Go East Young Man. March 2013.

Dear Rowley,

One of the joys of visiting my parents in Derbyshire for Mother’s Day is the rail journey from London courtesy of East Midlands Trains. With a rare flash of foresight, I had booked First Class without, like Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables, having to sacrifice a row of teeth and my raven locks to fund said form of transport. My trip to Chesterfield reminded me of the old Chita Rivera number from Chicago ‘What Became of Class?’ Silver service in the buffet car is no more. Now we’re treated to a trolley serving execrably weak tea made from a bag that’s probably been dunked in water more often than the defendants at the Salem Witch Trials and coffee as weak as a kitten.

Meanwhile in Cattle Class our ‘retail manager’ was elegantly tripping her way up the aisles with a starte-of-the-art trolley ladened with miniature bottles of Chablis, Starbucks coffee and candy and cakes worthy of the Child Catcher that put our ‘complimentary tea or coffee’ to shame. By the time Lady Bountiful made it to First Class most of the ‘customers’ had died of malnutrition. Can’t make it up can you? I think I lost the will to live when buffet cars closed and passengers became customers.

The high point of the return journey to London was the announcements courtesy of a Sheffield lass putting on her posh voice and reading Edict No 38b from the Politically Correct Handbook to Rail Travel. Apparently the train was overbooked and many of the poor saps who paid £100 plus for a return ticket were forced to stand, sit or squat in the corridor like Russian convicts en route to the gulag. No, I didn’t feel smug because I’ve been there many a time on the flip-down seat huddled next to a lavatory door with backpackers ramming their groins into your E. F. Benson. Anyway, Big Brother takes to the tannoy to address these poor unfortunates travelling Raft of the Medusas class.

‘A message to passengers travelling in our corridors. Under no circumstances is it permitted for body parts to protrude from the train. Please keep all body parts inside this train’. One surmised that a customer gasping for air had had the temerity to open a window. But pictures danced in my head of rebellious customers in the corridor defiantly sticking an errant index finger, nose or boob out of the window to protest at the train service overselling seats. Back in the lap of First Class luxury, a big beast of a man who looked like he was on remand from Broadmoor lumbered down the carriage brandishing a pastic bin bag and demanding that we give-up any litter we may be harbouring with all the menace of the Wicked Witch of the West shrieking ‘Surrender Dorothy’.

Nothing whispers of luxury quite so winsomely as bin bags, prison service tea served in plastic cups and lighting that makes passengers look like we have the complexion of a dead guinea pig. This all leads me to conclude that ‘fings ain’t what they used to be’. Apropos of this, my reading matter in Derbyshire was Henry Vane’s excellent Affair of State: A Biography of the 8th Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. The proximity of parents’ home to Chatsworth makes the Devonshire Dukes and Chatsworth House something of a pet subject.

Vane’s biography is interesting to me because the 8th Duke and ‘Double Duchess’ Louise were leading lights in the rackety set that surrounded the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII). The Duchess in particular fascinates. She was married to the Duke of Manchester when her amour for the then Marquess of Hartington began. Hartington married the widowed Duchess when he inherited the Devonshire title (hence the Double Duchess) and she became one of the most important political hostesses of her age. It was she who orchestrated the 1897 Devonshire House costume ball of legend and she who was the last chatelaine of the Devonshire’s London mansion before it was demolished in the 1920s.

Perhaps the most haunting image in Affair of State is that of Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough walking from Devonshire House to Spencer House through Green Park in the wee small hours after the legendary ball. You imagine this beauteous creature dripping in family jewels wafting through the West End untroubled by the rogue element that today would tear her to pieces like the Princess de Lamballe.

I often dream of London’s past, don’t you? This makes my new project writing a book about St James’s such a pleasure. I recently acquired the 1860s print of St James’s Street and the map of the area circa 1740.  The image of Consuelo Marlborough drifting through St James’s is one that will stay with me when researching this historic quarter of London that has entertained people of fascination since Henry VIII first built St James’s Palace for Anne Boleyn in 1533.

I will tell you more about the St James’s Project when I get my teeth into it but for now suffice to say I’m researching a site upon which Charles II’s mistress Barbara Palmer, Duchess of Cleveland, once lived in a London townhouse gifted to her when the King had tired of her charms. Would you believe it has proved impossible to find a biography of the Duchess in any of London’s bookshops; new, secondhand or antique? Doesn’t that say something terribly sad about the prognosis for print?

Undaunted I visited Hatchards who pointed me in the direction of a biography entitled The King’s Whore…a title Barbara Palmer would probably have taken as a compliment. Hatchards also reminded me that one of the best fictitious portraits of Barbara Palmer and her rival Nell Gwynn is in Kathleen Winsor’s novel Forever Amber: basically Gone With the Wind in periwigs and patches. I suspect that Barbara Palmer, Duchess of Cleveland has so much more to teach us in the 21st century than a ghost written biography of Cheryl Cole.