Happy Places

Well, the world has gone to hell pretty successfully over the summer and since. Borders have been erased in more than one continent. Crucifixion has once again become part of the news cycle. And to top it all off, at the time of writing our country appears to be breaking up about our ears, with the Scots destined to further fragment our union even if they choose to stay.

I  gather that at such times our Prime Minister retreats — as many of us do — to his “happy place”. Apparently this place was, until recently, the memory of standing on a balcony in Libya beside President Sarkozy waving to a grateful crowd of those whose lives they had just saved. As happy places go that was a good one, surely seeing him through many a meeting with a Liberal Democrat colleague. Though I say “was” and “until recently” because it is unlikely to have remained his place of mental retreat, not least because now nobody can go to Libya, neither diplomats nor journalists, let alone prime ministers or presidents. Benghazi airport and much else, including perhaps the very balcony Mr Cameron was standing on, has been burned to the ground by people now described as “rebels”.

Of course Mr Cameron may be tempted to search for another happy place. Before searching for it abroad, perhaps I can offer the PM some domestic alternatives.

Country-house operas on English summer nights are the best happy place I know. Perhaps the happiest moment of the summer occurred — as happy occasions so often do — by accident. A friend took a box at the wonderful Grange Park Opera in Hampshire. The performance, of Massenet’s Don Quichotte, was less second-rate than country-house opera often is, and the evening itself performed beautifully. Drinks beforehand on the Greek Revival terrace, dinner during the long interval inside the ruined but slowly restored house, then a second act during which none of our party fell asleep.

Glyndebourne — which can feel like travelling a very long way just for a picnic — is often filled for the second act by people taking perhaps the most expensive nap it is possible to take. But at The Grange the best was saved for last. Instead of us drifting off onto our various motorways, in the main house a Beatles cover band played hit after hit while everyone danced in the semi-ruins. And as our party lingered for our bus, hoping to be able to eke out the pleasure for even a minute longer, the strains of a Gershwin song came to our ears. We drifted like moths back into the house and found a couple of members of the cast at the upright piano in the ruined hall. One girl accompanied another singing “The Man I Love”. Request began to follow request, and as the singing became general, much of the rest of the cast came by and joined in.

Soon, with more bottles ordered, there was no stopping us. Cole Porter came out, as did Irving Berlin, Nöel Coward, Ivor Novello and the rest. A caretaker kept trying to throw us all out by turning off the lights but we continued into the early hours in the semi-darkness, high on classic songs, wine and friendship.

Happy — and so far lucky — though we may have been, my generation’s obituaries seem bound to be second-rate. A summer of deaths reinforces the feeling. Aline Berlin, widow of Isaiah, dead at almost 100, was one reminder. She had seen more by the time she was in her twenties than most of us will in a lifetime. Driving to the South of France in a Bentley to avoid the Germans was perhaps the most glamorous moment, even if it could hardly have seemed so at the time.

The death of Sir Donald Sinden brought an old acquaintance to an end. I first met him almost 20 years ago when he was kind enough to reminisce for my first book. The book’s subject — Lord Alfred Douglas — was someone Donald had got to know while he was on the south coast during the war. Given a biography of Oscar Wilde by a colleague (“with malice aforethought”, he always suggested), he was amazed to discover that the last connection to the Wilde scandal lived just up the road in Hove. Donald was canny as well as kind. Realising that “Bosie” would certainly not open up about Wilde on first meeting, he did his research, read up on Bosie’s own poetry and appeared for his first meeting prepared not to get on to Wilde for a while.

Bit by bit his acquaintance turned to friendship and reminiscences of the 1890s began to flow. Once — only once — did he see Bosie’s less charming side when he produced for signature a book which Bosie had long since abjured. “Where did you get it?” Bosie demanded, his face contorted into a terrible rage as he seized the book and tried to throw it on the fire. Donald was perhaps the last person to see the final flicker of a 19th-century scandal.

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