Nicky Haslam’s diary: Marie-Anna Berta Felicie Johanna Ghislaine Theodora Huberta Georgina Helene Genoveva and other big names

Plus: Mystery shoppers, cod philosophy in advertising, and Ethel Merman

10 January 2015

9:00 AM

10 January 2015

9:00 AM

I was once bundled into a police car in Palm Springs to explain why I didn’t have snow-tyres on my pick-up in the red-hot California desert. I don’t remember the outcome of the ‘arraignment’, but will never forget the lady cop’s name, L. Nevada Yonkers. Other weird names have stuck with me. Reading The Most of Nora Ephron, whom I met once and immediately fell in love with, I realised that when I was working on Vogue in New York in the 1960s, she had been on the staff of Newsweek. I used to be obsessed by the weird names of the girls on Newsweek’s masthead. I would reel them off like a litany. I can still recall Virginia Bittikofer, Minnie Magazine, Olga Giddy and, best of all, Fortunata Snyder Trapnell, who I stalked vicariously though several marriages and divorces. Of course, the lately deceased Duchess of Alba’s string of names took the biscuit, but with the grim news that Doris and Edna are suddenly fashionable, I rather long for a return to, say, Marie-Anna Berta Felicie Johanna Ghislaine Theodora Huberta Georgina Helene Genoveva, the given names of my friend Countess Esterhazy, who is known, understandably, as Bunny.

The other Bunny — Roger — used to give brilliant New Year’s Eve costume balls. Now that everyone is fed up with the looming ‘Happy Holidays’ by October, and bankers have themselves a Merrill-Lynchy Christmas by bailing out of London weeks before it comes, it would be hard for a host to gather a houseful of friends to see the year out in the style Bunny achieved. His invitations, greatly coveted, were coded. ‘The Enchanted Will Meet in Another Part of the Forest’ read one, cryptically, and ‘Miss Norma Desmond, At Home, 10086 Sunset Boulevard’ another. Guests clad as movie stars arrived to find Bunny’s house transformed into that film’s decaying mansion, and the host a ringer for its star, Gloria Swanson. But the last, simply saying ‘Fetish’, lived up to the name, due to several famous people being papped in most unseemly dress in the frosty street, their embarrassment front page in the News of the World next day.

A lad who works in Bond Street tells me about ‘mystery shoppers’. It must be boring enough to have to deal with people who intend to buy something, but these are spies who pretend to be customers, sent to see if the service is up to scratch. They arrive, apparently as obvious to the staff as A.A. Gill in a restaurant, and have to be constantly Sir and Modom’d as they poke about, ask for things in different sizes and colours, then leave empty-handed. Mr Grace would have had none of it.

Three months into a driving licence-free year, I’m now a Tube-a-holic, and though my comprehension of the local station, Earl’s Court, is still rather haphazard, I’m struck by the daintiness of Underground English. ‘Please alight here for…’ must sound awfully airy-fairy to foreigners. And ‘the next lift arriving shall be…’ would please Fowler, but wouldn’t will be more reassuring?

From dainty to dopey… those maddening cod-philosophical HSBC ads lining the slipway to the plane. And now there’s a huge building site at South Ken blaring yet more ludicrous aphorisms by an artist. ‘Nothing is impossible. Nothing is possible. (Even nothing changes)’ and ‘All my ideas are imported. All my products are exported. (All my explanations are rubbish)’. I’ll say.

Let us hope, vainly I fear, that there will be fewer saddening memorial services this year. But even the most moving had its funny moments. At Mary Soames’s memorial service, turning round against the tide of departing mourners in the Abbey’s aisle to greet the venerable Clarissa Avon, Harold Pinter’s esteemed widow was barred by a badged church-gorgon hissing ‘Make way, Lord Hurd is coming through.’

Needing new songs for my cabaret at the St James’s Theatre (slotted for late April) my pianist said something up-tempo was needed, and suggested one of Ethel Merman’s from Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam. I remember Arthur Laurents, who wrote Gypsy for the Big Belter, saying that when Sondheim told Ethel he had a great song for her, ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’, she looked puzzled and asked: ‘Everything’s coming up Rose’s what?’

Addendum to above, top. Due to a painful toe, my GP sends me to ‘the best foot man’. The genius’s name is Dr Mallipeddi. You couldn’t… as they say.

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Nicky Haslam is an interior designer.

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