The “eccentric aristocrat” is a stock figure in British cultural history, but too often this “eccentricity” can be reduced to a series of wet, flabby, uninspired, attention-seeking pranks, devoid of humour and ingenuity.
The English painter, composer and author Lord Berners was both aristocratic and eccentric, but his keen wit and genuinely surreal flights of fantasy differentiate him from the “ooh I’m mad me!” antics of, say, Lord Bath.
Berners had a long and strange association with birdlife in his long and strange career; we’ve already touched on his lament for a dead parrot. In earliest childhood Berners imagined himself to actually be a bird and would make nests for himself, and an early prank was to train a parrot to walk with a bowler hat, which appeared to be moving about the floor of its own accord.
In adult life, more than one associate described his prematurely-bald head as an egg, and his most famous affectation was to dye the pigeons on his estate in rainbow colours to the amazement of such guests as Evelyn Waugh, Cecil Beaton and Gertrude Stein.
Although naturally shy, Lord Berners had a rare gift for malicious social awkwardness. One of the most memorable examples, again typically avian-related, was when Margaret Taylor, the earnest wife of esteemed historian A.J.P. Taylor, came to lunch one day in the late 1930s. As she was walking away from the house, Berners — remembering too late that he had forgotten to show her a golden rooster ornament — chased after her.
“Maggie, Maggie! Wait a moment!” he shouted, “I do so want to show you my cock.”