Heroes of Our Time

Karl Miller

  • The Monument by T. Behrens
    Cape, 258 pp, £11.95, May 1988, ISBN 0 224 02510 4
  • The Passion of John Aspinall by Brian Masters
    Cape, 360 pp, £12.95, May 1988, ISBN 0 224 02353 5

Suicide was thought damnable in the Middle ages, and I expect there are those who will be brought to feel by the first of these books that the Middle Ages had a point. The Monument commemorates a young couple who lived together for 17 years in a solitude à deux and who then took their own lives – incompetently and lingeringly. Representatives of the few people they had come to know in the course of their wanderings round the world were left to clear up. Suicide tends now to command sympathy, even when the reasons for it are hard to understand. Not everyone who reads the book will be able to sympathise with Justin and Ursula, or to believe that they understand them. But there will also be those who will stay with it for its relish of damnation.

This is one of the many books which address the snobbery of the English, which flash at their readers the lawns of their country houses, the baize of their gambling-tables, which describe the behaviour of those virtuosos of ostentation and disregard who have in common a contempt for commonness, for the middle class. It could be said of such books that their chief resource is the eccentricity which has long amounted to a convention of upper-class life. Literary careers can be founded on the impersonation and adulation of privileged behaviour: but the books which have been written and inspired by English snobs and sports are by no means all boastful or complicit. The supreme text of recent years is James Fox’s account of Lord Lucan and his set, with their boffes de politesse. There is a touch of Lucanian zombiness in The Monument, and the peer himself takes part in The Passion of John Aspinall.

Patrician insolence has quite often appeared to express a perception of the activities of the levelling Labour governments which have come and gone since 1945. But there’s more of that in the second of the books than there is in the first. T. Behrens’s story begins at a time when, as at other times in this century, the patriciate, and the merely rich, had slipped down into marked collusion with the smart, with upstarts and bohemians. They have been apt at such times to turn, for diversion and instruction, to foreigners and to members of the working class. These strangers were sexual, artistic. Theirs was the charm of not being bourgeois, and the foreigners among them could be, or could come across as, princes, pretenders to a throne, descendants of a khan. What survived, in the late Fifties, of the Chelsea set welcomed a refugee from Hungary, after the Soviet invasion of that country. This was Ursula of the long blonde hair, who had fled what survived of ancestral estates – on one view of the matter – and had made her courageous way across Europe, shot at and winged by border guards, to Vienna, and on to London, where she fell among art historians and was counselled by Anthony Blunt. Like the author of the book, who is a painter and who was then at the Slade, she discovered, he tells us, that ‘the people with the beautiful faces were also, mysteriously, the ones it was most fun to be with.’ The self-proclaimed ‘honesty’ of the wild, well-born stranger was doubted, but her fascination prevailed. She married an art dealer, Kenelm, understood to be seriously ill, and conducted daring affairs, one of them on the Métro with her friend Monique’s friend Gianni: ‘Gianni and Ursula leapt on just as the doors were closing, but Monique, who was now a few yards behind them and whose movements were hampered anyway by her arthritis, was left standing there as the train moved out. Ursula and Gianni got off at the next station but one, having brought their growing mutual admiration to a startling climax wedged solid among the rocking mass of sober commuters. After a quick tidy-up they took the next train back to the Gare de Lyon where Monique had had only twenty minutes to wait.’ Were the other passengers all sober? Startling the commuter is a game in which it is best to think so.

Chapter Five opens with the information: ‘Ursula and Kenelm had known my parents for some time, having been introduced originally by a mutual friend. Kenelm had then sold my father a pair of 18th-century cupboards.’ And so it was that Ursula met Justin, the writer’s moody adolescent brother, and ran away with him.

Away! They were off on their 17 years of Tristan and Isolde, and of Morecambe and Wise, for Justin, who could appear to have lost his old charisma, became the straight man of the duo, constantly mending things. They lived frugally but in style. They rented a flat in Rome and built a house in Greece. Here they are, unisex and colour-supplement-magnetic in an Italian ‘working-class’ restaurant: ‘Justin and Ursula, with their measured dignity and impeccable, interchangeable clothes – perhaps soft leather waistcoats over silk shirts and linen trousers in colours that rarely overstepped the narrow arc of the spectrum between cream and ochre – were immediately noticeable.’ They turned nomadic and mingled with the nomads of the Sudan, where they were to consider building a further house and perhaps settling down. They swam, they talked, they wrote their diaries and stories, and were at ease in a succession of remote and sticky places. Ursula’s bad back was religiously exposed to unmanageable African horses and jolting lorry rides. England’s wealthy and wonderful – their scams and scrapes, their portfolios, clubs, night-clubs, champagne and cocaine, the Cockney accents of their young ones, their gossip-columnists and their art historians, their zombies and their zoos and safaris – were avoided.

T. Behrens kept up with the fleeing lovers, at intervals. He visited them in Egypt, accompanied by a girl he’d met in a bar, who proved to be a devout lesbian. His own vicissitudes in love are a feature of the story he tells, as is his attempt to understand his disconcerting brother and to produce reflections on the meaning of it all. Ursula’s diary is reflective too, but is at its best in its evocations of place, of the nothingness of the desert. She can, against the odds, be funny: ‘Dinkas in the market have long, brass-bound pipes. One of these smokers wears a T-shirt with the words “ever ready”. He looks less ready than anyone I’ve ever seen.’ One of her sententious entries reads: ‘Tactlessness is often taken for sincerity, and sincerity is in turn often taken for a compliment. Let no one ever be sincere with me – it is a failure of respect, and respect is a thing one can never get enough of. And the only kind of respect worth having is the insincere kind.’ And another reads: ‘Where would we be without that much-maligned virtue, vanity?’ These upper-class pensées lighten the load of an odyssey whose ports of call, for all her evocations, are barely distinguishable from one another. Struggling with his maps, the writer is forced into sheer itinerary:

They drove directly south-west into Algeria through Guelma, Bou Saada, Ain Sefra, Colomb Béchar near the Moroccan frontier, Tindouf, into Mauritania through Chinguetta, and reached the Atlantic coast at Nouakshott. Then down the coast to St Louis in Senegal. At Dakar they cut sharply back into Mauritania through Kiffa, then south again to Kayes in Mali. On to Bamako, then eastward into Upper Volta through Bobo Djoulasso and Ouagadougou.

But this, too, is upper-class, this recital of exotic place-names – so often the spoor of the doughty, ascetic, astringent English traveller who has left his privileges behind.

As the years go by, Ursula’s body becomes a bore, and she experiences a fear of aging: ‘I shall have to die fairly young, because I won’t be able to live with the infirmities of old age.’ She is indeed ready to die, and it is a difficulty that Justin may feel that he has to do the same. In the Sudan she declares: ‘My time is up.’ She is infatuated with a handsome police chief, goes rather grimly to bed with him in the time he can spare from gambling sessions, and then kills herself. Justin goes back to England for a while, and then, having broken some hearts, arrives in the Sudan to perform his own suicide. They now lie together in a single lot in a local cemetery. The headstone is inscribed with the words: ‘Ursula and Justin – One’.

‘One’ was a word of the Chelsea set for the first person singular, and it is possible to imagine a pun in the words of the inscription. These two people had enacted what we have long been accustomed to think of as a romantic programme, whereby love and death converge, and dying young is the thing to do, whereby other people, and common life, are a thing to be escaped from, and a tension develops between the duty to a partner and a cultivation of the self, between the dictates of an amour fou and an amour de soi. T. Behrens is considerably baffled by this strange case, by the question of what it was that determined Ursula’s adherence to this programme, that caused her to bring to an end her loving friendship with Justin. Guesses are hazarded, and are quoted from interviews he has conducted. A hint of child abuse may seem to be imparted by his account of a Gothic moment which happened during a walk with her father, at nightfall, in a setting of peasants and forests. Ursula figures as ‘some sort of Hungarian countess’ whose parents were estranged and who was to be estranged from her ominous father. There she once sat in some sort of castle, or not, reading, for sure, the literature of Romanticism, and growing up to resemble – in the opinion of the writer’s aunt, the historian C.B.A. Behrens – a character out of Lermontov.

Lermontov, for his part, was a character out of Byron, and so was Pechorin, the ‘hero of our time’ in Lermontov’s novel of 1839, one of those people ‘who are fated to attract all kinds of unusual things’. Pechorin is a cold-hearted, stylish fatalist, experimentalist, existentialist and divided man, a traveller, gambler, heartbreaker and forgetter of ‘old friends’, who loves to ride ‘a spirited horse through the long grass against a desert wind’. Blond and beautiful in his leg-ribbons, his high-heeled shoes, ‘fitted with greatest possible exactitude’, his ‘long white tunic’ and ‘dark-brown Circassian coat’. Byron’s is not the only ghost to be detected here: the cold hearts of his precursors Lovelace and Laclos’s Valmont are evident in Pechorin, who has succeeded in attracting a certain princess.

‘I’ll tell you the whole truth,’ I answered the Princess, ‘I won’t excuse or explain my conduct. I don’t love you.’

The colour faded from her lips.

‘Leave me alone,’ she said, barely audibly.

I shrugged my shoulders, turned, and walked away.

The shrugger doesn’t care whether he lives or dies – and the designer duel arranged for himself by this divided and indifferent man is a form of Russian roulette. The duel in which Lermontov was soon to die is said to have been patterned, so far as its arrangements went, on the one in the novel: if so, the outcome does not appear to have gone according to Lermontov’s plan.

V.G. Kiernan’s new book on the history of duelling – the work of a historian who is able to grasp, as many historians now are not, that the literature of the past is evidence of the past – discusses Lermontov’s real and imaginary duels.[*] The book indicates that duelling and gambling have been co-ordinate activities: both, we may feel, are poised on a knife-edge between accident and intention. If there is an element of design on Pechorin’s part in the duel he fights, an element which incorporates a knowledge of the loaded dice to be employed by his opponent in the form of an unloaded pistol, the outcome can still be ascribed to chance, in a sense that must be meant to characterise the hero’s fine indifference: but Kiernan reports suggestions that Lermontov’s own death (like Pushkin’s in another duel a few months before) may have been murder, a murder planned by Court reactionaries.

Outcomes are uncertain, games of chance can be rigged – but this is not what we are conscious of in reading about Ursula. We read that she intended, in Hamlet’s words, to ‘leave betimes’, and that she did what she intended. That there was a pattern for her in Lermontov’s novel is conceivable: but it can’t be claimed that it fits her with exactitude, or that it provides an explanation of her conduct. It is clear enough, nonetheless, that the hero of that time is like the hero of some other times, including Hamlet’s. Shakespeare’s play has an arranged duel which miscarries, and which takes off a divided, gambling man who has wondered whether or not it might be better to end his life. Here, too, the uncertainty of a duel utters the uncertainty of internal division. Those who pursue comparisons of the kind I am referring to are likely to be impressed by the staying-power of a literary preoccupation to which a variety of temperaments and compulsions have been attracted, and could well be inclined to believe that Pechorin’s duel and indifference may have been among the precedents that weighed, a century later, with a woman bent on contriving her appointment with destiny.

Not much is made, however, in the book she has become, of the cultural provenance of this Russian-style belle dame sans merci. She is present in the book as narcissistic, driven and depressive, with the fascination of such people, as the enigma of an exceptional vitality drawn towards ‘laziness’ and extinction, as a suicidal survivor, her life a chapter of escapes. But she was also, among other literary things, the wonderful and baleful orphan or isolate who is seen to advantage in the books she read: and it may be that cultural history is especially worth attending to in cases such as hers, where the subject is a dedicated reader, and the basis for a directly psychological account is even more than usually insecure. Not that T. Behrens sets up as a psychologist. To read about her here is like being shown someone’s snaps or scrapbook – perhaps an underrated pleasure. It is like an evening spent in a restaurant – let’s say Olwen’s French Club, mentioned on page one, a latterday refuge of the Chelsea set – listening to a story of mutual friends. And it is a trip in its own right, on the teller’s part. T. Behrens gives the impression that he has more to say about himself than the progress of this mad love – to which he did not stand all that close at the time, brother as he was – has allowed him to come up with. And it may be that Justin, too, has more to say, from beyond the grave. Waiting in the wings is a book by him about Ursula, entitled Style, which, according to Graham Greene, who was sent the manuscript, might be edited for publication. There may be a cult in the making – and one could imagine a film by Antonioni, whose scriptwriter, Mark Peploe, was intrigued by J. Behrens in his last days.

Ursula’s life resembles John Aspinall’s in certain respects. Each is an eccentric. Each is a grand or smart person, of an equivocal kind. Each of these narratives has a Douglas-Home, and there are some similar fatalities. Aspinall is the son of parted parents, a ‘pseudo-orphan’ who rapidly became larger than life. He is by far the more convivial eccentric of the two. He has been surrounded by old friends to whom he professes unswerving loyalty, while also professing to have been unforgiving when any of them stepped out of line: forgiveness is ‘unbiological’ apparently, non-Darwinian.

Brian Masters’s book arrived at Easter, and its title – there on the dust-jacket on top of a sepia study of Aspinall kissing a tiger – may have been awarded a religious meaning. Did it refer to the saviour of the biosphere, who has had his troubles, and who now fears that his mission has failed? Those with misgivings about the title will have misgivings about the Preface. ‘Some felicities of style are due to improvements suggested by Mr Aspinall. It has been altogether a happy experience.’ ‘Lady Sarah Aspinall has shown exemplary patience with my intrusions, for which I am most grateful ...’ ‘In addition,’ Mr Masters writes, ‘there have been a great number of people who have been willing to share their reminiscences with me, and I trust they will not deem my gratitude a poor thing if I thank them here alphabetically. They include Mr Gerald Albertini, The Rt Hon. Peter Archer MP, Miss Amanda Aspinall, Dr Robert Aspinall, The Duke of Atholl, Miss Julie Battersea, Mr Tom Begg, Dr Kurt Benirschke, Mr Robin Birley, Mr Anthony Blond, Mr Robert Boutwood, Mr Claus von Bülow, Mr Timothy Cassel, The Hon. Mr Alan Clark, Sir David Crouch MP, Mr Nigel Dempster, The Earl of Derby, The Duke of Devonshire ...’ And so on through the alphabet. ‘If I have inadvertently omitted anyone, I ask forgiveness. Some have asked that their help remain unacknowledged.’ Those whose good offices are singled out for acknowledgment are left with very little to forgive. ‘Mr Anthony Blond has generously allowed me access to the manuscript of his forthcoming autobiography. My editor, Tom Maschler, offered sage advice with his unerring intuitive eye.’

The Preface contains some of the most expressive passages in the book. But there is plenty of deference and flattery in the chapters that follow. For this author of a previous work on the British peerage – a kind of pauper’s dukebook, by the sound of it – the absconding Lord Lucan is ‘a man of enormous presence and beauty’. Aspinall’s prose ‘rises to the elegance and sophistication of Bertrand Russell, without his paralysing logical inhibitions’. And yet the author’s passion for Aspinall is not at all points idolatrous, or blasphemous. It is a surprise to discover, amid the sighs and genuflections, a deftly-written book on an important subject. It mounts a keen but not uncritical defence of Aspinall’s fight on behalf of the considerate and imaginative treatment of wild animals taken into captivity and of endangered species. It is a book which persuades you to think twice before calling such activities ‘humane’. Brian Masters plays the bard to Aspinall’s feudal chieftain, a chieftain who himself enjoys access to the horde’s ‘word hoard’, with its expressions of contempt for alien hordes. But he also succumbs to logical inhibitions.

Aspinall is a well-known vainglorious fellow who has long been familiar both with triumphs and disasters, whose suspicions of the human world were to sustain a concern with wildlife, and who was to butt his way through harassments from Gaming Boards, local gentries, civil servants and newspapers towards the financing of two zoos from his takings at the gambling-tables and from various windfalls – old friends obliged with gifts and with advice on investments. ‘Aspers’ was sired beneath a tamarisk tree, after a dance, in the days of the Indian Raj, by a man to whom, as he was later to learn, his mother was not married. His parents’ estrangement was a trouble to him, as was his public school: Old Rugbeians do not cut much ice, while Old Etonians, according to Masters, ‘compel attention all their lives’. At Oxford, Aspinall nevertheless compelled attention, and belonged to a glittering group of gamblers, ravers, spendthrifts and eccentrics which included Margaret Thatcher, whose enterprise culture of the Eighties, with its poor view of poverty and failure, must have done something to temper Aspinall’s scorn at the degeneration of the species in the modern Britain of social welfare, and who should surely have found something to honour in the exploits of her old friend the millionaire hero of Howletts and Port Lympne, where his zoos have been located.

After Oxford, Aspinall got on his bike and pedalled into casinos. Parliament began to fumble with the issues raised by his exploits; attempts to regulate seemed to open as many doors as they closed. With the 1960 Gaming Act blackjack, chemmy, betting-shops and bingo broke out all over. The Act inaugurated the punter’s paradise which, after certain transformations, is the country we continue to know – a country in which killings are made, of one sort or another, in which fraud and a devotion to chance run strong, in which the rich get richer and the Government works hard to help them do so. Perhaps, in the gilded Oxford of the Fifties, and in the London life that ensued for these people, some part of the prehistory of Thatcherism can be traced. Here is an unregarded stretch of the road that has led to the land of the warrior queen who is also the great good housekeeper, ever-angry, ever-thrifty, with one foot in the till and the other in the roulette wheel.

Aspinall would appear to have kept his casinos and clubs above board, and to have run them skilfully. But by the time the money had started to flow in large quantities, though never without intermission, from these and other sources, his affections had transferred themselves to animal husbandry, and this is what the book is mainly about. It reaches its climax at one of the parties Aspinall has loved to throw – a ball at Port Lympne, held in 1986 to celebrate his 60th birthday and the rescue (and capture) of a specimen of the rare, endangered Sumatran rhinoceros. A dozen dwarfs in ‘gold lamé trousers and elaborate headdress as high as themselves’ threw soft objects at the droves of old friends who arrived to be regaled with a ‘confection of Smetana and Strauss’ from the London Symphony Orchestra. There had been a whisper that Aspinall would be singing Hitler’s favourite songs – ‘but a slight shower of rain sent the musicians into panic.’ Surely some slight joke here. The banquet cost £400,000. Think of the straw, and the free-range facilities, this might have bought for his beasts.

Deaths and maulings have occurred at his zoos, as at others, and the press have made meals of their indignation. A chapter entitled ‘Setbacks’ relates how two keepers were successively slain by a tigress of bad character. Zeya was then shot, despite a policy of protection for the animals in the event of such ‘accidents’. She had scaled in a flash a wire fence ten feet two inches high in order to make her attacks. Having sounded the opinion of experts, Mr Masters says of one of the keepers: ‘He should not have run.’

When Lord Lucan ran, leaving his friends to the conclusion that he must have murdered his wife’s nanny, in mistake for his wife, Aspinall stood by him. Honour was at stake, for Aspinall and for his mother, Lady Osborne. ‘He was certainly not surprised that Lucan might have killed his wife. The missing earl had confessed to him some weeks earlier that he would like to, and had even gone so far as to tell Lady O. (whom he regarded as a substitute mother) that he intended to. She had replied to the effect that he must do whatever he thought was right.’ Asked what he would do if Lucan were to walk into the room, Aspinall replied: ‘Embrace him.’ The Clermont Club circle of friends was not much moved by Lucan’s presumed crime – one of their number may have felt that murder was Darwinian – but they were terribly moved when James Fox published his Sunday Times article on Lucan and another of their number, the wit Dominick Elwes, sold to the newspaper a drawing that went with the article. Once again, honour was at stake. Snubbed by a company of people who prided themselves on loyalty, Elwes committed suicide: one of two suicides which have occurred, in similar circumstances, in Aspinall’s vicinity. Socked on the jaw by an enraged patrician after delivering a funeral oration for Elwes, Aspinall compared the action to that of an animal in his zoos. The Christian editor of Private Eye, Richard Ingrams, who has lately, after a lifetime spent in the publication of sneers and lies, gone to his reward in the shape of a column in the country’s most snobbish newspaper, came out with a piece headed ‘All’s well that ends Elwes.’

Masters is interesting on the deficiencies of ‘loyalty’ codes, while not seeming to see any connection here with the homerta of Southern Italy. His Aspinall is a man of deep feeling, which has gone unexpressed on crucial occasions, and a man widely thought to be cold. ‘Loyalty is safer than emotion,’ and can be construed as a substitute for affection.

Aspinall has been a mixed blessing. He is red in tooth and claw. At the same time, for some of the time, he is ecologically green, a friend of the Earth. His success as a breeder of wild animals in captivity is one of several reasons to suppose that his zoo-keeping is a cut above what we are used to in this dubious line. His nuzzlings with tigers and tumblings with gorillas, in the style of Henderson the Rain King, are all right with the present reviewer. His effronteries and those of his friends – the gambler Ian Maxwell-Scott once swept up the offering after mass at Brompton Oratory and deposited a cheque – can be amusing. But it is easy to repress a third cheer, and even a second. All is not well with Aspinall.

Masters writes that when Aspinall was young his ‘nebulous antecedents’ were a mortification that was ‘countered by reverence for pagan forbears’, such as Zulu chiefs, and that this reverence was eventually replaced by the service of wild animals. There is a suggestion here, as there is elsewhere, that the pseudo-orphan took to the wild in flight from his own species, that this is what it meant for him to follow in the footsteps of those orphans of an earlier storm, Mowgli and Tarzan. His every embrace seems to proceed from a recoil. Animals are wonderful – they are our equals or betters. But some animals are more equal than others. Dogs are awful. And if it comes to that, human beings are awful, old friends apart, and some are more awful than others. Deviants and unfortunates should be culled. Women are inferior, Indians are inferior. ‘He was not sure that Indians were good game wardens’ – even though, on the opposite page, Arjan (‘Billy’) Singh, a legendary tiger’s friend and ‘an individualist like himself’, is cited as the person he most warmly supports in this sphere. It turns out that the principle of the survival of the fittest has its limits: human beings can be pictured as an avalanching biomass, and a cull of genocidal proportions is recommended by the man who has cared for baby gorillas. The same man believes that a Francoesque solution may be best for Britain in the short term.

This does not make it wrong to care for baby gorillas. But Aspinall is one example among many, in and out of the wild, of those forms of life where distress can be found to inflict distress. Romantic estrangement can do good things, and it can do monstrous things. In this case, it accounts for about half the story of someone who is otherwise the gregarious clan chief, harping on loyalty, and it has darkened his efforts to encourage a badly-needed respect for animals.

[*] The Duel in European History: Honour and the Reign of Aristocracy (Oxford). Kiernan’s book will shortly be reviewed in this journal.