‘THE LIONS OF yesteryear have become the unicorns of today.’ So wrote Professor David Cannadine in The Decline and Fall ofthe British Aristocracy (1990). This novel is partly about the hunting down of these supposedly silly old ‘unicorns’ – or impoverished aristocrats – and partly about the morality of doing so.
There are, alas, no references to any of the many surviving ‘lions’ or heavy swells, as Hugh Massingberd calls them, and the image of the aristocracy presented in this book is decidedly, if sometimes splendidly, ridiculous. The main fdy under scrutiny suffer kom ‘correspondophobia’, eat badger meat, steal from their old nanny’s bulging purse and take their whisky through a straw. ‘Simple really,’ explains the embattled Earl of Bevan. ‘Question of economv. Alcohol reaches vour bloodstream auicker.. .’
The hunter is a second-generation American TV reporter called Maggie, who has cut her teeth on programmes about child prostitution in Brazil and who believes – at the start of-the storv anvwav – that nice, S,, decent people don’t make good television. She is certainly not very nice herself. Her thoughts and utterances are vinegar$ She says ‘Jesus’ far too often and is only upstaged in nastiness by her boyfriend back home, who says thmgs like ‘Are you getting bourgeois on me, Kiddo?’
The story is chattily narrated by Maggie and an alcoholic young sprig of the aristocracy called Daniel, in alternating short chapters. At the end of the first chapter Daniel dies in a street accident and thereafter oversees events from beyond the grave, acting as a kind of guardian angel to his younger brother Rory, whose company Stately Locations is used by Maggie to gain ‘access’ to the fallen aristocrats she believes are so horribly snobbish and debauched.
I gather from the acknowledgements that Bella Pollen sustained herself with Mr Kipling’s Almond Slices while she was writing this wry book. Quite right too – but there is nothing sugary about the characters she has invented. Rory is a sour inhvidual, ‘bloody bolshy’ accordmg to hs father and capable of ‘nuclear sarcasm’ according to hls secretary. And yet the bond between Rory and his dead brother is a great deal more tender than the relationshp between hlm and Maggie. These two protagonists exchange endless ‘snitty’ remarks and get thoroughly on each other’s nerves before they eventually copulate in the only warm room in a Yorkshre stately home: the linen cupboard.
There is a good deal of harmless psychobabble in this book – Rory and Maggie are both obsessed with bloodless internal injuries – and much interesting stuff about the folly of translating the public’s right to know into the media’s obligation to broadcast. The author is sometimes lam fa character called Professor Lunn is said to have come , \ ‘straight out of central casting’), but is good on ‘the elastic strings of sahva’ descenhng from a grey setter’s mouth and the ‘sleeveless padded jacket’ worn by the Countess of Bevan over ‘a long sleeved version of the same garment’.
The family secret that Maggie discovers seems slightly tame to me – Nazi collaboration in the 1930s – but the story hots up in other respects. The film she eventually serves up presents the unicorn as ‘shabby and downtrodden rather than nasty and dotty’. Thls carehlly plotted narrative gains cinematic momentum in its final chapters, with its two principal characters flying wildly about the world in pursuit of each other. I was only sorry that at the very end the stately home – or magic lungdom – at the centre of thmgs has to be sold to property developers with an eye to commuters from Stockton-on-Tees.