Sunday, 20 April 2014

A brief sojourn in Gormenghast


I suppose it had to happen sooner or later, but I am amazed that I had never thought of the possibility before.

A family were driving through Longleat Safari Park yesterday, when their car caught fire - right in the middle of the lion's enclosure.

Tough choice - stay in the car and get burned to death, or climb out and get eaten by a lion? Luckily, the Rangers turned up in quick enough time to decant the woman and children into a Land Rover before the lions had the chance to take an unscheduled snack.

For all you Johnny Foreigners out there who have never heard of Longleat, let me explain that it - and its inhabitants - have become a national institution. The ancient Thynne family of minor baronets were the first to turn their financial sink-hole of a country mansion into a going concern, when a Chipperfield Circus family member turned up one day in the 1960s and made them an offer which was too good to refuse, namely - turn the estate into a menagerie of wild and exotic animals through which you could drive in the comfort and safety of your own automobile. Up until yesterday.

In the 1980s, I did a lot of work on the famous Longleat House, repairing and replacing many of the multitude of 17th century stone thingumies which had been blown off the vast acreage of roof by a hurricane.

These were the days when the old Marquis was still alive, and the estate was run by his son - Lord Christopher - and an unbelievably bad tempered and taciturn retainer called Ken. Lord Christopher's brother languished in one wing of the house, spending most of his time painting obscene murals on the walls and waiting to pick up the title after the death of his Colonel Blimpish dad. The other brother had hanged himself in the nearby pub some years before, and this pub now thrives as a gastro-mecca for the rich locals.

I was given an office near the stable block of the main house, and this was the tiny set of rooms which were reluctantly given to the estranged widow of Lord Valentine after his death and before she moved into Bath, where she was often seen walking a huge hound through the streets with a vacant expression on her haunted face, before her own death some years later.

When I first opened the door to this little tower, I had to push it hard with all my might, because the pile of unpaid bills were stacked so high behind it that they were about two feet deep. They continued to drop through the letterbox the whole time I was there.

Working at Longleat House was one of the most strange experiences of my professional life, with various family members stalking the stone crypts and alleys beneath the huge building, and talking to each other on two-way radios as the distant bellows of African big-game could be heard on the breeze outside. "Lord Christopher. Lord Christopher. Do you copy, Lord Christopher?"

Being in this house at that time was the closest you would ever get to being in Gormenghast. I can say with absolute conviction that every member of that household was pure, barking mad.

The old Marquis with his trade-mark, red cravat would often be spotted under one of the many hedges, peering out at the strangers who had come to visit his house and intrude so rudely on his privacy. He would glare at me, probably wondering who the hell I was.

I thought - with mounting horror - that I could conceivably spend the rest of my working life there, as the quantity of defective stone baubles adorning the house are too numerous to count, but my demise came shortly after the demise of one of the Marquis's many pet Rotweillers.

To one side of the main house, tucked away in a small, walled garden, is the pet's cemetery. All the little headstones are identical, round-topped tablets made from Portland stone, and the one which sticks in my mind the most is for 'Rutty' the Rottweiller.

One day, Ken approached me to give me the bad news that another of the Marquis's beloved dogs had died, and to ask me to quote for making a little headstone for it to match the others. His final words were, "I will warn you. His Lordship cares more about these gravestones than he does about all of the rest of the stonework in this house put together."

I thought I could take a hint, so I quoted about £10 to make this stone, which included all the materials, shaping, letter-cutting and installing - a job which would have normally commanded a tag of about £200.

When Ken came back to me after my quotation, he had a very serious expression on his face, but that was not unusual.

"I am surprised at you," he began, "How dare you quote such a high price for such a simple job?" I have received a quote from a local man for £5 - HALF of what you have quoted me."

That was the last job I never did for Longleat, and I expect that the cut-price mason is still working there now, going as grey as me as he replaces yet another stone bauble on the crumbling roof of the house. As in 'The Fall of the House of Usher', this is a job which you can never pronounce 'finished'.

72 comments:

  1. Do you mean "the" hurricane?

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    1. I said 'a' for the benefit of any readers who live in an area where hurricanes are an annual recurrence. I didn't want to make it sound a big deal, even if it was to us Englanders.

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    2. It is significant to me because it pinpoints exactly when you are talking about and my understanding of the whole piece. You are writing in England so why pretend otherwise?

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    3. If you had taken any notice of all the bloody words above in the first place, you would have seen that I was - from the outset - making allowances for Johnny Foreigner, who may not even have heard of fucking Longleat.

      Think yourself lucky that I do not strew Americanisms ('go figure', etc)all over the place like John Gray does all the time. That REALLY pisses me off, even more than you do.

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    4. I don't know why you go on about allowing for Johnny Foreigner; let them follow what that can and what they cant, tough.

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    5. You should be formulating UKIP's Foreign Policy for them, as they sit around at home, preparing for Government.

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    6. I did take note of all the bloody words. I found it a fucking boring post and struggled to find anything to comment on. The lack of definition of the hurricane stuck in my throat.

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    7. You sound like THE perfect person to formulate UKIP's Foreign Policy. For a start, you seem to be the 'ordinary' woman in the pub who likes football, and secondly you have about as much grasp on the English language and culture as your average taxi-driver.

      I would go so far as to say that you are probably over-qualified for the job.

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    8. I have a colourful grasp of the English language and an above average IQ. I am well versed in the arts. Nigel Farage isn't stupid and the Tories don't stand a fucking chance in the next election. I would sooner spend a day with a knowledgeable taxi-driver than a aged fucking boring stone carver.

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    9. Then I really do wonder why you spend so much time hanging around me.

      Haven't you anything better to do with yourself?

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    10. I will have a lot of moving on to do tomorrow.

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    11. Have you been on the vino? If so, just sleep on it and everything will be back to what you lot in Norfolk call 'normal' by the morning.

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    12. As it happens I have been sober all day. Scary that I can be like this. Even I don't understand.

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    13. You often tell me to lighten up - now it's my turn. See below - I want to get on with you, and I think I can.

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  2. The lions must have thought that Summer was here ………… BARBEQUE !!!!! XXXX

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    1. Believe it or not, some people have got out of their cars and lit a barbecue in the lion enclosure before now. I saw a family having a picnic in the lorry escape-lane of a steep hill once - folding table and everything.

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  3. Many thanks Tom for such an enjoyable and entertaining tale. I recall driving through Knowsley Safari Park and having to stop for the car some beast or other blocking the road. Next minute we were ambushed by a gang of monkeys jumping out of the trees, they swiftly ripped off my windscreen wipers and even tore the seal off the back window. Why we were driving through the animal park with a seal on our back window I've no idea ;)

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    1. Got it. The only time I ever visited the Safari Park of Longleat was in my brother's brand-new Jaguar XJ 12 - at his insistence. The monkeys ripped that apart as well. We should have guessed when we saw all the wing-mirrors and wipers strewn around the place, right at the entrance. Somebody should employ them in a scrapyard, they are now so expert.

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    2. It's common knowledge that monkeys don't like jaguars - what was your bro thinking about!

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  4. I wonder if the boy's name (the one in the car) was Jim? Always keep ahold of nurse, etc......

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    1. You're showing your age, Cro - and your taste in old music-hall theatre.

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    2. More likely to be Albert.

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    3. Yes - you are right, Phillips. It is Albert. Cro must be losing more marbles than you are right now, which is a scary thought.

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    4. I know the poem off by heart. I told you, I am not stupid.

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    5. Who has ever said you were stupid, and what sort of person do you need to be to know 'Albert and the Lion' off by heart in 2014? You must be a hoot at parties.

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    6. It was my favourite poem and now you have ruined it.

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    7. How on earth have I ruined it? You could spend an hour or two reciting Hiawatha to me, and I cannot imagine how that would ruin it. What is the matter?

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    8. I could easily ruin Hiawatha if you had to listen to me reciting it for two bloody hours.

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    9. You're both nuts; it was Jim who was eaten by the Lion!

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    10. You're thinking of a much inferior Scottish 'ode'. 'Always keep ahold of Nurse, for fear of finding something worse' is without doubt Belloc, and it refers to JIM.

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    11. You should know - I seem to remember you quoting Belloc about 44 years ago.

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    12. Yes, Hillaire Belloc"s poem is about Jim and Stanley Holloway's monologue is about Albert. Both got eaten by a lion.

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  5. You are a wonderful story teller and historian Tom, you really are

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    1. Thank you for those kind words, Donna. Before anyone else points it out, I am fully aware that you have heard at least one version of the Longleat account before now, but I am honing it down ready for the memoires, or however you spell them.

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    2. Need what? Kind words, memories, or both? With followers like you, I don't need any more memories.

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  6. I never realized/realised that "go figure" was an Americanism.

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    1. Well it is, but when we need to remind ourselves what the English language used to sound like 300 years ago, we send a linguist up into the Appalachian Mountains.

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  7. Don't you wish you'd quoted £200? I very much enjoyed this post and hope you include it in your eagerly anticipated memoires. Happy Easter, Tom!

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    1. Happy Easter to you too, Broad. I could have quoted 3p, and I still would have lost the job.

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  8. We once were in an English safari park (you could only get me into one when our son was very young) and those monkeys were awful - though they pestered the drivers who gave them bananas and peanuts more.
    That Marquis must have been bitten by a monkey - not to accept an estimate of cost of 10 Pounds speaks for itself.

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    1. Or had the glands of a monkey implanted into his eldest son.

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  9. Like Titus, your adventures would have ended had you stayed. Toiling in gloom, forever, we would never have this account or the informative upbraiding. You do draw folks out.

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    1. Hang, draw and quarter them out, is my maxim. Maybe my last fictitious name should have been 'Groan'?

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  10. I laughed from beginning to end of this Tom. All I can say is that you have certainly led a full and colourful life.

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    1. I always think that I embellish my stories to make them more entertaining, but when I read them again, I realise that every word is (usually) true. Maybe I have, or maybe I should.

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    2. You should try more embellishment especially with this one.

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    3. Listen, Rachel (Phillips), I have absolutely no desire to be nasty to you, as I think I would actually like you if I ever met you (not by standing outside in your woods, staring up at your window) but you did say - if you remember - that you didn't want me to be soppilly pleasant to you, as you couldn't stand that sort of blog-topia behaviour.

      If you come here and swear at me, insult me and generally pick holes in everything I say for reasons only known to yourself - without being barred - then I will treat you exactly the same as I treat Heron when he gets offensive.

      I have to say this - you will not win any silly word competition with me, and that is a plain fact. Why don't you just be 'nice', and I will be nice back to you?

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    4. P.S. - I like you. You make me laugh, which is a bloody good head-start.

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    5. I refer you to my comment some way up the page which I was typing almost simultaneously. (If the bloody time was right on your blog we could see what the real time is now). Phillips.

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    6. Yesterday I made the funniest comment on the blog. You would miss me if you banned me. But I am sorry about today. A bit anyway.

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    7. I don't know how it happened, but I just wrote a huge response to another comment of yours, and it is now gone.

      Anyway, the gist of it was that I really don't want to be nasty to you, but I will if I have to be. This is what I thought you wanted.

      Don't apologise, and - of course - I would never ban you so long as you carry on entertaining me as much as you have in the past. Only when you get boring would I consider it, and probably not even then. Sorry I bore you.

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    8. Oops! It hasn't gone, it's right there where I left it. Silly me.

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    9. No good story ever suffered from fact augmentation, diminution, or even rearrangement. Or being dumped entirely. No one will ever miss the missing facts.

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    10. Someone said that they never let facts get in the way of a good story, but - trust me - I hardly ever lie, and when I do I feel compelled to confess to it.

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  11. No, I was a bit out of order here today. I think it flared up a bit because of what you put on my Happy Easter post earlier today referring me to a book and then you never came back to me. I do like you and didn't mean it when I called you a boring aged stone carver.

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    1. I hardly ever go back to old posts or comments, including my own - it's a common fault, I think.

      You might not have meant it, but it was true nevertheless.

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  12. Enjoyable reading sir, and I must say that I'm quite warming to Rachel's comments.

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    1. So am I. They make this place so much more interesting.

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    2. You can say that again.

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    3. And they boost the hit rate on this otherwise boring blog - I think this post might be a record.

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  13. That was a very interesting story but do you believe old money makes you crazy.
    Everyone I have ever met who had inherited money and property was crazy but most people i know had to work for a living and are mostly sane.
    Merle........

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    1. Most British aristocrats ran out of money in about 1930. I've known a lot of them, and they have all - except a very small number - had to work as hard as anyone else. It's the lottery winners who are the most insufferable, but how do I know that? Once they win, they never talk to me again.

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  15. I enjoyed your tales of Longleat, and also enjoyed the " spat" between you and Rachel! Can't work out how well you know each other though, or how much " tongue in cheek" the exchanges are. Do you remember the TV version of Gormenghast some years ago? I wish they would repeat it as I found it brilliant and so different to anything before or since.

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    1. I can't work any of that out either, Frances. You're not alone.

      I think I saw a few of those episodes. I wish I had thought of the name, 'Swelter' for a cook. It's almost worth opening a restaurant called 'Swelter's' just for it.

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  16. I am reading these comments after a particularly traumatic night shift
    I am that exhausted by them all , I have had to drag myself to the fridge for three slices of cheescake

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    1. And I was hoping for some sound advice from you. Oh well, best go to bed.

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    2. Why. Have you just done a night shift too?

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    3. I feel like I have. I had an anxiety dream last night in which all my current work had been stolen by my biggest competitor.

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