Sam Leith

Short on names, tall on tales

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The Big House

Christopher Simon Sykes

HarperCollins, pp. 420, £

Two or three years ago, I was invited with my rather posh then girlfriend to a grand party up in Yorkshire somewhere, and we were billeted for the night with a fellow guest who lived nearby. Our host was one Sir Tatton Sykes, Bt — known around those parts, as ‘Sir Satin Tights’ — an immensely dapper and personable toff, who showed not a flicker of dismay at our dishevelled clothes and overnight luggage scrunched up into old Woolworths bags.

His ancestral pile was really something, too. It seemed to be filled with four-poster beds, cooked breakfasts, servants, eccentrically decorated private chapels and enormous cast-iron Victorian bathtubs with gurgling pipes and weird metal columns instead of plugs. That house was Sledmere, and this book, by nice Sir Satin’s younger brother Christopher, is its history. Around family histories there is often a whiff of the vanity project, and having no special interest in country houses or the aristocracy, I was bracing myself for something badly written, dull and snobbish. I was quite wrong.

The Big House is a complete cracker. Pretty much everything you could want from an aristocratic family history is here: gout, horse-racing, adultery, love-children, lun- atics, military derring-do, ruinous bets, drunken butlers, oriental explorations, pathological meanness, public-school human rights violations, the odd dope-fiend, and an admiration of pigs worthy of Lord Emsworth himself.

Sledmere was built midway through the 18th century by the author’s great-great-great-great-great-grandfather — a prosperous Hull merchant named Richard Sykes — on the site of an old Tudor grange on an unpromising bit of land in the Yorkshire wolds. It became, as each inheritor followed his own bent, a lovely area of landscaped parkland, a repository of objets d’art, a stud farm, and the home of a library containing a Gutenberg Bible. The history of the Sykes clan, as they migrated from trade to gentry, moved in and out, too, of the wider history of the country.

None of the Sykeses, in this account, seems to have been drab. Some were local legends (like the indefatigable horseman and sheep-drover, old Sir Tatton); some featured in national scandals (like the next Sir Tatton, who ended up in a terrible courtroom showdown with his gambling-addicted, alcoholic wife); a good few served in parliament. Sledmere’s inhabitants — inconveniently for the author, though he handles it ably — passed the same three or four names back and forth. There have been three Sir Tattons, for example, and though the present one seemed to me nice and mostly sane, the previous two were both stinkers, and mad to boot.

Almost everyone stands out in some way. There’s a previous Christopher ‘Sykey’ Sykes, who fell in with dissolute Prince Bertie and was the butt, for years, of an extraordinarily cruel series of practical jokes. He was variously drenched in brandy, tipped into icy bathtubs, and locked out of a fancy- dress party in a full suit of plate armour — and was virtually bankrupted for the privilege. Or there’s Venetia Cavendish-Bentinck, married to a millionaire and yet so tight-fisted she bought bacon on a sale-or-return basis, recycled left-over milk from the cat’s dish for her guests, and tried to entertain Catholics on Fridays because fish was cheaper than meat.

The figure who busts out is the author’s grandfather, Sir Mark Sykes — already the subject of a biography of his own — who distinguished himself internationally as an orientalist, MP, soldier and writer. He had a perfectly miserable childhood — its highlight being when his father, in a rage, hanged his beloved pet terriers from a tree and left them dangling dead for him to find — yet grew up to be energetic, humorous, honourable and kind. He married a woman he remained devoted to, delighted and enlightened his children, and worked himself so hard he died just short of his 40th birthday, while helping negotiate the peace after the first world war. The uncovering of his dark secret forms this book’s poignant and fascinating epilogue.

Like many old houses, the richness of Sledmere comes from the fact that little was thrown away. Its history has accreted alluvially, in boxes and trunks and drawers and attics. The author’s childhood was spent in a house stuffed with bric-à-brac:

I particularly loved the large partner’s desk in the middle of the Library, whose multitude of drawers revealed, when opened, all kinds of curiosities: old coins, medals, bills, pieces of chandelier, seals, bits of broken china, etchings, ancient letters and the charred foot of an early Sykes martyr.

That charred foot, given no further explanation, shows a fine eye for comic detail.

In fact, it is one of the great virtues of this book’s style that Sykes allows that bric-à-brac to speak. You might not expect that it’s important to know how many bags of nails and hinges were ordered, or at what cost, to do up Sledmere’s doors, or to hear the details of one ancestor or another’s vexed exchanges with the stonemason, or to learn what was for lunch. But, actually, it is important. You need to know that there was a valet called Wrigglesworth and a decorator called Mr Perfect, and how the special goose pie for Christmas is made. The detail illuminates and enlivens rather than being nerdy — Sykes is neither an architecture nor a garden bore, but a good-natured generalist.

One of the most illuminating of his lists — if only because it reminds you how incredibly horrible it must have been living in the 18th century — is that of the ailments Sledmere’s builder, kindly old Richard Sykes, suffered from. In addition to excruciating gout he had

the ‘Scorbutick Disorder’, endless colds (‘coughed much and my lungs wheezing like a Broken Winded Horse …’), toothache (‘I have had a very great pain in my Teeth Gums and Roof of my mouth much Swelled as well on the right side of my face’,) piles (‘my piles are yet very troublesome but not so much Heat or Inflamation about the Fundament’), and very unpleasant rashes (‘my Wife tells me my back and shoulders are full of red and blue spots with an itching and my armpits full of scurf’).

Among the cures:

Physick, the Electuary, Asthmatic Elixir, Virgin Wax Sallet Oils, Camomile Tea, Saline Julep, the Spring Potage, Sassafras, Mr Bolton’s Ointment, Rhubarb Tea, Apozem and Basilicon.

His descendants had other health regimes. One woke unvaryingly at five, walked four miles up and down the library, had milk, fruit tart and mutton fat for breakfast and never ate bread. Another wore up to eight coats at once, and considered the constant eating of cold rice pudding to be the key to eternal life. When Sledmere caught fire in 1911, he was very hard to persuade to leave. ‘I must eat my pudding,’ he told his rescuers, ‘I must eat my pudding.’ He later conceived the notion he would die at 11.30 am.

Oddly enough, Laurence Sterne once unsuccessfully applied for a job as Richard Sykes’s chaplain. There’s a Sternean quality to some of the stories here, not least the obsessive building of fortifications in the garden with which the young Sir Mark Sykes amused himself. The eccentricities, too, have a whiff of Tristram Shandy. One Sir Tatton couldn’t abide parsons; another hated flowers (he forbade the villagers to grow them) and front doors (he forbade the villagers to use them).

There is the odd nit to pick: Sterne’s christian name is misspelled; Stoke Poges is, I think, regarded as the best candidate rather than a dead cert to have been the setting for Gray’s ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’; and Evelyn Waugh’s gadabouts were Bright Young ‘Things’ rather than ‘People’. Also, Sykes swa llows whole some stories about the feats of mad old Sir Tatton that surely can’t be true. Can you really ride a horse 400 miles in 61 hours?

But even as I write that, I think the worse of myself for doing so. This is a book of such warmth, brio and lightness of touch that niggling at its imperfections feels like going to Sledmere and wondering aloud why they don’t get rid of the old-fashioned furniture and go to Ikea.

Written bySam Leith

Sam Leith is an English author, journalist and literary editor of The Spectator.

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