John & Larry & Osbert & Johnnie
From 1978 to 1983 I began a career as a journalist at the London Newspaper Group, working on the Kensington News & Post, the Chelsea News and the Westminster & Pimlico News. This was very fortunate since Central London has been my home for most of my life and within this couple of square miles I was surrounded by the majority of England's most notable events and personalities. Furthermore, I had the ideal excuse to explore them all. This little cameo illustrates the charmed nature of that period.
t an hour's notice and with no time for preparation I was asked to interview the dreaded Anne Scott-James, a journalist and broadcaster, about a new book she had written on cottage gardens.
She was even more forbidding than I had been led to believe as she ushered me into a large first floor drawing room in Flood Street, Chelsea, and past an old man huddled under a blanket in a fireside arm-chair.
She sat me at a table at the cold end of the room and satisfied herself that I was sufficiently aware of her formidable reputation. We then conducted a conversation that bumped along an uncomfortably rutted and utterly predictable track.
Above: The author and Sir John Betjeman at the Chelsea Potteries, London, in the early 1980s.
Which is when I made the mistake of asking her how she had enjoyed working with her illustrator, the celebrated Daily Mail cartoonist, Sir Osbert Lancaster.
"Oh, I don't know," she said, glancing over at the figure slumped in its armchair. "You could ask him yourself, but he's fast asleep."
At which point she left the room for a few minutes, no doubt savouring the discomfort of a reporter who hadn't realised that his interviewee was, among so much else, Lady Lancaster as well.
I sat alone for a while until a voice as cosy and comfortable as carpet slippers, crept up behind me.
"You know, you really should be interviewing me," said Sir Osbert. "I'm much more interesting than she is."
As so, indeed, he was.
"And were you at the university?" he asked at one point.
I told him that instead I had spent a couple of years at the Inner Temple reading Law for the Bar.
"Ah, yes," he nodded sagely, "and you didn't finish it, I hope... didn't get 'called'?"
I said I hadn't.
"Quite right," he said, "Quite right. I did exactly the same. So much more valuable."
Left: The author at Brompton Cemetery, Chelsea, photographed by Anne Garde, ca 1984.
And thus we chatted on happily until Lady Lancaster reappeared.
"Well, you have to go and meet your friend..." she told her husband, "so you'll have to go now too," she added, clearly displeased with both of us.
"Ah yes," said Sir Osbert excitedly. "Of course! John's coming. He's coming here. I'm to wait for him."
And, with a stage-manager's timing, the door-bell rang.
"He'll wait in the street..." Sir Osbert told me confidingly as he tripped over his feet, fell against the wall and subsdided among the over-coats. "... very old you know... not good on his legs..."
And so, after a lot of business with shoes and jackets and scarves and hats, we walked downstairs to find an elderly poet laureate, Sir John Betjeman [see above], standing at the door, his hat at a rakish angle. I'd had tea with him a week or two before but, out of context, he clearly couldn't quite place me.
"We're off to hear Larry speak," Sir Osbert explained. "He's going to say something about the green giant. You should come with us, you know."
I said I would help them find a taxi but watched them for a moment as they lurched unsteadily, arm in arm, up Cheyne Walk two old war-horses vaguely waving umbrellas for the benefit of any taxi approaching from behind.
Sir John was speculating on whether Johnnie Giulgud would be joining them. Sir Osbert, as deaf as Sir John, thought they were discussing what sort of speech Laurence Olivier [below] would make.
I stopped a taxi and asked the driver to take them the House of Lords.
"Silly expression 'a maiden speech'... the speaker's the maiden... though Larry's hardly that," Sir Osbert was saying as they pushed each other into a taxi, a tangle of pin-striped legs and malacca-handled umbrellas, each helpfully pulling the other to the floor.
"I said, I expect Johnnie will be there..." Sir John repeated loudly.
"No, not Johnnie! Larry! Larry's making the speech," Sir Osbert corrected him. "About the green giant."
I closed the door and said goodbye.
"Oh, goodbye, dear boy," one of them said.
Two thin, wrinkled hands offered themselves through the window. "Does the driver know where we're going?"
"Oh yes, I think so," I said as the cab moved away. "Maidens... green giants... all that sort of thing."
© (1998) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
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For reasons unknown, Sir Laurence Olivier by this time Lord Olivier chose to use his early 1980s maiden speech in the House of Lords to express his opposition to the building of the 'green giant', a vast office block intended for the south bank of the River Thames, near Westminster, and now home to Britain's MI6.
Sir John Betjeman remains the best-known and most popular of Britain's C20th poets.
Sir Osbert Lancaster was generally regarded as the most acute and witty observer of the English upper-middle classes.
Sir John Giulgud may forever be considered the greatest stage actor of the C20th.
It was Betjeman who introduced me to Jock Murray, of whom the following unattributed reference recalls:
"John Murray (Jock) was... one of the most charismatic... and most modest of publishers... and the drawing-room at 50 Albemarle Street became a unique meeting place once the office had closed in the evening, just as it had been in the days when Byron, Walter Scott, Tommy Moore and others met there in the early nineteenth century.
On any day after 5.30 p.m. one might meet John Betjaman, Osbert Lancaster, Iris Origo and Kenneth Clark in keen discussion. When Freya Stark arrived in London from her travels she would immediately descend on No. 50 to see Sydney Cockerell or Paddy Leigh Fermor (who might also be in London briefly) and to arrange a gathering there for her friends..."