Frost on My Moustache
The Arctic Exploits of a Lord and a Loafer
By Tim Moore
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1999 Tim Moore
All rights reserved.
We were met at Belfast International Airport by Lady Dufferin's archivist, Lola Armstrong. Tiny, cheerful and ruddy, she looked like she'd stepped out of a Brueghel. She was about the least Lola-like person I'd ever encountered. It certainly wasn't easy to picture her in a Soho club doing any of the stuff that the Kinks sang about.
The three of us squeezed into her son's Nissan Micra, and as we queued at an RUC checkpoint she told us she was a maths teacher by training, but had given it up to work on the estate. The Marchioness, noting her keen interest in the history of Clandeboye, had entrusted her with what we would soon see was the considerable task of putting in order the family's eclectic assortment of colonial ephemera.
'It'll be a life's work, so it will,' she said cheerfully in what I supposed to be a broad County Down accent, 'but Lady Dufferin is ever so understanding.'
It was slightly embarrassing that she referred to our hostess using this form of address, whereas we – now on the other side of the feudal divide – were expected to call her Lindy. It was no less jarring to find that Clandeboye's huge grounds lay so close to Belfast's rundown docks. Only ten minutes after passing the grim and deserted Harland & Woolf shipbuilding yard, we turned into an unmarked road which took us through the outskirts of what was clearly a substantial and well-tended estate.
Thousands of new trees sprung from protective plastic sheaths and, even before we could see the house, there were flower beds tended more carefully than a floral clock. On the horizon swayed the lofty greenery of what I later discovered was the largest broad-leafed forest in Northern Ireland. It was astonishing that this prominent outpost of British colonialism and its cumbersomely titled inhabitants had survived unscathed through thirty years of destruction on its doorstep.
We rounded a stable block and stopped in a small courtyard. 'This is really the side entrance,' said Lola, indicating an unassuming porch. The door within it opened and a large, red-faced butler – stripy trousers, tailcoat, the works – greeted us with a tilted nod. 'You're up in Simla, I believe,' he said in a Lurch rumble before leading us into a hall.
I say a hall. In fact it was like an annexe of the Museum of Mankind. The First Marquess's globetrotting CV was here in full, dangling from the beams, bolted to the brickwork, fixed to the floor. There were totem poles and tomahawks, a scale model of Mandalay, a pair of stuffed bears from Russia (Dufferin had shot the mother, Lola later told us, then found an orphaned cub which in a fit of guilt he took back to Clandeboye where it lived in a courtyard for several years), pikes, helmets, snowshoes, chain mail, daggers, hieroglyphic bas-reliefs and mummy cases, curling stones, bells and pistols. And there were countless items whose origin and purpose I could not even begin to guess at: long sticks with holes in, big round things with funny ethnic symbols painted on the side, triangular boxes with shaft-like handles.
Birna and I were speechless. Then I looked into a corner, and saw the original figurehead from the Foam, or at least the wooden dummy for it, beside a beautiful scale model of the boat itself. And beneath it, most arrestingly of all, a rug made from the flattened form of the polar bear the crew had shot at Spitzbergen, an event Dufferin describes in gloating detail.
Rubber-necking with open mouths, we wandered slowly after the butler, who, seeing our interest, flicked a finger at a framed photo fixed to a column. Dated 1902, the year the First Marquess died, it depicted the hall we were traversing, and confirmed what I had suspected. Nothing had changed. Here was Dufferin, here was I, here was the Foam. Things were coming together.
Our butler-following adventure assumed the epic proportions of a Terry Gilliam animation. On we tramped, along a landing dominated by the swinging length of driftwood Dufferin had brought back from Spitzbergen, past a dolls' house with what we later learned (at the pawnbroker's) was real silver crockery on its tables, beneath huge family portraits, back down stairs I was sure we'd already climbed.
We passed endless doors labelled with what I recognised were Dufferin's diplomatic postings: Rome, Paris and so on. Simla, I realised (in so far as looking something up in an encyclopaedia a week later can be described as 'realising'), was India's summer capital during his ... viceroyalty? Viceregality? Viceroyalship?
Lola had already told us that Clandeboye's current incarnation had been largely built to the First Marquess's own design during his retirement. As we trooped up hidden spiral staircases and crouched through low, semi-abandoned corridors, the touch of an enthusiastic but muddled amateur made itself apparent. He'd had a passion for natural light, and glazed ceilings and skylights looked down on every hall. No wonder the roof had cost £350,000 to fix.
On the half-landing of a forgotten staircase lined with Dufferin's architectural sketches, the butler stopped and dropped our bags. 'I think I'm lost,' he quietly boomed, before looking round with a wink. Just as our journey was reaching refugee-exodus status, we ducked down a low annexe and arrived outside a room marked 'Simla'. Our luggage was deposited and the butler withdrew.
'Should we have tipped him?'
'No!' squeaked Birna. 'Not now. We're supposed to give a collective tip to the staff at the end of our stay.'
The phrase 'collective tip' has the same resonance for me as 'The dam has broken!' does for valley-dwellers. 'What? Are you sure? How much?'
'I don't know ... £20?' (After Birna revealed her source for this practice as a Georgette Heyer novel, I ultimately insisted we left nothing.)
The far wall of our otherwise mercifully unstately room was dominated by a peculiar hemispherical fanlight, which we later saw was the genuine part of a false window at the left edge of the house's splendid, chalky grey Georgian facade. On a dressing table beneath it was an old guidebook to the house, presumably published for house guests as Clandeboye is not open to scum like you. It kicked off with an introduction by Lindy's Sheridan. 'To most guests, Clandeboye would appear to be an extremely large house,' it began. Appearing to be extremely small people, we went down for tea.
'I'll tell you what,' piped Lola, interrupting my meek facsimile of a proprietorial hands-behind-back stroll by the main library's blazing fire. 'While we're waiting for Lady Dufferin, I'll show you around.' If I had imagined our trek to the lost kingdom of Simla had included an exhaustive tour of the house, I was now to be proven wrong.
'... and this is the third library,' she wheezed, half an hour later. Some parts of Lola's sprawling archival domain, like the 'third library' were well ordered; others she had barely begun to tackle. My crash course in Dufferin Studies was bewildering but, as in the hall, there was a time-warp, shoved-up-in-the-attic-last-Christmas quality to the haphazard archives that brought the First Marquess closer. Piled up in her cellar den was an endearingly shambolic heap of pith helmets, puppets, trays of Victorian printing type and, of course, correspondence in all its forms: household ledgers, letters, poems. My favourite object was a beautifully made octagonal box. Neatly chalked on it in ancient copperplate was the single word 'Empty'.
I'd also found a little handbound book of crayon caricatures. 'They're by the First Marquess's mother,' said Lola. 'As you might have discovered she was the real love of his life, so she was.' I had. The letters in High Latitudes are nominally addressed to Dufferin's mother, Helen Selina, Lady Dufferin. Married at seventeen to Price Blackwood, the Fourth Baron, she'd given birth to her only child a year later. After the baron died, Lady Dufferin, still only thirty-three, developed an almost claustrophobically close relationship with her son.
In some ways they were more brother and sister. 'Not every son can remember his mother's twenty-first birthday,' Dufferin said later, going on to record 'her loving, radiant face, which was my childhood Heaven, as indeed it never ceased to be'. They painted together and laughed together and doubtless strolled hand in hand together through the largest broad-leafed forest in Northern Ireland.
From her Dufferin acquired his artistic abilities and wit. In 1859, following the probably unexpected success of his book, she wrote a spoof account of a Mediterranean cruise with her son entitled Lispings from Low Latitudes. Lady Helen also bequeathed him a sense of studious self-deprecation. Speaking of her sisters to Disraeli (with whom she was once linked), she said, 'Georgy's the beauty, and Carry's the wit, and I ought to be the good one, but I am not.'
But in fact she was. All I could find in her son's writings were more and more non-specific glorifications of her goodness – 'one of the most loving and lovable human beings that ever walked upon the earth'; 'her passionate ecstasy of affection' (steady); 'the gift of self-sacrifice which enabled her to surrender everything to those she loved'. Before setting off for the Arctic he wrote in his diary that 'no one will love me like her', which must have been a bit of a kick in the teeth for the eighteen-year-old bride (sound familiar?) he married when he was thirty-six.
Dufferin turned Clandeboye into a maternal shrine. He built a nearby railway station on the line from Belfast and gave it the name it still bears today, Helen's Bay. The four-floor Gothic folly he erected in the woods a couple of miles from the house was called Helen's Tower; on each wall of its octagonal top storey hung golden tablets bearing poems dedicated to her. As well as one she wrote to him when he came of age ('My love – a thing not rare or strange/But yet – eternal, measureless – Knowing no shadow and no change') there are others he commissioned specially from Robert Browning and Tennyson: 'Son's love built me, and I hold/Mother's love in lettered gold.'
What's especially odd about the tower dedicated to her memory was that it was completed six years before her death. Maybe his mother's line about her love being 'a thing not rare or strange' masked a slight worry that it actually was, particularly in the light of all that 'passionate ecstasy'.
After she died, the slavish personality cult gathered in intensity. I later read that her death in 1868 'wrenched from his living body with forceps of steel his whole youth and childhood', and that even thirty years later her name could only be uttered 'with a lowering of the voice'. Certainly, when he buried his mother he also buried the aimless adventuring of his early adulthood. Five years before she died he'd been a workshy fop; five years after he was Governor-General of Canada.
Lola led us back to the main library via the kitchens, where introductions to the staff were effected. The cook and sundry junior female domestics lined up to nod shyly. I wasn't sure whether to respond with supercilious disdain or by saying, 'Very good ... er, as you were, carry on,' so in the end I got them all pregnant then pushed them out into the snow to face the shaming wrath of the villagers.
* * *
It was Lindy. She sat us down by the fire in the library, where an immense tea awaited. 'If you don't like it, don't eat it – that's the way here,' said Lindy briskly as she shovelled sandwiches into a waiting spaniel's mouth.
Other guests began to arrive, flopping louchely into squat leather armchairs, making me aware of the ridiculous buttock-clenched uprightness of my posture. Soon we had an earl and a countess, a property millionaire, and four other possibly titled, certainly wealthy intellectuals. After a few sentences of learned banter, it was clear that if any of them had more money than sense, it was a close-run thing.
I tried to rationalise the situation with my grandfather's advice on meeting anyone eminent: 'Just imagine them crapping on the bog.' When this produced only dangerously comic imagery, I willed myself into Tim Knox mode, preparing an outrageous anecdote about the Foam's nubile figurehead. I didn't get far before a small inner voice warned me that the phrase 'Get your tits out for the lords' might strike a false note.
In any case, the game was up already. The guests' initial probings had left me hopelessly exposed. The property millionaire, on hearing our claim to live on Strand-on-the-Green ('off' rather than 'on' would have been a wiser choice), instantly brightened. 'Oh! Which house? Zoffany?' Zoffany House, a huge mansion on the river, was until recently the home of sitcom queen Carla Lane and her vast menagerie of stray animals. I spoke to her once through her intercom after we lost a cat. She sold it for a million (the house, that is). 'God, no!' I said, far too contemptuously. 'No,' said Birna, more thoughtfully, 'but not far from there.'
'Spitzbergen?' said another guest after somehow understanding a mumbled account of my itinerary. 'Well, you'll know of Evelyn Waugh's visit there.' This was accurate in that it placed my acquisition of this knowledge in the future. 'As I recall, it was the only journey Waugh made in the Thirties that he didn't find stimulating enough to make a book of.' Cheers for that.
Lindy did her best to shield us. I welcomed her repetition of the 'lovely young man who knows nothing' speech. But even so, our failure to sparkle was conspicuous. Over the next two days a seemingly endless parade of society wits arrived to pay homage to Lindy, and their politeness almost succeeded in masking a confusion as to the purpose of our presence. Some treated us like winners of a 'Be A Lord For A Weekend' competition. 'Oh, I see!' they'd announce with relief after she bustled over to explain my quest. ('Oh, I see! You're social and academic irrelevances invited here as charity cases by Lindy because she's so kindhearted.')
Feeling fat and stupid, we retired to our room, having been ordered to dress for dinner. A surprise lay within. 'Did you do this?' was Birna's blurt; 'My pants!' was mine. While we had been downstairs, our overnight bags had been disembowelled and their contents laid out with scientific rigour. My liver-spotted desert boots had shoehorns in; my Fred Perry hung from a heavy wooden hanger in the wardrobe. My electric razor had disintegrated in transit; all the scurf-incrusted components were arranged in descending order of size on the dresser beneath the fanlight.
It was deeply unsettling. I suppose a true aristocrat would think nothing of a peasant wench staring into their skidmarks, but from then on we felt compelled to tidy away our shaming chattels every time we left.
Clad in my funeral suit and fortified by a pair of ill-advisedly generous Bloody Marys from the help-yourself aperitif trolley, I plunged into the dinner-table silverware and conversation with staunch toper gusto. Lindy had kindly seated me next to Birna, but feeling possessed by the spirit of Dufferin's uproarious Reykjavík bacchanal I ignored the refuge of her company. I loudly butted into a whispered cricket debate on the opposite side of the table, and said 'Cheers!' to the uniformed staff busily occupied in replenishing my brace of wine glasses. The property millionaire was on my left, and I asked him where he was from. Lytham, he replied evenly.
'Nice one! We went to a wedding there a couple of years ago.'
I chose to interpret this innocent enquiry as symptomatic of the tiny, closed world of wealth and privilege in which he resided. Whose wedding? Honestly.
'Well, he's one of the Lancashire McGhees.' A blank face. 'You know – Lord Pete of Maine Road!' My lonely laugh waned, then died.
'No ... you really wouldn't know them,' said Birna quickly. She had just realised that conversation was being marshalled in strict rotation. During the first course you were to speak to the person on one side of you, during the second to the one on the other. Talking across the table, a practice I had warmly championed, was right out. She managed to whisper as much to me.
'Don't be stupid,' I hissed too loudly. 'How does everyone know which side to start with?'
'I think the hostess starts off on one side and everyone else takes their lead from that.'
But of course it wasn't, and my drunkenness proceeded directly to the contrite remorse stage. I had gone for a Dufferin-style deep potation and blown it. My breeding had failed me.
We filed past the candelabra out of the dining room. As I stumbled cravenly through a long hall, Birna reminded me that at one point I had tried to get the property millionaire's attention by tapping his shoulder with a spoon. Almost in tears of shame, I looked up and was met by the soft, heavy-lidded gaze of the twenty-four-year-old Lord Dufferin. It was the original of the drawing I'd found on the Internet. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Frost on My Moustache by Tim Moore. Copyright © 1999 Tim Moore. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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