my lovely, slightly-silly, rescued German Shepherd dog earned
the disfavour of the Earl of Caledon - whose Head
Gamekeeper's house I rented, in the south of the county Tyrone,
close to the Irish Border at the beginning of the recent minor
"Troubles" - by running over some of his thousands of
tree-seedlings. I had to move, even though I had made a wonderful
spinach soufflé for the Countess in her spacious kitchen,
from a recipe by Elizabeth David, whom I had only recently discovered.
It was the only soufflé I have ever made, apart from soufflé
omelettes which can be whipped up easily by any fool.
off several letters to various landed gentry north and south of
the Border. One of three favourable replies was from Clandeboye,
seat (name a corruption of Clann Aodha Buí - The Flaxen-Hugh
O'Neill Clan) of the Marquess
of Dufferin and Ava (neither an O'Neill, nor Irish), a short
distance east of Belfast.
residence he offered was Helen's
Tower, a kind of literary folly in a forest, built for
Helen Selina Blackwood in 1861 to a design by a certain William
Burn, in stolid Scottish Baronial style (the dashing and virile
First Marquess was no King Ludwig II) and celebrated by both Browning
and Tennyson. The latter composed these lines:
Helen's Tower, here I stand,
Dominant over sea and land.
Sons love built me, and I hold
Mothers love in letterd gold.
Love is in and out of time,
I am mortal stone and lime.
Would my granite girth were strong
As either love, to last as long
I should wear my crown entire
To and thro the Doomsday fire,
And be found of angel eyes
In earths recurring Paradise.
The tower is built of county Antrim basalt, not granite.
was invited to lunch - not at The Tower, but at the pleasant Georgian-Victorian
pile which may or may not have been the Marquess' main residence.
I can't remember how I got there - possibly by Lambretta Scooter...or
was it a Honda C90 ? ...I have always had a poor memory for events
in my life...but certainly I did not get there by bus.
was received at the impressive front door, brought up a fine staircase,
and shown into a drawing-room by an impressive and impassive Jeevesish
butler. I sat there alone for a while, until I saw a slender,
almost elfin figure gesticulating at the French window. It then
disappeared. A minute or two later the same figure, the very Marquess
himself, arrived in the room. He had hoped to come in by the glass
doors, but found that they were locked.
Part of my begging spiel to the landed gentry was that I was a
poet and painter, as well as a keen gardener and lover of trees.
After the informal armchair lunch (of fish, I definitely remember,
served impeccably by the impressive butler with obligatory napkin)
the sprightly Marquess took me out to view some of his impressive
trees - one of them a giant beech which had produced another huge
beech-tree by an above-ground runner, in other words, a low branch
which had taken root. The parkland surrounding the house was splendid.
a Land-Rover along a muddy track we then went to the Tower. It
was built in imitation not so much of the 15th century tower houses
which are found all around the coasts of Ireland (and called 'castles'
in that culturally-deprived island) as of the more elaborate Scottish
Border tower-houses or keeps, which often have turrets, sometimes
in quantity, as at Glamis. In vertico - one room in top
of another - with, I seem to remember, the kitchen (no electricity,
no piped water) at the bottom, a splendid viewing terrace on the
top, and in between a bed/sitting room and a beautiful little
poetic library which still had its books - were linked by a winding
stone stair. It seemed smaller to me then than is suggested in
the pictures above, more like a cramped Thoor
Ballylee (which I had visited two years previously on my Lambretta
scooter) than the tower at Duino.
would have been very lonely and isolated, unless I (socially and
sexually naive) had been 'taken up' by the Marquess - of whom
and whose world I knew nothing. That would have been unlikely,
for I have always tended to be befriended - and have been patronised
- by women, not men. Except in prison.
corrupted by electricity and running water, and alarmed at the
muddiness of the track, I declined the offer of leasehold on the
monument - in competitive imitation of which the next-door jumped-up
aristocracy, the Vane-Tempest-Stewarts, holders of the Marquesate
of Londonderry (pronounced always without stress on the 'derry'
bit, which means 'oakwood') built a tower on Scrabo Hill at
the head of Strangford Lough (alias Loch Cuan) which can be seen
for miles - and possibly from the nearby Mull of Galloway on a
day of exceptional visibility.
last Marquess of Lond'nd'ry had famous social occasions in county
Down in the 1930s, to at least one of which the Nazi Foreign Minister,
von Ribbentrop, was invited. I have to this day some of the specially
designed, turquoise-glazed square bonzai pots which once graced
the now abandoned and half-destroyed, tide-rinsed art-déco
swimming-pool at Mount Stewart, an estate mis-managed in perpetuity
by The National Trust. The Marquess was not only a keen aviator
and perhaps fondler of fascists, but was the first Minister of
Education for the statelet of Northern Ireland, in which post
he failed to stop the Catholic population from setting up its
own separate schools which were defiantly not 'godless' like the
official, secular schools, the Queen's University of Belfast and
Trinity College, Dublin, but were faithfully, child-molestingly
Catholic - and did not admit Protestants. This voluntary apartheid
was one of the main reasons for Northern Ireland's little "Troubles"
which now pale into insignificance beside the woes of Bosnia,
Iraq, Libya, Ukraine and Syria, but were much easier to 'cover'
by journalists, especially French journalists who were not able
to report on similar bombish unrest in Corsica, an island which
contains two whole départements of France (numbers
20A and 20B, if, like me, you read car number-plates!).
Where was I ?
an even greater reason for declining Helen's Tower was that I
was offered a Head Gardener's house 80 kms away on the border
between Northern Ireland and the Republic, in the middle of a
wooded and deer-filled estate owned by the Earl of Caledon - plus
a small wage for helping to restore the old walled vegetable gardens.
I had no income at the time. This very beautiful house had many
rooms, electricity and running hot and cold water, so the attractiveness
of Helen's Tower was greatly diminished.
more about Caledon here
I was not aware at the time of my homosexual proclivities. Despite
much fumbling and futtering and squirty phallic experiment at
my minor Public School a few miles up the road from Helen's Tower
(where the misunderstood Sam Beckett failed to be a suitable teacher
for a term), I was not particularly attracted to men. Indeed,
I was still 'getting over' the end of a heterosexual romantic
love affair in Copenhagen and the Baltic outpost of Christiansø.
How I got there is another tortuous tale. (Ask me sometime,
and I'll tell you, so.)
beloved (much, much more mature than I, though only a couple
of years older - but that's Northern Ireland for you!) switched
her attentions to my recent friend, frustrated and also from Belfast,
with whom I was somewhat and inexplicably infatuated, and whom
I had encouraged to leave depressing Belfast for gloriously heterosexual
early-sixties Copenhagen (before the hippies arrived). I was broken-hearted
for at least ten years, and eventually found great consolation
in dogs, though my dog-affairs, too, all ended in tragedy. But
that's another story, and perhaps I'll get round to recounting
the energy and wisdom I received from canine deities - all 'rescue
dogs', of course.
So it was
that I did not realise (as I would now, immediately) that the
elfin Marquess was not just sexy in a willowy way, but 'gay' (a
word which at the time I, mercifully, did not know) in a troubled
statelet where homosexuality was a crime frequently punished by
the courts. It was not for another 15 years that Northern Ireland
de-criminalised intimate carnal relations between human beings
of the same sex (which for most people crudely means anal penetration,
a practice which I regard as coarse and inelegant at the very
least), and even longer before the Irish Republic, a sad and often
brutal state apparently ruled by the Christian Brothers, Opus
Dei, and the Irish College in the Vatican (would you ever guess
that I was brought up a Protestant in East Belfast ?) - which,
nevertheless, has never joined NATO - relaxed its prohibition.
to the Jungian idea that each of us has our own fairy-tale which
in some way describes us. The execrable poetry-translator Robert
Bly has celebrated the masculine significance (for him) of The
Iron Man. Mine is La Belle au Bois Dormant, or Sleeping
Beauty - despite my preference for Swan Lake as a musical entertainment.
In other words, I am a Late Developer, and need constantly to
be nudged into awareness - even by a kiss - even by a kiss from
a dog. My homo-erotic awareness was not awoken for another ten
years - by a kiss from a handsome bearded dancer whom I met in
the cramped toilets of the Beaubourg (Centre Pompidou)
in Paris. This was despite giving shelter for seven years to a
man who was incapable of arousing sexual excitement - let alone
awareness - in me, and yet who was obviously in love with me and
had abandoned his wife and son to live with me in the damp cottage
(on the estate of the Marquess of Lond'nd'ry) which I moved to
after foolishly declining Helen's Tower. After my Parisian lavatory-epiphany,
that man (who had great qualities, but not the quality of teacher
that I so admire in dogs and so rarely find in humans) found another
male to serve, and eventually died from complications arising
from Motor Neurone Disease. The Marquess of Dufferin and Ava died
from 'an AIDS-related illness'.
Had I accepted
his romantic and muddily-remote tower only a few miles from Belfast,
my life might have been dramatically different. I would surely
have met the late royal Princess Margaret (big deal!) at one of
the glittering soirées in his London residence, and perhaps
a beautiful and rich lover who would have kept me, for a time,
in the unflamboyant and unpenny-pinching elegance to which I am
naturally attuned, but for which I have never had the lolly (to
use a term favoured by the then Earl of Caledon), being a born
Unemployable. I would not have gone off to fail to live with the
Pygmies north and west of the vast Likouala Swamp in the People's
Republic of the Congo. I would not have learned an enormous amount
about trees and shrubs from my wanderings around the Mount Stewart
estate, and my plant exchanges with the Botanical Gardens in Dublin,
my visit to Fota Gardens before they passed to Cork County Council,
and afternoon tea with Lord Talbot de Malahide before his death
and the passing of his splendid gardens to the Irish State as
Malahide Demesne Regional Park). I would not have spent three
months in Belfast's Crumlin Road gaol (which now has guided
tours) for shoplifting groceries and household goods - which
short sentence was another awakening nudge.
I would not
be typing this on my Samsung laptop in the little study of my little
half-timbered house (not unlike Helen's Tower in being basically
four rooms one on top of another) in Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, an
unfortunately-trendy village celebrated in a banal and costly American
movie with the title of The Hundred-Foot Journey.
soon rejected the tawdry life of London's artistic glitterati,
I might have composed The Clandeboye Sonnets. I might have
bumped into Francis Bacon and in that desperate ambiance might
have died - in luxury, or in squalor - of "an AIDS-related