The Magazine

Lord Ha-Ha

The aesthete-aristocrat who was always in on the joke.

Aug 10, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 44 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
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As for his paintings, they are a mixed bunch, competent enough, pleasant enough, but with exceptions, not enough. Kindly comparisons have been made with Corot, but the reaction of the reliably unkind Evelyn Waugh to the news that a 1931 exhibition of Berners's work had sold well was, for once, only slightly unfair: "[This] shows what a good thing it is to be a baron."

By contrast, if we discount (and we must) The Girls of Radcliff Hall (1937), a high camp roman à clef, Berners's writing, at its best, merits more than a second look. That said, to claim, as some have done, that his Far from the Madding War (1941) ranks somewhere close to Waugh's Put Out More Flags is, notwithstanding moments of sharp insight and a good joke or two, a stretch. Berners's short stories lurch from sub-par Saki to interminable whimsy.

His memoirs, however, are a delight. Taken as a whole, First Childhood (1934) and A Distant Prospect (1945) are, with the posthumously published Dresden and The Château de Résenlieu, a charming, engrossing, and frequently very funny portrait of a late-Victorian/Edwardian upper-class upbringing that is too knowing to fit comfortably into the prelapsarian myth-making so typical of many of the reminiscences of that epoch, yet is made poignant by our sense, and Berners's sense, of the civilization that was so carelessly and yet so carefully destroyed in 1914.

Tellingly, as the 20th century ground relentlessly on, the outbreak of a second world war drove Berners to the edge of psychological collapse. Not even the ruins of what had already been lost were, he feared, to be spared destruction.

These characteristically slight, slyly profound autobiographical scraps also come as near as Berners ever came to really revealing something of himself, the aesthete who came of age in a society of hearties, the Englishman with, for his time and island, an astonishing appreciation of Europe far grander, and far finer, than anything now likely to emerge from the gimcrack European Union, the fabulist who understood the loveliness, the escape, and the magic of absurdity. Not for nothing did Nancy Mitford give the lightly fictionalized Berners who appears in The Pursuit of Love the name Lord Merlin, proprietor of a hallucinatory, fabulous estate where a "flock of multi-coloured pigeons tumbl[ed] about like a cloud of confetti in the sky" and the dogs wore diamonds.

With Lord Merlin, it was impossible to know where "jokes ended and culture began." And not for nothing had Berners himself conjured up a similarly resplendent menagerie (more or less, in reality the canine jewelry came from Woolworth's) for his own estate at Faringdon. PETA types may relax: The dye used on the pigeons was harmless. And with Lord Berners, too, the border between the art and the jokes was ill-defined and unpoliced, each in their own way aspects of a far greater composition.

Determined, perhaps, to secure his hero's place in the cultural pantheon, Dickinson seems almost embarrassed by the stunts, japes, and trickster exploits that underpin Berners's reputation, but prefers, instead, to downplay them in favor of the music which, "everybody agrees .  .  . was his most important single contribution."

Everybody? This misses the point that Mitford, if imperfectly, grasped: "Lord Berners" was Berners's finest creation, that greater composition, a brilliant, if accidental, anticipation of our era, and a gentle rebuke to the conventions, pretensions, and the horrors of his own.

And that's something for which Dickinson should give this most gifted of amateurs a little more credit.

Andrew Stuttaford, who writes frequently about cultural and political issues, works in the international financial markets.