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The Empress of Ireland | Part III: London

Christopher Robbins

I arrived at Kinnerton Street one morning to find an extremely tall man standing on his own in the front room warming himself in front of the fire. He did not introduce himself but launched into an incomprehensible monologue. ‘I had dinner with her again last night. At the Ritz. We had the most delicious lamb cutlets. Served pink. She loves them pink like that. And a bottle of Léoville-Poyferre 1961 – do you approve? A whole bottle – not a half.’

Mercifully, Brian came into the room at this moment and I was temporarily spared further bewilderment. The man was introduced as Harry Clifton. ‘Take Harry to the Nag’s Head, will you, Christopher? I’ll join you directly.’

We made our way to the pub where Len Cole, the publican, greeted us. ‘Dear boy, how are you? What’s it to be?’

I offered to buy Harry a drink. ‘That’s extremely kind. Extremely kind. And in due course I would love to join you in a drink. I would love it. But first, I must have a few words with mine host.’

‘At your service, dear boy,’ Len said.

‘Do you have hard-boiled eggs?’

‘Many. Very hard-boiled indeed.’

‘And do you have ham?’

‘Certainly. Lovely ham.’

‘Good. Please shell two very hard-boiled eggs and prepare a small dish of salt and pepper mixed together, and provide me with two slices of lovely ham with the fat cut off.’

‘Right-ho.’ Len turned to me. ‘And a Guinness for you, dear boy?’

‘Please.’

Harry hummed to himself tunelessly while Len drew the Guinness and set about shelling the eggs and preparing the ham. As I made to say something, Harry gazed down at me from his great height and smiled kindly: ‘I would rather not speak just now, if you don’t mind.’

Len returned with the shelled eggs and slices of ham on a plate, a small dish of salt and pepper, and my Guinness. The landlord and I watched with fascination as Harry dipped both ends of the first egg into the salt and pepper, and carefully rolled it up in a slice of ham. He devoured it in two bites and set about preparing the second. In less than a minute both eggs had disappeared.

‘Delicious!’ Harry looked down on me benignly. ‘I have not forgotten your generous offer of a drink but hope you will forgive me if I insist that you allow me. Landlord, do you have champagne on ice?’ ‘Certainly.’

‘Then a bottle of iced champagne, if you would be so kind.’

On cue, Brian came through the door carrying an orange. Len poured Harry a glass of champagne, then picked up the orange from the bar without being asked and began to squeeze its juice into a glass. Harry took the bottle of champagne and topped up my Guinness. We moved to a table where the conversation made it clear that Harry was in line – behind the Duke of Westminster – to finance our movie. Brian spoke of our recent trip to Tangier, and my work on the script, concluding proudly: ‘Christopher writes with a fountain pen.’

‘Oh, I like to hear that,’ Harry said with unnerving enthusiasm. ‘Yes, I like that very much. And she’ll like that. Do you have the pen in question on your person?’

‘Yes, I do.’

‘May I hold it?’

‘If you like.’

I took the pen from my jacket pocket and handed it to Harry, who held it tightly in his right hand and stared hard at me. Unsure whether I should meet his gaze or look away, I glanced at Brian for some insight into the ritual under way, but his manner suggested that nothing unusual was happening. Harry began to roll my pen against his forehead.

‘He’s the real thing,’ Harry said to Brian, handing back my pen. ‘I will let her know. How clever of you to find the right writer for your story.’

‘And we have St Thérèse working hard for us,’ Brian said.

‘Good, good,’ Harry said, nodding seriously. ‘And Tomaster provides guidance, no doubt?’

‘Of course. And St Bridget in the wings.’

[. . .]

‘Harry’s quite eccentric, wouldn’t you say?’

‘That is the word that attaches itself to Harry. If he were poor and of modest origins he would be put in a straitjacket, locked away in a padded cell and fed from a safe distance with a long spoon. But he’s very rich and aristocratic, so he’s found to be eccentric and charming. Big tipper, Harry – and lovely manners.’

Henry Talbot de Vere Clifton, I came to understand, was a wealthy aristocratic scion from a long line of half-mad giants. He was enormously rich and owned great swathes of Lancashire, and his forebears were equally as unconventional and untrammelled. The men had originally met in Hollywood when Brian was working as an assistant to John Ford, and Harry was in the throes of one of his many voyages around the world.

‘I had a close friend in California called Misho Ito, a famous Japanese dancer,’ Brian said. ‘Misho was on tour in Japan and I got a letter from him, asking me to meet a young Englishman off a ship whom he had met at the British Embassy in Tokyo. I drove my shabby but elegant Peerless convertible to San Pedro, the port for Los Angeles. Down the gangway of a rusting tramp steamer came this extremely tall, distinguished young Englishman, with no shoelaces in his shoes, and wearing the dirtiest white shirt I have ever seen. I could see at once he was quite an eccentric. As we drove through San Pedro we stopped in the middle of the town at a red light, and a big crowd surged across the road. Harry stood up to his full height in the convertible and pointed at them. “Look! Look, Brian – Americans!”

‘We got into Los Angeles, and under the impression that Harry was a poverty-stricken young Englishman doing the world on the cheap, I put him in a very small, inexpensive hotel in Hollywood. I introduced him to Jack Ford, who took a liking to him because he was so eccentric and gave him a job as an extra in one of his pictures, for seven and a half dollars a day. Harry turned up on time every day and at the end of the week collected his pay. Then on the Friday, he turned to me and said, “Would you and your friend, Mr Ford, like to have dinner with me tonight?” Jack said, “Yeah, let’s go.” We were directed to the main hotel in Los Angeles, the Ambassador, and arrived to find that Mr Henry Talbot de Vere Clifton had installed himself on one whole floor. It was only then that I discovered he was one of the wealthiest landowners in England.’

Harry owned Lytham Hall, in Lancashire; a large part of the town of Lytham St Anne’s – including the funfairs; vast land-holdings in the county; a further 27,000 acres and Kildalton Castle on the Isle of Islay; lochs, rivers and land on the island of Lewis; Kylemore House, beneath the Nine Pins of Connemara, Ireland; a hotel in Dublin; and numerous properties in London.

Back in London, Brian saw a great deal of Harry socially, although as no film had presented itself in England he decided to return to Hollywood. ‘That seems a pity with all your knowledge,’ Harry had said. ‘Have you got an idea for a small film that wouldn’t cost very much – without these terrible American accents?’

Brian said he had a film he wanted to make that would cost £3,000. The next morning the bank manager called. ‘A tall young gentleman has been in here and has placed three thousand pounds to your credit. The cheque is perfectly legal and stamped . . . however, it is rather strange.’

‘How strange?’

‘It’s written on an opened-out Gold Flake cigarette packet. Signed by somebody called Harry Clifton. Is it any good?’

The money funded Brian’s first film, The Tell-Tale Heart, based on the Edgar Allan Poe story of a murderer who betrays himself because he is convinced he can hear the beating heart of his victim. ‘I selected the story because it was sensational film material, and was also in the public domain – that is, I didn’t have to pay for the rights. I hired a cameraman but there were no professional actors in the film. The detectives were played by two electricians, the old man by a painter, and the lead by a lover. We used recordings of Tchaikovsky and Debussy for the soundtrack as we could not afford to compose special music.’

Fox bought the film for quota, a system set in place by the government of the day intended to help the British film industry – ‘Staggering to ruin, as usual.’ For every hundred feet of American film shown on the screen, UK distributors were obliged to buy seventeen feet of film made in Britain. ‘This gave rise to a series of the most ghastly films with budgets up to £10,000. These were generally shown once at ten o’clock in the morning and never again.’ The Tell-Tale Heart was sold for £4,000 at a pound a foot – a profit for Harry of £800, as the film had gone £200 over budget.

The making of the film meant that Brian grew closer still to the Clifton family, and he became a frequent visitor to both Lytham Hall and Kildalton Castle. ‘Harry met my sister, Patricia, and they became great friends. Whether it was a mother/ son relationship or not, I don’t know, but she became his financial adviser. She made and saved him a lot of money. When he was selling a piece of land near Lytham for £300,000 Patricia went up there and discovered that there had been bribery among the local officials and ended up bringing Harry back £900,000 – three times what he expected. She also advised him to invest in Sardinia years before the Aga Khan thought of it. When my sister did a good deal for Harry, he would give her a beautiful emerald or a sapphire necklace, or jewels of great price.’

Brian began an affair with Harry’s beautiful sister, Avia – so named to celebrate the adventure of flying. What started as an amusing and exciting episode took on a tempestuous life of its own and he found himself engaged. ‘You haven’t got any money, have you, darling?’ Violet Clifton, Harry’s mother, said, when she heard of the engagement. ‘As Avia is rather extravagant, we are going to settle £8,000 a year on you.’ This was an enormous sum at the time. In addition, Avia lavished expensive gifts on her fiancé, including an engagement present of diamond and sapphire shirt studs. Brian complained that they were so large they made him look flashy and vulgar. ‘Never mind, dear,’ Avia said, ‘they’ll do for film dinners.’ One night after the engagement, as Brian dined at Lytham Hall, he looked down the table at the long, Norman-Byzantine faces of the family and knew that the marriage would be a disaster. ‘Violet rang me up in London and said, “We have put the wedding banns in the Catholic church at Lytham. Will you go to the nearest Catholic church to you and do the same?”’ Lacking the courage to tell the truth, he fled to Paris.

Extract from The Empress of Ireland, Part III: London © The Estate of Christopher Robbins, 2004

The Empress of Ireland | Part III: London


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