The strangest (in retrospect most tantalising) book offer to come my way a generation ago was from a former silent-screen star, a New Yorker whom Artur Rubinstein remembered as a coquettish, provocative ‘Persian miniature’ with ‘heavy black hair, almond-shaped eyes, pretty nose, and full, red arched mouth'. (She in turn wrote of him as ‘My torment and my dream […] Didn't Artur know that I would die for him? All he had to do was ask it.’) We met for English tea (sans danse) in the marbled, glass-roofed Palm Court of the Waldorf, off the Strand in Edwardian Aldwych. She wanted me to 'ghost' her pianist-father's biography. Aged, roundly-proportioned, over-bearingly ‘painted’, Jewishly flamboyant in her memories, ever the actress, she spoke as she wrote. It was so unreal, I turned her down. Dagmar, she called herself, Dagmar Godowsky - but I let her go.

Spring 2004

Image: The Paris Review


A remarkable woman who lived for her passions and didn't suffer fools. In my Surrey days I was fortunate to be roped into some of her ground-breaking Soviet-British exchange programmes, and she was a feisty colleague on the Arts Committee. She was adored by our freer-thinking, more creatively adventurous students, inspiring them to understand words, rhythms and drama in ways they would have scarcely thought possible. In the 70s and 80s she was more and more a throwback to a vanishing world where the person not the fact was what enlightened and delighted us. I never got to know her well but I'm glad I knew her at all.

9 August 2014


'My father, Robert, was extremely eccentric and quite deliciously charming. He was always surrounded by hordes of women and even when he died aged 83 was still being taken out by a mother and daughter who doted on him. He was Bavarian by birth, coming to this country between the wars, and had all the style of a European of that era. He once fell off a low balcony doing the Charleston, plunging six feet. Fortunately he fell into a pile of leaves and thus avoided any permanent damage.' Dinah Lampitt – the historical novelist Deryn Lake - is one of my oldest friends. I've known her forty-five years. Back then we used to meet most mornings in the steamed-up buffet car of the 9:05 to Cannon Street - part of a raucous crew of financiers, stock brokers, opportunists and Fleet Street old hands given to smoking, drinking and cards, in whose improbable company I stood apart but for whom I grew to have lasting affection. Last Friday [3rd] we took up the reins again, at the Chequers, Battle. She's still the feisty character she always was, a fighter drinking merrily to the future, a woman with the sharpest eye for people, detail and nuance. In her Southern Region, Broadwater Down heyday we used to call her 'Cherry Tops, on account of her extravagant hats (Tunbridge Wells never had a more over-the-top belle). The other night, out of a wildly spinning fantasy reflecting on her Welsh/German origins, pondering what might have been had (the mind boggles) Dame Shirley ever met the Lord of Bayreuth somewhere mid-Atlantic, an irrepressible new persona was born, 'Shirley Wagner' - Wagner with a Vanderbilt twang, of course. Larger than life, Dinah is about positives. Ever the optimist, she's someone, in the spirit of Camelot's Merlyn, who doesn't age but youthens. She's 78. A moment in her company and you'd think she was 18.

5 July 2015

Image: Battle, June 2021


Earl’s Court, galleried Victorian drawing room, Blüthner concert grand by the window. Leipzig black. Around 1960 I studied the piano with Harry Stubbs, one of the RCM's redoutable Fellows but a man I found rather cold and dour. He was good at classical theory (he got me on to Schemelli chorales) ... regularly accompanied his wife, the contralto Margaret Bissett … and must have despaired at my naively pseudo-Lisztian efforts at composition which I subjected him to weekly. In a vain effort to develop my keyboard technique, spurning the need for foundational skills, he challenged me with impossible pieces. One was Ravel's Sonatine. Another was John Ireland's The Towing Path, a lovely First World War piece that I found myself castrating one smokey, damp, dimly lit Saturday morning in the presence of a retiring old bespectacled gentleman who was at pains not to disturb me – the composer himself as it turned out. Stubbs was certain I could play it. I was certain I couldn't. I left him for another teacher.

7 December 2016


Evening. Salt and smoke on the wind, the rhythm of unseen waves. Rusting ironwork, narrow streets, drawn curtains, the occasional huddled shadow. A lamp cutting through the sleet. Boarded up shops, stacks of musty furniture short on veneer within. Tattoo parlours. A place of secrets, darkness and other lives. Curlers and dressing-gowns. But an honest dinner - 18th century low beamed pub, open log fire, earthy locals, atmosphere without pretension. A place where you meet toughened weather-worn eel-and-beef Brits east of London, the lights of Harwich and Felixstowe on the horizon, a pint of russet ale glowing in the candle flames. Black-and-white Leica time ...

9 January 2020



Theosophist, actress, painter, cat lover, woman of letters. My mother was her editor at W H Allen, responsible for her biography of Victor Neuburg, one of Aleister Crowley's circle (1965). I knew Jean briefly. She'd come to Spike Island, our woodland cottage in Sussex. I recall an oppressive summer party once in her black-walled, black-shrouded Bloomsbury flat around the corner from the British Museum, overlooking one of the Egyptian Rooms. I set at least one of her poems to music - but she found the sequence of major harmonies I used carrying negative associations. She experienced similar discomfort with those of the occultist-composer Cyril Scott. Whenever I attempted a piece of his, she'd stop me.

1 November 2020

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