From Christopher Isherwood to Charles Dickens: Tales from the Soho Literary Festival

C J Schuler

Don Bachardy Soho Website 2013 From Christopher Isherwood to Charles Dickens: Tales from the Soho Literary FestivalAmong the many pleasures at last week’s bubbling Soho Literary Festival, now in its third year, it was a joy to hear the artist Don Bachardy talk about his life with Christopher Isherwood. Interviewed by the writer David Collard to mark the publication of The Animals: Love Letters between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy (edited by Katherine Bucknell), Bachardy – not a twinkling septuagenarian – was wry, funny, affectionate and wise.

He recalled how he first met the author of Goodbye to Berlin and A Single Man on Santa Monica beach; some time later, on St Valentine’s Day 1953, he and his elder brother Ted stopped at the writer’s house for breakfast. Isherwood was at his typewriter – as Bachardy later discovered, he always worked in the mornings – but was charming, and made them scrambled eggs – adding canned mushrooms, to Don’s horror. Bachardy was 18 and Isherwood 48, and they would live together until the writer’s death in 1986.

Isherwood introduced the star-stuck youth to a world of writers and movie stars – Bachardy was stunned when Montgomery Clift walked over to them in a restaurant to greet Isherwood – and encouraged him to develop as an artist.

The book’s title is drawn from the pet names they used for one another in their letters: Isherwood was Dobbin, the steady old workhorse, while Don was Kitty, the skittish, flirtatious white cat, and their adventures are recounted by both men in the third person. As Bachardy explained, “It’s easier to be kind in the third person.”

Many of the letters were written during the younger man’s absences in London, where he studied at the Slade, or New York. These trips also afforded him the opportunity to widen his sexual horizons: “He (Isherwood) had had all these adventures as a young man,” he told the audience. “I said it was only fair that I did.” But, he added, “whatever other relationships I was having, he was always No 1.”

On Thursday, the biographer Claire Tomalin painted an enthralling picture of the young Charles Dickens greeted at an artificial-flower-bedecked Birmingham Town Hall by giant portraits of himself and a banner proclaiming “Welcome Dick”. On Dickens the party animal, she quoted Lionel Trilling’s dry observation that “The mere record of his conviviality is exhausting.” And on Dickens the social reformer, she pointed out that “A Christmas Carol” reflects the recession of 1840s (“rather like life today”), noting that Engels was writing his Condition of the Working Class in England at same time – prefiguring a lively discussion on Class and Power with Harriet Sergeant, Owen Jones (of this parish), Henry Hitchings and David Boyle, the next day.

Light relief was provided by the satirist Craig Brown and friends on Friday and Saturday, in which deliciously deadpan readings from his Private Eye “Diary” parodied the prose of such noted persons of letters as Paul Morley, John Gielgud (“Darling little Chairman Mao”), Jeanette Winterson and Pippa Middleton, and Barry Cryer and Paul Bailey deadpanned devastatingly as Downton Abbey’s Carson and the Dowager Countess respectively.

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  • Bob Dog

    “now’ rather than “not” a twinkling septuagenerian, surely… he doesn’t sound dull.

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