Friday, 10 February 2012
Story Time - Big Ben : Our Man In A Muddle
In all my years as Vice Consul in Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service I have never come across a Consul quite like Ben de Lacy. Indeed, in all my years on the planet I’ve never come across a person quite like Ben de Lacy.
When the news came through that my posting in the heat hazed small African state of Tanzaroo (prounounced Tan-Zah-O) was to receive a new Consul General in the big shape of Ben de Lacy, the Consulate was abuzz with rumours regarding ‘Big Ben’ as he was known and his wife Fenella. They were it was said, once the toast of Oxford, when they went down some fifteen years previous to this appointment. She was described to me as a rather glamourous haughty lady with high cheekbones and a porcelain complexion and had an accent that could cut glass. I was informed that she had done in the past some bits of modelling and also wrote some articles for magazines and newspapers. There were even rumours that somewhere down the line her family was related to The Windsors themselves, but I never did get the chance to ask. As you can imagine I was most keen to set eyes on her.
Of ‘Big Ben’ himself, little was said. I gathered his last posting was in Minsk and that his father had been in the FO too but that was all that my own investigative research could muster. People in the know were vague, altogether less explicit with their views on Ben than they were on Fenella. “Oh you’ll soon see” and “Well, he’s quite a character” were often phrases that cropped up as we discussed his impending arrival. I contacted an old friend who was at Oxford around the same time and he was rather vague to. “You’ll either love him or hate him I suppose” was his verdict. “Very good rugby player, very useful as he’s as broad as a beam, and I think Archie my boy, if I’m not mistaken, he rowed in the Boat Race” The less and less I knew of my forthcoming superior, the more eager I anticipated his arrival.
I have to say nothing prepared me for him. On the day of his arrival, I was physically in awe of the giant 6 foot plus figure that slapped me on the back, patted his round girth in request to one of the girls for sandwiches and the general shambolic appearance of the man. He was wearing a rather expensive suit, but had destroyed the professional look by wearing a striped Rugby shirt underneath rather than the more fitting shirt and tie, and although the climate of Tanzaroo-which he couldn’t pronounce, nor, had it seemed, he done any research on it- was always sticky, he had developed sweat patches in a matter of minutes. He wore odd socks, one in mustard, one in cream, and a great big raggedy handkerchief dangled from his jacket pocket. He had the plummiest deep voice I had ever heard which immediately shortened my surname of Hastings, to Hastie, and his large forehead housed a snatch of curly tawny hair receding towards a bald patch at the back. He was in essence the supreme rugger bugger Englishman, going slightly to seed before his time, and I was soon to find, one of the most captivating, charismatic but essentially the most blustery old fashioned Englishman I had ever met.
The first week or so of his appointment was the usual thing, meeting the Ambassador, to whom we report to, and briefings on the area and The Mission before we hold a small cocktail party in honour of our new arrivals. My duty as Vice Consul and therefore Ben’s second was to ensure he was up to speed and that he and his family were settling in well. To this extent I found myself at Chez de Lacy a day after their arrival. This was my first meeting with Fenella de Lacy, whom I had heard so much about and I have to say she was everything and more. Not your typical lust-box admittedly, no tabloid appeal here, but first class beauty from old money with a lean and slender frame and glossy dark red hair which skirted around her shoulders beautifully. She was dressed in the most tight fitting jodhpurs and an open shirt which showed a full and alluring décolletage and explained to me on arrival that she’d just been riding and was now cooling off with a glass of Pimm’s, which I was soon to find out was her husband’s speciality.
“He’s in the bedroom, supposedly unpacking” She explained, “But seeing as he has been relatively quiet this last half hour and hasn’t yelled any obscenities thus far, so I am presuming he’s become distracted, you can go straight through but first, you simply must say hello to the children” and as if on command two small children, one boy and one girl, with blonde locks, angelic expressions and rather too much of their Father’s puppy fat than their Mother’s good looks came through to greet me.
“How do you so sir” they both said and their Mother introduced them to me as Sebastian and Portia.
“Charming names” said I after exchanging pleasantry waves to them.
“Do you think so?” said Mrs de Lacy, “I wanted to get away from those Sloane type names, but Ben insisted” she sighed and took a puff on her Rothman’s via its cigarette holder. “I wanted to give them biblical names, but Ben said he didn’t have the heart or the courage to name a child Herod or Judas” she giggled infectiously.
I went on through to the bedroom and found Ben lay sprawling arm over head on the bed staring deeply at the TV screen. Slowly he took in the fact that a visitor was in the room, “Hastie!” he cried “How the devil are you? Take a pew old chap” He seemed completely oblivious and relaxed to the fact that he was offering to entertain a guest dressed only in a large maroon T-shirt and big navy boxer shorts.
“I was doing a spot of unpacking” He explained, “But then Pimm’s was called for and I unearthed my Chariots of Fire DVD and thought I’d watch it. Never fails to cheer me up. Have you seen it?” He asked, “Ruddy good film” he answered without waiting for my confirmation, “Dodi Fayed financed it would you believe? Course Dodi's dead as a Dodo know what, but on the strength of this alone, give his old man a passport says I, no matter where he’s from, whatever pokey sand box, if he’s anything like his son, well in my opinion he’s a bloody good bloke”
I shuddered at the expression and, pretending not to hear, began to glance round the Consul’s sumptuous bedroom and surveyed the extent of his unpacking. All around me, things I would later see as trademarks of Ben de Lacy littered the room. His numerous well thumped paperbacks of Stephen Fry and John Le Carre; his heavy tomes on Roman history; his David Lean collection on DVD, in particular, Lawrence of Arabia, being a firm favourite; his CD collection, including Vaughan Williams, Status Quo and Lloyd Webber and Rice; he proved to be especially keen on Evita a musical he was always harrumphing, humming and singing in quiet moments; and of course several bits of rugby and cricketing paraphernalia.
“Pimm’s?” I asked trying to keep up with his stream of conversation.
“What? Oh yes” he replied “Do help yourself the pitcher’s on the side there” he pointed.
“I really shouldn’t I-“
“That’s an order Hastie” he mock growled, never once removing his eyes from the TV. “And fix me another while you’re at it, my word no one told me how hot it would be here out in Bongo Bongo land, you ought to have said we’re just a quarter mile from the sun, I can see I’m going to spend my entire tenure out here with my eyes screwed up”
As I say that was my first taste of his Pimm’s and it was utterly delicious. It’s a simple drink to mix and a perennial English favourite; you just whack in the lemonade and throw assorted fruits in there, but I’ve never tasted one quite like Ben’s. No one has ever made a pitcher of Pimm’s as delightful as Ben de Lacy. I have often wondered if he had a secret ingredient known only to him added to the mix but that would be too obvious, rather I have come to realise or suspect that his concoction was the most charming simply because he could be equally as charming.
“Knew you’d like it” he said watching my with a wry grin. “All the chaps ask me to make ‘em, now come and park yourself here and watch the film”
As I was beginning to find out, saying no to Ben de Lacy was a very hard task.
“Thank you” I offered weakly, then decided to bite the bullet; “I really must insist that you chose your words carefully Mr de Lacy, why, you’ve been rather racially ignorant on two occasions since I set foot in the room”
“Hmmm?” He said adjusting his head, if not his full attention, slightly away from the TV and towards me. “Oh, ah yes sorry old bean, not very good on the old PC stuff, need a firm hand, thanks for keeping me on the straight eh” he said slurping down his drink as we watched the rest of the film together. What can I say, like a magnet Ben de Lacy had attracted me, diverted me from my path, and I was hooked. I have no other explanation as to why I sat through Chariots of Fire for the umpteenth time, only that, like an unusual animal in a zoo, the new Consul demanded more attention from me, the visitor, in close detail.
Mind you, that isn’t to say he endeared himself to everyone as I discovered in those first few days in the office. His particular sense of schoolboy humour didn’t cut it with Marianne, our rather imposing, both in bulky figure and in attitude, but ever resourceful Consul secretary, when he took her Sudoku puzzle book and filled in every page with random numbers. I later found her fuming at the prank and Ben giggling at his desk with his hands tucked into his armpits as if he could barely contain his mirth.
Their relationship improved somewhat later at the cocktail party when I found them stood out in the corridor discussing their shared love of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Ben impressing her with his knowledge of Cats. “Do you know” Marianne said with wonder “after that trick with my puzzle book I had you down as a buffoon, the type of Old Etonion Wall Gaming thick headed oaf who had no idea about culture. I wondered how on earth you’d made it into the diplomatic corps but I can see know I was completely wrong” she concluded, charmed.
“Ah well” Ben said a trifle embarrassed I thought, “Don’t jump to conclusions, I was bloody good at the old Wall Game, and I am as my dear old father said, ‘thick as a brick’ probably down to taking one too many knocks in said Wall Game and at rugger too, but I do like a good tune and I do have a knack for doing my job”
And they carried on chatting like that for an age. Which I have to say whilst good inter office relations, it did naught for embassy or consulate relations as Ben was rather avoiding, it seemed, the numerous businessmen and officials gathered to welcome him. My colleague at the embassy, Nigel Fitch, advised me to go and put this across to him but when I got there I found that Ben had no intention of doing that, pointing to one man in particular he announced to me that he went to Eton with him and had it on good authority that he was now in the arms trade. I was shocked; “But he seems so nice, he has something about him” I said.
“Yes” Ben replied with a snort, “It’s probably an ammo belt and a pistol”
Trying not to be fazed I demanded of him what he had been doing whereby I was informed that he had been ‘teaching’ the normally staid and sensible Marianne a rugby drinking game where one had to recount the names of vegetables in correct order and if unsuccessful and a mistake occurs, take a strong drink in one. Needless to say Ben, the old hand, had done rather well, and Marianne a game novice was rather worse for wear. Ben being chivalrous decided to take charge and asked me to help him guide Marianne up the stairs to the bathroom.
Once there we found the bathroom engaged and we stood and waited with me pleading for Ben to make an impression on the downstairs dignitaries, and Ben trying to sober up Marianne.
“We’ll be in the bathroom in a jiffy Mari, ok? Then you can vomit to your hearts delight” I heard him soothe as I came back from my watch at the stairs landing.
“Oh dear” I said “Is she that bad?”
“’Fraid so old bean” Ben said holding Marianne up. “It wouldn’t be so bad but we’ve a bally bog hog in there” he said motioning to the toilet. He than raised his fist and his voice and banged loudly on the door with the former and yelled distinctly with the latter; “Come on bog hog! Out you get, a damsel is in distress here! Jesus man time is of the essence!”
Slowly and to our relief we heard the latch come loose from the door. However our sense of relief soon left us as the figure of The Ambassador himself stepped out from the bathroom.
“Not quite how I expect my Consul staff to behave” his soft Scots accent reproached.
Nevertheless this fell on the deaf ears of Marianne as she quickly and without protocol pushed passed The Ambassador and promptly vomited loudly and with some force down the toilet.
“Oops” said Ben, for once his charming smile failing.
“Bog hog indeed. I think I’d like to see you tomorrow at ten Consul” and with that The Ambassador moved stealthily downstairs.
“Oh” said Ben followed quickly by my own “God”.
Needless to say the following morning did not bring about a good meeting with The Ambassador. Ben later related to me that in his opinion de Lacy’s was the worst start to a posting he had ever encountered, that he had deliberately neglected his duties by ignoring the officials he was meant to schmooze, that his homework on the region was clearly not up to scratch and that in short, he had little or no respect for his superiors, his staff or the good people of Tanzeroo. Ben gamely tried to defend his position he informed me by saying it was the respect of his staff he was trying to achieve by bonding with them, but this tack was rebutted with a firm and decidedly more vocally Scots (The Ambassador’s soft accent would invariably get more noticeable the angrier he became) statement that if he wanted a piss up with his staff he should do so of a Friday evening after office hours in the local bar cum knocking shops. Once he related all this to me I asked how he felt; “Of course it hurts, the trick is not minding it hurts” was his reply, a quote from his beloved Lawrence of Arabia. He then asked me where the nearest bar of dubious honour that was alluded to was located and we proceeded to sink a few gin and tonics to wash the bitter taste of The Ambassador’s disapproval from our mouths at The Zebra Bar.
Well I say we, but in truth after an hour and a half, far too long for either of us to have stayed away from the office, Ben showed no sign of making a move to leave, nor of wanting to. He had made the acquaintance of The Times correspondent, Jack Wilby, a notorious old soak who, with his crumpled linen suit, Old English manners and alcoholism, always put me in mind of Denholm Elliott in some 70s expat movie. Taking their seats at the bar, they began a long and dull and incomprehensible-to me-discussion of the merits of the London Wasps and London Irish Rugby Union teams.
I suggested we take our exit, but Ben pulled rank and told our driver, a pleasant local Tanzian man named Nnamdi, but whom Ben had rechristened ‘Andy’, to take me back to the office, which with some reservations I ultimately did.
I tried to contact him every hour on the hour after I left him, but never received an answer. I had come to learn that Ben hated telephones, especially of the mobile variety and would often just let them ring if he felt stubborn enough to, or was to preoccupied in a conversation with someone. So on each hour I rang and could picture his cell ringing away with its tone, the tune from Chariots of Fire going wilfully unnoticed in his jacket pocket.
At around 6pm that evening and some five hours after I had left him, Jack Wilby rang from another bar, even more salubrious than the first, to say Ben needed some assistance in getting home. Calling on Nnamdi/Andy once more we raced to the bar following Jack’s directions and found Ben slumped over several bottles of locally brewed beer.
“There you are Hastie!” He slurred in greeting, “We can tell The Ambassador that I have taken a keen interest in local business today. I have shampled, shorry, no hang on, s-s-sorry, there that’s it; I have shamp, hum, blast, sampled, ah, that’s got it, the local brew, and it’s God awful” He then grinned broadly and fell off the barstool where he implored me to get real ale sent off from England as he missed his favourites.
“I’ve been phoning you” I said impotently.
“Oh that was you?” Jack answered for Ben, “Well if want to you can fish his phone out of that glass of gin and it over there, he got so annoyed with it he plopped it in there” he explained with a guffaw.
It took myself, Jack and Nnamdi/Andy to pour him into the back of the car and take him back to the residence where a seen it all before Fenella de Lacy asked us to deposit him in the bedroom. When I explained it took all three of us to carry him home, she remarked that she knew exactly how we felt and that “When he was a strapping Oxford Blue I had to carry him back to his digs from numerous pub crawls, all 15 and a half stone 6 foot 4 of him leaning heavily on all 7 and a half stone 5 foot 9 of the stick thin budding Tatler model me”
She certainly had my sympathies. As I left I heard Lloyd Webber’s Memories blasting from his room.
Memory being a very strong thing for Ben de Lacy as the following morning he asked how much progress I had made with real ale websites as he really did want his Camra guide favourites sent over, this was not a drunken whim.
Days turned to weeks and weeks to months and Ben de Lacy settled well into his role as Consul. He became as well liked by the rest of the staff as much as I liked him, gaining a lifelong friend and supporter in Marianne after their shared bonding exercise that gained such disapproval from The Ambassador. Local affairs were dealt with well and he seemed to be becoming a well loved recognisable figure for Tanzaroo. Indeed I think we all now viewed him as an utterly wonderful relic of an English gentleman circa 1890, such was his manner and eccentricity. This wasn’t to say some of the childish old Etonion schoolboy humour was completely discarded; I recall one afternoon we were waiting on Reggie Ngambe, the local brewer of the beers so hated by Ben, when he crept up behind me and pulled my underpants up into my crack shouting “Hello I’m Wedgie Ngambe!” Of course Big Ben found this old rugby prank hilarious, whilst I found it painful to say the least, whereas Mr Ngambe, who had at that very moment been let into the office by Marianne found it all most confusing. “No I’m Reggie Ngambe” he said innocently, which in turn led Ben, a man who I was finding out never knew when to stop, suddenly do a mock Spartacus and yell “No I’m Reggie Ngambe!” albeit half-heartedly; for he knew he was on to a loser midway through the gag.
However the meeting, though flawed to start with, became a roaring success when Mr Ngambe, impressed by Ben’s knowledge of brewing agreed to sample his beloved real ales newly arrived via a website I had managed to locate. The Ambassador may fault Ben’s fast and loose unorthodox Consul Practice, but he could not fault its growing successful links with business, nor the fact that everyone else seemed smitten with Ben de Lacy. Uncannily his near incompetence in a way made him all the more competent in his role and one simply has to applaud such skill, well, I know I did.
At the end of that particular week, we celebrated Ben’s birthday with a little early evening soiree at the Consulate that went without a hitch. Ben was the perfect gentleman and found favour even with The Ambassador, though admittedly he could only stay for a little under half an hour, but he did have the grace to thank Ben for his hard work and to wish him well on his birthday. Once the soiree wrapped up at around 8:30, Ben decreed that a select few of staff and friends he had acquired since his time here should return to Chez de Lacy for more drinks and a less formal celebration. It was a lovely way to end the evening and Ben and Fenella proved themselves to be the perfect hosts, with their two children, Sebastian and Portia, being allowed to stay up a little late and sit round us old fogies for a bit with wide eyed fascination and confusion from our rambling conversations and equally odd Status Quo air guitar playing from their father.
After a while Ben had taken the children upstairs to put them to bed leaving Fenella to keep us occupied which she did splendidly, again her breeding never lets her down and she is the most wittiest and considerate of hostesses, regaling us all with amusing tales regarding her hubby, as she called him, some of which admittedly left a few of the junior Consulate staff a trifle embarrassed, but they took it all with a mixture of blushes and giggles as she navigated us through their early courtship at Oxford and their years as a happy couple as well as tales regarding fellow IT girls like Tara Palmer Tomkinson and Tamara Beckwith.
After a while I noticed that Ben had not returned, I went into the kitchen where I found Fenella tidying a few things and opening another bottle and I commented on his disappearance, casually she looked at her wrist watch and said, “Aha, it’s quite alright, it’s nine pm, the birthday hour, he’ll be out in the back garden” Seeing my confused look, she giggled and remarked “You can go and look if you want, trust me I don’t want to, seen it all before” and with a playful wink she went back into the dining room and the assorted guests.
Intrigued I pensively opened the back door and stepped out into the dark night and the grounds, whispering ‘Ben’ all the way, though quite why I whispered I have no idea, but it does rather seem to be the done thing when we find ourselves in such a situation. Eventually a spotlight caught my movements and lit up some of the area…and some of Ben too. For there in front of me but not facing me was the naked figure of The Consul of Tanzeroo, the birthday boy himself, Ben de Lacy. Slowly he turned and faced me, and for a moment I saw everything, I shielded my gaze, utterly embarrassed but Ben seemed not in the least bit concerned, rather for him it was as if I had just approached him fully clothed in the office for he greeted me the same, a warm grin and a bellow of “Hallo Hastie”
At first I was shocked and surprised and presumed him to be drunk, but then I recollected that he had hardly drunk all evening, and had indeed been on orange juice whilst playing with the kids. This was therefore, the act of a sober and supposedly sensible individual, and what’s more Fenella knew of it and didn’t warn me! Still not trying to look at his expansive naked body I managed to utter “Ben are you um, are you ok? I mean you’ve no clothes on”
“By Gad Holmes, one can’t pull the wool over your eyes can one?” He mocked and snorted a laugh, “No that’s right I’m as naked as the day I was born, and that’s the point, today right now, is the anniversary of my birth, what better way to spend it than to offer yourself, your naked form, up to the sky and the Gods, whoever they may be, and be reborn. I do it every year, and on new years too” he explained matter of factly.
“I see” I said warily, still averting my gaze
“Well I don’t know how” he replied, “You’ve got your head turned away, come on man, don’t be silly, it’s just a wang, we’ve all got one, well except the chicks” he added and then after a brief pause concluded “Unless you count that dancer at the Zebra Bar what?” and with that he marched over and pulled me over to look at him. Then he placed a hand around my shoulder and breathed in deeply “Amazing isn’t it, the world I mean, the stars all that stuff, life eh?” He looked down at my uncomfortable figure. “Oh relax Hastie, I’m not a homosexual, I’m not going to roger you up the duck pond, or indeed over there by the pond where there indeed may or may not be ducks ha-ha!” he laughed garrously at his double entendre and slapping me on the back asked me to fetch more wine and sit out with him, I did on the promise that he placed a towel over his diplomatic immunity.
The annual Embassy Vs Consulate charity cricket match was usually a good fun and distinctly half hearted affair until Ben de Lacy turned up. For a couple of weeks before the big day he had taken to ringing Nigel Fitch over at our embassy, a keen cricketer and team captain, and yelling down the phone ‘Flintoff!’ before hanging up. When he realised that Fitch’s mother was Australian, he decreed that the importance of the match would take on the epic proportions of The Ashes itself.
When the day came, Nnamdi or Andy as Ben still insisted on calling him took both Ben, Fenella, myself and his girlfriend, Tina to the cricket ground. Tina was Ben and Fenella’s cook, a delightful young white girl from the West Midlands, who had taken a year out to go travelling around three years ago and never went back. She and Nnamdi were besotted with one another and, at one point during the drive, inbetween breaks of Status Quo music and chants of almost war like proportions from Ben she asked the Consul why he called Nnamdi ‘Andy’
“Ah simple enough, easier to remember and pronounce, and it’s quite similar” he replied in his distinctive fired off explanatory cheery way “You don’t mind do you Andy old boy?” he called out to Nnamdi ’s head in the front seat. Nnamdi raised a hand in a wave and flashed his teeth in the rear view mirror and said; “Sure I don’t boss”
“But Nnamdi’s such a lovely name” said Tina wistfully in her lovely drawling accent. “Tell Mr de Lacy what it means luv”
Turning the music a little lower, Nnamdi began to explain; “It is an Igbo name meaning ‘His father is in him’ or ‘his father is alive still’ basically my father I never met, you see he died in the civil unrest back in the 1980s, I was born the day after his death. My name was given to me to remind people of my father, a great man, and also because I have his eyes‘ and at that point we from the back caught his eyes in the rear view mirror, and they smiled at us kindly and wisely. Tina leaned her arm through and rubbed at his shoulder. I looked across to Ben and Fenella and could see that Nnamdi’s story had touched them. Tanzeroo suffered terribly in the 1980s and Nnamdi’s father was just one of several dreadfully premature lives. Nevertheless it was more tragic to hear that this was a man who never got to see his son. Ben’s eyes were a trifle teary and his voice a little choked as we pulled in and got out of the car. I saw him slap Nnamdi on the shoulder and say “Good luck today, remember it’s the Consulate’s honour we are playing for…and thank you Nnamdi” It was the first time I heard him use the man’s real name and his hand lingered a little longer after the slap as I saw a moment pass between them.
Clearly this was not the same man who had upon arriving in Tanzeroo greeted me with a barrage of near the knuckle racist comments.
Clearly the people of Tanzeroo, like Nnamdi and the state itself had changed Ben for the better.
This was further exemplified a little later in the day when after a magnificent six from Nnamdi and a joyously loud cheer from his loving girlfriend Tina, in the refreshment tent, he overheard Mrs Van Heerdan, a fat snobbish Afrikaans woman with a perpetually sour expression on her bespectacled face say to her friend “No ladylike behaviour there you see, still what does one expect from some common slip of a girl who sleeps with the blacks” Ben was incensed, I could tell when he related this to me with a crimson demeanour as we went to bat. “Ignore the silly old cow” I said, “Her sort will never learn” but and in a way I’m proud to say Ben did not take my advice and proceeded with his first attempt to hit the ball from a stunning googly of Fitch’s up and across the field and straight into the summer dress housed substantially flabby guts of Mrs Van Heerden! In between our runs he winked at me as he passed and said “Always was an excellent shot” as the bystanders rushed to her wailing and stricken figure, whilst a gobsmacked Fitch looked on from the stumps and a horrified Ambassador looked on from the tent.
We knew there and then that The Ambassador would have something to say on Ben’s recklessness, but as Ben said to us in the car home later that evening, “Don’t cry for me Archie, Tina” followed by his usual bellowing boom of a laugh and a request for his Evita cd to put in which Nnamdi duly and smilingly obliged.
So, we didn’t win the match, in the end Fitch’s team always were of an excellent quality, but I like to think we did win a noble victory against racism that day, and for me, it marked up another day were I felt proud to know Ben de Lacy, the best Consul I ever had the pleasure of working for.
(C) Mark Cunliffe