A new collection of Muriel Spark’s essays has been recently published: that’s it above The Informed Air. One of the essays is titled “A Drink With Dame Edith,” the dame in question being Edith Sitwell.
After a bad meeting with a literary agent, Spark went to visit Edith at the Sesame Club, 49 Grosvenor Street, London, where Edith lived at the time. This must have been the early 1950s. Spark writes, “She wore her usual loose dramatic robes, her high Plantagenet headdress.” Edith was attended by “a junior editor from Macmillan, an alcoholic who thought nobody knew.” But Spark did know, of course, not least perhaps because her own mother had drunk a bottle of Madeira a day to “steady her nerves.”
Spark continues, that Edith “asked me what I would drink, suggesting her own preference, gin and pineapple juice,” which seems a cocktail that doesn’t have a name, or at least I haven’t have been able to find one. I’d have thought Dame Edith might have been more of a one for, oh, I don’t know … malmsey?
Edith too was an alcoholic. As Roger Lewis put it, she was crushed by “debts, drink and simple loneliness.” Edith’s own mother, Lady Ida, had been an alcoholic too, and Edith said she once had to pawn her mother’s false teeth to buy brandy. I’m prepared to believe the story, but I’m not sure how much a pawnbroker would give you for a set of used choppers.
Anyway, back in the day, after my father had died, I’d regularly go up to Sheffield to visit my mother on the weekend, and we’d drive out to some pub or other in Derbyshire for Sunday lunch. One time we decided to try the Sitwell Arms, a pub in Renishaw, that had a “carvery.” Renishaw was, and is, the location for Renishaw Hall, the Sitwell family seat.
We decided to book a table, and I looked up the phone number in Yellow Pages (the way you did back then) and there, one above the other, were the numbers for the “Sitwell, Arms” and for “Sitwell, Reresby” – Reresby Sitwell by then having inherited the Hall from his unmarried uncle Osbert.
Sometimes I imagine that at some level it can’t have been entirely accidental, but I “inadvertently” dialed the wrong number and found myself talking to some crusty old boy, who had no idea what I was talking about. When he finally did realize, he sounded deeply offended, even outraged, and I couldn’t help thinking this was a bit of an act. Surely I couldn’t have been the first person ever to get the numbers mixed up. I imagined he might spend a certain amount of time fielding enquiries for the pub down the road.
Anyway, in due course, I called the Sitwell Arms, booked a table and my mother and I had Sunday lunch there, which if nothing else I can honestly say was unmemorable. The website suggests the place is still very much I business, and the Wild Boar Restaurant still offers roast beef for Sunday lunch. They also offer “Beer Battered Cod Loin With Mushy Peas and Garlic & Truffle Oil Chips.”
I think my mother would have been horrified by garlic and truffle oil. I think Dame Edith might have raised an eyebrow too, although her eyebrows always did have a "life" of their own.