CYRIL IN FULL FLOW





Nancy went along to Cyril's room knowing he was almost certain to be out. Eight p.m. was no time for a man of Cyril's sociability to be hanging around by himself. Sure enough, the room was empty and Nancy was free to nose around.

Like all the rooms at Castle Howard during the Brideshead Festival, it contained a liberal sprinkling of books about Evelyn Waugh. But Cyril had clearly been collecting together everything he could find about himself. Those issues of
Horizon, for example. He'd edited that from 1939 until 1950.

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Duncan McLaren, 2020

And what was this on top? A 1930 issue of Life and Letters. The cover would seem to have been marked up by Cyril himself.

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Duncan McLaren, 2020

Life and Letters, principal contributor, Cyril Connolly? Well, if Cyril wanted to think that about himself, why not? Nancy wanted something by her old friend to read, so she slipped the book in to her handbag and, after a cursory glance of the room's unmade bed, returned to her own room. After an hour of intense study and quite bit of solitary shrieking, she was ready for society. And the person she most wanted to talk to was Evelyn Waugh. She went knocking.

"Come in."

"I have a treat for you."

"
You are the most marvellous treat for me."

"I come bearing gifts," said Nancy, brandishing the book which she opened at the contents page.

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"Readers' Reports includes a review by Peter Quennell of Vile Bodies. Peter thinks Colonel Blount is as wonderful a character as Captain Grimes. But he does not think that London suits you as a subject as well as a prison or a third-class public school. But the review is no more than a paragraph, and is nothing compared to the star of the issue, which really is Cyril. His conversation piece is quite sublime and I need to share it with you."

"First, let me pour you
a glass of fizz."

"I see you've made a start there already."

"I thought I was going to have to drink the whole bottle alone."

"Why think that? You would be welcome at any door you cared to knock at in this castle."

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Nancy Mitford by Cecil Beaton, 1965

"Not true, Nancy. I am intolerant of nearly all human life. Just ask Harold who I dined with last night."

"And we love you for it. OK, Cyril's title: 'Conversations in Berlin'. Cyril begins by telling the reader that in his text, X is the host, while Y and Z are guests. And that Z's talk is not so well recorded as Cyril's own."

"What about X and Y? Is their talk recorded just as well as Cyril's?"

"Good point. Y hardly features. And there is no reason to suppose X's talk has been recorded any better than Z's."

"Typical Cyril. Smart but shoddy," said Evelyn, sipping from his flute. "Sharp as a tack but barmy as a fruit cake."

"I am going to start:
'We had some interesting talks in Berlin. One night we discussed ourselves when young, at what age we should like most now to have met ourselves, and where. X described himself motor-cycling in Germany and held up two days forlornly in Dortmund. I would like to have come across myself at eighteen: droll, earnestly decadent, and rather birdlike among the second-hand bookstalls at Cologne. Z deplored one's shyness at that age, and we all admitted that at a time when we were longing for intelligent conversations with people older than ourselves we had been too gauche to begin them, and reduced to getting stones from schoolmasters as our only intellectual bread. I said this did not really matter. Youth was a period of misadventure, and should only be enjoyed as such. The long line of missed opportunities were more rich and significant in their maladroitness than the competent never-miss-a-moment grasping philosophy of late youth and middle age…' I'll pause there. That gives us enough to get our teeth into, does it not?"

"What a shit Cyril was. X, Z and Cyril get to say the age at which they would have liked to have met ourselves when young, then Cyril gets to round off the passage philosophically."

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Cyril Connolly by Howard Coster, 1942

"Though that does tend to happen in conversation with Cyril."

"He's still an arrogant shit in my opinion. What age at the time of writing?"

"The conversation took place in August, 1928. So Cyril was 25. Just seven short years older than the droll, decadent, bird-like creature that flitted among the bookstalls of Cologne."

"Hmmm. August, 1928. I was living with She-Evelyn at Canonbury Square,
Decline and Fall was about to appear."

"How exciting for you! Ever been to Berlin?"

"Certainly not. It's a place I avoided all my life. Berlin in the late 20s and early 30s was for socialists and homosexuals. Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden. Who are these X and Z? Is that them?"

"Close. It's Harold Nicolson and Raymond Mortimer."

"Nicolson and the wild beast. Sure?"

"There is a book called
Cyril Connolly: A Life, written by Jeremy Lewis. And it lays out Cyril's existence from cradle to grave."

"Really? When was it published?"

"1997"

"Thirty-one years after my death."

"By which time there were three biographies of you kicking around. And all three can be found on a table in Cyril's bedroom at this moment. So don't feel jealous."

"Let me top up our glasses. I trust you are going to read more."

"Oh yes. 'Conversations in Berlin' has got legs. But first a bit more background. Harold Nicholson, is X, the host in Berlin. By this time, he was Counsellor at the British Embassy in Berlin, married to Vita Sackville West, who didn't like Berlin and so remained in England with the Bloomsbury set. As we know, she was a lesbian, meaning Harold was free to be gay with Raymond Mortimer, aka Z. Both were literary men, like Cyril, who went on to review your books, of course.

"Harold Nicolson, Raymond Mortimer and Cyril were all educated at Balliol College, Oxford. Though Raymond and Harold were born in the mid-eighties and so were twenty years older than Cyril. Here is a photo of Cyril and Raymond looking about the same age."

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Cyril Connolly and Raymond Mortimer.

"Cyril and the wild beast otherwise known as Z. Cyril became old before his time, in part because of the company he kept."

"Old and wise before his time?"

"Oh certainly, certainly. But let me spell this so-called Berlin for you. B.A.L.L.I.O.L."

"Back to B.E.R.L.I.N.:
'Last night I asked Z If there was any book that could be laid down as a test of intelligence, something that would draw a definite line between Bloomsbury and Chelsea, a real pons asinorum. I suggested Proust, because to read it all through must require more than cultured snobbery, and actually to have read it all through must remove most second-handness from one's mind. Proust's real importance was that he taught one how to get a kick out of one's own life. Z suggested Adolphe, Clarissa, and the heavier French classics. X interrupted that a whole set of smart and stupid people had read religiously every word of Proust and remained as stupid as before. Probably they had read Joyce as well. He disapproved so strongly of any kind of culture being made the test of any kind of intelligence that he hardly allowed us to go on talking at all. This was absurd, as both Z and I really agreed with him…' "

"Pause there for a second, Nancy. Interesting that Joyce and Proust are invoked by Cyril. They'd not long published their masterpieces by 1928. Yet 90 years later, as I'm assured it is, these precise authors are still held to be the ultimate in Modernism. So that's that. But I can't get out of my head that at the time of this conversation in Berlin, Cyril and his chums had not yet read
Decline and Fall. And I'm not comparing myself to Proust, but just remembering that within a month or two of their conversation, Z would have reviewed Decline and Fall very favourably. 'Extraordinary clever and amusing,' the wild beast said. Though when Chapman and Hall came to put that on a dust-jacket, they managed to reduce it to 'Extremely clever'. I was so annoyed, as there is a world of difference between extraordinary and extremely. I recall meeting Mr Mortimer that same year. I couldn't take to him, unfortunately. Never could."

"You are quite right to mention
Decline and Fall in this context. That is the book that taught a whole lot of people how to get a kick out of their own existence. I believe Graham Greene and Anthony Powell to be two of its ardent admirers. Cyril reviewed Decline and Fall as well. He found it very funny in a totally modern way. And declared it the only book in his professional life that he'd read twice."

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Cyril Connolly by Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1939

"Of course, I took to the young Cyril. We invited him round to the Canonbury Square flat and he stayed all day, eating and drinking and talking and talking… Harold Nicholson probably reviewed
Decline and Fall too. He did review Labels in the Daily Express. Can you put your hands on that, Nancy? You seem remarkably well informed."

"It's reprinted in what's called
Evelyn Waugh: The Critical Heritage, edited by Martin Stannard. So this is what X made of Labels, writing two years after the Berlin conversation. 'Admirers of 'Decline and Fall' or 'Vile Bodies' may be slightly disappointed with Mr. Waugh's 'Labels'. I agree that it is not quite as good as 'Decline and Fall', but I find it much better than 'Vile Bodies'. For Mr Waugh conveyed languorously in the yacht Stella Polaris, has for once had a little time to think. And it is a great pleasure for me to read what Mr. Waugh thinks.'

"'If I were asked who best represents the post-war spirit I should reply unhesitatingly 'Evelyn Waugh'. He has all the scepticism of Aldous Huxley and none of his despair. He shares Mr Huxley's suspicion that the leaves are barren, but he has a cheery feeling that barren leaves may be just as amusing as the pregnant variety. And in this I am with him all the time.

"'Then I find Mr. Waugh funny. His are the sort of jokes that make me laugh. I should recommend his encounter with the guide at Naples and with the old-Etonian Greek at Galata. There is much intelligence behind Mr. Waugh's flippancy. His analysis of Eton-Oxford culture, his definition of the 'sense of period' is something more than an easy gibe. I do not agree with him that all a gentleman of England extracts from his education is a sense of period. I should suggest that it is a sense of proportion: but I am grateful to Mr Waugh for giving me the idea (which I hope subsequently to make use of), and I trust that his book will sell enough copies to make him take a further yachting trip, but not enough copies to lead him to the Toteninsel of Corfu.' …
Do you know what the Corfu comment was about?"

"I suggested that if my book sold well I would retire to Corfu."

"It seems like Harold would rather talk to you in Berlin."

"I talked to him in London a few times when I was doing the rounds in 1930. He had a natural sense of authority. Or was it entitlement? I was not over impressed. Though I admit he writes attractively. Do you have a picture to remind me what Harold or X looks like?"

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Harold Nicolson

"Ah yes, the pipe, mouser and glasses combination. A classic look. Guaranteed to have the man behind it taken seriously"

"Are you ready for more of Cyril's gorgeous conversation?"

"Fire away."

"'We tried to analyse intelligence. I said all intelligence was really criticism of life; the first person to say life was short or boring was using his mind to stand apart from the atmosphere in which he moved, which no animal or fish could. Intelligence went on from an ability to be detached from life to an ability to be detached from oneself, and finally to relate one's experience to other people's and generalise from the particular to general truths about living…'"

"Stop, stop. That's typical of Cyril. You think he's just hit the nail on the head. Then, when you slowly analyse what he's actually said, you realise he's been saying nothing. It's the 'and finally' bit where that bit of analysis breaks down. There is no true connection between being able to stand apart from oneself to relating one's experience to other people's."

"Oh, I think there is. If I've understood it correctly, the passage concisely states how we go from thinking subjectively to being objective."

"Perhaps you're right. For once, Cyril has thought something through. Sorry, I shouldn't have interrupted. Carry on."

"'Our ability to discuss sex without feeling sexual emotion was the first proof of intelligence…"

"I thought Cyril said that the first person to say life was boring or short was the first proof of intelligence."

"Evelyn, stop bullying Cyril. Give him
a chance. His prose style demands it."

"Very well."

"Z said he thought I was against intelligence, or rather, against the intellect. I said I was, for intellectual pride had always a dehumanising effect. One appreciated one's knowledge of a subject rather than the subject itself, one lost the capacity for worship or for seeing a thing or a person apart from one's sense of power over them. I preferred the imagination…"

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Raymond Mortimer

"Ha!"

"Z said, and X agreed, that the perfect intelligence was an absolutely free mind gifted with infinite curiosity, hence able and anxious to grasp and illuminate any non-technical subject. I said that that was just what I had not got."

"What Cyril has not got is humility."

"'Obscurity was my tonic, and I believed in and practised incuriosity. I hated well-informed people with fluent general interests and vivid curiosity about contemporary problems, they drove me to the dark ages. All the same, I respected Z's passion for actualities. He came down to every day as to an examination paper, the hours lay before him like blank foolscap, and he was excited, wondering what the questions were going to be, while I was still writing idle scrolls over those of the week before.'"

"I agree with Cyril there. And it reminds me of the enthusiasm that Z showed about Picasso. You used to pick up on it, and I used to curse you for it. 'Death to Picasso', I wrote to you more than once. And I told you that I'd read a quarter of an article by Mortimer on Picasso that had been sent to me by a press agency. And I suggested that what a wild beast like Mortimer couldn't understand was that Picasso was OLD and had been at his filthy work for decades. The argument that one couldn't appreciate his glorious genius because he was NEW, and one was too crusted to receive new impressions, simply didn't hold water. And I said that the pro-Picasso brigade were either dupes or traitors. And that you, Nancy Mitford, were a traitor. "

"We will have to agree to disagree about that, Evelyn Waugh. As you know I always liked Raymond and followed his progress as a literary man. Now. Let me carry on. After all, it's such great fun us knowing who Cyril was talking to in Berlin. This X and Z business is a delightful tease that we're in on."

"Oh, yes, I'm hooked. Please continue."

"Where was I?
'I was still writing idle scrolls over those of the week before. I was only interested in that part of the present relevant to my imagination; for instance, I seldom went to concerts, but when I found a tune I liked I made it last as long as possible. I treated all the arts as a Narrcissus pool, when I found no reflection I was absent-minded and bored."

"Beautifully put. And delightfully read."

"X said flatteringly, that he thought, too, that there was a streak of scholar in me, both in my nature and in my admiration of scholarship. I said I hoped it was true. Z went on about what insufferable bores great scholars were, or all great brains that only exercised themselves on one subject. Whitehead, the mathematician, was not intelligent at all. "It's not the scholar in me that is incurious," I said, "only the Celt." I happened to have a good intellect and a classical education, but underneath lay the Celtic dreaminess, incuriosity and tendency to brood. I brooded and vegetated for hours over the past; going over conversations and characteristics of people…"

"Cyril has spent half his waking life brooding about me. Had I meant what I said about The Unquiet Grave? Were Ludovic's Pensées in Officers and Gentlemen a mockery of Palinurus?"

"…I could sit for two or three days chewing the cud or indulging in day-dreams over the near future…"

"Why had I mocked him as Everard Spruce in Unconditional Surrender? Was he Joyboy or was Joyboy Cyril? Which came first, the chicken or the egg?"

''Z said he had no daydreams, not even sexual; he supposed this was because he had no imagination…'"

"Like his beloved Picasso."

"…and because he had no imagination he was not really self-dependent and couldn't bear being left alone. We were surprised, and said we did not think it possible to have no daydreams."

"'X described a few of his, which were mostly simple visions of wealth and power…"

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Harold Nicolson by Howard Coster, 1935

"Being able to make love to his wife!"

"…and being able to help his friends. "To find you crying, Cyril," he said, "is one of them…"

"Funnily enough, that's one of mine too. To find Cyril crying and to sit there watching him cry and cry. And if he showed any sign of stopping, to poke or tease him in such a way that the sobbing went on as before."

"Stop it Evelyn. I'm laughing… Let me stop laughing so that I can read on. Thank-you: 'X added revenge as a subject for daydreams, and Z said he thought all daydreams were unhealthy. "This doesn't apply," he added, "to sitting still and making use of your mind…'"

"I suppose he's on about Picasso again. As if there was anything healthy or imaginative or intellectual about sitting there and painting that rubbish."

'
"…Well, now, what I'm really curious about is life," said X, "and I don't expect you know what has thrilled me this evening most." "Yes, I do, I said, "Our landlord coming down from his own flat to answer a trunk call from Munich." I suggested we should all say how that struck us. Z had hardly noticed it at all except to be glad when X took us out of the dining-room so that the bell didn't interfere with our conversation. I had been excited by the call from Munich, but the doctor having been in once already I had been annoyed like Raymond…"

"Ha! He means to say 'Z'. But that proves your identifications to be correct."

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Raymond Mortimer by Cecil Beaton and Harold Nicolson by Howard Coster, 1935

"' …and only deduced a general reflection that it was just like a German landlord to let his house and be continually popping into it with his own key, while an Englishman would scrupulously avoid going near it at all…"

So many parallel examples of life here at Castle Howard just now. One hesitates to choose one. Better stick with Cyril, X and Z in Berlin."

"…X then came out with a string of observations: how he had wondered if one of the children were ill in Munich, known it was the doctor's wife that was ringing him up, wondered how the husband would take it, and thought, while the phone rang the second time, 'now I shall be able to tell if his child is ill by the look on his face as he turns away'. Then he had thought this was unpleasant and had bundled us all out of the dining-room, so that he wouldn't be tempted to watch the doctor at the telephone at all. Thus doing to spare the doctor and his own conscience what we thought he had done so as not to bother us. Z said this observation was the true novelist's gift….'"

"Which observation?"

"I think Raymond means observation in general."

"I see."

"'I said it was being able to write down what one had observed…'"

"It?"

"He means the true novelist's gift."

"Of course."

"X said it was the capacity to keep the bones together and not smother them with digressions and irrelevant facts. I was sure one ought to write down everything that interested one and skimp, even if it affected the plot, all that it bored one to write, and then go over, taking out what was unnecessary. Revision should be a case of taking things out and not putting them in. X agreed.'"

Nancy put down the book and looked at Evelyn. "I've just remembered something. It's struck me as the most enchanting memory. Those three clever men from Berlin - and yourself - were all involved in the initial reception of my
Madame de Pompadour."

"Really?"

"Raymond volunteered to read the manuscript. Or perhaps I pulled his arm. Anyway, he read it and told me the book was utterly unorthodox and read as if an extremely clever woman were telling the story over the telephone. He said that many people would dislike it a lot, but that as far as he was concerned I'd got away with murder. He said that perhaps I should have left out wars which read as if they might have been written by Fragonard. I was rather taken aback. I had seen the book as Miss Mitford's sober and scholarly work. But then I met him and he had obviously enjoyed it, though he reckoned that the whole enterprise was questionable, and many readers would find it shocking. He advised me not to rewrite, as I wouldn't make it any better if I did, but he had made a lot of suggestions in the text itself, so I put those through. A while later, I was told that someone had said to Raymond: 'I hear you took a lot of slang out of Nancy's book.' Not really, he replied. 'I just suggested that she might not say "
Louis XV was perfect heaven," three times on one page.'"

Evelyn laughed. "Lovely," he said.

"What was lovely was that round about then I got a long and affectionate letter from Boots, which meant he'd forgiven me for portraying him as Ed Spain in
The Blessing. This paved the way for him to review Madame de Pompadour in the Sunday Times. I literally screamed with laughter in the street when I bought the paper. It was a masterpiece and he got his own back for The Blessing without any hard knocks, or harder than I could take, which was so clever. Harold Nicolson's review appeared on the same day, would you believe, in the Observer. He wrote that Madame de Pompadour would be enjoyed by the educated and uneducated alike, but that it was 'not history'. Which is maybe what Raymond had been trying to say to me."

"Marvellous that Boots, X and Z - all three of the Berlin-Balliol boys - took such an interest in your
Pomp."

"Meanwhile,
you had received a copy and you told me that you'd spent two enchanting days reading it. You told me that I'd managed a vast mass of material brilliantly and that there was never a dull page and never a page that wasn't unmistakably my own. You can imagine how much pleasure that gave me. It brought tears to my eyes, Evelyn."

"I find on this table a copy of the book. However, it can't be my original copy as I distinctly remember stripping it of Cecil Beaton's ghastly wrapper."

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"Remind me. When did this delightful episode concerning your work take place?"

"Oh, in 1954. I was a youthful 50 and I felt on top of the world. The man's world."

"I had just experienced my mad period on the way to Ceylon. Not sure I ever really recovered from that. An old man getting older."

"Oh, but you'd had your time in the sun ten years before when
Brideshead came out. Remember, I wrote telling you that Raymond thought it a Great English Classic and that Boots thought it was brilliant where the narrative was straightforward and found it impossible to put down."

"And Nicolson?"

"Oh, I forget. Everyone loved its style. And I remember writing to you after
Pomp had been reviewed by Harold, saying that I loved how you were seen as the Elder. And that all the young editors would give a hundred pages of Raymond's or Cyril's for a single line from you, you old crusty pots. I think it's something that these sophisticated talkers, these intellectuals orf the right or left never forgave you for. That everything you did or wrote was of interest, because you were in a different league. Now, having said that, let's finish 'Conversations in Berlin'. There is one more delicious scene."

"My glass is full, Nancy. Let's hear Boots's closing remarks with the respect they deserve."

"'Another evening we dined by the water in Potsdam… At home happiness was discussed and we agreed that X was the happiest and most fortunate person we knew. He had an interesting wife…"

"Interesting in the sense that she took women as lovers, and wouldn't let Harold go near her even if he'd wanted to."

"'…fine children, good friends, position, enough money, an active mind and a settled future, a literary success, and profession in which one was still young at fifty, with excellent scope at playing for ever at being an enfant terrible. X was very pleased, and said he could not, as a matter of fact, remember ever having been so happy as he was at that moment…'"

"That's because he had Cyril pulling his plonker."

"'We all touched wood and laughed at ourselves for doing so…"

"Pass the sick bucket, Nancy."

""'The candles lit up the polished table, the dark glow of port, the lighter one of brandy in our glasses. The night air smelt of lake-water and smoke from our cigars…"

"You never get the impression that Cyril's vocation was to improve the life of the common man, do you? Meeting himself when young… Wondering if he'd ever been happier… And yet this is the man who would edit
Horizon and set himself up as a leader of the left as we entered the Second World War."

"'Z's dark head was thrown back in meditation. We were all going over our pasts to see if they contained moments as happy as this one. I thought of our security, our freedom from worries, our friendship and free play of ideas and intelligences, and what a good setting we were in for the end of the world….Remembering the afternoon, I felt that real happiness contained more distress than rapture; that this moment was not one of happiness so much as of perfect civilisation, an example of the intricacy of Europe, the discrete and many-folded strata of the old world, of the strength of the north in this town where the texture of the day coarsened so slowly into dusk, and of the power of ideas. Z's silence meant that he too was being forced to refer his greatest happiness to the past. "Yes, I don't think I have been so happy before," said X, concluding, "and I don't suppose, either, that I shall be so happy again.'"'

"Harold was wrong there."

"Oh?" said Nancy, closing the gem of a book and laying it to one side.

"I met him in 1962."

"That was the year I was supposed to travel with Raymond to Madagascar, but in the end it fell through and I was not of the party."

"I was travelling by a French ship with my daughter, Margaret, to revisit British Guiana where the inspiration for
A Handful of Dust had come back in 1933. Harold was on board with his old wife, Vita. Harold himself was pipeless and quite senile.

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Harold Nicolson by Walter Stoneman, 1955

He would wake for a few minutes a day to tell very old English stories in French. But the cooking was splendid. The frogs seem able to unfreeze frozen food so that it still has a taste - fruit and cheese always
au point, delicious bread, plenty of caviare. The ship is named Antilles should you ever think of taking a cruise. Anyway, when I got back to the UK I learned that Harold had written in his diary of his time on board. "I talk to Margaret Waugh - a charming girl, intelligent and lovely. I talk to Waugh as a penance."

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Nancy Mitford at her apartment in Paris in 1956.Credit...Thurston Hopkins/Picture Post/Hulton Archive.

"We all talk to you as penance, Evelyn. Certainly Cyril does. Besides, wasn't Harold forgetting how much you made him laugh in Labels. And how he liked it so much when you had time to think, as one does on a ship."

"Do you know what we should do, now that this bottle of champagne is empty?"

"Find another?"

"We should search the rooms of this castle until we find the exquisite place of fine dining that Cyril is holed up in. And, whether he be impressing young ladies with the slipperiness of his tongue, or impressing older men with that same facile articulacy, we should barge into the cosy and privileged setting and upset a few apple carts."

"Good idea. Shall I bring
Life and Letters with me? We can see if Cyril's friends of today can guess who X and Z are? Can you imagine the fun to be had if Boots is having a tête-à-tête-à-tête with Peter Quennell and Patrick Balfour? Peter and Patrick wouldn't be able to get out of their heads the idea that either X or Z must be them!"

"Come, Nancy. The 21st Century is but young."

Where to next? Robert Byron
makes a return.










Note
I reproduce the majority of a Cyril Connolly essay above. I hope that by showing off CC's rare qualities as a writer, the copyright holders will show forbearance. In other words, I hope it can remain on display and part of this project.