Lewis Jones

Ignoble nobles

Badly behaved toffs have been a gift to writers since ancient times, and in English from Chaucer to Waugh.

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Splendour & Squalor

Marcus Scriven

Atlantic Books, pp. 397, £

Badly behaved toffs have been a gift to writers since ancient times, and in English from Chaucer to Waugh. A quotation from the latter’s Put Out More Flags, about some shady manoeuvres by Basil Seal, supplies the epigraph to a chapter of Marcus Scriven’s Splendour & Squalor: ‘From time to time he disappeared … and returned with tales to which no one attached much credence…’

The chapter in question concerns ‘Victor’ — Victor Hervey (1915-85), 6th Marquess of Bristol, whose defining traits, by Scriven’s account, were his ‘tendency to criminality’ and ‘taste for wounding the vulnerable’ — which sounds like Basil Seal, as does Selina Hastings’ recollection that he ‘was very keen on trolleys with booze on’. (It may be worth noting, by the way, that Waugh was not the only writer of his generation to take an interest in alcoholic sadists — Greene and Fleming spring to mind.)

Victor’s criminal debut was a disaster. In 1939 a director of Cartier was telephoned in Bond Street by a ‘Mr Hambro’, who said he was ‘engaged to a woman of position’ and asked for a selection of rings to be sent to the Hyde Park Hotel. When the director arrived he was badly beaten and robbed of rings worth £16,000 (£3,648,000 in today’s money — this book abounds in startling examples of inflation). In due course convicted of the crime, Victor was sentenced to three years’ penal servitude, which established his lasting association with what Scriven calls ‘the knuckle- duster classes’, and to a public flogging — 20 strokes of the cat-o’-nine tails.

His subsequent career entailed dodgy wheezes great and small. To unwary Americans he offered 4ft-square plots of his Ickworth estate, complete with illuminated scrolls, at £3 16s 8d a go. He advertised his tied cottages for sale in The Times, describing one tenant as ‘crippled, currently in hospital, and may not ever return home’. His obituaries said that he sold arms to both sides in the Spanish Civil War, though Scriven thinks he merely tried to, and in the 1960s he managed, to the fury of the Foreign Office, to buy job lots of surplus War Office tanks and flog them at vast profit to the Finns.

In 1979 he moved to Monte Carlo, for tax reasons and, he said, because Belgravia had become too dangerous: ‘It is no longer safe to walk the streets with one’s girlfriend or wife.’ A pillar of the Monarchist League and the Monday Club and an incorrigible fantasist (‘Being a Monarchist I stopped the plot to kidnap Haile Selasse’), he ended his days a mental and physical wreck and, as his son and heir put it, ‘a cantankerous old bastard’.

The son and heir was ‘John’ (1954-99), the 7th Marquess, who has a chapter of his own (though each of the four chapters is grandly styled a ‘Part’), and turned out even worse than his cruel and hated father: his, writes Scriven, was a ‘Gothic story of self-damnation’. At Harrow he was known for his father’s disgrace, for arrogance exceptional by Harrovian standards — he invariably addressed a boy in his year who came from a poor family as ‘You ghastly little man’ — and for his improbable hairstyle, which earned him the nickname ‘Poof Jermyn’.

The rest of his life was employed in wrecking his inheritance and health by spending about £20 million on drugs. He preferred boys to girls — Rupert Everett makes a cameo appearance, sulking in leathers and a diamond choker — and his marriage was not a happy one. Shortly before dawn on their wedding night his bride found him in the East Wing at Ickworth, freebasing cocaine with some friends. She told him she wanted to go to bed, and he told her to fuck off.

He loved fast cars, and used to take the drive at Ickworth at 100 mph in his Ferrari, scattering National Trust visitors with their children and dogs; he also liked to brandish his shotgun at visitors and call them ‘fucking peasants’, and to ram his friends’ cars with his own. He was especially fond of helicopters, and after a few bottles at dinner would hover over the quarters of the estate’s National Trust employee and scream abuse at him through a megaphone. Flying home from London once while smoking heroin, he mistook his house for a sugar beet factory in Bury St Edmonds and landed on its roof. As Terry-Thomas would say, he was an absolute shower.

The trouble with the 6th and 7th Marquesses, from a reader’s point of view, is that for all their crime and depravity they are fundamentally dull characters. Basil Seal had myriad faults, but he was clever, charming and funny, as English rogues should be, and as Victor and John were decidedly not. A badly behaved toff is one thing, a howling shit quite another. Neither of this unappetising pair of Bristols would merit a full biography, and even at this length one soon grows sick and tired of them; and so, one feels, does Scriven.

Nor do his other two subjects offer much in the way of entertainment and instruction. ‘Angus’ — Angus Montagu (1938-2002), 12th Duke of Manchester — aptly called himself ‘a very un-noble noble’. Squat and ugly, with appalling taste in clothes (drip-dry blazers and shoes with Velcro fastenings), he worshipped money and devoted his life to binges, strip clubs, limos and inept confidence tricks. The Old Bailey judge who tried him over some forged bonds in 1985 described him as ‘absurdly stupid’, an assessment vindicated by a letter he wrote from a state penitentiary in Virginia, where he served two years for fraud in the 1990s, in which he confessed, pathetically, ‘I am very very wary of every think.’

Besides Waugh, Scriven acknowledges the influence and example of the great Hugh Massingberd, who died on Christmas Day 2007 and who knew all there is to know about badly behaved toffs. Hugh approached the subject as he did everything else, in a blithe Wodehousian spirit which is largely absent from Splendour & Squalor. He was also a formidable scholar, and when he reviewed books, as he often did in these pages, he used to cram their margins with extravagantly punctuated commentaries — ‘ “Shome mishtake…”?!!’

I am afraid he would have been busy here. We are told that ‘Edward’ — Edward FitzGerald (1892-1976), 7th Duke of Leinster, popularly known as ‘the Bedsit Duke’ — kept snakes at Eton in his ‘ottoman’. A few pages later the story is repeated, with the snakes in an ‘Ottoman’. In July 1922 he won a bet of £3,000 by driving from London to Aberdeen in under 15 hours, in an open Rolls-Royce in the company of a wolfhound, and was condemned for recklessness in the House of Commons. ‘Summonsed for failing to produce his licence,’ writes Scriven, ‘he notched up two speeding fines the following week (when his licence was “eventually tracked down, it showed convictions dating back to 1914”).’

Massingberd would have deplored that illiterate ‘Summonsed’, that knackered parenthesis and that unattributed quotation; and he would also have pointed out that driving licences did not become compulsory until 1935.