My first home in London was in Little Venice, a picturesque neighbourhood in Maida Vale, which boasts a canal with bright-painted canal boats and was at that time home to Annie Lennox. It’s a tree-filled, leafy, moneyed suburb a forty minute walk from Central London. I know, because each week day for my first weeks in London I trekked down the Edgeware Road to the Strand to my job in a government trade office.
I arrived in London at the same time winter did. It was cold. I lived in a basement flat beneath an elegant Georgian terrace house in impeccable condition. I woke early, because I had a long walk ahead to get to work. When I left work at night it was already dark and when I reached my basement cave I’d deflate, exhausted.
One evening I arrived home to find a note for me hand-written on high quality cream card. Mr Michael Browne, the owner of the Georgian terrace, my landlord, requested the pleasure of my company for cocktails.
I had never been invited to cocktails – except once, for a Bellini party, and on that occasion I misunderstood the invitation as a “blini” party and showed up, without champagne, expecting small Russian pancakes. This time I prepared carefully. I put on my rather starchy, conservative and formal Laura Ashley best: a mid-calf grey wool skirt, with pleats; and a short box-jacket in wool, in a shade I can only call banana. My hair looked lank. It seemed it never dried, in London. I composed myself to climb the front entrance stairs, off the street, and I knocked on the front door.
I swear a butler answered. A butler ushered me in and down the hallway. There, in the … the reception room? The parlour? … There, in the centrepiece room of that household, let’s call it the attendance room, an elderly man rose from his chair to greet me. He took my hand, graciously, and introduced himself as Michael Browne.
Mr Browne was approaching 80 years in age but stood unstooped. He had handsome features, a well-modulated voice and beautiful manners. He invited me to sit in a plush armchair and offered me pistachio nuts from the bowl on a clear glass coffee table. I think the armchair was a soft shade of green, not sage but soft olive with a touch of chartreuse. Behind where Mr Browne – call him Michael – sat in his chair was a walled lined with glossy hard-backed photographic books.
Mr Browne – Michael – was alert and intelligent and showed considerable interest in who I was and what I was doing in his basement room. He told me he knew I was an early riser: when I turned on the bathroom and kitchenette taps, pipes throughout all five levels of the Georgian house rattled into noisy action. He was politely curious about my secretarial employment.
But the life of Mr Michael Browne was way more interesting than my story. Not that he boasted. He wasn’t a braggart. He was a gentleman – a gentleman with an interesting past.
Michael Browne, I learned, had been a young man who loved night clubs and dancing. He loved dressing well and bright young things. He’d lived it up in London’s pre-War party scene but when War came, he joined the air force.
Michael Browne was a Battle of Britain pilot.
After the War, Michael moved to Hollywood. As a handsome War hero, with a British accent, he was in great demand socially, frequently as a studio escort for female stars. He’d stepped out with Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner and enjoyed the Hollywood high life. But it didn’t translate into a movie contract, if that had been what he wanted.
Instead, he met a beautiful heiress from Virginia, and married her. Together, they’d set up a resort in the then-obscure Italian fishing village Portofino, on the Italian Riviera, in the province of Genoa. They persuaded their celebrity and socialite friends to holiday there, and before long Portofino was to Italy as St-Tropez was to France – synonymous with the jet-set at play.
Portofino became the holiday home-away-from-home for Michael’s fellow Brits David Niven and Rex Harrison, and for Charlie Chaplin; it was Princess Grace of Monaco’s “retreat” from Monaco. Michael and his wife were beautiful people, living the life of the beautiful and rich.
“She was very beautiful,” he nodded. “Here. See this copy of French Vogue? I still subscribe to French and Italian Vogue, to pick out the dresses that would have suited her.”
He showed me a fashion editorial photo of a New Look-style cocktail dress, full calf-length layers flaring from a fitted, sleeveless torso. The fabric was filmy, some kind of organza.
After I moved into more affordable accommodation, a dank dark flat in Marylebone Lane, just behind Selfridges, I received a further handwritten invitation at my workplace: Mr Michael Browne hoped I might join him for cocktails, prior to his departure for a spell at his home in the South of France. I delayed responding, feeling a bit depressed by my dark wintry circumstances, distinctly unglamorous. When I did phone, my call was answered by his housekeeper. She sounded suspicious. Why did I want to speak to Mr Browne?
Because he invited me, I replied, weakly. He invited me to cocktails, before he headed off to the South of France. Mr Browne is gravely ill, the housekeeper informed me sternly. There was a pause. I think she thought I might be some kind of ghoul, a fortune hunter. She said, I don’t think he’ll be coming back.
Years later I was seated in the front seat of the 53 bus, top deck, travelling up the Old Kent Road, when a different elderly man approached and sat down.
“I always sit front seat, top deck!” he beamed.
“So do I,” I answered. “I’m Elly.”
“I’m Jim,” he said, then proceeded to tell me about his life.
He was the same generation as Mr Michael Browne. His life was as interesting. Their stories had some common ground: the night clubs of London, before the War.
Jim Lodge had been a saxophonist in a dance band. His band were regulars at a club called the Silver Spoon, a favourite of “David”, the then-Prince of Wales who led London’s fast set and later became, briefly, King Edward VIII. Jim would watch “David” dancing with his ladies, who might have included his married mistresses Freda Dudley Ward, Thelma Furness, and Wallis Simpson.
I think Jim said he served in the War. I don’t recall. Later he married and one of his children is the novelist David Lodge.
A few weeks after meeting Jim I wrote to David Lodge, through his literary agent, saying how much I enjoyed chatting with his father and asking whether Jim might like me to visit him occasionally. The author wrote back to say his father had told him about our conversation and he (Jim) had enjoyed it too, but he (David) didn’t think it was necessary for me to visit, as his father was very social and had many visitors in his retirement.
In 2008 David Lodge published a novel called Deaf Sentence, a meditation on ageing, death and reconciliation in which the central character is, like the author, a former academic with a nonagenarian, ex-band musician father who is in steep decline but remains irascible.
From The Guardian review:
But while the novel’s autobiographical framing is self-advertised – we know that Lodge himself is a former academic who suffers from deafness, and that his father, like Harry Bates, was a freelance musician – the authorial presence is much more saturated than these instant identifications might suggest. […] Appropriately enough, the novel ends with both a birth and a death, a marriage back on an even keel and, in the case of masochistic Alex, an incriminating exposure. In its wintry considerations of impending decay it bears a superficial resemblance to John Updike’s Villages, but a comparison between the two books is oddly revealing. Updike’s oldsters are still shagging heroically on, indomitably priapic until their final seizure. Lodge’s are keener on quiet comfort, calm companionability – modest aims that have some chance of being realised. There is a wonderful scene towards the end – again the image looks as if it came from Larkin, specifically “An Arundel Tomb” – in which Des and his wife lie chastely side by side in the old man’s house while awaiting the news of his death.
I haven’t read Deaf Sentence, but I will. I take it to be David Lodge’s tribute to his father, Jim Lodge. This short piece is mine: to Jim Lodge, and to Mr Michael Browne.