Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Horace de Vere Cole - prankster

The brouhaha surrounding the Australian DJs whose dim prank led to the suicide of a troubled and vulnerable nurse seems to have subsided, or faded, or whatever it is that brouhahas do. At least it's no longer a daily concern for those of us not directly involved. Pranks and their aftermath were the subject of my unpublished review of The Sultan of Zanzibar – The bizarre world and spectacular hoaxes of Horace de Vere Cole by Martyn Downer (Black Spring Press):

Practical jokes, and the jokers who perpetrate them, are never funny. Against the odds Martyn Downer has produced a deeply absorbing account of Horace de Vere Cole, ‘prince of jokers’, who organised the once-famous Dreadnought hoax, in which he and some Bloomsbury cronies (including Virginia Woolf, between mental breakdowns) blacked up as Abyssinian royalty and duped the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy into giving them a tour of his flagship.

Virginia Woolf (extreme left) and Horace de Vere Cole (extreme right) ready to
perpetrate the Dreadnought hoax, posing beforehand at a London photographic salon.

The jape lasted around an hour and caused a good deal of fuss but, despite the best efforts of de Vere Cole, never quite matured into a scandal. His life was thereafter to consist of interminable pranks punctuated by hopeless love affairs, and a cultivated lack of seriousness that in time became his defining characteristic. A buffoonish Old Etonian who appealed to readers of the Daily Express, he would be at home in today's celebrity culture at a point where privilege, chutzpah and gormless irresponsibility intersect. He would also by now be Lord Mayor of London and the bookie's favourite for future Prime Minister

Born to great wealth (his grandfather might be described as a quinine baron), he combined lengthy periods of affluent idleness with an energetic commitment to Socialist (or at least Fabian) causes. Of Anglo-Irish ancestry, he was ever the privileged fringe-dweller, never really at the centre of things. He haunted rowdy music halls in pursuit of teenage chorus girls and was a fixture at the Café Royal, along with a host of now mostly-forgotten names. He was a bully and sentimentalist, enjoying spiteful feuds with (among many others) Jacob Epstein. 

de Vere Cole was a very odd fish. Downer’s optimistic claim is that the pranks form part of a pre-war cultural continuum that encompasses Surrealism, Dada, Vorticism and Futurism, all of which movements involved subversion, violent reversals and the predictable urge to shake up a complacent bourgeoisie. Of course the impending carnage of the Great War trenches puts all these movements into perspective and de Vere Cole’s antics have acquired a particularly bleak and pointless air, summed up in a telling sentence:

‘With his friends dying at the front [sic], Horace kept up the frenzied partying’.

Even the best of his pranks tend to hover at the good-enough-for-Punch ‘collapse of stout party' level. There is a certain antic energy and inventiveness at play but, despite Downer’s eloquent championing, can de Vere Cole really take his place alongside Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis and the other big beasts of modernism? 

‘Sudden collapses, playing dead, loud farting and scatological outbursts were his new method of provocation’. 

This was at the age of thirty-two, and there were decades more of this behaviour to come. There is nevertheless, and despite the desperation of the man's weird lust for notoriety, much to enjoy in the author’s well-written account of a rather sad life, which ended in abject poverty and social isolation. The brief appearance of Dick Innes and the hilarious description by Oliver St John Gogarty of Horace’s Catholic wedding are both outstanding recreations of a fugitive moment. 

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