THAT ARCH-BUSYBODY Lord Esher – the éminence grise of King Edward VII, but frozen out by his son King George V – returned to London in 191 8 after two years of liaison duties in Paris, and called at Buckingham Palace. ‘It was a Rip Van Winkle appearance,’ he noted sourly, during which he found only ‘A life made up of nothings – yet a busy scene: constant telephone messages about trivialities.’
There is a less spiteful chronicle of George V’s court in this life of Bryan Godfrey-Faussett by his son George (who died before it could be published). That is to be expected. Godfiey-Faussett was the King’s naval equerry for thirty-four years and had been his shipmate and friend for twenty-four years before that. It is a good-natured but sometimes peppery book, based on the diaries of a man who revered those two bastions of tradition, the monarchy and the Royal Navy.
Born in southern Ireland to a British army officer, Godfiev-Faussett chose a naval career at a time when sail had not yet given way wholly to steam. But for all his enthusiasm and courage, he lacked the money, influence and luck that might have carried him to high command. He was always getting into scrapes ashore, too. He was fined half a crown for assaulting a Maltese customs officer, and had previously spent the night in a Lisbon prison with five other midshipmen for brawling with the police. Then, as now, there were yobs at both ends of the social scale.
Three of the six delinquents became admirals. Godfiey-Faussett did not. Aged thirty-three, he was still a lieutenant and had seen no active service save for a little mild bullying of the Nicaraguan Government for having insulted a British vice-consul. He was fortunate, however, to be realised a coveted posting to HMS Victoria. A few months later the battleship was sunk in a collision with the Camaerdown and half her crew of 700 drowned.
By contrast with his sluggish progress, his friend Beatty had at twenty-seven received a DSO and accelerated promotion to commander for exploits in gunboats oh the Nile.
Every sailor knows of Winston Churchill’s three supposed traditions of the Royal Navy: rum, sodomy, and the lash. Godfrey-Faussett could have added a fourth: that paintwork was more esteemed than gunnery. As first lieutenant of HMS Caesar, he had to spend E40 on paint out of his own pocket. ‘If one doesn’t do these things, the ship will look slovenly and bad and one will lose all one’s small prospect of promotion.’
He was rescued in 1901 by an invitation to join the household of the future King George V as an equerry, an appointment he held until the King’s death in 1936. It was a good old-fashioned piece of patronage, and why not. The two men had known and liked each other since their days as naval cadets, and both were dedicated to convention and punctuality, to correct dress and decorations, to shooting and collecting postage stamps. If the equerry had a fault, it was to try to interfere in political matters which were the preserve of the King’s private secretaries, not of the red-carpet courtiers.
Both the King and his naval equerry were fussy, fidgety men, but their friendship survived. After grueling tour of Canada, the Kinng wrote to thank him, adding: ‘At times I fear I was irritable but as you know me so-well., you know it means nothing”.’
Worries about health and money were mitigated by royal generosity as well as a salary of E400 a year, raised to E600 (perhaps E30,000 today) when in 1910 his employer succeeded to the throne. The King gave him grace-and-favour residences both in London and in Norfolk, helped with medical expenses, and even paid for his cartridges – no mean expense in that age bf game slaughter. The reflected glory of royal intimacy also brought him a part-time post in one of Lord Cowdray’s Eagle Oil companies.
Readers of this engaging volume may sometimes wonder whether they have not by mistake picked up the musings of Mr Pooter in his Diary of a Nobody. Godfiey Faussett brought back from Nepal the lower parts of the legs of an elephant, which he turned into little tables. Temporarily rejoining the Navy during the First World War. he directed his ship’s fire on some suspicious objects that looked like enemy mines, a& duly destroyed them; they turned out to be the prized floats and net of an East Anglian fisherman. And when the King gave him a pair of porpoise-skin shooting boots, insisting that he tried them on at once, the poor equerry was mortified by a hole in his sock.
The book displays an unusual quirk. The rank of Marshal, as in Field Marshal or Marshal of France, is throughout spelt ‘Marshall’. Perhaps Godfrey- Faussett picked up the habit from his master. The King couldn’t spell, either