The toff is dead. Long live the toff
It is tempting to see Bristol's life as the last spasms of the gene pool of the aristocracy
The writer and broadcaster Terence Blacker contributes a twice-weekly column on a wide range of social, cultural and environmental issues. He is the author of four novels, of prize-winning fiction for children, and has written a highly praised biography of the brilliant reprobate Willie Donaldson.
Tuesday 19 January 1999
It was one Sunday evening a few years back at the Texas Lone Star on Gloucester Road where I played a regular gig with my friend Derek. That night we had pumped up the volume and were singing cheerfully about the good-hearted woman in love with a good-timin' man, taking those country roads, and inviting mamas not to let their babies grow up to be cowboys but to let them be doctors and lawyers and such.
Between numbers, a spivvy type in a suit sidled up to us and slipped us each a pounds 50 note. His request? Simply, as he eloquently put it, "to shut the fuck up" for the next 20 minutes. He and his associate - he nodded in the direction of a languid, dead-eyed individual at a nearby table - were trying to have a business meeting.
It was not the first time that we had been requested to play the sound of silence, our normal response being to hit it fast and hard with "Johnny B. Goode", but the pounds 50 was peculiarly persuasive and we scuttled off obediently into a back office.
Who was this Champagne Charlie? One of the waitresses revealed that he was that Marquess of Bristol bloke who was always in the papers as part of some drug story. The other man was thought to be a dealer. The fact that drugs money had bought our silence caused us the briefest pang of discomfort, but by now the money was in our back pockets. By the time we returned for the next set, opening with a particularly quiet version of "Wonderful Tonight", Bristol and his buddy had left.
As it happened, I had a chance to repay the debt in small measure in 1996 when I found myself looking round Ickworth Hall, the large house near Bury St Edmunds which had been in the Bristol family since the 15th century. Bristol's years as a good-timin' man had involved hoovering most of a vast, unearned fortune up his nose and he was now selling the contents of Ickworth at auction.
It was an unspeakably depressing occasion. For years, brainless, braying ninnies and freeloading journalists had enjoyed the hospitality of the house - wittily known as "Sickworth" in recognition of the various revolting things that happened there - and had helped themselves to the various towels, sheets, and even soap which, with profound naffness, his lordship had marked with his family crest. Now the parties were over and all there was left was hideous decor, some reproduction furniture and a lovely but very sad old house.
In the obituaries, the life of the Marquess of Bristol has been portrayed as a sort of tragedy, and it is true that the cards were always stacked against him.
He was born into dynasty of wrong 'uns; his father appears to have been cold, violent and generally bonkers; and, as if that were not handicap enough, he was sent to Harrow, the notorious training camp for cads and bounders.
It is tempting, now that the people's premier has announced we shall all be middle-class, to see the waste and pointlessness of Bristol's life as the last spluttering spasms of the exhausted gene pool of the aristocracy. All around us, marquesses and viscounts are going belly up: the idiot junkie Blandford, the Ferrari-pulping fraudster Brocket, the twit with a pigtail - Bath, was it? - forever giggling to the press about his wifelets.
Even the more respectable ones, we now discover, are so cosseted that they are an easy touch for the unscrupulous. "Lord Portman would wonder why he never seemed to have any money," a friend of the Portman family commented after it was revealed that Lord "Guzzler" Goodman had been dipping the only light part of his person, his fingers, into the family purse. And how much was it that caused his lordship to feel a little short now and then? The equivalent in today's money of pounds 10m.
But the sad fact is that, far from being on their last legs, those with titles are enjoying a golden age. The silliness of Bath does not preclude him from appearing on TV chat shows. Goodman was never suspected of dodginess largely because he was a lord, albeit a minor one. Bristol himself could have stepped out of the pages of Glamorama, Bret Easton Ellis's latest embarrassing homage to the brainless and famous. Far from being a throwback to 18th-century misbehaviour, he was, it turns out, the very model of the celebrity toff.
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