Dr Robinson regaled us with the first volume of his memoirs (Grass Seed in June) as far back as 2006. With becoming modesty he has kept us waiting for 15 years for a further instalment, this time with a new publisher.
This volume starts with the arrival of the author from Oriel College, Oxford (after earlier education at Fort Augustus Abbey and St Andrew’s University) in January 1974 when he joined the London Historic Buildings Division (“a reactionary cell embedded in the Marxist GLC Architects Department”). It ends roughly in the early 1990s, with the exception of a parting blast at the way his beloved Georgian Group was managed in the second decade of the 21st century.
The campaign to save Christ Church, Spitalfields, that Hawksmoor church of “idiosyncratic Baroque glory”, was where the author met many of those who were to become his friends – Gavin Stamp, Dan Cruickshank, Colin Amery, David Watkin, John Harris, Fr Anthony Symondson (subsequently SJ), Sophie Andreae, Jonathan Glancey, Jonathan Meades, Alan Powers and others; an incomparable list of architectural historians, too many of whom have sadly died – 2017 was not a good year for the breed. His acquaintance widened thereafter with the arrival of one of the “Fat Ladies” (Jennifer Paterson), the artist Glynn Boyd-Harte, Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd (who proposed the author for the Travellers Club), Monsignor Alfred Gilbey, the Reverend Henry Thorold, Lady Ursula d’Abo, all now, alas, “gathered”. There are amusing descriptions of this somewhat eccentric galère of individuals.
The author’s earliest major patron was Woodrow Wyatt who wanted a book written on “The Wyatts”, that numerous architectural dynasty. Wyatt, the uncle of his Oriel friend Robby Lyle, seems to have had a percipient view of Dr Robinson whom he often asked to stay at Conock in Wiltshire for congenial claret-infused weekends. “Woodrow Wyatt was showing me the typescript of a children’s book he had just written for his daughter Petronella called The Exploits of Mr Saucy Squirrel. I said ‘Oh how interesting. Is it an autobiography?’ There was a pause and he responded: ‘We are feeling waggish this morning’. Not that he refrained from teasing me. When I gave the wrong directions in a car, for instance, he told me I was a ‘fearful know-all’.”
His second major patron was the 17th Duke of Norfolk whom he met through his nephews at St Benet’s in Oxford. Three years after “Miles” succeeded as duke, the Librarian at Arundel Castle conveniently died and Dr Robinson became his replacement. From this sprung his book on “The Dukes of Norfolk” and his appointment as Fitzalan Pursuivant Extraordinary (and subsequently Maltravers Herald Extraordinary) – “A true piece of 18th-century patronage”, in the words of Hugh Trevor-Roper.
The author’s Catholicism was covered pretty extensively in his first volume and does not receive a great deal of extra coverage here although it suffuses the text. There is an amusing story of Pope John Paul II coming down the stairs of Archbishop’s House at Westminster Cathedral in 1982 and saying in English to Dr Robinson in his Order choir habit “I had no idea the Knights of Malta were so young.” The latter’s love of the London Oratory is a constant theme.
He emerged as a semi public figure during the fight to save the contents of the Earl of Rosebery’s Mentmore Towers for the nation in 1976. Because of the fiery letters he wrote, and his general wrath about the issue, he acquired the enduring nickname of “Mentmore”.
A chapter is devoted to his purchases of a house in Doughty Mews, London and of – ostensibly bought without viewing – his beautiful eight-bedroom Georgian house at Barbon in Westmorland.
There are a number of enjoyable, intemperate rants scattered throughout the book against, in rough order, the GLC and Ken Livingstone’s “childish posturings”, the more recent Spectator (the author is not an admirer of the current Prime Minister), noisy babies on trains (who unfortunately turn out to be the grandchildren of the Lord-Lieutenant of Cumbria: hence possibly no DL initials after the author’s name), Scotsmen (“Spartan frugality … was responsible for admirable traits of the North British character, now all mumsied and feminised away”), modern architects, the National Trust, post-Vatican II liturgy, post-glasnost St Petersburg etcetera.
The only minor quibbles I had was that the book takes a little time to get into its stride (it could have done with slightly tighter editing) and the sheer plethora of names which might confuse the average reader. It also lacks an index. However, as Lucinda Lambton says accurately in her foreword: “Read and Relish this book; plunge straightway into it and savour every word. It is terrific; beautifully written by a saviour of so many of our buildings, who also is a wizard of scholarly originality … HURRAY!”.
Amen to that. The third volume of memoirs is awaited by this reviewer with both interest and a degree of trepidation.
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