Being as I am in a mild fit of depression I decided to take my usual remedy of spanking the Blackwell's Account Card this morning: picked up various things, including the new Diana Wynne Jones, but also Byron Rogers On the trail of the last human cannonball a curious and fascinating book I heartily recommend. I don't know if Rogers still has his Sunday Telegraph column but in the days when I read it (Dad always insisted we take both the ST and the Observer "in the interests of balance", though as time went on his criticisms of both became more scathing; Murdoch papers never crossed the threshold, as anyone who ever met my father would pretty much assume as a matter of course) he was the best thing in the entire newspaper. It's just a collection of interviews with odd people, some of them notorious, some not, and pieces about places. To quote Rogers from the foreword:
[...] to walk through the mud of Agincourt with the weapons provided, [...] peer into the locked cabinets of the British Museum [... every sculpted erection of the ancient world...] attend one of Miss Cynthia Payne's remarkable orgies [...] walk the most familiar streets of all, those of a Western film town, in Spain, as well as the most unfamiliar, those of Tombstone, the real Western town, where nothing was as it should have been [...]
And more and more. I have yet to read about the one recording the revelation to "two OAPs that their mother, cranky old mum whom they thought had never been out of the town, had been Ethel le Neve and Dr Crippen's mistress." (A brief internet search tells me that Le Neve actually lived until 1967, which is remarkable, she must have been pushing 90.)
It's just a fabulous little collection of odd anecdota, brilliantly recorded by Rogers: reading them now I remember why on those Sunday afternoon's after lunch his was the one column I would invariably read.
Incidentally, a story not recorded by Byron Rogers but which I suspect he would like, from John Edwards in the current edition of the Soho Clarion (magazine of the Soho Society), in an article mainly about the retirement of Norman Balon from the Coach and Horses but remembering all the great Soho landlords of whom he was perhaps the last: "The Ship with Sydney (Jerry) Pratt, The Intrepid Fox with Gerry Mahon, The French with Gaston Berlemont and the Coach and Horses with Norman Balon".
[talking about being in The Ship, Jerry Pratt's pub, one lunchtime] At the other end of the bar sat Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole [...] getting argumentative about a newish actor's playing of a Shakespearian role and much heated f...ing and blinding was going on. Jerry could not tolerate bad language and asked the two great thesps to tone it down "for a lady could be present." Then through the door strode Elizabeth Taylor, be-minked and looking stunning, albeit somewhat flushed. She cornered Burton and screamed, "I've been waiting for you in that car for forty f...ing minutes." Jerry turned puce.
I can imagine Taylor swearing, but I find it difficult to envisage her in a pub. There's a good story about Gaston Berlemont and Francis Bacon in The French in the article too. All these stories, and things I hear from older people in my profession as well (usually involving El Vinos, or John Mortimer, or both), just make me think I was born too late.
That story reminds me of another recent story I read about Burton and Taylor meeting a party between marriages and flirting, Taylor's then husband desparately saying something on the lines of 'she's my wife now' and eventually asking Taylor to make a decision, whereupon she walked out with Burton. Irritatingly I can't remember where I read it: I suspect it was in the TLS or LRB but the much vaunted TLS Archive turns out to have an absysmal search engine on which I can't find anything, and it doesn't appear to be in the LRB either.
Apropos of something mildly different, Liberal England has an interesting post about the differences between the 1964 and 1970 editions of Ladybird's Peter and Jane (for those who don't know, very popular learning-to-read books in England at the time and, for all I know, still).