Quite often, sadly often, I write here: one of the great old gentlemen has gone. Today, it is one of my great old gentlemen.
My very dear godfather has died. He was eighty-nine, and had been in rotten health for years, but he kept buggering on in the most doughty and astonishing fashion. I had come to think he would live forever, as each new diagnosis was somehow survived.
He was one of the tremendous generation that fought in the war. He served with the Welsh Guards, and would sometimes say to me startling things like: ‘Well, after the war I went back and blew up bridges and things. Great fun.’
I had no idea about the blowing up of bridges, and he did not elaborate. I thought it must have been some hush-hush sabotage job, and I wish now I had asked. I wish so many things. I had been meaning and meaning to ring, but kept putting it off. He was so tired and ill and I thought I did not want to bother the poor old gentleman. Now I think: you fool, you should just have picked up that damn telephone. Now it is too late. I remember that regret with my father too, although the last time I had tried to call him he could not speak because he was watching the 3.30 at Kempton. This still makes me laugh.
The dear old godfather was loyal and funny and true. We used to write each other long letters and whenever I was in London he would take me out to lunch and talk in a very loud voice about kings and dukes, to the slight astonishment of the other patrons. He adored kings and dukes, and queens too. He liked dead, historical ones, about whom he wrote, and alive, actual ones, with whom he sometimes dined. He was a glorious, calamitous snob, carrying a very unfashionable delight in lineage. If he asked me to a party he was giving, he would tell me who else was coming, giving them all their full titles. He loved achievement too: this one won that prize for fiction, he would tell me, or that one won the Military Cross. And yet his snobbishness was not a horrid thing. He liked poshness as people like football or art, but he loved those of us who were not duchesses too.
His friendship with my father always astonished me. He had known Dad since my fa was a schoolboy; the godfather taught at the school my father attended. He then met my mother quite separately and was delighted when they married. He came to the house often, and I have an enduring childhood memory of him sitting in the sun, in a deck chair, wearing his immaculate panama hat with its Welsh Guards band. His love for my mother was perfectly explicable – she was elegant and graceful and a perfect hostess and looked like Grace Kelly. But Dad was a roisterer and boisterer, a singer of songs, a crazy rider of chasers, a drinker, a gambler, a teller of bawdy tales. The respectable, academic godfather seemed a most unlikely person to take to such a man. Yet they adored each other. They were good companions for many years – the wild, larger-than-life horseman, and the small, precise historian. I think what it really was was that my father made the godfather laugh and laugh, in a way, perhaps, that the duchesses did not, quite.
He was a very splendid old gentleman, funny himself, in a wry, intellectual way. He was kind and generous and thoughtful. He encouraged me in my writing, even though my early, appalling novels must have made him wince a little. ‘I never knew people drank so much coffee,’ was all he said, of those terrible first books, in which my characters did spend an awful lot of time in espresso bars. He was quietly proud of his own work, but never grew puffed up when his historical biographies were awarded prizes. He loved his Welsh Guards with a passion, but apart from the thing about the bridges, did not speak of his war fighting. I wish I had asked more about that too. What courage he must have had then; I think of it now. I saw it in his later years, as he stoically faced one illness after another. ‘How are you?’ I would say. ‘Oh, you know,’ he would reply. ‘Still here.’
For all my regrets, I am glad that not many months ago, I did write him a letter telling him what a marvellous godfather he had always been, and how much I loved and appreciated him. He did not do shows of emotion; as it was with so many of that mighty generation, understatement was his hallmark. But I wrote anyway, even though he would have thought the words a little excessive, because I wanted him to know.
I wanted to mark the passing of this remarkable man, but as always, I feel that these paltry scratches on the page do not quite capture him, or do him justice. I miss the good old men and wish they were not going. I shall miss this one sorely. I hear his voice in my head as I write. He would laugh, and tell me not to grow melancholy, but to keep buggering on, just as he did. And so I shall, in his honour.
I usually do not put up other people’s pictures, being keenly aware of copyright. I hope that, on this occasion, Eric Roberts, who took this lovely and very characteristic photograph, will forgive me.