The Duke of Devonshire's A to Z of Englishness

My wife was born in Swansea.  My great-grandparents had a house in North Wales.  Sometimes I say I'm Anglo-Welsh.  (I say that my parents were properly Anglo-Welsh - they burned down their own cottage.)  In fact, I'm wholly English and happy to be.  The most English Englishman I ever met was the late Duke of Devonshire (1920-2004) and I'm thinking of him now that April's here: it's the most English month, it's spring but it's still raining, and it includes the birthdays of The Queen and William Shakespeare, and St George's Day.

Andrew Cavendish, 11th Duke of Devonshire, had all the credentials required of the quintessential English gentleman: silver spoon, stately home (Chatsworth), Eton, Cambridge (Trinity College), the Guards, a good war (MC, 1944), Minister of State for Colonial Affairs (1963-4), Knight of the Garter (1996).   He was blessed with the traditional English virtues: he was humorous, tolerant, self-deprecating, gently eccentric.  He had an urbane manner, by turns languid and breathlessly enthusiastic, and an impressive wife (Deborah, 1920-2014).  Once, a few years ago now, over tea in his study at his London house (Mayfair, naturally), for my benefit and now for yours, he conjured up an idiosyncratic A to Z of the people, places, qualities, things that said something special to him about England and Englishness.


‘A is for ancestors.  I’ve got plenty, but I’m thinking of one in particular, the Marquess of Hartington who became 8th Duke, born 1833, died 1908.  He had the best of all worlds: he was never prime minister, but held many of the high offices of state, and enjoyed a pretty raffish private life.  It was said of him, “Lord Hartington is a decent gentleman who yawns in his own speeches and prizes the triumphs of the turf and the boudoir above those of the forum.”   Sounds about right, doesn’t it?  Family lore has it that when people - colleagues, civil servants - would come up with schemes, proposals, plans, he would dismiss them with the phrase, “Far better not.”  That seems rather a sensible approach to government.


‘I have two for B.   Beau Brummel once lived in this house.  He came to a tragic end and died in a pauper’s lunatic asylum in France, but in his heyday he was a friend of the Prince Regent and the epitome of elegance.  I am a great believer in good manners and sartorial style.  My other B is Capability Brown who laid out the park at Chatsworth, my home in Derbyshire.   Is there anything lovelier than settled English parkland in the afternoon sunshine?


‘C is for Cheltenham.  I have to be careful here, because my son is the Queen’s representative at Ascot, but, let’s face it, Cheltenham is now socially the smartest race meeting and the Cheltenham Gold Cup the racing day of the year.  The secret is that steeple-chasing is still a sport, whereas flat racing is now a business.  Epsom, alas, is very declasse.


 ‘D is for Debo, my wife.  We’re both 80.  We celebrated our 59th wedding anniversary this week.  She is extremely tolerant.  She runs Chatsworth beautifully.  I have enormous respect for her judgement.   We work well together: I am very good at spending money and she is very good at making it.  She is on the bossy side, of course, but I’ve always liked that in a woman.  And she’s a Mitford.  In their own way, the Mitford sisters are something of an English phenomenon.  Did you see the musical about them?  I called it “La Triviata”.


‘E is for Eton and Eastbourne.  I was a horrible boy, lazy beyond belief, dirty, filthy, useless.   This is no exaggeration.  I wasted my education.  Cambridge was a wash-out.  Too near Newmarket.  But I did enjoy Eton.  If you wanted to work you could, but if you didn’t no one forced you.  That’s changed, but when I go back now and then on a sentimetal journey I find there’s still something special about the ethos of Eton. 

‘The family developed Eastbourne as a resort in the nineteenth century.  I go every year for the last week in July, stay at the Cavendish hotel, and feel completely and utterly free.  I like everything about Eastbourne.  I like the pier.  I like the theatre.  It puts on jolly shows like A Bedfull of Foreigners and Run for Your Wife.  You can take a boat trip round the lighthouse.  There’s a miniature railway and, best of all, on the front, really good military bands, morning and afternoon.  You can’t beat the English seaside and a really tiptop military band.


‘F is for the fragrance of English flowers.  The tube rose is lovely, but my favourite is the gardenia.  I used to sport a buttonhole, but no longer.  If I go to the Derby again I might wear one, but, as a rule, a buttonhole doesn’t become old age.


‘G is for the Guards.  I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to meeting the chap we’ve got Northern Ireland - Peter Mandelson isn’t it?- so that I can say to him, “You do realise you’re speaking to a chinless wonder?”

‘The key to my life was the army.   It turned me from a filthy, useless boy into something vaguely approaching a man.  The discipline wouldn’t be allowed now.  I remember at the end of my first day at Caterham barracks I bought an apple and was eating it crossing the parade ground.  The Sergeant-Major’s stick descended on my shoulder like a whip.  He’d have been had up for GBH these days.  It did me a power of good.

‘The Brigade of Guards is like a family.  My lot, the Coldtreams, are second to none.  That’s our motto: “nulli secundus”.  That said, if you are looking for the epitome of the English soldier it has to be a Grenadier.


‘I think we can take the English sense of humour as read, so H is for hats. Having the right hat at the right time in the right place is important for an Englishman.  I never wear a hat in London.  I have a trilby to go racing, and I take my boater to Eastbourne.  And I think a boater with a pale grey suit is appropriate for Goodwood, don’t you?


‘I is for indolence.  All Cavendishes are lazy by nature and my entire life has been a battle against indolence.  When you consider my advantages - there probably isn’t anybody more fortunate in the world - I’ve achieved absolutely nothing.  It’s quite shaming.  And I never forget, not for a moment, that if it wasn’t for a German sniper’s bullet in September 1944 I wouldn’t be sitting here now.  I’m the younger son.  My brother, who should have become the 11th Duke, was killed in action.  He was a better man than me in every way.


‘J is for the Jockey Club.  Racing is important to the English and it’s open to all.  As the saying goes, “On the turf, and under it, all men are equal.”  I like that.


‘K is for KG.  I know the Duke of Wellington said “There’s no damn merit in the thing”, but the Garter is far and away the greatest honour I have received and it gives me real joy every hour of every day.  I don’t deserve it, but it is our oldest order of chivalry and I take the idea of English chivalry seriously.  It’s important.  I know it makes one or two of them livid, but I like getting up and opening doors for a lady.   I talk to taxi drivers - that’s how I keep in touch -  and they tell me that a polite passenger with a friendly smile transforms their day.  Courtesy costs nothing and makes all the difference.


‘L is for Lawn Tennis.  I used to be President of the Lawn Tennis Association and the All England Club kindly let me have two tickets every day for Wimbledon.  Around this time of year I start to get calls from people I hardly know saying, “Andrew, old boy, how are you?”   I no longer play - I used to, very badly - but, if we’re conjuring up a perfect English scene, can we do better than to sit out in the sunshine, drinking our squash, and watching the girls playing tennis on the lawn?


‘M is for marmalade, Oxford marmalade on toast.  One bite and you’re eating a little bit of England.


‘N can’t be for nightcap because I no longer drink.  That wasn’t always the case.  Now I’m a newsaholic.  I sit up till three in the morning watching CNN, but that’s not frightfully English, so perhaps N should be for nostalgia.  I feel nostalgic for the House of Lords.  I really miss it. 


’We’ll give O to Oscar Wilde.  I remember my father, who died in 1950,  talking to me about homosexuality.  He said, “In my father’s day, people like  Wilde were put in prison.  In my day, it was illegal, but we tried to turn a blind eye.  However in your day, son, it may become compulsory, so watch out.”   I think promoting it is going too far, but a sympathetic understanding is important.  Tolerance has always been an English virtue.  I am proud to be English because this country is tolerant of everything except intolerance.


‘P is for Pratt’s, White’s, Brooks’s, the English gentlemen’s clubs.  The membership of Pratt’s is Brigade of Guards, politicians, landowners.  A friend of mine calls it “a grown-ups nursery”.    In the fifties and sixties, White’s was very agreeable.  You met everyone there, from Evelyn Waugh to Harry Rosebery.  Now I favour Brooks’s.  The days of fast women and slow horses are behind me.  What I like to do now is sit in the hall at Brooks’s watching the world go by.   Actually, that wouldn’t be a bad place to die.  I shall be rather relieved when my time’s up.  I’ve lived beyond my shelf-life.


‘Q is for the Queen who, in half a century, hasn’t put a foot wrong once.  Her accumulated wisdom is extraordinary.  Her charm is infinite.  She is duty personified.  And a sense of duty is an important English characteristic.  If I was to give advice to my grandson, it would be, “Never don’t do the things you don’t want to do.”


‘R is for reading which I can’t do any longer.  My eyes have gone.  But if you want to get to the heart of England, read Galsworthy, Kipling and Trollope.


‘S is for the Cavendish family motto, “Secure by caution”.  It suits us admirably.  We’ve never gone in for things we don’t know about.   On my mother’s side I’m a Cecil and the Cecil motto is “Late but in earnest”.  You know the difference between the two families?  The Cecils are High Church and convinced the aristocracy knows best, while the Cavendishes are very much in favour of improving the lot of the underprivileged - provided it doesn’t interfere with their own wealth.


‘T is for English tailoring, and afternoon tea, and the thrush, my favourite English bird.


‘U is for Uncle Harold [Macmillan, the duke’s uncle by marriage].  When he put me into his government it was the greatest act of nepotism ever.  I think we’d given him some good shooting.  He was a remarkable character.  If he had been more happily married, he might have achieved less   He had the most beautiful manners.  He was very bright.  When he was Chancellor, some mandarin was lecturing him and Uncle Harold interrupted.  “Look here,” he said, “I’m very clever too.”  He was.  And he was the most complete actor you ever met.  He could have made a fortune on the boards.

‘After Debo and the army, I owe everything to Uncle Harold.  And to Messrs Currey & Co, my legal and financial advisers.  I don’t know what we’d have done without them.


‘V is for my valet, Henry.  He’s been with me thiry-five years.  He knows what I want before I do.   If someone’s coming who has given me something - a handkerchief, cufflinks - he puts them out for me to wear.  He is a great friend.  People who don’t have servants don’t realise that they are part of your family, they become your friends.


‘W is for the great Duke of Wellington and for Winston [Churchill].  Winston’s judgement was frequently faulty - think of Gallipoli, think of the Abdication crisis - but he was undoubtedly the greatest Englishman of my lifetime.


‘X is what we censor. There’s generally too much talk of sex nowadays.  I know attitudes have changed and, thanks to the Pill, young unmarried ladies can sleep around in a way they simply didn’t in my day.  They’re more relaxed, which is nice, but are they happier?    English girls are the loveliest in the world and an Englishman should marry an Englishwoman, without a doubt.  As to a dalliance?  Well, the French have their strengths and the Italians are very agreeable, but if you want my advice stick to English women.  They know the rules.


‘Yellow socks are a weakness of mine.  They come from Turnbull & Asser and I have worn them for more than thirty years.  I imagine I care so much about all things sartorial because my father was the worst-dressed man in the world.  He wore paper collars and shoes that were half ordinary leather and half-suede. 


‘Z is for zizz.  I think it was Winston who said, “I don’t take a nap after lunch, but sometimes a nap takes me.”   Snoozing is another great Cavendish characteristic.  Get things done in the morning, then have a little zizz in the afternoon.  Indeed, if good-hearted English people are kindly reading this after lunch, I think, with a clear conscious, they can nod off about now, don’t you?’  

Gyles Brandreth