Sometimes I think that God is very far away. I recall that the Protestant martyr Anne Askew said, quoting Christ, that He saw every sparrow fall. I don’t believe her. I am a Catholic who rarely attends Mass, but I am praying with a desperate urgency in the hope that some of my burdens will be relieved, if only in my mind. He did say‚ after all, “thou shalt not be overcome”, but at the moment my troubles come not in big battalions but in nuclear strikes. My mother, who is 96, fades. She has dementia and is refusing medical treatment. She is skin and bone. I lost my father a long time ago, and though my mother has been lost already, I shall have to mourn her twice. Becoming an orphan frightens me. Whatever our biological age, none of us can ever be a grown-up person, clothed in the sack and ash of wisdom alone, free of all terrors, guilt and loneliness. Even Voltaire lived with that child inside him; fearful and angry. That child is very much inside me and I will carry her to my grave.
It is both strange and wonderful to be going to parties again. After the Covid War there is a Gatsbyesque feel to life. Wild parties in Mayfair, fancy dress parties in Hampstead, Weimar parties in Camden: a seething, teaming, joyous mass of people. Not vile bodies, but restyled bodies, free of those disfiguring masks that made every passer-by look like a gangland hitman. The most enchanting party I have been to was an evening soirée at the V&A, given by my friend Lord Barker, who is executive chairman of the En+ Group. It was in the courtyard and so exquisitely arranged that the moon shone into my flute of champagne. Andrew Mitchell was there, fresh from the launch of his book, Beyond a Fringe. Rarely for political memoirs, it is laugh-aloud funny.
I have a new puppy called Maxi, after the Habsburg Emperor Maximilian I. He is a Papillon (Maxi, that is, not the emperor), a breed that originated in Central Europe and began to appear in court paintings in the 17th century. Maria Theresa of Austria kept them, as did Madame de Pompadour and Marie Antoinette. But I have always had a soft spot for poor Archduke Maximilian. Tricked by Napoleon III into believing Mexico wanted a monarchy, he and his wife Carlotta set sail from their home at Miramare Castle, Treviso, only to find that the Mexicans, under the rebel leadership of Juarez, wanted independence. Maximilian was duly executed. He asked the firing squad not to aim at his face, so his mother would be able to recognise him. Maxi, who enjoys travelling, particularly if it involves trains, will not be going to Mexico.
Mario Lanza has just been voted by opera critics one of the top ten tenors of all time. I have always loved his open-throated, crystalline voice. The Great Caruso (1951), the best and most serious opera biopic ever made, is a film that continues to move me. Jose Carreras once told me that he became a tenor because of it. A young Lanza, looking like Alcibiades reborn, sang all the operatic arias with a soaring verismo. His “Vesti la Giubba” has yet to be emulated. The fustian say it was a pity that he gave up an operatic career for Hollywood. True, the lure of drink, women and money did for him. He died in 1959, aged only 38. Yet he brought opera to the masses in a far more significant way than Pavarotti and the Three Tenors ever did. Lanza was the first classical rock star, mobbed by crowds everywhere he went.
Pre-Covid, my brother and I liked going to the Advent markets in Austria. (We share Austro-Hungarian blood). Our favourite is the market near Salzburg, in the village of St Gilgen on Lake Wolfgang. Mozart’s sister, Marianne, lived there, and her house, dark timbered and frescoed, still overlooks the water. During Advent, a float carrying a 20-foot candle moves majestically across the cobalt lake. Every night there is a concert in the village square, and goblets full of mulled apple with brandy. We sneak off to an old hunting lodge to eat venison goulash and lake trout, watching the stars, wrapped in fur rugs. My pre-Christmas treat is Kaiserschmarrn, a sublime soufflé of vanilla pancake, fruit compote and icing sugar.
This article first appeared in the November 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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