If you don’t know what the Coffee House Interviews are, they’re a series of fictional interviews with my own fictional characters, taking place in a fictional coffee house overlooking the River Mersey. This one concerns one of my oldest characters, the puppet master himself, Mr Monty Morfasson. At the time of our interview, however, isn’t quite the magnificent bastard he is destined to become…
The man who strolls into the coffee house, confident and with supreme purpose, turns heads. Without effort his entire body screams ‘charisma,’ from the well pressed suit to the way he walks. He spies me and a slight, warming smile appears on his lips.
‘Mr Churchill,’ he announces, making sure everybody knows that it’s me he’s come to see. His voice is friendly, not a hint of antagonism anywhere. ‘Splendid to see you again, my friend. You’ve ordered I assume?’ I have not. I was waiting for him to arrive. He looks around, preparing to summon the barista from behind the counter. She is watching, wondering who this man is, and I briefly see in her eyes a flashback to not so very long ago when this man’s mother came bursting in here, clicking her fingers and demanding coffee. Unlike her former royal highness, however, he simply holds his fingers up and mouths for two teas. ‘We’ll have tea,’ he tells me. ‘More civilised than coffee.’
This suave, charismatic gentleman who now leans back in his chair is none other than a young Monty Morfasson. All the major hardships and important battles of his life are ahead of him, his blue eyes, so like those of his great grandson, still shine with life and hope. For him it is the spring of nineteen twenty nine. He’s a few months away from becoming a father for the first time. You and I already know that the baby shall be Edward, a boy, but Monty is hoping for another outcome.
‘A girl,’ he muses. ‘I would like a little girl. Though if it turns out to be a boy I shan’t complain. It may be better if it were a boy, as a matter of fact. Lord knows, a girl might turn out like my mother and I’d rather not have the headache.’ I smirk and he shakes his head. ‘I love my mother, I’d never dream of having another, but she can be a real old snapdragon sometimes.’ Snapdragon is an understatement. There was a time, shortly after Monty enlisted to fight in France during the first war, where she burst into his school to confront him. ‘It might have been embarrassing were Mother not so terrifying. I’m not sure which is worse, to be truthful. Which would you rather?’ I answer that I’d rather have the terrifying. At least you can live down terrifying. ‘I never had the chance to live anything down. Mother dragged me home and I never went back. I spoke to an old schoolfellow years later and he said it was like one of those stories where people get taken to the nest of some monster to be eaten, and I was the victim of course.’
The barista brings our teas and Monty politely thanks her. It’s only a thanks, but the barista will be high on it for the rest of the day.
Monty has moved me nicely onto the First World War and the events that shaped him. To tell a long story in a few words, he did not, at the end of the day, go to France but ended up in India.
‘It was part Father’s disappointment and partially a pretty face. Father absolutely didn’t want me to go to France, and with good reason.’ He wanted to go to France though. He volunteered. ‘Too true. By that time we all knew that the trenches were a hell-scape, that the chances of coming back in one piece were slim. I can’t speak for anybody else but I didn’t think that I could live with myself if I didn’t go out there and face my doom. I had to do it. It wasn’t patriotism and duty, not like all those who signed up at the start believed, it was something else. It felt like cowardice not to go and face the music, face the bullets.’ Did he explain this to his father? What did his father think of this thinking? ‘I don’t think he could understand it. He was always against the war and he couldn’t see why anybody would volunteer for suicide. If he had been in my shoes he would have preferred to spend the rest of his days as a coward and never once been ashamed about it.’
Something good did come out of that decision though, for that was how Monty met his first love, Alice Fletcher.
‘I was to be in her Uncle Fawcett’s regiment in France and he introduced us over dinner. He was only looking me over, looking at my suitability as an officer, but he brought her along. I think now that I fell in love with her right away. I haven’t stopped since and don’t think that I ever will.’ The haze of love comes over his eyes. I can tell that he is still deeply in love with Alice, the girl who led Monty to give up on France and go out to India (or what was then India) instead. ‘I needed a way to get around Father yet still participate in the war. Alice was going out to India to stay with an aunt so I thought that I could go out there too, and be close to her. Father agreed and so off I went. Unfortunately I ended up on the other side of the country and in a bit of a sticky situation.’ By a sticky situation he means the third Anglo-Afghan war. ‘Yes. Precisely. Six months after the war to end all wars and what happens? There’s another one! Politicians will never learn that war is never the answer. I’m starting to agree with Father on that one.’
As if almost getting killed on the North West Frontier and ending up on the other side of India to Alice wasn’t enough, their potential relationship faced a number of other hurdles and hindrances. There were the objections of her parents, for one thing, and a near complete sabotage on the part of Monty herself.
‘I was told by Uncle David (Lloyd George) that the Count and Countess of Nuneaton, Alice’s parents, were serious blackmailers and scoundrels. Their other daughter, Jezebel, was a tearaway as well. I forget the details of that one, but it involved a governess who never worked again. I wanted Father’s opinion before I acted so I wrote to him… One of the staff at the hotel I was staying in got hold of the letter and sold it to the blasted Daily Mail. There was a scandal, of course, but Alice was quite forgiving when she found out that I was behind the letter. She’s never held it against me. She’s absolutely splendid like that. She knows I meant no harm and was only trying to ease some concern over rumours that I’d heard. Besides which, and these are Alice’s words and not mine, if the Count and Countess wanted to avoid a scandal they shouldn’t have resorted to blackmail.’
There was an unwelcome consequence to this scandal, one which has involved Alice’s sister, Jezebel. Shamed and having lost everything, after spending time in jail, the Count took his own life in one of the bedrooms of a Mayfair hotel.
‘Why do people do that?’ Monty asks me. ‘I don’t mean shoot themselves. It’s perfectly clear why the Count took his own life. What I mean is why inconvenience an entire hotel full of staff and guests? If it’s so as not to frighten your own loved ones, which I suspect it might be, then why not just go into the middle of an empty field and let some dog walker find you?’ Far more than just the staff of a Mayfair Hotel were inconvenienced though. ‘By which you mean Alice and myself? Yes. After she came back from India Father had put Alice up in one of the cottages at Cythry, the one at the foot of the drive, and set her to work as a secretary. Then the Count goes and shoots himself and the Countess dies in grief a few months later. There was no choice in the matter. Jezebel was still under age so she had to go and live with her closest living relative, her sister.’ Monty shudders uncontrollably. ‘I am not a man prone to rash hatreds, as you know Mr Churchill, but Jezebel… She seems intent on causing as much scandal as possible. She may yet do something far more outrageous than either of her parents ever did.’ Can he give me an example? ‘Certainly. Cecil Barrington-Sholto, ward of the Baron Penrhyn. I’ve reason to suspect they’re holding clandestine meetings together.’ And that is a problem? ‘Society is a fickle mistress and the two of them together is a recipe for outrage. There’s no way the baron will allow such a match, not considering her father. Besides, I also don’t like the boy. He’s oily, slippery. He’s not a nice person. It’s odd that he wants to go after Jezebel. From what I hear he’s usually into chorus girls and Bethesdan harlots than he is to her sort. She’s got far more brains than he normally consorts with.’ He looks thoughtful, as though he suspects something. We both, dear reader, know that there is indeed a scheme afoot, but for Monty that revelation still awaits.
I decide to ask Monty what he thinks of the current state of the world. The gloomy days of the thirties and forties lie ahead, and I wonder if he suspects the way in which things are headed. When I ask my question Monty appears apprehensive.
‘Another war is inevitable. Who it will be against, I don’t yet know. Germany has mostly recovered from its troubles of a few years ago and given ten more years it will be fine.’ It isn’t going to get ten more years, I point out. ‘No. It isn’t. It’s inevitable that those damned fascists will take over the country eventually, and then we’re in trouble. On top of that you have Stalin and the Soviet Union. What horrors may come from out there in the east I cannot say.’ Does he think Britain is strong enough to hold its own should it come to another war? With the Russians or the Germans? ‘No. If the last war is anything to go by, certainly not. Our politicians are… Well allow me to say that they are no longer in the top tier of statesmen. Without a strong government, whatever happens, we are doomed. Fascists all over the world will use weak governments, especially enemy governments, to their advantage. That is what is inevitable in Germany and that is what will happen here unless we get a grip on ourselves. Of course, convincing the British of such a thing will be an uphill battle.’ What does he mean by that, I wonder? Does he think the British will succumb to fascism? ‘No. The British never will. Not completely. One day they might do something stupid because of some fascist idiot, but they’ll never completely fall into a fascist state like Germany will. The British, as a whole, are too tolerant of other people to go down that road. But unless our politicians start acting like men and not self-serving cowards the fascists will walk all over us. We have to stand up to them before they grow too powerful. We need to be ready because war, as you say, is inevitable.’
The conversation has become depressing and Monty is starting to glower. He’ll never blow his top, but I don’t want to stir the beast any further. I decide to steer the conversation in a much lighter direction. Monty is, after all, a man of the world and he doesn’t always dwell in the dark and murky side of society. He also enjoys the finer things in life.
‘A good pipe and a gramophone record you mean?’ I mean culture, art, literature. ‘Oh yes. That was Mother’s doing. She insisted I have refinement and Alice has agreed to carry on the same. She insists on taking me to the carol service at Bangor cathedral every Christmas. The religion grates, but I like the singing. I remember, the day I got back from India Mother was in London to greet me. She was still bitter that I had gone but not bitter enough to show off her handsome soldier son in society. You know where she took me? The first full public performance of Holst’s Planet’s suite.’ I grin, envious, and Monty gives a sly wink. He is as much a fan of The Planets as myself. ‘If only you could have been. It was… Perfect. I’ve never heard Holst performed as well since that day, which is a shame. Good music, the likes of Holst, and art and literature, are the foods we need to survive in this world, Mr Churchill. Without it we wither into a grey dullness,’ he says.
As he says this I see a glimmer of his father shining through his eyes. Monty is very much the best of both his parents. He has Anna’s bolshy, no nonsense attitude and her admiration for chic and refinement. Just in the smartness of his dress and the considered way in which he talks I can see traces of Anna’s signature. From Max he gained wisdom and a way of seeing the world. He gained a mastery of society, but whereas Max never gave the impression he knew how to use what he had Monty knows it all too well and he is his own man because of it. There’s something else though, something he picked up in India, I suspect. Behind his eyes, throughout this entire thing, it has been lurking. It is cruelty and danger and something altogether not entirely nice.
Now is not the time for bringing that up, however. Now, he will not answer. To dig deeper into this part of his psyche I must wait until the world has changed and the darkness of the thirties and forties has passed over this charming man.
Image courtesy of The Londonist
Monty appears in: The Khyber, Charlie Fuller, & Aunt Mable