Entry from July 16, 2012

The recently expired 14th Earl of Loudon, known to his Aussie mates plain Mike Hastings, was described by The Daily Telegraph as “a beer-swilling, rotund Australian rice farmer and former jackaroo” whom one medieval historian thought the rightful king of England. A documentary on Britain’s Channel 4 took up the case, purporting to show that Edward IV (d. 1483) must have been a bastard and that his younger brother George, Duke of Clarence — the one drowned in a butt of Malmsey — was therefore the real king by birth. Mike was Clarence’s direct descendant.

When he was presented with the case, the Earl seemed to think someone was pulling his leg: “I thought, bull****,” he recalled, “Strewth!” But he soon became convinced that the claims were legitimate. “The more I watch the documentary, the more I’m convinced that they’re right and I probably should be the King of England,” he said.

Speaking of medieval historians, I was touched by this detail from The Times obituary of Marjorie Chibnall, née Morgan, “the undisputed doyenne of English medievalists” and specialist in the works of Orderic Vitalis, inventor of hair-tonic. Not really. He was the author of the 12th century Historia Ecclesiastica, of which she produced a six volume edition.

During her time at Cambridge, she married the plant biologist Professor A. C. (“Charles”) Chibnall in 1947. A veteran of the First World War, 21 years her senior, her husband had met her only three times before proposing marriage. It was, as she herself phrased it (with litotes worthy of Henry James) “retrospective love at first sight”. A widower, with two young daughters, Charles Chibnall resigned his Cambridge chair in biochemistry in 1949, protesting that no biochemist should be so ignorant of medicine: an act of self-sacrifice with few parallels in the scientific — let alone the modern — academic world.

The former professor then went on, we learn, to enjoy “a late flowering” as a medieval historian, like his wife, before his death, at the age of 94, in 1988. I also like that Mrs Chibnall is described as being “of formidable good manners” and that “unusually for an academic, she remained more interested in helping others than she was in dissecting the personal or professional shortcomings of her colleagues.” I’m afraid I can’t quite get the coded meaning in the information about “her refusal to ape the stridency of her more ‘political’ contemporaries of either the Left or the Right,” but I like the sound of that, too.

The Telegraph obit of Major General Dick Gerrard-Wright throws up the kind of detail that often appears in military obituaries:

In 1966 he moved to Malaysia on being appointed brigade major of 28th (Commonwealth) Brigade. He arrived in a jungle clearing to be greeted by a senior officer who was wearing nothing but a sarong. The officer pulled a cord loosing off a fusillade from a Bren gun into the tree tops, and a mess sergeant, immaculately attired, appeared with a drink on a silver salver. Gerrard-Wright adopted a pet monkey, called Psmith, whom he promoted lance-corporal. The creature occasionally lost its temper and one day climbed to the top of a tent, where it vented its rage on the occupants by sprinkling them with talcum powder. Psmith was immediately reduced to the ranks.

Psmith, of course, was the 1890s dandy who was the hero of P.G. Wodehouse’s school stories (along with his more conventional friend Mike) and who later turned up at Blanding’s Castle, as I recall. He was the sort of eccentric who might in later life have served in the Great War and later resigned his professorship in biochemistry out of modesty. Or, for that matter, become a senior officer in the jungle wearing nothing but a sarong.

An equally interesting Times obituary of Squadron Leader Phil Lamason provides the following gem for my collection of evidence for the survival of bits of the old Western honor culture during the Second World War. Lamason was the New Zealand-born pilot of a Lancaster bomber shot down in a raid on the rail marshaling yards of Paris in June of 1944. Having baled out along with his crew, he was sheltered for a while by the Resistance but was subsequently betrayed to the Gestapo which sent him along with other allied airmen who had fallen into their hands to Buchenwald “in direct contravention of the laws of war.” There they would doubtless have died but for the fact that the Luftwaffe, which was officially responsible for enemy airmen taken prisoner, demanded and obtained their release and transfer to Stalag Luft III for officer POWs in Silesia under the rule of “honour among combatants.” The story is told in Night After Night: New Zealanders in Bomber Command (2005) by Max Lambert and the American documentary, The Lost Airmen of Buchenwald (2011).

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