Royal St James’s. June 2013.

Dear Rowley,

Terribly sad to read of Sir Henry Cecil’s death. He was bar none the most elegantly dressed man at Royal Ascot. We’d often tip top hats when I was en route to eviscerate fascinators in the Royal Enclosure and he to collect yet another cup in the Parade Ring. The thrice-married trainer was one of the last of the dandies in the true sense of the word: an understated but impossibly glamorous man who met triumph and disaster with wry but inscrutable smile. The Royal Meeting won’t be the same without he or the Duke of Edinburgh this year.

You’ll be relieved to hear that the Royal St. James’s book is now well on the way to completion. I should be able to come up for oxygen in early July. Researching the book has made me develop an awful crush on St James’s Palace. It is such a curious anomaly: a Tudor palace whose construction between 1531-6 coincided with Henry VIIIs second marriage to Anne Boleyn. I’ve been trying desperately to prove the modest, minor palace was built for Anne. She spent the night of her coronation there in 1533 and a fireplace in the Tapestry Room is decorated by the initials H&A entwined in a lovers’ knot.

By 1540 when Holbein was commanded to decorate the ceiling of the Chapel Royal in St. James’s Palace, Anne’s decapitated body had lain beneath the flagstones of St Peter ad Vincula (St Peter in Chains) within the precincts of the Tower of London for four years. It is Anne of Cleves’s arms that decorate the Chapel as do those of her unfortunate successor Catherine Howard. St. James’s Palace is thus an architectural echo of Henry VIIIs marriages and thus a sacred place for me in London.

Don’t you absolutely adore Mark Wallinger’s White Horse sculpture outside the British Council offices on The Mall? Apparently the piece, made from resin and marble, is modelled from a 3D white light scan. I can’t help but think that’s cheating – particularly in the company of the great equestrian statues in Trafalgar Square – but doubtless the new art establishment will tell me this is progress. It’s all about the idea these days rather than the execution. Let’s hope the nations surgeons don’t adopt the same philosophy.

Whenever writing a book I do tend to seek amusement as far away as possible from the subject I’m researching hence Better Half and I going to see Behind the Candelabra: the Liberace biopic that was the toast of the Cannes Film Festival. Director Stephen Soderbergh does a brilliant job evoking the kitsch, Technicolor land that taste forgot inhabited by Liberace and his boyfriend Scott played by Matt Damon.

Those too young to remember Liberace might find it hard to believe that the bouffant hair, rhinestone-encrusted white fox capes, sequin suits, Little Lord Fauntleroy cravats and hideous gold rings sported by the pianist aren’t remotely exaggerated. Nor is the star’s entrance on the Las Vegas stage in the back of a white limousine driven by Scott wearing a rhinestone chauffeur’s uniform straight out of a 70s gay porn movie. 

Soderbergh is pitiless with Douglas whose Liberace is as wizened and repulsive as Nosferatu. Without toupee or bathrobe, Douglas’s Liberace is quite simply stomach-churning when putting the moves on Damon. Their first love scene (and I hesitate to use the phrase) had the entire cinema reaching for the sal volatile as did the graphic plastic surgery scenes when Scott is sliced-up by Rob Lowe’s Dr Feelgood to resemble the young Liberace. Behind the Candelabra is, in short, a gay horror movie played for laughs.

Rob Lowe is outstanding as the real-life doctor who operated under the influence of vodka stingers and hooked his patients on the California Diet of amphetamines and booze. And to Douglas’s credit, he never entirely lost the sympathy of the audience who saw his Liberace as a monstrous cartoon rather than a rather sinister human being. It was Damon’s Scott that queered the moral compass.

Matt Damon is twenty years older than Scott was when Liberace first pounced. True, Scott was complicit and stayed with the star as long as 18k gold bracelets, coyote fur chubbies and facelifts were forthcoming. But if Scott had been played by a sixteen year old we’d have clearly been in Jimmy Savile territory: an unpleasant, predatory man in fancy dress preying on twinks.

The physical comedy of Damon in rhinestone g-string swimwear and gold pool-side slippers distracted from a rather grim and sordid truth. What was behind the candelabra? A greedy hustler and a seedy old man. Liberace’s private life didn’t bear scrutiny for anyone other than the morbidly curious. Who’s next? Siegfried and Roy?

My last photograph is of Duck Island Cottage. A house has existed on this site since the reign of William III in 1698 as a retreat for the Keeper of the King’s Birds in St. James’s Park. As you know, St James’s is the oldest royal park in London and has been a home for rare and exotic birds since James I drained what was marshlands and landscaped the land in the early 1600s. After St. James’s Palace, my ideal home in London would have to be Duck Island Cottage.