January 2011

So how should we regard the delectable Mrs Chevely, with her arch looks and glittering Lamia gown  so wonderfully nuanced by Ms Bond?  Lord Goring has no doubt.  

‘She looks like a woman with a past, doesn’t she?  

Most pretty women do.  But there is a fashion in pasts just as there is a fashion in frocks.  Perhaps Mrs Chevely’s past is merely a slightly décolleté one, but they are extremely popular nowadays.’    

So is she a clever but dangerous woman who lacks any scruples to get what she wants, an adventurer, a dangerous seductress, a victim?  

‘Oh I should fancy Mrs Chevely is one of those very modern women who find a new scandal as becoming as a new bonnet, and air them both in the park every afternoon at five-thirty.’ 

Bored, frustrated and manipulative, her intelligence and sexuality are but instruments in a game of power and influence.  She seems so far into it that she has forgotten how to feel. 

‘She wore far too much rouge last night, and not enough clothes. That is always a sign of desperation in a woman.’  

She blackmails Sir Robert Chiltern into protecting her investments by threatening to expose him.  She has in her possession a letter proving that His Majesty’s Foreign Secretary kick started his career by selling secret government plans to a speculator. 

I think that in life, in practical life, there is something about success, actual success, that is a little unscrupulous; something about ambition that is always unscrupulous.’   

But Sir Robert’s young wife, as beautiful as she is uncompromising, has put her husband on the fourth plinth, making it perfectly clear that her love for him is purely a projective identification of one with perfect morality. 

‘I remember having read somewhere that when the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.’

In so doing, her principles damage Sir Robert far more then the bribery and manipulation of Mrs Chevely could ever do.  

‘And is Lady Chiltern as perfect as all that?  What a pity!’

Sir Robert cannot face telling his wife the truth.  He knows it would destroy their marriage. Mrs Chevely knows this and is prepared to destroy both his career and his marriage.    

The fact is we all have our dark sides, the things we are ashamed of.  It never does to have such high principles (one wonders what is being defended). 

‘Well, the English can’t stand a man who is always saying he is in the right, but they are very fond of a man who admits he has been in the wrong. It is one of the best things in them.’

Lord Goring is the catalyst in Oscar Wilde’s wittily observed play (The Ideal Husband).  He’s rather like Falstaff or the wise court jester, but in this case it is the dandy philosopher, brilliantly played by Eliot Cowan.   He enters as a louche and dissolute character, but he understands the flaws of human nature; everybody is capable of doing wrong. 

‘Nobody is incapable of doing a foolish thing.  Nobody is incapable of doing a wrong thing.’

Idealisation is a very fragile basis for marriage.  Acceptance and forgiveness are more important.  As Sir Robert complains:  

‘Why can’t you women love us, faults and all?  Why do you place us on monstrous pedestals?  We all have feet of clay; men as well as women, but when we men love women, we love them knowing their weaknesses, their follies, their imperfections, love them all the more for that reason. It the imperfect, not the perfect who have need of love.’

But is it that gender specific? 


An Ideal Husband, probably Oscar Wilde’s best play, is currently at the Vaudeville Theatre in the Strand and stars Samantha Bond, Rachel Stirling and Eliot Cowan.  It doesn’t deserve a half empty house.    

Friar Barnadine: “Thou hast committed–”
Barabas: “Fornication– but that was in another country / And besides, the wench is dead.”

                                                                                          Christopher Marlow (The Jew of Malta)

What made people like Guy  Burgess or Anthony Blunt rebel against their society, betray their  country and spy for the soviet union?  Was it a reaction against the seemingly inexorable rise of Fascism, or was it the rejection of a brutal class system?   Did their experience of having to hide their homosexuality from a bigoted society cause them to turn against the very establishment they were supposed to be members of?   I blame the father.  ‘Another Country’  highlights the projection of the strict father to be found in the hypocrisy and snobbery of the English public school.  Guy Burgess was at Eton.  The school was run not by the Masters, but by the Gods, the only boys who were allowed to wear coloured waistcoats.  And Guy, the aesthete, aspired to be elected to the Pantheon (if only to display the waistcoat).   

Miranda Carter, in her biography of Anthony Blunt, claims that his miserable time at public school, fostered a subversive but also superior attitude toward British society. This potent combination – insecurity and moral superiority – fed into a belief that this chosen elite had the right to be exempt from mere conventional morality for the good of the masses.

The regime of the Gods was repressive, militaristic and essentially corrupt, a system designed to create the rulers of Empire.  Guy was beautiful, louche, artistic and openly homosexual. He was confident enough to love whom he wanted;  after all several of the Gods had been his lovers.  And he was clever enough to be feared.  But when Martineau is discovered in flagrante in the boiler room and hangs himself in shame, the Gods clamp down on homosexuality in order to contain the threat of scandal.  Guy at first escapes public humiliation by threatening to expose his lovers.  But as desperate as he is to become a God, he is also desperately in love with James.  And this love leads him to indiscretion and exposure.  So he shields James him from possible expulsion, accepts the blame and the punishment and is customarily debarred from elevation to the Pantheon. 

So, was it his humiliation at school that that made Guy Burgess turn against the English class system and betray state secrets to the Russians?   Was it rejection by a system he secretly admired and aspired to?  Was it envy, revenge, the feeling of the outsider?   Was it then, on the verge of his adult life,  that he realized how much the British class system relied on outward appearance and how devastating being openly gay was for a diplomatic career?  Was that the point that he allowed himself to become radicalised by his best friend Tommy Judd – an intellectually committed Communist?

Or was it in part his betrayal by his adored mother?   In a tender moment with James at night in a punt on the river, he discloses how he had to release his mother, trapped in bed after his father collapsed and died while making love to her.  Quite soon afterwards, she married an army officer. 

Another Country portrays the road to betrayal as a personal, emotional crisis, rather than an intellectual identification.  As a young man, Guy was portrayed as mischievous, sensitive, intelligent, in love, but tragically crushed by the juggernaut of the English class system? He was being bred to inflict rule and punishment in the real world by playing at Gods at school. And against this inhumanity he rebelled.

The theme was composed, as with all of us, early in Burgess’s life, and had to be worked through.  Always an outsider, he ended his life, a broken, isolated, embittered man, living in a seedy apartment in Moscow with only the faded sepia prints of Eton hanging on his walls to remind him of the turning point.     

‘Another Country’ made me think of my time at Taunton School.  In the early sixties, the ancien regime of the English public schools still held sway; Taunton was still attempting to produce young men to run the Empire, even though that institution was all but dismantled.   They still had a combined cadet force; they still do, I think.   Sport, an essential component of the school curriculum,  encouraged teamwork, loyalty and identification with the system.  The establishment still didn’t foster original thinking and expression; it indoctrinated.  At the time, I had a strong sense of duty.  My parents admired that system and I felt bound by obligation to uphold it, but I never felt that emotional sense of belonging that many of my friends of that time still do.  My life has been patterned by ambivalence.   

For one of my school friends, Maurice, Taunton school fostered a deep sense of entitlement and rebellion.  What he did at school could be contained. Now, fifty years on, he is pitted against the Justice system, the General Medical Council and the House of Lords all at the same time.  But for every one damaged by the system, there were nine created by it.  Sir Peter Westmacott, one time our ambassador in Paris, was one of our contemporaries at school. 

‘Another Country’, starred Rupert Everett as Guy and a younger Colin Firth as Tommy Judd.  It was  directed by Marek Kanievska in 1984.

Nigel Slater was brought up in the fifties as a shy single boy in a middle class family.  His father was the manager of a small factory and constantly irritable.  His mother was seriously ill with a lung complaint.  Nigel was lonely; his interest in food developed because he was hungry for some variety in his diet;  hungry for affection.  His mother couldn’t cook.  When in doubt, as was frequent, she made toast.    

On the night, she died, his father couldn’t tell him.  Later Mrs Potter (Joan) entered their lives as a cleaner.  She was brassy, canny and efficient, seduced Nigel’s father by the way she looked at him as she polished the brasses and how she wiggled her bottom as she dusted under the dresser.  She made housework irresistibly erotic.  And she was a wonderful cook.  Her steak and kidney pudding  was a work of art; her lemon meringue pie sheer sensuous delight.   

She caused quite a stir when Mr Slater took her to the Masonic Lodge dinner.  The ladies looked askance with grudging admiration.  ‘She may be as common as muck but she certainly knows her cleaning fluids.’   Smitten, Mr Slater proposes and buys a house for them all in the country.  Nigel is very unhappy and competes with Joan for his father’s attention by learning how to cook,  but Joan undermines him by forgetting the afternoons he returned home with a meal.   One afternoon, Nigel returns to find that his father had died mowing the lawn.  Joan announces, ‘it’s just us now, kid,’  but Nigel has other ideas.  He walks out of her life into the kitchen of the Savoy.  

This film emphasised the traumas that could befall teenagers when parents transgress family taboos.   Nigel, traumatised by grief for his mother, could not tolerate his father’s new found sexual interest in Mrs Potter and resented her intrusion into his father’s life.   He felt excluded, rejected from my own family,  betrayed by the one he should be able to trust.  He was a prisoner in his own home, yet he could not leave while his father was alive.  Home life not only has to be boring enough to want to leave it but stable enough to be able to.  To leave home, teenagers must neither need nor care for their parents.  Nigel could only do that after they had both died.   He became a wonderful chef and food writer,  but kept the idealised view of home alive in his writing and cooking. 

The film made me think about Stephen, my stepbrother.  His father, Ron, fought a successful campaign for custody after divorcing Margaret, only to put him his the care of first his own parents and then my mother, Doris, who had divorced Wallace to be with Ron.  But Doris resented his presence; ‘I’ve got one chance of happiness and I’m not having it spoilt by that little brat.’  Stephen and I  weren’t close; we never really lived together.  Mum had already left me in Taunton to board at school and then I got a sequence of live in jobs before going to university.  I didn’t really see Ron’s house as home; we’d already left home two years previously.  But Stephen must have been very unhappy.  He wrote me an letter after Ron died, disappointed and angry that he was never mentioned in the will.  Stephen came out in his late teens, about the same time Nigel acknowledged he was gay.    

Lee Hall’s rewriting of Nigel Slater’s book, Toast, the story of a hungry teenager, was screened on BBC1 on December 30th.   Helena Bonham Carter was so sexy as Mrs Potter and yet last week she was also perfect as the dutiful consort  in the King’s Speech.   Nigel’s stepsisters were upset by the portrayal of their mother, which they considered inaccurate.  This week, Agnatha von Trapp, the last surviving von Trapp sister, died.  She had reputedly never got over the fact that her father, Captain von Trapp, was depicted as a strict martinet in The Sound of Music.       

Bertie was never expected to become King.  David, his elder brother, appeared a far more charismatic leader.  People turned a blind eye to his dalliances with actresses and socialites as they had with his grandfather and nobody thought he would give up the throne for Mrs Simpson.  But he did.  So  with war with Germany looming and the country needing strong and effective symbols of leadership, Bertie was reluctantly propelled into the spotlight.   But Bertie had a speech impediment; he stammered.  His voice became paralysed with fear whenever he had to speak in public. 

The King’s Speech, which was released on Saturday and stars Colin Firth as King George and Helena Bonham Carter as Queen Elizabeth, is a moving and humorous account of Bertie’s relationship with his Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue, who helps him overcome his fears and deliver wartime speeches that rally the nation. 

The Royal Family have always been conscious of their role and their distance from the rest of society.   Some of the best bits of the film show how the King struggles to deal with Lionel Logue’s down to earth familiarity.  He is propelled to an apoplectic eloquence by the sight of Lionel lounging in the Coronation chair in the Abbey. 

Bertie is stuck between his instinctive desire for human affection and contact and his overwhelming sense of duty and obligation.  He is a fully paid up member of the firm, but he is also a loving father and husband and  needs Lionel as a friend as well as a therapist.  During the war, he had a close and understanding relationship with Churchill, who had also suffered with a speech impediment when he was younger and was also frightened of his father. 

Bertie, like many Royals, was brought up, not by his parents, who were always on duty, but by a nurse.  But the nurse preferred his older brother and was callous and cruel to Bertie, pinching him and depriving him of food so he lost weight.  David also used to tease him and his father,  King George V, had no patience with his stammering.  Queen Mary, his mother was stiff and distant, embarrassed by expressions of intimacy.  So Bertie, despite being second in line to the throne, had a lonely and abusive childhood.   

Bertie was also naturally left handed, but compelled to use his right hand.  This experience is not uncommon in people who stammer.    He had knock knees and suffered the pain of splints for years. 

The film revealed how stammering is not so much a fixed mechanical defect of speech but more an emotional disorder; the overwhelming effect of fear, fear of humiliation and with the loss of an effective means of communication with other human beings, of loneliness.

Bertie did not stammer if he sang the words, or when music was played into his ears at the same time.  When Lionel encouraged him to swear, utter the rudest words he could think of,  it threw Bertie into conflict; he was brought up to repress any expression that was improper.  But once he had permission,  he swore with gusto and no hesitation.  All these techniques facilitated emotional expression and eliminated his self consciousness.  He could communicate with his wife and daughters quite confidently,  but his brother, David and his father could readily reduce him to a state of paralysis.       

Lionel and Bertie remained friends for the rest of the latter’s life.  He was there to inspire confidence during all the King’s wartime speeches.  This was the Royal Family’s finest hour.  The audible and visible presence of the King and Queen in London during the blitz, their refusal to emigrate to Canada, the  bombing of Buckingham Palace, the young Princess Elizabeth driving ambulances endeared them to the British people.   But the King’s nervousness caught up with him.  Always needing cigarettes to relax him, the King died of bronchial carcinoma in 1952.

Why do we need friends?   Is it just that we all need people to understand and support us when things go wrong,  and to encourage us and to give us strokes when we do things well.  Or is that too narcissistic?   Are our friends surrogate parents, soul mates or just acquaintances?   That probably depends on whether we have a few close friends or a whole congregation?   For some celebrities, everybody is their friend;  they have the kind of charismatic personality that everybody can identify with, but surely friendship requires more than identification.  It’s more about belonging,  feeling confident and comfortable in another’s presence, and vice versa. 

You trust your friends; you know that they will not let you down, but neither will they just give you unconditional support.  Your friends will tell  you when you do something foolish or wrong.  They will not let you down; but neither will they give you false praise.   Your friends there to help you get things into perspective.  They can administer tough love when they have to.  

But friendship is not a one way street.   We need people to befriend as much as we need friends.   Our friends matter to us; they assure us that we are part of a community; we belong and have an identity broader than just ourselves.   

Friendship is not just a cognitive exercise; we don’t choose our friends on the basis of compatibilities.  Friendship requires some kind of bonding process to become established.   For women it’s often some domestic tragedy they have lived through together; like getting divorced.   For men, it may be being in the services together or at university.   Risk and danger are often bonding experiences.   Trust  is earned when tested by shared adventure.

‘You’re rather like Diogenes in his barrel’,  David declared on his fourth visit to my little cottage in Edensor.   Was that a compliment?   Well, on the principle of the glass being half full, I decided that it was.  I quite liked the idea of being perceived by the medical fraternity as a hermit, living the thoughtful life, so unworldly that I would ask the Dowager  (the nearest we have here to Alexander the Great,) to get out of the sun.  Though I did wonder if I have rather corrupted the ascetic image by becoming a bit too busy with politics and The Gut Trust.   

We spent the first hour grumbling about how our regulated society was stifling research, inhibiting education, undermining government, taking away the art and enjoyment of life, but risk aversion was part of a cycle.   In medicine, it was probably triggered by the dreadful revelations about Dr Harold Shipman; in economics,  by the greed of the bankers.    

A nervous society finds its ways of getting rid of those who will not conform to its stringent regulations.  We are both reading The Hemlock Cup by Bettany Hughes.   It’s about Socrates’ life, but takes as its starting point, his death.  Accused of being a free thinker and corrupting the youth by speaking against the Gods, Socrates was condemned to take his own death by drinking a cup of hemlock.   My old friend, Maurice, was incarcerated in a mental institution last year on the grounds that he was a danger to society.  Always resentful of authority,  Maurice was targeted by the police and neutralised.  Even the spurious interpretation of a brain scan using nuclear magnetic resonance was used to reinforce the case against him.    

David and I have reached an appropriate stage of seniority when we can with impunity comment on what we see as the failings of the medical establishment.  But this privilege has been hard won.  We are both first born and have both shouldered the burden of our parents’ ambitions for most of our lives.  David commented that it was not until the age of fifty that he escaped the straitjacket imposed by a reputation in medical research and felt free to indulge his interest in philosophy.  At around the same time, he became aware of his parents not just as projections of himself, mum and dad, but more objectively in the context of their own lives.  My trajectory ran parallel to his.  At 49, I started to retrain as a psychoanalytical psychotherapist and at 53 I retired and began writing my book.  Perhaps this was our age of reflection,  the time that we could at last be ourselves,  rail about the restrictions bequeathed to us by our parents indulge in a more liberal intellectual life. 

Does late middle age constitute a similar age of reflection for others besides the eldest sons of ambitious parents?