A VIEW FROM THE PRAM
My two grandmothers, Granny A (Christabel, Lady Ampthill) and Granny B (The Hon. Olive, Lady Baillie) were remarkably unlike each other in practically every way except one: They each owned a castle. Whereas Granny B’s castle was rather large and had a moat and several thousand acres of park and farmland, Granny A’s was rather small and consisted mainly of a tower with a wall around it. Granny B employed fifty people on a full-time basis to keep her estate running smoothly. Granny A had a cleaning lady come in from the local village, Kinvara, twice a week. This is not to say that Dunguaire, Granny A’s castle, was in any way a lesser establishment than Leeds, Granny B’s. Just different.
Both castles possessed, to a certain degree, the look and personality of their (at the time) owners. Dunguaire, situated at the mouth of Galway Bay on the west coast of Ireland, was very pretty in a rugged, highly individualistic way. There was an air of defiance accompanied by a discreet layer of vulnerability in how she dominated her low-lying promontory, as if daring the world to mock her smallness in lieu of revelling in her charm.
Leeds Castle, deep in the heart of Kent, southeast England, was so exquisite and romantic and medieval and imposing (Granny B had exquisite taste and was certainly imposing but was neither romantic nor medieval) that I never cease to marvel at my good fortune to have spent so much of my childhood within the confines of its warm embrace, wandering, exploring, bicycling and go-carting up and down the castle’s mile-and-a-half-long front drive and three-quarter-mile-long park and back drives, which wended their way past woods and waterfalls, duck ponds and private golf course, a wood-garden, tennis court, grazing sheep, contented cows, horses, stables, garages, a petrol pump, the kitchen garden, greenhouses, laundry, an aviary, and the moat.
“Wonderful in manifold glories,” wrote the historian of castles, Lord Conway, “are the great castle visions of Europe; Windsor from the Thames, Warwick or Ludlow from their riversides, Conway or Carnarvon from the sea, Amboise from the Loire, Aigues-Mortes from the lagoons, Carcassonne, Coucy, Falaise and Château Gaillard—beautiful as they are and crowned with praise, are not comparable in beauty with Leeds, beheld among the waters on an autumnal evening when the bracken is golden and there is a faint blue mist among the trees—the loveliest castle, as thus beheld, in the whole world.”
The view from the pram, one of those handsome old shiny black models with giant wheels and a flying saucer–like compartment for me to lounge in, was equally sublime. From any angle, at any distance, the castle never failed to look anything other than awesome, swanky, huge, and gorgeous.
Growing up with Leeds as my second home, the other being my parents’ well-staffed five-storey house on Egerton Terrace, in Knightsbridge, London, had the less than desirable effect of effortlessly rendering me more spoiled than a Buckingham Palace corgi before I understood the meaning of the word.
“Get out! Get out before I kick you out!” I yelled, aged five, at the visiting Princess Djordjadze, a flamboyant, five-times-married (two English aristocrats, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Clark Gable, and her Prince Dimitri of Georgia) former chorus-line-dancer Englishwoman (born Edith Louisa Sylvia Hawkes), one morning when she was making her entrance through the castle front door at the precise moment that Nanny and I were going out for a walk. Having taken an instant dislike to her bouffant hair, lynx coat, yapping Chihuahua, and air of self-importance, I felt my exalted position as a junior castle grand poobah justified such an outburst. (I actually astonished myself with this spur-of-the-moment public display of vehemence because the word most frequently used to describe me in those days was “withdrawn.”) This greeting passed immediately into castle folklore and provided endless amusement around my grandmother’s afternoon canasta table (the card game was then much in vogue) when the Princess was far away.
One highborn guest, the Earl of Wilton, was asked by another, the Hon. Robin Warrender, at a castle dinner one evening in the 1960s, “Is there anywhere, do you think, grander to stay than here?” to which the Earl had apparently responded, “Windsor!”—referring to the Queen’s 480,000-square-foot palace by the Thames in Berkshire. Under the circumstances it would have been difficult not to develop unworthy feelings of entitlement; after all, there was always someone to do everything for you. I never ran my bath, changed a bulb, cleaned my room, mowed a lawn, boiled an egg, washed up, fetched the newspapers, lit the fire, or helped at table. I was a catastrophically coddled boy brought up in monumental luxury, clueless as to where it might all be leading. Guidelines were never forthcoming from my parents or anyone else, in London or the country. Fortunately I had enough sense to refrain from passing on to others “news” concerning my “important” status in life. Due to my shyness, occasionally supplanted by fits of unusual boldness, I was in fact deeply inhibited, sometimes painfully so, in conveying my thoughts to most people on virtually any subject.
To this day I remain the slightly off-kilter product of my Leeds Castle childhood living. The power of its luxury brew (which came without any health and safety warnings on the side of the tin) went straight to my head as a child, and, despite the passage of time, a constant change of circumstances, and many years living in the United States, it has stayed forever warm in my mind.
* * *
I was born on May 10, 1952, four days after King Farouk of Egypt had himself pronounced a descendant of the prophet Muhammad and six months before Dwight Eisenhower was elected President of the United States of America. The importance of these developments escaped me at the time, but the killer smog that descended upon and tightly enveloped London between the fifth of December and the tenth did not. During those five horrible days the city came to a grinding halt; visibility was reduced to just a few feet, and old people, especially those with breathing problems, died in their thousands. The foul smoke, soot, and fog that seeped through every pore and crevice of our house on Egerton Terrace rendered it, and every other nook and cranny of England’s capital, a very disagreeable place, and at six months of age I contracted asthma.
One of the great benefits of being at death’s door as a baby is that one remains in blissful ignorance of one’s impending demise. I have no recollection whatsoever of wheezing my way through 1953, and it wasn’t until many years later that I learned how doctors of impeccable standing, in one hospital or another, had stood around muttering in hushed tones, “I doubt he’ll make old bones.” As it turned out, I was one of the lucky ones. Hundreds of babies and twelve thousand adults died as a direct result of the toxic darkness that suddenly and eerily appeared, and then, when the wind finally got up on the fifth and final day, dramatically departed, as in a horror film, but on this occasion, all too terrifyingly real.
At the earliest opportunity I was whisked off to the country, where the air was clean and I could breathe a little easier. By 1954 this is precisely what I was doing, my asthma having been so successfully treated that it went away for good. My early brush with mortality was then neatly filed away in the family archive of “things not discussed.” Years later, when I was eight and about to go away to boarding school for the first time, my mother made a passing reference to my illness. “It really was touch and go … so unpleasant,” she said, but I was not entirely sure for whom.
I learned about my illness purely by chance, over an easygoing conversation with my mother in our London drawing room before lunch, she with a glass of La Ina dry sherry, me a glass of Coca-Cola with ice cubes and lemon. The subject came up out of nowhere, for no apparent reason, “but everyone was simply marvellous,” she was at pains to assure me. “We were all so dreadfully concerned.” At least everyone had been concerned—to my mind the appropriate thing to be—so I decided to leave it at that.
* * *
And one day Nanny was there. This is my first distinct memory: I was two, and lying in my pram in stately comfort, propped up by puffy pillows and gazing up at—as it transpired—her, and behind her one of the ornately decorated windows of Harrods, London’s grandest and most famous department store. It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship between Nanny and me. We would spend the greater part of the next five years—not to mention a substantial portion of the ten that followed—almost continually in each other’s company. Of course I could not know this as my eyes roamed inquisitively over the passing shapes and objects that registered like ink splodges on a Pollock canvas. My white woolly bonnet and cardigan, knitted by Nanny with precision, kept me warm as toast despite being exposed to the elements on a slightly blustery spring day.
I decided very early on that everything about Nanny was perfect. She never made me eat soap if I was naughty or permitted my uneaten spinach from the night before to resurface at breakfast time, as my mother’s ferocious nurse had reportedly done, occasionally even locking her in a cupboard until she promised to do as she’d been told.
My nanny’s name was Irene Penney. I never met her parents or her sister, who lived in Birmingham. Though never fat, Nanny was a little dumpy, which to my mind perfectly offset her kind and comely face with its square jaw, straight mouth, and handsome nose. She had small blue eyes, topped off by daintily arched eyebrows and a full shock of white hair swept back off her high forehead. Her presence was utterly reassuring, her manner always calm, and she was a fount of vital information about all things, important and otherwise.
It was not until I was a teenager that I became aware of the awkward position of nannies in a household that had a number of staff. Since the nannies were neither quite family nor quite servant, there was often friction with the butlers, cooks, housekeepers, and housemaids, who felt they should not have to wait upon or be told what to do by a person whom they considered an employee like themselves. Irene Penney surely trod on many toes in the household over the years, but she did so only with my best interests at heart, and never with the intention of upsetting anyone.
As was the custom in families such as mine, Nanny did everything for me in terms of day-to-day care. Nannies performed the essential function of permitting parents to get on with their lives in a civilized way, unimpeded by the noise, nuisance, and constant demands of tiny tots. My parents paid the bills but otherwise resisted any urge to get too involved in nursery matters. That is not to say that my mother failed to climb the London or Leeds staircases to check on my progress or read to me from time to time. She did, and I came to enjoy her visits enormously. My father, though, kept his parenting on a strictly need-to-know, hush-hush footing, and did his level best to avoid actually setting foot in either nursery at all. When he finally did, he made me wish he hadn’t.
* * *
My brothers, David and James, were five and four years older than I, respectively, which meant that by the time I was old enough to start enjoying their company they were away during weekdays at Hill House, the pre–prep school in Hans Place, not far from Harrods, where I also would be dispatched when I was five. I therefore saw them only first thing in the morning, and for a little while in the afternoon when they got home and the nursery decibels went up several notches. Our activities were seldom interrelated, as my bath, supper, and bedtimes were earlier than theirs, so I had to make the most of the snippets of time I had with them.
What I gathered was that David was the mild-mannered one with the brains, and James the mischievously disruptive one with the looks. I came to understand this as soon as words and conversation took on meaning and reports from school rounded out the picture. People called David “Sid” at Stowe, his public school, because he was gentle and nice and amusing like the famous working-class English comedian at the time, Sid James. That he also happened to come from the other end of the social spectrum from Sid James made the nickname doubly amusing. After one term at Aiglon College in Switzerland, boys were calling James “Lord Jim,” I was told (often by him!), out of admiration for his good looks, manliness, and cool.
First at Hill House, and then at St Aubyn’s, the prep school we all attended, near Brighton on the Sussex coast, David distinguished himself in the classroom, comported himself as an upright citizen, and wound up head boy, despite having never given more than passing consideration to shining at sports. James selected a different path, opting to give Prince Charles a severe working over in the corridors of Hill House, thereby establishing his reputation as a rebel, but finding little to inspire him in any classroom through which he passed. He did, however, take a strong liking to soccer, rugby, and cricket, and soon played all three well. This stood him in good stead when, due to his inability to pass exams in England, he was sent off to be educated first in Ireland and then in Switzerland, and discovered that good looks and sporting prowess (especially skiing) were noted, appreciated, and envied.
When we were together, my older brothers were generally solicitous towards me. In contrast, they were at battle stations with each other a great deal of the time, for reasons that escaped me beyond the obvious differing personalities. Regrettably they appeared to work overtime to find the other’s weak spots—which, of course, they did.
Having Nanny and the children occupying the top two floors of what felt like an enormous London house was clearly ideal for a family like ours, where the modus operandi remained always, “Quiet please—grown-ups disinclined to be disturbed.” A ghostlike hush hovered about my father’s presence on those rare occasions when he actually came into my line of vision.
On one particular morning, with David already packed off to St Aubyns boarding school, a rumpus broke out in the London nursery, at the conclusion of which I was left with a highly disagreeable first impression of my father. I was sitting perched in my high chair, enjoying being three, attempting to go quietly and methodically about my business, but all around me pandemonium had erupted. I could no longer concentrate on spooning porridge into my mouth from my rabbit-festooned cereal bowl because James had taken it upon himself to start dancing around the breakfast table like a madman, laughing, pointing, and loudly exclaiming how funny the nursery maid Anne’s varicose veins looked. Quite what brought on this sudden outburst I did not know. I was also totally unaware as to what varicose veins might be, but judging by my brother’s extravagant behaviour there must be something about them that first provoked great mirth and, second, if the look on Anne’s face was anything to go by, considerable anguish.
With the situation quickly deteriorating I started to succumb to a powerful sense of anguish myself. I was accustomed to a very deliberate, peaceful, and uncomplicated world. Outside interferences were rare, and until now, disturbing personal dramas (asthma aside) had been nonexistent. But now Anne, a tall, thin Canadian girl, about twenty years old with big eyes and long curly brown hair, was crying and getting very upset, standing in front of the cuckoo clock, which suddenly cuckooed to announce the time, further adding to the din.
Nanny was imploring James to stop, but the ineffectiveness of her words showed that she had little experience of situations such as this. I watched her kind, wrinkly face becoming taut with frustration. All thoughts of breakfast vanished as I stared at my brother, who wandered from the round table in the middle of the nursery back to his room to prepare for school, and then returned, never letting up, with Anne continuing to cry and looking lost and helpless. Finally Nanny started to leave the nursery, telling James, “I’m simply going to have to fetch your father.” This sounded ominous. I had never seen my father on our floor. In fact, I had no distinct recollection of seeing him in any precise location.
With Nanny gone, my discomfort increased, but instead of contributing to the ruckus by bursting into tears myself or banging my cereal bowl with a spoon, I tried to block it out as if it had nothing to do with my world. But upon hearing the familiar floorboard squeak from just outside the bathroom on the half landing, I turned to see my father coming up the stairs, an aura of profound irritation emanating from his three-piece, navy blue pinstripe suit, and a stern, frighteningly stern, expression on his face. James was suddenly quiet as if struck dumb, and the only sound in the nursery was an intermittent gentle sob from Anne. Climbing the last few stairs, his left hand on the banister, my father entered the nursery and without so much as a by-your-leave (or a sympathetic offer of a hankie to Anne), he quietly instructed James to bend over the armchair adjacent to the storage cupboard by the left window, and started whacking away at my brother’s bottom with his right hand, very hard.
I watched this whole affair in a state of extreme shock. I do not know how many whacks James received, but when it was all over he, too, was crying. When my father departed, he did so abruptly, without a word to anyone, leaving the four of us to try and recover as best we could from the unpleasantness of it all.
James went off to school in a sorry state, Anne cleared away breakfast and tidied up, and Nanny and I returned to our morning schedule of bathroom matters, a little music on the radio, and preparations to go out. She did not discuss with me the previous half hour, so I assumed she preferred not to. I, therefore, was obliged to file the matter away in a new and unfamiliar category, one that for quite some time I referenced merely as “Bad.”
This was the first occasion from which I could start to form an opinion about my father, and what an occasion it was! From a selfish standpoint I was peeved that he had failed even to acknowledge my presence. Undoubtedly he was concentrating on the task at hand, not a task he would have wished for and one he clearly would have wanted over and done with quickly. But all the same, I would have appreciated something from him, had needed something from him, right there and then, after sitting through such a nasty and really quite disturbing business. Sadly, frustratingly, I got nothing, not even a pat on the head; so I was left, feeling isolated, to ponder what I had just seen. I sought comfort by retreating into my shell during the whole affair, unaware as to what it all meant for the future and me. I never saw my father in the nursery again.
Copyright © 2013 by Anthony Russell