attracted to lord Berners (Gerald Tyrwhitt-Wilson) because of his delightfully eccentric character rather than for his generally witty but insubstantial music. They will be entertained by this book – lavishly illustrated, beautifully produced, but wrist-breaking. Berners’ music is only touched upon here, overshadowed by the story of his relationships and encounters with famous people, including Salvador Dalí, Stravinsky, Evelyn Waugh, John Betjeman, Diana and Nancy Mitford, Noël Coward, Gertrude Stein, Constant Lambert and Cecil Beaton.

The Mad Boy, Robert Heber-Percy, lived with Berners from the early thirties and inherited Faringdon House on his death in 1950. some 27 years older than the Mad Boy, Berners found his ‘high spirits, elegant appearance and uninhibited behaviour’ enchanting (according to Diana Mosley), but perhaps I will not be alone in being more favourably impressed by Berners’ tolerance. The wilful Robert surprised everyone by marrying Jennifer Fry and installing a pram in the hall. ‘A mewling newborn was far beyond his [Berners’] remit,’ writes Ms Zinovieff, but this bizarre situation inspired unexpected feelings from him. ‘Friends were flabbergasted. Lord Berners pushing a pram! Whatever next?’ In consequence of the Mad Boy’s final act of devilment, Ms Zinovieff, Jennifer’s grand-daughter, finds herself the inheritor of Faringdon House.

There are digressions on many of the bewildering number of characters who pass through these pages, their disastrous marriages and infidelities being recounted every few pages. A horse shares afternoon tea in the drawing room, exotic long-legged birds wander through the house, and Berners takes to covering his bald dome with woollen skull-caps.

Beecham’s description of Berners as ‘the greatest English composer’ must be the most preposterous remark he ever made, whereas Betjeman’s obituary in The Listener – ‘envious dry blankets … dreary form-fillers … cannot be expected to understand the pleasure and thankfulness those people feel who had the privilege of his friendship’ – sums up the man and his Faringdon world more accurately.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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