Sir Peregrine Worsthorne (22 Dec 1923 – 4 Oct 2020) - Recollections of Wivenhoe in the late 1960s
A Wivenhoe resident in the 1960s/70s; interviewed by Prof Paul Thompson in 2005. Lots about Ballast Quay, his friend George Gale, the Wivenhoe Arts Club and much more
Page created by Peter Hill from notes supplied by Prof Paul Thompson
AN INTERVIEW with Sir Peregrine Worsthorne by Prof Paul Thompson (Held on: 14/11/2005 at The Old Rectory, Hedgerley, Bucks)
PT: Could we just start … before you come to Wivenhoe? You were born in 1923, I think.
PW: I was born in 1923.
PT: And when did you become a journalist?
PW: I became a journalist in ‘46/’47. I started on the Glasgow … do you want me to …
PT: Yes, please.
PW: I started on The Glasgow Herald, I think in ’47, straight from being a … I’d been in the Army, and before going into the Army I’d been at Cambridge, and then after the War, in ’45, I went back to Cambridge, and then … I should think it would be about ‘46/’47, that I became a sub-editor on The Glasgow Herald – wrongly assuming that a sub-editor was a very … I thought… I was amazed, and lucky to get this plum job! And, of course, sub-editor on The Glasgow at that particular period, still meant making tea for the senior sub-editors, so it wasn’t a very … my illusions of having sprung to great heights … with one jump … were very briskly shattered when I arrived at The Glasgow Herald offices. But that was my … where I began as a journalist. And then I’d been interviewed by The Times, and told to take a provincial job if I was to ever get into Fleet Street. So I went there, because The Glasgow was … was, if you like, a provincial job for two years, and I went … I wrote to The Times, and said, “You told me to go and spend these two years, which I’ve done to the day, and I want my pound of flesh, because I’ve done what you told me to do”. And they were so surprised to get this letter, bang on the two years up, that I was given a sub’s job on The Times, which I did, and then I became a Foreign Correspondent for The Times, in Washington, before going to The Telegraph in the early fifties, where I stayed until I retired … at the turn of this … last century.
PT: And you got to The Sunday Telegraph in the early sixties, is that right?
PW: The … when The Sunday Telegraph started in ’61 I was Deputy Editor of the … of the new paper … and … and … that was quite interesting, creating a new paper. So that was ’61, and I stayed with The Sunday Telegraph, ending up as Editor, until about… I don’t know, 13 years ago, I suppose.
PT: Early eighties, anyway.
PW: Early … early … late eighties.
PT: Late eighties?
PW: Oh, I can’t remember! Mid-eighties … mid-eighties, then! Yes!
PT: So, as a journalist, you were, presumably, based primarily in London?
PW: Based in London, but I did a lot of foreign travelling. I was a Washington Correspondent for The Times, as I say, in the early fifties – the end of Truman and the beginning of Eisenhower – it was in the McCarthy years, and then I went to … when I was on The Telegraph, I was never a residential Foreign Correspondent, but I did a lot of travelling for The Telegraph – Africa and Asia and so on – but I wasn’t ever on post, I was a sort of visiting foreign correspondent, travelling round, not based in any particular place.
PT: Mmm. But what I’m thinking is that your main house was in London, is that right?
PW: My main house was in London, and Wivenhoe … I think it must have been in the sixties that I came, I bought a house in Wivenhoe [TELEPHONE INTERRUPTION]
PW: I bought a house in … I bought a house in Wivenhoe, because my friend, George Gale, who was a journalist on The Express, and he’d bought this large house overlooking the estuary, and I … my first wife and I would go and stay with him. And eventually… I mean, not eventually, but at some point, Pat Gale – George’s wife – said, “There’s a little house on the quay, and it would make a lovely summer cottage”. And so we bought it for very little, I can’t remember … I mean, some absolutely nominal sum in those days, the sixties, and it was right on the quay. And it was lovely. But I only used it for weekends … in the summer, I suppose.
PT: So what were your impressions of Wivenhoe, as a place, when you first arrived there?
PW: I’d never known … I’d not really known Essex and Suffolk at all well, and it was an enchanting … little fishing … I mean, it wasn’t fishing really, but it was a little … It had everything really. It had a sort of … little shipbuilding, but totally un-modernised – you know, a lot of people with hammers making … building the hulls of ships and so on, on a small scale. It had a most beautiful walk down the estuary, with birdlife … totally unspoilt, totally wild. The village was a little … very … the University, I suppose, wouldn’t have been … would have been just being built at that time, it was still a sort of… hadn’t become a reality, but one was aware of it. But it was just a very very small little village, with a lot of artists, which it still is, I imagine, and lots of pubs, and a little village community. It was idyllic, and I loved it.
PT: Now, I think it would be nice to talk about some of the people you knew there. Can you start with George Gale?
PW: Well, George Gale was a great … a very larger than life figure, with a gruff voice, and had been a great star journalist on The Guardian. He’d written a book, Gone out with Harold Wilson to China. He’d been a star pupil at Peterhouse, Cambridge, before becoming a journalist – got a First and so on – very very clever, but very much a great friend of Kingsley Amis, very much of that period … the 1960s, and he’d been a star Guardian journalist, and gone out with Harold Wilson to China – one of the first visits by Westerners to China after the Mao victory – and had come back and written a very biting indictment of Communist China, called, No Flies in China, and he was … a starry figure, and very … high profile journalist then, as later. But any case, he had, by then, moved to the Daily Express because he liked … he wanted the money you got in the tabloid press, not in the … the Guardian and so on. And he then, with his … Beaverbrook liked him very much, and he had plenty of money. And Pat, his wife, was a very colourful, larger than life personality too, loved social life, and they bought this very large house in Wivenhoe, and it was …
PT: At Ballast Quay?
PW: At Ballast Quay, looking over the estuary, as you know. And they filled it … it was always, at the weekends, filled with all the … well, Kingsley Amis crowd, and a lot of Conservative and Labour politicians, lots of writers and artists and so on. It was very much a … I’m going to say it wasn’t … it couldn’t be more different from Garsington at Oxford … in the days of Lady Otterline [Morrell], but it fulfilled a vaguely comparable role in being a centre where lots of people came, and lots of parties, and lots of drunken … going on …brawls, and all of the things that are required to put that kind of place on the map in the public imagination! And it turned Wivenhoe a bit into a celebrity spot, in the … to use the modern jargon, and there was lots of… Wivenhoe was appearing in the gossip columns … Kingsley Amis, Martin, of course, Amis, in those days, was a little child, and his brothers and sisters used to be down there, and I remember Nigel Lawson was a great… he used to bring Nigella down, as a little girl … I remember seeing her, first, at Ballast Quay … Nigella, and Dominic, her brother, they were dressed in sailor suits … I remember, very well, coming and staying at Ballast Quay then, with Nigel and his first wife, Vanessa. And Hugh Fraser, Antonia Fraser, Antonia Pakenham as she had been, and became … married Hugh Fraser, the Conservative politician. And lots of other politicians – Peter Walker, I remember. And then, of course, there was the later period, I suppose … the rioting at the University, and so a lot of people came down … all the reporters who were covering used to come and have drinks, so it… I mean, Ballast Quay had a lot of publicity then as a centre of the 1960 crowd, and, of course, having my little house, I was on the wing … on the periphery of that, and saw all of that, and took part in all of that. So, to me, Wivenhoe is very much a place of rowdy parties. and then, of course, Pat founded a thing called the Arts Club – couldn’t have been less suited to running anything! And I remember, you know, people would come up and order for the restaurant, and I remember the opening night, a lot of people had come from all over the area to celebrate the start of the Club, and …
PW: … people would … I can’t remember now, but…
PT: This was the opening night of the Club.
PW: Oh yes! Yes. (LAUGHS) And it was absolutely … there was a restaurant which Pat was meant to be running, and I remember seeing some … and prices were quite high, and it wasn’t cheap … and I remember somebody cutting into their grilled fillet steak and … the knife beginning to grind what they took to be a bone, and it was, in fact, unfrozen in the middle, and Pat telling them, you know, “It’s a steak surprise”, you know!
And it didn’t altogether mollify their … their distress at this experience! But, I mean, it was a great… chaotic, and again, became part of the Wivenhoe legend – the Arts Club. And again, it was the centre of a lot of drunkenness. I don’t know whether … I think Dickie and Dennis, the two most celebrated artists, who were living on the quay, I don’t think they ever patronised it, so I think they rather looked aloof at it, but it was patronised by the other artists. And again, it helped … it was all part of the Ballast Quay legend at that time. And I don’t know … I think everybody quite enjoyed having this … having Wivenhoe, all the visitors coming. I think it was quite popular with the general village community, although I think they got a bit fed up, sometimes, by people thinking the whole village life was like that! So it must have been slightly irritating to have the Ballast Quay crowd being taken as the village … as a whole. But nevertheless, I think, on the whole, it was generally popular.
PT: So what was this radio programme that George Gale did?
PW: Well, George Gale had a thing … it was the beginning of the … it was LBC, I think – London Broadcasting – it was sort of … he was on the radio, a phone-in programme, it was an early phone-in programme. But, I mean, people would come and stay and then if they wanted to get hold of George, they would ring up … speak to him on this programme. So, “Where did … did you steal my toothpaste?” and so on. So that was the amazed millions listening into London Broadcasting, would hear one of George’s guests, “Hello, George, what about …”(LAUGHS) It became quite a feature of the time.
PT: And can you say something about some of the other artists who were around?
PW: Well, I very … my memory is so … so … this is an appalling admission, and apart from, of course, Francis Bacon, who was my neighbour down on the quay, and I used to see him a lot in the pubs, and I thought he was going to cause a scandal because he was always chasing the young boys. But, in fact, that all seemed to pass off. But perhaps people, ín those days, were less likely to ring up the News of the World and sell their stories, so it all passed off without any adverse publicity. But he was obviously … and then Dickie and Dennis who lived in …
PT: Can we go on a little bit more about Francis Bacon, because you were saying how generous he was.
PW: Well, I used to … Francis Bacon was always in the Black Buoy pub, as I remember it – I mean, he probably went to other places – but that’s where I saw him, and he was always … I mean, he was a sweet, extraordinarily endearing figure when he was wanting to be nice, because he could be very bloody and horrible, one has read, but I never saw that side of him, and the locals would come in, and he was a genial, jokey, very generous … standing drinks, and standing in the pub hour after hour, and he was a marvellous Conversationalist. I mean really interesting, clever, funny … I remember him being the centre of the bar and … but not being treated like a celebrity, but just entering into the village conversation. I remember being amazed … I mean, he wasn’t the frightening Bohemian genius, he was just a jolly man at the bar. But I’m sure that’s only a very one-sided vision of him – but he was very popular, and everybody loved him.
PT: And did you go to his studio at all?
PW: Did l?
PT: Did you go to his studio at all?
PW: No, I didn’t. I mean, it was very odd. I don’t think he … I’m not sure that he did a lot of painting down there. I mean, he was great friends, of course, with Dickie and Dennis, but the very great friends slightly gives it the wrong impression, because they were always at each others’ throats – terrible battles and fights, and screamings, and drunken brawlings, and rows, and bitter … bitter sulks and so on. I rather think … erm …I mean, Dickie and Dennis are obviously lovers, and I think that Dennis used to make Dickie very jealous by … by making up to Francis … visible sort of lovers’ feuds and so on … I never altogether … I’m not quite sure what the subjects were … the rows were about, but there were always terrible tantrums and … and fisticuffs and so on. That, again, added to the … it wasn’t a typical English village, Wivenhoe, in those days! (LAUGHS)
PT: So Dickie and Dennis were neighbours, weren’t they?
PW: Dickie and Dennis were neighbours. I mean, Dennis Wirth-Miller, a very fine artist indeed, and Dickie did all the covers for the original James Bond books, I think, if I remember rightly, and he was teaching at the Royal Academy of Art in London, and they had this charming … what period was it? I suppose it’s an early Victorian house?
In any case, it had a lovely bow window. But they didn’t … Dickie and Dennis didn’t exactly … they weren’t really regulars up at Ballast Quay, they were … I mean, they would come up, but I think they were … they had their own circle of friends coming down from London. So, I mean, Dickie and Dennis have had lots of metropolitan figures of fame, or infamous or famous coming down, so they were a very substantial … another tributary of London, so to speak, fashionable life of that period, who came down to visit them. So Ballast Quay was the river of… had the biggest number of outsiders coming to add to the gaiety of the village. But gaiety, in that sense, could be used in both senses! But, no, it was … I mean, it is amazing, looking back … what a centre of social activity of every kind, Wivenhoe was in those years.
PT: Do you remember any other artists?
PW: Pam Dan, of course, and I’ve got several of her paintings here. But I… if you jog my memory I do remember them physically, very very well. I remember … because I knew so many of them, and they were … some of them … I mean, it’s difficult to exaggerate the extent that alcohol dominated Wivenhoe in those years, and people – the artists – and everybody else, in my recollection, were regularly drinking far more than was good for them – including myself, of course! And the artists, in particular. But I can’t remember … I mean, it isn’t because they were friends of mine, I just can’t remember anything … and I’m in my eighties – I ought to mention I’m 82 – so it’s justified to have a bad memory! But there were lots of artists, and if you could jog my memory I could tell you about them, but I can’t remember them now, as I speak, their names escape me.
PT: Well, unfortunately, you see, I don’t know their names either!
PW: Yes, yes. Er … I don’t think any of them were, so to speak, … became very famous, and not all of them were full-tune artists. But… oh dear, no, this is a terrible admission, I simply can’t remember them.
PT: And why do you think the Arts Club finished?
PW: Oh, the Arts Club was never really … because I think the answer really is that most people, then, they preferred going to the pub, and it was quite… you know, Ballast Quay was about, what, half a mile away from the quay, and there were lots of pubs. And I think the restaurant… it wasn’t really ever … it wasn’t a serious enough restaurant, and it never really got off the ground. I mean, I think Pat rather lost interest – Pat Gale rather lost interest. You’ll have to talk to her, by the way. I think there may have been other reasons. I can’t remember, now, the details … because it was a separate building, and I think maybe Planning Permission ended to run it as a commercial operation, or even as a Club. Or there may have been protests at the noise, I can’t remember. It didn’t really catch on as a Club, really. I mean, it did drag on for a few years, but it was never quite what it might have been, I think.
PT: And did you have anything to do with the Wivenhoe Society, in its earlier years?
PW: No. I’m afraid I didn’t.
PT: No, because the time when the struggle about the woods started …
PW: The struggle about?
PT: Saving the woods and …
PW: Yes. I don’t remember that, no. But, I mean, who started the Wivenhoe Society?
PT: Well, I’m not sure exactly who it was.
PW: Because I think that would bring back the names of people I knew at the time …
PT: I think Nick Butler was involved …
PW: Yes. Then, of course, you must obviously … my neighbour, another of my neighbours, was Miss Marple.
PT: Oh yes! Can you say something about her?
PW: Well, I loved her! I mean, she was … I saw a lot of her, and she was exactly as she was in the Miss Marple. I can’t remember her name, but I knew her well.
PT: Joan Hickson.
PW: That’s right. Joan Hickson. Yes. Absolutely. No … I’m sorry, this is my memory … She was a star of stage and screen, and I can’t remember her name either … that’s how bad my memory is. But she was very close, and I would constantly run into her buying stamps, or the local shop, buying papers, and she was a friend … we were popping in for a cup of tea and so on. I liked her very much. But, I mean, it is, of course, quite incredible how like she was to her screen and performance, so… I think of her very much as Miss Marple. And she she was part of the village life.
PW: No, Joan Hickson, yes … Then she had a son … I wonder what’s happened to her son? … I left Wivenhoe long before Joan got ill and died, and she was still going strong in my day. She was living with her son, as I remember. And I then there was the marvellous local doctor … well, the father of… of Hally Palmer …
PT: Dr. Dean?
PW: Dean. The Deans. That was another very very eccentric, passionate … croquet player, but William Dean and his wife … do you remember her name? She had an antique shop in the …
PT: Yes. Marjory.
PW: Marjory. Well, they were another … Marjory and William were sort of original… before the War, passionate readers of the New Statesman, and very much …avant garde couple, and he was the local doctor, and … fairly eccentric, local doctor …. and sweet, very very … I’m sure a very good doctor, but again, rather scatterbrained and eccentric. So … the whole, everything about Wivenhoe didn’t exactly fit into the normal expectation of an English village! Even …
PT: Do you remember the other doctor, Dr. Radcliffe?
PW: Er … yes. Now, I do remember him, and I can’t remember much about him. But yes, there was another rival… was he a rival kind of doctor?
PT: Well, there were two practices.
PW: Yes, that’s right. In any case, William was our doctor. And he was very bad-tempered, wasn’t he a bit of a bully, the other one? I can’t remember …but stories were told about him! But maybe the stories told about him came from the Dean camp, so they may not have been … But, I mean … William was really, I think, probably more interested in antiques and so on, than he was in medicine. But he was a sweet man, and a great character. And, of course, Ted Palmer and Hally now …Ted, of course, took over William’s practice, and was a very successful and very formidable doctor – he’s retired now.
PT: Yes. They’ve been very supportive of the project.
PW: Yes, well, they’re a mine of information. And, of course, Hally would have been, I suppose, brought up there as a child. I don’t know when William and Marjory came to … but she must be one of the veterans of the village, Hally, and still there.
PT: Yes. You don’t remember Semprini, I suppose?
PT: He’s said to have been living in Wivenhoe.
PW: Really? No. No.
PT: His son is still there.
PW: Not to my…
PT: He wasn’t part of the social activities!
PW: No. I’m afraid not, no. But Kingsley Amis and Hally, they were very …very much regulars. Then, of course, what I haven’t mentioned, and which was quite important, because Maurice Cowling, the Peterhouse historian, came … He was a historian, who died the other day – had a great Memorial Service at Peterhouse, Cambridge, last Saturday. He came to live at Ballast Quay, and eventually, of course, married Pat Gale when George had died. He built a wing on to Ballast Quay, and a great many Cambridge dons – Roger Scruton, John Casey, then there was a Nobel Prizewinning scientist … oh God … Charles Wilson, a historian – I mean, very distinguished Cambridge historians and Oxford historians, and, I mean, all over … historians of the world, came down to … So there was a great … Michael Oakshott fell in love with Pat. Everybody was falling in love with Pat! And so there were lots of romantic attachments and dis-attachments, which caused the ructions, of course! But Maurice eventually married Pat again. He lived there, and he was a great figure …very … I mean, he never went to pubs and so on, but he brought a lot of his fellow historians down there, so it was a sort of intellectual … I mean, this is quite separate from the University itself, which hadn’t really got into its stride in the period I’m talking about. So it was not just artistic, it was also writers and … even more so, scholars. And I think there can’t have been many villages, at that time, that had such a concentration of intellectual and artistic … with all the ups and downs that that kind of company brings in its wake, than Wivenhoe. And I think, for a time, that the life in Wivenhoe was part of the cultural scene of 1960s England.
PT: And what do you think the impact of the University was, on the village?
PW: Well, astonishingly enough, in the period I’m talking about, it was very little. I mean, obviously … I remember … during the University riots, that impinged, because we all went … I mean, the journalists, all went and gaped and … wrote about the student riots at the University, and I can’t remember exactly what period. And I remember taking part, myself, in several talk-ins at the University. I suppose it was the Vietnam War, I remember …
PT: It was 1968…
PW: Yes. I remember taking part in several very noisy … enjoying them rather, speakers … politicians came down – I can’t remember which politicians. I think Ted Heath came down at that time, and I think I took part in a student debate with Ted, and I think he stayed the night at … so I mean, that again, adds another ingredient to the Ballast Quay. I think, Ted … for some reason, I never got on with Ted Heath, but I think George Gale did get on with Ted. I mean, George Gale was a major political correspondent figure, in those days, and knew all … I think RAB Butler came down on one occasion, but I mean to say it tended to be more Conservatives than Labour, because both he and I, although I was, as I say, only on the periphery, were Conservatives. And most of the scholars who came down, most of the historians who came down, were right-wing historians. So there was a bit of a reactionary … that was the flavour. The only Liberal was, of course, Pat Gale’s sister, Jacquie, was married to Louis Claibourne, who was, at that time, in the – these are the Kennedy years – he was one of Kennedy’s bright-eyed Liberal boys. He was a Counsel to the Supreme Court, and he kept the Liberal flag flying in our world, but he was very much in the minority, and we didn’t give him … we rather pooh-poohed his ideas, so he was rather … he wasn’t at the centre of our intellectual activities. But he was charming, and miss him very much. Louis Claiborne, a great New Orleans family, I mean, one of the historical New Orleans families, and his sister was Liz Claibourne, was enormously successful … women’s underwear, and made a fortune. And she used to fly in her – that’s another thing I remember, she had her own jet, and flew it in … I suppose to Stansted, although Stansted hadn’t become a proper airport, but flew it in somewhere, so she would arrive with her… that was Louis’s sister, Louis Claibourne’s … George Gale’s brother-m-law’s sister, would come in and bring a crowd of fashionable New Yorkers, so it was quite a lively area. I don’t know whether Wivenhoe regrets the passage of these years, looks back with nostalgia, or thinks, “Good riddance”, because I imagine things have quietened down a bit.
PT: I think some people do look back with nostalgia, definitely. And so when did you finally leave?
PW: Well, I left Wivenhoe when my first wife, who was very much a great friend of Pat, she was called Cloley (?? – 359) in French, and she spent more time in Wivenhoe, really, than I did, and she died in the late eighties, and then … so I sold the house. But I do occasionally go back and see the Palmers there, and other people.
PT: And by the time you sold the house, the high period of…
PW: Yes, well, I mean, George’s death, and Pat, of course, they moved away from Wivenhoe, to Tattingstone, which is not very far, but … George was … George, really, was the reason why I came, and when he died, the reason why, I suppose, I left. And Ballast Quay was … once they’d sold it, all that side of Wivenhoe came to an end. So I left it, really, at the end of that period, yes.
PT: Well, that’s very … all very interesting.
PW: Well, I don’t think it was James. There was … Heard, certainly. Yes. He’d been a soldier, he’d been an officer in the … Regulars, I think, and he was one of the prominent… not …I don’t think he, again, was very very successful as a painter, but he was a very dedicated painter. But, he figured on the high stakes in the drinking group, and I would think, drank himself to death. I think he’s died. But I mean, drink … it’s difficult to exaggerate the degree to which drink did dominate life in that period. But it didn’t seem to lead to yobbery in those days. I mean, there were fights, but it was all very small beer compared to the scenes that go on in the centre of country villages now, or country towns now…. Certainly other people’s lives weren’t disrupted, and it was conducted in a relatively civilised way. But drink fired the social life, it kept it at a fever pitch, and I suppose ruined many people’s lives too. Well, it didn’t seem to be ruining the lives, because it was all very jolly … everybody was having a very good time, but looking back, it was a shadow over the 1960 life in Wivenhoe.
PT: Oh well, thank you very much.
PW: No. I mean, I don’t think I’ve helped you at all, but ….
END OF INTERVIEW