The Brightest Young Thing
Outrageous, scandalous, eccentric – Stephen Tennant was a force of nature. Now, his great nephew, Simon Blow, tells Rebecca Wallersteiner how a man who spent his last 30 years in bed came to inspire his latest play…
As families go, few have been more colourful. But the vivid new play from Simon Blow, The Past Is A Tattooed Sailor, is based primarily on his friendship with his flamboyant great-uncle and former Bright Young Thing, Stephen Tennant – and it offers fresh insight into his extraordinary life.
Simon’s last book, No Time To Grow: A Shattered Childhood, was written from a child’s perspective and focused on his troubled youth as a poor outsider within a privileged and aristocratic family.
The Past Is A Tattooed Sailor, set in the author’s 20s, meanwhile, explores his growing fascination with his eccentric great-uncle as he listens to him reminisce about the distant, pampered world of his youth. ‘It will be an interesting experience to see my life playing out before me on stage,’ Simon comments.
When I visit him at his 18th-century home in London’s Covent Garden, Simon serves tea from an elegant teapot. He has finely chiselled features and is as entertaining as the late Isabella Blow, his cousin’s wife – who wore lobsters and birds as hats, was the muse of hat designer Philip Treacy and tragically committed suicide in 2007.
Simon tells me that the character of Joshua in the play is based on himself and that Great-Uncle Napier is based on Stephen Tennant, whom Simon regularly visited at his Wiltshire manor house. As he writes in the play:
‘I keep seeing him in my mind in that room, surrounded by his exotic clutter. Extravagant in everything he did. Quite out of this world he was. I’d known about him always and had forever been intrigued… “Find me a sailor! Oh those tattoos!” he used to cry.’
Simon survived a turbulent, almost loveless childhood. His father was a violent alcoholic; his beautiful yet troubled mother had been abandoned as an infant, and she only caught occasional glimpses of her own mother – walking down Sloane Street – from the top of a double-decker bus.
By contrast, his great-uncle Stephen, youngest son of the 1st Baron Glenconner, enjoyed a happy childhood, cosseted by his adoring mother, who dressed him as a girl until he was eight, to replace a daughter she had lost.
But while Stephen inherited great wealth and didn’t have to do a day’s work in his life, Simon regularly struggled financially.
After leaving Stowe School at 16, Simon pursued his dream of becoming a racehorse trainer but eventually decided that this career wasn’t for him. Having begun writing poetry at school, he switched to writing books and ‘scraped by’.
When Simon befriended his great-uncle, Stephen was becoming increasingly detached from reality and spent much of his time in bed, wearing heavy make-up and gold dust in his hair, cocooned in his own fantastic Neverland.
But he hadn’t always lacked energy. In the 1920s, as the ‘Brightest of the Bright Young Things’, Stephen partied all night long and was the darling of the gossip columnists, who loved his glamorous, decadent lifestyle.
A 1927 edition of the Daily Express describes him as ‘arriving in an electric brougham wearing a football jersey and earrings’. Original and fun-loving, he was photographed by Cecil Beaton and became a muse to Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh, Rex Whistler and VS Naipaul. Virginia Woolf called him her ‘Bird of Paradise’, and Waugh based his character of Lord Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited on him.
In the early 1920s, gossip columnists reported society announcements – but all this changed with the arrival of ‘The Bright Young Things’, who captured the tabloids’ fascination with their outrageous behaviour and scandalous outfits. Stephen, at the forefront, competed to be more beautiful than his mother and sisters, spending hours making up to enhance his androgynous looks.
‘My uncle was never without his trademark dabs of Worth perfume and layers of make-up,’ says Simon. Stephen Tennant’s love affair with Siegfried Sassoon is also mentioned in the play, an affair that Stephen reportedly ended after Siegfried came round unannounced and caught him without his make-up.
‘Still in his early 50s when he took to his bed, Stephen stayed there for the next 30 years – as if he had been on the stage for long enough.’ Nevertheless, he immediately welcomed Simon and encouraged him to pursue his dreams – as he had always done – and to ignore relatives who were pressurising him to pursue a more stable career. ‘I remember spending hours sitting by Uncle Stephen’s bed, strewn with stuffed animals, scents and letters,’ continues Simon. ‘Lying in bed, sweaty and plump, Uncle used to move the bedclothes and lift a sagging leg to ask me if I thought it was beautifully shaped. His indulged childhood had made him delude himself that he was already a star and that beauty was sufficient for immortality.
‘Over 18 years we sat in his darkened bedroom discussing his memories, and I let the conversation run as he liked. He was often very funny. He asked me to take his pet lizards down as he found it magical to watch them leaping from their boxes to scamper and disappear in the sand that he had put in his garden. This is in the play,’ Simon continues.
‘We didn’t discuss my penurious struggles or my drunken father who bounced cheques and threw knives at my mother, as it just wouldn’t have penetrated. But I now realise that my father was suffering from the symptoms of Huntington’s disease, a dreadful condition, so he was a victim of both illness and ill-fate. Joshua hints at this in the play,’ he adds.
Simon shows me his great-uncle’s paintings, which reflect a similar romantic spirit to those of John Minton and Raoul Dufy. ‘In the 1940s and 1950s, Stephen had several exhibitions of paintings that built a cult following and sold well. I helped with his comeback in the 1980s, putting on a West End art exhibition, including paintings of his adored tattooed French soldiers and sailors. It received good reviews and sold well,’ he recalls.
It has taken Simon eight years to write The Past Is A Tattooed Sailor, and it can’t fail to be a success – the title alone oozes mystery and scandal. The actor Simon Callow, who will be directing it, says, ‘Dramatising oneself is a nightmarishly difficult job – but Blow has done it and created a masterpiece.’
Simon Blow’s The Past Is A Tattooed Sailor will be staged next year.
No Time To Grow: A Shattered Childhood, by Simon Blow (John Murray Publishers, 1999). Simon Blow’s other books are: Broken Blood: The Rise And Fall Of The Tennant Family (Faber & Faber, 1987); Fields Elysian: A Portrait Of Hunting Society (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1983).
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