Dingo the Dissident

THE BLOG OF DISQUIET : Qweir Notions in the Armpit of Diogenes by DINGO the DISSIDENT binge-thinker since February 2008.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Not the Marquess of Dufferin & Ava and I.

Back in 1971 my lovely, slightly-silly, rescued German Shepherd dog earned the disfavour of the Earl of Caledon - whose Head Gamekeeper's house (pictured above) 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.

I sent 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.

The residence he offered was Helen's Tower a kind of literary folly in a forest, built for Helen Selina Blackwood in 1861 in solid Scottish Baronial style (the dashing and virile First Marquess was no King Ludwig) and celebrated by both Browning and Tennyson.

I was invited to lunch - not at The Tower, but at the pleasant Victorian pile. 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. 

I 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.

We then went to the Tower in a Land-Rover along a muddy track. It was built in vertico and 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. 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 watercolour above, more like Thoor Ballylee (which I had visited two years previously on my Lambretta scooter) than the tower at Duino.

Lamentably corrupted by electricity and running water, 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 (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. The 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 2A and 2B, if, like me, you read car number-plates!).

But I digress.
Where was I ?

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 up the road in Belfast (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 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.)

My impressive 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.

I subscribe 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 sous-sol 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.

Having 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 illness".

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