Summer Flowers

After musing on Musidora yesterday, I present to you a few other events occurring around the start of the (northern) summer. Not that I imagine that the geographically scattered readers here are likely to actually get to these things (although I’d be thrilled if you did, and reported back). It’s more that in writing about people who died long ago, frequently in obscurity, it’s heart-warming to know that their secret influence continues to erupt in unpredictable locations around the globe.

Actually one of them is erupting now, in London, as I blog. “A Queer Orientalism: Sex, Power and Cultural Difference in the ‘Memoirs’ of Sir Edmund Backhouse” is the intriguing title of a talk taking place at Birbeck, University of London. Those scare quotes around ‘Memoirs’ aren’t just decoration; the fabulist Sinologist was notorious for faking not just his research material but also his own life story. I recently got my hands on the only published instalment of those ‘memoirs’, Décadence Mandchoue, and must confess that their libidinous camp insanity proved so overwhelming that I gave up after a couple of chapters.

Slightly more warning: if you should happen to find yourself in south-western Oxfordshire this Friday (a long shot, I know, but hear me out), the very promising “Lord Berners Bizarre Magical Walk” will usher you serenely through the midsummer magic hour and beyond with an amble through the composer/painter/writer’s world. The highlight will surely be Berners’ Faringdon Folly (depicted on the book cover above) the last major folly to be built in England – an appropriate monument to/from the man known as “the last eccentric“.

Later in the summer comes Dorset Opera’s production of Lord Berners’ La Carrosse du Saint-Sacrément, taken from a Prosper Mérimée novella which also inspired Offenbach’s La Périchole. It’s the British première of Berners’ sole operatic work, the only other production occurring decades ago. It was in 1924 at Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, at the time owned by Ganna Walska (making her close encounter with Berners at the Ballets Russes even more intriguing). Over a decade earlier the theatre had hosted the Ballets Russes with riotous results, as Stravinsky’s Sacre du printemps blasted new holes in the granite facade of orchestral music. Berners’ opera was not quite so revolutionary, falling into unobserved slumber from which it only now awakens.

Harry Smith made the triply-occupied Lord Berners look like a lightweight, his immense industry and curiosity producing one of the most fascinating, varied and original bodies of work in the 20th century. He is the subject of a new play-in-progress, A Thick Description of Harry Smith (Volume 1), which will be presented in workshop in New York on 28 and 29 June and 1 and 2 July.

If the title “A Day of Weimar: Three Illustrated Lectures on Sex and the Occult in Pre-War Berlin” does nothing  for you…well, I’m wondering if Strange Flowers is really the blog for you. Said event comprises three lectures by Mel Gordon which correspond to the three books he has written about Berlin in the Weimar and Nazi eras: “Voluptuous Panic – The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin”, “Erik Jan Hanussen, Hitler’s Jewish Clairvoyant” and – someone who should need no introduction to regular readers –  “Anita Berber, the Dancer of Depravity”. The whole thing takes place in LA’s Trepany House on 23 June.

This year London has already seen the Royal Jubilee, a celebration of the grotesque error that is hereditary rule, with millions happily accepting the only role assigned to them: gawping peasant. Later in the season said faceless mass slathers itself in the symbols of the nation-state and morphs into stadia loads of slack-jawed spectators for the Olympics. Between these two grim spectacles comes an event which celebrates the life and work of a man who disdained all such hive-minded mediocrity and strode forth under no banner but his own: Julian Maclaren-Ross.

This year marks the 100th birthday of the English writer, who died all too early in 1964. On 9 July the fittingly Fitzrovian venue the Charlotte Street Hotel hosts “Sohemian Rhapsody: A Journey into the Lost World of Bohemian Soho“. The event will feature readings from Maclaren-Ross’s writings, a talk by his biographer Paul Willetts, and – particularly exciting – rare footage of the man himself.

Maclaren-Ross made his way to the capital from Bournemouth in 1935. He was well aware of the literary and bohemian heritage of the city and duly paid his respects at the Café Royal, still popular at the time but no longer London’s uncontested hub for writers, artists and camp followers as it had been a generation earlier. The Café Royal, which only closed its doors in 2008, is rising again. It will form part of a hotel called, confusingly, Café Royal, its opulent Grill Room and Domino Room restored as part of an overall design by David Chipperfield. It’s due to open this summer.


  1. Such potentially wonderful events! Good to know there are other strange flowers out there who appreciate exotic blooms of the past.

  2. I would so RSVP to The Lord Berners tour. How is it that no footballers have built a folly to accessorize their ostentatious mansions?

  3. Reblogged this on Lady Philospher's Blog and commented:
    Eccentric tea indeed!

  4. Interesting to see Berners still in some people’s awareness. We have a copy of his very rare The Girls of Radcliff Hall for sale.

  5. At £2,750 for the copy we have (signed by Berners and dedicated to Emerald Cunard), I would think that one was enough…

  6. Rococo Liberal

    Not good taking cheap shots at HMQ. The Monarchy is one of the true bastions of eccentricity left in a dull colouless world. And what if the peasants adore it? That’s grand After all we don’t want everyone being a strange flower. WS Gilbert must alaways be counted prescient in this regard: “WHen everybody’s somebody, then no-one’s anybody”

    I always think of McLaren Ross as X Trapnel, the character in “Books do Furnish a Room” by the far greater writer Anthony Powell.

    • Because of dual citizenship I am HMQ’s subject twice over, but I’m afraid on this issue I am implacably New World. True, the institution lucked out with the efficient, dutiful EII, but the rest of them are unrelievedly vile. Would that they were eccentric my friend. Dynastic succession is unfit as a model of governance for the 20th century, let alone the 21st.

      • “Dynastic succession is unfit as a model of governance for the 20th century, let alone the 21st.” True, but the monarchy has nothing to do with governance; we have Parliament for that. I agree with you – although probably for very different reasons – that a hereditary monarchy is probably not the best way of representing a state. However, the idea of an elected head of state has always struck me as invidious because it brings politics and division into the role – imagine having to choose between presidential candidates Osborne and Balls, and there is no guarantee that we would get a Mary Robinson or another unifying figure on a regular basis.

        My own preference for head of state would be the jury / lottery method. Every year / two years, a lottery would pick an adult British citizen to represent the whole country. This would give us fools and geniuses, toffs and touts, naifs and knaves. It would relieve the Windsors of their burden and spare us the circus of yet more elections. (It’s bad enough that we’re about to replace the House of Lords, where debates are currently dominated by thoughtful, intelligent people who know what they are talking about, with party hacks whose primary loyalty will be to the populist policies which get them elected. Democracy and elections should remain the primary tool for wielding power in this country, as we already have in the House of Commons, but they are not suitable for every occasion. Imagine a school where the teachers were chosen by the pupils…)

      • I know you’re being facetious about lottery elections, but it’s not true to say that the monarchy has nothing to do with governance. Just because the network of mutually assured interests masquerading as British pragmatism has largely prevented the unelected from triumphing over the elected doesn’t mean it’s not technically possible. And don’t even start me on the unrepresentative swill who continue to stink out the House of Lords…

      • You’re wrong. I’m not being facetious about lottery to choose the head of state. (And because it’s a lottery, it definitely isn’t an election. It’s the same principle as the jury system.) You choose someone who has no personal interest in the issue at hand because they are likely to be better at it than someone whose personal interest – “elect me, me, me!” – is their primary motivation.
        And listen to Malcolm Rifkind’s speech last night about the House of Lords. The swill currently sits in the Commons, the vast majority of whom are there because they want to be elected, not because they are the best people for the job. They have persuaded us to vote for them in the same way Orange or ASDA persuade us to buy their products. We are lucky in that the Lords comprises of some party hacks, but in the main it is dominated by thoughtful, intelligent people – much more thoughtful and intelligent than the average MP – who are not driven by party politics but by a genuine interest in the issues at hand. (If you don’t believe me, spend a few hours listening to a random sample of Lords debates. If you truly understood how the Lords function, I do not believe you would make such a knee-jerk comment as “don’t even start me on the unrepresentative swill who continue to stink out the House of Lords…”)
        I am not arguing against a democratic system; for all its faults, we need it and have it in the Commons. But I am arguing against destroying a unique institution that has evolved over the last thousand years and which performs that most necessary of functions – making the Commons think. It’s something we should all do a lot more of.

      • OK, you weren’t being facetious, it was just a bad idea. I stand corrected.

        Look, this is not a political blog and this is getting way off topic and somehow flown away from the already fairly throwaway remark I made. Nonetheless I stand by what I said and naturally you’re free to disagree. I just fail to see how an all but powerless chamber which combines the worst of both worlds – political appointees and the lingering lords spiritual and other Arthurian remnants – is a force for good. I don’t believe in sweeping away institutions on the currents of passing ideological whims but a thousand-year-old bad idea is still a bad idea. A true house of review would have more power and would look a lot different, but for a country that made bicameral legislature an export item Britain really hasn’t made much progress with it.

  7. Pingback: Places: Théâtre des Champs-Elysées | Strange Flowers

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