Purveyor of Bollocks to the Crowned Heads of Europe
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'.