THE BLOG
30/10/2013 10:14 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Debutantes 2.0

Borne up on a wave of white frocks and tiaras, the Queen Charlotte Ball has sailed back into town. It was always a bit of a mash-up - there is no continuing tradition from George III holding a birthday ball for his wife Queen Charlotte. But it was from the 1930s an effective fund-raiser for Queen Charlotte's maternity hospital in Hammersmith. The spectacle of debutantes in white, curtsying and dancing, does however play a supporting role in my new novel, Sail Upon the Land, which is coming out soon - the vulnerable Lillian meets her future husband at a 1960s ball in Grosvenor House.

Court presentations had ended in 1958, when debs became the sacrificial lambs to the new modern 'classless' age. It had also become pretty corrupt - you could hire a venal peeress to present your daughter, whoever you were, if you could afford it. As Princess Margaret said, 'We had to put a stop to it. Every tart in London was getting in'. I believe the ball became so prominent before WWII, because daughters of increasing numbers of divorced parents - not allowed at court - got to curtsy to someone vaguely royal, usually an exiled Russian of similar.

The moving spirit behind the continuation of the deb season after 1958 was a delightful character called Peter Townend, with whom I worked at Tatler. As a little boy in Yorkshire, he had been fascinated by his mother's copies of society magazines and went on to edit Burke's Peerage before becoming Tatler's social editor in 1969. In the grand tradition of English eccentrics, he held the whole season together until his death in 2001 by sheer force of personality and a prodigious memory. He would write in turquoise ink to all potential debs' mothers and debs' delights - some would laugh and throw his letters in the bin, some would obediently form up for invitations. After ten years of single-sex education, it was a godsend to a party-starved provincial like me.

The Queen Charlotte's ball was revived in 2007 by former deb Jenny Hallam-Peel - Townsend begged her to keep the season going from his deathbed. Hallam-Peel owns the concept these days, through a company called The London Season.

Up until the 1970s, the Season was something quite else and a context for a 'debutantes' ball' although it was dying. Certain families would still come into town from their country houses to mix socially and introduce their young to each other from May to July. They were by no means all wealthy - it was more of a tribal than a money thing in those days. It started with 'mothers' lunches' continued with 'debs' tea parties' and sashayed on into private and charity balls, and endless cocktail parties. There was also Ascot, Henley and other sporting events - now almost entirely corporate.

You stayed with strangers in drafty country houses for dances, ate far too much Coronation chicken, and did your best to get over your shyness. In my case I had the additional disadvantage of being on my way to Cambridge. Discovery of this deformity was permission for any debs' delight worth his salt to turn on his polished heel and leave me gaping like a goldfish at his rudeness.

The Queen Charlotte, as it was known, was cancelled the year before I 'came out' in 1977 - things had got very druggy and louche. Cocaine and ecstasy were unknown then - but heroin, cannabis and uppers were rife. Families were still naive, gate crashing led to thefts, and more than one debs' delight financed his season by pinching anything from his friends' wallets to Hepplewhite chairs.

I did however finally get to the Queen Charlotte as a journalist in the early 1980s, when it was briefly revived. I spent the evening with a well-known society photographer, and got a sneering mauling the next day from a famously nasty hack who 'mistook' me for a deb. I think he was too drunk to venture down the stairs to interview a real one.