A Saturday of two halves
To St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe for the annual TCD London Association carol service, followed by mulled-wine and mince-pies. It, by comparison with many city churches, is a bare shell, twice ruined: once by the Great Fire of 1666, then by the blitz of 1940. The Caroline dark oak box pews (seen in pre-war photographs) have given way to light oak and whit-wash. It retains a simple, arching dignity, even when (as on Saturday) the organ fails.
Once the due diligence done, to protracted chat.
Malcolm spent some time in conversation with a great lady, sadly the widow of a great man. She (and we’ll leave aside her precise identity for a moment, but significant clue, above right) was a reservoir of recollection of Trinity in the great days, before it coarsened into merely the IT and biotech engine-room of the the Celtic Tiger economy.
A breathless hush …
One memory struck home: she recalled dining with the newly-appointed British Ambassador in Dublin on the 20th July, 1976.
The following day, this lady and her husband were driving from Dublin to Galway, when the car radio reported the murder (by IRA land-mine) of Christopher Ewart-Biggs and (let us also recall) his private secretary, Judith Cooke. The ambassador’s wife, Jane Ewart-Biggs, (later a Labour peer) had left Dublin that morning to “collect curtain material from Peter Jones“: she also learned of the killing by the car-radio.
It was a brutal, senseless and unforgivable action, which still deserves that recognition these thirty years on.
The Provos claimed that Ewart-Biggs was a legitimate target because he was co-ordinating intelligence. The main targets were more likely to have been Brian Cubbon, the Permanent Under-Secretary for Northern Ireland, who was also in the car, and Liam Cosgrave’s and Brendan Corish’s Coalition Government. Nobody has ever been charged or stood trial for a peculiarly nasty act. They were, of course, just two unnecessary corpses among three thousand, in a bloody, bloody year.
The day before his assassination, Ewart-Biggs had spoken to the Dublin press. He was a commanding figure in every way. He wore a monocle, not as an affectation, but to disguise the eye he had lost at El Alamein. In that press interview Ewart-Biggs, a conviction socialist, had said:
‘‘I have one prejudice, acquired during the war — a very distinct and strong prejudice against violence for political ends.’’
It was the detail about the drapery, though, that caught Malcolm by the throat.
Three of the people mentioned there are dead: Jane Ewart-Biggs died of cancer at the obscenely early age of 63.
Play up! and play the game!
Now for the first great man.
F.S.L. Lyons was one of the great lecturers of Trinity, when Malcolm went up. His book on the fall of Parnell already was essential reading, not just for students, but for anyone wondering where modern Ireland came from. The complete biography of Parnell was a masterwork. He then defected to become Professor of History at the new University of Kent at Canterbury, and later Master of Eliot College of UKC. Then back to TCD as an iconic Provost (between 1974 and 1981). The conventional account is that he resigned the post to write: one cannot help wondering whether the juggernaut that Trinity had become, being dragged along by the forces of technology, and away from its quieter, more intellectual and humane roots, was also instrumental.
And, just two years later, he too was dead, only sixty years of age. His writing project was unfinished: the biography of WB Yeats. That project, and Lyons’s nearly thirty boxes of research, passed to a former pupil, Roy Foster. Foster, rightly, took the credit for delivering the two-volume biography. Malcolm, however, learned a secret: that FSL Lyons’s original first hundred pages still exists, if in a rudimentary form, and is lodged safely in a lady’s “undies drawer”.
The great delight of this conversation was the voice: the precise, beautifully-enunciated and softly-accented educated Dublin voice. And when Malcolm remarked on that, his description was challenged by the lady herself: she added one word, “Protestant”.
Indeed, a great survivor.
Scrum down for the second half
Then, to Covent Garden for food and drink. The feeding bit was unremarkable. It was the subsequent adjournment to the Marquess of Anglesey that was worth the reporting.
Saturday evening, and most Covent Garden bars are crowded, but not always by a posse of Santas, a regiment of Rudophs, at least three long-legged fairies fallen (indeed, and delightfully so) from the tree, and assorted others (including a donkey and a camel). Malcolm had entered the surreal parallel universe of an organised Facebook pub-crawl.
Whether it was a more outlandish event than walking up Bow Street, mixing with those leaving the Parsifal at the Royal Opera House, and hounded by pedal-taxis, is a moot point.