Lord Carrington & Mr Lee

 

 

Lord Carrington 6 June 1919 – 9 July 2018

We became friends about 40 years ago. After ten years he told me so. The postcards signed Peter Cin his cramped fist became Peter. Everything in Lord C’s life was explained.

He with three centuries of recorded history. Pitt the Younger’s banker; Uncle Charlie in the playroom of the future Edward VII; he, Leader in the Lords; Knight of the Garter; three jobs as Secretary of State; chairman of the Tories; High Commissioner Australia; chairman the V&A, Christies; Secretary General NATO.  Gainsboroughs on the walls.

Me? Conceived aboard a Thames sailing barge. First job £90 a year deck boy plus a shilling washing allowance in a rusting tramp ship ticking off every port and most bars in a two year circumnavigation.  No history further back than a grandpa whose name I never heard.

The rest, plays, books, university was catch-up. Carrington’s life was pre-ordained.

His background said there would be what he called big jobs. When Churchill telephoned to invite him to join his government, PC’s butler told WSC that his Lordship was shooting partridge. Could he phone later? When he did so, Churchill asked him to “join my shoot.” Macmillan liked that style. He said if all else failed, Carrington could always go back to his estates.

Two people quite different but we had in common, a belief in what we wanted from leadership and for society. Bobbity Salisbury meets Rab Butler: sometimes it’s better to do nothing. That, was true power. Thatcherism meets Tocqueville – democracy challenges liberty. The institutions, guardians of the former.  We the people uncertain about the latter.

All this over lunch at White’s or The Athenaeum where he complained about too many bishops eating too well in that place although he liked Norwich.

Lunch was always at 1245 and always done by 2 and he asked questions to see what I knew. We always ate the fish and rice pudding. He because it was nursery food. I because I thought it was.

I told him what I’d heard and he sometimes told me the truth of it. Carrington kept his secrets well. Yet, he bruised easily.

Over one rice pudding (no jam) he said how Mark Thatcher, was one of the few people he would detest for ever. It was a puzzle. Thatcher’s son declaring he had nothing much to do that day had gate crashed a lunch party for his mother at the Carringtons. Surely there was always room for one more? No. Cook and the butler were preparing. They were not to be messed about.

It was not a question of enough chops to go round. What would be discussed at the table was a matter of State so Carrington was annoyed at the PM for allowing her son, whom Carrington thought a shallow fellow anyway, to attend a sensitive meeting.

A failure of protocol and, perhaps worse, bad manners. Carrington never forgot.

Lessons of what was done and what was not done had survived the Carrington Code for decades as well as furious time keeping and grooming at Sandhurst. Curiously, from our totally different backgrounds, the ground rules were the same. The social distinctions were different, the reasons were not.

Strict and First Baptist Reform Church of Nuxley Road ruled that you were there on time, you said nothing unless it pleased, rudeness was as unforgivable as unwashed hands and minded manners kept your peace and encouraged the truth. Similar values. Different nannies.

Carrington in difficulty from Arnhem to the Falklands would always ask himself what nanny would have done. I, with fewer and lesser responsibilities, always wondered in fear what the Reverent Clifford would have said.

Thus we so different in origins acted out codes under the cover of at least half truths. The best half truth is in Limericks. A Limerick, he said, never fibbed.  Even recently, he was still at it. Strictly AABBA

 

A Remainder named May

changed her mind one day

And said Brexit was easy

And not at all sleazy

Even though Brussels said Nay

 

And just April past Carrington wondered why there was no political authority in the country. No true political leadership on either side. Where, he asked, were the heroes, the lions the big beasts of politics. Thatcher’s first Cabinet had five MCs with minds of their own. But no more.

 

A Knight of the Garter going grey

Asked where were the big beasts today

Told the Commons are empty

When once there were plenty

Said, only Ken, only Clarke, and he’s soon away

 

I sometimes thought Carrington only knew big beasts. I knew all his friends but mostly had to be introduced. Looking at me very carefully over a recent bit of fish he said it was not who you know, but who knows you. Carrington never had to say who he was.

In the early days he would introduce me to someone with “Do you know each other” – in other words, you will not have met before. On the other hand, except for the statutory three months silence in the Mess for an ensign in the Grenadiers, Carrington had never walked into a room without everyone knowing who he was.

There is of course here another Carrington protocol to master. I once failed to introduce him to a distinguished writer assuming they knew each other. They didn’t. He made it clear he was annoyed. I apologised.  Mm, he said.

The step change in our friendship came when I became his biographer and therefore everything I noticed inspired a question.

A new photograph or an obscure sporting print appeared in the boot-room. Why? Family connection? Had to go somewhere therefore not unimportant. An ordinary friend doesn’t have to think like an MI5 officer. A mannerism becomes, for the biographer, a motive. An aside from him is followed by “And then what happened?  When was that?” from me.

A friend doesn’t plunder private correspondence.  Friends leave skeletons unrattled. Casual friendship becomes redundant.  The rules change.

When we agreed I should write the Carrington biography he insisted it should never be published in his lifetime. That way, he said, you can write what you like, I shall never have to read it and we can still be friends. It meant of course one of the social protocols being abandoned.  I could never ask when we met, “How are you?”

Now the book is published.  Neither good friend wanted that.

 

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