Lord Alfred Douglas

I read with interest Luisa Zambrotta’s interesting post on Lionel Johnson. Johnson was Bosie’s cousin and a contemporary of his at Winchester College. He introduced him to Oscar Wilde, with fatal and well-recorded consequences. When I was at Winchester in the Seventies, there was precious little evidence of Johnson or Bosie. Unsurprisingly, no prizes were named in their honour, no tennis courts or cricket pitches hallowed in their memory. Yet many Wykehamists (this is what Winchester alumni are called, after the founder, William of Wykeham) are more than a little proud of Bosie, and I am no exception. I feel as though I knew him, which sounds incredibly pretentious given that he died long before I was born – so allow me to explain.

In London in the mid-Eighties I knew a delightful woman called Inez Nimmo-Smith. In her youth she had been a great beauty and was the former wife of Christopher Hill, sometime Master of Balliol College, Oxford. In her Oxford days she had, as she put it, “swung from the chandeliers” in Balliol and had been very much the life and soul of Common Room. Now, in genteel semi-retirement, she lived quietly in a tiny flat in Belgravia, from which she ran an elegant little business, planting and maintaining terrace gardens in Chelsea, Belgravia and South Kensington. The enterprise had grown by word of mouth. Her clients included a number of people in her circle who were distinguished thespians, among them Albert Finney and Dirk Bogarde. I sometimes helped Inez by trundling around Chelsea with her, laden with flowerpots and watering cans, she in a summer dress and broad-brimmed straw hat, I rather incongruously in tweeds and a panama.

We had a set conversational ritual that sustained us among the window boxes, lubricated by the occasional bottle of wine or vodka that Finney or Bogarde would leave out for us. “Well, Inez,” I would say, “tell me about life in the olden times.” At this she would invariably break into a kind of music hall, cockney vernacular. “I ain’t the old stick yer take me for! I’ll ‘ave yer know I turned a few ‘eads in me day…” and words to that effect. Then she would tell me stories, often of a ribald nature, about Tom Driberg, or the Duke of Windsor, or Guy Burgess, or various other notorieties with whom she had collided over the decades. One day she told me the following.

Inez grew up in Brighton and Hove in the Twenties and Thirties. As a teenager she had taken various part-time jobs, as a secretary, companion or general factotum. One day she answered a notice in the window of a local shop announcing that a “notable man of letters” required occasional accompaniment on afternoon outings. She found herself at the door of the now elderly Lord Alfred Douglas, who lived in Hove. They agreed a routine where she would collect him from his flat and wheel him to and fro on the Hove promenade, in a large and ornate bath chair. During these outings, Bosie would often expatiate on his life and achievements, the general drift being literary or artistic, more often than not sharpened with the carefully distilled venom he reserved for his many enemies.

One afternoon, he asked Inez to stop for while on the promenade. “Do you know, my dear child,” he mused, “who is the greatest writer of sonnets in this or any other language?” Inez thought for a moment. “No, Lord Alfred. I’m sure I don’t. Might it perhaps be Shakespeare?” “No, my child,” replied Bosie, as he gazed out over the Channel, the remains of his great beauty still evident in his haggard face and intense eyes. “No, my child. It is I.” Then once more, his voice falling to a whisper, “It is I.” Inez observed that this was said not in petulance, but with a kind of resigned fatalism, as though he now knew once and for all that the tide was against him, that the world was not yet ready or able to embrace his genius.

“It is I…” Bosie in Brighton. John Betjeman always said his company conferred “a great sense of uplift and holiday”.

Some years later, in the Nineties, I found myself working as a “creative director” in London. Once I was called on to help design and organise a trade event, at which the most opulent vintage clothing dealers in Britain were to gather for a grand exhibition in the West End. For the opening I had got as far as hiring a pair of enormous, three-metre-high, mock-baroque fifty-branch candelabra. I had also hired half a dozen black waiters who were prepared to serve champagne and canapes wearing nothing but gold lamé turbans and loincloths. What more could I do to gild this already monstrous lily? An idea quickly suggested itself.

I knew that Bosie had bequeathed some of his belongings to a few close friends in Hove who had helped him in his final years. Among the effects was some clothing. The beneficiaries were not sure what to do with it, so eventually they sent the relics to Madame Tussaud’s, the London waxworks, where one day they might be put to good use, should an effigy of Bosie ever be created. At that point it had not. So I telephoned Tussaud’s saying I was interested in hiring the Douglas bequest for an event, and that I wished to dress a tailor’s mannequin in Bosie’s finery and make it the centerpiece of an exhibition. The exquisite-sounding gentleman at the waxworks seemed glad to encourage this, so an appointment for viewing was made.

I was met at Baker Street by a charming young woman, one of the assistant curators. The storerooms were at the top of the building, so we first climbed the grand staircase to the upper chambers. After that, the flights of stairs became narrower and darker until finally we reached the attics by way of a creaking final flight, lit by a single dim and shadeless bulb. The attics were extraordinary, eerily illuminated by skylights letting in the charactistically dead, late-afternoon autumn light of London. They were piled from floor to ceiling with carefully labeled hatboxes, cabin trunks, chests, armoires, mannequins. Eventually we came to a small room, where a hatbox and a leather suitcase were waiting on a table. “These are Lord Alfred’s things,” said my companion, with a beautifully anachronistic Edwardian deference. “Thank you, my child,” I might have said, but didn’t. She left me to my inspection of the treasures.

What I found was sparse to say the least. There were, among numerous carefully folded handkerchiefs and socks, two sets of cream silk pyjamas made by Sulka of Piccadilly, the epitome of luxury in their day but now visibly frayed and worn. A tear in one set had been mended with snow-white cotton, leaving a livid cicatrice of painstaking needlework. The white hatbox bore the grand name of Lock, with the Royal Warrant embossed beneath it. Bosie’s name appeared on a label on the side. “Lord Alfred Douglas, for collection”. The bowler hat inside was a little battered, the original inky black having given way in parts to a rusty brown. This must have been one of the hats he had worn on blustery afternoons on the promenade with Inez all those decades ago. These, then, were the sartorial remains of Oscar Wilde’s “golden boy”, whose “slim gilt soul walked between passion and poetry”. I folded the pyjamas with due reverence and returned them to the suitcase. On impulse I tried on the bowler hat, which fitted me perfectly. “It is I,” I murmured softly, crowning myself the new King of Neglected Poets in the dying light of the attic. God knows what fury this impertinence might have provoked in Bosie, but I’d like to think he’d forgive me, because at that moment I decided to leave his things to the decent obscurity they deserved. Abandoning the mannequin idea once and for all, I thanked the curators, and eventually found my way out into a darkening Baker Street.

There was little point in going back to the office, so I took a cab to the Savoy, where I ordered the first of a long series of hocks and seltzers in an improvised act of Remembrance. As I drank them I called to mind my favourite poem of Bosie’s, which seems to me to give him an unchallengable place among the masters.  Here it is.