JULIET CRAWLEY, Mrs Dominic Vergos, Mrs Rory Peck
I have a number of strong mental images of Juliet. Ironing Dominic’s tattered jeans while her handsome French husband threw a bowie knife with unfailing accuracy into a door-frame. The night my wife and I brought a bottle of champagne into a hospital in the London Docks, and watched her budge up to make room for her second husband on her narrow bed. We were celebrating their marriage and her survival from yet another near-death experience on a horse, and they were meant to be starting their honeymoon. Listening to her reading from the Song of Solomon in St Bride’s church under a vast black hat at Rory Peck’s memorial service, “I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not. I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares; I will seek him whom my soul loves. I sought him, but found him not.” She was now the twice-widowed Juliet with a black eye patch and on the cusp of becoming a living legend.
But my most enduring memory of her is right at the end of her life, supremely elegant in tight trousers and surrounded by male admirers, horses, books, projects and her two beloved children. She was back on some sort of vegan-like diet, specified by a guru, but otherwise on conversational full throttle, denouncing the actions of Shell in West Africa, for whom she had recently worked on a research project. Her young son was being directed to open another bottle of wine for us on top of a Nuristani chest which served as a bar, whilst her small daughter entertained our own two young daughters on a sea of vapid society magazines spread over the thick red Bokhara carpet on the floor. The walls of the sitting room were covered with Soviet art, the kitchen filled with metal-riveted teapots from Afghanistan and bowls from Central Asia.
Juliet was passionately supportive of our current venture, which was to set ourselves up as travel publishers, and was busy identifying potential customers, book-loving friends of hers from out of her address book, whilst churning over some favourite titles in her mind. They were summoned up from her memory bank, then dismissed with a snort of amusement at their remembered failings. She knew what we were looking for, for she had bought an entire set of the Eland library, when we first took over the business. She was the only friend to do this.
Our visit had been organized by her sister Priscilla, who used the excuse of inviting us up for a Scottish reeling party, so that we could spend time with Juliet, as if it was in the normal course of events, though she had privately warned us that this would be the last time. The cancer had come back.
Priscilla was right and so was her timing. Juliet would have loathed any expression of sympathy, let alone a whiff of maudlin duty from us. Families could cope with that sort of thing, friends were for quite another purpose. For me there was also a curious symmetry to this last invitation, for I first came across Juliet through my friendship with her sister Priscilla.
Priscilla was in the year above me at St Andrews, reading divinity at St Mary’s College. She was kind but animated and I liked the way her eyes would crinkle up with amusement at the world, yet you could never get her to say an unkind word against a living thing. We were part of a group of two-dozen friends, who would instinctively say yes to any invitation to climb a mountain or attend a Highland Ball. Details, distances, problems of transport and floor space for a sleeping bag could all be worked out later. So be it the Perth Hunt, the Northern Meeting, the New Club, the Skye Balls, the Muckle-Flugga or something called the War Blinded, we went. I had no car and no previous experience of the Scottish Highlands, but my uncle had lent me a splendid Campbell kilt with a green jacket and silver buttons, then in its third generation of use, so I at least looked the part.
It was on some such mission, to dance at a Ball held in a large house in the Lake District, that I first met the Crawley family. I was staying as a guest, one of many packed into the spare bedrooms of the Rectory at Patterdale. I was enormously impressed. The Crawley’s seemed an idyllic family, tightly knit, loving and loyal, but instinctively inclusive of others. On this, and another subsequent visit, we rowed out on the waters, we tried to follow the fell hounds, we swam in the rain, and we talked passionately over dinner. Neighbours dropped in for tea, and then the sodden, muddy clothes were exchanged for Ball gowns. Friends were shared by the whole family, in part because the male guests of both Juliet and Priscilla were all packed off into a boys dormitory and left to companionably chatter away into the night. This is certainly my memory of how I first met such close friends of Juliet’s as Rory Knight-Bruce, Paul Hilton and Richard Curling. Rory Knight-Bruce was a frequent guest, and a completely transformed, quiet, calm character at the Rectory. He seemed happily immersed into the gentle order of this household, so completely different from his own upbringing by an amusing but undeniably foul-mouthed Devon squire and his alcoholic Finnish girlfriend. Indeed I seem to remember that Rory had developed a special game of snooker with Juliet’s younger brother Silas, which they made into a valid spectator sport as both Rory and Silas kept up a continuous barrage of spoof sports commentary. It was very charming to watch. There was an elder brother, but he was already working as a priest and I never met him.
Another reason for feeling at home at the Patterdale Rectory, was that before becoming a clergyman, the Rev Simon Crawley, had been trained to become an officer in the Navy. So he knew many of my father’s Naval friends from his days at the Dartmouth Naval College, whilst his oldest friend (who had attended the same Prep School as well as going upto the Naval college with him) was Jeremy Rogerson, a third cousin, who was one of the three Commander Rogerson’s, R.N. in our family. Even if you are not an anthropologist of the upper middle class, you will recognize that the identification of such links, shared schools, regiments and professions, is an important ritual.
As I got to know the Crawley family better, I also realized that I another shared bond of social experience. For they, just like my own immediate family, were the poorest members (the church mice) of a large, well-connected clan of cousins. So although there had been years of real poverty for the Crawley family (which I think included a period when they existed in a caravan living off cheap tins of heated up food) they were also at the same time familiar with great wealth, which I witnessed for myself when asked to a dinner party at the house of a great aunt of Juliet’s who lived in some style and with some authority outside Edinburgh.
The one thing that I did not comprehend was the depth of faith within the Crawley family. There had been many vicars in my family and I took church going in my stride, as just a normal social activity. Indeed it was fun at Patterdale for young house guests like myself were asked to read the lesson in the busy morning service. While walking with the Crawleys the short distance from the Rectory to the Church for evensong was a genuinely beautiful way to fill the late afternoon, with the raking light blessing the deep valley and hills. It could also be surprisingly lively, depending on how many members of the Crawley family were at home that weekend, at hand to play the guitar. But after ten years of enforced chapel attendance in prep and public school, often led by agnostic headmasters, I had simply no inkling that these rituals could have any moral dimension. Nor had I an idea that the Crawley family, father, mother and their four children, all believed that every word of the Bible was an eternally relevant message from God. Or that the world was ultimately divided into two groups, a tiny minority of the Saved surrounded by a vast seething mass of ignorant pagans.
So when Priscilla asked me to share a sleeper cabin with her, “as it would be such fun”, I took this as a wonderfully casual and stylish sexual invitation from an older woman. However the look of horrified surprise on Priscilla’s face, when I slipped off all my clothes as the train left the station, made me realise that something had been lost in translation. But I did at least begin to learn that some Christians even took their faith to bed with them, and such was our friendship that we ended up laughing as the train rattled through the night.
Juliet by contrast appeared to be the calm, unflappably stylish centre at the heart of a continuous emotional storm incubated by her boyfriend Rory Knight-Bruce. She would watch like a cat, as alcohol-fueled wit, fiercely held opinion, sexual gossip and relentless partying swirled around her, but yet never quite took possession of all of her. Though I noticed that her eyes shone brighter, and her smile became all the more deeply buried just when the social anarchy of her friends grew ‘quite impossible”. It certainly looked that way. To an impressionable outsider it seemed that Rory also loved Patrick Conyingham who was simultaneously going out with Juliet’s best friend, Charlotte Black. I had heard of triangular love affairs, but never yet witnessed such a rectangular relationship, which greatly intrigued me. The two men shared a bedroom in a large Georgian town house that belonged to Roddy Martine, who they flirted with, fawned on, bullied and entertained. Rory and I had a similar enthusiasm for dancing, and had developed an alarming routine, by which he would take a flying leaping into my crutch and writhe around like an impaled ballerina. It was at its most flamboyantly effective, as an attention grabber, at the early stages of a Hunt Ball. Fortunately he was as light as a fawn, and many years later I found out that it was mere camouflage for one of the most persistent and discrete womanizers of his generation.
Juliet was the only actual student of this group of four friends, the one who needed to get up in the morning and attend history of art. Rory had been a student, had a year off recovering from some illness, but was now back again in Edinburgh, dabbling in politics (he and Juliet owned a terrier called Thatcher) and was about to set himself up as a magazine publisher and journalist. Patrick recited his own poetry but mostly painted, and through his friendship with Craigie Aitchinson flitted in and out of the alcoholic hot house of Francis Bacon and the Colony club. Charlotte at that time had just started up a restaurant-night club in Edinburgh called the Engine Room, a truly wonderful experiment, full of boiler suited waitresses, gantry cranes, loud music and caotic bill collecting. Aside from Charlotte Black, Juliet acquired two other sworn allies during her time as a student in Edinburgh. They would become her lifelong friends, unquestionably sharing their various homes, adventures and secrets with Juliet. If I close my eyes I can see, the slim, wide eyed, ever curious and energetic Catherine Cairns swirling around on the dance floor, while Ishbel Macpherson’s is best remembered reclining gracefully on a lawn and accepting another drink with that wonderfully gravelly, deep, purr of a voice.
I loved witnessing this world from the safe base of St Andrews. It felt like I was being immersed in the nihilistic decadence of a J.P.Donleavy novel set in Edinburgh, which at that time seemed to be driven by a lot of energy, cheap rents and re-invention. Julian Bannerman had carved Bannerman’s Bar from out of a subterranean warehouse in the old city where students, socialist-block artists, tramps and professors of Gaelic could mingle shoulder to shoulder at the bar, like the B-side to the intellectual effervescence of the Ricki de Marco gallery. If I squint further into the background of those Edinburgh days I can also pick out the bleached hair, purple glasses, red oilskins and faded dock jackets, then worn by such future figures of the art world as Kate Boxer, Hugh Buchanan, Andrew Nairne, Lachie Stewart and Lucinda Bredin.
By happy chance there was also a lot of hospitable landowner-students around at this time, who knit together the world of St Andrews with that of Edinburgh. Hosts such as Edward Baxter at Gilston, Antony Balniel, Freddy Woolton, Henry Hood, Andrew Mazur at Finavon Castle and Andrew Spearman at Fealar lodge organised house-parties, picnics at the races, dances, shoots and cocktail parties from out of their own generous pockets.
I cant quite remember the exact timing of events, but towards the end of Juliet’s time at Edinburgh, Rory had begun to fall in love with a younger art student, the beautiful, talented Belinda Eade, but then became officially engaged to Juliet as some corrective act of contrition. It was Juliet that had to make the final break, for I believe Rory was genuinely in love with both of them. But having met both of her subsequent husbands, indeed I briefly worked beside one of them, I think I can detect that Juliet was not repelled by the wild, anarchic, unfaithful streak in her boyfriend, but was attracted to it.
Two years later, we would work together in the offices of the Afghanistan Support Committee situated in a charmingly decrepit Victorian office building, a maze of stairs, passages and doorways on the Charing Cross Road. Juliet was fueled by a clear resolve to get herself out of the British Isles into some real life. She was calm, efficient and perfectly capable of working all hours of the day without so much as a sliver of a yawn. She had already tested herself by working for a charity in eastern India for a year and had found it deeply rewarding.
But she had not become the normal returning volunteer, swathed in the textile proofs of her travels and smelling of patchouli. Instead she had become addicted to those baggy, stylish body sweaters in black and grey silk and wool that she bought at Josephs in South Kensington along with their scent. But although she looked and smelt chic, there was nothing else that was opulent about her lifestyle. She lodged with her friend Catherine Cairns who owned a narrow red brick terrace house on Ballatar road, within walking distance of Brixton market and Ritzy cinema. It was then a vibrant Carribean community, full of neighbours who hung out their washing, and hung out of their front-doors of a summer evening, swigging red stripe and giving you the time of day.
Her three Edinburgh girl-friends had achieved a remarkably successful transformation from feckless students to highly capable women. I seem to remember that Catherine was working for Warburgs, then one of the tip top merchant banks, Charlotte was managing her own Eco-Green fund at the stockbroking firm of Brewin & Dolphin and I never could keep up with what Ishbel was doing in the world of finance, but it very soon resulted in her owning a house in a Mayfair square.
Meanwhile in a cupboard like office within our office building, Juliet had tracked down a ticket agency, which gave us fantastic discounts for theatre seats if we could wait until after 5 in the evening of a perfomance, while also working as a bucket shop for air flights. Unless someone else was paying, we ate in the Café Centrale on the edge of Soho, which had pew seats around red formica table-tops. Tarts worked in the rooms above, they served the cheapest plates of pasta and allowed you to bring in your own wine. One night we were joined by a Queen of the Tramps, who had just walked in from Putney in a white furcoat. She asked for a tomato salad which was not on the menu, but I heard the chef hiss to the waitress, serve her whatever she asked.
Juliet had began by working as a personal assistant to the Director, Romey Fullerton, who was rapidly growing the organization, finding funding for it and dividing it into two, a political pressure group and a full accountable charity, Afghanaid. Her boss was a charismatic young conservative M.P, then called Robert Cranbourne, who was also trying to create freelance film units to report about world events to escape the monopoly of BBC and ITV. In the process we were promoted from a dinghy back-room, dominated by vast stack of unusable posters (which the Tube had refused to allow in their tunnels because they were too political) into a spacious place that had windows overlooking Charing Cross Road, boasted a secretary-receptionist, a meeting room and the smell of freshly ground coffee.
Juliet was chiefly concerned with the charitable activities, which at this time specialized in providing work for single mothers and widows in the refugee camps and getting British medical staff to work in Pakistani clinics, especially for the fitting of new limbs. There was also a scheme to deliver monetary aid to internal refugees within Afghanistan, which had a tactical agenda, for in keeping the peasant farmers on the ground, especially in the Panjshir valley, they were also helping bolster the resistance, here being led by a charismatic commander called Massoud, who was everyone’s hero. This sort of work necessitated meticulous accounting and the preparation of detailed reports, which were shared with the funders. There was also a near continuous round of conferences, so that the different European Aid Agencies could swop experiences, carve out areas of responsibility, listen to the advice of the academic experts and meet up with the various governmental agencies that handed out money. It was also a dating agency, with fourteen rival Afghan resistant groups, all being wooed by different charities, who could also be ferociously competitive with each other. They could also implode on some point of principle and break apart like an amobea to form two rival organizations. Whilst I was working with Juliet, I seem to remember that this was about to happen. For the great breaking issue of that hour was the pay rate of the prosthetists, the professionally trained medical staff who could make, measure and fit artifical limbs. Should they get the current UK rate, an air-conditioned apartment, car and driver, or try to fit into the local society as a cherished volunteer. This quickly became very bitter, personal and politicized. In the deeper background were various American funding organizations and bizarre right wing pressure groups, who waged imaginary war not just against their Cold War Socialist bloc but against the Democratic party and the liberal intelligentsia, especially at universities such as ‘the Kremlin on the Hudson’. But in this period we also got to meet genuine heroes like Nancy and Louis Dupree and the resistance commander Abdul Haq, whilst attending lectures and seminars held at Sandhurst, RUSI, the International Institute for Strategic Studies and had access to a specialist library in St James’s square.
Journalists and aid workers were feted with our fine office coffee and de-briefed by Julian Gearing who wrote up stories for our supporters magazine and to provide data for a stream of Press Releases for the radio and newspapers. So there was a constant flow of ambitious and maverick young men, passing through – such as Peter Juvenal, Edward Giradet, John Gunston, James Blunt, Guy Munthe, Peregrine Hodson, Guy Clutterbuck, Rory Peck and Bruce Wannell. They were either hoping to cut their teeth as freelance reporters, get themselves a book commission, a job in the Foreign office, command a regiment of Baluch irregulars, buy Emeralds on the cheap, climb mountains or do some good in the world. Most of them were impressed and charmed, if not permanently infatuated with Juliet, even before she moved out to Pakistan.
In terms of publicity our greatest coup in that time that was to liaise with a group of London surgeons, who had donated their services for free, then fetch a dozen wounded Afghan freedom fighters from out of an enormous American plane from a US airbase in East Anglia, and then get them interviewed by Sandy Gall in front of a bank of television cameras as they arrived in central London. It was all going swimmingly well until I ran over a tramp in Leicester Square, who had suddenly bolted out of a large dustbin while singing ‘flowers of Scotland’ . It could have been a bit of a publicity blunder, except that Juliet intervened – and the tramp proved an utter gentleman, refusing to blame us and waved our coach on for the last ten yards of our journey.
Later the young wounded Afghan warriors got rather bored in London once they had been healed, trashed the house that had been lent them and threw one of their number out of the window. Fortunately we kept that story to ourselves, but it was an interesting first awakening to the tectonic ethnic divisions that subdivided Afghanistan. But instead of trying to appear cross we put them to work, visiting London mosques under the avuncular care of a marvelous bearded Afghan called Dr Amanyar, whilst the youngest and most prepossessing of them, a Tajik warrior from the Panshir valley, would set off with me on long walks, hand delivering our press releases to the newspapers and the World Service. He even assisted me, in trying to chat Christina Foyle into setting up her own publishing house, which would begin with a selection of reprinted Afghan travel books.
I went to a dinner party given by Patrick and Charlotte, and having behaved even more boisterously than my host that night, was surprised that one of the guests offered me a job in the morning, as tutor to his step-daughter, who was going to act in a film, to be shot over three months in a Greek island. Juliet of course approved, for I was acting in a thoroughly irresponsible manner and good fortune had shone on the totally unworthy.
When I returned, she had already achieved her ambition of being sent off to Pakistan to help run the Afghanaid house in Peshawar. And with her all the charm, humour and fascination of that office had left, like a candle being blown out, to be replaced by the efficient glare of an office lamp. For Sir Oliver Forster now commuted up from Godalming a couple of days a week, to oversee Afghanaid reports which ticked all the right boxes. He knew the ground well, for he had been unfailingly obstructive to all non-governmental organizations, quirky charities and free-spirited writers, whilst earning his knighthood as our ambassador in Pakistan during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. I think it tickled him that he had now become their saviour and it certainly got him out of the way of his wife’s lunch parties.
Juliet knew I had remained a friend of Rory and Belinda, but neither this nor any other misdemeanour, seemed to irritate her. I only experienced her anger once, when I quoted a line from the Gospels to her. It was on a skiing holiday that we took together in this period, a cheap test-run of a chalet being set up by a friend of mine (where typically she ignored all the good-looking officer-types on this trip, while the only man who attracted her interest was my dark, sulky, clever but difficult script-writing friend). But I still remember how her eyes flashed with rare fire, as she explained to me with icy clarity that she read the Bible every night of her life, and so had no need of any instruction, most especially from someone like me. I think by this stage of her life she had already developed an absolute horror of people using the holy text to support their own desires in public. But that didn’t mean she had any less regard for Gods word, but rather it was something so important that she kept it as a private, compass-like jewel with which she navigated her own way through life. No wonder she understood the Afghans so well, for they were both people of the book. And Juliet, like them, could switch between pauper and princess at the blink of an eye.
I now think she may have been as intense a Christian as any in her fundamentalist family, but preferred the company of sinners to preachers.
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by Barnaby Rogerson