Subscribe to the Oldie and get a free cartoon book


Perry Worsthorne, my father's best friend - Frances Welch

Blog | By Frances Welch | Oct 05, 2020

Perry enters El Vino's in 1970, by Nick Garland

Perry was my father’s best friend. He even introduced my parents to each other. ‘Was that a good thing?’ he would ask, half a century later. I usually put the case for yes, though my parents’ marriage was problematic, to say the least.

As I child, I saw Perry simply as one of the adults who sat for hours, perhaps even days, at tables. The adults were mostly either drunk or lofty, sometimes both. They were often charming, but not especially interested in being charming to children. Perry, in the lofty camp, would scarcely have recognised me. I once spent Christmas with him and his first wife Claudie at Wivenhoe. My only memory, beyond general unease, is of George Gale (George G. Ale) snarling like Captain Ahab, while brandishing a carving knife.

By the age of 20, I had my own set of dissolute or ‘fun-loving’ friends, as Dad would have called them with a grimace. My 21st was held in my godmother’s house in Kensington. Before it, I was told, by my more upright mother, that my guests would need to sharpen up: there were to be no breakages, no thefts, minimal drinking and no drugs

It was, perhaps predictably, the adults who misbehaved, creating what came to be known as ‘a wrinkly riot’. My father was among those who became over-refreshed, falling into a fireplace halfway through his speech. Perry was persuaded to smoke marijuana - or something stronger - before collapsing upstairs on the coats. He was joined, on an enormous bed, by several other adults, similarly high. My brother’s friend Adam Shand Kydd attempted to rouse both Perry and Dad over the course of the evening, by shouting ‘Communists!’ at them.

A few years later, I bumped into Perry and Olly Knox outside Notting Hill Police station on a freezing day. I was working as a reporter for the now defunct local paper, the West London Observer. After cordial but slightly awkward greetings, I told them, rather self-importantly, that I was doing ‘police and fire calls’: ’Oh where’s the fire?’ they replied: ‘Could we warm our hands?’ Otherwise I can only remember one more stilted exchange from that time, in the course of which Perry told me that Dad was his ‘conscience’. I took this prize back to Dad and he looked bemused.

My father died in 1997. Perry kindly agreed to read at the funeral and, later, to write an introduction to a collection of his journalism. He rose to both tasks beautifully, and with feeling. But it was not till I encountered him, a few years later, with his beloved second wife, Lucy Lambton, that I felt that Perry had become a different man.

By then I knew more about his unlikely friendship with Dad. Perry once wrote that Dad championed the grim Soames Forsyte, while he, along with the rest of their Oxbridge generation, preferred Sebastian Flyte. They first met at Stowe; there was an early skirmish when a tailor came from Harrods to fit Perry for a suit in the school shop. Dad described how he and a schoolfriend jeered ‘with Caliban-like scorn’ before throwing a cowpat through an open window: ‘It broke over its victim’. Perry evidently got over that. Indeed the journalist Peter Lewis later insisted that they became known as ‘Peggy and Elsie’… ‘wandering around the sunlit temples of Stowe hand in hand’.

After a year at Peterhouse, Cambridge, they tried and failed to get into the Coldstream Guards, both ending up joining lesser regiments. At one point, during training, they had to charge at targets with bayonets, accompanied by a Colour Sergant Craggs, who ran alongside shouting : ‘Hate, hate, he killed your mate’. They were, according to Perry: ‘both reduced to helpless laughter’. The Colour Sergeant retaliated, as Perry added: ‘Welch and Worsthorne were coupled together like some kind of pantomine horse’. After completing their training, they travelled from Pirbright to Waterloo, to be met by Dad’s incredulous mother: ‘You two… Officers??…. Never!’.

The conversations I had with Perry, in these last few years, shone precious patches of light on my father’s past. ‘It’s all darkness,’ Dad would say after a particularly bad all-nighter. The same could have been said, though less grimly, of my knowledge of him.

One gratifying full circle involved our then teenage son’s fixation with the suave American conservative iconoclast, William F Buckley. Perry and Dad had both been friends of Buckey’s. My son and his friends loved watching Buckley and Gore Vidal savaging each other on Youtube. Perry told them about staying with the Buckleys outside New York, Bill insisting his guests spend their evenings watching old videos of his interview programme ‘Firing Line’. Perry described a dinner party in London during which Bill’s wife threw him out for declaring that McCarthyism had gone too far.

Most importantly we discussed Dad’s domestic life. My father had two families. The other woman had been the feisty wife of the journalist, Michael Wharton. Dad and Kate Wharton were forever at each other’s throats, sometimes literally: ‘He didn’t like arguing’ insisted Perry. ‘But you can get trapped’. He told me that Kate once turned up at the Telegraph with my two half-siblings and dumped them on his desk: ‘They’re your children. You look after them’. Another time she threw his typewriter out of the window.

Perry had become more thoughtful: ‘It must have been so difficult - for all of you’. I was amazed. He had completed his social armoury with that much-prized, late 20th century distinction: emotional literacy. The youthful Welch and Worsthorne might have laughed at that idea, but I found it touching. What had transformed him? Could it simply have been his gloriously affectionate second marriage? To elegance and wit was now added added kindness and warmth. As a child I could never have imagined how one day my heart would soar at the sight of Perry.