Sitting comfortably? Then put a new cigarette in its ivory holder and refresh your whisky and soda. Get the servants to stoke the fire because these old houses can get so cold at night. And make sure your service revolver in the desk drawer is loaded. Captain Grimes is coming round tonight to discuss the accounts.
The little matter of those post-dated cheques in the mess tin. You might be forced to take the gentleman’s way out. Or you might be forced to shoot Captain Grimes.
The wealthiest stratum of British society has always prided itself on loyalty and devotion to duty. But too many of the aristocrats, trust fund beneficiaries and members of the officer class who sit at the apex of Britain’s social triangle have a moral backbone like a bit of wet spaghetti. From Rupert Bellville to Simon Raven, the Earl of Erroll to John Aspinall, the most respectable part of the country has churned out black sheep on a production line scale.
So put away that portfolio of artistic French photographs and leave answering the love note from your brother’s wife until later. Let’s take a stroll through the last one hundred years of bankrupt aristocrats, corrupt golden youths, and frankly untrustworthy remittance men. Books and the odd flick will be our signposts.
We’ll start gently, with some flawed heroes. Let’s go back to the days when we still had an Empire … .
Edwardian & First World War
Rupert Brooke was the archetypal golden youth. The kind liked by young girls and bachelor schoolmasters. Handsome, boyish, and a poet, he was the son of Rugby’s headmaster and born into privilege. Michael Hasting’s 1967 ‘Rupert Brooke: The Handsomest Young Man In England’ is a comprehensive scrapbook of Brooke’s world and acquaintances (with, for no good reason, two identical photographs of T E Hume) but the text is poor. Better biographies include Nigel Jones’ ‘Rupert Brooke: Life, Death and Myth’ (1999).
In the years before the First World War Brooke founded the ‘Neo-Pagans’, a small middle-class grouping of friends that were part answer to Germany’s Wandervogel and part back-to-nature ramblers. Paul Delaney’s 1987 book ‘The Neo-Pagans: Friendship and Love in the Rupert Brooke Circle’ looks at the group in detail although its main selling point was the first publication of a Brooke letter graphically detailing a homosexual encounter.
Brooke preferred girls overall but had a nightmarish time of it. One relationship with Catherine ‘Ka’ Cox led to an abortion. Brooke had a mental breakdown. It did not help that Cox was entangled with the Lytton Strachey’s Bloomsbury set, the effete imitators of all things artistic and French, and a whirlpool of sexual ambiguity that Brooke was trying to escape.
Cox would later die mysteriously in west Cornwall. Writer Paul Newman has investigated the rumours that link the death with occultist Aleister Crowley in ‘The Tregerthen Horror’. Crowley, essentially an 1890s figure, who became known as the ‘Wickedest man in the World’ by the tabloids for his very public experiments with Golden Dawn ritual magic using sex and drugs, has many biographies. Two of the most recent are by Tobias Churton and Richard Kaczynski.
Brooke was well-off enough to travel to Germany, America and Tahiti in the years before the First World War but his money could not compare with the truly wealthy aristocracy. Julian Grenfell, the son of Lady Desborough and product of Eton and Oxford University, gets a sympathetic portrait in Nicholas Mosley’s 1976 biography.
A man of action with a poetic side to him Grenfell tried hard to give meaning to his privileged life with a book of philosophy. Its rejection by publishers, orchestrated by his concerned mother, led to a breakdown. When he recovered Grenfell rejoined the parentally approved path and signed up with the army.
In 1914 he enthusiastically threw himself into the war, his letters home describing it as a ‘picnic’ and full of hunting talk. He liked war. His poem ‘Into Battle’, is an enthusiastic praise of combat that combines Nietzsche with English pastoralism and has been much criticised by pacifists since. He also wrote poems attacking the ‘red faced majors at the base’, in Siegfried Sassoon’s phrase, but these are less well known.
Grenfell died in 1915, hit by a shell splinter. Brooke died earlier the same year of disease en route to the Gallipoli campaign. In 1916 the short story writer Hector Hugh Munro (‘Saki’) was killed by a German sniper in France. His last words, to a comrade: ‘Put that bloody cigarette out!’
It was the kind of black humour that would have been appreciated by a man whose mother was killed by a cow and whose elegant, malicious short stories are still fresh today. Munro was less wealthy than Grenfell and Brooke but from the same background. He perfected the languid, cigarette held between drooping fingers aesthete’s pose but underneath was a tough man, right-wing even by Edwardian Imperialist standards. He worked as a journalist, notably in Tsarist Russia, before finding his role as a short story writer. He was homosexual to his fingertips. AJ Langguth’s 1982 biography has the full story. The war seemed to Munro, like many others, a chance to throw off stale, soft civilian life and re-invent himself as a soldier. He refused a commission.
Denys Finch Hatton bridged the Edwardian and Twenties eras. Another golden youth, he attended Eton with other upper class sons of privilege like Grenfell, Patrick Shaw-Stewart and the devoutly Catholic Ronald Knox. He did languid, disinterest in worldly success charisma better than anyone. At a university golf match he gave his opponent an advantage and was heckled from the crowd by an outraged professor:
‘Remember you are playing for your college not for yourself!’
Born into wealth, country houses and vast estates Hatton had little interest in competition.
‘Remember you are playing for neither,’ he replied.
Hatton was charismatic but slipped through life so elegantly that he seems more shadow than man. Sara Wheeler’s’ 2006 biography ‘Too Close to the Sun: The Life and Times of Denys Finch Hatton’ devotes most of its pages to Karen Blixen, neurotic Danish author of‘Out Of Africa’ (many years later a Robert Reford/Meryl Streep film) and Hatton’s lover.
The pair met in Kenya where Hatton decamped before the First World War to fail as a farmer but succeeded as a Great White Hunter. He brought down leaping lions with seconds to spare on rich men’s safaris, useful experience for the now forgotten East African campaign of the Great War. The only front in the war where a fire fight between British and German troops was disrupted by a charging rhino.
‘Close To The Sun’ succeeds despite the absence of its subject because the scenery and supporting cast come to vivid life. Africa is a character, all orange sunsets and chattering wildlife. The day players are well drawn. Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen fought alongside Hatton in the Africa campaign but the splenetic old Africa hand is best know for his pre-war peace negotiations with a rebellious tribe. He arranged a meeting, strode forward to shake the rebel chief’s hand then pulled a revolver with his spare paw and shot the man. Meinertzhagen got the Victoria Cross. Brian Garfield’s ‘The Meinertzhagen Mystery: The Life and Legend of a Colossal Fraud’ (2007) debunks many of the old soldier’s adventures. Meinertzhagen later claimed members of the Tsar’s family escaped the Bolsheviks and that he tried to assassinate Hitler. He discovered the Giant Forest Hog (Hylochoerus meinertzhageni).
Hatton was peripherally linked with the dissolute Happy Valley set of 1920s Kenya. Never too decadent himself – he preferred to spend his evenings with the classics and a gramophone, although he had a fondness for the Ballets Russe – Hatton occasionally mixed with Josslyn Victor Hay, 22nd Earl of Erroll, the Valley’s leading light. Blond haired charmer Erroll had hero worshipped the older man at Eton. Out in Africa Erroll went through other men’s wives at a rapid pace but avoided the cocaine and morphine used by others in his circle.
James Fox’s 1982 ‘White Mischief’ tells the Happy Valley story as he tries to puzzle out who shot Erroll in the head at close range at a deserted cross roads one night in 1940. Was it Diana Broughton, Erroll’s latest lover? Or Sir Henry ‘Jock’ Broughton, Diana’s cuckold husband who was charged, acquitted and committed suicide? The book spawned ‘White Mischief’ the movie with Charles Dance as Erroll, an actor who has perfected the art of the disinterested glance.
Errol Trzebinski’s 2000 ‘The Life and Death of Lord Erroll: The Truth Behind the Happy Valley Murder’ claims the dead man’s brief membership of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists led the Secret Services to assassinate him. Not much evidence for that. Mosley himself was another son of privilege who moved from conservative right to socialist Left then out to Fascism. Many books about him but his son Nicholas’ ‘Rules of the Game/Beyond the Pale: Memoirs of Sir Oswald Mosley and Family’ (1991) and Robert Skidelsky’s 1975 biography are good. Recent works like Martin Pugh’s 2005 ‘‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts!: Fascists and Fascism in Britain Between the Wars’ and Stephen Dorril’s 2006 ‘Blackshirt: Sir Oswald Mosley and British Fascism’ were well reviewed.
The best answer to the Erroll murder was given by 2005 BBC programme ‘Julian Fellowes Investigates A Most Mysterious Murder’ – The Case of the Earl of Errol’ in which the aristocrat actor/screen writer claimed Jock Broughton really was responsible. Wife Diane was in the car at the time and had to wear a scarf after to hide the bullet track in her neck. Fellowes claimed to speak from personal knowledge.
Another murdered wartime aristocrat was Sir Harry Oakes whose mysterious 1943 death in the Bahamas – bludgeoned and burned in his bed – spawned a host of conspiracy theories. James Owen’s ‘A Serpent in Eden: The Greatest Murder Mystery of All Time’ (2006) is a readable account of the murder and subsequent trial of Oakes’ son-in-law Count Alfred de Marigny, a dubiously titled Mauritian of French descent, who like Jock Broughton escaped gaol despite much suspicion. Respectable Bahamians were put off by his two-tone ‘co-respondent’ shoes.
The wife-swapping Happy Valley set were a dark reflection of England’s Bright Young Things. DJ Taylor’s ‘Bright Young People’ (2007) is a comprehensive look at the media darlings who partied through the 1920s, most aristocrats, most rich. Bottle parties, swimming pool parties, paper chases, fatal car crashes, tuxedos and Brilliantine. Taylor’s book exhausts the seam of London’s fun loving rich in the roaring twenties.
A few of the more outstanding BYTs deserve their own books. Lawrence Whistler’s book on his brother Rex, 1975’s ‘Laughter and the Urn’, describes a talented artist who decorated the Tate Gallery dining room in Roccoco style and was brought into the BYT world through his friendship with Stephen Tennant. The son of Scottish peer Lord Glenconner, Tennant was aesthete of the aesthetes and campest of the camp, although he lacked any other talents. He was war hero and poet Seigfreid Sasoon’s great love. Phillip Hoare’s 1992 biography‘Serious Pleasures: Life of Stephen Tennant’ is a heavy weight account of a feather light life.
Part-time BYT, and advisor to Fox’s ‘White Mischief’, Cyril Connolly was a famously underachieving old Etonian who investigated the Erroll case in the 1960s for a magazine article. Connolly did Eton and Oxford in the twenties but came to prominence the following decade. He went through a number of wives, the most tempestuous being Barbara Skelton. At a dinner party where Connolly was making a pig of himself, with food round his mouth:
Skelton: [contemptuously] What’s that on your face?
His best remembered work, 1938’s ‘Enemies of Promise’, is a portmanteau of literary criticism and public school memoir. Short pieces ‘Where Engels Fears To Tread’, a parody of upper class BYT aesthete turned Communist Brian Howard, and ‘Death of an Elizabethan’, a surprisingly reverent review of a memoriam book on a right-wing aristocrat pilot who died young, stand up better. They can be found in ‘The Condemned Playground’, a 1944 collection of essays with a frightening drawing of Connolly by Augustus John as frontispiece. Brian Howard is the subject of Marie-Jaqueline Lancaster’s 1968’s ‘Brian Howard: Portrait of a Failure’
Howard and Connolly were contemporaries of Evelyn Waugh, the dominant literary novelist of the twenties. Waugh was not aristocratic but liked to associate with them. Selina Hasting’s 1994 biography is a monumental account of the misanthropic aesthete but his circle at Oxford Univeristy is better brought to life in Martin Stannard’s 1987 ‘Evelyn Waugh: The Early Years, 1903-39’ and Humphrey Carpenter’s 1992 ‘The Brideshead Generation: Evelyn Waugh and His Friends’. Oxford provided the material for much of Waugh’s best seller ‘Brideshead Revisited” – languid men of ‘convenient bisexuality’, in writer Anthony Powell’s words, blazing through family fortunes on the manicured lawns of Oxford colleges.
It was a world of champagne bottles, limited poetry editions, Victoriana obsessions and gay crushes. ‘Brideshead Revisited’ was an extensive ITV series in 1981, and a less successful 2008 film. Waugh’s 1930 ‘Vile Bodies’ was made into a 2003 film by Stephen Fry as ‘Bright Young Things’. Watchable but Fry softens Waugh’s sharp edges. The novel was written while Waugh’s marriage to Evelyn Gardener was falling apart. She ran off with a BBC employee called John Heyward. Waugh wrote a 1959 biography of Catholic priest Ronald Knox, one of the rare survivors from Denys Finch Hatton’s pre-war circle.
Powell’s own 1983 memoirs ‘To Keep the Ball Rolling’ provide a clinically detached look at the time. Bevis Hiller’s 1984 biography of John Betjeman’s early years (Young Betjeman) has much on the mix of snobbery, aestheticism, and reaction that made up the lives of the rich in Oxford at the time. Also worth checking out are ‘Poet Ed’ about Edward James, fabulously rich Oxford man and patron of Surrealism, and Mark Amory’s 1988 biography of‘Lord Berners: The Last Eccentric’. Like Hatton, Berners was a bridging figure between Edwardian aristocracy and twenties Bright Young Things, although unlike him also fat, eccentric, musical, and homosexual. Both books are light on atmosphere but fill in the gaps.
Harold Acton’s 1948 ‘Memoirs of an Aesthete’ should have been essential from the poet who was the central figure in that circle but are instead a rather dim reflection of that time. Acton declaimed poetry through a megaphone (an Edith Sitwell touch) to rowers returning from the Isis.
Some of the Brideshead generation were made of tough stuff, like Robert Byron, subject of James Knox’s 2003 biography. Angry homosexual Byron travelled widely, wrote well on architecture, and hated Nazis and Turks. His 1937 ‘The Road to Oxiana’ is still in print and was Bruce Chatwin’s favourite book.
Not everyone stayed in Britain. In the twenties Paris throbbed with avant garde art, a cheap cost of living and loose morals. American and British writers and artists, some even talented, descended on the bohemian sectors to live life to the full. Englishman English painter Christopher Wood juggled an in depth knowledge of the latest French techniques with bisexuality and opium addiction. Jean Cocteau liked him. He returned to England and spent time in Cornwall, then in the early days of its life as an artist colony. His work is faux-naif. In 1930 Wood threw himself under a train. Richard Ingleby’s 1995 biography is thorough. Sebastian Faulkes included him as one of his three portraits in the same year’s‘The Fatal Englishman’.
For an American version see Harry Crosby, scion of a wealthy Boston family but prominent in the avant garde Paris art world of the 1920s with Black Sun Press, publishing Ernest Hemingway among others. Crosby abused drugs, wife swapped, and made dramatic gestures. His poetry was limited. He died in a 1929 suicide pact with his mistress in a friend’s New York apartment. Geoffrey Wolff’s biography ‘Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby’ (1977) is excellent.
Martin Green’s 1976 ‘Children of the Sun: A Narrative of Decadence in England After 1918’ is an unconvincing attempt to connect the aesthetes of the twenties with the Fascists of the thirties. Its main attraction is a nice photograph of Randolph Churchill as a young man before Winston’s son got fat and red-faced. Randolph has never had a critical enough biographer to turn in a good book on this ultimate son of privilege. His own son’s 1996 biography is anaemic, while an earlier anthology of recollections ‘The Young Unpretender’(1971), edited by Kay Halle, entertaining but all surface.
The rich kept their heads down in the Hungry Thirties as political extremes ramped up across Europe. Denys Finch Hatton’s old schoolmate Ronald Knox and social climbing Jesuit Martin D’Arcy converted some, including Evelyn Waugh, to Catholicism. A few went political. Roger Griffiths’ 1980 ‘Fellow Travellers Of The Far-Right’ gives a good summary of the extreme right fringe, with a fair sprinkling of titled names.
Yuri Modin’s My Five Cambridge Friends about Philby and co gives an inside look at the militant left version. The Spanish Civil War radicalised many. Stansky & Abrahams’ ‘Journey to the Frontier’ (1966) details the lives of John Cornford and Julian Bell, the first a Communist, the second a fellow traveller. Cornford was a good conventional poet whose dedication to Marx gives his verse real attack (‘Understand the weapon/ understand the wound’). Poetry ran in the family – his mother Frances was a friend of Rupert Brooke and wrote the ‘Apollo golden haired’ quatrain about him. Bell was a less talented poet who knew many of the Cambridge spy ring around Philby. Both died in Spain.
Rupert Bellville was one of the few who fought in Spain for Franco. The heir to Papillon Hall, a Leicestershire country house redesigned by Edward Lutyens but already crumbling, the argumentative pilot joined the Spanish Falange militia in the early days of the war thanks to contacts in the Andalusian sherry industry. He was best known for arriving in Santander by aeroplane to congratulate the victorious Nationalist troops only to find it was still in the hands of the Republicans. He narrowly escaped a firing squad. Oxford graduate Peter Kemp contributed more to Franco’s cause, first in the Carlist Requetes and later in the Foreign Legion. Those two and others can be found in my ‘Franco’s International Brigades: Adventurers, Fascists, and Christian Crusaders in the Spanish Civil War’ (2013).
Second World War
Bright Young Thing Rex Whistler died just after D-Day in France. Cecil Beaton heard he got drunk and fell under a lorry but the truth was a more heroic end as a tank commander during a mortar barrage. The apparent fading of the aristocracy was commemorated in Waugh’s ‘Brideshead Revisited’ and also in Keith Douglas’ wartime poem ‘Aristocrats’, although with greater distance. Douglas himself was a man of action, leaning leftwards but entranced by rightist sentiments of army discipline and patriotism. He also died just after D-Day. Desmond Graham’s 1974 Keith Douglas, 1920-1944: A Biography is thorough.
Others let the side down. John Amery, son of Secretary of State for India Leopold Amery, was in France when it fell. He threw his lot in with the Germans, broadcast propaganda to Britain and tried to organise a British Waffen-SS unit. Caught in Italy at the end of the war, by future television personality Alan Whicker, Amery was hanged for Treason. Adrian Weale covers British traitors in ‘Renegades: Hitler’s Englishmen’ (1994). A good read but his composite biography of Amery and Sir Roger Casement, ‘Patriot Traitors’ (2001), is best avoided.
Bad things also happened on the home front. Neville Heath just pretended to be a gentleman. A fantasist RAF pilot with a taste for whipping young girls, he killed at least two during the war and was hanged for it. Francis Selwyn lifts the stone in 1988’s ‘Rotten to the Core: Life and Death of Neville Heath’, as does Sean O’Connor in the 2013 ‘Handsome Brute: The Story of a Ladykiller’.
On the winning side, John Heyward emerged out of the jungles of Burma with a native bride, less than five feet high and bought from one of the ‘more primitive tribes’ – at least according to Anthony Powell. The man for whom Evelyn Waugh’s wife left him, Heyward deserves a biography of his own. Something of a womaniser, he toured Europe in the twenties and thirties, married the former Mrs Waugh and was sacked from the BBC for his involvement in the divorce. He leant to the right and had an exciting war in the Far East. Post-war he drank himself into a stupor and eventually committed suicide. Powell’s unofficial biographer Michael Barber provides glimpses of an interesting character.
Barber’s biography of Powell (2004) is relatively tame, the estate not being particularly helpful as they had Hilary Spurling in the wings for an official version. Barber’s writing is as elegant and juicy as always but his prose is better served in the 1996 biography ‘The Captain’. Its subject is an inferior writer to Powell but far more interesting person, the frankly satanic Simon Raven …
‘Is it true you like both men and women?’ an officer asked Simon Raven during the writer’s doomed attempt at a career in the British Army after the Second World War.
‘I like all four kinds.’
‘Male and female. Amateur and professional.’
Raven attended Charterhouse public school but was forced to leave a few terms early for homosexual adventures too blatant for the authorities to ignore. Raven joined the army for National Service just as the empire ended in India, much to his disappointment (‘I liked the sound of Sahib Raven’). On release he made it through Cambridge University seducing students of both sexes. He got Susan Kilner pregnant so did the decent thing by marrying her. They lived separate lives, an arrangement aided by Raven rejoining the Army. He was shifted around a number of colonial hotspots, like the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, where he did his best to avoid too much action before being kicked out for gambling debts. A telegram once arrived from Susan:
‘Mother and baby starving STOP Please send money soonest.
‘Sorry no money STOP,’ he replied. ‘Suggest eat baby’.
Or so the story goes. It says something about Raven’s capacity for scandalous behaviour that even his friends liked to tell the telegram story. He was happy to repay the favour and one of his memoirs was pulped after libel proceedings. Raven was a gifted writer with a flowing, exact style that owed equal amounts to a Classical education and a love of Evelyn Waugh’s early work. His plotting and characterisation could not always keep up. Much of his extremely limited success was due to the louche tone of his early novels – homosexual army affairs and murder (first book ‘The Feathers of Death’, 1959), right-wing secret societies (the same year’s not very good ‘Brother Cain’), and sexual vampires (1960’s ‘Doctors Wear Scarlet’ made into under funded 1970 psychedelic horror movie ‘Incense For The Damned’ aka ‘Blood Suckers’).
His reputation rests on roman fleuve ‘Alms for Oblivion’ written in conscious imitation of Powell’s superior ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ series, which had begun thirteen years earlier in 1951. Raven does high class sleaze like no-one else (except perhaps the protagonists of the real-life Profumo Affair) but the best books are 1966’s ‘Sabre Squadron’, a thriller set in Allied occupied Germany informed by Raven’s own posting there, although let down by an incompletely imagined central Jewish character, and ‘Fielding Gray’ (1967), the definitive dark side of public school novel, whose plot influenced Stephen Fry’s 1991 debut novel ‘The Liar’.
Raven lived precariously, bouncing checks, writing novels, and dining well. By the 60s the slim, vulpine army officer had become round and red-faced. He was kept afloat through the generosity of his publisher Anthony Blond, like Raven bisexual, unlike him rich. His memoirs ‘Jew Made in England’ (2004) are disjointed but never dull, particularly on his friendships with the more raffish figures in the post-war world. He knew Alan Clark before the historian became a Tory MP. The clipped, arrogant and athletic Clark was son of Lord Clark (of cultural tv series ‘Civilisation’ fame – the book version, illustrated or not, is a good read). Clark once told Blond he lived in Albany, the set of bachelor apartments in central London, because it needed only a single word of direction to a taxi driver.
‘Two words,’ said Blond.
Clark looked puzzled.
Blond explained – ‘Albany, please.’
Clark’s Diaries (‘Into Politics’, ‘In Power’, and ‘The Last Diaries’ – 2000, 1993 and 2002 respectively) mix politics, cars, affairs and hypochondria, and make a more sympathetic figure of Clark than many thought possible. A 2009 authorised biography by Ion Trewin provided a fuller picture. Reviewers were polarised, less by the book than by their reactions to Clark’s personality.
For true sleaze check out the biography of Gerald Hamilton, a man imprisoned in both world wars as a threat to national security, friend of Christopher Isherwood, acquaintance of Aleister Crowley, and a rich, homosexual Catholic who ran through his inheritance and found some dubious ways of making money. Hamilton defrauded the Save the Children fund at the same time as running guns to the IRA, among other adventures. His fruity charm gave him a more likeable aura than he deserved.
Aspinall & Co
Anthony Blond was also friends with John Aspinall and James Goldsmith from his days at Oxford. All were part of a hard drinking, hard gambling set. Aspinall and Goldsmith were ambitious and wanted to be rich. Aspinall went on make his money in gambling, first with floating Chemin de Feu games around Mayfair and then with the Clermont Club in Berkley Square. Goldsmith became an international asset stripper, admired and hated.
Douglas Thompson’s 2007 ‘The Hustlers: Gambling, Greed and the Perfect Con’ is a good account of Aspinall’s career up until the sale of the Clermont Club in the late 1960s. Great cast of gambling characters – Lord Derby (‘a failing salesman in a rented dinner jacket,’ according to Simon Raven who once won £900 at Chemmy in the late 50s, subsequently losing a lot more), SAS founder David Stirling who shrugged off a loss of £174,500 in one night during 1959, and John Bingham, Lord Lucan (‘thick as two planks,’ according to Mark Birley, founder of Annabel’s nightclub) soon to be wanted for murder.
Thompson does a good job even though he describes a louche 50s resort in France where British aristocrats and gangsters mixed with European playboys and actresses as a place ‘you could lie on the beach and look at the stars or vice versa’. The book attracted controversy with its revelation that Aspinall routinely cheated gamblers at the Clermont with the help of Billy Hill, London’s top gangster. Aspinall’s family denied it, his business partner confirmed it.
‘The Real Casino Royale’ was a 2009 Channel 4 documentary based on Thompson’s book. The interviews and archive footage are good, the reconstructions less convincing. The actor playing Lucan looks more like Kaiser Wilhelm and Billy Hill’s hat is inexplicably four sizes too big. Back in 2000 Adam Curtis created ‘The Mayfair Set’ for the BBC, a documentary on Thatcherite capitalism that used the regulars of the Clermont Club as its hook. Goldsmith got the lion’s share of the spotlight. The four parter is Curtis’ usual mix of insight, archive footage and conspiracy theory.
Meanwhile up the road in Cadogan Square, November 1971, an expatriate American mother and son had a row. The son stabbed his mother to death. Barbara Bakeland was fabulously rich, married into the family that invented Bakelite, but had eccentric ideas about curing son Anthony of his homosexuality. She slept with him. This did not help his paranoid schizophrenia. The tale is told well in ‘Savage Grace: The True Story of a Doomed Family’(1985) an oral biography by Natalie Robbins and Steven M L Aronson. It was turned into a movie in 2007.
The Clermont had passed into the hands of the Playboy organisation by 1974 when Lord Lucan attempted to murder his estranged wife but killed the children’s nanny Sandra Rivett by mistake. By this time his gambling debts were so high he worked as a house gambler for Aspinall. And he drank. Surprisingly few books have been written about the crime although it gripped the country and, with Lucan vanished the night of the murder and never seen again, continues to fascinate. Most books are written by retired policemen to boost their pensions and hinge on new theories about Lucan’s whereabouts ie. MacLaughlin and Hall’s discredited ‘Dead Lucky – Lord Lucan: The Final Truth’ (2003).
John Pearson’s 2005 ‘The Gamblers’ is a joint biography of Aspinall and Goldsmith and those around them but has a fairly clear overview of the Lucan murders. ‘Bloodlines’, a straight to DVD 1997 movie made with Irish money, is a well informed dramatisation although it goes off the rails at the end with Lucan battling gangsters on a cliff top. It follows, at least partly, Pearson’s theory that Lucan was killed by gangsters – presumably linked to Billy Hill, although this is never explicitly stated.
The very best account is 2015’s ‘A Different Class of Murder: The Story of Lord Lucan’. Author Laura Thompson persuaded family members and intimates to go on the record about Lucan and the result is the first fully-rounded portrait of a man who had previously been little more than a caricature. Thompson makes an effort to cut through the conspiracy theories although some may think her conclusion about what really happened is overly sympathetic to Lucan.
Another Clermont gambler accused of murder, Claus von Bulow was acquitted of the 1979 murder of his wife. ‘Reversal Of Fortune’, a 1991 Hollywood movie of the trial based on attorney Alan Dershowitz’s book, is watchable. Jeremy Irons exudes Von Bulow’s dark charm:
Dershowitz: We have one thing in our favour.
Von Bulow: What’s that?
Dershowitz: Everybody hates you.
Von Bulow: [Swallows a mouthful of food, gestures with his fork] It’s a start.
There’s also a book by William Wright about the case. It was first published back in 1983 but a recent reissue has been making waves, with a possible tv adaptation in the works.
James Goldsmith ended his days with a luxurious Mexican hideaway, more money than he knew what to do with and the Reform Party, a vehicle to bash pro-European MPs. Hutchins & Midgley’s 1998 biography ‘Goldsmith: Money, Women and Power’ is the latest available. He died in 1997 of cancer. He outlived Aspinall, Billy Hill and most of his gambling cronies, including the weak willed artist Dominic Elwes, who he helped drive to suicide for a perceived betrayal to the press after the Lucan murders. Elwes was father to actor Cary, star of 1984’s ‘Another Country’ about public school boys discovering homosexuality and Communism in the thirties.
To everyone’s surprise Raven outlived them all. The novels declined in quality as he got older but he made money working on television drama scripts. His last words in hospital were ‘Who’s paying for all this, I’d like to know?’
Not everyone was dressed up in a dinner jacket losing money at Berkley Square. In the 1960s Robert Fraser was a top modern art dealer, friend of the Rolling Stones (present at the Redlands bust) and heroin addict. While learning the art trade in early 1960s New York he impressed friends by dropping coin change on the floor as not worth carrying around. Harriet Vyner’s 1999 oral biography ‘Groovy Bob: The Life and Times of Robert Fraser’ is a good read. In the seventies he headed for India and AIDS.
Africa and Elsewhere
Darker Englishmen were about by the time of Lucan’s disappearance. In fiction Frederick Forsythe’s anonymous English assassin in 1971’s ‘The Day of the Jackal’ summed up the new type of ruthless, amoral and probably dangerously rightist well-spoken types. The 1973 film with Edward Fox was good. The Jackal of the title got his start as a mercenary in the (real-life) Katanga secession.
Andy Beckett’s 2002 book ‘Pinochet in Piccadilly: Britain and Chile’s Hidden History’ covers similar territory, although at heart it is an overgrown article about links between Margaret Thatcher and Chilean dictator General Pinochet pumped up with speculation about right-wingers around David Stirling in the 1970s. ‘The Wilson Plot: How the Spycatchers and Their American Allies Tried to Overthrow the British Government’ provides background to Stirling’s activities with allegations that members of the establishment believed Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson was a KGB agent.
But golden youths made a comeback with writer Bruce Chatwin. Educated, talented, bisexual Chatwin had made his mark at auctioneers Sotheby’s but burst onto the wider world as journalist and author. His icy, etched style and love of the esoteric – from nomads to Ernst Junger, Russian Futurism to Jackie Kennedy – made him great but in his lifetime he was known primarily as a travel writer. Non-fiction 1989 collection ‘What am I Doing Here’ is essential, 1988 novel ‘Utz’ good and Nicholas Shakespeare’s 1999 biography very good.
Chatwin loved Africa and experienced the grim aftermath of an attempted 1976 coup in Benin when he was suspected of being one of the foreign mercenaries involved under the command of Frenchman Bob Denard, who tells his side of the story in ‘Corsaire de la Republique’.
Forsythe’s third novel ‘The Dogs of War’ about overthrowing a corrupt African dictatorship was based on his apparently real attempt to put together an earlier coup in Equatorial Guinea. Thirty years later Englishman Simon Mann tried the same deal with the help of, among others, Mark Thatcher – son of the former Prime Minister and ultimate remittance man. The coup went wrong and Mann ended up in a hellhole jail in Equatorial Guinea. The tale is told well in ‘The Wonga Coup: Simon Mann’s Plot to Seize Oil Billions in Africa’ by Adam Roberts (2006).
For a fictionalised account of recent black sheep see Edward St Aubyn’s three semi-autobiographical novels ‘Never Mind’, ‘Bad News’ and ‘Some Hope’, most recently combined in 2006’s ‘Some Hope: A Triology’. The 1982 film ‘Privileged’ about rich types at Oxford University has its fans. Woody Allen’s ‘Match Point’ (2005) should not work, with its luxurious London apartments masquerading as down market hovels, unsubtle Dostoevsky references, and rich families who like both the opera and Andrew Lloyd Weber. But it succeeds because Allen, inadvertently, taps into a fantasy of London upper class life that bears little relation to the truth but feels like a warm champagne bath to anyone who enjoyed ‘Brideshead Revisited” and wants a version with mobile phones and murder. All that despite the script originally having been set in the Hamptons.
For other American film versions of this type see Whit Stillman’s 1990 ‘Metropolitan’ and 1998 ‘The Last Days of Disco’. Also the off-beat take of ‘A New Leaf’ (1971) with Walther Mathau, oddly convincing as a playboy running short of money, despite having a face like a bulldog chewing a wasp.
Dealing With Grimes
Well, there you have it. One hundred years of bankrupt aristocrats, corrupt golden youths, and frankly untrustworthy remittance men. Perhaps it gave you some ideas. Grimes is due soon. Best pick a spot to greet him. By the roaring fireplace, beneath the portrait of the seventh Earl? Or looking reflectively at the Big Game trophies on the wall, with their brass plaques? That gazelle put a bit of a fight. Or perhaps behind the door with a poker in your hand? Yes, that might be the best place. Bon chance old chap. Give Grimes my regards.
For more warlike weirdness, you can buy my books in paperback or ebook: