Raising a glass to Grey Gowrie

4 December 2021

9:00 AM

4 December 2021

9:00 AM

A group of us had gathered together to raise a glass, tell stories, to laugh and to mourn. It was a lunch to mark the passing of Grey Gowrie. Although we were an interesting and diverse group (this writer excepted), we could all agree on one point. Over longish lives spent in lively company, Grey stood out, not only for his intellectual firepower but for his originality and his exoticism.

His family name was Ruthven, and his ancestors had played a conspicuous and frequently violent part in the chronic disorders of late-medieval Scottish life. Effectively, they were aristocratic brigands. After a couple of hundred years in which they disappeared from history, they made an appropriate return to the high peerage, via warfare. Grey’s grandfather won a VC, served as governor-general of Australia, and was rewarded with an earldom. Grey’s father, whom he never knew, was killed in North Africa in 1942. Like a lot of thoughtful young men in the late 1930s, he had assumed that war was inevitable — unlike survival. So he decided to have some fun before it was too late. One night, this led to a police cell. His father was staying at Windsor Castle. At breakfast, the papers were full of headlines such as: ‘Earl’s son spends night in the cells.’ George VI broke the embarrassed silence. ‘Sandie, I gather you weren’t the only member of your family enjoying my hospitality last night.’

The 20th-century Gowrie peerage was not accompanied by the lands and castles which had sustained their forebears. The Carse of Gowrie, in Angus, produces the finest soft fruit in the world and is therefore valuable. But as Grey lamented, he did not own a single acre of it. His sole contact with the Carse was via the inevitable schoolboy witticisms.

Grey had a subtle wit. He was never caustic without cause, but could deploy mordancy if needed. There was always an apparently casual, effortless command of language, but this was a man who studied and wrote poetry. There is no better training for anyone who aspires to a mastery of words. As for effortless, Grey had the Etonian horror of being caught working. But he did work, hard.

Even so, this rara avis would seem to be an unusual inhabitant of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet. No one could ever have mistaken him for a Methodist. Moreover, he had always regarded himself as an Irish nationalist. But he found her fascinating; she found him bright and charming. She was not averse to recruiting interesting toffs if they seemed ripe for disciple-hood. William Waldegrave was another such. In his memoir A Different Kind of Weather, William refers to a meeting in which Norman Tebbit set out to maul him. There were few more ferocious maulers but the PM rescued William, telling him, out of Norman’s earshot: ‘I always protect my young people.’

Grey needed less protection. He was a very good arts minister, whose knowledge of every art form was enviable. Yet we all have lapses, even Grey. There was a now-forgotten American popular entertainer called Elvis Presley. Grey insisted that he had been a serious musician. There it is. De gustibus non est disputandum. There were no disputes about the wine that we were gustating. There is no finer grower in Nuits-Saint-Georges than Robert Chevillon. We had his 2011 vieilles vignes and a 2014 Les Saint-Georges. Officially, there are no grands crus in the Nuits. That Les Saint-Georges was fully worthy of the accolade.

It was the sort of occasion that Grey would have enjoyed, and graced. It turned out that he did have a gentle Anglican faith. This had not committed him to the observance of every commandment. He allowed himself the occasional indulgence. But, as was said of the greatest Anglican poet, John Donne, Grey had earned grace to a witty sinner.

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