HAROLD ACTON

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Nancy Mitford would have been happy to write this essay, especially since Harold Acton wrote a biography of her in his day. But there is one very good reason why I need to step in at this juncture, which I'll reveal near the end of the piece. For the moment, here I am in the rooms of Sir Harold Acton at Castle Howard while he is dining with the Howard family elsewhere in this stateliest of homes. I see before me rooms which are no better (but no worse) than the ones Harold was accustomed to in the superb villa that stands about a mile from the world heritage site known as Florence. I sit on one of the hard-backed tapestried chairs, a table in front of me. In other words, I can write very well while sitting here. For
moi aussi this is a home-from-home.

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Where shall I start? A few days ago I came across a book that was new to me. Children of the Sun by Martin Green, published in 1976 in the U.S., where the author, a state-school educated Englishman, lectured at a university; and in 1977 in the UK. It is a an extensively-researched piece of literary criticism, which suggests that Evelyn Waugh was a dandy-aesthete, at the centre of a group of writers from 1920s Oxford who led the literary scene despite the best efforts of George Orwell and F.R. Leavis who wrote on behalf of the non-dandy: the man of reason. It's a book that got short shrift from Martin Stannard in his biography of Evelyn Waugh, because of what he thought as the oversimplifying nature of its thesis, and hasn't been picked up since. Children of the Sun was too early for Christopher Sykes, and doesn't appear in the index of the Waugh biographies of either Selina Hastings or Philip Eade. Now, while I have much respect for Martin Stannard's two-volume biography and his critical judgement, the work of Martin Green is due for a reassessment. Hopefully, I can at least make a start on that in this essay.

Below is the second of the book's three contents pages. My markings indicate how crucial a role Evelyn Waugh plays in the narrative. But don't let that obscure the fact that Harold Acton and Brian Howard are the twin pillars of this work.

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Contents page of Martin Green's Children of the Sun.

An odd thing is that there are no photographs of Brian Howard and Harold Acton together. I don't think they were particularly friendly with each other, more rivals for dominance in the arts scene. However, there is this photo of Harold Acton showing how much taller he was than Robert Byron.

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And there is this of Evelyn Waugh and Harold Acton calling round for Robert Byron while all three were at Oxford together, where another significant height disparity is obscured by foreshortening.

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And there is this drawing of Harold (standing with megaphone), Robert (sitting with pint glass) and Evelyn (pen and paper in hand) made in retrospect by Mark Ogilvie Grant. The preponderance of items under glass suggests the Victorian passion that these three shared under Harold's influence.

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Mark Ogilvie Grant.

But I think Martin Green has chosen his book's structure with care. Acton and Howard had been at Eton together and both had shone due to their quick wits, international backgrounds (both had American mothers), passion for the arts and social sophistication. Basically, they were a few years ahead of the rest. The Sitwells were personal friends of Harold Acton, who also knew the streets of
avant garde Paris. Both Acton and Howard had their fingers on the pulse of modernism. And both wrote poetry. Acton's collection, Aquamarine, came out in his second term there, which gave him prestige. Harold Acton and Peter Quennell went on to edit Oxford Poetry in 1924. Brian Howard's prominent position was based on something less tangible once her'd left Eton. According to Henry Yorke, Brian was absolutely commanding in looks and conversation while at Oxford, something that Evelyn Waugh agreed with when stating that Brian had a 'ferocity of elegance'.

What's more, when it came to Evelyn Waugh creating Anthony Blanche, chief critic of both those very English creatures, Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder, by Waugh's own estimation he made Blanche a blend of Harold Acton and Brian Howard. To acknowledge all this, I have set-up a photo opportunity in a corner of this superb room at Castle Howard where there is a display cabinet built into the wall.

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I trust the interest of the accompanying artefacts distracts from the poor choice of cover photography, that includes Brian Howard but not Harold Acton, and the lamentable choice of cover colour. CHILDREN of THE SUN, for goodness sake, not CHILDREN of THE VILLAGE GREEN.

Both Harold Acton and Brian Howard were central to what went on in Oxford. They introduced new ideas and championed modernists like Joyce, Diaghilev, Edith Sitwell, Gertrude Stein and T.S. Eliot. As well as themselves. Evelyn Waugh was Harold Acton's assistant at the
Oxford Broom, and below is Evelyn's first tribute to a man he saw as his intellectual mentor, about to read aloud Sitwell or T.S. Eliot with the aid of a megaphone.

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Evelyn Waugh. Drawing from an issue of Isis.

Harold Acton crops up in the Oxford reminiscences of Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell, but let's go to Peter Quennell, who I've recently been studying, for a considered recollection of the man and the impact he made:

'Meanwhile, I entered the section of Oxford society that Harold Acton dominated. When he first arrived, he had been obliged to 'sport his oak' against the attack of furious Christ Church athletes, who had smashed his windows and threatened that, should he re-emerge, they would duck him in the fountain. By the time I appeared, however, he was already well on the way to becoming an Oxford institution; and after I had gone down - he both preceded and survived me - he had grown so popular that the Bullingdon Club once invited him to dinner, where he delivered a blithe and witty speech for which he was rewarded with uproarious applause. The son of American and Anglo-Italian parents, he had an impenitently alien look - the air of a Renaissance Prince of the Church and of a youthful Chinese sage combined. His voice was strange - dulcet and elaborately mannered; and a suspicion of a stutter, or trick of momentarily hesitating before he brought out his most pointed phrases, gave his conversation added charm.'

I know I've used it already, but this cartoon really does sum up Harold's chutzpah.

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Acton and Howard encouraged other would-be writers and artists. The following photograph shows Evelyn Waugh, Robert Byron, Peter Quennell and Cyril Connolly (or is it Henry Yorke, John Betjeman, Anthony Powell and Patrick Balfour?) doing their best for the dandy-aesthete team. Products of the English public school system and Oxford, true, but beginning to punch their weight. And who knew how far some of them might go in London if they worked as a team.

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Acton pays three of those home-grown writers a complement in his Memoirs of an Aesthete. 'The butterfly never settles on any flower for long. Robert, Peter and Evelyn settled on any subject that aroused them like grim death and clung to it tenaciously until they had extracted every drop of essence. Robert clung to Byzantium; Peter to Baudelaire's dandyeism; Evelyn to Rossetti and social satire and, eventually, Rome.'

Hmmm. That's three things that Evelyn clung to like grim death, which is two too many to best illustrate the point. Evelyn Waugh had a difficult time for three years after going down from Oxford. While working as
a teacher in North Wales, he sent his manuscript, The Temple at Thatch, to Harold Acton, hoping for encouragement. But, on its return, Harold's damning verdict ("Too much nod-nodding over port,") caused Waugh to burn his work in the school boiler.

But what's this? In London, Harold Acton and Brian Howard began to lose their pre-eminent positions in the friendship group. Think tortoise and hare (or butterfly), if that helps. And let's illustrate that in detail through carrying on with the example of Harold Acton and Evelyn Waugh.

Harold Acton and Robert Byron were the only men invited to attend the wedding of Evelyn Waugh and Evelyn Gardner in June, 1928. Three months later,
Decline and Fall came out with its famous dedication: 'To Harold Acton in Homage and Affection'. Cyril Connolly reviewed it in the New Statesman alongside Acton's first novel, Humdrum. And Cyril, despite being fellow Oxford man to both, did not pull his punches:

'Humdrum falls rather flat… As a satire, Decline and Fall seems to possess every virtue which it lacks. Humdrum reads like a painstaking attempt to satire modern life by a Chinaman who has been reading Punch, and the result is a catalogue of offences in the style of Becker's Gallus or a second-rate Roman satirist in a third-rate modern crib.'

Harold Acton: a Chinaman reading Punch? Harold Acton: a second-rate Roman satirist in a third-rate production? Surely, Cyril Connolly was paying back some personal slight. It is quite possible that, at some level, the creative artist in Harold never recovered from these cruel words.

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Meanwhile, Evelyn Waugh followed up
Decline and Fall with Vile Bodies and, after having abandoned his diary in the wake of She-Evelyn leaving him, began it again in May, 1930. In May, June and July, Harold Acton is mentioned repeatedly in Waugh's diary, and as he was about to leave Britain to live in China for nine years (oh dear, has that review unhinged him? Is the phrase 'a Chinaman who has been reading Punch,' going round and round his mind?), let's take a close look at the relationship between one-time mentor and star pupil at this point of departure.

I should say that 'Lancaster Gate' refers to a house, number 108, which Harold's younger brother, William, was renting. Harold lived on the third floor of it. William was filling it with furniture that he used partly to furnish other houses. Apparently, this business was not a financial success. Not that this mattered, as both brothers were given generous allowances by their parents, who were incredibly rich and who lived in the aforementioned splendid villa outside Florence. The image below is a Google Street view of 109 Lancaster Gate, which gives you an idea of the luxury we're talking about.

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Concerning the set-up here, Harold tells us in
Memoirs of An Aesthete:

'A large silver ballroom like a Venetian sala was its principal attraction, and this was soon filled with silvery furniture shaped like shells and eighteenth-century figures of negroes… Gradually the rooms assumed new perspectives with tall mirrors mounted over console tables. A cohort of cupids arrived with a platoon of negroes in gold uniforms to mount guard over various rooms. A great deal of the furniture was Venetian, so that one seemed to have stepped from a gondola into the house.'

OK here goes. Warning: in summer of 1930, Evelyn was a man on a mission, and that mission screamed 'self-destruct'.

May 24: Evelyn went to tea with Edith Sitwell. Harold was there.

May 29: Harold and his brother, William, gave a delightful cocktail party at Lancaster Gate. Robert Byron was there and so was Diana Guinness.

June 5: Evelyn dined with Harold and another at Quaglino's. They drank a lot.

June 13: Evelyn badly hungover. However, he managed to get to a restaurant for lunch with Harold and two others. After one hour's sleep, he was on hand for cocktails with Harold at Lancaster Gate. Then on to a drunken party on a Thames steamer, though it stopped short of being an orgy.

18 June: Lunch with Harold and William at Lancaster Gate. Followed by tea with Nancy Mitford at the Ritz. Evelyn explained to her about sexual shyness in men.

27 June: Supper party at Diana's, where Harold was rude to Inez Holden. Evelyn got very drunk and fought Randolph Churchill in the servants' hall.

4 July. Evelyn attended a Railway Club Dinner which met at Charing Cross Hotel and got the train to Folkestone. Harold was of the party. Henry (Yorke) was sick twice.

July 5. Evelyn quarrelled with Diana at Poole Place. Then they quarrelled again at Evelyn's instigation, and he left for London where he Invited Harold to dinner, but the latter dined instead at the Ritz.

July 15: Evelyn dined at the Savile with Harold and got drunk.

I have omitted one diary entry. On May 28, Waugh spent much of the day reading Acton's book
History of the Later Medici, on which he'd been working since the disastrous reception of Humdrum. Evelyn notes: 'It is most unsatisfactory and I am afraid will do him no more good than his novel - full of pompous little clichés and involved, illiterate passages. Now and then a characteristic gay flash but deadly dull for the most part. Also endless descriptions of fêtes and processions.'

Pretty damning that. But in the interests of balance I have ordered a copy and hope to have something to say about it. (Update. The book has arrived. I didn't get as far as the endless descriptions of fêtes and processions, having been derailed by an involved and illiterate passage at the beginning of the preface. But I've read enough to say that the intention of the book is to make a contribution to the royal history of Florence, which was an important city in post-Renaissance Europe. Not at all Modernist.)

From July, 1930, Acton disappears from Waugh's diary. A big change was happening in both their lives. Evelyn was about to convert to Roman Catholicism and embark on an ambitious travelling and writing campaign that would dominate his next decade. While Harold was about to travel to China, where, with the help of his parents' wealth, he would immerse himself in the language and culture. (Trying to break free from the disproportionate influence of Florence on his psyche? Trying to turn into the Chinaman that Cyril Connolly had imagined writing
Humdrum?)

Acton did briefly come back briefly to Britain in 1937, and in his first volume of memoirs talks of meeting Evelyn and finding him married for a second time and happier. The meeting may have fed into
Brideshead Revisited in the following way. Part two, 'Brideshead Deserted', ends in 1926, with Charles Ryder making a trip to Morocco to have a parting chat with Sebastian. Book three, 'A Twitch Upon the Thread', begins ten years later. Charles Ryder has spent the intervening time marrying Celia, having two children and producing three splendid folios. Ryder's Country Seats, Ryder's English Homes and Ryder's Village and Provincial Architecture. However, he had just been to South America and his latest set of paintings was of the jungle. At the opening of the exhibition in London, Anthony Blanche turns up. We don't get to know what he's been doing for the last ten years (Florence? China?). He is there to give judgement on Charles Ryder the artist. And he sees immediately that the new work is a sham.

'Anthony dropped his voice to a piercing whisper: "My dear, let us not expose your little imposture before these good, plain people" - he gave a conspiratorial glance to the last remnants of the crowd - "let us not spoil their innocent pleasure. We know, you and I, that this is all t-t-terrible t-t-tripe. Let us go, before we offend the connoisseurs."

In a dive that Anthony Blanche was given the address of by a dirty old man in Paris's Boeuf sur le Toit (a place that crops up in Harold Acton's memoirs) Anthony goes into detailed critique of Charles Ryder's career. Let's see if we can make it work in terms of Harold Acton and Evelyn Waugh, thinking A Handful of Dust, perhaps.

"And what did I find? I found, my dear, a very naughty and very successful practical joke. It reminded me of dear Sebastian when he liked so much to dress up in false whiskers. It was charm, my dear, simple, creamy English charm, playing tigers."

"You're quite right," I said.

"My dear, of course I'm right. I was right years ago - more years I am happy to say, than either of us shows - when I warned you. I took you out to dinner to warn you of charm. I warned you expressly and in great detail of the Flyte family. Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands. I spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art; I greatly fear, my dear Charles, it has killed you.'


Of course, this would probably not have been Acton's stated view of Waugh's achievement, they were on much too friendly terms for that. And yet perhaps deep down it would have been his opinion. Martin Green argues that the dandy-aesthetes' revolution against their parents also meant rebelling against rationality. By concentrating on anarchy, and self-satisfaction, mature reason was, if not abandoned, certainly not worked very hard at. And so Evelyn Waugh's achievement would always fall short, in these terms, of that of D.H. Lawrence and Vladimir Nabokov (Martin Green's examples).

But let's stick with Harold Acton in China. He made Chinese friends, he hired a Chinese language tutor, he lectured in English at Peking University. (He even recited aloud the whole of
The Waste Land, as he had done in Oxford in the Twenties.) He collaborated with others in translating Chinese poetry and Chinese plays and Chinese stories. I think he began to see his role as mediating between Chinese culture as a whole and the West, which was largely ignorant of all things Chinese.

You could say that he tried to do for China what Robert Byron did for the Byzantine. And indeed Robert spent lot of time living alongside Harold in China, working on his diaries in order to come up with
The Road to Oxiana. Below is the way he inscribed the copy that he gave his friend:

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The inscription reads: 'To my dear Harold whose calm, common sense and gaiety in Pig Street on the Pei Hai on so many afternoons brought order to my mind and perhaps to this book. Robert.'

I wonder if in Acton's library there is copy of Brideshead Revisited which says more or less the same, though instead of Pig Street on Pei Hai, Christ Church in Oxford would have been referenced. Acton may not have been successful creative writer, but he seems to have been a much respected cultural critic.

I should say in passing that in October 1935, Evelyn Waugh had been sharing accommodation in Abyssinia with Patrick Balfour as the two worked as war correspondents on one level, and Evelyn gained experience he would put into
Scoop on another. In November 1935, Robert Byron arrived in Peking. He stayed at the house of Desmond Parsons - which had been found for him by Harold Acton and which stood just two minute's walk from Acton's home. These houses covered huge area, a combination of one-storey rooms and elegant courtyards. Here is Robert sitting in Desmond's house:

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Reproduced from Robert Byron by James Knox

And here is Harold standing in a courtyard.

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But if I'm going to pair off Robert Byron and Harold Acton; Evelyn Waugh and Patrick Balfour; I should add that Cyril Connolly and Peter Quennell were both married to their women and enjoying each other's company in London at the end of 1935, and the beginning of 1936. It's less easy to pair off Henry Yorke, married and engrossed in the family business, and Brian Howard, with his male lover in Germany, and writing left-wing articles for the New Statesman. Finally, Anthony Powell and Graham Greene were both playing a much longer game than the rest of their Oxford peers. As we'll eventually see.

In May 1936, Harold moved from renting accommodation to buying his own place. And below is what he bought. In its way, it's as elite a space as La Pietra or Christ Church College, Oxford. Oh yes, Harold knew how and where to live.

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Perhaps Harold would have remained in China if Japan hadn't put the whole of Asia on a war footing. Though as the older son the probability is he would have inherited La Pietra sooner or later, and that he was fated to end up back in Florence.

In 1941, Acton published
Glue and Lacquer: Four cautionary Tales. It was a limited edition of 350 copies, published by the Cockerel Press, which was soon sold out. Evelyn got a copy (in his library at his death) and perhaps he would have given it credit for being as esoteric a publication as humanly possible, given the awful times. The subject matter was sex in Seventeenth Century China, and you have to hand it both to Acton's breadth of view, and the use of Eric Gill (on his death bed) for the illustrations. Clock this as a visual metaphor for the sex act:

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Eric Gill, Illustration to Glue and Lacqueur, 1941.

The words 'glue' and 'lacquer', referring to male and female sexual fluids, were dropped from the post-war edition published by John Lehmann, as were the illustrations. That's a publisher who I'll be bearing in mind, since it was he that published the journal Life and Letters and re-published Robert Byron's seminal The Road to Oxiana in 1950.

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More Memoirs of an Aesthete - though not written until after Evelyn's death - recounts several post-war meetings between Harold Acton and Evelyn Waugh. The first was in California in 1948, where Waugh was invited to talk with Hollywood film producers about adapting Brideshead Revisited, while taking the opportunity of checking out the cemetery at Forest Lawn. Harold describes Evelyn in a warm way, but makes it clear that - staying in a luxury hotel - Evelyn was not a flexible or an easy guest. He objected to the food; didn't like the presence of showers in bathrooms; didn't like people chewing gum or smoking over meals; and hated the irrepressible chatter of taxi-drivers.

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Chinese Illustrations of the Path to Immortality: Evelyn Waugh began pounding rocks to make Taoist elixirs. He took the name 'The Hermit of Flowered Brightness' and lived in a mountain cave. On holiday at the Bel View Hotel, he used to reject tinned asparagus on the grounds that he'd just seen heaps of fresh stuff for sale in the market. His acolytes and he took cinnabar together and ascended to the clouds. Keepsake from the Cloud Gallery, 1750.

But the reason that More Memoirs is valuable, is because it makes it clear that Harold spent two extended holidays with Evelyn. The most Evelyn Waugh and Peter Quennell did was bump into each other on St James's Street or White's. Evelyn would have long conversations with Cyril Connolly in White's, and Connolly spent a couple of low-key weekends at Piers Court, but that was as far as it went. Graham Greene did spend almost a week at Piers Court in 1951, and I go into that in detail on this page. Henry Yorke also visited Piers Court for the weekend, but only about twice. When Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh both lived in Somerset there would be meetings between them, but these would not have been more than overnight stays (though I've still to research that in full). In other words, Harold and Evelyn had a rapport that enabled them to spend extended periods of time together, if only on rare occasions. Something that one has to put down to Harold's flexibility and equanimity. Evelyn once used the words 'sweet' and 'sane' about him. Words that could hardly be applied to himself.

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Chinese Illustrations of the Path to Immortality: Evelyn Waugh was an official of the Brilliant Emperor of the Han Period. He would turn down offers from raucous cab drivers and travel to Forest Lawn on a pair of silent ducks. Keepsake from the Cloud Gallery, 1750.

In spring, 1952, Evelyn fancied a trip to Italy and so asked Harold to join him from Florence. Meeting in Naples, Evelyn wasn't very mobile, due to rheumatics in the knee he damaged during the war. They settled on Palermo, on the island of Sicily, for their break, but bad weather kept them largely confined to base for ten days. (Yes, ten days!) One trip to a convent full of mummified friars cheered up Evelyn who liked the macabre, but they were glad to get back to Naples where the weather was dryer and warmer. Harold makes it clear that he very much enjoyed Evelyn's company, though he was aware that:
'One had to know him well to savour the idiosyncrasies of his humour'.

That is the final meeting outside London that Harold records. However, I've left to last his description of their 1950 meeting. That year, after spending Easter in Rome, 46-year old Evelyn came up to meet Harold at La Pietra, his magnificent villa home. Harold says nothing about how Evelyn responded to the luxury of the building itself, but instead concentrates on a couple of meetings that he witnessed. However, before I get to them, let me quote from Evelyn's revealing letter to Nancy Mitford:

'Harold lives a life of great severity. His parents will not permit his going out when they have guests or his staying at home when they are alone, so half his life is spent being polite to aged American marquesa and half eating alone in poky restaurants. He is not allowed in his father's car and lives three miles out of town. He will treat me like an aged American marquesa, bows me in and out of doors, holds umbrella over my head and pays me extravagant compliments. But he knows everything about ART.'

Now this letter was written from Villa Natalia, and a little research shows that this villa was visible from La Pietra, the home of the Actons. Here is a view of it.

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In the same letter, Evelyn reports to Nancy: 'La Pietra really is very fine. Much more than I expected.'

And I see that both La Pietra and Villa Natalia are now, in 2020, owned by New York University, gifted to that institution by Harold Acton. So in 1950, both buildings were owned by Harold's parents. No doubt Evelyn got a free room or mate's rates while staying there.

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That detail about Harold not being allowed in his father's car remains with me. Perhaps the caption of the last Chinese Illustration should have been: 'Harold Acton returns to La Pietra from his solitary meal in Florence on the back of two wild ducks.'

Sinclair Lewis, an American writer, born in 1885, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1930, lived in Florence, knew Harold Acton and wanted to meet Evelyn. Coming across Harold and Evelyn dining at a quiet restaurant in Florence, a rather drunken Lewis got off to a bad start, addressing Waugh by his first name and punning about 'vile bodies'. Lewis wanted Evelyn to stay with him, but Evelyn intended to visit Osbert Sitwell in Montegufoni (not that far south of Florence) for a few days. However, he did agree to come back to Florence for
a Friday night rendezvous with Lewis.

Harold tells us nothing about the visit to Osbert Sitwell, perhaps because he was not of the party, so I'll say something. Sitwell and Acton were similar sort of men: tall and gay, rich and self-satisfied. Osbert spent his life exploring the privileges that he'd been given, which included the leisure to write with no pressure to make money from doing so. Osbert lived in China for a while, where Harold and he saw a lot of each other. In other words, both Acton and Sitwell inherited grand properties in Italy and bought properties in China. In addition, Osbert inherited Renishaw in England, a glorious country house
as explored here, and so would have felt quite at home when he visited La Pietra.

Evelyn didn't think Osbert could write. But then he didn't think Harold could write either, being damning about both in letters to Nancy Mitford and in his diary. But Osbert Sitwell and Harold Acton both enjoyed the good life and Evelyn had a taste for that too.

Evelyn wanted to cancel the Friday night get together with Sinclair Lewis, apparently enjoying his time at Montegufoni, particularly the puddings. But Harold wanted it to happen, so it went ahead. There were a few other guests, and Lewis was drunk. The talk at the dinner table did not go well, especially when the garrulous host encouraged Evelyn to talk about his books. Harold observes that Evelyn didn't like discussing his own writing and discouraged others from doing so in his presence. So Lewis took the floor, boasting about his own work and declaiming America to be the true home of 20th Century English literature.
'Evelyn reddened more with embarrassment than resentment but he endured it all most patiently and politely. I suspect he was aware of the pathos underlying this half-defiant monologue.'

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Chinese Illustrations of the Path to Immortality: Evelyn Waugh of the Zhou (1066 - 771 B.C.) dwelt on the mountain of the Southern Peak where he was visited by a green-coated gentleman with a scarlet belt who said that Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, Black Mischief and A Handful of Dust were merely a background noise to the sound of the Western Mountain talking to itself. Keepsake from the Cloud Gallery, 1750.

The Italian visit of 1950 ended up in the northern town of Verona, where Evelyn enjoyed the ambience and architecture more than in Florence. Acton had ample opportunity to observe his friend: 'In essentials he had not changed though he allowed himself to appear middle-aged, with a paunch that imparted solidity and dignity to his gait. Clad as an Edwardian country gentleman, he carried a stick 'to beat the Communists in case of assault', he explained. In his new role of crusty colonel he insisted on speaking English to Italians, who could not understand him.'

I think that's quite a sad portrait. It's also a variation on what Peter Quennell observed on St James's Street. Just as Evelyn's stated intolerance of smoking at table brings to mind his violent reaction when Henry Yorke and his wife lit up between courses at Piers Court.

The Italian holiday of 1950 had what Acton describes as a disconcerting climax. Basically, Evelyn was very rude to a family of Americans who ventured into the restaurant that he and Harold were sitting in. Evelyn decided that the American 'boy' was inappropriately dressed. His mother returned fire with fire, which Evelyn found intolerable. He left the restaurant, claiming that Harold had set up the incident with 'fellow Yanks'. Harold tried to patch things up with the American family, but the reader is left with the distinct impression that Evelyn could hardly cope with any company, over and above his own. His expectations of other people's behaviour, and his own inflexibility over absurd values, meant he must have come across as grotesque. It took someone as urbane as Harold Acton to tolerate this.

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Chinese Illustrations of the Path to Immortality: Evelyn Waugh, dressed in tweed and carrying a cudgel, insists that the American boy not wearing a tie be escorted from the restaurant by the Sage Mother of Dingling who studied the Tao and could cure illnesses. Keepsake from the Cloud Gallery, 1750.

Only back in his own home could Evelyn feel he was in control of the world. In 1961, shortly after what may have been their final meeting in London, Evelyn wrote to Harold about his latest book, a history of the Bourbons of Naples. Actually, Evelyn starts that letter by saying that his own latest,
Unconditional Surrender, had upset Cyril Connolly who had formed the impression that he had been caricatured which 'has upset a long but always precarious friendship'. Then Evelyn turns to Harold's latest book. 'I have not done more than dip delightedly into the Bourbons. I am keeping it for my sea voyage. A work of that kind, so rich and learned, must be studied with proper reverence. The South Atlantic is the place and I long for the uninterrupted days in the deck chair.' In his diary, Evelyn is more succinct. 'Unreadable,' is the verdict on his old friend's labours. Picture Evelyn then, on the way to British Guiana, tossing The Bourbons of Naples into the foam-flecked sea before returning to his deck-chair for some uninterrupted kip.

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Chinese Illustrations of the Path to Immortality: Evelyn Waugh of the Later Han (A.D. 25 - 220) used to enjoy travel. He could turn water into wine and floated across oceans on a mat. He could make a dried up tree-root spout flowers and leaves by placing a speck of cinnabar on it. Keepsake from the Cloud Gallery, 1750.


EPILOGUE

It was a month after the EW/HA meeting in the London of 1961 that Harold Acton's mother died, his father having predeceased her. So at the age of 56, Harold inherited his parents' superb house.

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The next thing that Harold Acton mentions in More Memoirs of an Aesthete, is not Evelyn Waugh's death in April, 1966, but a massive flood in Florence in October of that year. Describing its traumatic impact on the region takes him through to the final page of the narrative, which ends: 'We must be true to our own vision of this world. My own vision has been enhanced but also circumscribed by La Pietra.'

I think those final sentences explain why Acton was so influential before he was twenty, but little more than an irrelevance after that. La Pietra (by which I mean his whole upbringing) was a hothouse, bringing on Harold to be the splendid and exquisitely referenced young man that he was. But as an adult the latest movements in art were not enough for him. As an adult, he dug down into his own country's past (The Last Medici, The Bourbons of Naples) and he explored a totally alien culture (China). Cyril Connolly should have been proud of him. "My God, Harold, you've pulled it off. One would swear your whole oeuvre had been written by a Chinaman who had been reading The Waste Land."

Now let us pass from Acton's autobiography to Martin Green's
Children of the Sun. The prologue consists of a visit by Green to La Pietra in the mid-1970s. Two servants were involved in getting the visitor into the presence of his host, who is described as follows:

'He was a big man and carried himself with just enough style to create a faintly comic presence. Not that the stylisation was excessive - on the contrary, it was discreet - but that style was one I associated with comedy. He carried one shoulder slightly lower than the other, and glided slightly, like the actor Alastair Sim; he spoke in the somewhat hushed, rich, precise tones of Sim in that sort of role…He enquired solicitously after my journey, and the butler and footman bustled in again with an elegant Italian variation on afternoon tea.'

The reader suspects that Harold Acton is being set up here. But then Martin Green adds more reasonably:

'The tray and all its accoutrements were very splendid, but there was nothing to make one feel oppressed, and I was soon to realise how fine my host's hospitality was. Although his manners were elaborate and punctilious and generally not democratic, I felt no pressure on me to do likewise, no pressure of scrutiny.'

So maybe Harold is not being set up after all. I have to say that the scene treads a very delicate line between reason and ridicule. It continues:

'When he went back to his chair and made conversation, I noticed that he was wearing a very English tweed suit, and that on a table by his side was a large photograph of Princess Margaret.'

Below is photograph of Harold Acton taken at La Pietra:

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Harold Acton by George Wright, May 1989

He does indeed look a bit like Sim's headmaster at St Trinian's, but I see no framed photograph of Princess Margaret on the table, and he is not wearing tweed. Perhaps Harold was playing a joke on Martin Green. Perhaps, knowing Green's interest in Evelyn Waugh's writing, he had prepared La Pietra in such a way as to echo Piers Court, where, in the library, hung a huge portrait of George III, while a brass bust of Queen Victoria had pride of place on Waugh's desk.

Actually, the above photograph is about fifteen years subsequent to the meeting. I suspect the one below is more appropriate. The funny thing about this book, covering the years after 1939, and written after the death of Evelyn Waugh, is that it has nothing to say about
Brideshead Revisited. Did Harold think he'd been portrayed as Anthony Blanche? What did Acton himself think of Charles Ryder's art career? The man himself prefers not to say.

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In the prologue of
Children of the Sun, Green recalls Waugh's description of Harold Acton: '…vividly alive to every literary and artistic fashion, exuberantly appreciative, light and funny and energetic'. He goes on to remark: 'But there was a paradox in finding that idea of a connection to the old Acton, since our conversation had already made it clear that he was not alive to every current fashion and certainly not appreciative of some he was alive to.'

Harold suggested that Martin might wish to retire to his room to rest before dinner. The guest was led up a 'musically curving' stairway to his room, and here I must quote at length:

'
My room was more like a house. As far as I could calculate, it was forty-eight feet long, thirty feet broad, and sixteen feet high, with two windows, each twelve feet high. The bed was a four-poster with gilded columns, spiralled and rising to culminate in pineapples. There were six tapestried armchairs; eighteen paintings, one triptych of the Madonna; and two tapestries, one twelve feet by twelve, the other a bit smaller. Then the room had a bathroom attached, itself about twenty-four feet by eighteen, and of course sixteen feet high, elaborately furnished with, for instance, twenty-eight panels of embroidery on the walls. And there was an entrance hall to my room, which was itself twenty-four feet by twelve, and which held a sofa and four armchairs, a chandelier of blue and white crystals in drooping chains, two Buddhas, two negro heads, two mirrors with marble and painted panels above.'

Martin Green clearly found this astonishing. Which is why he tried to master it by counting and measuring. He went on to say:
'The world of four-poster beds and marble floors and gilded chandeliers had always seemed to me comic if correctly handled, distasteful if brought close, immoral if taken seriously.'

It's a pity that Evelyn was never able to be a guest at La Pietra. (If you remember, he stayed at the nearby Villa Natalia in 1950.) He would have enjoyed comparing the guest rooms with what he himself offered guests at Piers Court. This was memorably recorded by a young American who was invited to stay there for a weekend in the summer of 1954, as well as by Graham Greene three years earlier. In addition to a four-poster bed, there was a Victorian monstrosity of a washstand that had been a present from John Betjeman. In the adjoining bathroom, on the cistern of the toilet, was a notice saying:
'Should the handle fail to return to the horizontal when the flow of water ceases, please agitate it slightly until it succeeds.' And another sign in a badly cracked sink read: 'Mrs Grant: her mark'. In other words, Waugh's response to the world of four-poster beds was essentially comic. It was as if the Colonel Blount of Vile Bodies was master of Piers Court.

Anyway, Martin Green was clearly concerned about the conspicuous wealth on display at La Pietra:

'But here I was and not on false pretences. I had told my host that I belonged to the opposite camp from him, that I had been a student of Leavis, an enthusiast for Orwell, but now I wanted to write about him - and he had invited me to come and see him…It was his life, and I didn't want to know anything more about it than he wanted to tell me. Or rather, I didn't want to ask him anything which he didn't want me to know, nor to find out anything behind his back; but on the other hand, I wanted to reinterpret the facts in my own terms… It seemed I should have to talk about just what he wanted to talk about and keep my own thinking to myself, which was itself not entirely frank, not entirely honourable, socially speaking.'

On the one hand, I have been in that position so many times myself, that I feel a bond with Martin Green. On the other hand, I don't want to be party to Martin Green taking the piss out of the sweet and sane Harold Acton. Let's see what happens when Martin trips down all fifty marble steps and re-enters the lion's den, with gifts that were intended to introduce topics that could be addressed without embarrassment:

'However, when he rose to greet me - always so polite - he said something which quite drove those thoughts out of my mind, and evoked the doubts I had felt in my room. As he addressed himself to making me a gin and tonic he asked me over his shoulder, "I trust you do not object to royalty?" The tone was gracious, the gesture this time graceful, a benevolent glance around, but just for that reason the effect was disconcerting. It was clear that he was leading up to something roguish, something that made him smile to himself. My eyes flew to the Princess's photograph and then circled the room, while my mind canvassed a number of agitating possibilities. Was Princess Margaret in person going to emerge from a door? Or would any answer lead to either the right or the left hook; either, "Well, if you don't, why do you use that peevish and underbred tone about them?" Or "Well, if you do, why are you making up to one of the few friends they have left?"'

I think that's pretty funny, on both Acton's and Green's parts. In fact, Harold was leading up to a proposal that Martin accompany him to lunch the next day with ex-Queen Helen of Rumania and ex-Princess Olga of Yugoslavia. However:
'He had not, I thought, been totally unaware of the disconcerting effect he had produced - it had not been totally unintended. And indeed the phrasing and delivery of that line had been worthy of Ambrose Silk and Anthony Blanche at their most playful moments.'

Martin Stannard, on page 80 of the first volume of his biography of Evelyn Waugh, writes: '…Martin Green's Children of the Sun, a theoretical treatise suggesting that Acton and Howard were the protagonists of a 'cultural thesis' termed 'dandy-aesthete'. In 1978, when the present author interviewed Sir Harold, he was moved to a near apoplexy of rage at the very mention of Green's book.'

Moved to an apoplexy of rage by the prologue, featuring Princess Margaret and the staggering bedroom? Or moved to an apoplexy of rage by the thesis itself, as detailed over 500 pages? I have written to Professor Stannard and asked him. But the interview was too long ago and Martin (Stannard) can't remember. But he does refer me to a review he wrote of
Children of the Sun, which I'll look up once the libraries are open again. (If anyone can forward me a copy of the text, I will be most grateful.)

For now I'll just say off my own bat, that, sure, Harold Acton (and to a lesser extent Brian Howard) created a cultural milieu at Oxford in the early twenties, influencing Evelyn Waugh, Henry Yorke, Robert Byron, Anthony Powell, John Betjeman and the rest. But Harold couldn't keep it up, and virtually nothing he wrote or did post-Oxford had any impact on the group, except maybe Robert Byron. Though Evelyn notionally consulted Harold (or an idealised version of him) during the writing of
Brideshead, after that it was his fellow professional novelists, Graham Greene and Tony Powell, that had more impact on Evelyn's muse. However, it has to be pointed out that the first cut is the deepest. And that's why it says: 'TO HAROLD ACTON IN HOMAGE AND AFFECTION' at the start of you-know-what.

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Time for a nap? I suspect Sir Harold will be wining and dining with the Howards until midnight. So, yes, I will take this opportunity to lie down for a bit. Perhaps I will make a call from here, though I've heard getting a good signal can be difficult. I wonder if the Pope is taking calls during lockdown. Vital messages? Bound to be…

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Note
Thanks to Jeff Manley for forwarding a copy of a magazine piece written by Harold Acton about Brideshead in 1981, in anticipation fo the Granada TV adaptation. To some extent it plugs the gap left by More Memoirs of an Aesthete. Acton doesn't get into the game of who was the model for any character, just points out that any writer 'worth his salt' draws from personal experience. However, in giving his opinion of Sebastian Flyte, Acton comes close to Anthony Blanche's verdict. 'The strains of playing at grown up among the grown-ups is too much for him, and he takes refuge in alcohol and religious mysticism. His charm has appealed especially to female readers - "such a sweetie with his teddy bear" - but I confess it is lost on me. He's a spoiled child with only his good looks to recommend him and the romantic castle in the background; a weak sentimentalist ashamed of his sentimentality. I presume that Yankee sophomores would regard him as a "sissy." In fact he is a Little Lord Fauntleroy gone wrong.'

The piece concludes with an interesting assertion about Castle Howard: 'It was the author's prototype.'

So we have all gathered in the right place then. I will sleep more soundly in my four-poster tonight in that knowledge.




You may be wondering how Evelyn and Nancy are getting on. This
next essay provides an update.