Friday, February 14, 2014

Valentine's Day

After finishing 'An officer and a spy' (which, having referred to it, I probably ought to explain is an historical novel based on the Dreyfuss affair) I am now reading 'Neck or nothing', John Welcome's outstanding biography, published in 1970, of Robert Standish Sievier, best known for his superlative filly Sceptre, winner of four of the five Classics (ie all bar the Derby, in which she finished fourth) in 1902, a record which is likely never to be equalled.  This proved very aposite because, having referred to Lord Stevens' reference to a "sense of complacency towards existing rules", I found myself smiling at a similarly delightful phrase during my bedtime reading last night after having written the day's chapter.

(And I should add that I confused my Lords yesterday, incorrectly referring to Lord Hutton when I meant Lord Stevens.  I apologise unreservedly for any embarrasment caused to either party).

Anyway, 'Neck of nothing' is stuffed with chuckle-inducing phrases, one of which yesterday evening I found very appropriate.  The most superficial view of Sievier is that he must have been a fool to find himself so short of money at the end of Sceptre's Classic campaign that he had to sell her.  However, that's unfair: he was clearly a terrific 'card' or 'trick' who lived a wonderful life, during which he made and lost many massive fortunes.  Anyway, there's a story in the book about how he made a fortune in 1891 by deducing that an Irishman called Fulton was setting his filly Comedy for the Cambridgeshire and that Fulton's methods meant that the 7 stone 3lb that she was allotted greatly under-estimated her ability.  (She duly won the race, presumably winning a huge amount for Fulton but also winning a huge amount for Sievier).  Anyway, Sievier's description of Fulton was that he had "a very jovial idea of the rules of racing".  It's a pity that Lord Stevens hadn't (I presume) read the book, because I'd suggest that the phrase "a very jovial idea of the existing rules concerning the transportation of medical supplies" has a nice, homely feel to it".

There are many other excellent passages in the book.  I love one sentence about his friend and sometime William, the fourth Marquess of Ailesbury.  We know that polite society looked down on the stage at that time, and it is almost impossible to see how any peer could announce plans to marry an actress without his friends and family believing that he was marrying beneath himself.  Anyway, in painting a picture of the Marquess of Ailesbury, John Welcome could not have written a sentence which better emphasised just how black a sheep he was: "He married an actress called Dolly Tester who was held by everyone, including his family, to be too good for him"!

And how about this sentence, in which Welcome quotes Sievier on his adversary the Earl of Dudley?  "Sievier himself described Dudley pretty accurately when he said of him that he was, 'an autocrat by
inclination but scarcely a sahib by attainment.'"!

Anyway, the Marquess of Ailesbury's marriage to Dolly Tester brings us nicely round to the fact that today is Valentine's Day.  So let's delve further into the book's romantic passages.  If you're feeling romantic, this depiction of Sievier's marriage to Ailesbury's sister might cure you: "Despite the fact that two children had been born to them in successive years the marriage was not prospering. Except in their extravagances and their mutual love of racing they had little or nothing in common, save for their almost ungovernable tempers.  The acts of physical violence to her which Lady Mabel liked to recount in after years, if they occurred at all, may well have been the result of unendurable provocation.  Apart from her temper she was a cold, hard woman and utterly unforgiving.  It was about this time that she began to behave to him, in the words of one who knew her, 'as if she hated his guts'."

To bring things round to a less depressing subject, when their marriage ended the two eldest of the three children (Gogo and Bobbie, a girl and a boy) ended up living with Sievier, while the youngest lived with her mother.  For this pair, this upbringing must have been very similar to that which Magnus Pym enjoyed and/or endured with his father Rick in John le Carre's 'A perfect spy'.  Sievier took his cricket and his hunting almost as seriously as his racing, and "As soon as they were old enough the children were mounted on the best, turned out by the most expensive tailors and expected to go as well as they looked.  From their very early days he treated them almost as equals ... As a parent Sievier was careless and unpredictable.  Once when he complained about something Bobbie had done he was asked if he had ever taken any steps to teach him manners or discipline.  'I sent him off the cricket field for being rude to an umpire,' he replied after deep thought."  Splendid, isn't it?  And couldn't you just imagine that question being asked of Rick about Magnus, and Rick coming up, again after deep thought, with the same answer?

Today has indeed proved very stormy, but at least the storm held off until the second half of the morning.  The first four photos were taken in the first half of the morning (and the red sky at dawn proved to be a real shepherd's warning) while the fifth, a stunning photograph of Gogo out hunting, is cheekily reproduced from the book, and is a perfect illustration for the paragraph in which it appears.

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