My first aristocrat
Every time I saw M, he’d ask me that same question. I’d vaguely nod my head at him, sighing inwardly.
‘Were you a footer or a rugger man?’ would be the next question. Despite his background, I knew that he was a footer man, something he was rather proud of. He’d played for the Navy while at the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth.
For the next half hour, the conversation would follow the same pattern, almost word-for-word, of countless previous conversations. If you sat next to him at dinner parties, you felt as if you’d been dealt a bad hand. Immediately you’d feel guilty harbouring such nasty thoughts about such a kind, sweet, charming man.
When I first met M, in the mid-eighties, he was in his mid-sixties. He was an elegant, almost athletic man, always perfectly groomed and immaculately dressed. His mind, even then, was best described as unreliable. While he’d been blessed with looks, charm, sporting prowess and blue blood he’d been at the back of the queue, as the saying goes, when the brains were being handed out. His brain was a tad less than ordinary.
At the time, he was the Rt Hon MT, now he’s Lord T, the fifth baronet. There were already signs of premature senility then; now he’s firmly under the grip of Alzheimer’s.
My wife and I met him through a good friend of ours, whose mother, D, had married him in the early sixties. Although D hailed from the Eastern Cape, many years of living in England with M had completely disguised her South African origins. Even though he was the first British aristocrat that I’d met, he epitomised all the good and silly stereotypes I believed about the English aristocracy.
Like his father, the third baronet, M had gone to Eton. His strongest influence appears to have been his nanny (what is it about toffs and their nannies?), probably the only stable influence in a childhood largely bereft of parents where he was set off to boarding school at a very early age. His father, an inveterate gambler who played cricket for England, was largely absent. He was effectively abandoned by his mother, Clare Tennant, a woman once described by Barbara Cartland as ‘the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen’ and, in a review of Emma Tennant’s autobiographical book, ‘Strangers: A Family Romance’, is referred to as ‘her cruel, self-centred Aunt Clare, who plows through men, drink and cigarettes with cold indifference’. You’d never have known that from M who always refers to her as ‘darling Mummy’. Before entering the chocolate business and meeting D, most of his adult life had been spent in the Royal Navy.
Their house, not far from ours in Kenilworth, was traditionally but stylishly decorated with beautiful antiques and art. The mantelpiece was always decorated with embossed invitations to various important events hosted by famous people, including the Queen Mother. Sometimes you felt that invitations remained on display way after the event had passed just so that visitors would know that they had been invited. Every evening they’d get dressed for dinner and sit opposite each other at their long dining table. Not that he did, but you could imagine M, a very keen and able tennis-player, wearing a cravat with his tennis whites.
M was devastated when D died in 1995 and his mind became more unreliable than ever. Sometimes he'd confuse his stepdaughter with his beloved dead wife; others were recognised erratically or not recognised at all . He started making quite lewd sexual comments whereas he’d never have ventured opinions on the pleasures of the flesh in the past. He embarrassed his stepdaughter several times in the cinema by exclaiming loudly, ‘I liked to touch Mummy’s bosoms.’ Always fond of singing 'A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square', he'd sing it at the most inappropriate times like standing in the queue at the post office. Although he’d recognise me whenever we saw each other and we’d have the same sports conversations as before, he no longer knew who I was. The large Kenilworth home had to be sold and he was moved into a luxury apartment with care facilities. D had always been much more interesting to talk to than M, even when talking about his fascinating background.
Had it not been for D, we’d never have known about his great grandfather’s popularity with Queen Victoria and that he was the first British writer to be elevated to the peerage. And we’d not have known about his great grandfather’s friendship with the likes of the famous Victorian photographer, Julia Cameron. His grandfather, the second baronet, was the second governor-general of Australia. D also told us about his mother’s family, arguably a more interesting one than his father’s.
Clare Tennant’s aunt, Emma, was the wife of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith during World War I. Her mother’s cousin was Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde's lover and her brother, Stephen, known for his decadent lifestyle and famously said to have spent the last 17 years of his life in bed, was Siegfried Sassoon’s lover. M’s first cousin is the well-known English writer, Emma Tennant.
And on and on it goes. Not that M actually remembered any of this.
His brother, H, the fourth baronet, never married. He’d spent most of his life in Paris before moving to Cape Town to be near M. A very fat, unhealthy-looking man, he was quite unlike M, but he had the same impeccable taste and grooming. The family used to tut-tut about his extravagant flower-buying habit, spending close on ten thousand rand a week on them for his Rondebosch flat. And that was way back in the early nineties! Although it was never said, one does have to wonder, with close relatives like Lord Alfred Douglas and Stephen Tennant, if he batted for the other side. Talking of batting, not that there’s a connection, he apparently only had one testicle after a cricketing accident at Eton.
Ironically, we seemed to see M much more after D’s death. Being on his own, he was invited to dinner at his stepdaughter’s more often and we’d sometimes accompany her to have dinner with him at the restaurant in his apartment block.
He became a constant source of hilarious anecdotes.
Only M, on having a mugger jump into the passenger’s seat of his car (yes, he still drove!), would say, with a knife pointing at his throat, ‘Dear fellow, I donate to lots of charities, so, as much as I’d love to help you, I think it’s best if I don’t.’ The astonished would-be mugger left with nothing. M was unhurt.
Hilarious anecdotes aside, his fading memory made it more and more difficult to spend much time in his company. Fortunately, there was no family obligation on our side to see him that often but being present, whether at his or his stepdaughter’s place, was doing her a favour by making it easier for her to socialise with him. He could still remember his World War II stories and serving under Mountbatten and how he was the Royal Navy’s Cresta Run champion but not much else. We took to having him open up his photo albums and talking through them. That helped and the stories were fascinating. After a few more years, he forgot who the people were.
|Julia Cameron||Paul César Helleu||Kate Greenaway||Poet Laureate|
However, each time we visited his flat, it was wonderful to look at the beautiful artworks on the wall, particularly the Julia Cameron photographs and original Kate Greenaway drawings. A framed original letter written by Lord Nelson to a relative thanking him for his help during a naval battle hung in his study. My wife was especially taken by the beautiful pastel portrait of Coco Chanel by Paul César Helleu. We remembered where it hung in the Kenilworth house but it looked just as good in M’s flat.
She coveted it.
M had bought it for D soon after they’d got married. It had cost quite a bit of money at the time but its value had increased enormously over the years. Neither of us had heard of Helleu before but even had we never hear of Chanel, there was no doubting that it was a beautiful piece of art. M, of course, was comletely oblivious to its existence, let alone its beauty and value.
I doubt that it was my wife’s suggestion and it’s quite typical of something that his stepdaughter would suggest, so it’s she who probably said:
‘Let’s copy it, he’ll never know.’
To be continued.