I grew up in post-war London in a small flat just up the road from Baker Street – great spot, but pretty crowded for a family of five. However, considering the number of grassed over bombed sites and streets of houses with sudden gaps like missing teeth, the parents were glad to get it. And they loved it. My dad could walk across the park to work at the BBC, up to the cricket at Lords, and best of all over the road to the Gloucester Arms for lots of convivial company. And Mum was more than happy to join him.
Somehow, they ended up offering a bed to one of their drinking buddies who – after being chucked out by his (third) wife came to stay the night, and stayed seven weeks! On the sofa in our sitting room! And he wasn’t a shrinking presence. He was a large red-haired actor called Howard Marion-Crawford, widely known as “Boney” apparently because of his mannerism of placing his arm across his chest, resting in his jacket a la Napoleon Bonaparte. He was notable also for his bushy moustache and very British demeanour, that had him popping up in any number of films as the actor who,“ often played “blusterers”, “old duffers” and upper class military types, appearing as guest performer in television programmes like The Avengers, and three roles with Patrick McGoohan in the television series Danger Man: the 1964 episodes “No Marks for Servility” and “Yesterday’s Enemies” and the 1965 episode “English Lady Takes Lodgers.”#
That’s from his Wikipedia entry, and in our memories he’s fixed as comic episode from our childhood. He liked to sleep late, and didn’t appreciate three little kids wanting to play. On one occasion he threw us a ten-shilling note (a fortune in those days) and bellowed at us to go out to the cinema. One other memory springs to mind…a piece of cabbage that – unbeknownst to him – lodged in his moustache, and was the cause of much hilarity. Well we didn’t have TV, so were easily amused.
The reason I have cause to remember our larger than life visitor is because we’ve recently made a foray (armed with some freshly laundered towels, and fistful of miracle microfibre cloths) into the world of Air BnB, and that was to be the topic of this blog. I was planning on making some comic comparisons between the large grunting presence in our sitting room and the charming folk that we have hosted from a discreet distance in our downstairs area.
But then I started Googling our visitor, and in that mix of nosiness and intrigue that enables us to waste so many hours, I began to piece together the parts of a life that – far from being a comic turn for us – held the stuff of tragedy. Once I joined the dots and calculated some dates, I find it less surprising that he needed a bed for seven weeks, and have to acknowledge my parents’ generosity in sharing their tiny flat with him. This was surely the original spirit of Air BnB…the sharing economy before it became cool. But in this case, no money changed hands (other than the occasional ten bob to get rid of the pesky kids)
‘Boney’ Crawford was born in 1914 into an illustrious family. His great grandfather Thomas Crawford was a noted sculptor, of among other works, ‘Armed Freedom’ on top of the Capitol in Washington DC. His grandfather Francis Marion-Crawford was a well-known novelist, and his father Harold, had a distinguished career in the Irish Guards. As well, he moved in luminary circles. At RADA, his classmates included Vivien Leigh, Ida Lupino, Anthony Quayle, and Trevor Howard, and apparently he numbered Winston Churchill among his friends.
“Sometimes, in the Atlee years, Howard would journey out to Chartwell for an afternoon playing chess with Churchill, outdoors on a table set up on the front lawn.”* He had two sons. – Harold, from his first marriage, and Francis from his second marriage to the distinguished actress Mary Wimbush.
But beneath this rather privileged life, there were many difficulties. It seems that the Marion-Crawford men are blighted by the tragedy of early death. Howard’s grandfather Francis died at fifty-four leaving his son Harold fatherless at nine. No sooner had Harold married and brought Howard into the world than he was killed by a grenade in 1915 – aged twenty seven! So Howard never knew his father. It’s a loss no amount of posh schooling can make up for. Howard himself served in World War 2 and was invalided out of his father’s regiment with a serious leg injury that caused him lifelong pain. He then volunteered for the RAF and served as a navigator.
And although it seemed to us he was always popping up on the telly, his long career in film and TV and radio proved unreliable, and not especially lucrative. This was despite various awards, critical acclaim for his role as Dr Watson to Ronald Howard’s Sherlock Holmes, a well-known cameo in Davis Lean’s epic ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, and ‘ the triumph of his life when he performed the title rôle in the Agamemnon of Æschylus. Paired with Margaret Rawlings as Clytemnestra, the performance was so powerful that the BBC Transcription Service decided to release it as a three-disc recording, which, it is sad to write, is almost impossible to find.”* So when he came to us, he was clearly between jobs, had two young sons to support, and was probably in pain, which no doubt contributed to his consumption of alcohol. The men of that generation were notorious for self-medication.
In a little over ten years he too would suffer an early death. On November 23rd 1969 It seems he had had a few drinks, and a couple of sleeping pills, and the mix had a pernicious outcome, causing him to choke in the night. He was fifty-five, and broke. ‘He had inherited none of the very considerable fortune left by his grandfather, and had done little but subsist during his thirty-four-year career in radio, television, and film. At his death, his whole monetary worth was only one thousand six hundred and nine pounds, all of which had been consumed swiftly in expenses after his death. His estate, as The Times put it, had a “net value nil.”*
Not so funny after all!
Clearly not a life of nil value though. By all accounts he was a lively and amusing friend and a fine talent, and his life and death still have a few things to teach us:
- We had pretty much reduced this man to an amusing anecdote from our ‘bohemian’ childhood. We are all entitled to our own version of our lives, our memories and the people in them. But in order not to diminish those people, we need to be open to other versions of the same events, and be prepared to adjust and consider that ours is not the only truth.
- The wonderful Tim Winton, in his recent interview with Geraldine Doogue, on Compass (ABC), said that in order to live an ethical life we need imagination. We need to be able to put ourselves in the place of others in order to empathise and communicate. This is what makes a compassionate community. (I’m paraphrasing here…check it out, it’s a great conversation) I’m with you (and Atticus Finch), Tim!
- I’m so sorry I didn’t talk more to my parents about their lives and history and family and the people they knew. It’s too late for us, and I’d give anything to be able to chat to Mum and Dad and ask them about so many things…and to say well done for taking in your friend, at a time when you didn’t have a great deal yourselves.
- Lastly, you young’uns, take heed! Talk to your folks. If they aren’t famous, Google won’t help you after they’ve gone!
*These are all extracts from an excellent and detailed account of the life of Howard Marion-Crawford, but I’ve searched and searched and cannot find it again to acknowledge it. Sorry!