Lunch with a plastered Grande Dame

                          CLOSE SHAVE: Barbara Cartland delighted diners at the Savoy Grill

ALAN FRAME remembers his meeting with the grande dame of romantic literature

Raine Spencer who died earlier this month collected grand titles (well, we all have to have a hobby) like I used to collect parking tickets. The serial wife, pictured below, had been Countess of Dartmouth, then Countess Spencer and, in her final incarnation, Comtesse de Chambrun. Not so agreeably (for her) she was also known by her stepdaughter Diana, Princess of Wales, and her sisters as Acid Raine. 

The obituaries did not question that this splendidly cruel moniker might be the clever invention of those Spencer girls. The truth is they picked it up, with much delight one assumes, from the Daily Express, more precisely from my old chum Christopher Wilson who as Hickey editor had christened her such.


All of which reminded me of la countess/comtesse’s mother, that extraordinary sugar plum fairy Dame Barbara Cartland. I had got to know her slightly through Jean Rook, late of this parish, and after Jean’s death I invited her to lunch at the Savoy Grill. A date was fixed and I asked Angelo Moresco, the Grill’s legendary maitre d’, for a table near the entrance so Barbara wouldn’t have far to walk before the first glass of champagne. 

I arrived in good time and five minutes later Angelo came over to announce her arrival in a small white Mercedes which had known better days, drawing up so as to be almost touching the front doors. Being a well brought up sort, I went to the car to greet her and escort her to our table. There she was, a vision in pink head to toe, engulfed on the back seat of the car by a selection of fluffy white pillows. Only the duvet was missing, though the white poodle was not. 

A terrible thought occurred: Had she cut herself shaving?

Once I extracted her with the help of her chauffeur, and bent down for the kissie kissies, I realised that while applying the thickest layers of make-up she had painted over a plaster on her cheek. A terrible thought occurred: Had she cut herself shaving?

We made our way into the Grill, escorted the 15 metres to our table by Angelo. Now as you know this place was a hang-out for the rich and famous, FTSE chairmen, Cabinet ministers, Jeffrey Bloody Archer and for Express executives with decent expenses. So most of the clientele, however famous, rarely rate a second glance or a pause in the sip of Montrachet. Not so Barbara, the whole packed dining room came to a sudden and totally silent halt as this truly Grande Dame negotiated her route to lunch, the reason being of course that she was one of those instantly recognisable creations of whom everyone had heard, many had parodied, though few had ever read.

Barbara, a prolific writer of romantic novels, was a joy; we drank Chablis (plenty of it) with our Dover sole and Jersey royals, having already hit the button marked Gossip. Away she went. Even in the liberal and enlightened environs of The Drone I feel restrained in recounting one story she told about Wallis Simpson and the tricks the future Duchess of Windsor had learned in Shanghai. 

Suffice it to say that her education, involving muscle control, had led to an incident much later when Wallis had visited her gynaecologist. He had given her what I believe is known as an internal examination and such was the success of Wallis’ teachers in Shanghai that according to Barbara the poor doctor had great difficulty extracting his fingers.

I promise you it sounded better from the Queen of Romance…    


The victims of history

I have been researching my old school in preparation for a history of the place which I have been commissioned to write to celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2018. I am thoroughly enjoying the task and it is fun catching up with old classmates, in some cases 50 years after we last saw each other and in every instance chaps who now have great distinction. 

I am surrounded by existing books on the school, Methodist College, Belfast, among them two devoted entirely to the boys who, having just left school for their universities, went to war instead. I have the names of every single Collegian (as we are called) who fell in both terrible conflicts. Many had left with greatness in front of them but, rather, were slaughtered at the Somme or fighting Hitler. 

Second lieutenants aged 18 or 19, majors at 23, one boy barely out of school a wing commander with a DFC. I was reminded of it a couple of days ago when we went to An Evening with Alan Bennett. A treat of the highest order and it made me think of Rudge’s reply in Bennett’s History Boys. The sixth former, being ‘force fed’ for Oxbridge, had been asked to define history. “Well, it’s just one fucking thing after another sir.” 

He was right of course and the sadness is those ‘things’ nearly always involve the sacrifice of young and innocent.

© 2005-2022 Alastair McIntyre