living with a new book


The most enjoyable part yet of the early promotion stages of my new book, Noble Endeavours, came this weekend. Daisy Gili was staying with us in the country.  Daisy, herself the daughter of a phenomenal film-maker, Jonathan Gili, is planning to make a short promotional film about Noble Endeavours, based around three or four significant episodes in the book. Since several of the projected episodes take place at court, Daisy wondered whether we might, having a rambling country house, happen to have any suitable costumes that had been layed away.?

This was a weekend when the said rambling country house (Thrumpton Hall, my family home)  was filled with guests of all ages. And of course, when Daisy and I opened the lid of an Elizabethan oak chest to rifle through its contents, we found that we had company - and candidates ready to go on parade. What serendipity: not only that the costumes had survived, but that we had an array of uncommonly handsome models. (Sorry, no pics available as yet, but trust me, they looked gorgeous.)!

What we uncovered in the chest were three magnificent full dress uniforms, complete with dress swords, braided fronts, breeches, buckled shoes, tricorn hats crowned with ostrich fringes, and massive epaulettes of the kind that you could have imagined the Kaiser wearing when he visited his grandmother at Cowes. This was the attire in which my grandfather, a British diplomat, presenting himself to the Emperor of Austria in Vienna, and later to the Kaiser in Berlin, was required to make his ceremonial bow. Easily dated from his diplomatic rector, they belonged to the period between 1900 and 1911.

Wearing them, as I gathered from the first model's clenched smile, was an education in the torture of court etiquette.  Exquisitely comfortable, but only for so long as impeccable posture could be maintained, the braided and quilted jacket was the elaborate equivalent of a Victorian lady's corset: a veritable iron maiden. I'd read about manners making the man.  Here was a case of the uniform forcing the man to conform to its requirements.

The scene was like something out of a play. The setting was a panelled hall, made more atmospheric by a crackling log fire and an entrance arch framed by a pair magnificent (if a bit motheaten) tapestry curtains that were begun by Alexandra, the German Czarina of Russia, while living in St Petersburg, and completed, post 1917, at Sandringham, after Alex's poignant death.

Watching our friends as they transformed themselves, with wonderful conviction, into British visitors to the imperial court of pre-war Berlin, it felt as though my book had suddenly woken into life.  Just for a fleeting moment, I seemed to be standing there myself, beside the ghost of my young grandfather, struggling to keep a straight face as Willy, heralded by his favorite Ave Maria (Gounod) strutted into the room to greet the new arrivals. And who, in 1911, could have begun to guess at the horrendous circumstances that would lay waste to this world of ornate correctness and tradition and take a generation to the graveyards of Flancers and France?

In the autumn of 2013, as we stand on the eve of a terrible centenary, it seems that my book, Noble Endeavours, has been published at a moment when its message can find an audience and be heard. A powerful and profound friendship did once exist between England and Germany. Perhaps, amid the recollection of catastrophic wars, it will be remembered that our countries - two countries that once were bound together as closely as a single family - still share far more than keeps us apart. In 1984, a German Jew, Herbert Sulzbach, called for an end to the old distrust between the two countries that he looked upon as his parental nations. In 2013, although that old distrust still lies close to the surface, ready to be quickened into life by eloquent tales of horrible atrocities,it's time to honour Sulzbach's plea: to remember that longer, closer past and look forward to a united future.

   Added: Sunday 22 September 2013