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The House of Lords will never be the same again. Disinclined to watch her language or moderate her manners, Jack Troutbeck, assisted by her old friend Robert Amiss, plots vigorously with others to scupper an anti-hunting bill of which she violently disapproves. But she hadnt reckoned with the campaign of intimidation mounted by the animal activists and the attempt on the life of one of her allies, shortly followed by scenes of horrifying ...
The House of Lords will never be the same again. Disinclined to watch her language or moderate her manners, Jack Troutbeck, assisted by her old friend Robert Amiss, plots vigorously with others to scupper an anti-hunting bill of which she violently disapproves. But she hadnt reckoned with the campaign of intimidation mounted by the animal activists and the attempt on the life of one of her allies, shortly followed by scenes of horrifying carnage amongst the peers...
The author's P.G. Wodehousestyle flippancy rarely falters through all the mayhem; her heroine has never seemed more obnoxious, nor the cat Plutarch's antics more tedious. Frantic, forced, and not much fun.
Amiss picked up the three-week-old Independent, from the front page of which Jack Troutbeck's photograph stared out defiantly. 'Among the predictable rewards to the party-faithful and the generous captains of industry,' said the report sniffily, 'was the surprise announcement of a peerage for the Mistress of St Martha's College, Cambridge. Miss Ida "Jack" Troutbeck, CB, (61), was a Deputy Secretary in the Department of Central Planning when she retired three years ago to become Bursar of St Martha's, where last year she succeeded as Mistress in tragic circumstances. In only a short time she has acquired a reputation in educational circles as an outspoken critic of what she terms "fatuous liberal poppycock."'
The Telegraph noted approvingly that in her sparse Who's Who entry, under hobbies, Miss Troutbeck had put 'enjoying myself'. The Guardian registered concern that in a recent speech to the Annual Conference of Heads of Colleges, she had poured scorn on 'namby-pamby ill-thought-out educational fads'. Although she would not be taking the whip, she was a Conservative Party nominee, so it was probable, observed the commentator darkly, that the Tory Party was playing its usual trick of promoting the disadvantaged only when they were extreme right-wingers. Amiss wondered how the Guardian would react if they knew that under Jack's mistress-ship a black bisexual had been appointed to the bursarship of St Martha's; then, reflecting on Dr Mary Lou Denslow's opinions, he realized that it would scarcely undermine their argument.
The tabloids, of course, had got hold of what the broadsheets had been too tasteful to discuss. Although Jack Troutbeck had been relegated to page two of the Sun, with the front pages being reserved for minor decorations for a long-serving soap star ('our Lenny'), a popular comedian ('"No, I never" Dwayne') and a lollipop lady ('Toddlers' Angel'), the new baroness had two short paragraphs describing her as having been at the centre of a 'Highbrow Double-Murder Saga', which led to her getting the 'Top Job' in a 'Snob College'. It had also got hold of a photograph of Jack looking murderous—if not highbrow—in gown and rakishly tilted Tudor cap on the occasion of her being conferred with an honorary doctorate.
Amiss finished the last of the papers and chucked it in the bin. 'Drink?'
Eyes closed, she nodded again.
As he reached for a couple of glasses from the kitchen cupboard, a familiar voice said, 'Oh, no, sahib. It is inappropriate that you should demean yourself by entering the servants' quarters. What is it that you want?'
A few days had been enough for Amiss' spirit to have been broken by Ravi's contemptuous subservience, arising from his view of Amiss as a guest, and therefore privileged, while being also an immoral parasite who shared the bed of the mistress of the house without having the common decency to make an honest woman of her.
'Two gins and tonics, Ravi, and could you put in a lot of extra ice, please? Rachel is feeling the heat.' Ravi assumed the expression of fastidious pain suitable to a servant hearing an employer spoken of informally. Amiss affected not to notice. If Ravi got his fun out of behaving like a stereotype from the last days of the Raj, that was Ravi's problem.
Amiss turned back. 'Yes?'
'There is no ice.'
'There has been a calamity. Laxmi, that miscreant, has left the door of the refrigerator open and it has all melted.'
'I don't suppose you could get some anywhere?'
'Oh no, sahib, there will be none by now, because, you see, it will all have gone.'
Amiss already knew Ravi's almost infinite capacity for ensuring that what he didn't want to do couldn't be done. He strode over to the refrigerator, extracted two lukewarm cans of beer and marched out of the kitchen, his ears ringing with imprecations about the impropriety of memsahib drinking out of anything but a glass.
'How can I leave you to the mercies of that old fraud?' Rachel sat up wearily and took a swig out of the open can. 'No choice.'
'It's just so unfair that you're lumbered with him.'
'There's no point in going on about it, Robert.' Rachel sounded rather testy. 'He comes with the apartment, he's got thirty-eight dependants, he's worked for the High Commission for twenty years, and I'm stuck here until Personnel release me.'
'In June,' said Amiss hopefully.
'Maybe. Now, would you explain to me what a middle-of-the-road, well-meaning liberal like you is doing taking up arms against the future with someone who makes Margaret Thatcher seem rather left wing?'
'It'll fill in the time while I'm looking for a job.'
'Don't give me that, Robert. You could fill in the time looking for a job by looking properly for a job.'
'Anyway, she's really a libertarian rather than a right-winger.' Amiss realized he sounded defensive. 'And, for as long as I've known her, I've always found that her enemies deserve to be enemies.'
'You just can't resist her.'
'Lots of people, from all I've heard. All I can say is, "God help the House of Lords".'
'And all who sail in her,' said Amiss gravely.
Rachel raised her beer can. 'Let's drink to a smooth voyage.'
'There's no point in wishing for the impossible. With Jack as skipper, I aspire only to disembark alive.'
'Costs too much to rent.'
'You'd think a grateful government would throw the uniform in free.'
'Well, I'll be sending it back to Ede and Ravenscroft tomorrow, so you'd better make the most of it now.' She pirouetted girlishly and at such speed that she tripped on the hem of the robe and, without Amiss' rescuing arm, would have sprawled on the great marble floor. As it was, she dropped her black hat and her parchment, which rolled swiftly across the floor. 'After it!' she cried. 'That's my Writ of Summons. If I don't have that, they'll chuck me out before I'm in.'
Amiss retrieved the document, put it in her hand, brushed down her cocked hat, and placed it tenderly under her arm.
'Now you see why I needed you.' She smote him on the back affectionately, but painfully.
'I'm to be your dresser?'
'And much, much else.'
'Why aren't you wearing a coronet?'
'Disappointing, isn't it? But that's only for coronations. If I wasn't such an admirer of the Queen, I'd be looking forward to the chance to sport it. But you like, I trust, my lace and miniver.'
'Some kind of stoat, I think. Now, enough of this sartorial chitchat. Pity you missed lunch. I had something I wanted to tell you. Where were you, anyway?'
'My plane sat on the tarmac for five hours. I've come straight from the airport.'
He knew her too well to expect any sympathy. 'Well, you'd better head off to the gallery in a minute. You'll find Mary Lou and Myles there. He'll explain what's going on, nobs being in his line.'
'You've brought both your lovers? Is that etiquette?'
'Correction. I've brought two of my lovers. What's wrong with that? You're so suburban. Now stop making objections and go and join the plebs. I've got to go off with my nob escort-sorry, sponsors—in a minute. I want you back here, seven-thirty tonight for dinner in the Counsels' Dining Room. Black tie.'
'Have to do these things properly. We baronesses have a reputation to keep up.'
The weariness of someone who has endured seventeen hours in a plane along with dozens of fractious children began to engulf Amiss. 'Must I?'
'Of course you must. The sooner you get to know people, the better. We've a lot to do here.'
'Do I gather you're going to throw yourself into the spirit of this potty establishment?'
'You betcha,' said the baroness.
At this moment, two elderly, scarlet-clad men materialized and stood beside her.
'M'Lords Bedmorth and Deptford, otherwise Joe and Sid,' she explained. 'Mr Amiss, otherwise Robert—one of my sidekicks.'
The three shook hands.
'Jack,' said Deptford. 'It's time to go in.'
'What happens now?' asked Amiss.
Deptford called across the hall. ' 'Ere, Mr Hudson, this young geezer, take him up to Miss Troutbeck's mates, will you?'
Deptford turned back to Jack Troutbeck and began to rearrange her robes to best effect and straighten up her Peter-Pan fur collar. A gigantic man in a black tailcoat and knee breeches advanced purposefully and bowed to Amiss. 'Perhaps you'd like to follow me, sir?'
Amiss looked over his shoulder at the disappearing backs of the three robed chums and then pursued Hudson upstairs. A few moments later he was in the gallery, hugging Mary Lou enthusiastically. Catching Hudson's eye, they sat down. 'Do you know Myles Cavendish?'
'Only by reputation.'
Cavendish grinned as they shook hands. Amiss tried to imagine a physical encounter between this dapper little man and Jack Troutbeck, and pushed the thought out of his mind. As Jack had once observed to a puritanical policeman, 'Who can tell where Eros will strike?'
'Here they come.'
Amiss gazed around the cathedral-like chamber, a vision of carved mahogany, red-buttoned seats, blue carpet, and lashings of gold leaf, and saw to his right a stately procession hoving into view, preceded by a haughty-looking chap in a black brocaded tailcoat, white stock, black knee breeches, and a gold chain with dangling bits.
'Black Rod,' whispered Cavendish.
Amiss nodded, delighted to see in person the dignitary who annually banged on the door of the Commons to summon its inmates to join the Queen and the peers for the state opening of Parliament. He was a bit on the elderly side to have to parade with a heavy baton, and on the wizened side for his leggings, but he had presence. He bowed to the Lord Chancellor, who was smartly turned out in a black-and-gold gown which contrasted strikingly with the bright red of the woolsack on which he perched and then walked slowly forward.
'Now comes Garter King at Arms.'
'The chap who decides what coat of arms you can have.'
Amiss looked respectfully at a stately figure in black leggings and an extraordinary multicoloured tabard dominated by heraldic emblems. Any man who could turn out dressed like a playing card and still look dignified had, he felt, enviable chutzpah. His bow was a model of solemnity.
'What's he carrying?' he whispered.
'The Peers' Patent.'
Amiss was left no wiser.
Next came Deptford, whose features Amiss had been finding teasingly familiar and whom he now suddenly identified as Sid Peerless, who as a transport union leader had been the terror of commuters in the 1970s. Jack Troutbeck processed several feet behind him, apparently concentrating hard on not tripping over or dropping anything. As she passed them, she took her eye off Deptford's back, looked up and gave her friends an enormous wink. Bringing up the rear was Bedmorth, whose relaxed demeanour betrayed a man born to the purple and well used to negotiating his way round the place gravely and in full regalia.
With a pause for another bow, the leaders proceeded until Jack was deposited beside the woolsack. She knelt, was handed her patent by Garter, and presented both documents to the Lord Chancellor, who passed them to a hovering chap in lawyer's wig and gown. She got up successfully, though inelegantly enough to elicit a stifled giggle from Mary Lou, walked to the table in the middle of the chamber, and stared fixedly ahead as the chap with the parchments read out their contents sonorously, with splendid anachronistic phrases like 'realms and territories ... Oh ye, that we of our especial grace, certain knowledge and mere motion ...' reverberating around the chamber. When he got to 'by these presents advance, create, and prefer our trusted and well-beloved Ida Troutbeck to the state, degree, style, dignity, title, and honour of Baroness Troutbeck of Troutbeck', she beamed, then recollected herself and stood expressionless throughout the rest, even at the improbable moment when instructed solemnly that it was her duty at all costs to attend 'our Parliament for arduous and urgent affairs concerning us, the state, and defence of our United Kingdom and the Church'. He then took her—phrase by phrase—through the affirmation of allegiance to the Queen, which she performed faultlessly, and indicated where she should sign her name on an ancient-looking document.
As she picked up her cocked hat, Black Rod and Garter suddenly took over with a bit of processing and bowing, the sponsors took up position with JackTroutbeck between them, Black Rod peeled off, and the trio were shepherded by Garter to the back row of the benches on Amiss' left, which he recognized as the cross benches, reserved for independent peers.
Mary Lou began to giggle again—with Amiss finding it impossible to keep his face entirely straight—as the trio sat down in the back row and gazed intently at the Garter King at Arms, who stood in the row beneath, gazing at them fixedly. At some prompt imperceptible to onlookers, they rose and doffed their hats with a courtly bow in the direction of the Lord Chancellor, who raised in acknowledgement the tricorn hat which perched on his full-bottomed wig. They repeated their manoeuvre; he responded. After the third exchange, the procession regrouped and the new girl was led down the right-hand side of the chamber, the three peers bowing once or twice as they went. When Jack drew level with the Lord Chancellor, she hesitated for a moment and then bowed again, shook his proffered hand and then, flanked by her startlingly dressed old men, she was led from the chamber to cries of, 'Hear, hear!' from the packed benches of the House. 'Hear, hear!' shouted Mary Lou, until Cavendish warned her she'd be kicked out. 'It'd take a lifetime to learn the rules in this place,' she grumbled.
'That's what's so much fun about it,' said Cavendish.
'Is that it?' asked Amiss.
'That's it. The peers have indicated she's acceptable, so she's now one of them. She'll be off disrobing.'
'What a shame. That gear really suited her.'
'Yes, but she'd be liable to break her neck if she tried to carry on in her usual way wearing floor-length clothes. Now, are you joining us in the bar for champagne?'
'No, she told me to be back at seven-thirty tonight.'
'Ah, yes. Presumably she thinks you need a rest. Wants you to sparkle tonight, I gather.'
'Sparkle! I feel on the point of death. Mind you, it's uncharacteristically thoughtful of her to think I might need a few hours' kip. Will I see you two tonight?'
'No. Tonight's business, I gather. Where the House of Lords is concerned, we're strictly pleasure.' And Cavendish and Mary Lou laughed merrily.
'I have an appointment with Lady Troutbeck,' he explained to the policeman on the door, 'but I couldn't get through to the Lords entrance. What's going on?'
'H'animal h'activists,' said the policeman heavily. 'Bunch of no-good riffraff if you ask me.' 'What are they complaining about? Export of calves to France?'
'Fox-'unting, of course. 'Aven't you been reading the papers?'
'I've been away.'
'Well, it's coming up in the Lords soon. The Commons voted for abolition, their lordships look like throwing it out, so there's merry hell.'
Excerpted from Ten Lords A-Leaping by Ruth Dudley Edwards Copyright © 2008 by Ruth Dudley Edwards. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted November 13, 2006
Ruth Dudley Edwards has not written a novel so much as a well-crafted fictional story to serve as a scope in which to view the modern socio-political situation in Britain. Ten Lords A¿ Leaping weaves a classical British murder-mystery story into the fabric of a freshly modern comedy featuring an uncertain, slightly liberal, Robert Amiss as the main character and cipher of most of the unusual, and mind-numbingly unsettling, events that take place. The story begins with our hero (sort of) in India as he receives news that his old friend Ida ¿Jack¿ Troutbeck has just become a baroness. Despite how unsettling this news is to him, Amiss catches the next plane to London to assist Jack in her upcoming battle with an anti-hunting bill about to be presented to the House of Lords. On top of countering the protests, staunch political opposition, and deadly terrorist actions against the pro-hunting group, Robert Amiss must also survive life under the stewardship of the Baroness whose unruly manners, lack of respect for propriety, and careless ways almost spell out the end for poor Amiss. This book has been a pleasure to read and the only down side I could find was that it is only 224 pages long. I loved the in-depth thought that brought the moral backbone of this book to the forefront of the story. I also thoroughly enjoyed the cutting wit, and situational humor that Edwards has crammed the pages with. I would recommend this book only to people who open minded to many different ideas and opinions.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.