on 1 April 2011
Horace de Vere Cole became famous because of one episode, which occurred in 1910. He and some friends organised a hoax in which they presented themselves as high-ranking Abyssinian visitors, and had themselves received on board HMS Dreadnought and treated accordingly. The hoax worked, and it made Cole famous. It is very well recounted here, two chapters of great fun amid what is otherwise a cranky tale about a rather nasty character.
Another reader might like Cole, but I didn't. He was idle, snobbish, rude and cruel, and borderline mentally-ill; and he wrote quite terrible verse of which there is quite a lot in this book. He associated with some seriously odd people. He was also associated for a time with the ghastly Bloomsbury lot, about whom far too much has already been written.
Much of the book is about Cole's decline, which essentially started immediately after the hoax. This really isn't very interesting. Cole's other hoaxes are only touched on, except for one in Cambridge which occurred earlier than the Dreadnought. His fame was thin, to say the least. I wouldn't want to read this again.
on 17 May 2011
This is an extremely sad book. It is the story of a man with massive personal problems who started life in great luxury, and eventually died in poverty. There are many uplifting moments, and there is much in Horace that one can admire, but the overall arc of the story is painfully tragic. That said, the book is exquisitely written, with a great deal of empathy and irony. One comes away wishing one could invite the author to dinner. Furthermore, in his rich days Horace knew everybody. The book is as much about the decline of post-Edwardian England as it is about a single person. Martyn Downer chose a stupendous topic and has done it justice with great wit, flair and intelligence.
on 16 February 2011
A wonderful account of this most famous practical joker of the first half of the 20th Century, whose stunts mocked the establishment wittily and courageously. The brilliant Dreadnought Hoax is the most famous where De Vere Cole and friends (including Virginia Woolf) passed themselves off as members of the Abyssinian Royal family and were invited on board HMS Dreadnought (during the arms race years leading up to WW1) to inspect the ship. They got away with it too, despite bad blacking up, cod accents and wilting false moustaches. The public thought it hilarious; the navy didn't and he was later challenged to a bizarre thrashing exchange with navy officers. A regular at the Cafe Royal and a good friend of Augustus John and other artistic and literary figures of the time, he seems to have been lacking a medium. Perhaps he was really a forerunner of today's performance artists. A very entertaining read, and an unusual view of London's artistic circles of that era.
on 8 March 2011
Recently I have had a passion for books about the "Bloomsbury Set" and their contemporaries and after seeing so much in print about the Stephen family, Duncan Grant, Clive Bell, Leonard Woolf etc., etc., it was refreshing and very illuminating to read Martyn Downer's excellent book about Horace de Vere Cole. Like so many moneyed upper class people of that era Horace was a "legend in his own lunchtime;" as conveyed by Downer, a rather tragic character whose undoubted talents as a hoaxer and poet were gradually frittered away to nothing, along with his money. So many books about the Bloomsbury Set paint a rather rose-tinted picture, but in this book Downer tells it like, I suspect, it really was ... and gives us an enlightening account of how much talent in those days sadly went to waste. Definitely worth reading.