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Joy of fairy godmothers. By Valerie Grove

Blog | By Valerie Grove | May 08, 2023

The violet fairy book (1906)

Dame Carmen Callil’s recent funeral was, appropriately for the founder of feminist publisher Virago, a thoroughly feminist service.

It was conducted by the Rev Marie-Elsa Bragg, with Carmen’s goddaughters among the coffin-bearers.

Afterwards, my son – her godson – sent me an email. He’d listened to the eulogies, watched Carmen on video, and now he kicked himself that he hadn’t got to know her better.

When Oliver was born in 1983, one godfather (publisher Duff Hart-Davis, who later taught him to shoot a rabbit) sent him a case of port. The other godfather, Sunday Telegraph and Oldie journalist Oliver Pritchett, sent shares in Kodak – a good joke, anticipating a spike in family snap-taking.

‘I shall be,’ promised Carmen on a scrawly postcard, ‘the best godmother ever.’

And she might have been, Oliver realises: ‘You couldn’t have known, when I was born, that Carmen was just my type, as I now know: ferocious, funny, fiery and entertaining. I will have to live with the regret of never having taken her out to lunch.’

Oh dear: I should have organised this. Cricket-mad Carmen sent him a set of Edwardian cricket cards when he was 12 and spending his Saturday mornings in the nets at Lord’s. Yet Carmen, a member of MCC, never took him to a Test match. And he never took her anywhere.

‘Perhaps,’ Oliver added, ‘godparents should be given to children when they come of age, conscientious enough to make a relationship…’

Perhaps he’s right. We did have some jolly godparents’ parties, at first, with the infants on parade. Now seven of the honoured 12 are sadly missed: dead, alas, or in a cloud of unknowing.

The late Angus McGill – an Evening Standard columnist, a family best friend, humourist, game for anything from roller-skating to barn dancing – was ideal for our first-born, Lucy, who took to him at once.

Bestowing godparenthood is part of the fun when you start a family. The choice of godparents is arbitrary – a not-necessarily-religious pledge of future friendship, often embracing the child-free and fun-loving. Brief encounters around the time of the birth play their part. Not many of the chosen refuse the honour. Wrong choices are quickly obvious.

Today, godparents are sadly out of fashion, as christenings dwindle. Only five per cent of newborns in London are baptised. Sometimes now there’s a ‘naming party’ – a picnic in the park, where carousing friends are appointed ‘oddparents’.

I’ve been a poor godmother to my niece/goddaughter, Alexandra, but I now turn to her for medical advice as she’s become a GP. I loved my own godfather, bachelor uncle Cecil, my father’s younger brother. The family black sheep, he introduced me to seedy dives and louche bars and, spluttering with loud guffaws and a 60-a-day smoker’s cough, the doggerel verse of William McGonagall.

Nicholas Coleridge, who wrote a splendid novel, Godchildren, about the six godchildren of a capricious tycoon, has collected seven godchildren himself.

‘It can be a close relationship, or it can be a damp squib,’ he says.

‘Ned Donovan [one of his godsons – son of Tessa Dahl] has just married the sister of the King of Jordan. But I suppose the most famous is the supermodel Cara Delevingne. The last time I was about to send her a birthday cheque – £50 or £100 – her agent told me not to bother. She’d never notice it among her millions.’

He’d just watched her new TV series, Planet Sex, in which Cara attends a masturbation class. ‘I have to say her godfather felt slightly queasy. It seemed a long way from the baptismal font.’

When he was chairman of the magazine empire Condé Nast, Coleridge found himself the go-to godfather for work-experience requests.

On a recent I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, panellists were asked for posh versions of popular film titles. The best was The Godfather … Got Me a Job in the Foreign Office.

I know a godfather of 12 who, defeated by remembering all their birthdays, takes the whole gang out to lunch every year on his birthday. Another has collected a harem of 15 honorary goddaughters, who in their twenties appointed themselves for platonic trysts across the world.

God-siblings can become a parallel network of family supporters. Last summer, my daughter Emma and her god-siblings gathered around the deathbed of their adored childless godmother, the storyteller Mary Medlicott, and recited a tribute in verse, To Mary.

The novelist Rachel Billington is a perfect godmother. She is too discreet to discuss her godson, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. But Boris’s mother named her first daughter (and Oldie pop columnist) Rachel Johnson after her – and so did the historian Linda Kelly, mother of Rachel Kelly. The two Rachels used to refer to their godmother (‘not unkindly’) as Big Rachel, and both became writers – whose bylines jostled together in a recent Oldie issue.

Oldie columnist Mary Kenny tells me Auberon Waugh reacted breezily to becoming godfather to her younger son, Edward, in 1978. ‘He came in jolly mood to the christening (by dear Monsignor Francis Bartlett, uncle to “Fat Lady” Jennifer Paterson), bringing Ed a christening mug and 12 silver Maria Theresa thalers,’ says Mary.

‘And Bron sent me a jokey message, saying, “Does this mean I’ll have to take him to a brothel in Paris when he’s 18?”