A nature full of the milk of human kindness
The last time I saw the Ilk, shortly before he died [in February], was in White's club. He was standing in the corner of the crowded bar, before lunch. As usual, he gave a small nod of greeting: amused, benign, puckish and elegantly Crumpled: a mixture of Tommy Brock and an escaped don. Squeezing through the throng, I joined him; he was half listening to desultory conversations on either side, one about someone's grandfather's blood- stock, and the other about the Albanian campaign. To stir him up, I asked him the name of the 'z' in Menzies. 'It's called a Yogh,' he said, 'and shall we go round to the Beefsteak or stay here because these people aren't being exactly dull, try as they might, and will you please give your delicious Countess a slap on her bot from me with my compliments, and, oh, Morris, Will you please give the Thane a glass of champagne?' It struck me that he had, in that rapid ramble, unwittingly displayed many of his key qualities: erudition, conviviality, mer- cy, naughtiness, generosity and a love of Words. He disappeared to make a tele- phone call, and eventually wandered back, chatting to friends, and then came over to me and said, 'Of course, as you know (Which I did not), the Menzies and the Manners family are the same lot. Original- ly, they were de Meyneris, and came over from Rouen. I wonder if Charles [Rutland] knows he's a frog . . .' (here taking out his top front set of false teeth and making jabbing motions at a bowl of olives, for no particular reason and to the mild surprise of a complete stranger beside him. Replac- ing his teeth, he turned an impish smile on the stranger and, as if confiding a great revelation, told him, 'That's my butterfly, it wanted an airing, you see.' The man obviously did not see, but was nonetheless disarmed in a confused way; they were soon talking, and Iain had made yet another friend.) This boyish, spontaneous dottiness of Iain's was typical: the sudden urge to Perform a semi-private joke, and the equally quick turn to mend offence with a total lack of shyness and humbug. Yet for someone as sharp and witty as Iain, there was a marked absence of malice: cruelty was not part of his temperament. It was not until Iain and Hermione came to lunch with me at home that I first saw beneath the rippled surface of his charm- mg, affable, clubbable, subaltern manner. Lunch is perhaps an understatement. Although the plan was for them to leave smartly and drive back to Easter 'Monk- ers', somehow the afternoon was chatted away. He was entirely fascinating: the sheer tenacity of memory, the prodigious depth and range of knowledge, the enthu- siasm, were all extraordinary and exhilar- ating.
Towards dusk, Iain called for a dram of malt whisky for the good of his stomach turn-turn'). They left, half a bottle later, setting off, with Hermione at the wheel, into the pitch darkness which comes early in the northern winter. Light snow was falling. An hour or so later, they were back for the night, the car having slid gently into the side of the road; Hermione had slogged off 'like Mrs Oates' into the gloom and returned with help. So there was more talk and laughter beside a blazing fire. As bedside reading, I gave lain an abstruse book on our family his- tory, much of it written in mediaeval Latin, which I reckoned would act, after a cursory flick through, as a suitable sopor- ific.
Whether or not he read all night is anyone's guess, but by breakfast he had discovered the one missing (and to him important) link in the chain that related by blood the present Lord of the Isles — the Prince of Wales — to the old Lords of the Isles. For this intelligence the weather was granted forgiveness and a benison. It seemed that hardly a day passed without lain finding out something that he felt was thoroughly worthwhile. Iain vastly enjoyed the feeling of his family and his friends being part of history, and it was almost a matter of personal pride that the Battle of Mons Graupius in 83 AD was most probably fought upon the Hill of Moncreiffe above his house.
The Press invented a mendacious fable that !lain was a super-snob, and in an unguarded and innocent way he did not bother to deny it. In fact, he was nothing of the kind, and could talk to everybody with equal facility. It was just that the topic of tracing ancestors had a compulsive fascina- tion for him. He was not remotely supercil- lious; rather, he was innately courteous.
0 n one occasion, the Moncreiffes came to shoot grouse with us. They rolled up at the shooting lodge, with the boot of their car crammed with bottles of stout; apparently lain had been 'put on to' this unlikely 'beverage', an odd choice for someone who complained of being too heavy, but there was a droll theory that el turn-turn would benefit.
On the day of the shoot, we set out, Iain well fortified with stout and armed to the teeth. He was in one of his Pictish frames of mind. During the morning I did not hear much from his direction in the way of gunfire, nor was activity visible through binoculars — he had drawn a butt some distance from mine. At lunchtime, private enquiry to his loader produced the reply, 'Och, there was plenty birds, but Sir Een was anxious to tell me all aboot the Battle of Creecy. What a man! But he's fine. pleased.' lain was delighted with every- thing, and after a long, claretty, picnic lunch, we had two more long drives. Iain was out of sight in a dip at the far end of the line, and I wondered idly if he had yet reached the Battle of Agincourt, or indeed if he and his loader were facing in the right direction; perhaps the bottom of their butt was laid out as a sandtable with rows of cartridges serving as phalanxes of cavalry — then the grouse began to come.
At the end of the afternoon, we all re-assembled where the transport was parked. The Ilk eventually appeared, somewhat dishevelled and distrait, strolling through the heather and supported on either hand by two henchmen. For a second it seemed that he might be very ill, but another glance revealed that he was merely three sheets in the wind. He was certainly sans perfect balance, not as my cousin put it, legless in Gaza. 'Nice to have real Supporters instead of just on one's coat-of-arms.' We installed him comfort- ably in the front of my car, and since his happiness was waning, I gave him my flask and the advice that he should have, in Simon Dalhousie's phrase, the merest smear of sloe gin. As he had been sur- rounded by a desert of heather, it was bewildering just how he had managed to become tipsy. It transpired that he had befriended an old flanker stationed next to his butt, and who had 'something' in his pocket. His loader reported that Sir lain and the flanker had been laughing fit to bust, grouse nearly knocking off their bonnets, and that he had seen with his very own eyes, the great man 'holding the bottle to the sky. Folk the like of yon are as scarce as hen's teeth.'
On the way back to the lodge, lain complained about an itch in his loins. This at once got him going on the rise and papal suppression of the Crutched Friars be- tween 1169 and 1656, with a brief side- track into vampirism, Vlad the Impaler and Countess Bathori — she who favoured virgin's blood more than stout — and of whom he spoke as a near and dear relation.
Unquestionably, kin was apt to drink more than he should: but 'el booze' was part of the pattern of his existence; like a 17th-century wit and writer, the idea of enjoying the company of his fellow men without a glass in his hand simply did not occur to him.
He had one astonishing feature: when he had drunk enough to make most people incoherent if not horizontally immobile, his memory and speech held firm, the only change being that association of ideas fairly crowded in on his central train of thought — shoals of red herrings turned every colour of the rainbow and armies of hares were started and pursued with great mental energy up hill and down dale. That same evening of the shoot, lain had reached that particular stage before dinner, and, in- cidentally, the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Mention of Calais produced a verbal fire- work display of incredible brilliance, with staccato bursts on Mary I, World War II, Edward III, Fourth Form at Eton, the Fifth Amendment, the Channel Tunnel, Emma Hamilton and Rodin — before reverting to Henry VIII and Francis I and their 'rather vulgar' fountains of wine.
While the obverse of Iain's coin was struck with a likeness of the laughing cavalier, the reverse showed the disting- uished scholar in grave profile. Not only did he possess a vast store of knowledge, he had the rare trait of sharing it to the utmost with complete unselfishness, in contrast to those many men and women who would rather die on the rack than part with a minor discovery of a good recipe. When asked a question, however trivial, whether on history, genealogy or heraldry he would give a painstaking answer either verbally or if it required checking, on one or more postcards, in that minute, legible, angular hand, like the footprints of a wren.
lain was considered an eccentric; he was really just being himself, his eccentric- ity if such it can be called, was certainly no pose, and it projected beyond his personal- ity into his writing. For example, in one of his books there is an aerial photograph; far from the caption reading, say, such and such place from the south-west, his com- ments in small print take up four times the space of the picture. No doubt he did not find that in the least peculiar. Being intellectually honest to a degree, and meti- culously accurate, he did not brook woolly guesswork lacking in hard facts and sources, and he was not slow to jump on conjecture and condemn it as specious. His criticism was, however, always tempered by compassion, his panache by modesty.
The Ilk had two failings. One was that now and again, briefly, he could be what old-fashioned nannies used to call Impossi- ble: stubborn, awkward, recalcitrant and intractable, in the way of a clever moody child. The other was that he was anathema to the tedious. Not that he was long- winded, but because in a bubbling mood he was loquacious and spoke in the form of, as it were, neat essays annotated with copious footnotes, effectively commanding every available frequency, and thus blocking the bores from trooping their pet clichés and platitudes, to their sour disdain. Patience when listening to lain was always re- warded; his subjects could be utterly obscure, yet sooner or later he would dredge up examples of spectacular merri- ment or engaging oddity or remarkable slices of history. Iain's early death was a severe loss to scholarship. That he pro- duced as much work as he did was in large measure due to his devoted amanuensis, Hermione; and yet one felt that there was much more, and possibly the best, still to come.
To return to White's; one evening, soon after the funeral, rather forlorn remarks were being passed between the staff — the bar was almost deserted — to the effect that things would never be quite the same again without Sir lain. Epitaphs produced on the spur of the moment are perhaps the best and truest, like Ben Jonson's; and one can almost hear the Ilk reminding us that the words, '0 Rare . . .' were thanks to Sir Jack Young who happened to be walking by the grave as it was being covered and gave 'the fellow' eighteenpence to cut it. In the same way, it was left to Morris, the head barman, to produce a final vignette on a very considerable person: he said, ruefully, 'He was such a kind man.'
Tribute to Sir lain Moncreiffe of that Ilk, edited by John Jolliffe, is a collection of his friends' essays, one of which we print here. It can only be obtained by writing im- mediately to The Stourton Press, 18 Royal Crescent, London W11 4SL, quarter leath- er edition £46, cloth edition £17. Orders received before 4 June will have the subscriber's name printed in the book (unless otherwise requested).