Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Stately Home Hopping

 Glamis Castle

Among the high points of a recent cinematic rampage, during which I saw more first-run films in a fortnight than I am used to seeing within a three year period, Michael Fassbender’s Macbeth was conspicuous.  Filming Shakespeare is a tricky business.  Far too many directors try to compete with Shakespeare rather than to amplify him with the technical magic they command; but here I found a nearly perfect symbiosis of word and image, as well as superb acting in two of the hardest roles ever invented by genius to test talent.  The camera could present as powerfully as the Bard himself the harsh topography and even harsher built environment of that ancient Scotland of the poet’s imagination.  The Glamis Castle of the Fassbinder film is a dark and gloomy heap of Pharaonic ashlar set in a wilderness of moorland.  The film gives generous license to the imagination, but mine was drawn back only as far as the winter of 1959.

 Marion Cotillard, Michael Fassbender in cinematic Macbeth

            When I arrived in Oxford in the autumn of 1958, England was in the last stages of a postwar austerity that had lasted more than a decade.  There was still bomb damage to be seen in London.  Other vestiges of the war mentality included a popular pro-Americanism that seems amazing in retrospect.  There were several institutions, including a very active English Speaking Union, designed to keep fresh the spirit of “Hands Across the Water.”  One particular organization whose bounty I enjoyed was the Dominions Fellowship Trust.  This charitable organization was the interwar brainchild of two formidable grandes dames, Lady Frances Ryder and “Miss Macdonald of the Isles”, who though she operated out of a house in Cadogan Square in London, was a prominent member of the Clan Macdonald of Sleat from the Isle of Skye.  The original brief of the DFT was, I think, to extend hospitality to students from the Antipodes temporarily resident in British universities.

            During World War II the focus changed to Allied military officers, especially American and Canadian airmen in need of rest and relaxation between harrowing bombing missions.  The DFT coordinated a network of big houses in England, Scotland, and Ireland, whose civilian owners graciously offered hospitality to their Anglophone comrades in arms.  The war ended, but the Dominions Fellowship Trust continued.  The focus was once again foreign university students, and especially Rhodes Scholars.  There are very long vacations between Oxford terms.  I suppose the thinking was that the closest thing to a shell-shocked bombardier was an American undergraduate faced with a plateful of Spotted Dick.

            I was invited by Warden Williams of Rhodes House, who had been the general officer in charge of intelligence for Montgomery in his duels with Rommel in North Africa, to look into this scheme of stately home hopping.  I suggested that I’d like to make a specialty of Scotland.  This very much pleased Miss Macdonald of the Isles, who interviewed me personally, and sent me off for R and R at huge and frigid piles of stone belonging to her most trusted Trusters all over Caledonia.  My special friend and frequent hostess was Betty Sitwell of Lennel House of Coldstream, Berwickshire.   Betty was some kin to the famous and famously eccentric literary Sitwells.  We really hit it off, and there was always a table full of Evelyn Waugh characters talking about things I didn’t understand, laughing at jokes I didn’t get, and gossiping about people I had never heard of—all of which made me feel very important indeed.  I regret that as the years passed and I succumbed to Real Life, I lost all contact with Betty Sitwell.  The carelessness of youth is simply mind-boggling.  Much later I learned that Lennel House had in 1995 become a continuing care facility. I also enjoyed the hospitality of a wonderful house called Shewglie in the minor metropolis of Drumnadrochit, practically atop Loch Ness.

Lennel House, Coldstream

            But the anecdote around which this post is built began at a house I no longer remember very clearly, except that it was near Arbroath, on the Scottish east coast.   It was a rather Jamesian place with two permanent residents—an elderly, wealthy widow woman and her equally elderly servant woman.  One day my hostess asked me if I wouldn’t like to visit Glamis Castle, where the Queen spent a happy childhood.  Within seconds of hearing my affirmative response she was on the phone talking with her friend the Countess, at Glamis Castle.  That would be the Countess of Strathmore, who at that time was a delightful red-haired Irish woman who was, I was told by the gossipy servant, considerably younger than her husband the Earl, whom she had met when he was a hospital patient and she a nurse.  (Think of Tom, the Irish chauffeur at Downton Abbey).

            My stay at Arbroath fell in the winter vacation, when at that latitude darkness descends at about three in the afternoon, and our tour of the nooks and crannies of Glamis required the use of several “torches” (flashlights).  The inchoate, rapidly changing shadows contributed significantly to the creep factor as the red-headed Countess, who was in great shape, raced us, puffing, through turrets and stairwells and dungeons.  Now in coarse historical fact most of these buildings at Glamis dated from the seventeenth century.  Furthermore the historical Macbeth had nothing to do with Glamis Castle any more than he had much to do with most of the stuff in Shakespeare.  As usual, Shakespeare was getting his material from Holinshead, who was a stern moralist rather than an even vaguely accurate historian.  Still, I was prepared to see the ghost of Banquo at the top of every breathless flight, and perhaps even Macbeth himself muttering “…I know I am the thane of Glamis; but how of Cawdor?...”

Lady Frances Ryder, founder of the Dominions Fellowship Trust (National Portrait Gallery, London)

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