What kind of ordinary? The sad but amusing life of A.G.C. Liddell

As A.G.C. Liddell’s memoir Notes from the Life of an Ordinary Mortal suggests in its title, the author isn’t exactly ordinary. That’s the way a snob like Frasier would announce himself to be one of the common men. And sure enough, there are plenty of times when old A.G.C. betrays his insular Victorian idea of what an ordinary mortal is. Much fun it is too.

First we learn his family lived next door to Professor Owen, a celebrated anatomist. Then we hear that A.G.C.’s papa was Deputy Ranger of Richmond Park. (The full Ranger was the Duchess of Gloucester, daughter of George III no less. She only lived there during the summer, and George did have a lot of children, but still.) A.G.C. then totters off to Eton and Balliol, becomes a member of the Souls, the aristocratic set that centred around future Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, and reports conversations in his dairy with people like George Eliot. Did I mention he attended a children’s party at Frogmore, invited by the Duchess of Kent, where he met Queen Victoria and Prince Albert? I suppose in that sort of company he bloody well was just an ordinary mortal.

That is, in fact, rather the point of this excellent albeit desperately unedited book. Adolphous (known as Doll) was not a man of great accomplishment. He was among the less impressive members of the Souls, a group that wanted to improve the moral and intellectual standards of aristocratic behaviour. His legal career was pretty flat, enlivened only by his father’s string-pulling to get him work on Royal Commissions. Doll wanted to be an artist and used to study with Poynter in South Ken.

Papa, by the way, was Hon. Sir Adolphus Frederick Octavius Liddell, under-secretary at the Home Office, eighth son of the first Baron Ravensworth, whose nephew Henry George Liddell was the father of Alice Liddell, who we know as Alice in Wonderland; the family also later produced Guy Liddell, Deputy Director of MI5 during WWII. It is little wonder that poor old A.G.C., a lacklustre barrister, felt merely ordinary.

That is part of what makes him so endearing. The man who rubbed shoulders with Curzons, Balfours, Tennants, Wyndhams, Lyttletons and so on and so on and so on, spends most of the time when he relates his Eton days talking about jumping in mud, smuggling pea shooters into a dorm, and assessing the best sort of catapults. One especially memorable anecdote concerns a Swiss cross-bow and the shattering of a street lamp using a makeshift arrow fashioned out of a cork fixed on the end of a brass nail. Just a spot of good ordinary fun.

Occasionally he diverts to tell us about the moral and intellectual virtues of the masters, people like Edmond Warre who was ‘brimful of energy… profuse on his exhortations on all topics.’ Warre was later Provost of Eton and honorary chaplain to three monarchs. (Liddell forgets to mention this. His readers, no ordinary mortals, already know you see.) Anyway, no sooner has A.G.C. told us about the deep debt he owes Warre for teaching him a reverence for truth and a love of English poetry than we get on to that inexplicably forgotten topic, the Eton Tortoise Mania of 1862. (The capitalisation is mine; Doll simply doesn’t have any flair for typography.)

The Mania began as manias presumably often do. A seller of tortoises appeared at the school one day, boys started buying, and one thing led to another. Before anyone realised, tortoises were everywhere. Boys sitting in lessons would see them scuttling along footpaths, or, memorably, falling out of windows. After that, holes were bored in the backs of their shells so the poor animals could be tethered. There was even the Great Tortoise Derby of 1862 (again, the caps are all mine). The thing that eventually brought this nonsense to an end was when Warre’s wife nearly killed herself tripping over one of the damned things at the top of the stairs. Many boys owned two or three and the house was positively crawling with them.

Floreat Etona, by Ralph Nevill, relates a similar story, but from the 1870s. Perhaps an indulgence in zoomania is just what it was like to be at school back then.

The writer well remembers the astonished look on the face of a certain master when, crawling laboriously towards him upon his desk, there appeared a poor ink-soaked tortoise, which, to the intense delight of the division, had at last accomplished the feat of climbing out of the ink-pot, where it had surreptitiously been deposited just as school commenced.

Boys are such horrors. But it wasn’t all high jinks. A.G.C. tells us, ‘For a fortnight after confirmation I tried hard to follow the paths of virtue.’ Good lad. We begin to learn his true interests at this stage: shooting and fishing. It’s true, other masters have been lauded for their ability to make him venerate the paths of wisdom, or some such, but after those pithy encomiums, we are treated to pearls like this:

The greatest event in the life of any fisherman — the capture of his first trout.

No wonder the Rev. H. De Winter, A.G.C.’s tutor at the crammer he went to before trying for Oxford, wrote to his father, ‘you son does not look much below the surface of things.’ Unless it’s a river, that is. Arriving at Balliol, to be taught by Jowett and Newman, did nothing to temper Liddell’s character. He said there was nothing better, apart perhaps from a honeymoon, than your first term at Oxford. Although, rather sadly, he never did have a honeymoon.

From here we roll on through a series of decidedly not ordinary mortal activities. He makes some passing comments about visiting Pompeii and then says he won’t bore us with any more as it is ‘familiar to everyone.’ He is also thoughtful enough not to ‘inflict any rhapsodies as to Venice on my readers, who have doubtless, many of them, gone through the same experiences.’ Notes from the Life of an Ordinary Mortal, indeed.

Persist with this book, however, and you begin to feel that old A.G.C. is much more down to earth than we (or he) realise(s). He treads the line between philistinism and not wanting to put up with any crap pretty finely. First, the philistinism. He tells us that catching your first salmon is much the same as your first read of Faust. He also lets this corker fly: ‘I do not know that there is any more enjoyable form of existence than living in a friendly English home in a foreign country.’

And yet. Carlyle is depicted telling boring stories (and then some, A.G.…). The man to whom he is engaged as a pupil barrister ‘always looked as if he would have been the better for a good dusting.’ Plenty of space is given to telling us about the attache in Vienna who brought two black bears back from a hunt. The bears, when young, try to play with the house poodle, but the dog doesn’t see it that way, ‘being rather frightened by their uncouth gestures.’ Eventually the bears get too big and the attache was worried the bears would ‘rise up and rend him.’ Quite.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible to get rid of the bears to the local zoological society, ‘bears being at a discount’ there, and they had to be palmed off on the Empress, who had a collection of animals. There is a lovely, plangent description of the attache, in white tie and tails, being dragged up and down the train station platform by his ‘unruly charges’. He had to take the bears to be presented to the Empress, you see.

Although the book is full of such good material as this, it is also over stuffed with useless things. Liddell was bored stiff by his legal work, but insisted on writing about it. He weighs up the merits and demerits of just shoving great chunks of his diary in and then does it anyway. Occasionally, he rambles.

The book is usually remembered for its detailed character sketches. And very good they are too.

Gladstone is seen in 1878, four years after he supposedly lost an election because of drinking restrictions, saying that ‘drunkards are often the best sort of man in a place’, that ‘free trade in drink’ is the only way, and that the current system, propped up by capitalistic brewers might as well have been ‘devised by the devil himself.’ He also tells us he came too late to believe in Gladstone’s reputation for oratory, says the Grand Old Man’s speeches were ‘not so spiteful’ as is the style these days (a reference to the Home Rule debate, no doubt), and quotes Gladstone saying of Disraeli, ‘He could wait and let the fruit drop into his mouth, but he never pulled it.’

There’s also an excellent story about the keys to the cabinet boxes. The same single key had been used to open the boxes since the time of Pitt. Around 1882 there was thought to be ‘a leakage’ and so two new keys were made, one for ministers, one for lackeys like Liddell (who was by now the Clerk of the Crown office.) Gladstone was, apparently, ‘a conservative about trifles’, and he ‘used to rail about the two keys.’

Carlyle is quoted saying, ‘I hate the zoological gardens since I went to the Regent’s Park and saw a beast walking round and round everlastingly, till it had made a white track round its cage and it glared at me through the bars.’ Liddell adds: ‘Carlyle, who was eating a chop, then showed his great teeth and glared with his eyes.’

Often, the minor characters are the most entertaining. Mr Tomline, one of his father’s old friends from Oxford, ‘was said to be the only man in England who owned a railway, the line from Ipswich to Felixstowe being at one time owned by him and all the officials wearing his livery.’ Tomline was also famous for a dispute with the Bank of England. He believed every citizen had the right to gold bullion on request, and used to turn up at the Mint with cases of silver spoons and teapots which he would tip up, demanding they exchange it for half-crowns.

There are also some entertaining diversions about Parliament. During the third reading of the Deceased Wife’s Sister Bill (which would have made it legal to marry your dead wife’s sister, something that didn’t become legal until 1907, and it remained illegal to marry your deceased brother’s widow until 1921), he says, ‘all sorts of lame, halt and blind peers turned up, who never show on other occasions.’ He also notes that the Peeresses gallery was ‘crammed, of course.’

He’s also an inveterate ‘this is the last time we shall see such a wonder’ type. Hearing the Duke of Argyll was ‘probably the last chance of hearing classic ‘oratory’, as it has existed since the time of Pericles.’ (And no, before you ask, I don’t know why oratory has speech marks round it.) Nor is this sort of lament reserved for the higher arts. His uncle, George Lane Fox, ‘was one of the last old English fox hunting squires.’ Even George Lane Fox’s parrot agrees he was great fox hunting man. After the funeral Liddell heard the bird call out, ‘Tally-Ho, all gone.’ (That sort of sad but amusing anecdote sort of sums up poor old A.G.C.)

The book is full of this sort of material (including a story about how Byron wrote the Third Canto of Childe Harold on the back of ‘bills and circulars’) largely because Liddell’s own existence seems to have been rather disappointing. One of the responsibilities of the Crown Office was to prepare the writs for general elections. They were all kept ready, only needing the dates to be added, so they could be despatched as quickly as possible. A.G.C. had to take the writs ‘in a four wheeler to the General Post Office.’ As he went along he wondered to himself what would happen (and how he would be dealt with) if he just hurled the packages into the river, or, as he phrased it, if he ‘indulged in this escapade.’ One suspects he might finally have felt alive, poor thing.

His work does make a small contribution to history. When Queen Victoria had a stroke there was a question about how she would sign official documents. Liddell tells them all that he thinks George IV used a stamp during his final illness, and sure enough, by comparing a Bill from January 1830 with a Royal Assent from May they see the transition from signature to stamp. It’s a bureaucratic contribution to history, but it’s something. (Apparently during George III’s first illness, when there was no Regency and no Parliament sitting, ‘no warrants at all seem to have been signed.’ You see what I mean about the lack of editing.)

What’s perhaps more interesting that all the anecdotes is the way A.G.C. actually does resemble ordinary mortals. He disliked his job, calling the bar ‘laborious idleness with intervals of hard work done in the terror of failure’, and only found a tolerable career later in life by sheer good luck. He knew plenty of clever and impressive people, but wasn’t quite one of them. He was terribly good looking, but never got married and wrote like an old bore. He fell in love with two women, neither of whom married him. To make things worse, they both married, at different times, the same man: Alfred Lyttelton, politician and father of the cabinet minister, who had been an Apostle before he was a Soul. Yet another person who made our subtly impressive, loveable, entertaining, relatable A.G.C. look like an ordinary mortal after all.

Do read his book. Just make sure you skim.


Notes From the Life of an Ordinary Mortal (US link) (Online version)


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