I am not a lover of dukes or princesses, or a society which sets much store by the exalted status of some of its members. Yet I confess that I was saddened by the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, seemingly sharing a sense of loss with a large majority of the British public. When I heard that Gerald Grosvenor, Duke of Westminster, had died at the comparatively young age of 64, I again felt sadness, although one shared with a much smaller proportion of the public. It is odd that so many of us can feel shock and sadness at the death of someone we have not known, but who was a public figure. Books have been written about this phenomenon, but I can only offer here a very short essay.
I had once stood in the same room as Gerald Grosvenor, when he arrived to “open” the (then) new archive at the Boat Museum (as it was then known) at Ellesmere Port in 1994. He seemed youthful, affable and just slightly uncertain in manner – perhaps he was unsure about his audience and their reaction. This was probably one of many public engagements – something about which Diana complained a good deal. I had visited the grounds of his home at Eaton Hall twice – no sign of the great man then, of course – and was planning a third visit, at the end of August, when they would be open to the public; a practice that went back as least as far as the Victorian period. I did wonder whether this event would take place in the month that he had died – but in fact it did. And by the end of the month it was clear that he had a successor, who would inherit what his father seemed to regard as the burden of vast wealth.
It was shortly after the announcement of the Duke’s death that I called in to the Grosvenor Arms, in Aldford, a model village on the Eaton Estate. There was no sign of the recent demise of the landlord, though no doubt this was being discussed. I walked over the village green behind the pub, and over to the church, with its flag at half-mast, and a large grave monument that appeared to mark the family tomb. I experienced an unexpected sense of emptiness, a realisation that Gerald Grosvenor would never again see the village that his ancestors had promoted and that he himself had stewarded. His family might well now see the same world very differently, as one in which he was absent and familiar places took on new, more sombre, meanings. The shock of a sudden death lies not only in the appalling end of the life of a loved person, but also, sometimes, in radical changes of meaning of places, artefacts, even other people with whom death alters relationships.
It may be odd to react in such a way, walking through an environment that was carefully managed, and which had been physically constructed by people whose deaths had largely gone unremarked. As with Diana, my reaction partly responded to my own much more personal losses, particularly in my own father who died suddenly at 64, the same age as the Duke, and from the same cause. I recall much trauma in attempts to recover meaning, indeed to endow his own terminated life with meaning. And there remain places – Llandudno in particular – that seem permanently endowed with new meanings, poignancy developed into a sense of remote closeness.
Gerald Grosvenor asserted that he was really only a servant of a very long-term interest, in an Estate that would long outlive him, and whose long-term viability was paramount. His public statement was that he saw himself as insignificant, just one of a long string of managers of an estate that seemed eternal. He seems to have drawn some comfort from this idea of continuity and relative anonymity, and indeed the idea of service.
Perhaps others would extend this to the imagined communities of “nations” that are thought of as akin to one large family. What these notions omit, however, is the sheer imaginative materiality of any individual’s existence, and the inability of corporate entities to remove the meanings of those individual lives to others. My reaction to my Aldford visit lay partly in the meanings of environments, environments that often outlive those who shape them and indeed all of us. Once an individual who experienced an environment has gone, that environment has subtly changed meaning, to something that cannot be the subject of that individual’s gaze or touch. Llandudno, or other places that my father knew 30 years, could not be quite the same after he died, and yet although the place has changed, there is much that he would recognise. In this, there is both sorrow and consolation.