Whatever | January 2009

Whatever | Animal racism
Is the gun-toting “management” of the grey squirrel class war?


This year I have mostly become obsessed by the Mitford sisters, those intrepid darlings of the decadent Vile Bodies era who dallied at both poles of political extremism, Unity befriending Hitler, Jessica running away to fight Franco, while Pamela, a lesbian, became an expert in rearing chickens. Their collected correspondence, Letters Between Six Sisters, spans virtually the entire 20th century, touching on everything from appeasement to the Kennedy assassination.

I should by rights be nauseated by the privileged, ball-going, cousin-marrying exploits of these tweedy scions of the gentry. Instead, they have captivated me. I like to think they represent the last of a doomed uberclass, their extinction predicted by Orwell in The Lion and The Unicorn and memorialised in 1954 by linguist Professor Alan Ross: “A member of the upper class is no longer necessarily better educated, cleaner, or richer than someone not of this class.”

But don’t be hoodwinked by John Prescott’s claim that we are all middle class now. I recently opened the Observer magazine and staring back at me was the objectionable 6th Baron Redesdale, a congenitally balding 41-year-old in checked shirt and hacking jacket, standing in one of his several hundred rural Northumberland acres and toothily guffawing for the camera as he held out a dead grey squirrel by its lifeless tail.


Redesdale, a Liberal peer, really hates grey squirrels. He and his all-weather army of volunteers have killed 19,500 of them in 18 months, ethnically cleansing England’s northernmost county. They are the Red Squirrel Protection Partnership, whose patriotic, conservationist aim is to restore the native red to rightful prominence by trapping and shooting greys “just behind the ear – if you hit them in the middle of the skull you can miss the brain”. Britain’s greys carry a strain of parapoxvirus that kills their shy, russet cousin, outnumbering them by around two million to 140,000. Thus, the population must be “managed.”

Now, I’m a townie. I’m typically squeamish about talk of genocidal culls. Worse, I’m one of those animal lovers who actually thinks the world would be a better place if it was run by cats. (Well, we’d certainly get more holiday.) I’m also a Darwinist, and if one breed of squirrel does better than another, who am I to arrogantly step in and redress the balance? Sorry to namedrop, but as the vegetarian Paul McCartney once said to me, “A fox’ll kill a sheep. It’s nature. I understand that a hawk kills something. It’s his gig.”

Equally, it’s the grey squirrel’s gig to be hardy and predator-free. Don’t start waving the blunderbuss around like you own the place – even if, due to some hereditary accident, the paperwork says you do. It’s like those simpletons who coo at a nice robin on their fencepost at Christmas but say they hate pigeons. The pigeon’s most heinous crime is to thrive. Why? Because we stuff muffins and croissants into our mouths while we walk along the street and strew crumbs everywhere. To favour one bird or squirrel species over another, particularly on the basis of fur colour, is surely a form of racism.

Listen to the braying Lord Redesdale: “Dipton woods: we took 2,000 out. If you clear a woodland you suck all the surrounding population to it. Then you hit ’em again. Suck ’em in, hit ’em.” Sorry, is he reading from Beatrix Potter or Andy McNab? “In the winter there’s no cover. They all get together in the cold. You can get eight or nine with a couple of shots. All huddled together. We annihilated them.”


At a decisive House of Lords debate in March 2006, one Lord Chorley warned of the grey menace, even now scurrying across Europe: “There are three colonies in Italy, at least one in the process of crossing the Alps. If they get to Germany there will be a complete invasion.” It’s an unsavoury mixture of incipient island paranoia (“They come over here, they take our dreys”), nostalgia for a lost, Baden-Powell era (It was the Scouts founder’s inaugural camp in 1907 on Dorset’s red squirrel stronghold Brownsea Island, which helped popularise Nutkin as a symbol of English heritage) and a macho trigger-happy bloodlust redolent of tiger shooting in the Raj. It could make class warriors of us all, even in a post-Obama utopia.

The killing joke is, it was the colonial toffs who brought grey squirrels over from America in the first place, as pets. And a pair escaped. Oh, and Baron Redesdale’s name is Rupert Mitford: he’s the great nephew of my six favourite aristocrats. Well, Unity’s pal would have been proud of him.

Published in Word magazine, January 2009


The Nazi things in life

This can be of almost zero interest to anyone lacking my own Mitford sisters obsession, but I’m going to forge on and go public with it anyway, as I’ve mentioned this anomaly a couple of times before, but never got round to scanning in the evidence. Anyway … Above is the cover of the 1978 Star paperback edition of Unity Mitford: A Quest by David Pryce-Jones, first published in 1976. Take a look at the black and white head shot of Unity, between the Union and Nazi flags. Here it is in close-up.

Unity Mitford, right? Wrong. Here is the same photo, uncropped, as it appears inside the book. Read the caption.

“The mysterious Erich, nominally a photographer, who perhaps had a watching brief on Unity, waiting with Diana at Nuremberg airport.”

So, had the publishers captioned the photo incorrectly? I think not. This is indeed a photo of Unity’s elder sister Diana Mitford (later Diana Mosley, after she married the British Union of Fascists leader, Oswald). Unity and Diana were the Nazi Mitfords, and often seen and photographed together. Both went to Munich before the war to hang out with Hitler, and attended the first Nuremberg rally, but it was Unity who actually stayed on until war was declared. (That said, Diana and Oswald were married in 1936 the house of the Goebbels, Joseph and Magda, with Hitler in attendance, so they were no slouches in the Nazi department.)

Above is another photo, also featured in this edition, which shows Unity on the left, with her squarer jaw; Diana in the centre, with those piercing eyes; and their oldest sister Nancy, who has a completely different shaped face and didn’t hang around in Germany at all. Unity and Diana do look alike, and do have similarly bobbed hair. But I think the evidence is clear. Look at the picture of Diana above and then compare with the picture of “Unity” on the cover. I say: when you’re publishing a book about one Mitford sister, it’s as well to double check you’ve got the right one on the cover before you send it to the printers.

By the way, this howling error make this book even more dear to me. It’s a forensically fascinating account of the life of the shortest-lived Mitford sister, although Decca is skeptical about some of the author’s conclusions about she and Unity’s poles-apart political destinations because, as she notes, he was born in 1936 and can’t possibly know as they did what a crazy decade the 1930s was.

The publishers changed the cover, anyway, presumably realising their little cock-up. Or perhaps not? This is how the book looks now, and this is definitely Unity, at a Nazi Youth camp in Hesselberg.

Admit one

Having expressed my lack of excitement about the discovery of the Higgs Boson on Twitter on Wednesday – a semi-principled, partly caricatured indifference predicated upon my own dimwit’s grasp of physics, a year-round allergy to hype and a more specific aversion to the sneering nature of the nickname “the God Particle” – I was informed by a couple of defenders of science that if so, I was therefore unqualified to get excited about anything else that I get excited about, including films, music, TV and, specifically, the Mitford Sisters. (I was also called an “intellectual pygmy” by someone who I will never hear from again, which I’m pretty sure is sizeist.)

I was on that day particularly excited by the Mitford Sisters, the world’s most interesting aristocratic sibling sextet, as I had tickets to see two – that’s two – great lost TV documentaries about them at the BFI on London’s South Bank. As part of what looked like a generally if typically excellent season, The Aristocracy on TV, they’d forged a Mitfords double-bill out of Nancy Mitford 1904-1973: A Portrait By Her Sisters (1980) and Jessica Mitford: The Honorable Rebel (1977), both made for the BBC, the latter under the umbrella The Lively Arts.

Having been officially and continually besotted by Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Debo Mitford since 2008, when Letters Between Six Sisters came out in paperback, my thirst for new material to ingest waxes and wanes. I went on an early rampage after Letters and Martin Bright’s C4 documentary alleging that Unity had been pregnant with Hitler’s child when she shot herself in 1939, shown around the same time. And from this first flush of enthusiasm for six literate women who were not only the subject of many books, they wrote plenty too (as well as seemingly endless correspondence), I created my own small library of new and secondhand volumes. (I am particularly fond of the yellowing paperback copy of Unity Mitford: A Quest, which erroneously displays a picture of Diana on the cover.) I have added to this intermittently when new reprints come round, or when Debo, the surviving Mitford, publishes another, but by and large, it’s kind of done. Which is why I jumped at the chance of viewing these two documentaries, which are unlikely to be shown on TV now.

I was delighted that the screening sold out, early on. It was a thrill to be among fellow Mitford groupies in NFT2, with not a spare seat in the house. Mitford fans do tend to be female, and not generally young, but this is by no means a rule. After all, five out of six of the Mitfords are dead – indeed, long dead; only Diana and Debo saw the Millennium in – and as such, loving them is not about remembering them, necessarily. I wasn’t aware of them, growing up, and I’m sure I heard about Nancy, the novelist, first. I don’t yearn to live in the tumultuous and deadly 1920s and 1930s that were their heyday, although I do find that era endlessly fascinating, with the aristocracy experiencing their first taste of decline, and losing their men in both world wars. (A life lost in action is a life lost regardless of breeding or money.)

Produced by Michael Barnes in 1977, when Jessica, or Decca, was a sprightly 60, the Melvyn Bragg-narrated portrait An Honorable Rebel was a real insight into Communist Spice’s life in Oakland, California. (She eloped to fight with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War with her sweetheart Esmond Romilly – who was, sadly, killed in the Second World War, when he joined the Canadian Air Force – and ended up in the United States, where she married Civil Rights lawyer Bob Treuhaft.) By this time, she was in demand as a lecturer and speaker, and the documentary is topped and tailed by a talk given to students at a university. She had not developed an American accent, and retained the much-derided “Mitford accent”, which must have been impenetrable to outside influence. What a curiosity she must have seemed when she threw herself into protecting the rights of black people on the frontline of unrest in the 40s and 50s.

She and Bob – a lovely soul whose eyes almost disappear into slits when he smiles or laughs, which is often – are seen with compatriots from the Civil Rights years, when Decca was stamped a “subversive” by the authorities and the FBI started a long file that she reads from, having obtained it under the Freedom of Information Act. (It is, unsurprisingly, redacted; it also states that she and Bob were both earmarked for possible internment in camps that were always previously denied by the US government.) What a fiercely dedicated freedom fighter she appears. From a privileged upbringing, she confounded all by coming out and then going away, and none of it was a “gap year” pose. She and Romilly lived in an East End slum when they first returned from Spain, and the pair of them tended bar in Florida when they first arrived there. During the McCarthy years in America, she was not exactly blacklisted, but she refused to incriminate herself or fellow members of the Civil Rights Congress at the HUAC hearings – an episode she illuminates beautifully in the re-telling, with a comic twist about mishearing a question about her alleged membership of a “tenants’ association” which turned out to be a “tennis association.”

Here’s a thing: I have hardly ever seen the Mitford sisters moving about, or talking. There’s a marvellous late interview with Decca by Christopher Hitchens on iTunes, but very little footage exists of the sisters in their debutante days. Photos, yes, and portraits, and newspaper cuttings (such as when Decca eloped and her father, Lord Redesdale, sent out a search party), but moving pictures? Very scarce. Which is why both of these docs were such delights. Honorable Rebel – named after her first memoir, Hons and Rebels, one of my faves – is packed with Decca and her lovely, plummy voice, her sentences peppered with “you know”. But Nancy Mitford, made seven years after the eldest sister’s death by Julian Jebb, was arguably all the more valuable, as it featured brand new interviews with Pamela, Jessica, Debo and Diana, an icily elegant lady who was only 70 at the time, but could have been 90, with her white hair in a bun. Still beautiful, of course. Oh, and still defiantly claiming that the British Union of Fascists, led by her second hubby Oswald Mosley, were not anti-semitic. (Diana and Mosley were interned during the war, and did not live the life of luxury in there, other than being brought Stilton and Port by visitors, so it must have etched a few years into her, although she lived to the ripe old age of 93.)

There’s also some plum footage of Nancy from 1966, filmed for ABC. She is, if anything, the most Mitfordy of all the Mitfords, fluting, “I enjoyed the war very much … it was very lively in London.” Pamela, whose lack of strident political affiliations left her without a handy nickname, and who might have been a lesbian, is a smashing old stick, feeding her hens and letting her pony off for a run, cheerily reading from Nancy’s novels and chuckling away at her favourite bits, the very image of a Countryside Alliance stalwart. She is least known of the sisters, but comes alive in this film. Debo we are used to seeing in her active dotage, such a fixture has she become at Chatsworth and on the book-signing circuit, but it’s sweet to catch her, aged 60, when she was still the Duchess of Devonshire. I love the way she admits to her older siblings’ stereotype as a bit of a dunce (“I can hardly read – I hate it, books”), and it’s amazing to think that 32 years later, she’d still be going strong.

There’s a bit of Diana’s son Jonathan Guinness in the Nancy film (he co-authored 1984’s solid House Of Mitford with daughter Catherine), but it’s all about the sisters. These films have reignited my passion for them. I could literally recite their shared biography to you, with accompanying amazing facts and trivia, and part of me wishes I really had worked up a one-man show about them for Edinburgh, as I had once fantasised about doing. I’m happy enough spreading the word. Quite clearly, you don’t have to agree with hereditary peerage and the old class system like David Cameron and George Osborne do, in order to find these people fascinating. From a feminist perspective, the sisters weren’t schooled as their father feared they would develop “fat calves” from all the hockey and as such, effectively educated and motivated themselves. Only Pamela and Unity did not write books (and Unity may have, had she lived). Nancy wrote eight highly-regarded novels and, later, a clutch of tolerated historical biographies. Decca wrote a dozen books including memoirs and, more importantly, investigative journalism; she changed the way Americans saw their own funeral industry with The American Way Of Death. (She is seen testifying against the sharp practices of the funeral industry at a hearing in Honorable Rebel.) Diana wrote three memoirs and was a book reviewer for Books & Bookmen and the Standard.

That two of them turned out to be fascists, and one of them a card-carrying Communist is what makes them so unique. I love them. Anyway, my tried-and-tested guide to the best of Mitfords literature – Mit Lit – is here, although I may have to add Jessica’s memoir of her time in the Communist Party, A Fine Old Conflict, to this, having now seen An Honorable Rebel, which has re-piqued my interest.

I know it’s in London, but the BFI is such an amazing place to go to, even if it’s just for a pricey drink in the bar. Have a look what’s on there now and in the near future.

Altogether now, for Decca:

‘Tis the final conflict
Let each stand in his place
The Internationale
Shall be the human race

Look! A Mitford!

This week’s Telly Addict – in which you will see that I have eschewed the now-traditional jacket to reflect this glorious weather – contains no adult language whatsoever and no scenes that viewers may find disturbing unless a man fishing some soiled underpants out of a public toilet cistern at Chatsworth House falls under that heading. Despite the kind comment under last week’s complaining that the Guardian clearly doesn’t “train” its “journos” how to present TV properly (idiot: I’m not a Guardian “journo”!), I soldier on and amateurishly review Chatsworth on BBC1; Starlings on Sky1; and Silk on BBC1. Ideally, interested parties will discuss the shows under review. Alternatively, they can criticise my technique and question my professionalism, in the mistaken belief that watching Telly Addict is compulsory and not voluntary.