Anthony Powell at The Ritz

The text of an after luncheon talk to The Anthony Powell Society
at The Ritz on 22 April 2001

by Hugh Massingberd

Following that sumptuous luncheon, I fear that the prospect of having to listen to me talking "no end of rot" (as Le Bas put it in his speech at the Old Boy Dinner held in this very hotel) will be as welcome to you as the spectre of Widmerpool at the feast -- an apparition that, as Charles Stringham put it, "Knocked Le Bas out. Knocked him out cold ..." At the very least, I hope what I am about to say will not induce any strokes ...

Widmerpool, you will recall, began his "uncalled-for" speech with "a kind of involuntary grunt" before launching into an incomprehensible rant about the abandonment of the Gold Standard -- one of those passages in Dance that probably owed something to the City expertise of Anthony Powell's Harrovian friend Sir Harry d'Avigdor-Goldsmid. We'll start, though, with a vignette from A Writer's Notebook (published earlier this year):

Pageboys at the Ritz: "It's General de Gaulle in there."
"Give me News not History."

Anthony Powell told me that story in the late 1970s, when I was researching my own history of The Ritz. His brother-in-law, Robin Mount, had overheard the exchange on his way to lunch in the hotel's restaurant with the Powells (as Lady Violet, Anthony Powell's widow, confirmed to me on the telephone yesterday). The anecdote duly found its way into Dance.

So, tempting as it may be to indulge in a straightforward retread of the history of The Ritz -- the building of which, incidentally, was completed to the Entente Cordiale/Belle Époque designs of Mewes & Davis shortly before the birth of Anthony Powell in 1905, or indeed to pursue my pet theory about the revolutionary steel-framed structure of the hotel hidden by its conventional stone cladding being matched by the deceptively mould-breaking approach of Dance -- I feel that I ought to take note of that pageboy's withering injunction. "News not history ..."

Well, only yesterday I stumbled on something that may be news -- or at least it was news to me. In Dance, shortly before the pageboy story, Colonel Flores -- Jean Duport's second husband who, as the first husband, Bob Duport, puts it, "looks like Rudolph Valentino on an off-day" -- explains to Jenkins how the Victory Service of 1945 did not represent his first visit to London:

"I was here -- what -- fifteen years ago, it must be. With all my family, an absolute tribe of us. We stayed at the Ritz, I remember ..."

Surely, in the measure of Dance 0 where everything connects 0- this "absolute tribe" could be the very same bunch of Latin Americans described in The Ritz's first appearance in the sequence some fifteen years previously (or perhaps thirteen). In the Palm Court, Jenkins writes:

A suggestion of life in warmer cities, far away from London, was increased by the presence of a large party of South Americans camped out not far from where I found a seat at one of the grey marble-topped tables. They were grouped picturesquely beneath the figure of the bronze nymph perched in a grotto of artificial rocks and fresh green ferns, a large family spreading over three or four of the tables while they chatted amicably with one another. There were swarthy young men with blue chins and pretty girls in smart frocks, the latter descending in point of age to mere children with big black eyes and brightly coloured bows in their hair ... Away on her pinnacle, the nymph seemed at once a member of this Latin family party, and yet at the same time morally separate from them: an English girl, perhaps, staying with relations possessing business interests in South America, herself in love for the first time after a visit to a neighbouring estancia. Now she had strayed away from her hosts to enjoy delicious private thoughts in peace while she examined the grimacing face of the river-god carved in stone on the short surface of wall by the grotto. Pensive, quite unaware of the young tritons violently attempting to waft her away from the fountain by sounding their conches at full blast, she gazed full of wonder that no crystal stream gushed from the water-god's contorted jaws. Perhaps in such a place she expected a torrent of champagne. Although stark naked, the nymph looked immensely respectable; less provocative, indeed, than some of the fully dressed young women seated below her, whose olive skins and silk stockings helped to complete this most unwintry scene.

I must say that reading these evocative musings of Nick Jenkins -- "amongst all this pale pink and sage green furniture, under the decorations of rich cream and dull gold", as he puts it -- as a boy in the 1950s made me long to see The Ritz for myself. And to this day I find it impossible to come here without populating the place in my imagination with, say, that "sea of countenances stamped like the skin of Renoir's women with that curiously pink, silky surface that seems to come from prolonged sitting about in Ritz hotels"; or, more specifically, the mannequin parade of Bijou Ardglass, "followed by her spruce, grey-haired admirers, at heel like a brace of well-groomed, well-bred obedient sporting dogs ..."

Jenkins has come to The Ritz to meet Mark Members in order to discuss St John Clarke's introduction to The Art of Horace Isbister. Peter Templer, who accosts him, assumes that Jenkins must be waiting for "some ripe little piece", or perhaps "a dowager."

"I'm waiting for a man," says Jenkins.
"I say, old boy," says Templer, "sorry to have been so inquisitive. Things have come to that have they?"
"You couldn't know."

In the event, of course, Members does not turn up and J.G. Quiggin -- who has supplanted him as Clarke's secretary -- makes a dramatic entrance in his black leather overcoat. "His arrival in the Ritz -- in those days -- was a remarkable event", records Jenkins.

From the time the hotel opened in May 1906, when Anthony Powell was five months old, The Ritz had been le dernier cri in grandeur, smartness and sophistication. Lady Diana Cooper, the great survivor from la belle époque, recalled to me in the 1970s that The Ritz was the first hotel to which young unmarried women were allowed to go unchaperoned. "My mother would not let me go to hotels, but for The Ritz she made an exception -- it was beautiful, a palace."

The Ritz's rich aura probably appealed more to Anthony Powell's friends Evelyn Waugh and Cyril Connolly than to himself. When I was researching my history of the hotel, Anthony Powell enjoyed pulling their legs over their reputation as Ritz habitués:

"Cyril prided himself on knowing the place inside out -- though once when he was showing off his knowledge of the hotel's geography to some friends he became hopelessly lost and ended up in some broom cupboard."

When Evelyn Waugh took a Bishop to lunch at The Ritz in order to speed up the annulment of his first marriage (to a flatmate, incidentally, of Powell's future sister-in-law, Lady Pansy Lamb), he asked the divine what he would like to start with: "Caviar, oysters, smoked salmon ...?" "Yes," said the Bishop. "That would be very nice."

And poor Waugh got another nasty jolt in middle age when, having always assumed that the old cloakroom porter knew who he was, picked up his hat after lunch one day in the porter's absence only to discover that inside was a label with the word "Florid."

Before the war Anthony Powell appears to have found the more relaxed atmosphere of The Cavendish Hotel in Jermyn Street (where Evelyn Waugh had been barred for portraying its proprietrix, Rosa Lewis, as "Lottie Crump" in Vile Bodies) more sympathetic. The redoubtable Rosa, once cook (possibly mistress) to Edward VII, was already becoming rather confused and mistook Anthony Powell for an Edwardian dandy called "Bimbash" Stewart. Rosa herself was eventually barred from The Ritz on account of her distressing habit of accosting elderly peers in the Palm Court with fortissimo remarks like, "Hullo, mutton chops, still fancy a nice clean whore?"; or, "How's the old waterworks? Still as unreliable as ever?"; or, "Hullo, droopy drawers, when're you coming round the Cavendish to bounce a cheque?"

By the Second World War, though, The Ritz was becoming more Bohemian. Indeed the downstairs Bar became so notorious that it had to be closed down by the authorities. It was a popular haunt of such characters as Paddy Brodie (part-model for "the Hon. Miles Malpractice" in Decline and Fall), recalled by Anthony Powell as a "man-about-town" who once mistook the bar for the pissoir. (The table at The Chantry, incidentally, which holds William Pye's bust of Anthony Powell was acquired from Paddy Brodie and is known by the Powell family as "The Brodie Table".) And Anthony Powell's fellow member of the Eton Society for the Arts, Brian Howard (part-model for two more Evelyn Waugh characters, Anthony Blanche and Ambrose Silk), who captioned Anthony Powell's drawing for The Eton Candle: "Colonel Caesar Cannonbrains of the Black Hussars", constantly upset the powers-that-be by shouting the odds in his Aircraftsman's uniform. Once, after an outrageous tirade against Churchill and the conduct of the war, a high-ranking RAF officer sitting nearby in the Bar rose to his feet and demanded the speaker's name, number and station. Over his shoulder, Mr Howard said: "Mrs Smith."

Another Etonian serving in the ranks during the war, Charles Stringham, makes a poignant allusion to The Ritz in The Soldier's Art when the bullying Captain Biggs (who later hangs himself in the cricket pavilion -- "and him so fond of the game", as Captain Soper observes) sneers at Stringham's failure as the mess waiter, to lay out salt: "Haven't they got any cruets in the Ritz? Hand the pepper and salt out personally to all the guests, I suppose." Stringham replies: "Mustard, sir -- French, English, possibly some other more obscure brands -- so far as I remember, sir, rather than salt and pepper, but handing round the latter too could be a good idea."

Yet it is in The Acceptance World, set in the early 1930s, that The Ritz really plays a central role in Dance. For Jenkins, after Members fails to show, accepts Templer's invitation "to gnaw a cutlet at the Grill", and it turns out to be a fateful night. Templer's wife, Mona, takes an ominous fancy to Quiggin (who, Templer observes, had "just breezed in wearing the flannel trousers he had been sleeping in for a fortnight"); Jenkins begins his affair with Jean Duport. "Afterwards", Jenkins reflects, "that dinner in the Grill seemed to partake of the nature of a ritual feast, a rite from which the four of us emerged to take up new positions in the formal dance with which human life is concerned."

And at the end of The Acceptance World another "ritual feast" at The Ritz, the Le Bas Old Boy Dinner, marks a "positively cosmic change in life's system" whereby Widmerpool, " once so derided by all of us, had become in some mysterious manner a person of authority." It is Widmerpool who takes charge, packs Le Bas off to hospital, tucks up the drunken Stringham in bed and bends others to his will as the familiar school hierarchy disintegrates before our eyes.

The whole "set-piece" of the dinner is one of the most memorable passages in Dance. We meet such characters as Maiden, who is in margarine and "his yellowish, worried face, which seemed to have taken on sympathetic colouring from the commodity he marketed"; the cringing politician Fettiplace-Jones; the mysterious Alfred Tolland, uncle of Jenkins's future brother-in-law Erridge ("Funny boy"). Le Bas himself quotes from a poem about "several duffers and several bores", while not suggesting "that there was anyone like that at my house..." This sally is greeted by Whitney uttering "some sort of cry reminiscent of the hunting field". And Widmerpool "grinned and drummed on the tablecloth with his fork, slightly shaking his head at the same time to indicate that he did not concur with Le Bas in supposing his former pupils entirely free from such failings."

On a point of topography, it would appear from Jenkins's reference in the narration to bumping into Templer in "one of the subterranean passages to the private room where we were to eat" that the Old Boy Dinner must have been in the basement (its stuffiness doubtless a contributing factor in Le Bas's stroke) near the old Grill -- where The Ritz Club Casino now is. (The Trafalgar Suite, where this luncheon is being held, was done up in the 1970s for the hotel's then chairman, Nigel Broackes.)

And finally (as Le Bas said, "I do not intend to make a long, prosy after-dinner speech ... nothing more boring"), a typical point of detail which Anthony Powell, that master of observation, picked up in Dance. Widmerpool refers to one of his predecessors among the speakers as having worked as a waiter at The Ritz "while acquiring his managerial training". Well, Giles Shepard, the present Managing Director of The Ritz, who has done so much to restore this great hotel's reputation, was himself at Eton -- and I feel sure that all of us who have enjoyed this "ritual feast" of the already flourishing Anthony Powell Society on the eve of the inaugural conference at Eton will wish to thank Mr Shepard for making us feel so at home in what Peter Templer described as "these gorgeous halls".

Editor's note: Hugh Massingberd is the author, with David Watkin, of London Ritz: a Social & Architectural History. Hugh Massingberd's latest book Daydream Believer: Confessions of a Hero-Worshipper (Macmillan, 2001) features a chapter on Anthony Powell.

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Article © Copyright Hugh Massingberd, 2001.
© Copyright The Anthony Powell Society, 2005. All rights reserved.
Last updated: 15 February 2005, Keith Marshall