Counting My Chickens . . .: And Other Home Thoughts

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9780374130299: Counting My Chickens . . .: And Other Home Thoughts
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A unique window on an extraordinary life lived with tremendous zest, discrimination, and intelligence

The Duchess of Devonshire is the youngest of the Mitford siblings, the famous brood that includes the writers Nancy and Jessica. Like them, she has lived an unusually full and remarkable life, and like them she has an inimitable expressive gift. In Counting My Chickens, she has gathered extracts from her diaries and other writings to create a multifaceted portrait of her life at Chatsworth, the home of the Dukes of Devonshire, that is pithy, hilarious, wise, and always richly rewarding.

Under the Duchess's inspired supervision, Chatsworth has become one of England's most frequently visited great houses, welcoming over 400,000 visitors a year. The Duchess reveals what it takes to keep such an establishment alive and prospering, tells of transporting a goat by train from the Scottish island of Mull to London, discusses having her portrait painted by Lucian Freud, and provides rich reminisces of growing up a Mitford--along with telling anecdotes about friends from Evelyn Waugh to John F. Kennedy. From Tom Stoppard's adoring Introduction to the author's meditation on the beauty of Elvis Presley's voice, COUNTING MY CHICKENS offers continuous surprise and delight.

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About the Author:

The Duchess of Devonshire is the sister of Nancy, Pamela, Tom, Diana, Unity, and Jessica Mitford. She is past president of the Royal Agricultural Society of England and of The Royal Smithfield Club.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Counting My Chickens...And Other Home Thoughts
DIARIESThe first sentence of a diary given to a nine-year-old child at Christmas, written on New Year's Day and kept faithfully till at least 10 January, was 'got up, dressed, had breakfast.' The first sentence of a book is a different matter and very difficult indeed. I have been pondering over this for some time. I asked my sister Jessica what to do. She tells me that in America, if you pay some money, you can get advice as to how to begin and then go on to be a famous author. They say put down 'the' on a bit of paper, add some words, keep on adding, and Bob's your uncle (or the American equivalent), you're off and the rest will follow. It doesn't seem to work. Just try. So, hopelessly stuck and faced with the empty page, see how other people manage. Lately we have been reminded of 'I had a farm in Africa ...' 'I had a farm in Derbyshire' somehow doesn't sound as good, and anyway it would be a lie, because in England things like farms seldom belongto women. Having failed with 'the,' try 'and.' 'And it came to pass,' too affected, and you can't go on in that biblical style. When you open books to see how it is done, it seems so easy, set down there in the same type as the rest, as if it was no trouble at all, the second sentence flowing out of the first one like one o'clock. Believe me, the writer has suffered over those words. As fifty thousand books are published every year, the first sentences must add hugely to the level of anxiety in an already anxious race. 
 
 
 
I looked at the television programme about Uncle Harold,1 called Reputations. How strange it is to see his and Aunt Dorothy's2 private life trotted out like a story in a film. He would have considered the fashion for such entertainment unspeakably vulgar. And so do I. The point about Dorothy Macmillan was her charm, energy, and earthiness; there were no frills. She was one of the few people I have met who was exactly the same with whomever she was talking to, oblivious oftheir class--something which people keep on about now almost as much as they do about sex. She gave her whole attention, laughed easily, was unread and not smart, and was a tireless constituency worker. I was always told that it was she who won the elections at Stockton-on-Tees.3 Her time in Downing Street was famous for children's parties, and the branches, more than flowers, which she dragged up from the garden at Birch Grove in the back of her car. When Uncle Harold was Housing Minister, Andrew, my husband, was president of the Building Societies' Association. It seemed to be indicated that Andrew should ask his aunt to the annual dinner as guest of honour. She asked, 'Shall I wear my best dress or the other one?' The thought of the other one made us wonder.Harold was an intellectual and a politician all right, no doubt about that; but the mistake so often made of putting people into categories left him there, and did not allow for his interest in the family publishing business and many different aspects of life, including his devotion to field sports. The press called that 'the grouse moor image.' After he married, hisfather-in-law expected him to go out shooting, even though he had never before fired a shotgun. Reg Roose, a Chatsworth gamekeeper and a delightful man, was detailed to be his tutor. Uncle Harold was a quick learner. Years later, Reg and I watched his performance when large quantities of pheasants flew high across a valley with the wind behind them. 'Doesn't the Prime Minister shoot well?' I said. 'Yes,' answered Reg proudly. 'I taught him and he's fit to go anywhere now.'When Uncle Harold was ninety, he stayed with us for three months. I will always remember his perfect manners. He dined alone with me often, and I am sure he would have welcomed other company. But he talked as if I were his intellectual equal--ha, ha--or another ex-Prime Minister, and I almost began to think I was. For much of the day, he sat in an armchair in his bedroom and listened to tapes of Trollope. (It made me nervous when he dropped off, lest his smouldering cigar should fall into the wicker wastepaper basket by his side.) He once told me of a mistake made by the suppliers of the tapes. 'I think there is something wrong. They have sent a curious book called Lucky Jim, by a feller called Amis. Have you ever heard of him? I don't like it much. Must be a very peculiar man.' He was frail and shuffled down the long corridors at his own speed. He couldn't find thedoor to the hall, and I heard him mutter, 'The trouble with this house is you have to throw double sixes to get out.'His relationship with President Kennedy4 was worth watching. The President had never seen anything like him, and you could say the same for Uncle Harold. They struck up an unlikely friendship and were more surprised and more amused by each other at every meeting. They talked endlessly on the telephone--usually in the middle of the night. I used to hear of these conversations from both participants. It was the time when initials of organisations began to be used as a sort of shorthand. One night, after speaking of Castro, they went on to discuss SEATO and NATO. Uncle Harold was stumped for a moment when the President said, 'And how's Debo?' When Mrs Thatcher was new to the job he had had for years, she went to see him. 'Oh good,' I said, 'and did you talk?' 'No,' he replied, 'she did.'Uncle Harold's good manners were often tested when he stayed with us. I am not good at place à table, and one night I saw he was sitting at dinner between my son and his friend, both in their first year at Eton. There was the usual political crisis on, and thePM was preoccupied with his own thoughts, while the boys anxiously cast round for a suitable subject of conversation. After a long silence, I heard Sto5 say, 'Uncle Harold, Old Moore's Almanack says you'll fall in October.' To his eternal credit, after a suitable pause, he answered, 'Yes, I should think that's about right.' 
 
 
 
It is strange to see your family enacted on television from an old book about them, written half a century ago. I suppose the royal family and politicians such as Bush and Mandy,6 whose ancestors played a part in public life, do so continually. But for ordinary folk, it is indeed an odd experience. It was also odd to read the reviews. Mr Paul Hoggart in The Times made me sad. I don't know what wing he favours politically, but his dismal summing-up of what was meant to be high comedy reminded me for all the world of my sister Decca's Communist friends of years gone by. They were incapable of enjoying themselves, had never really laughed at or about anything in their lives, and tobe in their company for long was a lowering experience. Decca saw jokes better than anyone--it was her far-left friends' determination to see the downside of everything that was reminiscent of Mr Hoggart's summing-up of the first episode of Love in a Cold Climate .7 He disapproves in a governessy way of the idea of my father hunting my sisters with his bloodhounds for fun. What else would he have done it for? (Alas, I was considered too young to be hunted, and by the time I was of huntable age, the bloodhounds had gone.) I know that some misguided people, for reasons best known to themselves, are against hunting foxes, but surely children are fair game? He complains, too, about a mother's reaction to the hideous appearance of her newborn baby. I wonder if, in his sheltered life, the reviewer has ever seen a newborn baby. Referring to Nancy, he goes on to say that 'she presents her cast as freaks.' Another reviewer states we were the 'lunatic fringe.' Oh dear, freaks and lunatics. Well, never mind. 
My sister Nancy's letters have been published,8 or some of them I should say, as we have got thousands here. They are kept in cardboard boxes with holes for them to breathe through. Whenever I pass by a pile ofthese boxes, containing papers of every description accumulated since the 1950s, I always hope they are a consignment of day-old chicks, which used to travel by train in the guard's van in just such boxes. They provide what Americans call 'Optimum Archival Conditions.' I don't know about their conditions, but Nancy's are certainly of Optimum Archival Amusement. She had neat handwriting and the talent of filling the last page exactly, so 'love from' is always at the bottom: difficult to achieve if the letter is to make sense--and hers do. I am not the only one to think she was the supreme entertainer, both in real life (she and my father together were better than any turn on the stage) and on paper. Her letters are just as funny as her books. What would psychiatrists make of her teases? She called me 'Nine' because she said that was my mental age. About right, I expect, but disconcerting when she introduced me to her smart French friends as 'my little sister aged nine' long after I was married.The correspondence has been ably read on the wireless by Timothy West and Prunella Scales, and listening, I was reminded of Evelyn Waugh's generosity when he was in Paris just after the liberation. (Why was he there? Perhaps he was a liberator; I can't remember.) He bought me a hat, which he tried on himself in the shop to make sure. He didn't tell me what the vendeuse thought about that, but French peopleare keen when it comes to business, and a sale is a sale whatever for or why, so no doubt she was delighted and probably thought all English soldiers wore women's hats when off duty. It was made of white felt, with a blue straw brim on which perched two small white stuffed birds. Luckily, the Animal Rights people were still in utero, or Evelyn would have been lynched for buying it and I for wearing it. Sadly, it has gone the way of old hats. Fifty years on, it might be revered as a bit of heritage or a historic document, like a Dinky toy or a 1945 bus ticket. Who knows, it could even have found a home in theV&Awith the rest of their jumble. 
Nancy's letters often describe clothes. When Dior invented the New Look in 1947, my mother-in-law, 'Moucher' Devonshire, and her friend the Duchess of Rutland, who were in Paris for a less frivolous reason, wanted to see the collection. They arrived at Avenue Montaigne in their tweed overcoats, which had done years of war service, and ditto their shoes. They weren't allowed in. Of humble nature, the two duchesses were disappointed, but not at all surprised. They sat on a bench, eating their sandwiches, to pass the time till they could decently return to the embassy where they were staying. 
 
Diana Cooper has died. I admired her beauty and her guts. I was never an intimate friend of hers, but we had many mutual friends, among them Evelyn Waugh and Antony Head.9 Both were tickled, for some reasons best known to themselves, because I call my sister Diana 'Honks.' As Cooper was also Diana, they started calling her Honks, too. So the archivists who busy themselves with other people's letters have slipped up several times already and think Evelyn was referring to Diana Mosley (my sister) when it was another old beauty he was on about. Not that it matters much, except it would be hard to find two more different people.I have reached the stage in life when I wake up earlier and earlier in the mornings. The wait till breakfast time has forced me to put a kettle and toaster in my room, so I can help myself to their merciful productions whenever I like. I advise all early wakers who have fallen for this plan to buy a clock with a minuteand second hand of immediately recognisable lengths, or you may have my disappointing experience of last week. Waking at 6:00 a.m., I made and ate my breakfast, only to discover that the clock's similar-looking hands had played a trick on me and it was in fact only 12:30 a.m. Too early even for me, but too late to pretend I hadn't had breakfast. 
 
 
 
A beautiful new television has been installed. Well, not beautiful, but a big dark object which is dead when turned off and spends a lot of time describing death when turned on.But it isn't the programmes I'm complaining about; it is the difficulty of making it work. The last one was so nice and simple; you just pushed a sort of matchbox-shaped bit to turn it on and then 1, 2, 3 according to your whim.It never failed to do as it was told. Now I have had to engage a tutor to coach me in television A levels. I have failed the exam.There are so many tiny rubbery squares to press on two (why two?) handheld, nameless objects that unless you have got long pointed nails (which I have not) and are dead accurate in your aim, you end up with apicture of a rowdy midnight hailstorm instead of racing at Kempton Park or Jon Snow10 setting about his victim.My tutor tells me to pay attention and explains that only four little bits of rubber need be pressed, two on each of the objects, which I clutch in both hands like castanets.With this vital information ringing in my ears, I go to Bakewell and buy a lot of sticking plasters to cover the unwanted buttons. By this time, I've forgotten which are the right ones and my tutor has gone home.I shall never know what the other forty are for, and I wish to goodness that the manufacturer would resist putting them there in the first place. Oh, for a telly of yesteryear, just On/Off and channels 1, 2, 3, and 4. 
 
 
 
I buy most of my clothes at agricultural shows, and good stout things they are. Much better than the strange-looking garments in desperate colours at one thousand pounds each in the Knightsbridge shops. In the unlikely event of falling for one of those, you will find that all the buttons come off the first time youwear it, which is disappointing. After agricultural shows, Marks & Spencer is the place to go shopping, and then Paris. Nothing in between seems to be much good. I have learnt to pluck up the courage to go through the doors of the grand shops in Paris. They look at you as if you were something the dog brought home, but once you are inside, the magic of French talent with clothes takes over and happiness sets in, until the agonising decision has to be made about what not to buy, when you long for everything. At four score years plus, properly made clothes should last to the end--or that is my excuse. So forgotten French works of art come out of the back of the cupboard (mixed with Barbours and Derri boots), still beautiful and always comfortable, which is my idea of what clothes ought to be. 
 
 
 
We all know about old women being knocked down and having their bags snatched. It has become so ordinary that the newspapers no longer mention it unless the snatchee is famous and badly hurt, when there are a few lines at the bottom of the home-news page. In London, it happens in places like Cadogan Square and South Audley Street, where I suppose the bag ownersare thought by the snatchers to be rich. I wonder how the victims are chosen. The older the woman, the larger and heavier the bag, but I'm not sure it is always weighed down with diamond necklaces and ruby rings. The contents seem to be stones or coal--or that's what it feels like if you offer to hold it while the owner rearranges her sticks. The snatcher may think he's got a decent reward for his courage in bashing the old soul to the ground, but he must feel let down when he finds only ...

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