Rivalry. October 2017.

Dear Rowley,

The Anne Boleyn license to print money continues apace with Alison Weir’s ‘factional’ novel Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession available in all good bookshops. Weir is a historian and has tackled the Six Wives previously in a work of non-fiction. Despite the subject being exhausted without the discovery of a lost caché of letters under the floorboards at Hever Castle, Tudor fanatics such as I continue to buy anything branded AB.

What to make of A King’s Obsession? The facts of Anne Boleyn’s life -as few as they are following the attempt to erase her from history after her death in 1536 – have been laid out like a game of patience that many authors have tried to solve. Weir risks some audacious leaps from fact-to-fact such as Anne’s sister Mary being raped by both King François of France and King Henry VIII. Oh no they didn’t!

History remembers Mary Boleyn as a courtesan who took to her work like a swan to a lake. It largely remembers Anne Boleyn as a bewitching contradiction. Here is a woman who championed the new religion but was branded a witch. The Lady held-off Henry VIII’s affections for years before she was in reach of the crown but was relentlessly taunted in the street as the ‘king’s whore’.

Anne Boleyn has to have a strong voice and I don’t think Alison Weir gave her sufficient intelligence to stitch-up an obsessed Henry VIII like a kipper. For a start, the dialogue in A King’s Obsession makes TV’s The Tudors sound like Wittgenstein in comparison. We have Henry VIII addressing Anne with ‘Darling, give me a chance’ and Anne saying of Cromwell ‘well, he’ll have to get over it’. I half expected her to call the prosecuting council ‘H8ers’.

When Hilary Mantel weighed-in to the Anne Boleyn canon with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, her reading of character, sublime prose and subtle plotting made her books the definitive fictional account of Anne’s rise and fall. Her story is cleverly seen thorough the eyes of Thomas Cromwell leaving other authors an open goal to elucidate Anne’s motivation. Weir’s Anne is never entirely convincing as a power player not least in her secret love for Henry Norris.

Whereas I found Mantel’s humanising of Tudor history entirely plausible, I was constantly thinking ‘really?’ at the words and thoughts Weir put into Anne’s mouth and head respectively. An Anne in love with Henry Norris is a conceit that comes in handy to draw one of Henry VIII’s closest friends into the plot to dethrone her. But I suspect Anne’s heart was far too hardened to be touched by a courtier once the crown was secured in 1533.

Alison Weir’s Anne does not display the brilliance of a player in Tudor politics. She seems to be carried along rather than leading from the front. I believe that Hilary Mantel nailed it when she portrayed Anne being as dispassionate and strategic as a chess master. Anne Boleyn overcame a relatively lowly birth, limited beauty and the might of church and state to become Queen of England. Anne was exceptional in every way.

A nation’s religion was changed for Anne Boleyn to take her place next to Henry VIII. She was the only one of his six wives to be given a coronation in her own right though at the time the king did think she had his son in her belly. Queen Anne was also named Regent in the absence of King Henry which could have changed history had Henry died in the jousting accident of January 1536.

It is a tantalising thought that, had Henry died and Anne not miscarried of a son in January 1536, the lady could have ruled England as Regent for sixteen years. Of course it was not to be. Anne’s fall took a matter of days for Cromwell to orchestrate leading to what is acknowledged today as a judicial murder. Queen Anne was removed for her failure to bear a son and heir.

I will be intrigued to see how Alison Weir handles Jane Seymour. I have always maintained just by looking at Holbein the Younger’s portrait of Jane that the meek milksop reputation was entirely fraudulent. Hilary Mantel does more than suggest that Jane Seymour knew precisely what she was doing when she turned against Queen Anne and accepted the affections of the king.

The Holbein portrait of Jane is not flattering. It shows a woman with eyes and muzzle like a pit bull terrier and determined, pursed lips. Lest we forget, when the once-hated Queen Anne was in the Tower of London, citizens were penning lewd rhymes about Henry and Jane’s unseemly courtship in the shadow of the scaffold. I would love to see Weir go in on Jane Seymour as an ambitious, morally questionable opportunist.

It turned out that Queen Anne’s reign was longer than Queen Jane’s who died in 1537 giving birth to the future King Edward VI. Jane’s triumph was but a whisper in history whereas Anne Boleyn changed the course of the nation’s religion. As a symbol not only of radical religion but also immorality Anne Boleyn was controversial to her contemporaries. She did not go quietly.

The lion’s share of information about Anne Boleyn is gleaned from reports of her trial for treason, witchcraft and adultery: ergo it looks back on her life through the prism of presumed guilt. Personally I don’t see any historian giving enough credence to Anne’s championing of the new religion. Why else but religious fervour would make her put her head into the lion’s mouth?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Survival Instinct. October 2017.

Dear Rowley,

Fasten your seatbelt, this is going to be a bumpy ride for anyone under thirty. Am I the only person with a few miles on the clock who is fed the fuck up with ageism? I read that the BBC is hiring Millennials to teach the old in the TV industry how to relate to the young. Who, in the name of Joan Bakewell, dreamed that one up? I should think Armando Iannucci’s quill is quivering with anticipation to write the parody sitcom.

I am ‘So Over’ Millennials being the sole focus of media, politics, popular culture and pornography. For centuries the elders of any tribe were respected and listened to. Today it seems that the entire focus is on the kindergarten. I do not believe that youth is wasted on the young. It is glorious to be young. But it is also a position of insecurity and a need to make checks and balances with people who have been there, done that and can offer sage advice.

There was a snippet on Twitter today about the editor of gay magazine Attitude who was told his book about growing up inspired by Madonna was too gay and irrelevant anyway because Madonna was an old woman of no interest to Millennials. Really? Isn’t that as offensive as saying an artist is too black?

I know gay life is a breeze now and that when teens come out they are greeted with applause, streamers and balloons. When I came out I was told I would never be happy and that I would probably die of AIDS. It wasn’t that long ago in the grand scheme of things. Madonna was a profound reference point. She was a lady who was telling us it was OK to be gay when the majority considered physical or mental abuse the natural response.

I am watching Madonna’s Rebel Heart tour tonight on DVD. She is now 59. I could not have done what she does in a live show in my twenties. This gorgeous woman produces shows that make all the pygmies of pop weep with despair. She is the Queen of Pop. End of story.

Every time I see Madonna perform she gives me life. She’s on my side, she is a consummate professional and alway exceeds expectations. I love her music because I grew up with it but also because she makes me keep up with the 21st century. I don’t give a hot damn what Madonna has to do to keep looking beautiful. She is beautiful.

I think Madonna has done more for gay rights than Harvey Milk. She is fearless and she gives us all hope that love is love wherever it happens to alight. I have experienced true love only twice and  neither actually matured into a relationship. But like Madonna I keep questing. The love quest is one of the major reasons to keep alive and keep trying.

Apropos this, my Mother and Father celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary this month. Can you imagine? Fifty years together. It is such a tribute to them and their level of tolerance and affection. I am too old now to celebrate a 50th with anyone and that says a lot. But it also says a lot about the older generation. They knew how to persevere and make it work.

It is churlish to condescend to younger people but, then again, I find it soul destroying that they condescend to us. The worst tyranny is computers. Just because we were brought-up before the techno age, it seems that we are held ransom by techies who can code and plumb the depths of the Dark Web.

Well, let’s seek some perspective here. Older people have brains, experience and memory. We don’t need to Google the date of Queen Victoria’s birth. We know where New Orleans is without Google maps. We are aware how much or little cash is in our bank accounts without an iPhone alert.

The techno revolution has made young people arrogant and complacent. They have information but no knowledge. To be an intelligent human being you have to retain facts not just look them up every time you forget. We also saw a world when entertainment meant Sinatra, Liza or Ella not Miley, Bieber or some dumb rapper.

The BBC might want to consider lionising people with experience rather than making them feel like they don’t have the wherewithal to keep up with the world we live in. Old to me is pure gold and youth in need of fashioning through the flames of experience. When I watch Madonna in her late fifties dominating a stadium I think ‘good for us’.

I sincerely hope Madonna tours again and continues to be the top earner for stadium shows. If she goes into her 60s like Boadecia then there is hope for the rest of us. She is a force of nature and a woman who has inspired me all my life. Madonna has kept the faith with me and I keep the faith with her.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Swimmer. October 2017.

Dear Rowley,

As we enter my birth month I do increasingly think there’s credence to all this star sign malarky. I am a textbook Scorpio: determined, complex, secretive, lustful, resourceful, vindictive, fatal when provoked and with an inclination to kill itself rather than be killed. My favourite Scorpio trait is the power of regeneration. When chopped-off, the tail grows back don’t you know.

Scorpio is a water sign and if there’s a number one water baby in Bloomsbury it’s a yes from me Simon. I’ve said it a million times but water is nature’s tranquilliser. It is not coincidental that I begin every possible day with a swim. My very best thinking is done ploughing through laps in tight Speedos (pass the sal volatile Maud) working out how I’m going to win at life.

As you know, I have not always won at life but which of us have? I sometimes look at those Slim Aarons photographs of the billionaire belt in the US poolside in the 1950s and 1960s and wonder. The picture is beyond perfect. The subjects are immaculately groomed. The sun is always shining. Little do they know that Fate and Nemesis are waiting off-stage to strike.

I do consider a year when I don’t swim in the Mediterranean sea a wasted one. The sheer tranquility of swimming underwater in a calm sea does for me what Quaaludes or Valium did for all those Dolls in the Slim Aarons pictures. I am most at peace underwater feeling weightless and careless. Perhaps in a past life I was a guppy.

Birthday months do tend to bring out the reflective mood in me. It’s a bit like marking the score at the end of a rubber of Bridge. Well, I celebrated my last birthday less than a month after talking myself out of a madhouse in Toronto so I’m already significantly up the leader board in 2017. The head and heart have been well looked after in the past year. The next year is going to be all about the wallet.

In the bigger picture, I am fortunate to be celebrating a decade in Bloomsbury Towers and twenty-five years in ‘the business’ as Danny La Rue would say. Then again, there’s nothing quite so irritating when you’re going through lean times than to have some do-gooder reminding you there are starving children in Africa.

Admittedly I’ve made a few bucks in my time. But I’ve spent a few on booze, boys, swanky dinners and suits. I squandered the rest. I would describe my career in London with a song title. ‘They just keep moving the line’. Before I got my trophy, the race began again. And again. I always thought that money was the applause for a good performance. I know now that this is not the case.

So what to do apart from pull off a big one? I am of course referring to a bank job. Sadly I don’t think Scorpios are cut out to be master criminals. But I do think we can apply our inquiring minds to the challenge of cashing-in on our talent. As a fashion journalist, my job was to criticise and praise. As an author it is to lionise. But as CEO of Jewellery for Gentlemen Ltd it will be to test my eye for small, sparkly treasures that sell.

We all sell ourselves on a daily basis but I have never tested my ability to sell something solid such as men’s jewellery. I have sold my mind and my ability to string pretty, hopefully intelligent sentences together. But I have never yet tested whether people will buy something tangible of my choice.

I do believe writing is a talent that can be nurtured and developed and I am grateful that people want to purchase what I write. But I do daydream about having a singing voice that could carry me through life like the wings of a dove. Singing is the talent I most envy. I believe it is God-given compared to dancing. You may have rhythm in your soul  but dancing demands sweat and tears for a short career. A truly exceptional singing voice lasts forever if you take care of it.

Sadly, I don’t sing like Streisand. I don’t even sing like Dorothy Squires on a bad night in the Wheel Tappers & Shunters Social Club. But I do still daydream that one day I will find a voice that people will pay to listen to. Perhaps that is a euphemism for wanting more attention and applause. I don’t know.

Well this is turning into a very navel-gazing letter isn’t it? Let’s get back to the burning issues of the day such as Strictly Come Dancing. You know I adore that show. It is the panacea for all the ills of the British winter when your optimism/sense of humour/sex drive take a dive. But will somebody please put Tess Daley out of our misery?

The woman speaks to the celebrity dancers as if they are kindergarten pupils who have peed themselves and she’s trying to mop up and console. Patronising isn’t even in it. Neither is any discernible sense of humour. Tess is an autocue android. By contrast Claudia ‘the walking mascara wand’ Winkleman is a loose canon.

I like Claudia’s schtick but is she really good enough to be the BBC’s highest paid female talent? The sight gags are truly execrable and I can’t help but think of the Peggy Lee dog in The Lady and the Tramp whenever she peeps out of that damned fringe. I can’t call who will win Strictly at this early stage but I suspect it might be one of the pop singers who have sung and danced since they were knee high to a grasshopper. Chizzy didn’t have a chance. Until next time…

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Black Magic. September 2017.

Dear Rowley,

Well, Alexander Skarsgard is swiftly becoming the poster boy for Jewellery for Gentlemen and the picture in my locket. Not only did he win the Emmy for Big Little Lies, he also accepted it wearing a Deco diamond Cartier dress clip dated 1929.

With the rakish moustache and sharp tuxedo, Skarsgard channelled golden age Clark Gable who I noticed wore onyx buttons on his dinner jacket vest. Once you get your eye in for gentlemen’s jewellery there is such a precedent in the past f0r small treasures worn discreetly.

All roads seem to lead to jewellery at the moment. The other day, Tracey Llewellyn my delectable editor on Revolution asked me to write a piece about the relationship between Fabergé watches and the Imperial Easter Eggs that inspired the designs. My favourite is the gem-set Compliquée Peacock watch that tells the minutes as the bird’s bejewelled tail fans.

The fifty Fabergé Imperial Easter Eggs are to me the pinnacle of the jewellers’ art. The most ingenious egg  is the Mosaic egg now in possession of HM The Queen. The egg is constructed from a platinum trelliswork worked entirely by hand and set with a mosaic of multicoloured gemstones in floral motifs. The design was inspired by needlepoint.

The Mosaic egg is semi-transparent and contains a surprise as do each of the other fifty eggs: in this case a cameo portrait of Tsar Nicholas II’s five children. The portraits were some of the more conventional fancies. Other eggs concealed automaton jewelled peacocks, miniature renderings of palaces and royal carriages, sprays of flowers carved from hard stones and miniature diamond Imperial crowns.

The Imperial Easter Eggs were private gifts first from Tsar Alexander III to his wife Marie Feodorovna and then from Tsar Nicholas II to his wife the Empress Alexandra and his mother the Dowager Empress. Nobody bar the Imperial family and the Fabergé workshop knew of their existence before the Revolution.

I believe the Dowager Empress escaped Russia with one Imperial Egg. The rest were scattered to the four winds or kept in the Kremlin until the Soviet regime sold them. That so many survived is a miracle and the Fabergé eggs will forever be a symbol of Romanov decadence.

The Fabergré eggs are, in effect, deeply sentimental Eater gifts that took over a year each to make using materials and techniques that only maser craftsmen could handle. My only question is why, when they rarely come up for sale, do the Fabergé eggs not leave 20th century artists such as Rothko, Pollock, De Koonig and Bacon in the shade?

The world’s most expensive painting is thought to be Gaugin’s Two Tahitian Girls which sold to the gentleman in the kaffiyeh for $300 million. The most expensive Fabergé egg was the Third Imperial Egg made in 1887 and lost after the Revolution until it was discovered in an American flea market a couple of years ago. The egg was identified by Wartski and sold for a rumoured $33 million.

It does seem bizarre that a Pollock consisting of demented paint splatters can exceed $100 million at auction while a Fabergé egg so exquisitely crafted using precious metals, gemstones and the minds of masters to concoct the surprises within doesn’t even come close. One would imagine that if an unique egg such as the Mosaic came to auction, it might be more highly prized than a Picasso canvas of which there are thousands.

Jewellery was particularly prominent at this season’s LAPADA antiques fair in Berkeley Square. Lucas Rarities took the prize for a funfair-themed stand in pole position complete with trick mirrors, neon signs and circus games. There were two corking Suzanne Belperron cabochon sapphire brooches that pleased the eye and a very cute 1913 Cartier diamond stick pin that I coveted.

While researching a piece about stick pins for Country Life, I had the opportunity to re-visit Mr Omar at Bentley & Skinner and Thomas at Wartski. At the former I met the most divine Art Nouveau 18ct yellow gold serpent stick pin with an emerald eye and at the later re-acquainted myself with a peacock feather Cartier stick pin we shot for Jewellery for Gentlemen. 

My own Jewellery for Gentlemen venture for The Wedding Gallery is gaining momentum. I’m still waiting on a decision from Virgin Startup about investment but have everything ready for the green flag should it come. The more pieces of antique men’s jewellery I buy, the more I believe that Mr Skarsgard is an early adopter and Jewellery for Gentlemen is ready for a major comeback.

What else is new on the Rialto? Well, we went to see Victoria & Abdul; Judi Dench’s second outing as Queen Victoria this time concentrating on the old lady’s relationship with her Muslim ‘Munshi’ or teacher. To my knowledge, the real Munshi was not India’s answer to Bambi: all doe-eyes and dazzling teeth. Nor was the old queen in love with him.

The court – and in particular the future King Edward VII – are portrayed as bathetic colonialists sucking their teeth and twirling their moustaches that an Indian servant could become John Brown the Second. Most of the Royal Family surrounding Queen Victoria were removed presumably to keep the story simple and allow Dame Judi to display her chops as the cantankerous, stubborn old lady.

There was a lot of playing for laughs at the expense of the Royal Household suggesting that the Munshi was in some way a heroic hand across the sea from India to its Empress. In reality, he appeared to me like Mr Sloane in the eponymous Joe Orton play. Then again, the fact that he was the last to see The Queen before she was sealed in her coffin does suggest that even King Edward VII acknowledged the bond between them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Vivien Leigh. September 2017.

Dear Rowley,

I recall many years ago filming a documentary about Vivien Leigh for Channel 4 in which I commented that her life and her art on screen were in total harmony: from the skittish, delicious, courageous minx Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939) to what screenwriter Gavin Lambert described as the ‘deceitful frayed elegance’ of Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).

Vivien only made nine movies after Gone With the Wind not least because she became the first lady of the stage often co-starring with husband Laurence Olivier. The films she did make are courageous considering the lady’s well-documented and hugely destructive manic depression. Vivien was one of the 20th century’s greatest beauties but accepted roles in later life that underlined the inevitability of ageing.

To me Streetcar is painful to watch as is Vivien’s other Tennessee Williams eponymous fading lady in The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone (1961). The latter film in which Mrs Stone becomes embroiled with a Contessa who provides young Italian gigolos for willing older ladies is merciless and Vivien breaks your heart in it. How must it have felt to watch Marilyn Monroe walk off with the role of Elsie Marina in the 1957 film version of The Sleeping Prince: a role Vivien created on stage opposite Olivier?

Needless to say back in the days of manic depression rather than the more cuddly ‘bi-polar’, sufferers of the condition were misunderstood. People saw a voracious, Martini-happy dame living on the edge of her nerves when really this was a symptom not a cause of Vivien Leigh’s troubles. And yet in public Vivien maintained her dignity and consistently produced superb work on stage and screen that must often have forced her to confront some less than glamorous realities.

Vivien Leigh was blessed with beauty, intellect, visceral talent and by all accounts a brittle sense of humour that allowed her to finesse the curse of manic depression. For all who share the condition, Vivien Leigh is something of an inspiration and for that the applause continues long after her death in 1967. For all the gossip mongers who rake over Vivien’s misfortunes I have this to say. Had she only made Gone With the Wind and never worked again, Vivien Leigh achieved immortality and so much more than the allegedly ‘sane’ people who bore us all by leading long, uneventful lives.

It was with no little fascination that I chanced upon a small exhibition of Vivien Leigh’s estate to be sold by Sotheby’s London on the 26th of September with a larger preview on the 22nd. Treasures on sale include Vivien’s copy of Gone With the Wind signed by Margaret Mitchell and her annoted script. There are personal and professional photographs, a painting given by Sir Winston Churchill, furniture and gowns. But it was the contents of Vivien’s jewellery box that caught my eye.

Unlike the Duchess of Windsor and Elizabeth Taylor whose legendary collections of jewels have broken auction records, Vivien’s pieces are not led by masterpieces by the historic Parisian jewel houses. Like the lady herself, they are much more understated, sophisticated and personal pieces of jewellery that reflect a woman of great taste. In addition to Renaissance revival pieces there’s a darling diamond Art Deco Longines dress watch, several graphic mid-century show-stoppers and sentimental jewels such as charm bracelets and inscribed rings.

The star piece is a garland style tasselled diamond bow brooch with an estimate of £25,000-£35,000 in a style worn by the Empress Eugenie of the French. Vivien would wear it against black gowns giving the piece the attention that it deserved. But apart from the bow brooch, the estimates are incredibly low. How did the experts arrive at a low estimate of £800 for a natural pearl and diamond necklace … and that’s before you add the Vivien Leigh magic?

I have my eye on two brooches – a polo mallet and a riding crop – that could be marvellous additions to the inventory of Jewellery for Gentlemen - but fear the £150-£200 estimates will be left far behind on the day. Still, I will register and hopefully attend the sale. I also have to have the catalogue. Sotheby’s are absolutely terrific at researching both facts and pictures to support the pieces in an estate sale of this stature. One of my favourite books bar none are the boxed set of S0theby’s catalogues of the 1987 Duke and Duchess of Windsor sale.

I do hope the Vivien Leigh sale at Sotheby’s inspires the programmers at the BFI to plan a season of Vivien’s films to introduce her to a new generation of fans. Now that mental health is such a hot topic amongst Millennials I would have thought Vivien’s life reflected through her film work would be as relevant today as it was in the 20th century.

Speaking of Millennials, can we have a mini-rant about vocabulary? When did the habit of finishing every sentence with a dopey smile and ‘if that makes sense’ begin? I feel like saying ‘of course it bleedin makes sense. You’re not speaking Swahili and I’m not a fecking idiot’. Another pet peeve is somebody qualifying a fact in their lives that’s a complete mystery to you with ‘obviously’ as in ‘obviously we’re serving prawn fancies at Shona’s wedding’. Obvious to you and the caterer perhaps but news to me…

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,