Dilapidation, delight and determination make a stylish big house story
Patrick Skene Catlingreviews The Crocodile by the Door: The Story of a House, a Farm and a Family By Selina Guinness Penguin, 244pp, £16.99
Creatively feminine and obdurately resolute, Selina Guinness, a lecturer at the Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Dún Laoghaire, has taught herself how to care for livestock and protect her ancestral farm from Dublin encroachment. She calls Tibradden, the estate she inherited from her Uncle Charles, “a staging post where city and mountain meet”.
Only 10km inland from the institute, sheep graze on hillside fields that made Celtic Tigerish property developers drool with avarice. One of them offered her and her husband, Colin, €5 million for 20 acres, but, though they found farming financially difficult, they resisted the temptation, believing that farmland should be inviolable. Anyway, “in the summer of 2008”, she remembers with relief, “the tide had turned definitively against the property developers and the banks were no longer lending”.
Guinness is an astute observer and stylish chronicler of landscape, architecture and human character. In this book, her first, she describes her domestic setbacks and achievements with engaging candour. The attractions and problems of life in the big house have never before been revealed with a more disarming bid for sympathy. There is a popular myth that everyone bearing her illustrious name is fabulously wealthy; however, it is not true that Selina Guinness is enriched whenever anyone drinks a pint. She briefly summarises her family genealogy. “My grandmother always explained to visitors that, contrary to their expectations, Tibradden had not been built with brewery money: ‘My husband’s family were all church mice.’ Although Thomas Hosea Guinness was the great-grandson of the legendary Arthur Guinness . . . Arthur’s eldest son, Hosea, took up holy orders in the Church of Ireland. The Reverend Hosea Guinness, of St Werburgh’s parish, behind Dublin Castle, persuaded his eldest son, Arthur, to follow suit. By the time Thomas came along, any worldly wealth in the senior branch of the Guinness family had been given up to the glory of God. Thomas was a practising solicitor of church law when he married Mary Davis.”
Providentially, “she was a good catch”. When they married, in 1859, her father built Tibradden as a wedding present. It was quite grand, with a couple of pillars and a stained-glass window at the entrance, and Minton tiles and a Corinthian plasterwork ceiling in the hall.
Selina’s parents took her to visit Uncle Charles for the first time when she was two weeks old. At the age of 11, after her parents had separated “without obvious rancour”, it was decided that she should stay with her uncle and Grandmother Kitty, and Tibradden eventually became Selina’s permanent home. After his education at Winchester and New College, Oxford, and teaching, not entirely happily, at Eton, Charles had moved into the house, and remained there for the rest of his life, as a bachelor, teaching French and German at St Columba’s, conveniently nearby.
Most of the book is written in the present tense, giving her recollections a sense of vivid immediacy. When Selina, with her husband, finally resumed residence, her grandmother had been dead for some time, followed by the housekeeper, and Charles was alone.
At first Selina was dismayed to find the house and her uncle almost equally dilapidated. There were leaks. There was no washing machine, tumble dryer, dishwasher or shower. “Indeed,” she writes of that time, “there is no mains water supply, the tanks instead being filled by a gravity-fed system from the stream.” “The lead wiring is a fire hazard”– and there was no insurance. “Charles has not seen a doctor in a very long time.” “As we talk and munch biscuits, I try not to be moved by the small efforts he’s made to spruce himself up. He’s had a new haircut; the long wisps that once swirled up in the wind have been trimmed away. The yellow tie he’s wearing is one I gave him last Christmas; the frayed collar of the pink shirt stands clear of his neck.”
Later she discovered that the gate lodge was downright squalid. There was no indoor plumbing and the place was overrun by mice. But the elderly couple who lived there, the herdsman and his wife, with a mentally disabled son, opposed any intrusion to make changes. Selina’s good humour, patience and determination to solve all problems are very impressive.
Uncle Charles, too, fortunately, had a sense of humour. He handed her a recent photograph of himself “in a full-length raspberry-coloured taffeta ball gown, worn over a white blouse, and topped with a mauve bonnet. Tight blonde curls cascade down his yet-to-be-inflated bosom. Red lips, rouged cheeks, blue eye-shadow and fake eyelashes complete the costume. Except for his hands, which hang skinnily by his sides, my uncle looks younger and healthier in drag.” As an Ugly Sister or Widow Twankey in the annual church panto, “he always won the greatest applause”.
There are plenty of cheerful moments in the book, and some gloomy ones: the end of an illness, a suicidal hanging and bureaucratic inspections before the award of subsidies. There are passages on Selina’s delight in plants and forestry. And there is a detailed account of sheep obstetrics. Selina’s husband, between commuting to lecture in Maynooth, had to get out of bed in the middle of the night to help Selina with emergency midwifery. After plunging his forearm into a ewe to enable her to deliver a lamb, he said: “I feel I have more of a right to live here because of the work.”
And what about the crocodile by the door? Now that Tibradden is occasionally open to paying visitors, Selina has to explain. “My great-grandfather’s brother, Henry,” she writes, “shot it in Persia and sent the head to a taxidermist in Piccadilly to be turned into a letterbox.” Only the householder and the postman can unlock it. Selina regards it as a symbol of security and discretion.