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Golden youth or electric eel?

Patrick Shaw-Stewart was the cleverest and the most ambitious of the gilded gang of young men who swam in the wake of the not-so-young but perennially youthful Raymond Asquith.

2 June 2010

12:00 AM

2 June 2010

12:00 AM

Patrick Shaw-Stewart: An Edwardian Meteor Miles Jebb

Dovecote Press, pp.248, 17.99

Patrick Shaw-Stewart was the cleverest and the most ambitious of the gilded gang of young men who swam in the wake of the not-so-young but perennially youthful Raymond Asquith. Julian Gren- fell, Duff Cooper, Charles Lister, Edward Horner: they were as one in their conviction that the British were superior to other races, that public schoolboys were superior to other Britons, that Etonians were superior to other public schoolboys, and that their own precious clique was superior to other Etonians. Apart from that, the only obligatory common factor was that one should love, or at least profess to love, Lady Diana Manners. The corrupt coterie, as they proudly styled themselves, knew that they were the future. They had no future. One by one they were extinguished in the carnage of the first world war.

Were they gilded or, as they believed, true gold? Duff Cooper was the only survivor. His peers would not have judged him most likely to succeed, yet he achieved great eminence as writer, diplomat and politician. Shaw-Stewart was academically stronger, at least as ambitious and forceful, and far more prudent and calculating. At school and university he had won almost every prize and scholarship that was available. By 1914 he was already a rising star in the great merchant bank of Barings. Within another 15 years he would have made a great deal of money and probably have switched to politics. His abilities and connections made it almost inevitable that he would have prospered; he could easily have been in the Cabinet, and if the cards had fallen right he might even have been prime minister. Though not the most likeable of men, Shaw-Stewart at least was unequivocally gold.

Instead, he was killed, at the end of 1917. If he had survived, Miles Jebb would have devoted only a few chapters to these first 30 years. Can he be worth a full biography? Jebb shows that he was. Through Shaw-Stewart he provides a fascinating insight into the world of upper-class Britain: Saturday-to-Monday parties in grand houses, two or three great balls a night during the London season, a society that had already passed its sell-by date but flourished with sublime indifference to its irrelevance. And then, almost overnight, the insubstantial pageant faded. Shaw-Stewart, like almost all his friends, abandoned his comfortable and secure existence to fight for his country. Seventeen Etonians went up to Balliol in Shaw-Stewart’s year; nine of them perished. Shaw-Stewart went to the Dardanelles, became a close friend of Rupert Brooke, commanded the firing party that buried the poet on a rocky slope in Skyros. He could have seen the war out in the comparative safety of Macedonia but by persistent string-pulling in high places secured a transfer to the Western Front and duly died in action. It is somehow fitting that a man who had benefited so much from privilege during his brief life should have used that same privilege to secure his own death.

The story would be well worth telling in its own right, but it is incomparably enriched by its exposure of Shaw-Stewart’s complex and evasive personality. ‘0 out of 10 for sincerity’, Diana Manners awarded him. He was extravagantly snobbish. ‘I’ve yet to meet a duke I couldn’t like,’ he told Churchill’s secretary, Eddie Marsh; and though the remark was wrily self-deprecating he knew that it was true. Worse still, he was contemptuous of those who did not share what he saw as his own semi-divine status. Her home, he told his loving admirer and patron, Ettie Desborough, was ‘the quintessence of Balliol purged of that dreary background of disapproving grammar-school louts’. As for the men under his command: ‘I dislike them all pretty heartily (because they nearly all smell).’ Even allowing for the prejudices of the time, such remarks are hard to condone. Nor did his friends unequivocally admire him. ‘Animals always edged away from him,’ wrote Ettie’s son, Julian Grenfell, ‘and the more intelligent they were, the further they edged. I think there is something rather obscene about him, like the electric eel at the Zoo.’

And yet he was much loved and admired, courageous, charming, a loyal friend, pitiless in his assessment of his own weaknesses. Jebb exposes his hero’s frailties, yet at the same time makes it clear that Shaw-Stewart was as golden as any of his generation; a man who was not only born to succeed but deserved to do so. Whether as a biography or as a picture of an age, this book is as readable as it is convincing.

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