Friday, 30 April 2010

An Alternative History of Finland: Act Three

The third act of my Alternative History is thankfully on a far more light-hearted note than the grim tragedy of Act Two. It is set in 1876 at the headquarters of a paper manufacturer in South Western Finland. The works are sited on the banks of the river Nokianvirta. The nearest town is called Nokia. Fredrik Idestam, the founder and chairman, decided to name his company Nokia, after its location.

One day a keen young clerk, who coincidentally shares the same surname as the writer of these alternative histories, rushes into the chairman’s office to tell him of an exciting new invention he had just read about in the scientific journals. It seems a certain Alexander Graham Bell has invented what he calls a telephone. Young Karl suggests that the company diversifies from their current line of paper products into manufacturing telephones, which he believes will make the company’s fortune and name.

The chairman of Nokia wants to know more about this revolutionary product. Apparently the telephone would allow Mr Idestam to speak to the office from within the comfort of his own home. Mt Idestam is not impressed. Pen and paper are more than sufficient for that he concludes. In his considered opinion the telephone is just a passing fad. He confidently predicts that in the 21st century people will have long forgotten all about telephones. However the whole globe will know of Nokia and still be using its products because people will always have a need for toilet paper!

This story was inspired by my first ever visit to the motherland where I came across a reconstruction of an early 20th century small grocery store. To my amusement, one of the products on prominent display was a toilet roll proudly displaying the Nokia brand name; which only goes to prove that even the biggest global brands have to start at the bottom.

Nokiassa vuonna 1876

Fredrik Idestam on Nokian toimitusjohtaja. Karl Riikonen on vain toimihenkilö mutta hän on kaukokatseinen. Karl juoksee huoneeseen. Hän on kovin jännittynyt.

Karl: Herra Idestam. Olin kirjastossa lukemassa aikakausjulkaisua. Alexander Graham Bell keksi puhelimen. Hän patentoi ensimmäisen käytännössä toimivan puhelimen.

Fredrik: Mikä on puhelin?

Karl: Me kommunikoimme puhelime vaikka sinä olet kotona ja minä olen toimistossa. Firmalla on tilaisuus. Se voi tuottaa puhelimet.

Fredrik: Ei koskaan! Nokia tuottaa puuvanuketta. 2000-luvulla me kommunikoimme kynällä. Emme kommunikoi puhelimalla. Miten tahansa, 2000-luvulla, he edelleen jatkavat ostavat Nokian tuotteita. Miksi? Ihmiset tarvitsevat aina toilettipaperia. Mene pois Karl! Nyt!

An Alternative History of Finland: Act Two

Duke Erik, the lovelorn King of Sweden and subject of the First Act of my Alternative History, whose advances were scorned by Queen Elizabeth of England, was eventually toppled from the throne and replaced by his brother John. Like Eric, John had been Duke of Finland before becoming King of Sweden. Unlike Eric John had had a Finnish mistress. It was the story of a love affair between another monarch’s son and a young Finnish woman that inspired the second act of my Alternative Finnish History. Sadly this tragedy is all based on fact with little elaboration by me.  

Set in  Naples n 1717, Alexei, the exiled son of Tsar Peter the Great of Russia receives a letter from his father imploring him to return home. Peter has ruthlessly imposed massive reforms in Russia in an effort to bring it in line with continental Europe.  He will brook no opposition to his reforms, even from his closest family. Seen as the natural leader of the Opposition and in fear of his life, Alexei has fled Russia and will not be readily cajoled back. His father tries to persuade him that he sincerely wants reconciliation and will do anything to achieve that goal, even agreeing to his son marrying his Finnish mistress, Afrosinia. In my playlet, Afrosinia is astonished at the news and finds it scarcely credible that the Tsar would agree to such a match with a girl from peasant stock. But Alexei assures her that his father will honour his word and that they should pack immediately as they are returning to Moscow.

Far from keeping his word, Peter had his son arrested and imprisoned when he reached Russian soil. He was later tortured to death as a traitor. In my alternative universe, Peter honoured the solemn pledges he had given and allowed Alexei to marry his Finnish peasant bride. In turn their children inherited the Romanov throne, resulting in the Tsarist line intermingling Russian and Finnish blood. Again I have included my playlet below.

Napolissa vuonna 1717

Tsaari Pietari Suuri ajoi pois oman poikansa Aleksein.  Aleksei ja hänen suomalainen rakastaja Afrosinia asuvat Italiassa

Aleksei: Afrosinia? Afrosinia! Missä sinä olit?
Afrosinia: Minä olin ulkona kävelemässä. Syysaurinko paistoi kirkkaasti. Miksi?
Aleksei: Pääsen kotiin! Tulen Venäjälle!
Afrosinia: Mitä tämä tarkoittaa?
Aleksei: Tsaari kirjoitaa: Suodaan anteeksi täydellisesti. Sinä olet minun oma poikani ja kruununperiiani. Mene naimisiin Afrosinian kanssa!
Afrosinia: Mutta, minä olen vain suomalainen maalainen.
Aleksie: Kun Tsaari Pietari kuolee, sinä olet suomalainen tsaarittareni.
Aleksei: Tahdotko tulla kanssani?
Afrosinia: Totta kai. Minä olen raskaana.
Aleksei: Älä hermoile. Mennään Venäjälle! Mitä pikemmin, sen parempi.


Vuonna 1718

Pietari muutti kruununperimystä surmatessaan oman poikansa Aleksein, joka vastusti isänsä uudistuksia.

An alternative history of Finland:Act One

A few years ago I decided to write an alternative history of Finland as a subject matter for my Finnish studies. I wrote four playlets, each centred on an alternative history. I inveigled fellow students into reading the script aloud, a cunning ploy I later replicated when I presented a different project based on the 18th century literary satire by Xavier de Maistre, titled: ”Voyage autour de ma chambre "

The first Act of  my Alternative history of Finland begins in England in 1558. Elizabeth Tudor, having only recently succeeded to the English throne receives yet another marriage proposal from Eric, Duke of Finland. In two years time, he too will be monarch of his own respective Protestant nation, Sweden. Eric’s pursuit of Elizabeth started when she was still only the heir presumptive and subject to the capricious whims of her Catholic half-sister Mary, which veered from loathing to fear to eventual acceptance of their joint father’s, Henry VIII’s will and Elizabeth’s place in the succession.

My playlet has Elizabeth asking her lady-in-waiting, a woman coincidentally also called Caro R, all about the language, country and cuisine of the Finnish Duchy she might one day rule over, should she accept Duke Eric’s hand in marriage. (This also gave the real Caro R a chance to show off her vocabulary touching these areas). After her lady-in-waiting has satisfied the Queen’s curiosity, she asks Elizabeth if she will marry him, upon which Elizabeth retorts in derision: Don’t be silly! Have you seen his portrait?”

Since writing that playlet I have revised my opinion of Eric and decided that, were it not for the beard he would have been quite a comely young  man.  Sadly for him, his brief reign ended in ignominy. Within less than two decades he was deposed, imprisoned and possibly murdered, a fate in stark contrast to the glorious one awaiting “that bright Occidental Star, Queen Elizabeth of most happy memory” or so the dedication in the King James Bible styles her. The compliment is somewhat back-handed as they go on to describe her successor King James, who authorised that edition of the Bible, as being the sun in full strength to Elizabeth’s mere star.

In my alternative universe Elizabeth marries Eric on the condition that the Duchy of Finland reverts to the English crown on his death. He agrees and thus Finland becomes a part of the United Kingdom. In reality Elizabeth eventually tired of Eric’s protestations of love and in 1560 she finally wrote him a letter spelling out that she could never think of marrying him, even if she happened to meet him in person. Using the royal plural she ends her letter “we do not conceive in our heart to take a husband, but highly commend this single life, and hope that your Serene Highness will no longer spend time in waiting for us.” A sentiment I wholeheartedly endorse. Elizabeth had been wise not to marry Eric in more ways than one. In later life he gave way to the madness that had afflicted his father, his half-brother and his own son in turn. 

I have included my playlet in Finnish below. For those fluent in my mother’s tongue I apologise for the errors. In mitigation it was composed on an English keyboard which insisted on trying to correct my Finnish into proper English.

Hampton Courtissa vuonna 1558

Elisabet Tudorin (1558-1603, isä Henrik VIII ja äiti Anne Boleyn) aikana toteutettiin uskonpuhdistus ja siirryttiin anglikaaniseen kirkkoon, jonka oppi on pääasiassa protestanttinen. Caro R oli aatelisnainen ja hovinainen Tudorin palatsissa.

Caro R: Mitä asiaa? Tarvitsisitteko Te jotakin, teidän Ylhäisyytenne?
Elizabeth R: Lue tämä kirje.
Caro R: Erik, suomen herttua haluaisi olla teidän kosija. Hän haluaisi mennä naimisiin.
Elizabeth R: (Hän hymyilee)Totta kai! Minä olen Elisabet kruunata Englantiin, Walesiin, Irlantiin. Onko suomi vaikea kieli?
Caro R: Ei ole. Suomi on erilainen kieli.
Elizabeth R: Joko minä puhun englantia, ranskaa, latinaa, kreikkaa, italiaa ja vähän espanjaa.
Elizabeth R: Minkälainen maa Suomi on?
Caro R: Suomea nimitetään usein tuhansien järvien maaksi.
Elizabeth R: No mitäs muutakaan? Millainen ilmasto Suomessa on?
Caro R: Talvi on pitkä. Usein on kova pakkanen. Sataa lunta. Päivälläkin on pimeää. Minusta, talvi on Suomessa aika kaunis. Kesä on lyhyt.
Elizabeth R: Miltä suomalainen ruoka maistuu?
Caro R: Ensimmäkseen hyvältä. Se on liian suolaista ja rasvaista. Minä rakastan suomalaista leipää ja pullaa. Jossakin, minulla on resepti.
Elizabeth R: Oletkohan sinä innokas ruoanlaittaja?
Caro R: Silloin tällöin
Elizabeth R: Ovatkohan he katolisia?
Caro R: He eivät ole. He ovat protestanttisia. Menisitteko Te naimisiin?
Elizabeth R: Älä ole hassu! Katso Erikin muotokuvaa. Erik ei ole tarpeeksi komea!.

The Angel of Death, the Angel of Mercy, a tot of vodka and a packet of peanuts

Yesterday I went to the gym for the first time in almost a fortnight, now that my brief stint as an angel of mercy was at an end. Loaded down with shopping, my larder having been run down to such an extent I was almost out of ingredients to make fresh meals with, I took the bus home. I gave up my seat at the bus stop first to an old lady and then to an even more infirm old lady, reliant on a Zimmer frame. On the bus a pregnant woman was offered a seat by someone else. I often observe people, usually women, readily offering up their seats to others on public transport, giving the lie to the idea that it no longer happens. Whenever a man offers me his seat I accept with a smirk, convinced I have stirred his instincts as one of nature's gentlemen confronted with a genuine lady. By contrast, I am somewhat mortified when I am the recipient of such generosity at the hands of younger women. It makes me paranoid as to whether they think I am a wizened crone or pregnant; the latter the perennial affliction of apple-shaped women, cursed with long slender limbs, a generous embonpoint and a pronounced tum. Once on a train, when there could have been no doubt as to my radiant youth and my figure was mostly concealed behind the scrum of other passengers, a woman came across to offer me a seat. Puzzled, I asked her why. She had taken it into her head that I was blind simply because I was wearing dark glasses. Her heart was in the right place unlike mine, which a medical technician was unable to find when I last went to hospital for an ECT several years ago.
Two women, who I took to be around my age, were seated in front of me and allowed everyone within hearing distance, in other words the entire bus,  to be privy to their conversation. It seems one of the women was concerned about her much put upon mother, who apparently waited hand and foot on her younger daughter.
“It isn’t right at her age”, said the woman of her mother, before revealing that her parent was a mere nine years older than me. I rapidly revised downwards my view of the woman’s own age, until she began to boast about her drinking binges. Vodka it seems was her favourite tipple and nemesis as it had frequently led her to vomiting in public and occasional injury, when she had collapsed through sheer drunkenness. I smugly realised that her heavy drinking had made her look as old if not older than me. I rarely drink, not on religious or ethical grounds but because I have yet to find an alcoholic drink I actually like. The exception is creamy cocktails. But their prohibitive price means I limit even them to special occasions perhaps once a year. If a stranger were to open up one of the cupboards in my kitchen they would think I was a dipsomaniac given my extensive collection of wine, liqueurs, champagne, spirits and even porter. Porter, a heavy dark brown ale, is my secret ingredient to add colour and flavour to stews and mince.

In the 1950s pregnant women and nursing mothers in the UK were regularly offered Guinness, a sweeter version of Porter on the NHS. It was believed that the iron contained in the beer would help supplement their own. The contents of my other bottles regularly feature in my cooking. However, I do not serve alcohol at my table and expect guests to bring their own wine with them as I am not a connoisseur of wine, regarding them all as equally horrid. Woe betides the guest who brings wine and no other offering for the host though!
Henry VIII was known to be rather partial to a glass of wine or two. His vast extant wine cellar at Hampton Court is proof of that. Now the general public can see a replica of what one of his great wine fountains would have looked like. The replica, over thirteen feet in height, has been erected outside in Base Court at Hampton Court Palace. For the princely sum of £3.50, the public can choose between a glass of red or white wine. I shall decline. When they reproduce a thirteen feet tall Tudor chocolate fountain, I just might be interested.

Before cooking an evening meal, I decided to eat some peanuts. They can give me indigestion but as I like the taste so much I decided to take the risk. I ate one handful without any adverse consequences so helped myself to another. I suddenly began to feel chilly and shake violently.  I went to bed and lay under the covers. Try as I might I could neither stop the shaking nor warm myself up. I began to get stomach cramps. Only when my stomach and the peanuts had parted company forever did I begin to feel better.

Today I looked up my symptoms on the internet. I either had an unusually severe reaction to the peanuts, diverticulitis or metal poisoning. Looking up symptoms on the web is an intriguing but potentially flawed past time. I remember dutifully entering symptoms into a search engine on another occasion. The good news was that I had found a medical diagnosis for my symptoms. The bad news was that it was a condition known only to cows.   

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

I’m looking at the (wo)man in the mirror.

On my final full day in Highgate the Partridge and I decided to go to Kenwood; she  to take photographs of the Heath and I  to wander around Kenwood House. The latter was open to the general public but the place  swarmed with staff; a couple of maintenance men worked on fixing the broken light bracket atop one of the entrance hall fireplaces, whilst others moved fixtures and fittings from the Orangery. A notice affixed to the Orangery door proclaimed the room was closed as the exhibition was in the process of a “breakdown.” How I sympathised . Being in the public eye can be so exhausting.

In the music room, I observed that the square piano was a John Broadwood dating from the late 18th century. Whenever I stay in Highgate I play on a grand piano manufactured by the same company in 1910. I spent some time looking at a painting on the Music Room wall. By Sir Joshua Reynolds, it depicted a 3 year old George (later better known as Beau) Brummell and his 5 year old brother. Normally I am quite indifferent to the depiction of winsome blonde and ruddy cheeked infants. However last year I read a fascinating account of the Beau in Ian Kelly’s biography:” Beau Brummell: the ultimate dandy.”  It chronicles Brummell’s life from birth to his ascent to the apex of fashionable 18th century society, where he was feted as being the most stylish man of his generation. Even the so-called “First Gentleman of Europe”, the Prince Regent, later George IV, was not above copying the Beau’s elegant mode of dressing. Nowadays, people often equate dandies with men in flamboyant clothes. Nothing could be further from Brummell’s own tastes. His personal dress code was in direct opposition to the brightly coloured attire of his sartorial rivals: the Macaronies. Their vibrant silks and satins, ornate powdered wigs, face paint and patches and heavy perfumes (the better to conceal their less than fragrant body odour) were simply a more masculine version of the flamboyant clothes worn by fashionable women of the period. The Beau championed sober colours, superbly tailored and in the finest of cloths to enhance his figure. Even more radically, he would insist on taking several baths a day, making daily bathing suddenly fashionable amongst the upper classes, who sought to emulate him in every way. His extravagant lifestyle was maintained on credit and the patronage of the Prince Regent. The two were inextricably linked. When he fell from royal favour, his creditors closed in on him and Brummell was ultimately forced to flee to France rather than end up in a debtor’s jail. Finding himself cast from royal favour, Brummell retaliated at a society reception by loudly posing  the following question:
“Alvanley, who's your fat friend?”
Brummell knew full well that the “fat friend” in question was the Prince Regent. Moreover the Prince’s ballooning weight was always a matter of great mortification to the heir to the throne. He had even resorted to corsets to try and regain a more becoming physique, with little success. Brummell by contrast was a natural athlete and cricketer, whose sporting prowess provided a perfect figure upon which to showcase his elegant and close fitting clothing.

The Beau’s life  ended tragically as he descended into madness. He spent his final years confined to a French lunatic asylum. He was fortunate that the asylum had adopted  a far more humane regime for the inmates than had been prevalent in previous generations. None the less, even they could not save that most fastidious and stylish of men from the truly devastating physical and mental effects as his mind and body succumbed to the terrible ravages of syphilis. Consequently, hindsight gives poignancy to the picture of the carefree and radiant young Beau at Kenwood House.
The blue staircase was cordoned off. A sign on the wall tantalising still advertises the Suffolk Collection although I doubt if it is ever open to the public these days. I was fortunate to have seen it as many times as I did.

The Deal Staircase could still be walked up. From it I glimpsed the entrance to either a flat or offices. I love the fact they have incorporated a proper 18th century front door to these apartments, together with a brass knocker and fanlight. The staircase leads to the miniatures and buckles room and also contains the Hull Grundy collection of jewellery. Mrs Anne Hull Grundy’s Jewish family had been forced to flee Nazi Germany and had settled in Hampstead. Thus it was that Anne became familiar with Kenwood House. In the notes to the collection she explains that she was struck by how empty the house seemed when she went there in her youth and was determined to rectify this when she had a chance. I especially loved the gold (pinchbeck?) chatelaine. Another definition of chatelaine, aside from referring to the lady of a castle, relates to the small lengths of chains which hung from a woman’s belt and from which she could attach keys or small items of domestic equipment, such as scissors.  

I then raced through the remaining rooms. For the first time I realised that the ornate 18th century library designed by Robert Adams for Lord Mansfield was filled with early 20th and late 19th century books; no doubt part of a job lot of books, which could be bought by the yard for such a contingency. Another snippet of information I gleaned was that bringing food from the kitchen to the dining room was quite a palaver and involved crossing part of a courtyard. I had lunched in the kitchens in the past and so knew it was set at some distance from the main house. Nonetheless it had not occurred to me before that the cooked food would have been exposed to the elements. If Lord Mansfield’s hot dishes reached his table cold, at least he could still boast that he dined like a King of England; George III in fact when the latter was in residence at Kew Palace.Kitchens at Kew Palace Conscious of the passage of time, I went to join the Partridge in the grounds, where she failed to recognise me, despite looking twice straight in my direction. Perhaps the fact I was not wearing one of my trademark hats confused her. I decided to join her in taking more photographs of the heath. I rather liked the one she took of me emerging from the camellias like some latter day Marguerite Gautier, although unlike the heroine of   Dumas “La Dame aux camellias” it is unlikely, given my sturdy constitution, that anyone would assume that I was dying of consumption although they might think I had a touch of jaundice judging by the strange yellow complexion the photograph has given me. No one would ever mistake me for a trained singer if I chanced to warble a few arias from La Traviata, the opera based on Marguerite’s life and one of my favourites.

We made our way over to the 18th century ornamental dairy, which in its heyday would have rivalled even Marie Antoinette’s model farm at Versailles. Disappointingly the buildings retain their rustic charm only from afar. Close to, the white-washed buildings are empty and I saw little sign of the tiled floors and cow stalls I had read about. But there was an interesting little mirrored hall which I photographed. When I examined it later I was disconcerted to discover that the ghostly image captured of me was more akin to a naïve water colour than a photograph.

We then made our way to the brewery café, where I had pork sausages and potatoes and the Partridge had a slice of vegetarian pie with a salad sealed in a plastic bag from the fridge of all things. It goes without saying that I also bought a cream cake. The Partridge took some photographs oblivious to the fact that one of the younger members of the Redgrave theatrical dynasty was sitting directly opposite us. I fervently hoped she didn’t think we were trying to capture her image for the tabloids.

Having walked back to Highgate I offered to make supper. I had intended to make a vegetarian lasagne but the online order had managed to substitute a ready made beef lasagne for my requested lasagne sheets. So I made a ratatouille instead and served it with brown rice. For dessert we had stewed rhubarb from the garden, which was then whisked smooth in a blender. People helped themselves to double cream from a small jug. My only regret was that there were not any ripe fresh rhubarb stalks left over for me to bring back to Wimbledon. Hey ho, I must make do with the shop bought ones this evening.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Fair stood the wind for Wimbledon.

It has to be said that sometimes a few people take me for granted. They are too self-absorbed to possess the self-awareness to know who they are, but a clue might lie in the fact that most of their other friends and family have long since given up on them. They assume that I will always be at hand to sort out their personal problems or listen to their enervating tales of woe. It rarely seems to occur to them that I too have a private life, which does not always revolve around their needs and their time-scale. Thus, it was with a degree of satisfaction that I was able to write back to certain neighbours seeking my help and say that no, I was not actually in Wimbledon at present and any problem requiring my assistance would simply have to wait for my return. As to when that might be would remain firmly in the laps of those gods controlling the amount of ash in the skies over England.

True to form, I had not even made it to the front steps with my heavy suitcase and shopping before I was besieged by a neighbour seeking my help.
“Can you help me prepare an official letter,” he begged, adding generously,” It can wait until tomorrow.”
He had little chance of my being able to help him there and then and it was ridiculous of him to suppose that I would, as he could not post it until Monday morning at the earliest. Moreover, his utter failure to even offer to help me carry my luggage and shopping up to my forth floor flat flat did little to promote his cause. Besides, my garden needed all my attention as many of the flowers had wilted in my absence. After spending the best part of an hour watering the plants in the garden I went up to flat, hoping that my other plants had survived a week of neglect. I had fortuitously kept my tomato plants in a large dish filled with water as they had suffered the most when I had left them for a similar period last summer. Thankfully the remaining herbs and pot plants quickly revived once I had ensured they had been well watered again. I had brought back a wild garlic plant with me and planted it in my own herb garden. I had given instructions to the Head Gardener, (my friend's brother) at Highgate to arrange for the Partridge to bring around a further range of plants when next she came a-calling. Ideally, such plants would be hardy annuals which could survive in all types of soil and shady conditions.

I noticed that last year's sorrel  was again flourishing in the garden. Now that the weather has become a great deal warmer, I plan to make the Eagle and her partner sorrel soup and a main dish requiring wild garlic as a key ingredient. Ever since I returned to Wimbledon, I have found myself nibbling on the wild garlic leaves and using the shoots chopped up in my cooking or with a piece of cheese. That, and the fact I was up long before anyone else in Highgate, gives the lie to the idea that I am in any shape or form a vampire.

In my absence, the cherry trees in the neighbouring gardens have all burst into bloom, providing a cheerful splash of colour. I am especially pleased to see that the cherry tree in the garden next door has survived the stress of being in the middle of a redevelopment site as workers strive to renovate the derelict house. I will never forgive the original freeholder for allowing a 150 year old walnut tree in the garden to be cut down to make way for an extension; to make matters worse he then proceeded to place two hideous bunker like sheds in the front garden. Originally he claimed it was to store the building equipment needed whilst the lower storey was being renovated. Later, the leaseholders found themselves charged the cost of such monstrosities as the freeholder claimed he needed somewhere to house the gardening equipment, now that his building extension has led to additional meters being placed in the space under the stairs, meaning there was no longer room available to store the lawn mower etc. He defended the ugliness of the sheds by saying they were cheap. I had retorted that we would all rather have spent more money on attractive looking sheds and thereby be spared having to look at such blots on the landscape. Last year the Partridge brought me a banksia rambling rose, which I have affixed to one side of the shed.  I have used string to train it across the roof. At the moment it covers approximately a quarter of the  shed roof. I am hoping that its thick foliage and roses will eventually cover it entirely. The cutting down of the walnut tree and the erection of the builder’ yard sheds were just two of  the reasons why I was so keen to buy the freehold and ensure that the garden could never again be despoiled in such a way. Compared to Highgate, our garden will never compete with it either in terms of scale or landscaping, despite all my valiant efforts to overcome years of outright neglect. But, as a consolation,  I do have a splendid view over the roof tops and the countless mature trees currently blossoming in the local conservation area. At this time of year, such a view is priceless and I would not exchange it even for the dubious delights of living in that much vaunted, allegedly eco-friendly six million pound house in Highgate. not so ideal home

The Partridge flies home

I thought I might have time to slip out to Kenwood House on Thursday morning. As it was I found myself so engrossed with getting the house ready for the return of the Partridge and various members of her family, that I did not even have a chance to have a shower and put on some clean clothes until just before I dished up the evening meal.

I had made three Finnish loaves flavoured with cardamom, which I served with a pot of tea when the Partridge arrived, weighed down with luggage but grateful to be finally back at the family home. They arrived earlier than I had expected. It seems their luggage was already waiting for them on the carousel at the terminal and they were waived through passport control. Moreover, I had arranged for a taxi to be waiting for them outside the airport, ready to whisk them back to Highgate.

I was going to place a chicken on a bed of sliced carrots, onions, fresh sage leaves and water in a roasting tin and covered with a dome-shaped roasting tin before placing in a hot oven  to cook. When I have done this in the past, the chicken has remained succulent but still turned a golden brown without the need for me to baste it or add any oil to the bird. I also wanted to roast some potatoes, sprinkled with salt and chopped rosemary in a separate roasting tin. I had made a Pavlova case the night before, which I planned to fill with whipped cream infused with Framboise and sliced strawberries, marinated in the same liqueur . The Children’s Novelist (CN) said she had to hurry home after we had had coffee and one of  the freshly baked Finnish loaves in the garden, as she had a lot to chores to catch up with at home. In the event, her car would not start and by the time a car mechanic had been summoned from the local garage, she timidly asked if she might partake in our supper after all. Other than roast potatoes, there was plenty to go around and she was also able to help herself to a second helping of my strawberry Pavlova.

The family had bought me back plentiful supplies of German chocolate to pacify the wrath of the household god (dess). when the flights go on again all over the worldThey also gave me an exquisitely enamelled photograph frame containing the image of a cheerful looking early 20th century Prussian princess which could be replaced with one of my own choosing. The CN thought she could spot a distinct resemblance to myself. I said the likeliness would be even more striking if I too were wearing my imperial diadem and diamond necklace. I have now decided that the princess stays. Blood is thicker than water after all.

Their family home in Highgate was always designed for a large household. It was wonderful to have it filled with so many people again. Long may they continue to live in it and invite me to share its pleasures with them from time to time.

High jinks at Highgate

The Partridge and her kinsfolk would telephone me several times a day from Berlin in their efforts to secure a passage back to England. I trawled the internet looking for ferries which might take them as foot passengers. It proved a near impossible task. The best they could hope for was to make their way to a continental port and take their chances once they got there. This, however, was not a practical option as the party included a woman in her 70s and the only train journey they could reserve from Berlin would have involved her standing up for the whole two hour journey, with no guarantee of either a seat on the ferry or accommodation upon arrival. Another family friend, desperate to have them all back in time to celebrate her landmark birthday in England, took it upon herself to try and organise a rescue mission of her own. Her other flights of fancy having been politely but firmly turned down, she finally suggested they hire a pilot acquaintance of hers to fly them back home in his light aircraft for £800. Given that they did not know this pilot personally and that a general flight ban was in operation, albeit perhaps only for jet aircrafts, her offer was again politely declined. After many hours of queuing, they were eventually able to secure fully refundable Eurostar tickets, which would have guaranteed them a seat from Berlin through to St Pancras, London on Sunday 25th April. In the event, they were able to fly back to England sooner with their original carrier, two days after the flight ban had been lifted across the whole of the UK.

Released from my duties as a part-time travel agent, I decided to spend my last full day as a chatelaine strolling along to Highgate village. I took more photographs of the 17th century Cromwell House, which now serves as the Ghanaian Embassy. It is a pity I do not have any Ghanaian friends as I would have insisted they found a way to let me take a peek at the interior. The house is said to boast a fine 17th century oak staircase.

In terms of its exterior, the house is unusual in that it still retains a lofty 17th century carriage arch, tall enough to allow even high sided small vans to pass safely under today. Similar arches were often either demolished or filled in to provide additional accommodation in later eras. Fortunately the house is listed which means owners, even foreign embassies, have to respect the integrity of the building. The roof and cupola were restored in the 1860s. In the 19th century it was believed that Cromwell House was so named because Bridget, the Lord Protector’s daughter, went to live there upon her marriage to Henry Ireton. However, no evidence can be found that any member of either the Cromwell or Ireton family lived at the house itself, although it was known that the original builder was a neighbour of the Iretons. 

The Ireton connection is also commemorated in the name of the far smaller town house, to the immediate right of Cromwell House as you emerge down its front steps.

Across the road is Lauderdale House where John Ireton, Henry’s brother and one-time Lord Mayor of London, did indeed reside. With such strong links to the English Commonwealth, John was forced to vacate Lauderdale House following the restoration of King Charles II in 1660. Local legend has it that the latter’s cockney mistress, Nell Gwynne, lived at the house for a while.  One undoubted owner was John Maitland, the first Duke of Lauderdale and second husband of Elizabeth, Countess of Dysart. whose name is forever linked to Ham House in Richmond. In his diary for the 28th July 1666 Samuel Pepys records a visit he made to the Duke of Lauderdale’s Highgate home. Pepys was not impressed either by the calibre of the guest or their musical abilities. He writes:      

“ Thence with my Lord to his coach-house, and there put in his six horses into his coach, and he and I alone to Highgate. ….Being come thither we went to my Lord Lauderdale's house to speake with him, we find (him) and his lady and some Scotch people at supper. Pretty odd company; though my Lord Bruncker tells me, my Lord Lauderdale is a man of mighty good reason and judgement. But at supper there played one of their servants upon the viallin some Scotch tunes only; several, and the best of their country, as they seemed to esteem them, by their praising and admiring them: but, Lord! the strangest ayre that ever I heard in my life, and all of one cast. But strange to hear my Lord Lauderdale say himself that he had rather hear a cat mew, than the best musique in the world; and the better the musique, the more sicke it makes him; and that of all instruments, he hates the lute most, and next to that, the baggpipe.”

“A History of the County of Middlesex”, published in 1980, claims that Grand Duke Cosimo III of Tuscany paid a visit to Lauderdale House in 1669. Coincidentally, I am currently engaged in reading a paperback copy of Harold Acton’s 1932 biography of  Cosimo, entitled “The Last Medici.  I have yet to reach the part where the Florentine Duke decides to stay and have a cup of coffee and a slice of cake in Highgate. 

As it was a fine spring afternoon people had thronged to Waterlow Park, the pleasure gardens surrounding Lauderdale House. I read a magazine on a park bench as small children and dogs played near by. My attention was suddenly caught by a Doberman puppy and a much smaller poodle-like dog. The latter was making a thorough nuisance of himself. I say he, because the dog was trying to mount the Doberman puppy. I watched with fascination as the Doberman tried to escape the poodle’s unwanted advances. My feelings changed to trepidation as the Doberman sought sanctuary beneath my feet before leaping on to the bench and lying down beside me. Doberman Pinschers have a reputation for aggression and I feared that once the puppy’s natural instincts kicked in, it might literally make a meal of the insolent poodle and my limbs at the same time, should they become inadvertently entangled in the melee. Luckily once the puppy realised that its owner was now close by, it recovered its nerve and began to leap upon the poodle. Being a far bigger dog, it squashed the poodle to the ground as it did so. As the puppy was now well clear of my limbs and was still in a playful mood, I watched in amusement to see the tables so resolutely turned before the owner attached a leash to the puppy’s collar and led her away.

I took a number of the photographs of the exterior of Lauderdale House, which like Cromwell House across the road, was much restored in the 19th century. I particularly liked the pair of statues of the boy and girl dressed in period costumes on the terrace, as well as the marble bas relief depicting a scene from antiquity in the vestibule. I do not know whether either work was original to the house. Regrettably I did not have a chance to venture inside to view the latest exhibition being staged there, as the doors had closed promptly at 4pm.

As I made my way up Highgate Hill I stopped to read the plaque on the boundary wall surrounding Lauderdale House. It commemorated the site, several feet below, of the cottage of the English metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell. From this Victorian plaque I discovered that Andrew Marvell was not only friends with the even more lauded 17th century poet John Milton, he was also born in Yorkshire and had been MP for Hull for a number of years. I will now need to get a comely young man to read me Marvell’s poem To his coy mistress in an authentic Yorkshire dialect. Having read Lady Chatterley’s lover at an impressionable young age, I have always subsequently found the adult male Yorkshire accent rather alluring, whereas certain other regional dialects make me cringe. 

Being back on Highgate Hill, I could not fail to stop by High Tea of Highgate for a cappuccino and carrot cake. I am sure they saw a marked decline in their sales last year following my return to Wimbledon, after a similar week of caring for my friend’s brother. Last summer, I made a point of gracing the tea-shop with my presence on an almost daily basis.  I happily ate my way through most of the cakes on display. This time I had to limit myself to a slice of their delicious carrot cake, made without walnuts. All the cakes are equally appetising in my eyes, which makes selecting a single one so difficult. 1940s music played as I sat at my table and admired the chandelier made from tea paraphernalia, light fittings formed from metal jelly moulds and the trompe l’oeil of a clock painted onto the wall. I toyed with the idea of buying a slice of cake to take back with me but then decided that having already eaten separate ice-creams to and from Lauderdale House to celebrate the arrival of the glorious weather, I had better refrain.

And so, if not to bed, back to my final chatelaine duties at the house in Highgate.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Not so Ideal Home

As I perambulated Highgate village I came across the sad sight of what looks to have once been an elegant Regency town house boarded up and woefully neglected. Only a few minutes later I was standing outside a modern house in the process of being built. It was recently nominated for an award for being the most eco-friendly house in the United Kingdom. It can be bought for a mere six million pounds. No doubt whoever lives in it can feel smug that they have such a “green” house although I pity the neighbours who have to look at it from the outside. Its exterior has about as much innate charm as the average warehouse on an industrial estate. I cannot see people flocking to save it from demolition in a few decades when its technology will have become obsolete and there being seemingly having little else to recommend in its favour.

The houses in the area were once large family homes with spacious gardens. Now people buy a perfectly acceptable house, knock it down and build some mundane replacement on a scale completely out of kilter with the original; hardly the most eco friendly example to set. Moreover, most of these new developments involve destroying the original verdant front gardens and erecting tall fences to conceal the grounds; in doing so they are acting quite out of keeping with the original architectural vernacular of the locality as well as increasing the general sense of unease for pedestrians such as myself; these fortresses suggest the streets outside must be genuinely dangerous if home owners feel a need to barricade themselves indoors. Thus, not only do they serve to destroy the look of the area with such bland buildings, they also destroy its community spirit. How can public spirited individuals keep a discreet eye out for the welfare of their fellow neighbours when they cannot even see their neighbours’ house, concealed behind such high walls? Besides, an Englishman’s home may be his castle, but it is the inalienable right of all Englishmen and women to be able to peek through at the front garden and comment on the state of the lawn or envy the horticultural display.

On the same road as the faded Regency town house are two other houses of note; according to the blue plaques on the respective buildings Charles Dickens stayed in one of the houses in 1832 and the poet and scholar A.E. Housman wrote his famous collection of poems “A Shropshire Lad” whilst residing in the other. There are no high walls to prevent people taking a photograph of the one-time homes of such illustrious former occupants. Even without the literary connections, such houses never fail to lift my spirits when I walk past them unlike their dreary modern counterparts. Their very presence encourages me to take a stroll rather than drive a car or take a bus to my destination. Consequently, they would win my award for being the perfect mix of eco and neighbourhood friendly houses.

Home thoughts from a Broad

Now that my time in Highgate is fast coming to an end, I decided to go for a walk in Waterlow Park. It is notable for its links with the celebrated Restoration courtesan Nell Gywn, who is thought to have lived for a time in Lauderdale House, the mansion still standing in its grounds. Waterlow Park also borders Highgate Cemetery, one of whose most famous eternal residentsighgate cemetery is Karl Marx. Had I been born but a century earlier and followed the same career path I might well have bumped into Karl when I worked late in the Reading Room of the British Library. However, my stroll did not bring to mind the German philosopher but rather his contemporary, the Victorian poet Robert Browning and in particular the following poem by him:

Home Thoughts from Abroad

Oh, to be in England
Now that April's there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England-now!

And after April, when May follows,
And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!
Hark, where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops-at the bent spray's edge-
That's the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children's dower
Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

When the flights go on again, all over the world!

I was transfixed by my first sight of a vapour trail in a week.
“Come and look at it, “ I squealed to the Partridge’s brother. The last time I had been so excited by such a mundane event was when the water suddenly surged through our pipes, having been cut off for over three weeks in 1983 as a result of the national water strike. Having to traipse up and down two flights of stairs in the midst of a severe winter to collect water from a standpipe in a neighbouring street made me, temporarily, appreciate the luxury of having a plentiful clean water supply literally on tap. Prior to arriving home, I had boasted to a friend that we had not been affected by the water strike. Once home I discovered the mains water pipe had burst in the cellar and although the water company had turned the water off, they would not turn the mains back on again for the duration of the strike. I was forced to collect fallen snow from my second floor roof and heat it in a saucepan just to have something to drink and wash in before I could make alternative arrangements the next day. Fortunately, local authorities still provided public baths where people could hire a bath in a cubicle to bathe in. Nowadays I imagine only showers in health clubs are available. It almost beggars belief but there was a time when my mother and I were living in a flat that did not have access to a bathroom. The nearest public baths were over two miles away and I needed to take a bus to get to them. I cannot imagine modern landlords would be able to get away with that. I came across an advert recently offering flats for sale in the very same house I had once lived in. Now even the tiniest studio boasts its own shower room.

My excitement at the vapour trail dissipated as quickly as it did. Not long afterwards, the sky seemed to be filled with the tell-tale sign of jet aircrafts. The noise they made seemed incredibly loud when normally I am scarcely aware of it. I find the incessant whine of helicopters far more irritating. I might mourn the resumption of aircrafts flying over England but it has come as a great relief to the Partridge. She has now booked a flight back from Germany for tomorrow morning. In order to get a refund on the Eurostar tickets she bought for this Sunday as a contingency plan, she will first have to relinquish these train tickets before she leaves Berlin, which means she is back to square one if her flight is cancelled.

I have used a Delia Smith recipe to make a pavlova, which I shall fill with whipped cream and strawberries marinated in framboise liqueur tomorrow if her flight is confirmed. I shall also roast a chicken for supper using fresh sage from the garden and bake some cardamom flavoured Finnish loaves to have with coffee when they first arrive. After all that effort, I hope they bring me back some German chocolates, otherwise it won’t just be the Eyjafjoell volcano erupting on an unprecedented scale.

Dual personality

For this week only I found myself commuting back from my Finnish class with a fellow student. He lives in Highgate permanently whereas I am only encamped here on a temporary basis. He used to live in Wimbledon and it seems he is acquainted with a friend of my friend’s. I knew the woman by name and reputation only and spoke out in her defence. It seems she had almost single-handily saved a local landmark from destruction many years ago and had set up a trust to enable the general public to tour the landmark from time to time as well as raise funds for its general upkeep. Now, according to my friend, this doughty campaigner was being forced off the very committee she herself had founded all those decades ago by a belligerent new guard, who seemed to have little time or respect for her judging by their callous treatment of her. It seemed poor recompense for all the years of hard work she had put in to not only to save but also ensure the continued survival of such an important landmark.

My fellow student knows the woman in question and her work for the Trust. He claims she was domineering and autocratic. She had been so used to treating the landmark as if it were her own personal fiefdom that she refused to countenance any opinions but her own leading to divisive clashes whenever matters of policy were discussed at meetings. Once, the majority of the Trust’s members had complied with her views without dissent. However, the simple passage of years had meant that most of her more ardent supporters had died or moved away from the area. The newcomers were not so quick to offer unquestioning fealty to her. Eventually her obstinacy meant she had to be sidelined as the Trust could not continue to operate under the old system of management, which had worked so well in the past but which was no longer capable of responding adequately to the kind of complex modern challenges facing it. Ironically, the woman’s very qualities of impassioned resolution and dogged determination, which had originally been so crucial for the landmark’s survival, were now jeopardising its very existence through her blanket refusal to compromise.

So is this woman a devil, saint or martyr? I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of either my friend or my fellow student. Either way, it is sad conclusion to such a fascinating story of one woman’s life-long work.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Hanging on the telephone.

Last week the Partridge telephoned me from Germany. I was surrounded by cookbooks at the time. I had invited the Eagle and her boyfriend over for supper on Friday night and I was still in the process of deciding what to cook for them. The Eagle’s partner is a vegetarian so that narrowed down my choices somewhat. I didn’t want to cook pasta again as I like to ring the changes. I had made them a vegetarian lasagne in the past which, if I say so myself, is always a big hit with guests, even the devout carnivores. Last time I served them a Moroccan vegetarian tagine. In the interim I experimented with quorn to make a vegetarian shepherd’s pie. It was horrendous and I ended up throwing most of it away. Finally I settled on a Jamie Oliver vegetarian jalfreezi curry with Gordon Ramsey vegetarian pillau rice. I had checked with the Eagle’s partner that it was something he could eat. I once made a dessert of freshly sliced pineapple sandwiched together with cream and crushed amoretti biscuits and Cointreau, and decorated with Cointreau infused whipped cream and angelica leaves to resemble the flesh of the pineapple. The crown of the cut pineapple was then placed on top of the dessert. Just as I was proudly carrying it in, the Eagle’s partner mentioned that he didn’t like pineapple, a not so minor fact the Eagle had neglected to tell me. So the Eagle and I were obliged to scoff the lot, which was no hardship and perhaps her cunning plan all along. Now the idea of a lemon posset appealed to me, served with brandy snaps, neither of which I had made before. I toyed with the idea of making pekoras for the first course except I don’t have a deep fat fryer and am loathe to half-fill one of my saucepans with boiling fat for just one course. The telephone call from the Partridge meant I could shelf my menu planning for the time being.

Regrettably her brother had fallen ill again but as his family were stranded in Berlin, thanks to the volcano erupting in Iceland, there was no-one else available to care for him. I was more than willing to accept the temporary role of housekeeper and Florence Nightingale manqué. Their family home is along a secluded private road in Highgate. It is incredibly quiet for London, the more so with the skies empty of aircraft. I love having the chance to play at being a chatelaine of a large house and extensive gardens. Oh the luxury of having a spacious kitchen with a well stocked herb garden just outside, (as opposed to my own tiny galley kitchen and a herb garden three storeys below). Likewise tinkling the ivories on an Edwardian grand piano in the music room is a step up from playing on my own cheap and cheerful keyboard. Mercifully the house is detached, thus sparing the neighbours from hearing me play the piano badly but with gusto. Aside from the house and grounds, I am but a short walk away from my beloved Kenwood House. I might also brave a trip to the Ladies’ lake on Hampstead Heath. The latter is in a secluded idyllic setting amongst the trees. In the past I have sometimes found myself swimming along with a family of young ducklings. After a swim I relax on the grassy banks in the sun. Armed with a large straw hat, reading material and something to eat and drink I can happily while away a whole day there. I round off my visit with a quick dash around Kenwood House before treating myself to a cream cake and coffee in a building which once served as the mansion's brewery.  My mother was always very fond of the nearby Ladies’ Lake. I think it reminded her of her childhood spent swimming in the lakes of Finland. In accordance with her will I scattered her ashes close by.

Having agreed to come to Highgate on Saturday, I sent the Eagle several e-mails suggesting we reschedule our dinner part for the following Friday. Latter that evening as I was lying on my sofa my mobile phone lit up. The Eagle had just sent me a text message: she apologised for running late but would be at my house within the next half hour. Panicking, I rang her straight back: Didn’t you get my message cancelling supper? She admitted that she probably had but had not yet read all her e-mails. Thank heavens she had called me and not just turned up on my doorstep. I pride myself on being able to knock together a 3 course meal in an emergency but for once my store cupboard and fridge were short of key ingredients.

Now that I am ensconced at Highgate I have been transformed into an unofficial travel agent for my friends in Berlin; I have been trying to book them a passage on a cross-channel ferry and keep them abreast of any news regarding European travel affected by the volcano. I have endeavoured to contact their individual insurance companies without success. At one point I thought I would be able to book tickets on a ferry from Le Havre to Portsmouth for Tuesday afternoon, but there were problems online and I could not complete the transactiong.Thankfully I found this out before they had forked out an extra THOUSAND euros for train tickets from Berlin to Le Havre. They had been queuing in a Berlin railway station for over 3 hours before they were even able to reach the front of the queue, such is the scale of the chaos and the demand for information from stranded passengers.

In a few weeks time it will be the 70th anniversary of the evacuation of  British forces trapped in Dunkirk. Perhaps we should rediscover that wartime spirit and send out all our boats to once again rescue our fellow Englishmen and women trapped on the other side of the Channel.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Nothing but the truth.

When describing Southside House before I explained how the history of the house, as given on the guided tour, has significantly changed over the years. I had heard that the Romantic poet, Lord Byron, was wont to stroll in the grounds with his publisher, John Murray. Guides would proudly point out the stage on which Emma Hamilton was supposed to have struck her famous “attitudes” posing in diaphanous garments for the delectation of the other guests. The 18th century Prince of Wales was said to have slept in the canopied bed within the bedchamber named after him. The silver sequinned Prince of Wales feathers in the headboard seem irrefutable proof of the royal visit. A later guide claimed that the bedroom was named after the future King Edward VII, who also allegedly spent the night there. A connecting door to a neighbouring bedchamber meant that the King’s mistress could sneak in, lie down and think of the Empire before discreetly retiring again to her own bedroom. One of Edward’s most prominent mistresses was Alice Keppel. Her great granddaughter, Camilla Parker Bowles, was one of the few women in history able to parlay an adulterous affair on both sides into marriage to a future King of England.

The guide who took us around the house on Sunday said he was determined to ensure that greater care was taken in future with regard to historical accuracy. He began by debunking the idea that the rocking horse in the entrance hall belonged to Horatia Nelson, the natural daughter of Emma Hamilton and Lord Nelson. In many ways the real story of the house is as fascinating as any fabricated version. I thought the house had been in the present family’s ownership for centuries. In fact it was bought by Hilda Pennington Mellor, the formidable matriarch of the family, in the 1930s. Her father was a self-made Victorian business man whose business acumen meant he became extremely wealthy. As a teenager the strong minded Hilda set her cap at Axel Munthe. As he was middle aged, in poor health and a divorcé, he was far from being the glittering match Hilda’s family might have hoped for. Sadly the marriage, despite producing two sons, Peter and Malcolm, was not a happy one and the couple eventually led separate lives. Axel Munthe later became world famous, following the publication in 1929 of his memoirs entitled “The Story of San Michele.” It became a global bestseller, at one time rivalling the Bible in terms of annual sales. The fact that his memoirs do not refer to his wife and children hints at his estrangement from them. In the decade following the publication of Munthe’s book, Hilda bought Southside House.

At one time, Hilda’s family had been rich enough to buy a chateau in Biarritz and Hilda could afford to be dressed in outfits from the foremost couturiers of the era like Charles Frederick Worth and Mariano Fortuny. One gown alone from the House of Worth cost Hilda £800 in 1910, equivalent to £50,000 in modern money. She probably only wore the dress once. Such an extravagant lifestyle could not be sustained following the stock market crash of 1929. Hilda needed to downsize.

Thus she bought the two 17th century semi-detached houses at Wimbledon, which she turned into a single residence, as well as buying the medieval mansion at Hellens. Nowadays, both properties would command substantial sums on the open market. By contrast, in the 1930s, stately homes were pulled down in their droves by their newly impecunious owners, who could no longer afford to maintain the lavish lifestyles enjoyed by their aristocratic predecessors. Even if they had the money, there were no longer hordes of low paid servants available to staff them. If Hilda could no longer afford to live like a wealthy aristocrat, she could at least style her house to the manor born.

Hilda’s eldest son from her marriage to Axel Munthe was called Peter. He had studied at one of England’s leading art school and preferred to pursue a career as an artist rather than act as interior-designer to his mother. I had always assumed that it was Peter who had married and continued the family line. In fact it was Malcolm his younger brother. Although he never trained at art school, it is clear that Malcolm was very talented in his own right as an amateur artist. On display in the breakfast room is a full length portrait of Peter painted by his younger brother Malcolm, when the latter was only 16. To my untrained eye it is very impressive in its execution. Malcolm used his artistic skills to remodel the two houses. He created what I have referred to in a previous post as a mock baronial hall. The double height galleried hall with the black and white tiled flooring, reminiscent of a Dutch 17th century domestic painting and the baroque painted vaulted ceiling gives the initial illusion that this hall was erected centuries ago as opposed to in the 20th century. Money being short, Malcolm had to use his imagination to achieve the effect he wanted. Thus marble pillars are actually hollow stage props. The seemingly ancient bust of King Charles I was fashioned by students from Wimbledon art school. Nor was Malcolm, it seems, averse to helping himself to the contents of skips if he thought such items could find a suitable home at Southside. Hilda did her bit by arranging for the contents of the family home in chateau in Biarritz to be shipped to England. Her timing was impeccable. Not long afterwards the chateau requisitioned by the invading German forces during World War Two.

The chateau at Biarritz yielded a number of interesting pieces currently on display at Southside including the unique wall-hanging crystal chandeliers in the music room and the yellow silk upholstered armchairs, in one of which the actor Colin Firth perched whilst posing for a photograph, also on display. In a cupboard are two vases depicting night and day respectively. These vases inspired Hilda to commission the couturier Worth to design an evening gown and accessories based on the same theme. Thus night is shown on one side of the dress by dark colours and an image of a bat, whereas day is represented by light colours and a butterfly. Even Hilda’s shoes continue the day and night motif with one being in dark leather and the other in light. I especially admired a black and white silk evening gown of Hilda’s, the one which had costs £800 in 1910. I also liked the timeless Fortuny gown, inspired by Ancient Greece. Stored above the glass cabinets displaying the dresses were some of Hilda’s hats. My own 1940s J Howard Hodge of New York hat did not look out of place and nor did the corset beneath my 1930s blue cotton frock. Not that I could ever aspire to the tiny waist span of Hilda, however tightly I might be laced into my own corset.

The music room use to contain a stage allegedly posed on by Emma Hamilton at the height of her affair with Admiral Nelson. When a closer examination in recent years proved that the stage dated from the 20th century, all references to Emma’s party piece were expunged from the official tour. She is still represented by a charming portrait in the room. There is a portrait of another woman dating from around the same period. Unfortunately her name seems to have been lost. I have always admired her empire line long sleeved gown and would happily wear a version of it myself. Outside the music room can be found the canvas painted wall hangings dating from the 18th century. It is thought that these hangings were made for the original house. By the fireplace hangs a portrait of Malcolm as an old man and his walking stick has been placed nearby.

In Malcolm’s study on the first floor he is pictured with his pet owl. In the garden a stone monument marks the grave of Romulo the owl’s final resting place alongside the graves of other family pets. Also on the first floor is the supposed royal bedchamber, whose walls were decorated by Malcolm with bolts of yellow silk and a grand canopied bed takes pride of place. Given that the two houses were not converted into one residence until the 1930s and that the present family did not start living there until after that date, there is no firm historical evidence to link any Prince of Wales with the bedchamber. I recall previous guides saying that Malcolm decided that if he was going to open up his house to the general public, to capture their interest he needed to show that Southside House had some connection with royalty. he refrained from alluding to a genuine royal scandal from within his family. If the rumours were to be believed Hilda would have been forgiven for thinking there had been three people in her marriage: herself, her husband and the Queen of Sweden. Family legend has it that Axel Munthe had engaged in an adulterous affair with Queen Victoria of Sweden, whilst serving as her physician. Axel was more fortunate than another foreign doctor to a Scandinavian royal family. In the 18th century the German born Johann Friedrich Struensee was appointed royal physician to the mentally ill King Christian VII of Denmark. This led to an affair with the then Queen, Caroline Matilda, the youngest daughter of Frederick, Prince of Wales. Frederick was the very same prince who it had once been claimed stayed at Southside House. For a time, Struensee was the de facto ruler of Denmark due to the decline into mental illness of the King. Struensee tried and failed to introduce reforms into the country. His failure gave the conservative opposition the chance to oust him from power. Struensee was later condemned to having his right hand chopped off before he was beheaded and the rest of his body cut into quarters.

As well as some royal connections any aristocratic ancestral hall worth its salt must have its own family chapel. In later years Malcolm added a small Scandinavian chapel above the ground floor dining room extension. How they managed to cram a choir, a priest and a small congregation into such a tiny space for the official consecration I will never know. After my own experience of a house fire, I felt somewhat ill at ease when I once saw lighted candles in the corridor between the chapel and the rest of the house. So I was pleased to see two sturdy fire extinguishers on display in the corridor when I last went there.

Despite a distinguished military career as a founder member of the Special Operations Executive during World War Two including a stint behind enemy lines, Malcolm seemed unable or unwilling to challenge the power of his own mother on the home front. To my surprise I discovered that he had married and had children. Both wife and offspring were banished to the more remote parts of the house at the insistence of Hilda, leading to the irrevocably break down of his marriage. After Hilda’s death Malcolm became something of a recluse but he enjoyed taking people around his house on tours, never letting them know his true identity. Southside House stands as a splendid monument to Malcolm’s unique artistic talents and to the long tradition of great British eccentrics.Southside House