Saturday, November 24, 2012

What's in a Name?

Carter’s Corner Place, near Hellingly, is divided up into three different homes these days; but in the second half of the twentieth century it was the country pile of Lord Hailsham, or Quintin Hogg, most well known as the Tories’ tub-thumping right wing Lord Chancellor during the Thatcherite 1980s. He had inherited it from his father, the first Lord Hailsham. A fairly unremarkable house, it was originally built in 1602, for the Barton family, of red and grey brick with a tiled roof and casement windows with stone mullions and transoms. It was enlarged by the first Lord Hailsham in the 1920s.

By far the most interesting thing about the house is what happened there on Saturday 2nd April 1932. Quintin Hogg shared a mother with his half-brother Edward Marjoribanks. Myssie Marjoribanks had divorced her husband Archibald and remarried to Lord Hailsham. In one of those ubiquitous pieces of nonsense the nobility indulge in, the comically upper class surname Marjoribanks was actually pronounced Marchbanks. Edward was Tory MP for Eastbourne and had come down from London with his half-brother to stay with his mother and stepfather for the weekend.

On Monday 4th April, the Manchester Guardian, a name my dad insisted on using for the paper until the day he died some forty years after they had dropped the ‘Manchester’ (similarly, he never got used to the Home Service becoming Radio 4), carried the following story:

'We regret to announce the death, under tragic circumstances, of Mr. Edward Marjoribanks, M.P., one of the most promising of the younger Conservatives. Mr. Marjoribanks was found by his stepfather, Lord Hailsham (Secretary for War), shot dead in the billiard-room of the latter's house, Carter's Corner Place, near Hailsham, on Saturday night. Lord Hailsham, who was greatly distressed, sent at once for a doctor and the police.

'Mr. Marjoribanks, who was 32 years of age, had recently been suffering from the effects of overwork, and particularly from insomnia.

'Mr. Marjoribanks was found lying partly across a chair with a gunshot wound in his chest.Near the body was a double-barrelled sporting gun. Adjoining the billiard room is a small anteroom, which is used as a gun-room, and it is believed that it was here that the gun was discharged. Marks on the floor and walls indicate that Mr. Marjoribanks was standing in the gunroom when he received the wound.

'He fell to the floor, but apparently, retaining consciousness, staggered or crawled through the open doorway into the billiard-room, collapsed across the chair, and died immediately. Only one barrel of the gun had been discharged. On the floor, it is understood, two live cartridges were found.

'Mr. Marjoribanks was to have passed the weekend at Lord Hailsham's home before returning to Westminster for the resumption of the House of Commons sittings tomorrow. In addition to his duties at Westminster he had been engaged with unremitting energy on the completion of a life of Lord Carson which he was writing, and the strain had been obviously telling on him. He left London on Monday with Mr. Quintin McGarel Hogg (Lord Hailsham's son) to spend a quiet week-end in the country. While at Carter's Corner Place he had been passing the time quietly on the beautiful estate, which lies on a hill off the Battle-Lewes Road outside Hailsham. Mr. Marjoribanks had been seen about the house earlier in the day, and had taken meals with his stepfather.'

The sad truth, of course, was that Marjoribanks had not "received the wound" but had committed suicide. Similarly, he had not been "suffering from the effects of overwork" but had just been jilted by his fiancée. This was something that had happened to him before: an earlier marriage engagement had also been broken off against his wishes.

In the churchyard of All Saints in Herstmonceux, his modest grave is on the far side looking across the Pevensey Levels towards Hailsham. When I came across it during a walk, the relative youth of the occupant prompted me to investigate further; that and the ludicrous surname.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Downland: part one

The Downs. The solemn, swollen hills; the perpetual sward of the south, stretching from Winchester in the west to Eastbourne in the east. Undulating, by turns it slopes and sheers to the sea in the south; the covering of ancient woodland cleared millennia ago, ovine-manicured grassland now dominates. At the eastern edge, its northerly face gazes down onto the villages under its shadow and to the distant settlements of the Weald. The Downs: the grass below, above, the vaulted sky. The Downs. And on a day in June 1958, between its silhouetted escarpment and the orange-tinged archipelago of late evening altocumulus cloud, a tall figure could be seen. Avoiding the main path, occasionally obscured by gorse, it was restlessly heading west, intent on descent before the sun finally set. The open landscape of chalk and grass spread before him, the benign breeze faced him; the intersection of stile-less farmers’ fences his only obstacle. He had seen no others since before he had begun his climb when he crossed the Lewes Road and his form, illuminated in the half-lights of a speeding Morris Oxford, had startled the driver into swerve and skid. More anxious than usual on this day to be off the Downs, Ridler’s object – the Beacon – was still some two miles distant. For the past year, he had avoided the nightwalking that had sustained him during his first seven in Downland. Now, he preferred only the interregnum - dusk and twilight - but the risk of capture in the gaze of others was always present. It had been like this before, but in those years from the summer of 1950 he had found some acceptance and, from it, a freedom. The Writer had changed that a year ago to the day and Ridler had barely understood; but he had resolved to remove the risk of a repetition of the events of that previous June.