Guinness "swan song" soars

Summer 2000 CSANews Issue 35  |  Posted date : Mar 05, 2007.Back to list

With the recent death of Sir Alex Guinness the title of his autobiography becomes sadly prescient. He describes A Positively Final Appearance as his "perfectly genuine swan song" --- and it was! But he did leave us a wonderful legacy.

This book is a delightfully whimsical, sophisticated and elegant series of observations written from the summer of 1996 through 1998.

These were tumultuous years, but the election of Tony Blair: the death of Diana, Princess of Wales; and the Clinton scandals are all put in perspective by the ebb and flow of the seasons and the rhythm of life on a quiet English country estate.

The beauties of nature are particularly appreciated by Guinness at this time because he has been reinvigorated by a successful cataract operation. He rejoices that he can now see "quite sharply and in full colour" and delights in the great horse chestnut tree, which has become "a flowering candelabra." He marvels at the sight of the Hale-Bopp comet ­ a once-in-4,000-years phenomenon.

This sense of wonder and discovery is the very essence of the entire journal.

Not that everything is all joy and light. About certain matters Guinness can be a positively cranky curmudgeon. I found it ironic to read that Vanity Fair thought to honour Guinness by commenting that "at, 83, The Force is still with him," when he makes it clear that he "shrivels inside each time Star Wars is mentioned." Star Wars fan mail is flipped into the waste-basket unread: "Like other unsolicited, unwanted, trashy mail, it can take its chance in some remote and receding galaxy."

Other bones of contention are arrogant critics who "slumber in their privileged seats" and "unreliable proofreaders."

Once, when he was complaining volubly about all the "outward and visible signs of the current malaise," his wife, Merula, put an end to the rant by announcing tartly: "Everything unacceptable in western culture stems from the aggressiveness of Donald Duck, who has been squawking around for over 60 years!"

There was a unique relationship between Guinness and his artist wife. They experimented with Chinese cooking and enjoyed their dogs, birds and gardens, all the while allowing each other space. The tenderness with which Guinness searched for the perfect gift for their 60th anniversary was quite moving. He decided that the flashy Fabergé ankle bracelet wouldn't exactly be appropriate with her wellington boots or "scruffed, woolly tartan slippers." Instead he finally settled on a 19th-century French drawing and six pots of gardenias. The gardenias were in memory of the single bloom he used to buy Merula in Piccadilly Circus every Friday night when they were engaged and working in the theatre.

Guinness's journal is not only evocative and intelligent but often downright funny. He claims to have been the "worst Romeo ever to disgrace our boards." On opening night in 1939, he leapt the garden wall and knocked off the balcony, almost causing his Juliet to "tumble to her eternal rest." To add insult to injury, on closing night, during the poison scene, Guinness managed to transfer his ginger moustache to Juliet's lips: "She was not amused."

His chapter called "The Clatter of Dropped Names" is a hilarious collection of royal and VIP encounters. Guinness's description of dining with the Duchess of Windsor after "she had wined well" is memorable.

Guinness says he has never regretted his decision to retire from performing in 1989: "I am no longer tempted to risk making an ass of myself in public."

In his Positively Final Appearance, Guinness leaves us with his philosophy that "nothing is desperately important, and the joy of life is just looking at it."

For his readers, the joy is also in reading about it.