In a previous post, we excerpted some material from Sir George Sitwell’s book ‘On the Making of Gardens’, and at the time commented on some of his eccentricities. Excerpted here, from a book written by his eldest son, Osbert Sitwell, are a few chapters that shed some light on the writing of his father’s only published writings as well as a greater insight into these eccentricities.
My Father and the Garden
IN THE HAPPY DAYS OF THE FAR-OFF FIRST DECADE OF THE nineteen-hundreds, about the time that Princess Ena became engaged to King Alfonso, that Melba was singing in Madame Butterfly, that Miss Lily Elsie was appearing in The Merry Widow, in short, in the golden days of good King Edward, a visitor in the spring or autumn to any of the great Italian or remarkable Sicilian gardens, especially those that were more remote, might have chanced to see a tall, distinguished-looking Englishman with a high-bridged nose, and with fair, fine hair and a slightly darker golden moustache, flourished upwards a little in the manner of Kaiser Wilhelm’s, seated on a bench, regarding his surroundings with analytic concentration. He would be wearing a grey suit and a wide-brimmed hat, a striped linen shirt with a stiff white winged collar and starched cuffs fastened by large carbuncle links; probably he would be sitting on a circular rubber air-cushion shaped like a lifebuoy, so well known a seat-mark in the daily life of the Reading Room of the British Museum, while slung round his body as if he were at a race meeting would be a leather case containing a pair of binoculars, and beside him – for he took care to sit in the shade – a sun-umbrella lined with green. Not far off, within the carrying of a voice, from the thick blackness of an Hex grove would peer a ponderous figure, watchful, but with an eye for those who passed, as well as for the safety of the rectangular. varnished wicker box in his custody, which each day contained a cold chicken. Over one arm would be folded a thick coat…. As he stood there he had something of an air of a night watch on a ship, and his appearance, though his skin was bronzed, or indeed copper-coloured, was as northern and national as that of the gentleman on the bench. He, meanwhile, had taken an envelope out of his pocket and was scratching on it with the stub-end of a pencil remarks angry or meditative; crossly, how a gardener had removed the patina or the lichen from a stone moulding since last he was here, or reflectively, comparing the merits, where an effect of mystery was desired, of broad shaded ilex with thin-spired cypress, or of the different hues, textures and sounds of varying kinds and speeds of falling water, and the sense of coolness and peace thereby induced ….
The visitors might perhaps inquire – as often they did when they got back to the hotel ~ who the English gentleman might be, and who the nautical figure hovering so heavily in the background – and the answer would come, Sir George Reresby Sitwell and his servant, Henry Moat. For in those years my father was busy collecting material for the book he planned on gardens.
In 1900 he had suffered a bad nervous breakdown and had decided in consequence to give up politics. In the ensuing years he travelled much in Italy, and of his recovery there the book was the fruit. He had already written several works of an historical nature, or illustrative of the manners of some particular period, but had issued them from his own printing press. They had not been for sale. But this new volume was to be published by Murray’s and its aim was high, for I recollect his saying to me that he hoped it would rank in the future with Bacon’s essay, of Gardens.
On the Making of Gardens, as it is called, certainly stands as the most complete expression in my father’s writings of one facet of his personality, of one concentration of his interests – but there were hundreds of others. Though he worked so hard at all the innumerable matters on which he was engaged, the truth is that he found it difficult to finish anything. The garden at Renishaw remains – and is now likely to remain – uncompleted in its detail. And the family history, at which he had worked for two decades, was found after his death with still one chapter lacking.
Time seems to have been too short for him in his span of eighty-three years,. and only this one book is an idea of his conceived, attempted and completely achieved – whatever may be judged of the achievement – wholly realized down to the last comma and the final full stop. Moreover when setting himself to anything he spared no pain, either to himself or to others – it would often have been, in result, better if he had.
Thus, before beginning to write the book, he spent endless hours mastering the full intricacies of English grammar, under the tuition of Major Viburne, who appears as a fitful – in every sense – shadow in the pages of my autobiography, and who knew much less about syntactic matters than did his pupil. In brief, my father took too much trouble. In order to write a sentence on the psychology of garden-making he would read a hundred slightly obsolete technical volumes, nor would he always afford his imagination sufficient room for its full sweep, since he relied overmuch on notes. (One difference between the journalist and the writer resides in this, that the first makes jottings and directly transcribes from them, while the second allows – or should allow – the subject-matter of his book to grow organically, like a plant, in the mind and on the paper.) Thus, in illustration of what I mean, I once saw my father setting off from the door at Renishaw in a very old carriage, about eleven on a September night. As usually he went to bed at ten, I was surprised, and inquired what he was doing. ‘Just driving down to Eckington Church to observe the effect of moonlight on the tower,’ he replied with a flutter of his hand, as if conferring a favour upon the edifice; ‘I want it for my chapter “Eckington Church in the Thirteenth Century” in Tales of My Native Village.’
Howbeit, never was any book more pondered upon at every stage than were his garden essays. For hours the author would lie on his bed wrestling with each current problem, and if Henry’s footstep was heard in the passage, or a hotel housemaid dared to wipe and rattle surreptitiously the door handle – a favourite trick when a writer is at work – he would dart out of bed, clearing his mosquito net as if by magic, open the door with a snap and look out blandly, while making at the same time a humming noise which held in it – if you listened carefully – an icy cold but terrible menace. (Strangers, however, were apt to mistake this sound for one engendered by happiness, and in consequence often received surprises.)
Unfortunately, then, as I have said, his energies were dissipated over a field too broad for their employment. But though he was adept at taking hold of the wrong end of a thousand sticks, yet when by chance he seized the right end his grasp of it was remarkable, because of the intellectual power and application, as well as the learning, which he brought to his task. And in the book I have mentioned, On the Making of Gardens, we have a complete work containing a great deal of thought and couched in phrases often of stilted beauty, and even if the whole volume from its opening ‘Time is a wayward traveller’ down to the closing sentence which begins ‘Flying shafts of silvery splendour .. .’ carries for us the haunting and mocking echo of Sir Austin Feverel’s The Pilgrim’s Scrip, even if fountains are throughout inclined to ‘plash’, and the ‘goatherd’ to figure overmuch in a landscape not untouched by Alma- Tadema, still, it is none the worse for that, being a genuine period piece, instilled with considerable imagination, influenced by the philosophies current ten years earlier, and with, not far behind each page, those crepuscular sensations made fashionable by Maeterlinck, together with a reverberation of the august, if far-fetched, rotundities of Walter Pater. Moreover – and this is where he took the right end of the stick¸ the principles he enunciated (so my gardening friends, whose judgment I trust, have told me) are invaluable in the practical design of gardens, in the counterpoint of light and shade, and the correct employment of water as a device for variation.
In short, he knew what he was talking about, having observed, noted and practised. His knowledge of gardens – Italian in particular – was unrivalled (several later writers have had recourse to the lists obtained from him), but not, I hasten to add, of flowers, about which, paradoxically to English ideas of the present day, no man knew or cared less, for he had early imbibed the Mediterranean conception, imposed by brightness of climate, that a garden is a place of rest and peace, and in no way intended for a display of blossoms (for that, you had ‘a flower garden’ away from the house, and hidden). Such flowers as might be permitted, had, like all else in good taste, to be unobtrusive, not to call attention to themselves by hue or scent, but to form vague pointillist clouds of misty colour that could never detract from the view, and to infuse into the air a general sweetness never to be identified. The pastel-shade sweet peas and stocks of the nineteen-hundreds, love-in-the-mist, a few washed-out roses, and a kind of reed with a blue flower – these passed muster; but even they were sacrifices to my mother’s insistent though contrary demands for scent and colour. ‘Horticulturists’ blossoms’ were what he most detested, and, to make a personal confession, I remember that as a schoolboy on holiday, when my father had been particularly disagreeable, I used always to go into the garden to tend a rhododendron that carried a purple blossom of a peculiarly obtrusive and fiery appearance which he could see from his study window, and which greatly offended his eye, although for some reason or other he never eradicated the shrub in question. This I did because I had been told by someone that if you removed the dead racemes from a branch it would flower again, only more flagrantly, the following spring.
To return to his book on gardens, I remember well the initial stages of its first publication, for I had never before seen galley proofs, and my father gave them to me – I was sixteen – to read, with his corrections marked on them (I little knew, then, how such flat paper serpents were to entangle and devour my life, as if I were Laocoon). And I used to take them into a corner of the small apartment which we had rented that year in Florence, to revel in the sense of importance which this new acquaintance with the technical ways of the literary world conferred upon me …. Not only were these the first corrected proofs I had seen, they were, alas, also the first I ever lost! … Eventually, after a week of utter ignominy and disgrace, they were found in a cupboard in my room where, of course, I had placed them for safe keeping. Later in the year – for publishing was then a quicker business altogether – my father’s great moment arrived, and the book came out – I think in August 1909. But, it is sad to recall, little more happened. One or two appreciative essays such as were written in those more leisurely days appeared in the weekly papers. He, and I, waited . . . but the rest was silence. Naturally he was disappointed, and blame was distributed impartially, some of it no doubt coming to me, but a good deal being placed to my mother’s account.
I remember, too, his remarking of the top cover of his book, which was concealed under an azure dust-jacket, but displayed in bright colours the hardest and most stilted of garden vistas, that ‘Murray’s have managed to contradict by the design on the outside of the book every rule I have formulated inside it.’ . . . However, he was pleased with the printing, if not with the reception. And I think that the actual moment of the appearance of the book was most pleasant for him. He had been ill, as the reader knows, and the process of study in gardens had healed him. The publishing of his work had constituted, moreover, a declaration of independence and an affirmation of faith. It must have brought back to him lovely sunny days spent in his own company, which he always greatly enjoyed, with Henry and the luncheon-basket discreetly within call. Sometimes he took me with him, and on these occasions he was at his most amiable. There were, as well, adventures, such as that of which I heard subsequently from Henry, though I was not myself present. My father was meditating, just before the hour when the garden was to be closed, at the very bottom of the terraced slopes of the Villa d’Este, between the giant cypresses. He was deep in thought when four ancient custodi advanced on him from the four different quarters of the compass. Immediately concluding that the old men were brigands (for he always lived at least a hundred years before his time), he, as Henry put it, ‘fair biffed ’em with his umbrella. You could hear ’em squawk half a mile away. But Sir George was as cool as a cucumber and called me, saying: “Henry, the weather has changed. I had better put on my coat.”’ … From such escapades he, alone of living men, seemed qualified always to emerge victorious and scot-free. It was enough in those days for Henry to explain that his master was an English signore.
The effect, however, on my father of the lack of success of his book was considerable. He had, he told me, hoped to earn by it, now that his world was threatened by Lloyd George’s Budget, something to leave to my brother Sacheverell. This hope was disappointed. And then there was another side to it. Many of my mother’s friends, violently opposed to books in general, now regarded him as a traitor who had placed himself on the wrong side of the fence. Only the Bevy, which I have described elsewhere, sent up at his approach somewhat mildewed hosannahs of faint artistic praise. Meanwhile he set himself to problems that were more immediate and practical than the theories of garden design. He arranged to send me to an army-crammer’s, from which I was seldom allowed to escape – and when I did make a sortie and go home was rarely greeted with rapture. Then he had long been at work on an invention – a stick which would discharge vitriol at mad dogs and thus dispose of them. (There had been an epidemic of hydrophobia in England some twenty years before, but he had never as yet completed or patented his idea.) To this matter he now gave his mind. In addition, he made more miscellaneous notes: Rotherham under Cromwell, Sheffield in the Wars of the Roses, Court Formalities at Constantinople, Marriage Chests of the Middle Ages, How to Preserve Fruit, The Correct Use of Seaweed as an Article of Diet, Sacheverell Pedigrees, My Views on Democracy; each of these, and of a thousand other subjects, had a box devoted to it. These boxes were specially made for him, to contain half-pages of foolscap, and were fashioned of a material the colour of an aubergine, and in texture like a skin with goose-flesh …. Indeed in everything connected with writing he had his own ways. His pens were of a fine, scratchy variety, composed of three long nibs and holders, each made entirely of one piece of metal. Three of these fitted together made a small metal rod which he could carry in his pocket without danger, but they were so thin as to render his handwriting even lighter and more spidery than it would have been in any case. For the rest, if he could not write about gardens with success, at least he could make them in the world of actuality. He abolished small hills, created lakes, and particularly liked now to alter the levels at which full-grown trees were standing. Two old yew trees in front of the dining-room windows at Renishaw were regularly heightened and lowered; a process which I then believed could have been shown to chart, like a thermometer, the temperature of his mood, and to which he always referred as ‘pulling and dragging’. (‘That oak tree needs to be pulled and dragged!’) From the wooden towers constructed for the purpose in the lake and on the hill he would measure and survey. His head throbbed with ideas, the majority of them never to be put into practice. Glass fountains, aqueducts in rubble, gigantic figures, cascades through the woods, stone boats and dragons in the water of lake and pool, blue-stencilled white cows ‘to give distinction to the landscape’, many of these schemes, alas, remained where they were born. But they were a fine exercise for him, and a diversion. And it must be remembered that he would be occupied, too, every day in instructing all those about him – in whatever was their speciality, while at the same time he was, besides, ferociously engaged in combat over his own affairs; for, as he rather piteously remarked to me, ‘One has to think of oneself a little.’
MY FATHER HAD A TALENT FOR PROVIDING UNUSUAL holidays: though a great part of the fun to be derived from them consisted in the elaborate preparations that had to be made beforehand.
It must have been in May or June of the early twenties that my father, who had returned to England after a stay of some months in Italy, wrote to my brother and myself, asking us to meet him at Renishaw. He wished us, he explained, to accompany him on a tour of the tombs of his Sacheverell ancestors in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire; that is to say in the churches of Morley, Barton and Ratcliffe-on-Soar. He had long planned such a pilgrimage in the company of his two sons – a ceremony comparable to the initiation rites that mark the beginning of adult life in savage tribes – but then the first German war had come and had cut across the traditional texture of life and prevented him from carrying out all his schemes. Now that he could at last put this project into execution, a strange wind blew from Russia, a new and ice-cold wind, so that the journey seemed remarkable and demoded instead of customary, because roots were mocked at and ancestors were at a discount.
The arrangements he made for this journey were truly tremendous, even though no incident worthy of them occurred during the four long days in which they culminated …. When we arrived (yes, it must have been in the month of May, for I recall the expanse of bluebells flowering in every glade and Coppice) we found that he was in process of mobilizing the machinery and assembling the backcloths for the unconscious comedy – a comedy big enough to reach over chasms of tragedy – that he could always be relied upon to provide; he had hired a rusty, bumpy motor-car, large and antiquated, he had brought his air-cushion to support him during what he chose to consider the long and tiring expedition before him, while the agile and forthright Robins, who had passed into his service from mine, was darting crab-like through the house executing, so far as was possible in an imperfect world my father’s instructions …. My father had resolved to spend the first night thirty miles away at Derby (one could only be astonished that he had not proposed an extra night at Chesterfield, some seven miles from Renishaw). Robins had to pack an array of medicine bottles, the labels on which had all been interchanged, for my father believed that it was the aim of every hotel servant to swallow ‘a dessertspoonful, as prescribed.’ from any bottle that might seem appropriate to the complaint from which they were suffering. If any of them attempted this trick with him now they would get something they had not bargained for – but then my father was frequently his own victim and suffered similarly: for though he maintained that he could identify the contents of each bottle by the look of it, his memory had been known to play him false …. There were also to be packed quantities of sunset-coloured Thermogene wool against lumbago, whole sets of the very elaborate system of clothing which he had gradually evolved for himself, mounds of books, most of them in the dingy livery of the London Library, a mosquito-net from the misty shelter of which he could emerge to quell possible trouble from the insect world, many notebooks, the special pens which I have described elsewhere, and last but not least several luncheon baskets containing cold hard-boiled eggs and roast chickens, iron rations in case we found the towns without provisions. In fact, the preparations more resembled those that would be made to withstand a siege than those intended for a peaceable expedition.
We started in the early afternoon, and from time to time my father would command the driver to stop, in order that he could ‘rest his back’. This he did by rocking and rolling backwards and forwards on the seat, so that his companions felt themselves to be crossing the Channel on a rough day. On our way, about three miles before we reached Derby, we passed a signpost with a pointer saying: ‘Morley -1/2 mile’, but to go there today would, he alleged, be too tiring. So we rattled on to Derby, where we arrived in time for dinner and, in order to be ready for an early start the next morning, went soon to bed …. But first my father’s bed had to be arranged as he liked it by Robins, and several boxes unpacked. (Looking at them, he remarked to me: ‘Next time we do this sort of thing I must really bring enough luggage to make myself comfortable.’) Then the curtains had to be tightly drawn, but proved intractable owing to some technical and no doubt permanent difficulty with the curtain rings. An hotel porter had to be summoned. He had just come on duty and was very tipsy, so that the act which he put on with a ladder took an immense time to effect and was as full of danger to himself as to others. Indeed, it was sufficiently farcical to rank in the Bloomsbury pejorative phrase of the time as being ‘rather music-hall’.
The three days that followed were a series of triumphant anticlimaxes. It rained all the time …. At one place we visited the house had just been pulled down and there only remained a square red-brick pigeon-cote, like a truncated tower, which still bore the arms of the Sacheverells – a building, no doubt, with an economic purpose: for my father told me as we drove up how in the Middle Ages the lord of the manor could with absolute impunity train his birds to raid the fields of independent farmers no less than those of the villains, so that the pigeons grew plump for his table in the monotonous and remorseless winters of Plantagenet and Tudor times …. Then, again, when we reached what should have been the culmination of our pilgrimage, the church of Ratcliffe-on-Soar, we found the floor of the sacred edifice under water to the height of half a foot. It was impossible to examine the series of tombs closely without wading, but from the door they looked, it must be admitted, impressive and beautiful. Four or five great rectangular masses, fashioned of Nottinghamshire alabaster and Derbyshire marble, bearing on them the recumbent effigies of knights and their ladies, seemed to float on a flat mirror of water …. My father refused to be depressed, and merely called to Robins, who was in attendance outside:
‘Robins, another time remember to put in my gum-boots!’
At last those four days ended, but they certainly ranked as an unusual holiday. Still more out of the ordinary, however, was a vacation my father had later, with my aid, planned for himself – though in the end it had to be abandoned, owing, as will be seen, to a leakage of information. But first of all let me recount the singular incident that was responsible for reviving the memory of it.
One year during the thirties I sold our house at Scarborough – Wood End – to the municipality. During the 1939-45 war it suffered damage of various kinds, from the hands of a destructive indigenous generation no less than from enemy bombs. The plain structure in golden stone had stood there for several years with windows void of glass and ceilings fallen: especially the enormous conservatory in the middle of the house looked derelict, an airy ruin of twisted iron frames. To build it up once more must have seemed a difficult and expensive proposition, and consequently some time passed before the corporation determined to redecorate the house and to bring it back as much as possible to its former style and condition, planning to devote part of the space to a Sitwell Museum and part of it to giving shelter to a collection of stuffed animals – a bequest to the town by the same Colonel Harrison who first brought the pygmies to England from Equatorial Africa.
Five or six years after the end of the war my sister and I drove over to Scarborough to inspect the house, the restoration of which was nearing completion …. It was late in August, and we arrived in sunshine, particularly hot and luminous, but scarcely had our feet touched the pavement in front of our hotel before the wettest imaginable blanket of sea-reek enveloped us and prevented us from even seeing across the road to the town hall where the mayor gave us luncheon. After the meal was over we were conducted directly to the Sitwell Museum. The fog had cleared, but as soon as we entered our former home, a brick, inoffensive enough to look at, shot out of the wall at me, hitting the back of my neck and bouncing off it on to the shoulder of the borough librarian. There were only one or two workmen about at the time and they faced the phenomenon with true British phlegm, but my companions were visibly astonished and shaken. No explanation of this incident was ever forthcoming: but subsequently, when I allowed my mind to run on it, I wondered which, if it were really a manifestation, of many provocative incidents had been responsible for such sharp retaliation from the spirit world …. After this manner, then, the memory of an episode that had taken place at Renishaw returned to me.
It had happened during one of the peerless summers of the early twenties, when the sun seemed always to shine, and the scent of box and tobacco plant lay heavy on the air which carried the melancholy of a long vanished prosperity. . . . Parents and children were having luncheon together. It was an ordinary enough everyday British scene – except in one respect: that the younger members of the family – my brother, my sister and myself – were wearing beards, designed by my sister, and made out of the hideous, lightly tasselled fringe of an orange-coloured rug; they fastened over the ears with two loops of tape, and had small bells attached to them, which, with the movement of the jaws when eating, gave out a melodious alpine tinkle. These artificial and extraneous adjuncts we had adopted as an outward sign of compliance and out of respect for my father’s wishes; because one day, not long before, he had remarked, in a self-congratulatory tone while stroking his red beard: ‘It’s a pity that you three children haven’t got a little of this sort of thing.’ We could never, notwithstanding, be certain – since he was as curiously unobservant in some matters as observant in others – whether he had noticed the new fashion we had launched on the world that day. Howbeit, during the course of the meal he had suddenly informed us that there were to be no guests this year, though he knew we were expecting several friends the next day, that it was too late to put them off. My mother, always surrounded by people, but never by so many as she would have liked, looked at him severely with her mournful brown eyes and said, as she had said many times before:
‘George, you want me to lead a hermit’s life.’
The announcement he had made must have been a disciplinary measure, for we had begun to understand that he liked to entertain at Renishaw – other people’s friends, of course, for he had none of his own.
We no longer paid attention to his home-made and favourite maxim: ‘Such a mistake to have friends: they waste one’s time’, because on the evening of the same day he might give vent to an opposite opinion, as when at Montegufoni, pointing to the fragments of a terracotta pot bearing the Acciaiuoli arms on it, he remarked: ‘I really must have copies made of that pot, it need not be expensive. I could have them made at Impruneta, or better still Montelupo – it’s nearer here, and I could constantly run over there, and give them my advice. As to the cost, I could take six dozen myself for the lemon trees on the middle terrace, and get several friends to join with me and order an equal number. It always works out cheaper if you order a great many. That’s the advantage of having friends!’
As always a stickler for facts, I cautiously inquired: ‘Which friends are you thinking of?’
I received, snapped back at me, the daunting reply:
‘Don’t ask unnecessary questions. They’d all be only too pleased to be given the chance.’
In short, as he grew older, he became more sociable. When there were guests in the house or when my mother was giving a luncheon-party in London, he no longer had luncheon by himself at twelve noon because he found the company tedious; and now, on one occasion, when I complained that one of the guests had told me the same anecdote three times running, he declared:
‘I like it: he keeps the ball rolling.’
My father was due, just after seven the next evening, to catch a train to London, there to spend the rest of the week, and one singular consequence of the edict he had thus abruptly promulgated was that from the morning of the following day until he left, the Wilderness – a wood that closed in the garden to the east – became full of figures hidden there as soon as they arrived; friends who had been invited to stay but now found themselves, in order to avoid discovery, obliged to inhabit this bosky thebaid. We had arranged for food to be brought to them at midday, and immediately after my father had departed these involuntary hermits, who remained singularly amiable considering the way in which we had been obliged to treat them, were liberated and dragged in triumph from their leafy refuge to dine with us. We felt compelled, nevertheless, to ask them to leave before my father returned.
During the unfolding of the summer he had become the most wretched victim of his own austere decree. Without guests to amuse him he was in reality immensely bored, though he continually denied this, because boredom (no one had even known the word in the Middle Ages) ranked in his mind as one of the greatest of sins. Although he would not rescind his edict, he felt that something had to be done to combat his ennui, so one morning he sent for me and announced that he felt he needed rest and recreation and to get away for a little (from what, he did not specify); in brief, he must have a holiday, but if possible in some rather remote place, but where there would be plenty of other residents to whom he could talk and who could talk with him in return. He would prefer a house with a fine garden which offered as well a distant view and his bedroom must look over flowerbeds. It should be situated in a park with a lake in it – which was to him as running water, h. and c., to those of a more modern and practical outlook. Now as it happened I had only that very morning read in one of the daily papers an advertisement of what was obviously a privately run home for the demented, and was described as ‘set in peaceful surroundings with a park and a lake’. Accordingly I told my father about this establishment but did not disclose to him its true nature.
‘It sounds just what I need: he said.
‘Well, all I can tell you is that most people, once they’ve got there, never leave …. They like it so much that they’ve even invented a pet name for it – “the Bin”.’
This appeared to satisfy him, though he added: ‘I should like my fellow guests to have hobbies which they could discuss with me, and to be people, too, of some importance.’
‘I believe that one of them claims to be a steam-roller, which I suppose in a way could be important: I replied in imaginative frenzy before I could stop myself, ‘and another resident maintains that he is the Emperor of China.’
Fortunately my father never listened very carefully to what was said to him and caught nothing before the last part of the sentence. Indeed, he seemed gratified, and remarked in answer that revolutions usually did a great deal of harm. My brother and my sister also spoke to him of the place with enthusiasm. Indeed we succeeded in painting for him so attractive a picture of this peaceful retreat that he told his secretary to write immediately for pension terms. When the answer came, he said to me: ‘Though expensive, it is not exorbitant,’ and at once instructed his secretary to engage a room on his behalf for the whole of the month of September. Unfortunately, in their reply, the asylum authorities added to the letter a postscript:
‘Ought a strait-waistcoat to be sent for Sir George to wear during the journey, which will be made by van? Three strong and practised male nurses will, of course, be in attendance, and prepared to quell any disturbance on the way.’
This, though it abruptly terminated our design, was by no means the last we were to hear of it. I was packed off to our house at Scarborough, which my father was at that time using as a kind of private Siberia …. I was sorry to leave Renishaw in its full August glory, the trees showing as yet no trace of the yellow fingers of the sun, the scent of lilies and stocks lying long on the heavy air, though an occasional gust of wind stirred the tree-tops of the avenue, and left the butterflies clinging precariously to their flowers. Nevertheless, I reflected as I walked to the station, the project had been worth while for its own sake, and my father had nearly enjoyed a long and for once really unusual holiday.
A Rap over the Knuckles
READERS OF MY AUTOBIOGRAPHY MAY RECALL THAT upon one occasion, when I was occupying the next bedroom to my father’s at Renishaw, I woke up in the small hours to hear his voice declaring in a very sinister manner: ‘They May Think I Shall- But I Shan’t!’ This pronouncement was followed by a prolonged chuckle. Now whether these words were spoken in his sleep or when awake I shall never know, but certainly they describe and define very precisely an attitude he often struck in his conscious hours. Indeed, ‘They May Think I Shall – But I Shan’t’ ranked with him as a game, and one which, I believe, he was proud to have invented. First, you led your opponent on by niggling and worrying him over what course of action to pursue in a particular quandary and then, just as, after a fever of fussing, you had induced him to think that you had settled on a specific line of action, you switched off that plan and on to another, which would then have to be argued all over again from the beginning.
My mind reverts especially to one instance of his using this very personal technique. It occurred some time during the few enchanted years just before the First World War, when summer appeared as if it would last for ever and each hour showed its own special glow and lustre: when Clio, the Muse of History, had apparently settled down to a placid middle age, and the only events she produced would turn out to be menus of pleasure. Such disputes as existed were the result of particular political problems such as Home Rule for Ireland, Lloyd George’s Budget – always afterwards referred to as The Budget, as though no other had ever been brought in – and that child of The Budget, the Veto Bill; a Bill intended to curb still further the powers of the House of Lords. This, apparently, could only be effected by Mr Asquith, the Prime Minister, advising the king to create at once a large number of Liberal peers – a large enough number to pass the measure – but they, alas, always showed a most retrogressive tendency to adopt the Conservative creed, however much they had denounced it previously, the moment they entered the august precincts.
Many people were much concerned about these matters, my father among them. He had at last recovered from a long illness and was full of energy again. As usual he constituted himself, as it were, a self-elected one-man government. Continually he wrestled in his mind with this problem; what, in particular, could be done to defeat the machinations of the Liberal politicians? although himself had recently, and publicly, adopted the Liberal faith! At last his ingenious mind found a way out. Accordingly he wrote to the Conservative chief, Mr Balfour, and in spite of personally holding the poorest opinion of him, whom he regarded as little more than a half-baked philosopher, an amateur aesthete unduly fond of music, with none of the qualities of a leader, and as a man who had founded his position on the support of numerous influential relations and of a particular set in the social world – my father, in short, wrote to Mr Balfour to tell him that he had thought out a plan by which Mr Asquith’s threatened action could be averted, and wondered whether the statesman would care to know about it. After a day or two an answer arrived stating that Mr Balfour would indeed be very interested, and asking my father if he would write to him and communicate it. My father then just wrote back, no, he would not; a prime instance of ‘They May Think I Shall – But I Shan’t’ … Probably Mr Balfour in his vagueness hardly registered the rap inflicted, for truly he was very absent-minded. (Did he not during a luncheon given at Claridge’s by a transatlantic hostess pass to me under the table a note which ran: ‘Can you tell me the name of our hostess and where she is sitting?’; a classic instance …. )
Another of my father’s favourite phrases was: ‘He needs a rap over the knuckles,’ such as the one administered below. He had a habit of discussing the high political questions of the day with his secretary and asking for his opinion on them. One day his secretary said to him at last: ‘How can I advise you about such matters, Sir George, when you know far more about them than I do?’ and my father replied: ‘It isn’t your advice I want. I need to hear somebody else’s view, it doesn’t matter whose, so that by a process of contrast and comparison I can more clearly formulate my own opinion.’
If my father’s principal motto was ‘They May Think I Shall – But I Shan’t!’ my mother’s, obversely, and though she would never declare it in words, was ‘They May Think I Shan’t – But I Shall!’ … There comes to my mind a particular instance of what I am trying to indicate …. One cold winter my father decided to move from the country into an hotel in Florence: it would be warmer and he could economize: my mother would not be able to entertain so lavishly nor to give such large parties as at Montegufoni. After a week or so at the hotel my father suffered one of his recurrent attacks of imaginary illness and resolved to move again; this time into the Nursing Home of the Blue Nuns for a month.
When he mentioned this decision to my mother he was rather surprised to find her in such a co-operative mood, for usually she would insinuate that his illnesses were hypothetical: but on this occasion she told him that she thought he was quite right to take his indisposition seriously, and so, after having given a valedictory exhortation to the strictest economy in his absence, he was wafted off in the Ark the same evening for a month’s rest on the sunny heights of Fiesole …. There Henry would bring him up the English papers every afternoon – but one day they were late. In consequence one of the nurses, feeling sorry for my father, confined as he was to the reading matter he had brought with him – A Flutter Through Manorial Dovecotes in the Sixteenth Century, Over the Border, an Account of Flodden Field, Wool-gathering in Nottinghamshire in the Dark Ages, Rotherham before the Norman Conquest, Medieval Fools, a Study of Court Jesters during the Wars of the Roses and The Stone Age on the Yorkshire Moors – took pity on him and brought him a weekly paper, printed in French and published in Florence in the cause of tourism. It was devoted in the main to most favourable accounts of local social events and to fascinating lists of the guests staying in the various hotels – a paper which he had not seen before and probably would never have set eyes on at all if Henry had not failed him on this single occasion. My father opened it at random, and the first paragraph that caught his eye was headed: ‘Lady Ida Sitwell gives a fete at the Hotel Ali Baba et Macheath.’ The account of it said that Lady Ida Sitwell had offered a dinner to forty people in honour of the visit of her sister Lady Mildred Cooke. (It did not say, however, how shy Lady Mildred was, nor how much she must have hated it.) Then came the menu of the dinner, the names and order of the wines and liqueurs, and an account of the table, decorated with pink roses that had been specially flown from the Riviera. It was fortunate that my father was already in a nursing home, for certainly this information would have sent him to one, in order to recover from the shock of the announcement of my mother’s determined stand for economy during his absence …. The feast occupied his mind for weeks. In the list of convives, as the paper called them, occurred the names of all the best-known piqueassiette in Florence, and I remember his telling me that when the bill came in and he queried the amounts charged for liqueurs, he was informed that some of the guests had ordered full bottles of brandy and Cointreau and other imported liqueurs to take home with them. . . . Henry Moat was the person who suffered most: for not having told my father about it. He ought to have known, my father said. It was disgraceful of him.
‘But I heard nothing about it, Sir George.’
‘Well then, you ought to have found out.’
‘But how could I, Sir George?’
‘Don’t argue, it stimulates the brain cells and prevents me from sleeping.’