Trying to Please

A Memoir
By John Julius Norwich
Hardcover: $20.00 • ISBN: 978-1-60419-031-1

“The author of this thoroughly delightful memoir is scarcely so well known in this country as in England, where he was born more than eight decades ago….”

—Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

Summary

“Poor old baby, he’s only trying to please,” his nanny said—and his life has reflected an appetite for life, enlivened by a sense of theater. John Julius Norwich’s equally famous parents frequently entertained everyone of note in Britain, France, or the United States, including their good friend Winston Churchill, H.G. Wells, and Hilaire Belloc, who sang ancient French songs in an old, cracked voice.

Trying to Please is an engaging and often amusing memoir that breathes fresh life into the worlds he describes. From a walking tour of the monasteries on Mt. Athos to a camel trek across the Sahara, the book shows how his passions—for history, for travel, for music—have combined with simpler pleasures like friendship and a close family. His recollections evoke a world now extinct, such as a Beirut of cloudless sunshine and moonlit dinners where eleven different religions peacefully coexisted.

Norwich has led a remarkable life, and his autobiography is thoroughly enjoyable read—just the thing to keep at one’s bedside for a moment of unalloyed pleasure at the end of the day.

About the Author

John Julius Norwich (b. 1929) served in the British Foreign Service in Lebanon and the former Yugoslavia, and as a member of the British delegation to the Disarmament Conference in Geneva. His books include The Architecture of Southern England, Byzantium (3 vols.), Shakespeare’s Kings: the Great Plays and the History of England in the Middle Ages: 1337–1485, Christmas Crackers, and A History of Venice, which is considered the standard English work on the subject. Besides being a prolific writer, he is also an editor, and a popular U.K. radio and television personality. He lives in London.

Jonathan Yardley (The Washington Post):

A Year’s Worth of Favorites

“John Julius Norwich is not as widely known in this country as he deserves to be, but in his more than 80 years he has become a prominent figure in Britain, where he writes well-received popular histories on a broad range of subjects and appears frequently on television as host of historical documentaries. His life, as described in his memoir Trying to Please, has been full, accomplished and happy, and traveling with him through all those years is pure pleasure.”

Jonathan Yardley (The Washington Post):

“The author of this thoroughly delightful memoir is scarcely so well known in this country as in England, where he was born more than eight decades ago. John Julius Norwich began his working life in 1952 (he was then named John Julius Cooper) as an officer for the British Foreign Service, but he did not set off on his path to renown until the fall of 1963, when he decided to leave the service and try his hand at freelance writing. He has done so ever since, having written more than 20 books, most of them in the field of popular history, but he is best known as a lecturer on cultural subjects and the host of historical television documentaries.

“Trying to Please is an absolutely delicious book, in part because Norwich writes so fluidly and engagingly, in part because he has been to so many places and done so many interesting things, and in no small part because he happens to be the only child of one of the most famous and mythologized couples of the first half of the 20th century….

“He seems to have no illusions about its shortcomings or the injustices that helped sustain it, but only the terminally hard-hearted will fail to be captivated by his description of life at Belvoir Castle or his nostalgia for it:

‘What has gone (or very nearly) is the sense of amplitude—the sheer scale of that aristocratic life of three-quarters of a century ago, made possible only by the existence of an enormous staff but of a thriving social community numbering several hundred people, with the great house at its center. One or two may still continue, at Chatsworth for example, or perhaps Blenheim; but the combination of hereditary wealth and old tradition without which such houses cannot survive is nowadays rare indeed. In the 1930s it was not. Belvoir was in no way exceptional. There were in those days dozens—perhaps hundreds—of houses in which that sort of life went on, not all of them on quite the level I have described, but not a few on a scale more magnificent still. Nor, in the surrounding country, was there any resentment, any more than there was any servility. The house was a source not only of employment, but of pride….’

“It’s a good life, and Norwich shows no sign of slowing it down. More power to him.”

[Complete review: WashingtonPost.com]

Robert Messenger (The Wall Street Journal):

“John Julius Norwich has lived a charmed life and would be the first to acknowledge it…. In Trying to Please [he] … records his life…. There are grim events—infidelity, divorce, deaths—but there is much more travel, discovery and insouciance.”

[Complete review: WSJ.com]

Katherine A. Powers (Boston Sunday Globe):

“[Norwich] writes … with typical cheerfulness…. This is a genial, old-fashioned book. Its value lies…in its anecdotes and details about great persons and places from a vanished era.”

[Complete review: Boston.com]

Martin Rubin (The Washington Times):

“…Mr. Norwich is clearly very much his own man, not just interesting for being Duff Cooper’s son–Trying to Please is a success, for it is indeed attractive and winning–all in all a very pleasant read and, with its unusually modest price, a bargain to boot.”

[Complete review: WashingtonTimes.com]

Mark Knoblauch (Booklist):

“Born into the cream of English aristocracy, Norwich boasted a host of godparents that included practically every celebrated figure of the early twentieth century. Shipped off to America as a student to avoid the dangers and privations of WWII Britain, he gained inside access to Churchill, Roosevelt, and DeGaulle. Formally educated at Eaton and Oxford and skilled in both French and Russian languages, he embarked on a diplomatic career. Representing the Crown in the Balkans, he learned to appreciate the artistic achievements of the Ottoman Empire and its Byzantine predecessor. To the superficial reader, Norwich’s recounting of his life offers a surfeit of name-dropping, but ultimately his intelligence and sound taste shine through. Additionally, more than a few of his well-crafted anecdotes about personalities and institutions he encountered may provoke outright laughter. These memoirs illuminate the history of the postwar era with insight into both politics and the arts.”

The Thoughtful Reader:

“John Julius Cooper . . . is an elegant grandee of taste and refinement, a man of no pretense and good cheer, someone who has lived a rare and good life and has the grace to acknowledge it without vengeance or reprisal. Trying to Please is splendid testimony to that life as well as good reading for a chilly autumn afternoon.”

[Complete review: ThoughtCatalog.com]

Holly Scudero (Sacramento Book Review):

“Memoirs can create a variety of responses in a reader; Trying to Please by John Julius Norwich is entertaining, witty, and a plain old-fashioned good read….”

Jim Barnes, Editor (IndependentPublisher.com):

“If British memoirs with celebrity name dropping and juicy gossip on every page are your cup of tea, this one is for you. Lord (John Julius) Norwich can’t help it he grew up among and world’s richest, most powerful and talented characters from the 1930s forward, and he has what it takes to be a great memoirist: a photographic memory, great storytelling ability, and a wildly interesting life. To call him ‘worldly’ is a vast understatement. Educated at Oxford and Strasbourg, foreign diplomat in Lebanon and Yugoslavia, author, historian, filmmaker and broadcaster, he makes the Kennedys seem like choirboys. His aristocratic parents— she a silent film star and he ambassador to France— raised him ‘to please.’ He did so throughout their lives and does so for all of us with this pleasing and entertaining book.”

The Spectator:

“How good if the young were to read this book. After all, Lord Norwich, author of multi-volume works on Venice and the Byzantines, television presenter, and music buff, is a faintly fearsome figure. Refreshing to discover from these engrossing memoirs . . . that the title came almost by accident, and that he is the happy possessor of two tattoos, one on each arm.”

[Complete review: Spectator.co.uk]

Bourgeois Book Club:

He’s a terrific writer, engaging and witty…. He’s certainly had an interesting life, full of travel and fascinating people, and it is certainly worth reading about.

[Complete review]

Jim Agnew Daily Pick, September 2, 2010

1: Beginnings

2: Childhood

3: America and Eton

4: The Embassy

5: Strasbourg and the Navy

6: Oxford, Marriage and the Foreign Office

7: Belgrade

8: Beirut

9: Watershed

10: The Mountain and the Desert

11: The Stone Stops Rolling

12: The Moss Begins to Gather

13: The Pattern Fixed

14: Varied Pursuits

15: Work and Play

Index

From Chapter One: Beginnings

“Poor old baby,” said the nurse when, a day or two after my birth, I was bawling my lungs out. “Poor old baby, he’s only trying to please.” It was one of my mother’s favorite reminiscences. I suspect, in a way, that I have been trying ever since.

I was a late arrival. My parents had married in the summer of 1919; a few years later, after consulting the most fashionable specialists in London, my mother had been told to give up all hope of a child. She tried everything, including prayer at Lourdes; and then, a full decade after the marriage, her prayers were granted: at 10:25 am on Sunday, September 15, 1929, in Lady Carnarvon’s nursing home in Portland Place, I was born by Caesarian section. The name Julius accordingly seemed indicated; and that too, accompanied by the rather less imaginative John, has stuck with me for the past eighty years. So there I was, the infant John Julius Cooper, standing—or, I suppose, more accurately lying—at life’s threshold. My mother, in majestic ignorance of the limit of three godparents prescribed by the Church of England, had decided on quantity as well as quality. One day, many years later, I tried to tot them all up; the total came to seventeen. Of these, one—the Aga Khan—was a Muslim who was worshipped in his own right; several were Jews, including the mega-rich banker Otto Kahn, who gave me $5,000 in shares for a christening present, all of which became worthless as a result of the Wall Street crash. Then there were several Roman Catholics, among them the writer Maurice Baring, and of course a smattering of Church of England, including Betty Cranborne (later Salisbury) and Margot Asquith, widow of the Prime Minister in the First World War. Betty proved to be the best; none of the others seemed to take their duties with very much seriousness.

*****

On June 2, 1919, my parents were at last able to marry at St. Margaret’s Westminster. They had known each other for six years, and had been seriously in love for three. Few suitors have encountered more furious opposition. To the Duchess, only the Prince of Wales would have been good enough for her beloved daughter; how could she give a thought to this penniless young man who was well known to drink too much and play too hard and to pursue—all too often successfully—any girl that came within range? He had hoped that after the news of his DSO came through they might relent; but it made no difference at all. Only dogged persistence at last wore the Rutlands down. On April 30, 1919, he wrote in his diary:

In the evening Diana had the interview with her father. I met her afterwards at the Ritz. They have given in completely and are willing for us to be married as soon as we wish. It seems too wonderful and hard to realize. The Duke, she says, was perfect—and gave away the whole case by saying to her after the interview which only lasted about 10 minutes—“Don’t go upstairs for a little, as I don’t want your Mother to think I gave in at once.” I felt wonderfully happy and elated.

*****

From Chapter Four: The Embassy

Even my mother balked at staying at Bognor through the winter. There was no suggestion of central heating, the walls ran with damp and our tiny boiler could not begin to cope. The cow and pigs would be sold at Barnham market, the other livestock meeting whatever fate seemed appropriate; and the Coopers would move to a suite of three rooms at the Dorchester Hotel, in one of which I would continue my attempts, not altogether unsuccessful, to teach myself Russian. One or two Christmases back I had prevailed upon a generous godparent—I can’t remember which—to give me a Linguaphone course in the language, which I was pursuing with fascination. In our second decade of life we have not yet lost that wonderful faculty of absorption which in our first makes the learning of our native tongue so remarkably effortless, and I mopped up the first dozen lessons with such ease that even today I can recite most of them by heart. By the beginning of our third decade, alas, the faculty is lost. Sometime in the 1970s I decided to learn Modern Greek by the same method, and though the language is far easier the words somehow refused to stick. Apart from the stock formulas of politeness the only Greek sentence that still comes tripping off my tongue is one which, in lesson four, is uttered at a dinner party by one of the lady guests when her food is set before her. “It has a beautiful appearance,” she remarks, “and I do not doubt but that its taste will be equally delicious.” I use it constantly in Greek restaurants; the waiters fall about laughing and I usually get an ouzo on the house.

In a suite above us at the Dorchester, summer and winter alike, lived Emerald, Lady Cunard, who has already made one rather surprising appearance in this book. Tiny and delicate, she was already well into her seventies. She can never have been beautiful, but certainly never stopped trying: bright yellow hair, thick makeup which was rather sticky when you kissed her; the effect was one of a very small tropical parrot. She was the widow of Sir Bache—pronounced Beach—Cunard, a son of the founder of the shipping line. In the twenties and thirties, when living in a huge mansion in Belgrave Square, she had been London’s most prominent hostess, and in spite of wartime austerity she continued to entertain as lavishly as circumstances allowed. She had always looked on me as a sort of honorary godson—hence her visit to Upper Canada College—and whenever she invited my parents to her luncheon or dinner parties she always made a point of inviting me too. Though almost unbelievably well read—she never forgot a name or a plot—she may not have been a dazzling talker herself; but she was a superb manager of conversation which, with never more than eight people gathered round a small table, she invariably kept general, almost imperceptibly drawing out each guest in turn. The guests themselves were chosen with little regard for age or suitability: when she introduced them to each other she always added a one sentence description which got them talking to each other: “This is Stuart Preston—he is an American sergeant and he knows everything there is to know about Henry James.” Just occasionally she went too far: “John Julius dear, tell us your views about love” was something of a challenge to a fourteen-year-old. But at that age one is always grateful to grown-ups who show an interest and take trouble: she was kind, generous, and treated me as an equal; and whatever shyness I may once have had she could almost instantly dispel. She also took me to my very first symphony concert—conducted, it need hardly be said, by Sir Thomas Beecham himself.

At the beginning of 1944, with the outcome of the war no longer in doubt, my father had been sent to Algiers, there to be Winston Churchill’s personal representative to General de Gaulle until the liberation of Paris, on the understanding that he would then be our first postwar ambassador to France. So it was that halfway through my time at Eton, my family life suffered a sea change—and what it changed into was something rich and strange indeed. Paris was liberated at the end of August, my father was officially given the post of Ambassador that had been promised him, and early in September he and my mother moved into the British Embassy. He had never really enjoyed life in Algiers—unlike my mother, who had loved it—largely because he was always having to keep the peace between Winston Churchill and General de Gaulle. This ungrateful task—which had actually put no small strain on his thirty-year friendship with Churchill—was obviously by no means over; but the Paris Embassy made up for everything. My mother viewed the prospect with some alarm, but he was happy and that was enough for her. As for me, my principal emotion was, as I remember, wild excitement; I should be going over for the Christmas holidays—one of the first English civilians, and certainly one of the youngest, to set foot in the French capital after the German occupation.

*****

AXIOS PRESS

For Immediate Release

September 1, 2010

Newly Released Trying to Please by John Julius Norwich

The witty and entertaining memoirs of the only son of Duff and Diana Cooper

Memoirs of a remarkable life—and a thoroughly enjoyable read!

“If British memoirs with celebrity name dropping and juicy gossip on every page are your cup of tea, this one is for you. . . . His aristocratic parents—she a silent film star and he ambassador to France—raised him ‘to please.’ He did so throughout their lives and does so for all of us with this pleasing and entertaining book.”

Jim Barnes, Editor, IndependentPublisher.com

“Poor old baby, he’s only trying to please,” his nanny said—and his life has reflected an appetite for life, enlivened by a sense of theater. John Julius Norwich’s equally famous parents frequently entertained everyone of note in Britain, France, or the United States, including their good friend Winston Churchill, H.G. Wells, and Hilaire Belloc, who sang ancient French songs in an old, cracked voice.

Trying to Please is an engaging and often amusing memoir that breathes fresh life into the worlds he describes. From a walking tour of the monasteries on Mt. Athos to a camel trek across the Sahara, the book shows how his passions—for history, for travel, for music—have combined with simpler pleasures like friendship and a close family. His recollections evoke a world now extinct, such as a Beirut of cloudless sunshine and moonlit dinners where eleven different religions peacefully coexisted.

Norwich has led a remarkable life, and his autobiography is a thoroughly enjoyable read—just the thing to keep at one’s bedside for a moment of unalloyed pleasure at the end of the day.

For more about the book go to: http://www.axiospress.com/bookstore/trying-to-please/

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: John Julius Norwich—the 2nd Viscount Norwich—is one of Britain’s pre-eminent historians and travel writers. His parents were Duff and Diana Cooper: the former a cabinet minister and political ally of Winston Churchill; his mother a famous beauty and socialite. Norwich had a privileged upbringing. He was educated at Eton and Oxford. He served a stint in the Royal Navy, and twelve years in the British Foreign Service in Yugoslavia and Lebanon, and was a member of the British delegation to the Disarmament Conference in Geneva. He is a prolific writer, an editor, and is frequently on radio and television. He lives in London.

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