Noblesse Oblige


By Henry Hilliard

With Pete Bruno



Forward to the Revised Edition


I first met Lord Branksome when I bumped into him coming out of Boodles. It was me, I must confess, who was coming down the shallow steps into St James's Street and who did the bumping. I was a young man in those days and it had been a particularly fine luncheon and it was, in fact, quite dark by the time it broke up. As he helped me to my feet, I muttered something about writing to Ted Heath about the disgracefully poor lighting of certain parts of St James's. He laughed. Branksome was in late middle age then but, like a gent, apologised in the manner that foreigners find so perplexing in the English. He cast about the pavement for my hat and umbrella before realising that I possessed neither — being of that generation.

On subsequent occasions we chatted in the Club (that is, in the time before my membership was abruptly rescinded—and some readers may recall my letters to The Times on that particular outrage which reminded all fair-minded people of the worst excesses of the fascist dictators—and several times he lent me five shillings (in that pre-decimal era) for a taxi and once he gave me £20 when some awkward customers were pressing me over a silly debt.

Of course we had our old School in common and many of his friends at the Club were his contemporaries, but to me they were just old men. Now and then Lord Branksome would be joined by Knight-Poole who looked to me like an aging film star and whom I had been told was a hero in the First War. In the seventies war heroes were out of fashion with earnest, bearded young men and their shrill, lank-haired doxies. It was not until later that I learned they were boyfriends—shacked up together was I think the expression of the time. That had me intrigued, and it was not long after that that I found myself invited to Croome for the weekend.

Two things I remember from that occasion were: the magnificence of the old country house—an enormous great pile of a place and far grander than anything I had ever known; it was, to me, as something from the 1890s or the 1920s—except for that extraordinary Hollywood Dining Room; I was stunned. Secondly, I was conscious of how these two old men lived so openly together and had, I learned, done so for some time.

I mean homosexuality had only been decriminalised for five years and, while there might have been `Pride' marches in London, Mary Whitehouse and the Festival of Light were roaring about the place painting a very different picture. Yet here these two were as natural as...well, they didn't exactly flaunt it, but everyone must have known and it was down in the country after all. We English forgive a lot in the upper classes. Of course I didn't know then that Stephen wasn't born to it.

We lost contact for some years when circumstances forced me to live abroad, but I missed the two old chaps and their stories, but we kept in touch with the occasional letter—when I was allowed to receive them, but that's another story.

Therefore it came as a shock when I learnt that they would like me to write their story, the letter arriving at my luxury L-shaped trailer home in Stillwater, Oklahoma, to where an unusual business venture had taken me that turned out to be less remunerative than it might have promised at first blush and so an abrupt departure, with no forwarding address, was therefore doubly attractive.

My friend, Pete Bruno, was just starting his distinguished career at the National Review and was working in his spare hours on a biography of Saint Sebastian. It was me who had suggested that he might like to inspect the portrait at Croome by Francois-Xavier Fabre that hung in the Red Drawing Room, which I remembered from my visits there.

One thing led to another and, after several meetings with Martin and Stephen who were 80 and 81 respectively, I began on the writing task, with Mr Bruno's encouragement and it was to take much longer than either of us imagined. For some years Bruno and I actually moved into Croome and had almost became fixtures in the life of village. This we found very attractive and Bruno, who excels in all sports, quickly mastered pub darts. I also found that the depths of Dorset were convenient for avoiding certain ruthless and vengeful persons who inhabited unattractive parts of South London—and the food was good too and Martin and Stephen didn't stint on the drinks. Mr. Bruno helped Lord Branksome campaign for Margaret Thatcher in 1983, but found the winters in England increasingly cold and depressing, `especially in the summer', he said, and spent more and more time back in the United States whilst I wrote on in the Chinese Bedroom with a border collie or two at my feet.

The first edition of Noblesse Oblige was written in enthusiastic haste and suffered as a consequence. "Kingsley Amis said it stinks," Bruno bluntly told me, and Mr. Omobolanie, the landlord of my bed-sit in Camden Town, thought I could do better and urged me to rewrite it.

This memoir could hardly have been written without the help and guidance of my old friend Roman. Habitués of the old Algonquin Hotel's gentlemen's lavatories will know just how learned and urbane Roman is; picture if, you will, the elegant wit of the late Brendan Gill and the soigné figure of Mr Tom Wolf and you have something of the man. A chance encounter washing one's hands or perhaps entre act at the ballet or in the queue for the metal detector at Port Moresby airport, will put one to rights on the matter of bossy German nouns and their demands for both Lebensraum– as it were– on the printed page and their own capitals (without exception).

Pete Bruno, to whom this work is dedicated, counselled me at the time of its first writing to make the book a properly interesting narrative to readers and pressed me to read The Canterbury Tales, the Arabian Nights and other such books. Therefore I can say that Noblesse Oblige is a true story.

Henry H. Hilliard