Your correspondent must admit to feeling a little under the weather *sniff* at the moment (and what bloody awful weather to be under). But what better way to raise the spirits and blow away those Winter Blues than another gallivant down memory lane with Lionel, Lord Tennyson? (“Almost anything” – the Plain People of Leicestershire.)
Tennyson was remarkably prone to what we would now call “gaffes” and unfortunate misunderstandings. For instance, according to Jeremy Malies “at a fancy-dress ball in the 1920s, having won the booby prize of a pumpkin for his representation of Judge Jeffreys of ‘The Bloody Assizes’, he threw his trophy at Sir Home Gordon, missed, and knocked the Mayoress of Folkestone out cold” and “at the height of the Spanish Civil War he nearly caused a riot in Gibraltar by wearing an MCC tie, its colour scheme being an exact match of the Spanish Royalist flag.”
But his most serious – and potentially life-threatening – misunderstandings tended to involve him finding himself – quite innocently – in what might have appeared – to the suspiciously inclined – to have been compromising situations with other men’s wives. (We have already seen how one such misunderstanding led to him having to make a hasty exit down a rose trellis during a pre-War tour of South Africa.)
This anecdote is from his account of a trip to America, from which he managed to return with a wife of his own (his second), pictured with him here aboard s.s. Empress of Great Britain in 1938
“From Lake Forest I went to another smaller town in the neighbourhood which, for reasons which will be appreciated, I will not name. During my stay in it I had a rather startling adventure, which, I insist, was through no fault of my own. I had first met the beautiful lady I am going to write about at Palm Beach where she was on a visit. There I often went out and danced with her. Having heard that I was staying in the region of her home, she invited me to go and see her. Her husband, I must mention, was a business man in Chicago and away at his office practically all and every day. My last morning in the neighbourhood this gentleman, who had stayed at home instead of going to business as usual, suddenly made his appearance as I had come to make my adieux and without the slightest warning pointed a revolver at my head.
“Get out of here,” he bellowed, “What the hell do you mean by playing around with my wife?” His face was purple. His eyes were red with rage (or, as I afterwards discovered, excess of alcohol had something to do with it) and his finger trembled on the trigger as the muzzle waved up and down about four yards from my head. The lady shrieked and fainted and I, after a second or two of stupefaction, exclaimed “What the hell do you mean?”
“I have heard all about your doings in Palm Beach,” yelled the infuriated man, paying no heed to his insensible wife. “Your last hour has come: I am going to shoot you dead.”
“Don’t be so damned ridiculous,” was the best answer I could think of.
“I am,” hissed he, “so prepare to meet your God!”
“Well then,” replied I, opening my coat and hoping the revolver was not loaded, “if you are determined to shoot, shoot here,” and forthwith I pointed at my heart. “Make a clean job of it, and if I understand the laws of your country it is the electric chair for you, my boy.”
The madman was too far off for me to rush him and I spoke thus as a bluff, trying to look as cool as possible, though I was really far from feeling so inwardly, since he seemed quite insane and capable of anything.
There came a loud bang. The revolver, which had been travelling in a semi-circle in his wavering hand during the conversation just described, had gone off and by an extraordinary piece of good luck had done no more damage than make a hole in the wall behind me. The explosion seemed to sober my inebriated friend. For a moment he stared stupidly at the barrel and then collapsed into a chair. This was the moment for action on my part. In a second I was at him, wrenching the weapon from his fingers and stood over him with it. After a heated argument he rang the bell for whisky and soda, subsequently despatching half a dozen whiskies in about as many minutes. Meanwhile his wife had recovered from her swoon and was screaming and praying, so it was not much good trying to make a formal adieux to either of them. Being due to play a round of golf, I left the house without any more words, thankful for such an extraordinary escape. Strangely enough I played afterwards the best round of my life. That just shows you, as I have already remarked, what a queer game golf is.”
A queer game indeed. Once again, I feel I must ask whether if – say – Ian Bell were to find himself in such tricky circumstances he would conduct himself with such admirable sang-froid? I’m not sure that we could.