The Magazine

Downhill from Here

The unedifying spectacle of an unruly ruling class.

Jan 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 16 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
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No British book on hereditary catastrophe would be complete without the Hervey family, long the poster boys for disorderly DNA, and Scriven gives starring roles to two of them, while scrupulously noting that if there was a “bad” gene, it was unusually recessive. The unorthodoxies of various 18th-century Herveys (including
homosexuality, promiscuity, “exhibitionism of a specialist kind,” sadism, murder, and—impressive in a bishop—something close to atheism) were followed by a century in which they were, despite the “discordant” tendency of their Irish cousins to emigrate to Canada, “very nearly the embodiment of aristocratic virtue.”

The same could not be said of the dysfunctional duo at the heart of Scriven’s narrative, Victor Hervey (1915-1985), the 6th Marquess of Bristol, and his son John (1954-99), the 7th. The heir to a vast fortune, Victor went in for conventional aristocratic misbehavior—extravagance, brutal violence, reactionary politics, pathological snobbery, invented Ruritanian uniforms, absurd business ventures, immoderate matrimony, and immoderate drinking​—​with considerable enthusiasm. He then added flourishes that were all his own, including crooked Finnish arms deals, jewel theft, and episodes of fraud.

Of all the wreckage that Victor created, however, the most disastrous was his eldest son, John. Starved of paternal affection and kept away from his mother (Victor had moved on to another wife), this poor little rich boy’s upbringing was doubtless made more confusing by its toxic mixture of neglect, luxury, and frequent reminders of his elevated social status, a cocktail that cannot have left him well-equipped to deal with the temptations that the age of disco put in his way. The money was there, the drugs were there, and in the Dionysian interlude between the waning of traditional sexual morality and the waxing of AIDS (gene or no gene, John was one of the gay Herveys), playtime was what you could make of it.

But John’s was a compulsive hedonism, with not a lot of joy about it, marked by boorish displays of excess, sporadic stints in jail, and the humiliations of addiction. In the end, the money was exhausted, and so was his health. His life ended after only 44 years. It’s hard to believe that it was much fun while it lasted.

And was his aristocratic birth at least partly to blame? John could be a caricature of rampaging nobility—bullying, destructive, and arrogant—yet traces of noblesse oblige hint at a more rounded sense of self. He was kind to his household servants, a kindness that was repaid with devotion. They knew their place, and he knew his. That was in the script, too. He was, or would become, the marquess, and, like his father, he was not shy about proclaiming it with displays of don’t-you-know-who-I-am alien to the patrician restraint that has contributed so much to the survival of the English upper classes. There was a coronet on his bathrobe, his tie-pin, and on the top of his four-poster bed. There were heraldic crests on his slippers and coats of arms on his car.

Perhaps it’s kindest to see John’s doomed, wild ride as containing a strong element of performance. Was this not notably imaginative man, like the hopeless Manchester, merely trying to live up to what he imagined was expected of an aristocrat? Scriven is too disciplined a writer to indulge overmuch in long-distance psychiatry, and doesn’t say. This reticence is a pity: A touch more speculation from this shrewd, perceptive writer would have helped the story along.

In the end, John proved a dud even at debauchery, comfortably outclassed in that respect by the new rock ’n’ roll aristocracy with which he sometimes socialized and probably, at some level, tried to compete. They outdid him in vice, vigor, achievements, and, generally, lifespan. There’s probably some vaguely Darwinian lesson to be drawn from this, but if this book suffers from Scriven’s reluctance to act as a psychiatrist, it gains from his decision not to turn teacher, preacher, or leveler despite the obvious opportunities with which his material has presented him.

The social history that emerges is fascinating, but oblique, only there for those who wish to find it. There are no tiresome leftist tirades against the hereditary principle, no leaden sermons on the need for a sober life; merely dark, but all-too-human tales of privilege and disaster, drolly, drily, and not unsympathetically told, that together conjure up a spectacle as appallingly irresistible as the crash of an extremely expensive car.

Andrew Stuttaford works in the international financial markets and writes frequently about cultural and political issues.