Sunday, May 01, 2011


Past the Bounds of Time POST 6

No doubt somewhere in this room were letters from Flora Deacon as well. These letters have been found nowhere else, certainly not among his Everest effects (or if they have been found, they’ve either been hidden or destroyed). Flora noted in her diary that he wrote to her, and she to him, at least once or twice a week throughout their relationship, which lasted for almost four years, from the summer of 1920 until their deaths in June 1924. She claimed to have kept his, and this stash too may one day come to light.

For children to remain sheltered from war is of course a very good thing, but by the time of the wartime Newbold stays, by the time of the room filled with “war regalia,” Sandy, Hugh and Evelyn were no longer small children. Hugh was fifteen, and no doubt Lilian and Willie were already at least concerned that he would one day go to war, which he would eventually do. The feel of this does not come through in any surviving Irvine stories, however, and one is left with the idyllic picture of wealthy children on constant holiday in the north of England, rambling carelessly among the hills. It cannot, of course, have been like this; the war must have been very much on everyone’s minds. However, in utterly typical Irvine fashion, it would appear that any fears were looked upon as emotions that needed to be hidden rather than aired and spoken about.

Julie Summers wrote: “There were no newspapers at the house [Newbold] and all of them apart from Hugh were completely oblivious of the war until Uncle Tom took them to Beeston Castle….On the way they saw cars with flags on them and heard talk of fierce battles being fought in France.” This smacks of disingenuousness and special pleading. The children were extremely aware of the war, newspapers or not. It was in the conservatory at Newbold that Evelyn knitted her khaki comforters, something she’d hardly have done if she’d been “oblivious” of the war. Hugh and Sandy, far from being ignorant of the war, seem constantly to have been playing at it, mimicking their inner thoughts and fears in play. Sandy’s fascination with battleships expanded to include all things martial while he was at Newbold. Evidence that the war was in fact foremost in their minds can be seen in the fact that Sandy would submit two patent applications, both of them for improvements to weaponry, by the time he was fifteen. Oblivious, the Irvine children were decidedly not.

In 1914, though, those patent applications were still three years in the future, and the twelve year old was having far too much fun coming into adolescence while his parents’ attention, or at least their actual persons, were miles away for much of the time. He was too busy playing war, and he had at his disposal an entire country estate full of deadly weapons.

Sandy and Hugh hurled spears from the towers of Newbold. These spears, called assegais, were slim hardwood weapons, tipped with iron, that came from southern Africa. Julie Summers insisted the spears were homemade , but if they were indeed assegais as Alec—who was at Newbold at the time and saw the spears firsthand—claimed , then the likelihood of their being made by a fifteen and a twelve year old is certainly remote. There’s no record of Sandy or Hugh ever actually hitting anyone, but one can’t help wondering whether the younger children or the servants were occasional targets.

How Hugh endured being up on the rooftops of Newbold is a mystery, as he was absolutely notorious for his deathly fear of heights. At some stage in their lives, Sandy and Evelyn were repainting a ceiling, and Hugh was the victim of their merciless teasing regarding this fear. They each stood on top of a stepladder and rubbed their heads in the wet paint, proudly displaying their white heads to their eldest brother, then dared him to repeat their exploit. Hugh was so afraid of heights that he refused to even step on the first rung of the ladder.

Alec recounted yet another incident involving the misuse of weaponry, saying that Sandy would fill their uncle’s cannon at Newbold with a deadly mixture of gravel and gunpowder, shooting this off at sundry wildlife in the gardens.

Youngest brother Tur would eventually pay for Sandy’s capricious experimentations with explosives by partially but permanently losing some of his ability to hear. The incident occurred when Sandy was fourteen, so Tur would have been around three at the time. Members of the family have called Tur Sandy’s “stooge,” and on this particular occasion Sandy had decided to perform an experiment using his youngest brother as a human guinea pig. He wanted to see if he could fire off a projectile using his homemade gunpowder, and as an aid to this experiment he placed a cast-iron coal-hole grate on top of four large bricks in the gardens (whether at Park Road South or Newbold isn’t recorded). He poured his gunpowder in the circle of bricks, stood his little brother on top of the grate and lit the powder, himself retreating to a safe distance. Tur was blown into the air, and his wife would one day claim that his hearing never completely recovered from this, that his eardrums had been permanently damaged. Alec remembered also being blown up that day, and recalled that Tur hadn’t been very happy with the whole idea in the first place. Sandy told them that “they were taking part in a scientific experiment in which he would establish whether gunpowder exploded upwards or sideways.” He obviously didn’t inform them beforehand that he also wanted to launch them as projectiles.

During the Edwardian era it was entirely common for children to be brought up by the servants. It was not only the norm, it was expected of wealthy households such as Willie Irvine’s. Mother and Father normally left the rearing of their children to a full domestic staff. Regardless of this, servants knew their place, but even so the Irvine children at Newbold had an astonishing degree of freedom. Beyond doubt, the dangers the children placed themselves in should have caused some concern. Why the absentee uncle was either not informed that his nephews were hurling iron-tipped spears from his roof and playing with gunpowder and cannons, or did not care, raises at least a few questions. The Irvine offspring were very lucky children indeed, insofar as they all escaped serious injury or death. That Alec, in later years, remembered all of this as great fun is perhaps merely a reflection of the hero-worship with which he regarded Sandy, defending his elder brother’s actions throughout his life. Boys will be boys, yes, but these boys could so easily have been killed or killed one another while at Newbold, and not one adult lifted an eyebrow, let alone tried to stop any of this activity.

Sandy garnered a reputation as a wild boy who would dare anything, and his cousins loved him for it. Flora despaired of this more than once in her diary. It was something he began actively to try to live up to, and it was ultimately detrimental to his self-esteem. Julie Summers tellingly admitted that Sandy “came to believe that if he were special then others would take notice of him, and the way this manifested itself was by doing unusual or daring things.” He craved attention, in other words, and didn’t mind if the attention came at the expense of his own well-being. Nobody had ever told him to stop doing whatever he was doing; the bachelor uncle certainly didn’t lock up the gunpowder, the cannons or the African spears. Only Flora Deacon and Geoff Milling (and, later, George Mallory) would ever have a calming influence on him. Sandy’s bright and rapid intelligence could so easily have become almost manic, given his repressive upbringing and his need for attention. At eight, he had felt he wasn’t “good enough;” by the time he was twelve in 1914 he felt people would only notice and like him if he was playing the clown.

After the idylls of Newbold came the far stricter world of Shrewsbury School. Sandy entered the school in 1916, at the age of fourteen, following Hugh there. The school at the time had a reputation for harshness, something that must have appealed to Willie and Lilian, although Julie Summers wrote that of Willie’s reasons to send his sons to Shrewsbury the primary incentive was that “it was on the excellent train line from Birkenhead and Chester.” She also wrote that Sandy “flourished in the congenial public school atmosphere” once “released from the formal and rigorous upbringing to which Lilian had subjected all her children.” I think “subjected” is a telling word here, and find it hard to believe that the atmosphere at the school was as completely pleasant as she said. Audrey Salkeld and Tom Holzel wrote that conditions at Shrewsbury were so bad while Sandy was there “that a story circulated of one unfortunate boy cleft in two when the icicle fell from the standpipe under which they were obliged to wash.” Hardly a “congenial” environment.

The English public school, specifically the masculine version, is something quite foreign to Americans. England has long been a country that thinks highly of its young men, and for centuries they have been closeted away in the rarefied air of the public school. (In the United States, a private or parochial school is the closest equivalent of the English public school.) Douglas Sutherland, in a very tongue-in-cheek book called The English Gentleman, parodied upper class English life brilliantly. Of the public school, he wrote: “The greatest fear that gentlemen suffer when they send their sons to gentlemanly schools is that they will not live up to the traditions with which they themselves were indoctrinated. To play for the first eleven, to win the cross-country run or to have whacked more boys than any of their contemporaries are all laudable achievements.” Sandy himself would participate in cross-country running at Shrewsbury; whether he “whacked” any boys at all is unknown.

For anyone who has read the novels of P.G. Wodehouse or seen the brilliant Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry television adaptation of those novels will have a fairly good picture of the sort of man these schools produce. Bertie Wooster tossing buns into ceiling lamps at his club the Drones is a perfect specimen.

Schools such as Shrewsbury were not known for gentleness, and a well-rounded education always included denying oneself many comforts. A fine, upstanding young gentleman was the goal, and strict measures were regularly taken to assure production of this scion of society. Making schoolboys wash outside under a standpipe fits right in with this ethic.

Sandy Irvine would not, ultimately, turn out to be much of a Bertie Wooster-ish fellow, being far more interested in motorcars and rowing and tinkering than in anything else. It’s impossible to picture him as a 1920s dandy, cigarette in hand in a smoke-filled club with a gin fizz at his elbow (though he did actually drink gin fizzes). It must be said that in one respect he was very much a public school product, in that he was ever gallant and charming to the fairer sex. The moment one pictures him thus, however, he veers off, taking only one girl as his own and ignoring the rest, though remaining gallant and charming to them. A 1920s womanizer he was not, but Flora often called him a “devil,” a “charmer,” a “gad-about,” and certainly Marjory Summers fell heavily under his spell even while helping him and Flora find secret hideaways for their trysts. Sandy was a wild boy who craved adventure, and would not be molded as the upper class society to which he belonged demanded.

Shrewsbury, set amid lush, green hills, was founded by royal charter in 1552, during the very brief reign of King Edward VI, only son of Henry VIII. The school was always wildly successful, with 266 boys enrolled by the end of 1562, with an additional 663 enrolling within the following eight years. One of its most illustrious alumni was Sir Philip Sidney, a young man who achieved incredible fame as a poet during the reign of Elizabeth I. The author of the “Arcadia,” he would become doubly famous for his heroic battlefield death. Legend has it that, gravely wounded, he refused the water offered him and ordered that it be given instead to another wounded soldier. He himself then heroically died. Sidney was idolized by generations of Britons, and his funeral even inspired a series of paintings depicting the procession. Other notable Old Salopians include Charles Darwin and Monty Python’s intrepid world traveler Michael Palin.

Sandy would meet Richard (Dick, or Dickie as Sandy often called him) Summers here, and form a lifelong bond often mistaken by the Irvine family as deep friendship. This is of course understandable, as Dick Summers would marry into their ranks and was Julie Steele’s grandfather. Dick was wealthy, but his family money came from trade, and Dick himself was forever on the lookout for a way to better his station. At Shrewsbury, he found one in the Irvine family. By marrying Sandy’s sister, he would eventually (but only after Sandy’s death cleared the decks for him) achieve the societal standing for which he’d longed. James Irvine had made his fortune in trade as well, but by the 1920s his descendants were rubbing elbows with the very cream of English society.

Sandy wrote angrily to Evelyn when he heard Dick had proposed to her that he thought Dick had made a very good bargain for himself. “I suppose I should congratulate you—but I think it is Dick that needs the congratulations more than you…” Significantly, in quoting from this letter Julie Summers replaces part of one quite telling sentence with ellipses. The unedited sentence actually reads: “Dick certainly has done awfully well for himself but I must admit I don’t feel atall happy.” Sandy went on to say that Evelyn would “have to make a real man of him before I’ll feel really happy about it,” and Julie Summers admitted that this “was one of the fundamental problems for Sandy: Dick was not in his opinion a real man….Sandy feared that it would be Evelyn’s role in the marriage to wear the pants.” Sandy wrote to Dick Summers that he “was quite naturally very bowled over when I heard—My first thoughts were naturally I think a. You were too young to think of marrying b. E [Evelyn] had not met enough men as she has always been tied to Mother’s apron strings,” and advised Dick to have “a good night’s sleep, a cold bath, read your morning paper and think twice, then again…” These are not the words of a man eager to welcome Dick Summers into the family fold. Given the fact of his nearly four year relationship with Flora, a relationship that ended only with his death, I find it highly unlikely that Sandy’s problem with Dick was jealousy, as Julie Summers suggested: “Perhaps he saw now…that Evelyn had found real love, something which had eluded him in his life,” though leeway must be given to Julie as these were, after all, her grandparents.

It would be cars that brought Sandy and Dick together, not a mutual admiration for one another. Dick later wrote (the year is not given in Julie Summers’ book, and I wonder whether this was written after Sandy’s death): “We had very much in common, both being mechanically minded and interested in cars, and both having the same ideas and ideals.” Dick’s family manse, Cornist Hall, “boasted garages with gleaming cars,” and Dick gave Sandy an introduction to a mechanic at one of the Summers garages in 1918. Sandy quickly became a fixture at this garage, pestering the mechanic, Harry Ham, with “endless questions and tinkering with anything Harry would let him get his hands on.”

Sandy did refer to Dick frequently as his “best friend,” but it was always exclusively in the context of apologizing to Dick or Evelyn for some perceived slight, most notably his own back-pedaling over the angry letters he’d fired off when he heard of their engagement. “I like him more than any man I’ve ever met,” he wrote to Evelyn when apologizing for his outburst; “I’m always your best & truest friend though there may have been times when I haven’t shown it outwardly,” he wrote to Dick to apologize for the same outburst. The apology letters followed swift on the heels of the angry ones, a mere week separating them, and Sandy had realized in the intervening time that he had best make nice if he wanted to keep Evelyn’s affection. It would not do, after all, to make a mortal enemy out of one’s future brother-in-law, especially considering Sandy’s lifelong closeness to Evelyn.


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