03 October 2010

Monsignor Gilbey

'When I first met Monsignor Gilbey at the Traveller's Club (where he had taken up residence following a long stint as the Catholic Chaplain at Cambridge) in 1967, my head was full of Evelyn Waugh. Faced with this sleek figure in his stylised accoutrements, I stupidly assumed that here was Father Rothschild, SJ, sprung to life from Vile Bodies.

I soon learnt that although Alfred had been educated at Beaumont he was not a Jesuit, nor was he the worldly snob wrongly imagined by chippy people who did not know him. In fact, underneath the exquisite exterior and the continental courtesy (his mother was Spanish) could be found a surprisingly humble priest far removed from the pompous grandee of popular mythology. Like many another young fogey, I was captivated by his charm, friendliness, hunting humour and old-fashioned good manners. He was exceptionally kind and generous, and he had a great gift for imparting confidence to insecure young men. In his contribution to this book, Nicholas Lorriman perceptively comments upon Gilbey's 'attentiveness to the individual, so that many people felt they had a special place in his affections'.
The principal pleasure of the book is its celebration of Alfred Gilbey's eccentricity. While some of the acolytes twitter on about the Monsignor's foibles in a slightly off-putting manner (shades of the Oxford barber slavering over Lord Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited), Professor Watkin treats them with just the right degree of sympathetic detachment. There are richly comic descriptions of Alfred obsessively rearranging the biscuit basket at the Traveller's; ceremoniously creating 'a rich mosaic' in packing his suitcase; and elaborately ritualising his toilet to the extent that he indulged in a 'second levée', which took up most of the monsignorial morning. His retiring at night was, we learn, considerably prolonged by the process in which he washed the eight half-crowns that, in pre-decimal days, he always carried with him. He would apparently go through his small change 'selecting images of Kings George V and VI in preference to those of Elizabeth II whose face on the coinage he described at this time, with affection not disdain, as that of "a pert girl"'.'

Excerpt from The Spectator review of Alfred Gilbey: A Memoir by Some Friends (2001)


HGB said...

I was dining at The Oxford Cambridge Club where I was staying one Sunday evening years ago. They had tables for the many single diners they served arranged along one wall and I was sitting opposite. In came Msgr. Gilbey, The Traveller's being closed on Sunday, and he sat at one of those single tables. He produced The Spectator to read while eating. Immediately the waiter brought a large brass stand to hold the magazine upright and leave his hands free for eating, and a single candle was placed in front of the stand to provide better light. It was was only later that I realized who I had seen. Of course he was dressed in 'full uniform'. HGB

Anonymous said...

Welcome back, Codrington,old fellow, I feared we had lost you for good.


The Ancient said...

I see that the full review contains this deathless sentence:

At one stage I found myself scrawling in the margin that if I came across any more references to the Monsignor's passion for Pear's soap I should scream in the manner of Violet Elizabeth Bott.