Archive for June, 2010

Leonida Georgievna, the Grand Duchess Vladimir of Russia

June 29th, 2010

The late Grand Duchess Vladimir of Russia was a jolly, buxom lady with dark, heavily-coiffed hair and of decidedly Asiatic appearance – she was, after all, Georgian. Peter-Gabriel de Loriol Chandieu, effortless writer and gifted flaneur, recalls the following encounter:

The recent death (23/5/2010) of Leonida Bagration-Moukhransky, the late Grand duchess Vladimir of Russia, and her subsequent obituary on the 28th May in the Times reminded me of an event in her life that brought the reality of her situation into sharper perspective.

I was a very young (just 21) manager of a very exclusive ‘private’ hotel in Chelsea in the late 1970s. Private inasmuch as it was not classed as a hotel, but just as ’11 Cadogan Gardens’, a superior ‘Bed and Breakfast’ for patrons who were habitués or recommended by people known to the manager.

As such, the hotel was a magnet to visiting grandees of all declinations; diplomats, actors, politicians, heads of state, monarchs or elected, senior members of various professional bodies, who wished to come to London in relative anonymity to visit friends, relations or just to shop. They loved the relative cheapness of an establishment of 63 bedrooms and suites with en suite bathrooms, which catered to their every whim, in the centre of London, and with a high Victorian décor and service that put the five star hotels to shame!

On that particular Friday I was waiting impatiently to interview a new member of staff, a cleaner, sent by an agency. She was late – it wasn’t a good start! I’d seen half a dozen and they were either too young, too stupid or couldn’t speak a word of English. I sat in my pin-striped trousers, black jacket, white shirt and black tie behind my huge Victorian desk in my oak panelled office, occasionally looking out of the window onto the street. This one wouldn’t be taken on either, she was too late.

A discreet knock at the door followed by the perpetually surprised face of Antonio, the supremely efficient Spanish Head Porter (on whom, I was sure, the Fawlty Towers Manuel was based), saying that the lady had arrived. I asked him to show her in.

She was large, dressed in an almost bohemian way with swathes of tawny coloured capes and scarves carpeted around her busty carapace. She smiled perfunctorily and plonked herself into the chair opposite me. Irked, I started with the obvious questions: did she speak English, did she know London…the obligatory ‘of course’ followed my every question, at first patiently and then with marked indifference and a glimpse of what I surmised as a bad temper. Not good! I thought I’d put her off by telling her she would be working for six days a week and one Sunday in every four weeks, the times she would be expected to be at work and she would also be fitted with a uniform. It was all too much for her. She bulked up to a standing position.

“How dare you speak to me like this – don’t you realise who I am? I am the Grand Duchess Vladimir of Russia.” Her whole body trembled with rage.

“…And I’m the Emperor of France… “. This charade had gone quite far enough! She was rude, arrogant and I would speak to the agency. What agency? Just then the door opened a crack and a worried Francisco looked around the door. He told me that the lady’s husband was her and would like to introduce himself.

A slim, well dressed middle aged individual walked into the room with a smile on his face. In Spanish accented English he presented himself as Vladimir Grand Duke of Russia. You could have heard a pin drop! She broke into a smile and presented her husband to the ‘manager’ of the hotel.  I, meanwhile, couldn’t stop smiling, at myself, for having made history and put my usual two feet in it, as all Sagittarians do. We did part as friends! Francisco couldn’t stop laughing for days – Senor Peter had done it again!

Pg de Loriol

Saxon tombstone at Stratfield Mortimer

June 14th, 2010

The view from the Cuttings includes the parish church of St Mary, Stratfield Mortimer, of which there have been Saxon, Norman and Victorian versions. In 1866, when the Victorians were undoing the Norman work, they discovered an upturned tombstone under the floor of the tower, with a complete inscription (in very idiosyncratic Latin) that reads as follows:


‘On the 8th before the Kalends of October (24 September) Aegelward son of Kypping was laid in this place. Blessed be the man who prays for his soul. Toki wrote me.’

The tombstone is 6’6″ long, 20″ wide at the top and 14″ at the base.

A date not before 1020 has been suggested (the Vikings had destroyed anything that went before) and Aegelward’s father is perhaps the ‘Cypping’ who is mentioned in Domesday Book. Cypping was a thegn who, in the time of Edward the Confessor, shared the lordship of Stratfield with his kinsman Edwin, as well as holding numerous other manors in Berkshire and Hampshire. He is said to have held Silchester from King Harold, so must have been alive in 1066. The tombstone is a unique relic from those times. The whereabouts of the early manor-house at Stratfield Mortimer remains a mystery.

Hands off Status Quo!

June 10th, 2010

I think it is safe to say that ‘cuts’ could now be painlessly made at Brighton and Hove City Council, who have reputedly spent £10,000 on a special website to advertise four nonsense jobs that each commands a salary of ‘£125K’. Not only could each of these nonsense jobs be dispensed with – no one would notice any difference – but it was quite inexcusable to waste such a large sum of money on advertising. My website is far better and hasn’t cost anywhere near as much! Most outrageous of all is the complete lack of taste and sensitivity on the part of those responsible. Why have they felt it necessary to insult one of our national institutions, the inoffensive ‘Quo’, who have contributed many an anthem to our collective consciousness and even played in front of royalty? Since the culprits are Brighton and Hove Actually, I suppose they were never going to say ‘Fans of Village People need not apply’.

Keep smiling Pike!

June 9th, 2010

To cut public spending is supposedly going to be both difficult and painful, yet we are everywhere presented with such obvious folly and waste. The NHS has spent £40,000 on a poster campaign to cheer up the residents of deprived housing estates (smiley face good, grumpy face bad), whilst Suffolk County Council has hired a new press officer at a rate of £700 per day. This woman supposedly commands a salary commensurate with her experience, yet her previous employers are said to be the Countryside Agency (presumably a Quango) and the Alzheimer’s Society (a charity). Have these organisations been paying her similarly inflated rates? If so, how did they come to lose their grip on reality? I cannot believe that there is anything she does or could do in the workplace that entitles her to lead a life of luxury. For anyone who is reasonably personable and articulate, being a press officer must surely count as one of the world’s less demanding jobs – isn’t it just a matter of feeding the odd story to the media? – and one questions whether Suffolk County Council would cease to function if it left the position vacant. On the other hand, £700 per day might be a fairer rate for those who are risking their lives in Afghanistan … As for the glum council tenants, why not hand out free Dad’s Army DVDs, a cheaper and far more effective way of cheering them up?

Sir Francis Drake and the Circumnavigation: Drake’s Bay, California

June 9th, 2010

Drake’s statue on Plymouth Hoe

The career of Sir Francis Drake is a current fascination. Drake’s famous circumnavigation of the globe included a landing in California on 17 June 1579. He needed a secluded spot at which to careen his ship, The Golden Hinde (that is, to beach her, tip her on her sides and scrape the barnacles from her hull). There was a risk that the Spaniards, whom he had already robbed of a fortune in bullion, might come looking for him. The eyewitness accounts say that Drake landed at a latitude of 38 degrees North. (This could be accurately measured with a quadrant; determining longitude was more problematical.) The likeliest landing place is therefore accepted to be about 30 miles north of San Francisco, a wild and beautiful spot where the ‘white bankes and cliffes’ reminded Drake of home. Drake’s Bay owes its name to Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, who lived not far away, in a house with panoramic views over San Francisco Bay. Drake was fearful of the Indians and built a rough stone wall to defend his camp. In fact, the local Niwok were friendly and treated Drake like a king. He called the territory ‘Nova Albion’ and claimed it for the Queen. He fastened a metal plate to a strong post to record the fact, inserting a silver sixpence into a specially cut hole to show Elizabeth’s picture. Such a plate was ‘discovered’ there in 1936, but was later revealed to be a hoax on the part of some artful students. Drake and his crew, who lingered until 23 July, even travelled inland to mingle with the hospitable Niwok, apparently planting their seed among them. Expeditions in 1772 and 1774 discovered tribesmen with fair hair and, even more unusually, beards. As Drake was incapable of producing issue by either of his two wives, it is perhaps unlikely that any were descended from him. Drake’s Bay appears still to be sparsely populated, with seals basking on deserted beaches. The white cliffs are indeed strikingly reminiscent of southern England. How strange it must have been for Drake and his crew, who were as far away as it was possible to be from their homes. Those who survived the many hazards of the voyage were to be set up for life.