The eccentricities of Monsignor Gilbey
ALFRED GILBEY: A MEMOIR BY SOME FRIENDS edited by David Watkin Michael Russell, £15, pp. 144, ISBN 0859552705 When I first met Monsignor Gilbey at the Traveller's Club (where he had taken up residence following a long stint as the Catholic Chaplain at Cambridge) in 1967, my head was full of Evelyn Waugh. Faced with this sleek figure in his stylised accoutrements. I stupidly assumed that here was Father Rothschild, Si, sprung to life from Vile Bodies.
I soon learnt that although Alfred had been educated at Beaumont he was not a Jesuit, nor was he the worldly snob wrongly imagined by chippy people who did not know him. In fact, underneath the exquisite exterior and the continental courtesy (his mother was Spanish) could be found a surprisingly humble priest far removed from the pompous grandee of popular mythology. Like many another young fogey, I was captivated by his charm, friendliness, hunting humour and old-fashioned good manners. He was exceptionally kind and generous, and he had a great gift for imparting confidence to insecure young men. In his contribution to this book, Nicholas Lorriman perceptively comments upon Gilbey's 'attentiveness to the individual, so that many people felt they had a special place in his affections'.
Nobody knew Alfred Gilbey better than David Watkin, the eminent architectural historian, who has edited this mixed bag of memoirs. The Profs own essay is so finely judged, funny and well written that one rather wishes he had undertaken a fulllength biography himself. Too many of the other contributors tend to gush and drool when they are not plodding down what becomes a relentlessly familiar path stretching from the chaplaincy at Fisher House in Cambridge to the beagling field, from the Strafford Club to the Traveller's (with its 'well-grilled lamb cutlets'), from his chapel in the former boot-room there to the Brompton Oratory — and then off we go yet again.
At one stage I found myself scrawling in the margin that if I came across any more references to the Monsignor's passion for Pear's soap I should scream in the manner of Violet Elizabeth Bott. Even more tiresome than the repetitions, though, are the inconsistencies within them. Thus we are variously told that Alfred would unfailingly rise at 5.30, 5.45, 6 o'clock.... 'At this rate,' I scribbled, 'he'll be getting up at noon by the end of the book.'
I confess that my head swam as the discussions of the Monsignor's theology and his Toryism became bogged down in casuistry and special pleading. There is also a touch of 'protest too much' on the question of misogyny. The argument against might have been more convincing if the 13 contributors had included, say, a couple of women — Glenys Roberts (who published Gilbey's Commonplace Book), for instance, or perhaps even a wife of one of the married men in the Monsignor's 'flock'.
The principal pleasure of the book is its celebration of Alfred Gilbey's eccentricity. While some of the acolytes twitter on about the Monsignor's foibles in a slightly offputting manner (shades of the Oxford barber slavering over Lord Sebastian in Bn-deshead Revisited), Professor Watkin treats them with just the right degree of sympathetic detachment. There are richly
comic descriptions of Alfred obsessively rearranging the biscuit basket at the Traveller's; ceremoniously creating 'a rich mosaic' in packing his suitcase; and elaborately ritualising his toilet to the extent that he indulged in a 'second levee', which took up most of the monsignorial morning. His retiring at night was, we learn, considerably prolonged by the process in which he washed the eight half-crowns that, in predecimal days, he always carried with him. He would apparently go through his small change 'selecting images of Kings George V and VI in preference to those of Elizabeth II whose face on the coinage he described at this time, with affection not disdain, as that of "a pert girl" '.
The Prof is particularly adept at tuning into Alfred's boyish delight in private and practical jokes. Doubtless these are more amusing to read about than to have participated in — I blush to recall the occasion when, at Alfred's instigation, I unwisely agreed to pose as a peer in order to trap a snobbish socialist don into crawling to my supposedly exalted rank.
Yet fond as I was of the Monsignor, and much as I admired his Edwardian elan and archaic phraseology (none of the contributors, incidentally, remarks upon his allusions to 'the omnibus', 'the play', `the moving pictures', etc.), I became daunted by his exacting, suffocatingly buttoned-up standards. As Mark Bence-Jones points out, he was a 'stickler for correct usage', though, in my experience, some of his pedantic pronouncements turned out to be a bit off beam. For example, he would tick me off for saying 'mutual friend' and insist that I said 'friend in common', but I eventually discovered that the correct form was 'common friend'.
Another problem I had with Alfred was that I could seldom hear a word he said. Although I am one to talk, as it were, because I mumble inaudibly myself, this tended to make communication difficult. Things became especially bad when he shut his eyes and launched into a rapid-fire homily on the inestimable advantages of the Old Faith. (The rebuttal of the charge that he was a proselytiser is also overegged.) John Patten notes that the sound was 'characterised as approximating to Serbo-Croat murmured through a damp blanket'.
Notwithstanding my uncharitable carps, this is a worthy tribute to a much-loved and holy priest. I particularly liked the quotation from Eamon Duffy: 'Alfred Gilbey was a man of disarming simplicity in whom social decorum blended indistinguishably into the life of grace.'
Finally, a footnote about my marginalia. As I was defacing this volume in the reading room of a library, a gauleiter accosted me: 'Is that your own book?' Haunted by echoes of an ancient admonition by the Monsignor — 'A gentleman treats a bound volume with respect, my dear boy' — I crept away, duly chastened.