DAUGHTER OF EMPIRE

Growing up I was very aware of my grandfather’s fame. He was a huge, dashing, historical character. When we travelled with him we went to special, secret rooms in airports and had the privilege of never waiting in a line. On official duties he would be dressed in fairy tail uniforms with police escorts, who whisked him through red traffic lights and on family holidays in Ireland bodyguards were tragically part of our scenery.

I was also aware of my father’s fame. In the 60’s and 70’s my father was never off the covers of magazines or out of the papers. His designs had set the world alight, and this, coupled with his flamboyant personality drew attention wherever we went.

My mother, on the other hand, was simply ‘Mum’ although she had not a clue how to boil an egg, or wash her own hair, she was quietly present. But if your great Aunt was the Tsarina of Russia and your grandmother a royal princess washing your own hair was not a task that fell to oneself. And when your childhood was spent in the company of nannies and servants why would you need to learn to boil an egg? However my mother not only knew the names of the schools I had been too, she had even been to them. My father fearing them too hideous and common could never do so himself.

As a child I would often hear my mother, at a lunch party, say to a bemused guest “Oh you do remember Queen Saloti of Tonga, don’t you? Well…” because when you were related to every European royal court and Noel Coward and Douglas Fairbanks dropped in for tea you assumed everyone did know everyone.

Growing up I understood that against the backdrop of my father’s dazzling, fast paced, exotic world, and my grandfather’s public obligations my mother had chosen a softer life, of horses and dogs and countryside. She lived vicariously through my father’s relentless social life and although enjoyed hearing the gossip from London, Paris and New York she was much happier to be secluded in the company of Daphne du Maurier.

As a small girl I heard hints that my mother, in a previous chapter of her life, had witnessed extraordinary things, and sometimes whilst pouring tea for her dachshund she would remark casually about meeting Martin Luther King or Haile Selassie and his pet black panthers, which so reminded her of Sabi, the lion she was brought up with. “A Lion?” I would gasp. “Oh yes and Rastus, the honey bear, who only my grandmother could control, by prodding him sharply, with her parasol”

By all accounts my mother’s upbringing was unusual. My grandmother once left my mother and Aunt in a hotel in Hungary and unfortunately lost the address. As summer turned to winter the little money the governess and nanny had been left ran out and they became increasingly anxious when still no sign of help came.  Four months later my grandmother suddenly reappeared to collect them, having finally retraced her steps “But didn’t you need therapy after being abandoned for such a long time?” I asked my mother “Oh darling your generation is much too indulgent and emotional” was her response.

The exiled King of Spain came to live with them and no one quite dared to ask when he was leaving, during the blitz their home Broadlands was transformed into a hospital and for a desperately lonely year my mother and Aunt were sent to live with Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt in New York. Upon returning to a glum, barren boarding school in England my mother was introduced as ‘The little girl who had run away from the war’

When my grandfather was appointed the last Viceroy of India my mother accompanied her parents to Delhi. Often asked why I was named India I used to say because my grandfather was the last Viceroy, but actually I think it might have been more that my mother came of age in India. Amid the turmoil of political change and on the verge of civil war, my mother fell in love with the country.

I suppose having lived through that childhood and been witness to both the joy of Indian independence and its terrible aftermath and then spending months on parade, with the Queen, on both Commonwealth tours, as one of only two ladies-in-waiting, you would retire to the quiet of the Cotswold hills and hope for nothing to happen, ever again.

“But your stories need to be captured, Mum” I recently insisted “Who else knelt in front of Gandhi’s funeral pyre and was with the Queen at the moment she became Queen?” Possibly because of my name, our shared sense of humor, our passion for rose and violet creams, my mother and I are kindred spirits, so I felt in a position to do a little bullying.

We have traveled often together, swum with dolphins, explored Russia, ridden on the pampas of Argentina, and seen wild game in Africa. She has flown to join me at the births of all my children and I even once, daringly, left her to babysit. When I returned my mother was deep in her novel, the baby unattended and screaming from his pram in the garden “Mum! The baby’s crying” I said “Oh really darling? How odd, I thought that was a partridge”

As I write, my mother and her beloved elder sister are on a three week cruise of West Africa. I called them as they steamed towards Cape Verde. They had just been through the lifeboat drill. As they retreated to their cabin, the two sisters agreed, if the ship went down, they were going with it. Getting into a lifeboat was really far too exhausting.

My mother’s memoir is now on sale. www.Amazon.co.uk

To post a comment click here