Lord, forgive them

The Deborah Ross Interview; Martin (Lord Noel-Buxton to you) is an endangered species. He lost all his money, nearly drank himself to death and is a bit vague about Hague (`Who?'). For some odd reason, people want him out of Parliament (along with all the
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The Independent Culture
The Deborah Ross Interview

So, to the House of Lords to meet Lord Noel-Buxton, one of those hereditary peers New Labour firmly intends to eject from Parliament. I wonder, what does it feel like to know you're about to be thrown out of a place that's been yours almost exclusively for centuries? Do you feel sad, Lord Noel-Buxton? Yes, he says, he does. "I shall miss it all vair, vair much. Still, I suppose it's no worse than being chucked out of any club, hmm?"

Through the entrance, then through some fantastically ornate corridors and chambers. Huge portraits. Busy, flocked wallpapers in red and gold. Gilt layered upon gilt. Lord Noel-Buxton is not, as it happens, much taken with the decor. "The Victorians overdid things so. I am much more a Georgian or Elizabethan man." He strides ahead, I follow. He has a mad, Michael Heseltine hair-do and lots of dandruff and is wearing his claret and navy striped Balliol tie ("We are all, to a man, Eton and Oxford here"). The House isn't sitting today, `so it's vair quiet". I tell Lord Noel Buxton that I love the way his "very" comes out as `vair'. I tell him it's enough to make me want to marry him. Plus, of course, if I did marry him, then I'd get to be Lady Noel-Buxton and could phone Fortnum & Mason and say: "Lady Noel-Buxton here. Please send round six of those wildly overpriced jams that come in the ceramic pots the Americans love and a packet of crisps. Quick. Quick." Lord Noel-Buxton looks alarmed. "Hang on!," he cries, "I'm not divorced from my third wife yet!" I must look vair crestfallen, because he then adds encouragingly: "Although it's only a technicality..."

Into the guest bar. I think, if, like me, you've ever doubted life after death all the proof you need is here. There's Lord Longford, his hair growing wildly in great tufts from either side of the pate, and teetering about like some ancient Coco the Clown. There's someone else in the corner, who may be asleep but then again may be dead. There is no real way of knowing with these people. At 57, Lord Noel-Buxton may even be considered something of a spring chicken. Lord Noel-Buxton - or Martin, as I can now call him, seeing as we're practically engaged - gets the drinks in. A tonic water for him. An orange juice for me. Martin has to pay because there seems to be some rule prohibiting guests from doing so. He is perfectly happy with this arrangement because, as he says, "you may reimburse me later".

I am here today because, if Labour is going to expel these people, I'm curious to know just who the people are. So who is Martin? Well, Martin - the third Baron Noel-Buxton - is the grandson of Edward Noel-Buxton, the Labour MP who served as a Minister for Agriculture in Ramsey McDonald's cabinet and won the title for the family. Martin's father Rufus, the second baron, was also a Labour peer. Martin, however, is Tory. Why are you Tory, Martin? "Oh, I wouldn't have felt at home on the Labour benches. I'm just much happier with the friends I made at Oxford."

Can he, I wonder, justify his right to be here, simply by virtue of being the first-born male in a particular litter? Not really, no. "I suppose all I can really appeal to is the Roman concept of mores majorum." Which is? "Our sense of history. This feeling that we should hang onto ancient customs because they are just so essentially English." Oh come on, Martin, I say, you could also use that as a justification for, say, sending small boys up chimneys. "Yah. It's complete crap. But it's still our best line of defence. Now, am I getting a fee for this? I'm failing to earn millions of pounds during my time with you..."

Actually, he isn't. Martin doesn't have a job. Martin has squandered what was left of the family money. Martin has to sign on every fortnight at Clapham Job Centre. Martin is a recovering alcoholic. Piquantly, Martin has spent most of his life being drunk as a lord. Martin is, perhaps, a fine example of those brilliantly dysfunctional upper-class families who send their children to boarding schools the moment they discover they're pregnant, so they can get on with drinking themselves and their fortunes away. Martin's father - "a whiskey and Guinness man" - drank himself to death. Martin was drinking himself to death up until 1994 when, with three marriages and a compulsory stay in a mental institution behind him, he decided enough was enough, and presented himself to Alcoholics Anonymous He was onto Special Brew by then. "Ghastly, ghastly stuff, but a jolly quick fix."

Now separated from his third wife, he lives in Battersea, south London, in a one-bedroom flat he rents from the Peabody Trust, a charity for homeless people. Here, he listens to Baroque music and writes poetry. He loves words, he says. His favourites at the moment are eschew, espouse, oversole ("it means the essence of spirituality. I used it in a poem yesterday") and admixture, which is a very good word for something, "although I can't remember what it is."

Initially, I assume he lives with someone called Horace, because he says at one point: "Poor Horace couldn't open Window's `95 the other day." Poor Horace indeed, I commiserate. What's wrong with him? "He's getting on a bit." How old is he? "He's pre-Pentium." Only then does it click he's anthropomorphosised his PC. I am given a full bulletin on Horace's health. "He's not up to much these days. His brain is too ickle. He can't cope with Word `97. He keeps crashing. I daren't let him get up onto the internet. Oh no."

Lord Noel Buxton's life might, I suspect, be somewhat under-populated. Probably, he attends the House of Lords daily as much for the company and expenses as anything. He isn't on anyselect committees. He doesn't seem especially active or on top

of things. When I make enquiries as to the exact power of the House of Lords, he says: "I think we can delay things by a year or something." During that year, what happens to the Commons' bill or amendment you've rejected? "I don't know, actually."

He has never heard of Clare Short. "Clare who?" I ask him what he thinks of William Hague. "Who?" William Hague? Leader of the Tory Party? Leader of your party? "Oh, yah. Meant to be a bit of a non-starter, isn't he? Vair lightweight." What he does know is that he and his fellow hereditaries will effectively have to vote themselves out of existence. Labour's Spring `97 election manifesto said the House "must be reformed" and, to this end, "hereditary peers will no longer sit or vote in the House of Lords". According to something known as the Salisbury doctrine, the House of Lords has to accept legislation foreshadowed in the Government's election manifesto, because it's what the public have voted for. The question now isn't if Lord Noel-Buxton and his ilk are going to be ejected, "it is not our place to argue against it", but when.

Martin hopes it may be a good while yet. "It takes one hell of a long time, tinkering with the constitution." Yes, of course it's absurd, to have these people as part of the democratic process. But, still, you can't help feeling a strange surge of affection for them. I'm not going to do a mores marjorem here but, still, they are superbly English and do cheer you up in a weird kind of way. They're like those people who have picnics with deckchairs and everything in lay-by's on busy dual carriageways. They're mad and useless and hopeless, but they are part of the fabric that makes England so English and you have to have a laugh as you go by.

Plus, if the hereditaries are going to go, who is going to replace them? The life peers? Lord Noel-Buxton has a good, long grumble about these, but perhaps rightly so. The Braggs? The Alli's? The Puttnams? They are no more elected representatives of the people than the hereditaries are, he says. One elite is simply making way for another. Old money is simply making way for new. What is the answer then? He doesn't know, he says. But that's OK, because no one else does either. Martin was born in 1940. His family had been rich in their own right for many generations previously, having made their money in brewing and land-owning and banking.

Rufus, Martin's father, did he work? "Good Lord, no. We didn't work! A lord meant something then. Even his father, my grandfather, didn't do anything other than be an MP." Rufus parted from Martin's mother, Helen, when Martin was two. Martin went to live with his mother in Scotland, until she died from breast cancer when he was eight. After her death, he returned to live with his father, whom he had not seen in the intervening years, and his step-mother on a farm on the family's estate in Coggeshall, Essex.

Both his father and step-mother were alcoholics. "So it's not like they were ever there for me." He was dispatched to Bryanston school quite promptly, although he'd have preferred Harrow or Eton. "But father went to Harrow and hated it. He was hopeless at sport. Instead, he played the organ, which wasn't what one did."

The thing I most admire about these people is that, given the most expensive education in the world, they can still come out equipped for nothing. There is a kind of skill in this, I think.

Still, after Bryanston, Martin went on to Balliol, Oxford, where he took PPE. "I did bugger all and got a third." He started drinking heavily at Oxford, but was still sufficiently together to go on and do an MA in Law and join a city law firm. He says it wasn't unusual for him to have drunk half a bottle of Blue Label vodka before getting into the office in the morning. He says it isn't hard to see why he - or his father for that matter - got so into so much trouble with alcohol.

Being upper class, he explains, isn't about who you are, it's about "what you are and what you own". Emotions must be grasped and strangled, like unwanted nettles. Or anaesthetised by addiction.

His first marriage lasted four years. His second marriage fared somewhat better and in 10 years produced two children, Charles, now 23 and an insurance broker, and Lucy, 21, a psychology undergraduate. Charles, no, won't mind being stripped of his right to sit in the Lords. "He says to me `Dad, I'm just not interested'." Is Martin a good father? "I try to be caring and loving and supportive and listen to them." Although, that said, "I haven't phoned Lucy for ages."

He has another daughter Antonia, 8, from his third marriage. Like Charles and Lucy, Antonia will probably go to boarding school, too, "although her mother is against it." Why are you for it, Martin? "Well, it's what one does." Some things, I guess, take a long time to unlearn.

Marriage, he says, is a vair good thing. "An excellent estate, although I've never managed it for more than 10 years." What's excellent about it? "Well, no one wants to die on their own, hmmph?" He doesn't blame any of his wives for leaving him, as they all eventually did. "Drink makes you totally selfish. All you care about is you and your addiction."

The crunch came in 1983 when a drink-driving conviction meant his law firm booted him out. For the next decade, he went mad with drink, quite literally. An attempt to dry out in a treatment centre resulted in him being sectioned under the Metal Health Act. He ended up in a "hospital lock up" with "a lot of raving loonies". He had to decide, at this point, whether he wanted to live or die. Whether he wanted to go on being an addict, or not. He decided he didn't. I congratulate him on not having touched a drop for four years now. He says: "I've done it before you know. For seven years once."

The money is all gone, yes. While his father didn't leave him much, his mother did. He inherited at 21 and 24. And how much exactly did you inherit, Martin? "A great deal." Which is? "Enough for me to have lived comfortably all my life without working, if I'd been sensible with it." Do you regret not being sensible with it. "I think regret is a fairly useless exercise." OK, do you miss being rich. "No, it's a blessed relief actually. Money gives you awesome power, but I don't think I found it terribly helpful. It justified my arrogance, my belief in my own superiority."

We leave the House to go out for lunch, passing that great statue of Richard I on horseback as we exit. "A pervert of the highest order, you know?" Really? "Yah. Did things with sheep." I take him to a French restaurant in the posh bit of Battersea he rarely visits because "I can't afford to". We have Dover sole - which is tastier than oversole - while he gets depressed about the fish knives. "Another ghastly Victorian improvement. No decent home would have fish knives"

Afterwards, I drop him home. Home is part of a little terraced house in a row of identical, little terraced houses in the seedy part of Battersea. He says I can't come in because "I'm frightfully untidy". The lace curtains are old and yellowing. The window frames are inches thick with dirt. I find myself giving him a bit of a hug in the back of a taxi. He can't help being who he is just like none of us can help being who we are. Still, I tell him that if ever there's an Adopt-A-Lord scheme - similar to, say, London's Zoo's Adopt An Animal scheme to save endangered species - then I'll most certainly come forward to claim him. "Oh, jolly good," he says cheerfully. Then off he trots, perhaps to tell Horace all about his day. "Had a vair good lunch, Horace..."