Was Charles Hughesdon the last surviving eyewitness of Michael Collins’ funeral?

A few years ago I came across this obituary in the Daily Telegraph. It seems a little parochial to wonder if, in the midst of a busy and incident-packed life, one of Charles Hughesdon’s achievements was to be the last surviving eyewitness of Michael Collins’ funeral:

 

During the First World War the family moved to a flat above the Johnny Walker offices, and Hughesdon was educated at the nearby Raine’s Foundation Grammar School. A notion (soon abandoned) that he might be suited to the priesthood allowed for a short spell in 1922 at a seminary near Dublin, where he attended the funeral of Michael Collins.

Surely he was the only attendee at Collins’ funeral to have an affair with Shirley Bassey (amongst others):

[His] marriage, however, was informed by a flexible attitude to fidelity: extramarital liaisons were considered “medicinal”. Hughesdon had flings with both the first and second wife of his friend Tyrone Power. In 1955 he was introduced to Shirley Bassey, then in her late teens, who was at the time lighting up the West End. The pair conducted an affair for several years, meeting up in Britain, America and Australia. The singer even joined Hughesdon and his family for a Boxing Day party at which she and Florence Desmond duetted. “It was riotous,” recalled Hughesdon. “Finally after much laughter and Shirley dancing barefoot on the billiards table a few of us finished in the sauna bath.”

As with William Seabrook and Talbot Mundy, the opening line of Hughesdon’s obit says it all:

Charles Hughesdon, who has died aged 104, was a daredevil aviator, champion ballroom dancer, insurance broker and airline executive who married the film star Florence Desmond and boasted of affairs with Shirley Bassey and Margot Fonteyn.

Hughesdon was 13 or so at Collins’ funeral, and presumably there were younger children present at what was a vast occasion. But how many retained some memory of the event in later life? When he died in 2014 even a day old infant at Collins’ funeral would be 92. At the very least, Charles Hughesdon was among the last.

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Everyone loves a rogue

Messing around with WordPress’s “Pages” feature, I have created a page devoted to my posts on “rogues” (broadly defined … probably I should just say “eccentrics”)

Anyway, here it is

“the culture of the Mechanics’ Institute”

Reading John Buchan’s “The Island of Sheep”, the last of (and the best of) the Richard Hannay novels, I came across this arresting passage (spoken by Sandy Arbuthnot on his pursuit of one of the main villains)

I got a young friend to take me to a party — golly, such a party! I was a French artist in a black sweater, and I hadn’t washed for a day or two. A surréaliste, who had little English but all the latest Paris studio argot. I sat in a corner and worshipped, while Barralty held the floor. It was the usual round-up of rootless intellectuals, and the talk was the kind of thing you expect — terribly knowing and disillusioned and conscientiously indecent. I remember my grandfather had a phrase for the smattering of cocksure knowledge which was common in his day — the “culture of the Mechanics’ Institute.” I don’t know what the modern equivalent would be-perhaps the “culture of the B.B.C.” Our popular sciolism is different — it is a smattering not so much of facts as of points of view. But the youths and maidens at this party hadn’t even that degree of certainty. They took nothing for granted except their own surpassing intelligence, and their minds were simply nebulae of atoms. Well, Barralty was a king among those callow anarchists. You could see that he was of a different breed from them, for he had a mind, however much he debased it. You could see too that he despised the whole racket.

Massively snobbish, of course, as the Mechanics’ Institutes seemed like entirely admirable bodies (indeed, we could do with “the culture of the Mechanics’ Institute” a bit today)

I am gearing up for a post on Hannay one day, following the overwhelming success of my previous Buchan-related posts. The Hannay novels are, the fame of The Thirty-Nine Steps notwithstanding, not a patch on those with Leithen. Or perhaps I was just Hannayed out. On one level, it is is hard to disagree with much of this post on the Boots and Books blog on the imperialist, racist, sexist, xenophobic etc. nature of the Hannay books (and all of this is present in the Leithen series also). There is an awful lot of casual racism (and Buchan is pretty down on the Irish) – a lot more than one can comfortably “divide through” as being representative of the culture of the times.

On the other hand, there is something else going on, something that draws one’s attention all these years later. Perhaps it is the sense that all those taken-for-granted things are in actual fact explicitly under threat, and that civilisation is just a skein. The huntin’, fishin’, shootin’ stuff confirms this. All that we tend to see as imperial complacency is built on a foundation of

Anyway, back to the phrase “the culture of the Mechanics’ Institute.” I can only find four references in Google, all of which are to the Buchan novel. So despite the claim that “my grandfather had a phrase”, no trace of this phrase has embedded itself online. Funny that, as the grandfather of Aubrey Herbert (the supposed model of Arbuthnot) was born in 1800. And of course, everything of note in human history is online.

But I would be curious to know if “the culture of the Mechanics Institute” was a phrase that had an existence outside Buchan’s imagination.

Barralty turns out to be not the most formidable villain – for in all too familiar Buchan style yet another superior mind is really behind it all. And it isn’t given that much away that, unlike other Hannay novels in which the villains are rather mysterious foreigners who have infiltrated the British establishment (to the extent of becoming MPs, highly implausibly) the super-villian is a good old fashioned Frenchie … “The Island of Sheep” is much more tautly written and plotted than the at times rather diffuse Mr Standfast or The Three Hostages, both of which feature last-act dramas that seem a little disconnected from what came before.

Tory Island, poitín, and prohibition

Tory Island, poitín, and prohibition

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Thanks to Rory Naughton who has brought this family history on the Clare Co Council library page. John Cunningham gives an interesting and entertaining account of his father Michael’s life in the War of Independence era IRA and early decades of the Gardai. Among other stories there is this about policing Tory Island in the 1920s. Like Tory Island doctoring, Tory Island policing had its challenges. I had never come across this link between Tory and the illicit alcohol trade of Prohibition before:

Later on in the 20s, when my Father was stationed in Sligo, a message came through from Dublin one day about the illegal poitin stills out on Tory Island off the Donegal coast. Apparently, the Tory islanders had quite a thriving industry going on up there and used to supply the ships sailing between Scotland, Northern Ireland and America with poitin for the speakeasys of the Prohibition days in the States. The U.S. Embassy had complained to the Government who had in turn instructed the Guards to smash the illegal operation.

A detachment of Guards from Sligo and surrounding areas was sent to carry out the operation. They travelled up the coast until they reached the point on the mainland from which the boats would row out to the island. Having hired the required boats, they set off and landed at the pier on Tory.

When they announced their intentions however, the islanders were thrown into a state of agitation and it wasn’t long before they were confronted by an angry crowd. Now the islanders had their own ‘King’ and this gentleman told the Guards that if they smashed up all the stills, they needn’t worry about getting home to the mainland as they would all be drowned. The guards passed no heed but proceeded to break up all the poitin stills they could find. The King told them again that the elder women had turned the stones in the graveyard and thereby called down a curse on the intruders; a storm would arise and drown them all as they rowed back to the mainland. He told them that a few years before, a British warship had sent men ashore to do the same thing and a similar curse was called upon their heads. According to His Highness, the ship was sunk and all hands drowned.

The guards did some quick thinking and decided to arrest the King and bring him back in the boat with them so that he might act as insurance against anything happening. When the job was done they returned with their captive to the pier only to find that the boatmen had spent the day guzzling the last few drops of available poitin and were pissed out of their bloody minds. Undaunted, the Guards rolled up their sleeves and started to row the boats as best they could.

It wasn’t long before a storm did indeed blow up and my father remembers being really frightened trying to keep his boat on an even keel. They eventually did reach shore and although my father’s hands were streaming blood from the burst blisters, he never felt happier. The lads brought their captive back to Sligo and he was duly prosecuted and sentenced.

One of the Guards had also slipped a little keg of ‘whiskey’ into one of the boats and they decided not to open it there and then, but to keep it until Christmas and have a wee party. When they opened it at Xmas however, it was pure poison and undrinkable and had to be dumped. Whether this sample was cursed or representative of what the Americans at the time had to drink in their speak-easys, we’ll never know.

“Biography is a thoroughly reprehensible genre”

Only a few days after I made a rather grumpy comment on the quality of the Spectator now, comes this piece by Roger Lewis on the dodginess of biography.

Lewis captures an awful lot of things I dislike about biographies – the all-too-easy judgments, the reductionist explanations, the pseudo God’s-eye-view, the air of the laziest aspects of “quality” journalism being dominant. The Spectator has a limit of free articles per week so here are some highlights:

Indeed, it is a reprehensible and misguided genre. Privacy is violated, creative achievements are explained away, and great men and women are unmasked as sneaky, predatory, cruel and ordinary. Humphrey Carpenter wrote all his biographies — of Auden, Britten and Ezra Pound — in this way.

The exhaustive and exhausting biographies of Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin and Anthony Powell nearly killed those authors stone dead for me, as each and every girlfriend and sexual conquest was connected to an incident in a novel or a line in a poem. Ever since learning that V.S. Naipaul was a bully I’ve not ventured near his books.

More than the deluge of personal detail, however, the chief problem with biography is that the fundamental precepts are wrong, the principles too rigid. For the idea always seems to be that by gathering and establishing facts, cataloguing testimonies and anecdotes, each life can be made a perfect whole — that the objective biographer will see to it that there has been a plan or pattern, and dignity is conferred.

This is a futile quest, but one biographers insist on anyway:

Few biographers have had the ability or wit to perceive and describe the Cubist jaggedness of a life. Accident, chance, reversals of fortune, betrayals, sudden eruptions, dreams and areas of darkness; the shifting layers of identity, the friction between public and private selves (which character will a person choose to play?): little of this rough texture is ever evoked. Biographers conduct the background research, but few write it up with any verve.

Another insight of Lewis’ is the sheer futility of much biographical labour. An awful lot of the seemingly important figures of today will be in intellectual oblivion in due course:

A

tlas himself once laboured at a book about Delmore Schwartz, who’d inspired Bellow’s character Von Humboldt Fleisher. ‘No one outside the literary world had ever heard of him,’ says Atlas ruefully, save Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground, who paid for the upkeep of Schwartz’s grave, having once been his pupil at Syracuse.

When Atlas says, ‘I learned that biography is about death,’ he doesn’t only mean that Schwartz died of drink in 1966, aged only 52, or that Bellow croaked in 2005, aged nearly 90. He means that the world his subjects inhabited has vanished. The figures Atlas interviewed, the ‘fierce, irascible, antagonistic’ intellectuals of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s — Philip Rahv, Alfred Kazin, Maurice Zolotov, Dwight Macdonald, R.P. Blackmur, Glenway Wescott — the self-important and humourless fellows who once adorned fuggy Greenwich Village parties, whose book reviews mattered so much and who were in charge of dispensing grants and prizes, have quite entered oblivion, leaving not even footnotes behind

Of that catalogue of “fierce, irascible, antagonistic” intellectuals, I have definitely heard of Dwight Macdonald (not that I could tell you much about him), I have dimly heard of Philip Rahv (I could tell you nothing of him apart from the name), and the others are blanks for me. But what wonderful mid-twentieth century names – Glenway Wescott! R P Blakmur! Maurice Zolotov!

“a confidence man, ivory poacher and all-round rogue “

The opening line of John Seabrook’s Wikipedia bio is pretty impressive, but here we find a better:

Pseudonym of UK-born author William Lancaster Gribbon (1879-1940), who emigrated to the USA in 1909 after his early life as a confidence man, ivory poacher and all-round rogue in British Africa had culminated in a prison sentence.

The context I found this quote was, incidentally, posting on my other blog A Medical Education a passage from Mundy from a 1922 novel that describes synaesthesia. Here it is, from “Jimgrim and a Secret Society“:

Did it ever strike you that sound has color? The din that bell made was dazzling, diamond white, reflecting all the colors of the prism in its facets. When I spoke of it afterwards I found that Grim had noticed the same thing.

Two years ago I found a passage from John Buchan’s 1932 The Gap in the Curtain which also described synaesthesia:

The Professor elicited from the coy Reggie that in his childhood he had been in the habit of seeing abstract things in a concrete form. For Reggie the different days of the week had each a special shape, and each of the Ten Commandments a special colour. Monday was a square and Saturday an oval, and Sunday a circle with a segment bitten out.; The Third Commandment was dark blue, and the Tenth a pale green with spots. Reggie had thought of Sin as a substance like black salt, and the Soul as something in the shape of a kidney bean.

“occultist, explorer, traveler, cannibal, and journalist”

Reading F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up  I came across a reference to a William Seabrook:

 

William Seabrook in an unsympathetic book tells, with some pride and a movie ending, of how he became a public charge. What led to his alcoholism or was bound up with it, was a collapse of his nervous system.

Resorting to the all too inevitable source when looking someone up, Wikipedia, I came across one of the more arresting opening lines of a Wiki biography page:

William Buehler Seabrook (February 22, 1884 – September 20, 1945) was an American Lost Generation occultist, explorer, traveler, cannibal, and journalist, born in Westminster, Maryland.

The book Fitzgerald is referring to is presumably this one:

In December 1933, Seabrook was committed at his own request and with the help of some of his friends to Bloomingdale, a mental institution in Westchester County, near New York City, for treatment for acute alcoholism. He remained a patient of the institution until the following July and in 1935 published an account of his experience, written as if it were no more than another expedition to a foreign locale. The book, Asylum, became another best-seller.[citation needed] In the preface, he was careful to state that his books were not “fiction or embroidery”

The cannibalism bit is slightly less dramatic than it sounds:

In the 1920s, Seabrook traveled to West Africa and came across a tribe who partook in the eating of human meat. Seabrook writes about his experience of cannibalism in his novel, Jungle Ways; however, later on Seabrook admits the tribe did not allow him to join in on the ritualistic cannibalism. Instead, he obtained samples of human flesh from a hospital and cooked it himself