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Every Other Inch a Gentleman

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When the doorbell rings at 4 a.m. in a Marylebone flat one does not normally leap out of bed to answer it – unless one suspects it might be a Bulgarian lover. Dobrinka stood there on the doorstep in a fur coat, holding the neck of a bottle and swinging a luxurious packet on a satin string. The bottle glinted in the harsh lights of the nearby Heart Hospital.

‘I have come for you tonight, my dahlink. I have vodka and the finest caviar!’

‘Oh, I say. Jolly good. Do come in.’

‘But it is always so cold in your flat. Terribly cold,’ she complained as she swayed up the narrow stairs to the first landing.

‘Well, I do turn the heating off at night. It saves money.’

‘God in heaven, you English are boring. Do you never make love in the small morning? Prepare the heat for a sudden surprise?’

‘I had no idea you were coming,’ I replied, struggling with my pyjamas.

‘I knew you didn’t love me. I felt always this ice in you!’ This was viciously thrown over her shoulder as she climbed the stairs.

‘So, where have you been tonight?’

‘Dinner at the embassy, my silly boy. I wore my mini-skirt and tickled the ambassador under the table!’

The fur fell to the floor to reveal no significant outdoor clothes but a distinctly clichéd taste in lingerie. She always wore her heavy silver and turquoise jewellery until she was naked, then flung it across the room, whence it would ricochet from the wall with a loud report. I can show you the marks. This behaviour hugely impressed an Englishman with a taste for the exotic.

I will spare you the remainder of this riveting scene, for this is a book review after all, but I owe you an explanation as to the origin of my interest in lingerie, flying jewellery, things Bulgarian and that area of London within the boundaries of Marylebone, Mayfair and Belgravia. This unlikely baggage merges in a remarkable novel called The Green Hat by Dikran Kouyoumdjian, better known by the less intimidating name of Michael Arlen. The book was given to me in Warsaw while I was working o

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When the doorbell rings at 4 a.m. in a Marylebone flat one does not normally leap out of bed to answer it – unless one suspects it might be a Bulgarian lover. Dobrinka stood there on the doorstep in a fur coat, holding the neck of a bottle and swinging a luxurious packet on a satin string. The bottle glinted in the harsh lights of the nearby Heart Hospital.

‘I have come for you tonight, my dahlink. I have vodka and the finest caviar!’ ‘Oh, I say. Jolly good. Do come in.’ ‘But it is always so cold in your flat. Terribly cold,’ she complained as she swayed up the narrow stairs to the first landing. ‘Well, I do turn the heating off at night. It saves money.’ ‘God in heaven, you English are boring. Do you never make love in the small morning? Prepare the heat for a sudden surprise?’ ‘I had no idea you were coming,’ I replied, struggling with my pyjamas. ‘I knew you didn’t love me. I felt always this ice in you!’ This was viciously thrown over her shoulder as she climbed the stairs. ‘So, where have you been tonight?’ ‘Dinner at the embassy, my silly boy. I wore my mini-skirt and tickled the ambassador under the table!’ The fur fell to the floor to reveal no significant outdoor clothes but a distinctly clichéd taste in lingerie. She always wore her heavy silver and turquoise jewellery until she was naked, then flung it across the room, whence it would ricochet from the wall with a loud report. I can show you the marks. This behaviour hugely impressed an Englishman with a taste for the exotic. I will spare you the remainder of this riveting scene, for this is a book review after all, but I owe you an explanation as to the origin of my interest in lingerie, flying jewellery, things Bulgarian and that area of London within the boundaries of Marylebone, Mayfair and Belgravia. This unlikely baggage merges in a remarkable novel called The Green Hat by Dikran Kouyoumdjian, better known by the less intimidating name of Michael Arlen. The book was given to me in Warsaw while I was working on a banking project at the Peasant Self- Aid Co-operative on the banks of the Vistula. Arlen was born in Bulgaria in 1895 of Armenian merchants fleeing the scimitars of the Turk. The family settled in England in 1901 and, after public school, like many colonials and refugees, Arlen consciously and defensively set out to become more English than the aristocracy itself. He became a naturalized British subject in 1922 and in 1928 married the Countess Atalanta Mercati, a Greek aristocrat. A friend of D. H. Lawrence and Hemingway, he described himself as ‘every other inch a gentleman’. His manners and dress were as immaculate as the yellow Rolls-Royce he drove flamboyantly around Mayfair, and his writing betrays all the exoticism, stylishness and aphoristic philosophy one would expect from such a colourful background. Ornate style and outrageous behaviour were de rigueur among the privileged Bright Young Things in the years that followed the horrors of the Great War. The Green Hat was published in 1924 and made Arlen one of the first million-dollar bestseller novelists. He became tremendously wealthy, lived on the French Riviera and was lionized by women. He was regarded as the English Scott Fitzgerald and hailed as the finest chronicler of decadent high society in 1920s London. Yet today he is an almost forgotten literary figure, perhaps because economy of means and desperate reductionism are our contemporary obsessions in writing. The novel centres on the superbly styled femme fatale Iris Storm who in the opening scene arrives at night in Shepherd Market driving a yellow Hispano-Suiza. She is dressed pour le sport in a brown leather jacket and a green cloche hat ‘bravely worn’, and has come to see her ravaged twin brother, the only surviving member of the blighted March family. As a conceit, Arlen gives her a magnificent loose-fitting emerald ring, a warning gift from her most recent husband. She must crook her knuckle to prevent it slipping off as a caution against accidentally falling into the arms of desire. That night she casually sleeps with the narrator, commenting with killing effrontery that ‘it is not good to have a pagan body and a Chislehurst mind . . . hell for the body and terror for the mind’. This early fall of the emerald is one of a number in the history of this ‘shameless, shameful lady’ who betrays her class to preserve her independent spirit and poised vision of life. A silent film was made of the novel starring Greta Garbo and John Gilbert and called A Woman of Affairs, but it timidly eschewed the harsher moral dilemmas Arlen sets before the reader. He himself adapted it in 1925 as a wildly successful play which was staged at the Adelphi and starred Tallulah Bankhead as Iris. Iris’s first husband, a golden Rupert Brooke figure named ‘Boy’ Fenwick, committed suicide on their wedding night by leaping from the bedroom window of their hotel in Deauville. She intimates that she should be held morally responsible, so damning herself in society’s eyes as a wanton. The novel explores the hellish consequences of her decision and in doing so provides a satirical social portrait of London in the 1920s, a ballet of fascination danced around her reckless career by the various men and women of a close-knit set living in the elegant streets of Mayfair and Belgravia. The story then moves to Paris where Iris lies desperately ill from a fumbled abortion in a bizarre Catholic convent, a nursing home fashioned for ‘la clientèle européenne la plus chic’. An outrageous situation for a novel in 1924. The other female characters are worthy but etiolated, eclipsed by the blaze that is Iris. The public-school men betray an excruciating reasonableness and a misplaced sense of honour and renunciation that lead to her ruin. Arlen clearly felt a painful ambivalence towards their arrogant patrician Englishness, their ‘manliness’ and their vacillation under moral pressure. Boy’s suicide holds a grim yet ennobling secret, dramatically revealed in the tense final pages, which I shall not reveal under torture. Michael Arlen loved fine cars and carefully chose the matchless Spanish Hispano-Suiza for his racy heroine. Manufactured in Paris, it was the most expensive and innovative sports car of its time, owned by European Royalty and Indian Maharajas. Considered superior to the Rolls-Royce, in the novel it actually outruns a Rolls in a final harrowing chase. Hispano-Suiza manufactured the finest fighter aircraft engines during the Great War, and the graceful flying stork (adopted as the car mascot in 1919) was the squadron device of the legendary French air ace Capitaine Georges Guynemer and was painted on the side of his SPAD 12 fighter. How perfectly appropriate for the tempestuous Iris Storm. The silver bird cleaves the air triumphantly throughout the novel. One sultry English summer evening, as the novel begins to speed inexorably towards its finale, the wild young things of Iris’s set decide to go night bathing in the river at Maidenhead. In a reckless race along the Reading road, Arlen describes the thrill of open-air vintage motoring, the wind whipping Iris’s ‘tiger-tawny’ hair around her cheeks as the lost generation push each other further and faster into terrifying corners at which ‘the stork screamed a taunt, flew on’. She kicks open the exhaust for maximum power, the scorching accelerator burning into the sole of her foot. Iris remains indifferent to the pain. The company then go swimming illegally in pitch darkness in the Thames, the women clad only in their silk chemises and the men in less. The emerald falls symbolically to the bottom of the river. Interwoven with these antics, philosophical speculation on the nature of pagan desire abounds. The melodrama of the betrayal of first love and lost illusions rushes breathlessly to its climacteric. The pace, characterization, panache and concealed philosophy of The Green Hat remind me of a Mozart opera. The sheer style and idiom of the thing can beguile you into dismissing the authentic deeper resonances, diverted as one is by the mannered elegance of the surface. Do read it and be hugely entertained by its ravishing excess. It is almost impossible to put down – unless of course the doorbell rings in the small hours and a live Bulgarian has come to call.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 7 © Michael Moran 2005


About the contributor

Michael Moran lived in Marylebone for thirty years and suffers from an obsession with classic cars. Presently in Warsaw, he drives his old Rolls-Royce around that heroic city with shamefaced flamboyance. His book Beyond the Coral Sea was shortlisted for the 2004 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award.

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