Sunday, October 25, 2009

Chapter Two

Calm motions are essential for the smooth running of a vice-regal establishment, and in this respect Norman was a model aide-de-camp, self-contained, efficient, and apparently unflappable. Even so, the events of the morning that culminated thus far in his interview with Lady Sutherland gave to Norman a sharp burst of forward propulsion.

Had one of the footmen seen Norman emerge from Lady Sutherland’s sitting room on the east front of Government House, descend the stairs, cross the hall, dart through the pantry door, trot down the back stairs, and head out along the path towards the mews, he might have paused to take note. However, that morning all three were distracted by preparations for the luncheon party, so Norman’s swift passage was observed only by Old Sock, who was working in the kitchen garden.

The climate of the island group of St. Edward is in any case benign, but that day was especially beautiful. The sun had risen over the Inner Thimbles shortly before half past six. It caressed those ships of the third squadron and flagship of the Indian Ocean fleet that just now lay at anchor in Victoria Sound. A faint breeze stirred the cypresses along the boundary with Bishopscourt, while Fort Borthwick and the naval observatory briefly cast their shadows over the pretty town and harbour of Palmerston below.

From the direction of the Customs House and Wellington Quay came the thrum and clangs of industry upon which the great wealth of the colony was lately founded—that is, the incessant loading of shipments of guano continually hauled from the Outer Thimbles in huge, flat-bottomed barges. Wisps of wood smoke ascended from the Chinese quarter and the Malay kampongs at the opposite edges of town, while cattle grazed peacefully on lush pastures belonging to the nearest and richest of the old estancias in the hinterland farther distant.

Over this charmed colonial estate His Excellency Lieutenant-General Sir George Sutherland, G.C.M.G., K.B.E., D.S.O., had presided as Governor and Commander-in-Chief since 1919. Far from raising eyebrows in the Colonial Office, Sir George’s appointment was greeted with enthusiasm in Whitehall, and much relief among the lower officials of Palmerston, because, it was felt, the government of St. Edward, New Scotland, and the Thimbles was by then far too complicated for an old gentleman as kind but vague as Sir George’s immediate predecessor, Sir Evelyn Broome. Guano and everything connected to it required a much firmer hand on the tiller, and whose could be more reliable than that of the hero of Beersheba? Such was the consensus of opinion all the way up to Cabinet, and even the Palace.

After the Secretary of State sounded him out during a lull in the Versailles Peace Conference, without hesitation Sir George confessed he had never heard of St. Edward, New Scotland, and the Thimbles. However, in due course, when properly briefed, he began to like the idea of taking up the reins of government. Naturally, the General would require a suitable household composed of existing and previous members of his personal and military staff. Yet initially Sir George and Lady Sutherland experienced some misgivings arising from a close reading of the relevant portion of the Colonial Office List.

“George. George,” said Lady Sutherland, over breakfast at the Ritz; Sir George was slightly deafened during the bombardment of Liège. “Listen to this: ‘ The islands of the St. Edward Group are said to be as numerous as the days of the year but not more than one hundred of them deserve the name. Most are mere rocks. Even of the three hundred thus far enumerated not more than fifteen or sixteen are inhabited, the remainder being flat and inconsequential.’ It sounds ghastly.”

“Yes,” said Sir George, returning to his newspaper. “Quite a bit of guano, though. Tons of it.”

In due course Lady Sutherland especially was partly swayed by reassuring accounts of polite and colonial Society, the surge of prosperity currently engulfing the local treasury and the Royal Bank of New Scotland, and, above all, a long article in the Illustrated London News about Government House, St. Edward, which was fairly described as “among the loveliest in the Empire.”

At length, together with their two unmarried daughters, Lettice and Marigold, and their staff, including Colonel Ernest Roberts, V.C., private secretary—who lost his right arm at Passchendaele—Lieutenant Norman Threlfall, R.N., aide-de-camp; Miss Lucy Edwards, secretary to Lady Sutherland; Dr. Henry Craddock, surgeon, and about fifteen others, including Foster, Sir George’s long-serving batman, in May 1919 the governor-designate sailed from Southampton aboard H.M.S. Fantome, reaching St. Edward via Cape Town and Mauritius in mid-July.

Nearly three years on, it was as if Sir George and Lady Sutherland had been en poste for thirty.

By then, as a matter of natural progression, Foster, formerly of the Coldstream Guards, had been entrusted with the care, maintenance, and operation of the Governor’s stately and enormous vice-regal motor car, an extravagant purchase proudly made by the legislative council of St. Edward not long before His Excellency’s arrival. Hitherto nothing so remotely unusual as a headless torso wrapped in a lady’s foundation garment had ever turned up in the rear compartment.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Chapter One

“Come in, Norman.”

“Yes, Lady Sutherland.”

“Sit down.”

“Thank you, Lady Sutherland.”

“I gather Foster has found something disagreeable in the motor car.”

“Yes, Lady Sutherland.”

“A torso, George said. Headless.”

“Yes, Lady Sutherland.”

“You’re quite sure it is headless?”

“Quite, Lady Sutherland.”


“I beg your pardon, Lady Sutherland?” Although dependable and thorough, Norman was at times slow.

“Does it have limbs, Norman?”

“No, Lady Sutherland.”

“How provoking.”

“Lady Sutherland?”

“A headless torso is bad enough without being limbless as well. Two more stray parts drifting about. At least four more bits to account for. Four more at least: one head, two arms, nether regions—assuming they’re in one piece.

“No guarantees there, Lady Sutherland.”

“Exactly my point, Norman. Sex?”

“Male, Lady Sutherland, as far as we call tell.”

“Don’t be silly, Norman. How can there be any doubt?”

“The Colonel felt we shouldn’t unwrap it before Dr. Craddock comes back from golf.”

“Unwrap it? What on earth is it wrapped up in?”

“A lady’s foundation garment, Lady Sutherland.” Millicent Sutherland suppressed what might otherwise have been mistaken for a girlish giggle; Norman’s phrasing was impeccable as always, but she formed a mental picture of the young gentlemen of the Governor’s household puzzling over a torso wrapped in smalls. She recovered her composure.

“Good Heavens! But you say Foster thinks it is, was, male—a man—never mind the foundation garment?”

“Yes, Lady Sutherland. He was very specific.”

“Odd. Do we know him?”

“I’m sure I cannot say, Lady Sutherland.”

“No, I suppose not. Nothing there to go on, really, is there?”

“Quite, Lady Sutherland.”

“What have you done with it—him?”

“The Colonel felt it best to leave it—him—in the Rolls until Foster can find a suitable spot in the cool room.”

“Out of the question, Norman. The Rolls is no place for a headless torso, wrapped or unwrapped—animal, vegetable or mineral.”

“No, Lady Sutherland.”

“Think of the germs, Norman.”

“Yes, Lady Sutherland.”

“The same applies to the cool room, apart from the obvious.”

“Lady Sutherland?”

“Cook,” said Lady Sutherland.

“Ah,” said Norman.

“In and out. Constantly rummaging for comestibles.”

“He is slightly short on imagination, Lady Sutherland.”

“On the contrary, Norman. Cook has a vivid imagination. Lots of ideas, most of them dreadful. We don’t want him grilling parts of it by mistake.”

“I could speak to him.”

“Now you know that’s not a good idea, Norman. I’m quite sure he’s never seen a foundation garment. It’s a recipe for disaster.”

“I suppose so.” Norman grasped the larger point, even if in this case, as in so many others, he found it difficult to trace the individual steps in Lady Sutherland’s reasoning. “What about the tool shed?” he added, doubtfully.

“Worse: Sock would probably put it in the compost like everything else.” Lady Sutherland sighed, and tapped the arm of her chair with a pencil. “We had better have Foster use the laundry.”

“You don’t think it might get mixed up with the washing?”

“I shall speak to Mrs. Huntingfield.”

“If you say so, Lady Sutherland.”

“Right away, Norman. Chop, chop.”

“Very good, Lady Sutherland.”

“Oh, Norman?”

“Yes, Lady Sutherland?”

“I shouldn’t say anything about this to Miss Edwards. Rather overzealous and inquisitive. Sleeping dogs, and all that.”

“Quite, Lady Sutherland.”

“That’s all, Norman. Off you go.”

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Kissing Their Rings

Those who say that President Barack Obama’s standing in the world has been damaged by the decision of the International Olympic Committee to eliminate Chicago, Illinois, at the earliest opportunity and to award the games of the XXXI Olympiad of the modern era to Rio de Janeiro would do well to look a little closer at the composition of that unsavory organization.

No fewer than twenty members of the I.O.C., between a sixth and a fifth of the entire membership, were not long ago found to have accepted bribes. But even if they hadn’t, the inexact process of assessing at first hand the rival bids of many cities all over the world has for years constituted an especially disgusting gravy train—an unending palanquinade of lavish official hospitalities, institutionalized obsequiousness, and plain, old-fashioned corruption.

As if to underline its far right-wing credentials, the I.O.C.’s honorary president for life, the diminutive Marquis of Samaranch, was a minister of state in the fascist régime of Generalissimo Francisco Franco. By coincidence the Marquis’s son and namesake now also sits on the I.O.C.

The organization, based in Switzerland—where else?—has a particular fondness for European and petrodollar royalty, and one might ask what collective skills are brought to the task of allotting without bias immense sporting fixtures to whole nations by such luminaries as H.S.H. Princess Nora of Liechtenstein; H.S.H. the Sovereign Prince Albert II of Monaco; Sheikh Ahmad al Fahad al Sabah of Kuwait; H.R.H. the Grand Duke of Luxembourg; H.R.H. the Prince of Orange; H.R.H. Prince Nawaf Faisal Fahd Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia; H.R.H. Prince Tamim bin al Thani of Qatar; H.R.H. Prince Tunku Imran of Malaysia; H.R.H. Princess Haya Bint al Hussein of the United Arab Emirates; H.M. ex-King Constantine of the Hellenes, or H.R.H. the Infanta Doña Pilar de Borbón of Spain.

To be fair, a good number of these persons were once good at riding horses, shooting guns, sailing yachts, and/or participating in bobsleigh competitions, among other hearty out-of-door recreations of the very rich.

Nor is one especially reassured by the membership also of General Nyangweso (Uganda), General Sabet (Egypt), General Palenfo (Côte d’Ivoire), General Adefope (Nigeria), and Dr. Henry Kissinger (honorary).

There were no women members before 1981, and the current tally is 16 out of 106. This is pathetic. Far more women have been elected president or prime minister of countries all over the globe than have ever served as members of the I.O.C.

More sinister yet was the investment some years ago of millions of dollars to prevent what became known as the Gay Games from adopting and therefore tarnishing the ancient Greek name “Olympic.”

I am sure it can be good for business to win the right to stage the modern Olympics. However, there can be no shame in being rejected by a body as dubious as the I.O.C. Indeed a far, far bigger question mark ought to hang over those supplicants who manage to win its favor.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

O tempora, O mores

Air travel has been intolerable for years, but this morning for me the process sank to new depths. Since 9/11 I have navigated security and boarded innumerable aircraft all over the world, but never before have I had my tube of toothpaste confiscated. Clearly I had no choice but to submit to this impertinence today in Montréal, Québec, but the grounds upon which my toothpaste tube was impounded were not that it might conceivably contain plastic explosives—or any other contraband—but simply that it exceeded the allowable volume (expressed, somewhat pointedly, in milliliters, and in appalling French). The fact that my toothpaste tube was quite obviously three-quarters empty… ça ne marchait pas. A little later, queuing forlornly towards U.S. customs and immigration, a tall, middle-aged man—Canadian passport, je regrette—passed the time by clipping his fingernails. Each painstaking snip rang through the hangar-like space with eye-watering reverberation, made worse by the thought of that horrid trail of new-mooned leavings under foot. I have rarely seen anyone exhibit such complete disregard for the boundary that used to separate behavior that is suitable for public places from behavior that is not. How do people learn to forget that distinction? Reflecting presently upon this strange incident somewhere over New Hampshire or Vermont, I wondered how many other travelers were as revolted as I was, offended, or merely incommoded by this performance. It is not unusual to see the occasional, leathery old slapper filing her nails on the train or at the departure gate, so I suppose someone might therefore make a sort of case for tolerating the more radical process of clipping them also. The difference is, of course, that filing mostly produces less noise, and only a little dust.