Meetings with a remarkable man... Thomas Pakenham
Thomas Pakenham may have dispensed with his titles, but he is a natural aristocrat. The author and historian, son of the 7th Earl of Longford, has just published his tenth book, and he talks to Emily Hourican about travel, the trees on his Westmeath estate, and his unusual upbringing.
Published 14/09/2015 | 02:30
'A collection of trees is an innocent form of collection, it doesn't involve hiding anything under your bed like a miser," says Thomas Pakenham with a chuckle. "It's creative rather than destructive. It hasn't got that meanness that I associate with collecting - taking something out of public life; buying something at auction, hiding it away and slobbering over it, or who knows what else . . . the mind boggles," he adds with a naughty laugh.
Now aged 82, the 8th Earl of Longford - although he doesn't use his title, for reasons that we will come back to - is delightful company; funny, charming, kind, full of wit and boldness. Knowledgeable on everything from Homer's Odyssey and Iliad to Samuel Johnson and the habits of ducks, history and trees are really his thing. He has written some nine books, neatly divided between the two topics.
We're sitting in the conservatory at Tullynally, a 120-room neo-Gothic castle, over 350 years old, and the largest house continuously in private hands in Ireland, looking out over some of the 1500 acres of the estate, that includes farmland, parkland, pleasure grounds, rivers, and Thomas's arboretum, about which he is pleasantly muddled. "I'm not even sure what it is," he admits. "I wouldn't say there is an agreed definition by experts." He has planted native species to replace those that have fallen in storms or succumbed to disease, and other new and exotic types. He plants for pleasure, for purpose, and for his grandchildren.
I have heard Thomas called eccentric (affectionately), but that's not quite right. He may seem so, but only because he is more himself than most of us, and entirely immune to the need to pretend to be anything else. His enthusiasms and interests are consuming and highly specific, possibly to the exclusion of other, more mundane, things. "I fear this is an argument that will not be settled easily," he writes in his latest book, about the differing views on the pruning of yew trees held by himself and his wife Valerie, adding "I may well lose it, after my funeral." And despite impressing upon me the need to have lunch early, because he has to set off for Kerry where he is giving a talk, once we are off and rambling through the demesne, with a satchel of oats, for the family of swans on the swan river, slung over his shoulder - the cygnet needs feeding up before winter, he says, or it'll never make it to Lough Derravaragh - his enthusiasm for the trees we visit en route is such that, despite my best efforts to remind him, we are almost an hour late for lunch with Valerie, also a former journalist, and author of two books of her own, as well as creator of the beautiful walled garden at Tullynally.
Trees, for Thomas, are like people or animals, with their own characters, likes and dislikes, and working with them is a particular kind of privilege. "Think of an architect who creates his great building, at enormous trouble. Finally his building is there, and may be mocked and praised in equal measure, but there it is. An arboretum is exactly the opposite, because you are making something that hardly makes any impact visually when it starts, and then it gradually accumulates interest, and flowers years, maybe generations, after its creator has died. So there is a sad element to all that."
Does he feel that sadness as he plants now? "Well, giving them to grandchildren, in the sense of naming them after grandchildren, is certainly saying 'I won't see it, in the way you will, I hope.' The idea doesn't seem to cause him pain though. Perhaps that is the effect of being owner of an estate that has passed through generations of the same family going back to the 17th Century, and will carry on, presumably, to generations more. Although he tells me merrily that the entail ended with him: "I can choose," he says. "I'm the remainderman. I thought of writing a novel called The Remainderman. Having benefited myself entirely from elder son nonsense, I'm now pulling up the ladder behind me. So I've told the children they'll all get equal shares, but that doesn't mean I'll divide it in four."
As we chat, we skip through World War II, the Land Acts, the rise of Irish nationalism and more. It's a bit like a potted history of Ireland and Britain through the life of one man. It's also a reminder of how much the world has changed when it comes to the treatment of children. Thomas recalls being sent off, with his sister Antonia - later Antonia Fraser and later again married to Harold Pinter - to make the trip over to Ireland, alone, aged 11 and 12. "Antonia and I, we're Irish twins, born in the same year. We were sent off to Ireland in the winter of 1944. The war was still on, our parents lived in Oxford, and we'd never been to Ireland. We were told, 'you're going to stay for the holidays with your great uncle and aunt at Dunsany.' I was a little squeaky-voiced schoolboy, Antonia was rather more mature. We were given a ten-shilling note and a train ticket to Dun Laoghaire and told 'don't forget to change at Bletchley, then you'll pick up the Irish Mail.' No one thought there was anything odd about it. Also, when we came back, was there a room for us? No. We were a boarding school family, so we were pushed out early. My mother, having eight children, had a strong desire they should be independent."
That was his first experience of Ireland, and was a good one. Lord Dunsany was "an amazing man. A poet, a big-game hunter and a playwright and short story writer. An extraordinary man with a long white beard, like old Father Time." A year or so later, Thomas was sent back to Dublin, this time for a term at Belvedere College. "I was told, 'you're going to have a term at Belvedere, to give you a bit of Hibernian polish'," he chuckles. "I wasn't even a Catholic. My father had become a Catholic before the war but my mother was just switching over, and Antonia and I hadn't been received yet. We'd been confirmed as Anglicans. So this little Anglican boy was sent off to Belvedere, billeted on a family in Rathgar who were intense Republicans; the man of the house had been chained to de Valera in Nottingham jail, and I spent one term there. It was throwing me in at the deep end really. I came through it all, but I didn't want to go back for a second term, I can tell you. I was homesick. I was in a foreign country, in a foreign family."
One lasting gift of that time, however, is his interest in photography. "There was a delightful Jesuit who, on Saturday mornings, had a photographic club, and we bicycled around Dublin photographing monuments." The interest lasted into the next stage of Thomas's school career - Ampleforth College, in Yorkshire, and by the sounds of it a far less happy spot. "When I got to Ampleforth, there was a lot of bullying. The monks had delegated everything to the boys, the monitors, who ran the school in the good old system, a Tom Brown's Schooldays's idea; something like a prison camp and a borstal. The escape from prison and the monitors was into the darkroom."
Tullynally passed to Thomas when he was 27 and his uncle died. His uncle was Edward Longford, the 6th Earl, chairman of the Gate Theatre and a committed Irish nationalist, self-taught Irish language speaker, who was also known as Eamon de Longphort. "His Gate life was the centre of his life," says Thomas. "This was a country cottage. He really wasn't interested. It was like a musical box that he wound up and it played; he didn't want to know how it worked, he didn't want to plant a tree, change anything. He bought some books, he sold some silver, he sold some pictures in a rather childish way, family pictures, but he didn't interfere very much. He waddled down - he was immensely fat - to eat some peaches in the peach house. He was an extraordinary man; very creative in the sense that he wrote plays, acted in plays, managed the theatre. My aunt, a wonderful, self-sacrificing and brilliant woman, kept Micheal MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards from tearing my uncle's eyes out."
In fact, the estate should have gone to Thomas's father, but "he didn't wish to be involved. He stepped out of the inheritance so it came to me." Thomas's father, of course, was Frank Pakenham, Labour minister and social reformer, of whom Harold Wilson once said "he had the mental age of a 12-year-old," (Longford apparently found this hilarious) and who campaigned for the rights of long-term inmates, including Moors murderer Myra Hindley. "He was unlike most other people in the sense that he had no visual sense," says Thomas, "and in a curious way he was totally uninterested in history, although he wrote about history. He didn't keep a paper, he didn't keep a letter - he always looked forward. The historical dimension just missed him out altogether, and farming was absolutely inconceivable to him. He couldn't have been less interested. He would have delegated absolutely everything. He was theoretically devoted to Ireland, but when he came, he came for a day. The only time he really engaged with Ireland was when he was writing his first and best book, Peace by Ordeal. For that, he needed introductions to people like Dev, and he became very much an admirer of Dev, almost sort of pixilated by him. My father was fascinated by politics, to the exclusion of everything except prisoners. He was very, very interested in crime and punishment and the moral side of it - how far we are justified in locking up people and how we should treat them in prisons. That was his cause really, and Irish Nationalism was second to that."
And so, aged 27, Thomas inherited. "I think I always was intrigued by the natural world, and the chance of planting things I did seize on." At the time, he was working as a journalist, on the Sunday Telegraph. "I was a kind of apprentice to the rather creepy gossip writer, Kenneth Rose," he recalls. "And he gave me a pile of stuff to go through, stringers' reports, with his usual sardonic comments 'you won't find much here, I should think it's mostly shit.' I went through the pile, and one of them started 'Young Tom Pakenham, the new Lord Silchester, is a cheeky 27-year-old . . .' This was just three days after his uncle had died.
In fact though, Thomas didn't become Lord Silchester. "I just thought it an anachronism. Would you want to be Lady Hourican?" he asks, and when I say I would dearly love to, he laughs and says, "well you can still buy a title if you've got €2 million. You're still young, you could still be," then adds thoughtfully, "it's just possible that a title gives more glamour to a beautiful woman than it does to a young fellow. But the truth is, it wasn't my world. Although I'd inherited an estate in which all my predecessors would have been ladyships and lordships, it wasn't my world, they weren't my friends. I just felt it was an anachronism, and divisive." And so he remained Thomas Pakenham, although he took on, undaunted, the burden of an estate crippled by death duties running to 62pc. "That was another reason my father wouldn't have been interested," he laughs. "I thought it was absolutely wonderful. I was an aesthete and I was also a romantic, and romantics don't think about 62pc" The land, he says, was worth almost nothing in those days, certainly it wasn't going to pay off the bill. "There wouldn't have been an estate in Ireland that could pay for itself after the Land Acts, which stripped the Anglo-Irish of their main purpose in life, which was to be landlords."
Luckily, there were other resources. "The estate's main income in my uncle's day was coming from Dun Laoghaire, from ground rents. It was a very peculiar investment, because the only person you could sell the ground rent to was the tenant, if he wanted to buy it. The legislation was extremely hostile to landlords. Anyway," he says cheerily, "I'm not moaning, I'm only saying that's how we paid off the debt. Through the slow trickle of money coming from the ground rents. It took 15 years, but we did pay it."
Meantime, he married - Valerie McNair Scott "a friend of mine from Oxford married her sister and introduced me to Valerie" - had four children, and built up a dairy farm, with varying degrees of success. "It was difficult in the 1960s to make money and we weren't very good at it. By the 1970s it was easy to make money - Ireland was joining the Common Market - and we made a successful 300-cow dairy farm. In the 1980s we were in trouble again. By 1987 I was trying to write history books, I was going to Africa a lot, we lived partly in London, and the farm was in a terrible state. We were only rescued from that disaster because the law was changed to allow you to let land without the Land Commission intervening. So 1987 was the date I was really released from having to be involved in the day-to-day running of the farm; having to ring up from England and say, 'have you put fertiliser on the fields?' Although I was fascinated by the details of the farm, I don't think I was ever really very good at it."
And so he turned more fully to writing. After The Year of Liberty, The Boer War and The Scramble for Africa, published in 1969, 1979 and 1991, and all still seminal history books, for their style and readability as much as their breadth, Thomas turned his attention to trees, writing the much-loved trilogy (or tree-logy as he likes to call it), Meetings With Remarkable Trees, Remarkable Trees of the World and In Search Of Remarkable Trees, and founded the Irish Tree Society in 1990. His latest book, The Company of Trees, is subtitled A Year In A Lifetime's Quest, and covers one year at Tullynally - "I needed some framework to give it an element of narrative, so I gave it arbitrarily one year, 2013, which proved to be a year where many trees blew down in the storms" - mixed in with reminisces about his trips to Eastern Patagonia, the Himalayas, South West China. It is, like all his books, beautifully written and illustrated, full of anecdotes and observations and, that rare thing, personality.
And yet, it was, he says, the hardest book to write. "I wasn't sure really what I wanted to do and at one stage I nearly threw in the sponge. I nearly gave up," he says. "I couldn't do it. I didn't see anyone else, even if I was interested in my own adventures, I wasn't sure anyone else would be." I'm pretty certain he needn't have worried.
The Company of Trees, A Year In A Lifetime's Quest by Thomas Pakenham; Weidenfeld & Nicholson, £30
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