A Glitzy Bombing and a Sleazy Duchess

A Glitzy Bombing and a Sleazy Duchess

Tue 27 Feb

HIGH BUILDINGS, LOW MORALS by Rob Baker. Stroud: Amberley Books, 2018.

That Rob Baker’s latest book comes with an endorsement from Stephen Fry is no surprise. There is enough material in any one of its twelve chapters to fuel a complete series of QI. Baker is not so much the book’s author as its compiler. If that sounds slightly dismissive, it is not. It is more an indication of the painstaking work that has gone into unearthing the stories that fill the book, a follow-up to 2015’s dazzling Beautiful Idiots and Brilliant Lunatics. Like its predecessor this is London history but not as we know it. Baker specializes in the marginalia, the unsung and the offbeat. Baker’s London is a mash-up of true crime, glitz, sleaze and tawdry glamour. His is a London where Judy Garland plays out her last drug-fuelled weeks slurring through late-night revues at Caesar’s Palace, but not Caesar’s Palace Las Vegas, rather a nightclub of the same name in Luton. It is a world in which Terry Thomas has his custom-made cigarette holder with 42 diamonds stolen, and 40 of the diamonds are later discovered inside a roll of carpet at the home of small-time variety comedian James Joseph Tarbuck. Five years later the same James Tarbuck will receive one of the most prolonged ovations ever received on Sunday Night at the London Palladium, appearing as Jimmie Tarbuck. Baker’s London reads like James Ellroy’s LA.

Some of the stories Baker recounts are well known, including the 1963 scandal surrounding the sexually explicit Polaroids of the Duchess of Argyle. Although naked with her head turned away from the camera, the Duchess could be identified by her signature Asprey necklace of three strands of pearls secured by a diamond clasp. What could not be identified was the owner of the penis she had in her mouth. What makes Baker’s telling so much better than any previous accounts you might have read is his enthusiasm for a good digression. So in addition to the duchess’s risqué selfies we have PG Wodehouse being bitchy about Cole Porter, Mussolini in London complaining about the fog that permeates his bedroom, suitcases and clothes, and champion of virginity Barbara Cartland having her first encounter with someone of the opposite sex when a randy major invites her to his bedroom to show her “how his revolver worked”.

On occasion the piling of digression on discursion on anecdote threatens to derail the story but most of the time Baker links better than Wikipedia. A story on the IRA’s campaign of London bombings in the 1970s begins with a German U-Boat delivering 28 rescued Greek sailors to an isolated harbour on the west coast of Ireland. This leads to a discussion of the conflict between the Irish and British governments over the neutrality of Irish ports during World War II and then to Ian Fleming entertaining the now captured commander of that very same U-boat at his favourite London restaurant, seafood specialist Scott’s. Cue a digression on Scott’s and James Bond, then jump forward to 12th November 1975, when the consumption of oysters, crab and Chablis turns to screams when five pounds of shrapnel-laced gelignite is tossed through the restaurant’s window by members of the IRA. It also happens that another upper-class English acquaintance of the U-boat commander was Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten, who maintained the friendship right up until 1979 when he was assassinated in an IRA bomb attack.

Every now and then Baker delivers a piece of information that demands to be Googled. For instance, have you ever heard of the sinking of the RMS Lancastria? I hadn’t. But on 17th June 1940 she was bombed by the Luftwaffe and sank with the loss of abut 4,000 men, women and children. This was the largest loss of life in British maritime history, greater than the Titanic and Lusitania combined. On the following page Baker tells us that in the months after the end of World War II, 75,000 de-mob suits were being made every week. Many of these were supplied by the tailoring firm Burton, a company founded by Montague Burton, hence the phrase the “full Monty”, meaning a full set of de-mob clothes.

At the end of the chapter on the headless Polaroids, Baker includes a recipe for bananas and Cointreau, extracted from the Duchess of Argyle’s My Dinner Party Book – she was a little short on funds at the time. Of the recipe she writes, “It’s very rich, but quite delicious.” One might say the same of Baker’s book.

Review by Andrew Humphreys.


Andrew Humphreys is the editor of Paradise Road, publisher of London books.

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