The strange obscurity of Eugene Burdick


Mark Pack explains why the work of a now almost forgotten political novelist is worth seeking out…

A best-selling author shifting millions of books in the post-war decades, a renowned public intellectual, a friend of celebrities such as Marlon Brando, a highly respected political scientist and famous enough to feature in an advert for Ballantine Ale, Eugene Burdick’s career was tragically cut short when he died of a heart attack in 1965, aged just 46.

He’s now an almost completely forgotten figure, so obscure that the majority of his books do not even merit their own Wikipedia pages and the only people I encounter who know of him are those I’ve already shared the mystery of his obscurity with.

The unpopularity of his views on Vietnam – he combined liberalism with fierce anti-communism, making him a public supporter of the US government’s military intervention – don’t really explain this obscurity, especially as they trigged his novel turned successful Marlon Brando movie The Ugly American. Nor does his choice of topics, for three of his novels have themes which should make them frequent contemporary reference points.

The Ninth Wave, published in 1956, follows a political campaign complete with then cutting-edge innovations of opinion polling, computers and the use of campaign consultants. Though we now know – even in a world of Facebook and Obama – that data and numbers can’t quite predict and control political outcomes in the way the book lays out, the world has turned out close enough to Burdick’s picture of the future to make The Ninth Wave a prescient and still relevant story, and one that should be loved by people who are into the mechanics of politics, despite the rather uneven quality of the writing (caused in part by it being ‘written’ via dictation without subsequent editing.)

Loved too should be Burdick’s 1965 novel, The 480. The title is a reference to the 480 different groups the electorate has been divided into by that novel’s political campaign stars – a set of slicing and dicing closely based on the real work done by John F Kennedy’s 1960 Presidential election campaign.

As with The Ninth Wave, we know political campaigning has turned out to have a greater role for art than the pure-science envisaged in the novel, but once again it’s easier to see how the book could have remained a favourite of political geeks rather than one that faded into obscurity, especially given the JFK-approved veneer it gives to modern targeting techniques.

Then there is his 1962 Cold War nuclear drama Fail-Safe, co-written with Harvey Wheeler about a series of mistakes which result in a US nuclear bomber force heading off to obliterate Moscow. Made into a successful film directed by Sidney Lumet and staring Henry Fonda and Walter Matthau, its subsequent obscurity (save for a televised play in 2000) is at least more understandable in that the year of the film’s release, 1964, also saw Dr. Strangelove hit the cinema.

Fail-Safe may have been a good movie (and you can enjoy its trailer here) but Dr. Stranglove, with a similar subject matter, was an all-time classic movie.

Indeed, Fail-Safe was so similar to Red Alert, the book on which Dr. Strangelove was based, that legal action was taken for copyright infringement, with a view to delaying the Fail-Safe movie until after Dr. Strangelove has been released. The result was both an out-of-court settlement and Dr Strangelove indeed getting released first. (Somewhat confusingly, this Burdick work was originally was published in Britain with a different title – Red Alert – and with the author using a different name, Peter Bryant.)

Yet none of that really explains why Eugene Burdick has so firmly disappeared from view. So if you like political thrillers, Cold War dramas or both – take a look at his work and enjoy.

The Whartons of Winchendon – 4. Honest Tom

Thomas Wharton by Kneller c. 1710-15

Thomas Wharton by Kneller c. 1710-15

Continuing our weekly serialisation of Jonathan Law’s The Whartons of Winchendon (published for Kindle by Dabbler Editions and available to buy from Amazon now), we learn more about Thomas Wharton: powerful political fixer, habitual liar, saviour of the nation and pox-ridden traitor…

And so, rather implausibly, in the last weeks of 1688, Tom Wharton became a great man. As one of the makers of the ‘Glorious Revolution’, he was lionized by his own party, the now dominant Whigs, and would soon become one of its ruling cabal. From early 1689 he was both a member of the Privy Council and Comptroller of the Household – the official with the important role of liaising between the new King, William III, and the House of Commons. He would soon be acknowledged as one of the handful of men who effectively ran the country while William was away fighting his French wars.

As William no doubt knew, he owed as much as to Tom Wharton as to any man alive: quite apart from his role in the Revolution, it was Tom, in the Convention Parliament of 1688, who had moved that William be made King, rather than some sort of regent. And yet the relationship between the two men would never be easy. William respected Tom’s energy and ability, but is said to have mistrusted him, fearing that he was a Commonwealth man at heart (if Tom Wharton and friends could dispense so easily with one king, then why not another?). There was also a basic difference in outlook. At bottom, William was keen to conciliate all parties who accepted the Revolution settlement – not least because he had no wish to become a creature of the Whigs. By contrast Tom Wharton remained openly and relentlessly partisan, a man who made no secret of his desire to purge his enemies, the Tories, from every area of public life, by any means available. These were, after all, the men who had sent his friends and allies to the scaffold in 1682 and 1685; the blood of the ‘Whig Martyrs’ was crying for redress. But given his calculating nature Tom’s motives were probably as much strategic as personal; his overriding aim was to leverage the triumph of the Revolution into a lasting ascendancy for his own party. Every opportunity must be taken to brand the Tories as natural enemies of English liberty and the Protestant religion – men whose support for the Revolution could never be anything but self-serving and insincere. “If you intend to govern like an honest man, what occasion can you have for knaves to serve you?” he would rasp at William, in the rough manner the King would come to resent, and perhaps even fear.

This word ‘honest’ was never far from Tom’s lips and it is worth pausing to consider what he could have meant by it. In Tom Wharton’s eyes, to be ‘honest’ was above all to be a defender of “the honest old Whig interest” and an enemy to the forces of “Popery and slavery”, at home or abroad. Personal probity was something else altogether. So it was that T. Wharton acquired his ubiquitous nickname – one deployed with great bitterness by his enemies and with a more nuanced irony by his friends: Honest Tom. For by any normal standards Tom Wharton was not an honest man.

“Of all the liars of his time he was the most deliberate, the most inventive, and the most circumstantial” concluded the Whig historian Macaulay. Political contemporaries would marvel at Tom’s ability to tell any lie that would gain his immediate end – and to appear quite unabashed when found out a week, a day, or an hour later. More puzzlingly, he would often seem to lie for lying’s sake, when a plain truth could have served him just as well. Probably, the roots of this lay deep in his early experience. Tom’s relations with his domineering, Puritan father seem to have bred a habit of dissimulation, and this became more deeply engrained in the dangerous political atmosphere of the 1680s. Inveterate womanizing must also have played its part – as Tom’s great enemy Jonathan Swift was quick to suggest:

He seems to have transferred those talents of his youth for intriguing with women, into publick affairs. For, as some vain young fellows to make a gallantry appear of consequence, will choose to venture their necks by climbing up a wall or window at midnight to a common wench, where they might as freely have gone in at the door, and at noon day; so [Wharton], either to keep himself in practice, or advance the fame of his politicks, affects the most obscure, troublesome, and winding paths, even in the most common affairs …

As if to rub it in, Tom Wharton told his lies with a nonchalant air that let his enemies know just how much of a damn he didn’t give. Although the Tories found this insufferable – Lord Dartmouth complained of “the most provoking insolent manner of speaking that I ever observed in any man, without any regard to civility or truth” – they never seemed able to land one back. As Macaulay notes, “neither invective nor irony could move him to anything but an unforced smile and a good-humoured curse”. Tom seems to have possessed to a rare degree that most useful of all political gifts: a genuine and imperturbable shamelessness (think Thatcher, think Blair). “He will openly take away your employment today, because you are not of his party” seethed one opponent, and yet “tomorrow he will meet or send for you, as if nothing at all had passed, lay his hands with much friendliness on your shoulders …” Honest Tom Wharton was one of those politicians who inspire not just disagreement or dislike but a real, blazing hatred.

All this, it should be said, was accompanied by great gifts of organization and man management. By 1694 or 95 Tom was regarded as perhaps the greatest party manager the House of Commons had ever known. The general elections of the 1690s also revealed his extraordinary ability to get in the Whig vote, by fair means or foul. “Such a master of the whole art of electioneering England had never seen”, Macaulay would concede, “as a canvasser he was irresistible.” Tom Wharton never forgot a face, or a name, or a voter’s favourite tipple. And once he had inherited his father’s wealth and title – in 1696 – his pockets were very, very deep. From this date, if not before, he can be counted a full member of the so-called Whig junto – the “five tyrannizing lords” regarded by many as the true rulers of England at this time. Having got his hands on real power, Tom also had an idea of what to do with it, putting his considerable weight behind two epochal pieces of legislation:  the 1701 Act of Settlement – the one that secured the Hanoverian succession – and the 1707 Act of Union with Scotland. In both cases the immediate motive was to block any future Jacobite restoration – and thus to create a world safe for Whig grandees; but in pushing these measures Tom Wharton, the fixer and tactician, can claim to have left a more lasting mark on English history than most.


View of the House and Gardens at Winchendon by Tillemans

View of the House and Gardens at Winchendon by Tillemans

Wharton’s rise to power suffered a serious check in 1702, with the death of William and the accession of Queen Anne, a staunch Tory of strong High Church views. Anne took grave exception to Tom’s morals and lack of religion (no doubt she remembered – as who could forget – the incident at Great Barrington and is said to have taken great pleasure in relieving him of his staff of office. Tom made the best of his new leisure by spending vast sums of money on Winchendon, his much loved country house in Bucks. The garden was remade in the Dutch style and graced with an enormous red-brick orangery – a declaration, no doubt, of Tom’s unchanging Revolution principles. A gardening project of another kind was initiated at Wooburn, the Thames-side estate he inherited from his father; in tribute to the pious old grump, Tom undertook to plant at least one specimen of every tree mentioned in the Bible. Other diversions were less innocent. Although Tom had remarried, mistresses came and went and no woman was thought to be quite safe in his presence. At the age of 60 he could still beat a man half his age in a duel – taking his old delight in disarming his opponent, forcing him to snivel for his life, and granting it with a shrug. He also rediscovered his passion for horse-racing, which often became the continuation of politics by other means; Tom would think nothing of transporting one of his prize mounts halfway across the country in order to deprive some Tory or High Church owner of a rich purse – which would then go straight into his election fund. By this time the ‘Wharton interest’ controlled some 25 parliamentary seats, including 10 in Bucks. In the general elections of 1705 and 1708 Tom threw himself into the campaign with his usual insane competitiveness, spending an estimated £80,000 of his own money on buying votes (in today’s terms, approaching £10 million).

Like her predecessors, Queen Anne would soon learn that you can’t keep an honest man down. The electoral successes of the Whigs brought the Junto lords back to power and Tom – newly created Earl of Wharton and Viscount Winchendon – was again a force to be reckoned with. Anne’s solution was to pack him off to Ireland, to serve as her Lord Lieutenant. The office brought near despotic powers and Tom deployed them in the usual enlightened style of the English in Ireland; the ferocious Penal Laws against Catholics were extended – although Tom appears to have been broad-minded enough to “whore with a papist” during his stay – and sales of employments and other kickbacks ensured that he left Dublin some £45,000 the richer (£5 million in today’s money). He also managed to incur the dangerous enmity of Jonathan Swift, whom he had unwisely passed over for preferment. In the 1710s Swift would keep up a relentless series of attacks on Wharton, who seems to have represented everything he most detested about a certain kind of Englishman and a certain kind of Whig. In his A Short Character of Thomas, Earl of Wharton and other writings Swift would eviscerate this “publick robber, adulterer, and defiler of altars” with a thoroughness bordering on the obsessive. Tom seems to have reacted with his usual sang-froid (in this respect, he must have been a satirist’s nightmare). Although Wharton was called back to England after only two years, a motion of impeachment was later quietly dropped: however gross, his peculations seem to have been within the understood limits of these things.

If the last years of Anne’s reign saw Tom at a low ebb – out of office and mauled by his opponents – apotheosis was only just around the corner. With the succession of the first George in 1714, Wharton’s hopes and plans and schemes of thirty years finally came to fruition; the future of limited Protestant monarchy seemed secured, the Tories were thrown into division and disarray, and the Whigs began almost half a century of uninterrupted power. As perhaps the chief architect of all this, Tom found himself smothered in honours; Lord Privy Seal; Marquess of Wharton and Marquess of Malmesbury; Marquess of Catherlough, Earl of Rathfarnham, and Baron Trim in the Peerage of Ireland. After a lifetime of noise and scandal, Tom was in danger of ending his days a revered elder statesman. To the younger members of his own party, in particular, ‘Honest Tom’ had become a legend; the “tutelary god whom our Whigs invoke and adore as the sole preserver of their country”, as the Duke of Portland put it. The Whig writer Abel Boyer agreed: for all the spite of the satirists, Lord Wharton had proved himself “the most active, most strenuous, and most indefatigable asserter of liberty; and the warmest and most inveterate enemy to popery and arbitrary power”.

To the Tories, however, Tom Wharton remained beyond the pale; Lord this or Marquess of that, he was still the man who once took a shit in a church (the story had grown: it was now Gloucester Cathedral, in broad daylight, on the high altar). In the Tory imagination, ‘Honest’ Tom would continue to loom large as an almost Satanic figure: not just another politician on the make, but a portent of godless power and lawless wealth – a truly dark lord. For Swift, Wharton remained quite simply ”the most universal villain I ever knew” and lesser writers followed in painting a picture of almost insane wickedness:

Industrious, unfatigued in Faction’s Cause,
Sworn Enemy to God, his Church and Laws,
He dotes on Mischief for dear Mischief’s sake,
Joins contradictions in his wondrous make …
Joins depth of Cunning with Excess of Rage,
Lewdness of Youth with Impotence of Age.
Descending, though of Race illustrious born,
To such vile actions as a slave would scorn …
His dignity and honour, he secures
By Oaths, Profaneness, Ribaldry and Whores;
Kisses the man, whom just before he bit,
Takes Lies for Jests, and Perjury for Wit,
To great and small alike extends his Frauds,
Plund’ring the Crown and bilking Rooks and Bawds;
His mind still working, mad, of Peace bereft,
And Malice eating what the P-x has left,
A monster, whom no Vice can bigger swell,
Abhor’d by Heaven and long since due to Hell.

 (Anon, 1712)

So: saviour of his nation or poxed-up maniac traitor from hell? On past form, it seems unlikely that Tom Wharton agonized much over the verdict of posterity. Having arranged the succession of the Crown, he was now concerned with his own dynastic issues: as much as old Lord Wharton, Tom was desperate for his son and heir to carry the great work forward (we’ll see how that turned out in the next two posts). Perhaps the last word should go to the age’s great arbiter of moral and philosophical questions, the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury: Tom Wharton, he said, was the most mysterious human being that he had ever known.

wharton family tree simple version

The Whartons of Winchendon thumbnail

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Marianne North – Globetrotting Flower-painter


Nige pays tribute to the extraordinary Victorian spinster, globetrotter, botanist, artist and ‘very wild bird’, Marianne North…

Tomorrow marks the birthday of the brilliant flower painter and tireless traveller Marianne North (born 1830), who, even by the standards of intrepid, globetrotting Victorian spinsters, was pretty extraordinary. In an age before jet travel and motorways (or indeed motor transport), she travelled and lived in Jamaica, Canada, the United States, Brazil, Tenerife, Japan, Ceylon, India, Borneo, Java, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Seychelles and Chile – all in the space of a decade and a half.

And wherever she went, she painted her astonishing, botanically accurate, vividly coloured oil paintings of the exotic plant life she found. What’s more, she painted these plants not as specimens in isolation but as organisms in an ecosystem, creating pictures that are beautifully composed and richly detailed as well as precisely descriptive.

Born into a wealthy and well connected family, Marianne shared her father’s passion for travel and botany and, when she found herself alone and free following his death (in 1869), she decided to indulge them both, along with her new-found love of oil painting – which she described as ‘a vice like dram-drinking, almost impossible to leave off once it gets possession of one’.

She abhorred marriage – ‘a terrible experiment’, in her view, that turned women into ‘a sort of upper servant’ – and disliked company, so most of the time she lived, travelled and painted alone. ‘I am a very wild bird,’ she declared, ‘and like liberty.’


She became a reluctant celebrity in her own lifetime and the crowds flocked to an exhibition of her work in London in 1879 – a success from which she shrank, but which gave her an idea:  to give all her paintings as a gift to the Royal Botanical Society at Kew, and to build a gallery at her own expense to display them to the public.

The gift was rather reluctantly accepted, and the gallery – a temple-like building in a corner of the Gardens – is still there. It was recently restored, and is quite unlike anything of its kind – indeed Kew claims it is the only gallery devoted to a single female artist, with full public access, anywhere in the UK.



The effect of Miss North’s paintings en masse is somewhat concussing – those colours! Her palette was certainly well adapted to the tropics.

But then, if she hadn’t painted in vivid oils, but in the more usual delicate watercolours, little or nothing of her work would have survived.

The Whartons of Winchendon – 3. Sawpit and Son

'Sawpit' Wharton in the 1680s

‘Sawpit’ Wharton in the 1680s

The Whartons of Winchendon is a new serialisation of Jonathan Law’s latest book, which is published for Kindle by Dabbler Editions and available to buy from Amazon now.

In this third episode we meet Philip’s son Tom Wharton, who rose to political power but also became embroiled in religious and domestic scandal. Did he really relieve himself in a church pulpit?…

As he entered his autumn years, Philip, 4th Baron Wharton could look back with some pride on a life spent in the service of three great but often embattled causes – the Reformed Protestant religion, the liberty of Parliament, and the dynastic ambitions of the Wharton family. His chief concern now was the grooming of young Tom, his son and heir, to carry the great work forward.

On the face of it, this might have seemed a desperate project. By the time he came of age, Tom Wharton had turned violently against the Puritan ethos of his father’s house – a world of “Geneva bands, heads of lank hair, upturned eyes, nasal psalmody, and sermons three hours long” (in the colourful words of Thomas Macaulay). Although he was already becoming known as a rider and owner of racehorses – Careless, Snail, and Wharton’s Gelding would all become legendary in the annals of the turf – Tom’s chief notoriety was as a rake and libertine. He was also making a name as a swordsman and duellist: a man who boasted that he had never issued a challenge, never refused a challenge, and – once engaged – had never lost a fight. Yet however wild his antics, Tom managed his rebellion so skilfully that he never provoked an open breach with his father, to whom he remained outwardly submissive. The son had clearly learned something from old Sawpit’s dealings with princes and Protectors. To his headstrong and occasionally reckless qualities, Tom Wharton added a strong dash of his father’s circumspection.

In the light of later events, Tom’s way of keeping a cool head in the midst of his indiscretions has a smack of Shakespeare’s Prince Hal – the difference being that Tom Wharton would eventually turn himself into a Great Man without any nonsense about reforming his morals. As in the Hal plays, too, there’s something a bit Oedipal about Tom’s relations with his devoted but oh-so demanding father. The Restoration bloods had a favourite bit of doggerel:

May it please God to shorten the life of Lord Wharton
And set up his son in his place,
Who’ll drink and who’ll whore
And a hundred things more
With a grave and fanatical face.

It was even whispered that Tom Wharton had written these words himself (as the world would soon learn, he had a way with a doggerel rhyme).


If Lord Wharton was insistent on one thing, it was that Tom should marry and marry well. After a long search a suitable bride was found, with Tom himself playing little or no part in the process. As well as being rich and well-connected, Anne Lee was clever, bookish, and serious minded; the couple married in 1673, when he was 25 and she just 14. Although Tom seems to have had no strong feelings about the girl – whose character and interests were so far from his own – the match was welcome for quite other reasons. Not only did he come into good money, but the old place at Winchendon now became his by way of settlement. Although he had few sentimental feelings, Tom seems to have loved his childhood home and the North Bucks countryside where he had first learned to ride. The house had another important advantage; with its relative remoteness, Winchendon allowed Tom to escape his father’s care, just as it had given the old lord his freedom from Cromwell. He could now pursue his various pleasures without risk of censure. At Quainton, a few miles to the north, he would build his own private racecourse – and (it is said) a house for his latest mistress. He also had an important new interest, and one that his father could wholeheartedly endorse; in 1673 Tom was elected MP for Wendover, the first of a long series of Buckinghamshire constituencies. With one thing and another, Anne could not expect a great deal of his attention.

Anne Lee Wharton

Anne Lee Wharton

If Tom could not work up much interest in his young wife, modern scholars have found Anne Wharton rather fascinating. An orphan almost from birth, she had been brought up mainly by a Puritan grandmother but also by her uncle, the notorious poet and libertine John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. Anne herself showed early signs of literary talent and continued to write throughout her marriage, producing lyrics, satirical pieces, and a full-length verse drama, Love’s Martyr. Although her work achieved little circulation in her own day, it was praised by the cognoscenti and has recently attracted the attention of feminist critics; Germaine Greer published some thirty of Anne’s poems in 1997 and a dozen more have since come to light. The one poem printed in Anne’s lifetime was almost certainly her best – a heartfelt elegy on the death of her uncle Rochester, whom she clearly adored.

As his parliamentary career took off, and Anne signally failed to produce the expected heir, Tom seems to have neglected her more and more openly. In the circumstances, it is hardly strange that Anne should have looked elsewhere – but curious that she turned to Tom’s younger brother Goodwin, a penniless eccentric. After an attempt to set up as an inventor, Goodwin had tried to solve his chronic money problems through a series of increasingly improbable ventures, including diving for sunken treasure in the Hebrides; with the ignominious failure of all these schemes, he was now pinning his hopes on alchemy and the acquisition of magic powers.

To his stoutly pragmatic family, Goodwin was at best a puzzle and at worst an incorrigible ninny. Possibly, it was a shared sense of exclusion from the Wharton world of wealth and power that drew the two together. Whatever the case, Anne clearly liked the young man and the two held several assignations in 1680-81. For the gory details we have to rely on Goodwin’s later memoir – an utterly bizarre but in its own way very candid document. Although only too aware that they would be committing incest as well as adultery, Anne had reached a point where she was prepared to risk her immortal soul, stating roundly that “she could be content to be damned rather than not have her desires”.  As it turned out, her fears were unnecessary. On his first nervous attempt to seduce her, Goodwin experienced an “ejection” of seed that made him “incapable” of further action. A second attempt would be baulked by the arrival of Anne’s period. Thereafter the heat seems to have gone out of the relationship, although Goodwin would continue to see her in dreams and visions for the rest of his life. If his memoir can be trusted, he would go on to enjoy similarly frustrated affairs with his own stepmother (Lord Wharton had remarried), not to mention three queens of England and two queens of Fairyland. But these are matters to which we shall return.

In point of fact, Goodwin may have had a very lucky escape. Anne had been experiencing health problems for some time and most scholars think that her symptoms – which included eye troubles and violent convulsions – indicate syphilis. If this is correct, then the obvious culprit must be Tom, who had presumably infected her with the disease and neglected to mention the matter, thus denying her such treatment as was available. There is, however, another possibility:  according to Goodwin, in the years before her marriage (at 14!) Anne had been “lain with long by her uncle, my Lord Rochester”. It is generally assumed that Rochester’s death, in 1680, had been caused by chronic alcoholism and a nice cocktail of STDs. By the summer of 1685 it must have been clear that Anne, too, was dying – and dying very hard; the poet Robert Gould would write movingly of her last agonizing weeks:

When ev’ry Artery, Fibre, Nerve and Vein
Were by Convulsions torn, and fill’d with Pain …

Although Goodwin used his occult powers to send several angels to her bed, he did not visit in person; Tom, it seems, did, and achieved some kind of reconciliation with Anne before her death that autumn, still aged only 26. When Tom brought the body back to Winchendon, he insisted that his wife was buried in fine silk, rather than the wool then required by law – a tiny act of amends that cost him a fine of 50 shillings. On the opening of Anne’s will, it was found that she had left her entire fortune to Thomas Wharton.


These years – the early 1680s – were also the years of Tom Wharton’s gradual rise to prominence in national affairs. During the Exclusion Crisis of 1679-83, Tom would be among those MPs who pressed most vigorously to exclude Charles II’s Catholic brother, James, from the throne – a group soon nicknamed the Whiggamores or Whigs. It was a time of violent faction and of plot and counterplot in which the country sometimes seemed to stand on the brink of a second civil war. In general, Tom navigated these dangerous waters with a tact and sense of timing of which his father can only have been proud; in his opposition to King and court, he seemed to know just how far he could push at any particular time without endangering the cause (or his own head). There is, however, one extraordinary exception to all this – an incident so grotesque that it would give his enemies ammunition for the rest of his life.

By 1682 there was a growing feeling that the Whigs had overplayed their hand, alienating by their violence many good Protestants who also had a devout belief in social order. In particular, the Church leadership had united behind James on the premise that a Catholic king would be less threatening than a Roundhead revival. It seems to have been a deep frustration with this state of affairs that prompted Tom to the most outrageous faux pas of his career. One evening that summer, Tom and his even wilder brother Henry – an infamous brawler – got drunk with a group of like-minded friends and broke into the church at Great Barrington in Gloucestershire. The intruders rang a ragged peal on the bells, cut the bell-rope, and committed further acts of vandalism, including ripping the church Bible. Worse still, before departing into the night, Tom had allegedly “pissed against a communion table” and “done his other occasions in the pulpit”.

The Great Barrington incident is the one occasion on which the recklessness of Tom’s private life seems to erupt into the calm calculation of his political career. An interesting question is what, if anything, this “grievous prank” says about his religious beliefs. Does the incident reveal the unreconstructed Cromwellian lurking under the Restoration rake? Or is it true that, as his enemies always said, Tom Wharton was really an atheist in dissenter’s clothing? From a political point of view, the evening’s work was clearly an embarrassment – and yet it did him less harm in the long run than might have been expected; it would not bar his path to some of the highest offices in the land. In our own irreligious but increasingly censorious age, we can only boggle at how a full-on pulpit-pooping incident, involving say Michael Gove or Yvette Cooper, would play with the focus groups or those all-important swing voters in key marginals. A Twitter storm there certainly would be.

As it happened, the scandal of Great Barrington was soon overshadowed by more deadly concerns. In 1683 the discovery of the Rye House Plot – a conspiracy to murder both Charles and James as a prelude to general insurrection – provided the government with all the excuse it needed to crack down on the Whig leaders, a procession of whom went to the scaffold or fled abroad. Historians still disagree about how far the plot was a serious threat and how far it was talked up by the authorities. Although Tom Wharton was not named among the suspects, a report that some of the plotters were hiding at Winchendon led to the house being searched from top to bottom; a modest cache of arms was removed – enough guns, swords, and body armour to equip perhaps ten cavalrymen. With all his wonted chutzpah, Tom argued for their return, pleading that these things were essential for his own safety: were there not poachers and footpads in Bucks, like anywhere else, and especially so in these unsettled times? We don’t know if he got his weapons back; but the matter went no further.

Despite the best efforts of the Whigs, James duly acceded to the throne in 1685 – an event followed swiftly by the debacle of Monmouth’s rebellion, a botched attempt to replace the new king with Charles’s illegitimate but Protestant son, the Duke of Monmouth. Once again, the precise role of the Whartons is uncertain. Although there is every reason to think that they were approached by Monmouth’s agents, it seems they were far too canny to commit themselves beyond the point of return. Tom had spent a good deal of time with the Duke in his horse-racing days, and with his usual acute judgement of character seems to have decided that this was not a man to whom he wished to entrust his life. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of Monmouth’s defeat there are stories of two carriage-loads of arms being removed secretly from Winchendon and put aside for future use (the time would not be long). It was at this moment, too, with wild accusations flying up and down the land, that old ‘Sawpit’ Wharton decided that it might be prudent to travel to the Continent for his health. According to Buckinghamshire legend, he would bury some £20,000 worth of treasure (in today’s terms, over £2 million) in the Chiltern beech woods before taking his leave, half expecting never to return. After a year in France and Germany, he would find his way back just in time for the General Amnesty. The treasure, it is said, was never found.

There is also a family tradition that while abroad old Philip found occasion to confer with William, Prince of Orange, the Protestant leader with the closest links to the English throne. Although historians have found no evidence for this, it would not be long before others would be looking in the same direction. In the summer of 1688 seven peers of the realm would write secretly to William inviting him to invade England; according to some accounts, the letter was drafted by Tom Wharton. Whether or not this is so, Tom clearly felt that the time for caution was past. He and his soldier brother, Henry, were now leading lights in the ‘Treason Club’, a group that met at the Rose Tavern in Drury Lane to arrange the army defections that would soon make James’s position impossible. Tom’s greatest contribution to the ‘Glorious Revolution’ may, however, lie elsewhere; he is generally credited with writing the words to Lillibullero, a song satirizing James’s Irish policy that would sweep through the army and then the country. Tom would later boast of having rhymed a king out of three kingdoms and sober historians would go a long way towards agreeing (Bishop Burnet would comment that “never did so small thing have so great an effect”). When William finally landed at Torbay, Tom immediately rode west with some 60 picked men and a large haul of weapons. Within days, King James would have fled the country never to return.


William of Orange lands at Torbay

William of Orange lands at Torbay

With the triumph of the Revolution, the great and palmy days of the Wharton family were about to begin. As the first important figure openly to declare for William, Tom’s future was assured; a grateful monarch would very soon make him a Privy Councillor, the first in a long string of offices and titles. As for old Wharton, his forty-year waiting game was at an end and he could live out the rest of his days in a spirit of nunc dimittis. He had seen the triumph of the three great causes to which he had given his life; the rights of Parliament were vindicated, a Protestant king was on the throne, and with the elevation of young Tom, who could say where the glories of the Wharton family might end? He could hardly know that in little over 30 years the family’s wealth, power, and titles would all have vanished like dew from the sheep pastures of Winchendon.

wharton family tree simple version

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Late Bloomers

Anton Bruckner

Anton Bruckner

Not all of the great composers were child geniuses or teenage whizzkids. This week, Mahlerman looks at some who found their true voice later in life…

I have always felt that the Octet in E flat major by Felix Mendelssohn is as close to a musical miracle as we are ever likely to see. The fact that he produced it in his 16th year goes beyond what is believable, eclipsing anything produced by Schubert or Mozart at the same age; put simply, it defies logic. But does genius demand the brio and precocity of youth? About this I am less sure, at least in the musical empyrean.

Today we look at a handful of masters who were well past their teenage years before they got into their stride.

The Moravian Leos Janacek was in the last quarter of his life when a revision of his earlier opera Jenufa made his name in 1916 – but as he was born in 1854, that made him famous at 62, an age when most of us are reaching for the slippers. But not this idiosyncratic master, perhaps the greatest Czech composer of the early twentieth century. Energised by the success of the opera, and further stimulated by a deeply felt love affair with a younger married woman, Kamila Stosslova, he packed four more masterful operas and the amazing Glagolitic Mass into the next fourteen years until his death in 1928 – and although the relationship with Kamila was platonic, there is no doubt from the composer’s writings, and from various clues in his scores, that this lady had become the most important single person in his emotional and creative life.

Just before the success of Jenufa, the composer produced, and published, the first book of his extraordinary cycle of piano pieces, On An Overgrown Path. The third movement is the magical Madonna of Frydek, used extensively in the overlong but enthralling movie by Philip Kaufman, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, from the book by Milan Kundera.

It was Matthew Arnold who mourned that France was ‘famed in all great arts, in none supreme’, and perhaps that might have been true in the middle of the 19th Century – but a dozen years after Arnold’s death the century turned, and by that time Monet, Cezanne, Renoir, Degas and many others were creating what we now know as a revolution in painting – as was Claude Debussy in music. But there was another group of composers in France, led by Gabriel Faure and Cesar Frank, who were less ‘revolutionary’, but whose music, it turned out, didn’t travel well and, broadly speaking, was not ‘exportable’. Yes, we hear Faure’s sublime Requiem, Pavane and Clair de Lune regularly – but who can name another piece by this great master of human feeling at its warmest? The more so with Frank (who was Flemish by birth), whose music is today almost totally absent from the concert hall – and for that matter, our thoughts. In my teens over 50 years ago his only symphony in D minor full, as it is, of eloquent and beautiful themes, had a considerable vogue – but no longer. Perhaps this is because even in his finest music, we do not think of the Low Countries or of France, more of the extreme chromaticism of Wagner’s Germany. And perhaps also it is because the composer was well into his sixties before he ‘got going’, and much of his music sounds ‘old’.

A piece that absolutely does not sound old is the delightful concertante Variations Symphoniques for Piano & Orchestra, composed when he was 63. This short marvel was also popular when I was in short trousers, and its eclipse today is something of a mystery. It is played here by a man who, back in the days when the BBC cared about such things, was a regular on television, partly because, whilst playing Liszt, he could burn a piano to the ground, and partly because he was better looking than most of the film stars of the day, a fact that my late mother would have flutteringly supported. My mum was not alone in her yearning for Georges Cziffra. I attended a couple of his solo concerts, and he could, very quickly, whip an expectant audience into something close to a frenzy. There are videos with better sound than this, taken from a concert in Paris in 1965, with his only son Georges Jr conducting the Orchestra National de l’ORTF, but none with quite the touch and personality that this musical giant brought to even a relatively restrained piece such as this. A sad footnote is the death of Cziffra Jr in a Paris house-fire just 16 years after this recording, with a note suggesting that he had set the fire himself in order to end his life. His father never played with an orchestra again.

Could it be said of the Austrian Anton Bruckner (pictured top) without, seemingly, insulting a whole nation, that he was a simple, good natured, religious, typically Austrian character? His lack of sophistication was expressed in clothes that always seemed a size too big, and hair that was untidily cropped short. He would love to have taken a wife, but his many proposals, usually to teenage or pre-pubescent girls, were repeatedly turned down. And for the first forty years of his life he was better known as an organist than a composer, never really getting started on composition until he was in his late thirties, an age that Mozart never reached.

It was almost a decade later before works like the Mass in F minor and the Third Symphony started to generate real interest and the beginnings of a worshipful following, and a further decade more, in fact at the premiere of his Seventh Symphony in 1884, when the full weight of his genius was at last recognised; he was, by then, sixty years old. The first performance was conducted by the great Arthur Nikisch who said after the event ‘Since Beethoven there has been nothing that could even approach it’. Bruckner had at last arrived. Hard to pick something worthwhile from symphonic movements that often exceed 20 minutes (from symphonies that last 80 minutes), but the Fifth Symphony in B flat major has always struck me as a perfectly balanced whole crowned, as it is, with a blazingly uplifting finale. Here is the late Claudio Abbado in Lucerne in 2011 conducting the Festival Orchestra, the video playing short extracts from the first three movements, and ending (from about 2.45) with the wonderful brass chorale that ends the work.

Jean Philippe Rameau has arrived among us – and it has only taken two hundred and fifty years. Unknown, except by academics and harpsichordists even fifty years ago, this grumpy late starting genius is now recognised as one of the greatest creative artists of the 18th Century. For more than the first half of his life (he died at 81 in 1764) he didn’t create music, he wrote about music, in particular notorious theories on harmony (Traite de l’Harmonie) that were not always well received. Like Bruckner he had a taste for teenage girls and when he was 43 he married one – he seemed to be a late starter in everything. The Lyonnaise Marie-Louise Mangot was just nineteen.

The composer was 50 when he produced his first opera Hippolyte et Aricie, and he followed it in the next thirty years with twenty more – an amazing achievement at any age. He began working with Voltaire immediately after Hippolyte, and followed the spectacular success of this work with another tragedy Castor et Pollux in 1737. From Act One of that masterpiece an aria to stop the clocks, Tristes apprets, pales flambeaux, sung by Agnes Mellon with Les Arts Florissants, conducted by the man who, perhaps more that anyone in the last thirty years, has been responsible for our renewed interest in the music of the French baroque, William Christie.

To end today, a short excerpt from another Rameau masterwork Les Paladins, in the comedy lyrique style that the composer as-good-as invented, along with opera-ballet. This long, passionate work has a complex, labyrinthine plot, and would be an achievement at any age. That Rameau was now a septuagenarian is hard to grasp, as the musical invention remains as fresh as ever – magnifique!

The Whartons of Winchendon – 2. The Good Lord

philip wharton

Philip, Lord Wharton – by Van Dyke

The Whartons of Winchendon, is a new serialisation of Jonathan Law’s latest book, which is published for Kindle by Dabbler Editions and available to buy from Amazon now.

In this episode we meet Philip, 4th Baron Wharton, who was instrumental not only in the rise to power of his family, but also in the enshrinement of early English civil liberties. But as we will find in future episodes, his heirs would not prove so morally upstanding…

The story of the Wharton family and Upper Winchendon begins in 1637 – the last year of real peace before the Civil Wars. That September Philip, 4th Baron Wharton, married Jane Goodwin, heiress to large tracts of Bucks including the manors of Winchendon, Wooburn, and Waddesdon. When Jane’s father died in the Parliamentary cause, Philip – who already held extensive properties in the north – became one of the greatest landowners in the country. To enormous wealth he could add the advantages of stern good looks, a finely tuned political sense, and a reputation for piety that made him the idol of the Puritan clergy (who referred to him dotingly as “the Good Lord Wharton”).

With Parliament at length victorious, Wharton, a close friend and protégé of Cromwell, was widely seen as a man to watch. As Oliver knew well enough, the Good Lord had proved invaluable to the cause as a backroom fixer and committee man (as well, it seems, as a supplier of gunpowder). Of course, like any public figure, our man had his detractors, some of whom hinted that his contribution to the actual fighting had not been glorious: at Edgehill, his troops had been swept from the field by Prince Rupert’s cavalry and Wharton is said to have watched the rest of the battle from the refuge of a sawpit. True or not, the story inspired a nickname that would stick for the rest of his life: ‘Sawpit’ Wharton. Philip Wharton’s devotion to his political and religious views can hardly be questioned; but it was accompanied by an instinct for self-preservation that at times amounted to genius.

Something of this can be seen in his sudden decision, in late 1648, to abandon his London mansion and to settle at Winchendon. The timing can hardly have been an accident. Wharton’s move came only weeks after Pride’s Purge – effectively, the military coup that laid the foundations for Cromwell’s dictatorship. The reasoning that led ‘Sawpit’ to choose Winchendon, at that time one of his more obscure and modest properties, had everything to do with its location. His motives have been explicated most shrewdly by J. Kent Clark, the leading modern historian of the Wharton clan:

Lord Wharton wished to remain on the fringes of political action. At Winchendon … about forty-five miles from Westminster, he was within a very long day’s carriage ride from Whitehall, where in case of need he could use his personal friendship with the new governors to get favours for himself and his friends. In the normal course of things, on the other hand, he was far enough removed to keep the new regime at arm’s length and to parry, gracefully, Cromwell’s attempts to recruit him for service. Winchendon, in fact, may be seen as a symbol for Lord Wharton’s survival policy – later to be revived in the days of James II:  In revolutionary times, one may be friendly with unpopular rulers and even accept favours from them. To serve them, however, and to earn those favours may prove dangerous or even fatal.

Wharton doubtless had real misgivings about the nature of the new regime; but his move also exhibits the deep, ingrained wariness that would enable him to outlive seven rulers of England. By choosing a life of rural retirement, he managed to avoid any part in the events leading to the death of King Charles, thus hedging his bets against a future restoration. In this way he was not only looking after his own skin but also safeguarding his long-term dynastic ambitions (an heir, Tom, had been born earlier that year). Cromwell’s blandishments, which would eventually include an offer of marriage between the two families, were firmly but courteously declined.

As his family grew around him – there would eventually be eight children – Lord Wharton sat tight at Winchendon and devoted his time to godly pursuits and his purse to beautifying his house and garden. Andrew Marvell was a guest, and some scholars think that his great but slippery poem The Garden was written here, among the fountains and implicated parterres; if so, it makes a nice fit with Wharton’s sphinx-like character and the various ambiguities of his situation. Although the Good Lord was a staunch Calvinist, a man known to take a stern view of play-going and Sunday travel, his friendship with Marvell shows that he was no puritan in the vulgar sense. A morbid self-denial would never be one of his vices. Our man took great enjoyment in music and poetry, and the collection of Van Dykes and Lelys he had built up over 20 years was said to rival that of King Charles himself. Indeed, Lord Wharton seems to have combined piety with wealth, and the power that comes from wealth, with an enviable ease. He was no doubt more honest than his enemies allowed. As an old man his proudest claim was that he had never taken a bribe, and in the strictest sense he may never have offered one. Yet when it came down to it, Lord Wharton – like any magnate of the day – was firmly of the school of C. Montgomery Burns: if extreme wealth doesn’t allow you to bend your fellow man to your will, then what on earth is it for?

With the death of Cromwell in 1658, Wharton decided to close things down at Winchendon and moved the household to Wooburn, his mansion at Bourne End – only twenty-odd miles to the south, but a world nearer the centres of power, where things were developing with alarming speed. In May 1660, when the second Charles landed at Greenwich, the 4th Baron was amongst the first to greet him. Although in mourning for his wife, Lord W. had carefully replaced the buttons on his black velvet costume with diamonds; very clearly, it would not do for anyone to mistake his feelings at this time. He would likewise take an ostentatious part in Charles’s coronation, spending something like a year’s income on trappings for his horses.

Considering his past, this was all most prudent. Where many of his old associates went to the gallows, or suffered fines and confiscations, Wharton remained free to enjoy his gardens and his music and his pictures. However, it would be unjust to see the Good Lord as some kind of Vicar of Bray. In his religious convictions, at least, he remained entirely consistent. During the long years of Anglican and Royalist reaction, he would prove a tireless patron of the nonconforming clergy, some 2,000 of whom were driven from their livings. In return, these men would provide him with a nationwide network of support, and sometimes of intelligence. For thirty years he would walk a dangerous tightrope, making Wooburn a hub of resistance to royal policy while evading any serious consequences for himself or his family. At times, his footing appeared to wobble. In 1663 Wharton was named in connection with the Farnley Wood plot, a conspiracy to murder Charles and re-establish the Commonwealth; he seems to have been perfectly innocent, but had friends who were not. In 1676 an imprudent word led to his summary imprisonment in the Tower, although he was soon freed on grounds of age and infirmity (he would live for another 20 years).

Given all this, it is no surprise that Lord Wharton supported the moves afoot at this time to enshrine Habeas Corpus in English statute law; a key step in the evolution of English liberties, yes – but also a matter in which he had some personal interest. Indeed, some accounts go further and hint that Wharton’s role in securing the passage of the 1679 Act was a mysteriously decisive one. According to these writers, the Act only managed to pass the Lords by a species of chicanery. Knowing that the vote was going to be very close, the teller for the ‘ayes’ took advantage of a moment’s inattention by his opposite number to  count a particularly fat peer as five, thus carrying the Bill. You might think that this has every sign of being a tall tale, but the numbers are still there on the record – votes for 57; votes against 55; total number of peers in attendance 107. And, yes, some versions of the story have it that the teller for the ‘ayes’ on this occasion was none other than the Good Lord himself.

While old Lord Wharton was busy playing a wary and enigmatic role in the politics of the Restoration, the manor at Winchendon had remained empty and boarded up for some 15 years. However, the day came when his son and heir, young Tom, returned to the house on the hill, threw open the windows, and took up residence with his bride; it was 1673 and a new chapter in the history of this most remarkable family was about to begin.

wharton family tree simple version

The third instalment of The Whartons of Winchendon will appear on Tuesday, and continue weekly thereafter.

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Buy The Whartons of Winchendon: A Tale of Dynasty, Power and Madness at the Heart of Stuart England
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The Whartons of Winchendon – 1. The Lost Domain


View north from Upper Winchendon

The Dabbler is proud to present The Whartons of Winchendon, a major new serialisation of Jonathan Law’s latest book, which is published for Kindle by Dabbler Editions and available to buy from Amazon now.

By turns hilarious and tragic, it tells the tale of the rise and fall of one of the strangest families in English history. In this opening instalment, Jonathan sets the scene…

The village of Upper or Over Winchendon stands perhaps five miles to the north-west of Aylesbury, on a little limestone ridge that climbs some four hundred feet above the surrounding vale. Despite the modest altitude, views here are big. Look to the south and your eyes sweep straight across the Thame valley – a placid country of ploughed fields and muddy cow pastures – until they meet the sudden scarp of the Chiltern Hills, ten or twenty miles off. Turn north or west, however, and it’s a different picture – a jumble of small hills and half-hidden valleys, quietly rising and falling all the way to Oxford or to Buckingham. It’s an inviting prospect, to be sure, this ridged and rumpled country now softened by spring shadows: but a land that holds its secrets to itself.

I don’t often come this way but when I do I’m always struck by the same thought – a feeling of having crossed a watershed or hidden threshold. Half a mile south and you can be quite sure that you are in the busy, prosperous Home Counties, where every road or railway seems to pull inexorably towards London. But come up here, to Winchendon, and you are suddenly free of all that; the Tube map feels like a vague rumour as you mount the brow of the hill and look out across North Bucks to the misty fringes of Oxfordshire. You are standing on the brink of that terra incognita – mysterious even to most Brits – known as the Rural English Midlands.

The thought may be fanciful, but the landscape gives it a kind of credence. The villages here are smaller and more widely spaced than is the norm for south-east England – each one (Quainton, Ashendon, Chilton, Brill) perched on its own separate hill like some Tuscan fortress town. The M40 roars by on the west, but otherwise main roads are few and the lanes are narrow; nowhere here is on the way to anywhere else, and apart from the splendours of Waddesdon there’s little enough to bring the tourists. For all the proximity of Aylesbury, the country has a remote feel; hillsides are windy and open and here and there the sheep pastures are broken up by tiny patches of ancient woodland, grassy heath, and calcareous fen. This whole area once lay within the medieval forest of Bernwood – a favourite resort of Edward the Confessor – and there is still an ancient texture to the land; ridge and furrow corrugating the hill, old moats hushed under nettles, signs of a long-deserted village by the spring-line.

Of course, it’s workaday country really; but in this sort of deep England you’re never too far from something else, a hint or haunt of old battles, old magic, ancient sin. It seems oddly right that The Midsomer Murders is filmed round here – all those dark secrets lurking in an England so idyllic it’s almost camp. Interesting, too, that Professor Tolkien of Oxford walked this “small country of fields and tamed woodland” and drew on it for his Breeland  ­­– that border region where the cosiness of the Shire comes up against deeper intrigues, darker potencies. For the hilltop village of Bree (‘At the Sign of the Prancing Pony’) see the hilltop village of Brill – a few miles cross-country from Winchendon. There’s also a lonely, stand-offish farm whose name might ring a bell – Leatherslade, refuge and lurking place of the Great Train Robbers in 1963.

As for Winchendon itself, it’s a real blink-and-you’ll-miss-it place – no more than a dozen houses strung along the crest of the ridge, with a few farms tucked into the hillside. The one really unusual thing is a little astronomical observatory, plonked down in the fields like a futuristic egg. Otherwise, there’s a tiny Norman church on the crown of the hill, one of the few in the country without electricity (winter services take place by gas-lamp or candle). And almost hidden by trees, a rambling 17th-century house that goes by the name of The Wilderness; all chimneys and gables and blessed with the sort of looks that would make any writer itch to fill it with ghosts. Very remarkably, this was once just the business end – offices and kitchens – of a much grander place: a vast almost-palace of which nothing else remains. The gardens here were said to be amongst the finest in the kingdom, famous for their parterres and ranks of flowering fruit trees. You can still see the humps and bumps on the open hillside, marking the lines of walks, terraces, fishponds. Most strikingly, the course of the great carriage drive that swept across from the main Aylesbury road is still greenly visible (see picture at the head of this post – top centre to middle right).

wharton mansion

The Wharton mansion at Upper Winchendon c. 1720

For almost a hundred years this was the home of the Wharton family – hardly a name to conjure with now but at the turn of the 18th century one of the great powers in the land. Piqued by the odd bits of the story I’d come across, I thought I’d find some books, poke about in the county record office, see if I could put it all together. I’m very glad I did.

The rise and fall of the Whartons turns out to be an almost Shakespearian drama of faction and intrigue, high politics and low shenanigans – a story of complex, flawed, enigmatic characters whose actions more than once left a lasting trace on English history. On a private level, it is mostly a story of fathers and sons and the strange and sorrowful harms they do to one another (it deepens like a coastal shelf). And in case that sounds too ordinary, it is also a tale of incest, treason, alchemy, deep-sea diving, syphilis, ghosts, buried treasure, and a man who believed he had found the doors to Fairyland.

The second instalment of The Whartons of Winchendon will appear this Thursday, and continue weekly thereafter.

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Great Britten

Returning to the new-look Dabbler, Mahlerman turns his attention to Benjamin Britten and shares his personal attachment to the greatest English composer since Purcell…

Had he not lived in Restoration England, where fully-composed opera was not yet accepted, there is little doubt that Henry Purcell would have developed into the great operatic composer many, even today, believe him to have been. But this undoubted genius liked a drink and, one evening, his wife Frances locked him out of his own house in Westminster, and the chill (or perhaps TB) that followed his night on the tiles finished him, aged about 36 – a loss to music that ranks alongside the death of Franz Schubert just over 100 years later.

Aside from his wonderful melodic gifts and his vividly dramatic imagination, he had a profound understanding of the human voice, and a skill in setting English words to music that has perhaps never been equalled – until the arrival of Benjamin Britten, born just before the Great War. To Britten, and for that matter his near contemporary Michael Tippett, Purcell was an idolized foster-father, and you don’t have to wander too far in Britten’s vast neoclassical oeuvre, to find the fingerprints of the 17th Century master.

In 1695, the last year of his life, Purcell produced the ten movements of the incidental music to Abdelazer, or The Moor’s Revenge, itself an adaptation of the tragedy from 1600, Lust’s Dominion – and as WW2 was ending, the 32 year old Britten boldly appropriated the second movement Rondeau from this suite and began work on his Opus 34, the Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell, that became better known as The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra. Like many others I’m sure, this wonderful piece was my introduction to Britten’s highly individual soundworld, and I vividly remember being almost sick with excitement when the triumphant final Fugue started, shifting from minor to major in the last few pages. Here, any suggestion that the Berlin Philharmoniker is not the greatest orchestra on the planet, are put firmly to bed.

Five years earlier at the start of the war, the pacifist Britten was in America considering a return to England when, curiously, he received a commission from the government of Japan, for a piece to celebrate the founding of the Japanese empire (why Britten I wonder?). The commission was accepted and delivered – but rejected by Emperor Hirohito, who considered the ‘Christian’ titles, and bleak content, an insult. The purely orchestral Sinfonia da Requiem is indeed one of the most harrowing pieces in the composer’s output, but stands as an extraordinary achievement for a 27 year old. The Lacrymosa first movement is a funeral march of unremitting blackness, and the mood is rarely lightened in the following Dies Irae and final Requiem aeternam. The nod to Tchaikovsky in the Young Person’s Guide is not particularly obvious; the debt to Gustav Mahler, one of Britten’s favourite composers, is clear on every page of this amazing score. The scratchy film of Hermann Goring and the other bad-boys at Nuremberg, post-dates the music by about five years.

In the run-up to the first and second performances of Britten’s War Requiem in May 1962, my interest in ‘serious’ music was embryonic, shall we say. I had met Ornette Coleman at Birmingham Town Hall, I had seen the Everly Brothers at the Opposite Lock, and I had heard Dylan, also in Birmingham, draining the National Grid, and driving the Folkies to distraction. I’d also dropped my sister at the Coventry Hippodrome to see the Beatles, and gone there with my mum, who wanted to see a very young Tom Jones – and yes, they did throw knickers at him from the balcony. I suppose you could say that I had, in a dull post-war Midlands City, an exposure to quite a number of musical influences.

I played violin in a number of youth orchestras, and I could sing a bit – or thought I could. One of the orchestras was run by a brilliant organist who, in 1961 became the first organist and choirmaster of the new Coventry Cathedral. David Lepine (who was later engaged to the novelist Susan Hill, but whose heart stopped beating in 1972, when he was just 43) was casting around for good boys’ voices to sing in the treble chorus at the looming premiere and, probably pushed forward by my mother, I sleepwalked into an audition. It took Lepine less that a minute to spot the lack of quality in my voice, but the pearl in the cow-pat, for me at least, was a place at the first performance of the Requiem, and the second – and on the day before the premiere, I heard the first performance of Michael Tippett’s King Priam, the musical language of which was a bit too advanced for my young ears.

My musical God was Dimitri Shostakovich and, a decade later he was in Dublin with his wife, collecting a doctorate from Trinity College and attending a concert in St Patrick’s Cathedral, at which I met him, briefly. He was very ill at this point with the cancer that, three years later, would end his life, and one of the pieces played at the concert was by Britten, his Serenade Opus 31 for Tenor, Horn & Strings. I didn’t know then, but have learned since of the close personal friendship that existed between the two composers, and the love and respect they both had for each other’s music – and it seems that the Opus 31 was the Russian master’s favourite piece of Britten’s music.

It is cast in six movements that are enclosed by a horn-solo Prologue and off-stage horn-solo Epilogue. The broad theme, as in the Requiem above, is darkness – evening, night and the approach of sleep. Here is the last sung movement Sonnet, to words by John Keats ‘O soft embalmer of the still midnight’. In performance this movement is ‘used’ by the horn player to remove himself from the stage to a distant spot in preparation for playing the solo Epilogue that concludes the piece. Britten’s sense of theatre never deserted him.

Although it is slowly starting to appear in the concert hall, the Violin Concerto Opus 15 was hardly played anywhere until the very end of the last century. This is something of a mystery.  It has all the cool beauty of the Alban Berg (the first performance of which Britten attended, reporting afterwards that he found it ‘just shattering – very simple and touching’), some of the elegiac quality of the William Walton, and all the restless intensity of the first concerto by Shostakovich; the concerto by Jean Sibelius from 1904 towers over everything, including the Elgar. The intensity present in this concerto grips the listener from the very first bars of the opening movement, and the clenched-fist stays locked until the contemplative close of the third movement Passacaglia, the last pages of which we can hear on this video of the Russian virtuoso Maxim Vengerov.  Britten used the passacaglia form seriously for the first time in this movement and, both he and Shostakovich employed it extensively for the rest of their lives, as it usefully indicates a ritualized mourning, an aural atmosphere that both composers revelled in. When they employed the passacaglia form, graveness was never far away.



An apartment block that only the most well connected are invited to live in? Another mysterious case for the Wikiworm, taken from the weirder side of Wikipedia

The Albany, or simply Albany —(since the mid-20th century some have claimed that the definite article is not in use among the fashionable)— is an exclusive apartment complex in Piccadilly, London.

The Albany was built in 1770–74 by Sir William Chambers for Viscount Melbourne as Melbourne House. It is a three-storey mansion seven windows wide, with a pair of service wings flanking a front courtyard. In 1791, Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany abandoned Dover House, Whitehall (now a government office), and took up residence. In 1802 the Duke gave up the house and it was converted by Henry Holland into 69 bachelor apartments (known as “sets”). This was achieved not only by subdividing the main block and the two service wings, but also by adding two parallel sets of buildings running the length of the garden.

Since its conversion, the Albany has been the best known and most prestigious set of bachelor apartments in London. The residents have included such famous names as the poet Lord Byron and the future Prime Minister Gladstone, and numerous members of the aristocracy. Residents no longer have to be bachelors, although children under the age of 14 are not permitted to live there.

During World War 2, one of the buildings received significant damage from a German bomb, but was reconstructed after the war to appear as an exact replica.

The apartments or “sets” are individually owned, with the owners known as “Proprietors”; a set that came up for sale in 2007 had an advertised guide price of £2 million. Nonetheless, occupants have been known to complain that the accommodation is often rather cramped.

Around half the sets are owned by Peterhouse, Cambridge, a college of the University of Cambridge. These were acquired by William Stone (1857–1958) during World War 2. Stone, nicknamed the “Squire of Picadilly”, was a former scholar of Peterhouse, a bachelor and a life-long resident of the Albany. He bequeathed 37 sets to the college, along with other endowments. 

The Albany is governed by a Board of Trustees on behalf of the Proprietors. The annual rent of a set can be as much as £50,000 and prospective tenants are vetted by a committee before being allowed to take up residence. However, rents can be below commercial levels and sets are rumoured to be allocated on the basis of social connections.

There has been dispute as to whether the name of the building is “Albany” or “the Albany”. The rules adopted in 1804 laid down that “the Premises mentioned in the foregoing Articles shall be called Albany”. However, 19th century sources refer to it as “the Albany”, such as the play The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, which repeatedly refers to the character Jack Worthing’s residence at “the Albany”, and in Charles Dickens’s novel Our Mutual Friend. Raffles, the gentleman thief in the stories by E. W. Hornung is referred to as living at “the Albany”. Beginning in the early 20th century, “Albany” without the article again became the accepted usage, memorialised, for example, in the early 20th century novels of Dornford Yates, a careful observer of upper class manners. The historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, perhaps an even more careful observer of upper class manners than Yates, refers to the home of Macaulay as “the Albany”. In the words of the English Heritage Survey of London, “the present resolute omission of the article seems to spring not so much from awareness of correct usage as from a sense, about the beginning of the 20th century, that ‘the Albany’ sounded ‘like a publichouse'”.

In a 1958 review of a book about the building, Peace in Piccadilly, The Times wrote, “Albany or the Albany? It has long been a snobbish test of intimate knowledge of the West End. If one was in use, a man could feel superior by using the other. When G. S. Street wrote The Ghosts of Piccadilly in 1907, he said that ‘the Albany’ was then ‘universal’, but that to the earliest tenants it was ‘Albany’.”

Some famous past residents include:

Earl of Snowdon, photographer

Sir Thomas Beecham, conductor.

Isaiah Berlin, philosopher.

Edward Bulwer-Lytton, writer and politician.

Lord Byron, poet.

George Canning, politician.

George Cattermole, artist.

Bruce Chatwin, writer.

Alan Clark, historian and politician.

Sir Kenneth Clark, art historian.

William Ewart Gladstone, Prime Minister

Edward Heath, later Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Georgette Heyer, writer.

Henry Holland, architect.

Aldous Huxley, writer.

Sir Simon Jenkins, newspaper editor and author.

Malcolm Muggeridge, journalist and broadcaster.

Sir Harold Nicolson, writer and politician.

J.B. Priestley, writer.

Terence Rattigan, playwright.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, MP

Roger Scruton, philosopher.

Terence Stamp, actor.


Bernie Winters – ‘Top comic for teenage audiences’


Nige remembers one half of “the unfunniest double act ever to have been described as ‘comedy'”…

This coming Saturday is truly a red-letter day in the annals of showbiz, for it was on 6 September in 1932 that Bernie Winters (Weinstein) was born. Bernie joined his brother Mike in what was arguably (out of a crowded field) the unfunniest double act ever to have been described as ‘comedy’. Once, when Morecambe and Wise were asked what they would have done if they’d flopped in showbusiness, they replied ‘We’d have been Mike and Bernie Winters.’ And yet Mike and Bernie were, from the late 50s through to the early 70s, huge. They were even, mystifyingly, rated ‘top comics for Britain’s teenage audience’ in 1957.

The brothers began as a musical comedy act, with Bernie interrupting Mike’s solos with hilarious impressions of Jimmy Cagney and Charles Laughton, while Mike ‘did’ Cary Grant. Many years later, Grant dropped in on Mike backstage at the Bristol Hippodrome and remarked ‘You know, Mike, that was the worst Cary Grant impression I ever heard.’

The evolved (if that’s the word) Winters double act consisted of Mike looking serious and smoking a pipe while Bernie looked like an imbecile and talked like an imbecile with a speech impediment. Backstage at a Royal Variety Performance, the Queen was introduced to the brothers and asked ‘Do you speak French?’ She must have thought that their being French was the only possible explanation for their comedy being that bad.

After the brothers broke up – with much acrimony, apparently – Bernie replaced Mike with a 14-stone St Bernard, Schnorbitz, who was considerably funnier and became a bigger star than either of them. Schnorbitz once fell into Terry Scott’s swimming pool and was rescued by Barbara Windsor. You had to be there.