1. Under the clouds
I left home in Fife and went to live in Glasgow when I was eighteen. When I think of it now, the distance seems laughably small – forty miles, little more than an hour in the train – but the contrast between a village on the east coast and a city, Scotland’s largest, on the west coast was sharp and exciting. I had a bedsit in a dark street of better-class tenements, with a Polish delicatessen, a dance hall and a cinema just round the corner. Glasgow seemed an infinite place, never to be known completely no matter how many suburban bus terminals you reached or exploratory walks you made. It was 1963. The last trams had run the year before, but the city was still much its old self – smoke-blackened, run-down, Victorian, majestic, tipsy on beer and whisky on a Saturday night, hushed on a Sunday. More than a million people lived there then; forty years later, that figure had almost halved.
In the first months I went home with my washing on Fridays and returned with clean clothes early on Mondays. Certain features of the journey became familiar – a working colliery or two, the extravagant facade of a psychiatric hospital half hidden by trees – but none was as mysterious as the stretch of waste ground that could be glimpsed from the carriage window just before the train reached the Glasgow terminus. It was a peculiar, alopecic landscape of hummocks and gullies, with patches of grass growing on what looked like white earth, and rarely a soul to be seen. Then in quick succession came the blackness of a tunnel, the slowing scrape of train wheels and your release into a thriving, peopled scene of shops and buses, a world away from the bit of the moon the train had trundled through only moments before.
Incongruously, prompted by the sight of Lady Anne Glenconner on Britain’s most popular chat show, I remembered this long-ago scenery last autumn. Glenconner appeared on The Graham Norton Show to promote her book about her three decades as Princess Margaret’s lady-in-waiting, its publication timed to coincide with the launch of the third season of Netflix’s royal family drama, The Crown, in which Helena Bonham Carter plays the princess and Olivia Colman is her sister, the queen. The two actors shared the chat show’s sofa with the author, who had helped Bonham Carter with her role by providing some details of the princess’s behaviour. Nothing more than twenty minutes of mild gossip seemed in prospect: Glenconner was, after all, the 87-year-old daughter of an earl, the widow of a baron, a maid of honour at the queen’s coronation in 1953 and a trusted courtier. But she was sensational. The audience erupted in wave after wave of laughter at her frank revelations of aristocratic tantrums and sexual misbehaviour. Helped by several more television appearances, her book became a bestseller. She gave one-woman shows in theatres and signed a contract with her publishers for two crime novels, the first to be called Murder on Mustique. Disclosures about the private life of royalty have been making money for British publishers since the Second World War, if not longer, and yet this book spilled few royal beans in its portrayal of Princess Margaret as a troubled and misunderstood but essentially kind woman – ‘the best friend I ever had’, Glenconner said – rather than the little monster of hauteur and vanity that anecdotes suggested. Instead, the book’s gargoyles, the characters who cause a shudder and a gasp, are Lady Anne’s husband, Colin Tennant, the 3rd Baron Glenconner, and one or two of his relations.
As a Coke (pronounced Cook), Lady Anne came from a grander family than he did – Cokes had been earls of Leicester since the eighteenth century, when the first earl, Thomas Coke, built what is generally reckoned to be the finest Palladian house in England on his 27,000-acre estate at Holkham in Norfolk. The Glenconners were upstarts by comparison. Their title, a barony, had been created in the twentieth century. Six generations previously, when Coke returned from the grand tour to set about creating his magnificent house, the Tennants were scraping a living as subsistence farmers in Ayrshire. Wealth had put their male descendants through the usual finishing schools for English gentlemen. Colin, typically, got his education at Eton and Oxford; was commissioned as an officer in the Irish Guards; and inherited a fine London house and a Scottish estate as well as a job in the family’s merchant bank. Even so, Lady Anne’s father, the fifth earl, considered him a mountebank. When members of the royal family joined a shooting party at Holkham, he was made to walk with the beaters.
Old money’s distaste for new money was only partly to blame for his in-laws’ hostility. Tennant was also known to be a libertine – a Mayfair brothel-goer who on his honeymoon took his wife to a seedy Paris hotel to watch another couple having sex (‘two really disgusting people . . . squelching about, and I didn’t really know what to do so I sat back in my chair and closed my eyes’ was how she described the episode on Norton’s show). Princess Margaret, who knew him before his marriage, described him to his bride’s mother as a ‘fairly decadent fellow’, but decadence was only half the story. He was extravagant, capricious and wilful, and given to extraordinary tantrums, seizure-like in their sudden arrival and ferocity, which alarmed anyone unlucky enough to witness them. His temper brought an opera to a halt in Verona’s amphitheatre and enraged the crowd in a Delhi bazaar. Setting out with his wife and Princess Margaret on a transatlantic flight, and refused an upgrade so that he could join them in first class, he lay down in the foetal position in the aisle of economy and wailed and screamed until security arrived and dragged him from the plane. (British Airways then banned him for life.) And his wilfulness could be expensive: he bought the Caribbean island of Mustique without setting foot on it and bought and sold homes in London at a perplexing, unprofitable rate.
There was evidence of a family trait, a genetic disposition to exhibitionism, narcissism and the most tremendous sulks. One of his Tennant uncles, Uncle Stephen, who as a Bright Young Thing could count Siegfried Sassoon and Cecil Beaton among his passionate admirers, got bored with the world and spent most of his last thirty years lying powdered, lipsticked and perfumed in bed at his large country house in Wiltshire. Late one summer, lying in another bed at the family seat in Scotland, he complained that the heather he could see from his window was ‘such a vulgar shade of purple’ – whereupon, according to Anne Glenconner, his nephew Colin arranged for the hillside to be strewn with thousands of paper flowers to turn purple into a pleasant shade of blue.
You need money to behave like that. Where did the money come from? A good part of the explanation lay in the Glasgow wastelands that I saw from the train. But if you were to look beyond that, to something primordial that predated human ingenuity, then the answer might be a climatic fact, something that nature had unfairly ordained, which is the shortage of direct sunlight in western Scotland. Day after day, the Atlantic weather system sweeps in grey, moist blankets of cloud; a week can go by when the pavements never dry completely and the stratus rarely lifts from the hill. It can be no coincidence that it was in Glasgow that a Glasgow man, Charles Macintosh, invented the raincoat. In 1963, as autumn turned to winter, the street outside my digs would glisten wet under the street lamps a little earlier each day, while living rooms across the way had their lights switched on by four o’clock.
2. Improbable heights
In Glasgow at that time, what the name Tennant mainly evoked was a memory of height. ‘Tennant’s Stalk’ had been demolished in the early 1920s, but books of city history recalled it as a marvel, a chimney that at 455 feet and 6 inches tall stood higher than any other man-made structure in the world when it was completed in 1842 (except two of the pyramids at Giza and the spire of Strasbourg Cathedral). The German travel writer Johann Georg Kohl was overwhelmed by its size when he reached Glasgow in the year of its completion. ‘A truly wonderful erection,’ Kohl wrote, which ‘rose over the city and its fog like the minster spire over Strasbourg or that of St Stephen’s over Vienna.’ Before he saw the city’s usual attractions – its medieval cathedral and fifteenth-century university – he went straight to Tennant’s chemical factory to check the chimney’s officially stated height, which seemed to him ‘improbable’. In fact, the height was only half the marvel. At the factory, Kohl discovered a labyrinth of underground vents that led from the factory’s various departments and grew larger as they joined together, just as tributaries swell a river, until they were finally united at the chimney’s base, where the draught drew their collected smoke and smells up the stalk to drift high above the Glasgow streets. Hot air is less dense than cold air and therefore rises above it: all chimneys operate on that principle. But the taller the chimney is, the greater the volume of hot air inside it will be, and the fiercer the draught or upward current. The stalk’s great height gave it unprecedented drawing power. Workmen at Tennant’s told Kohl that when they were sent to repair the flues and vents, they had to make sure that the doors that stood between the vents and the larger channels were tight shut before they started work. Otherwise, they found they required ‘all their strength to prevent themselves being drawn in’, to be sucked tumbling towards the chimney’s base.
Kohl was captivated. He wondered if a similar system could be applied to whole cities, so that ‘the smoke of all the houses . . . might then be conveyed, by subterranean channels, to a gigantic chimney in the neighbourhood, and there carried off.’ The chimneys themselves might be designed as ‘graceful and ornamental architectural monuments’ rather than utilitarian smoke-expellers. It was a visionary moment of which little came. No matter how high they rose, factory chimneys rarely raised the human spirit, and Tennant’s Stalk never outgrew its humble role as the exhaust of smoke and fumes from what, when the chimney was built, was said to be the largest chemical works in Europe, perhaps the world.
Most of this was the achievement of Charles Tennant, an Ayrshire farmer’s son, though luck and loot as well as energy and intellectual curiosity had played a part. His father, John Tennant, had been lucky as a young man to know a servant girl, Elizabeth Maguire, who worked on his father’s farm at Alloway. Maguire had been lucky to have a childless uncle, James Macrae, the son of an Ayr washerwoman, who rose through the East India Company to become president (governor) of the Madras Presidency. Macrae had been lucky – the standard luck of the British ruler-cum-trader in eighteenth-century India – and he came home with a fortune that was typically opaque in its origins. An extensive inquiry by the East India Company cleared him of corruption, though, in the words of the Dictionary of National Biography, ‘the relationships between all the proponents were extremely complicated, involving as they did relationships between Britons acting on their own and on the company’s behalf, Britons transacting with Indian merchants on both accounts, and Indian merchants dealing among themselves.’ Returned to Ayr after his long absence, he bought several estates and settled dowries on his nieces. When he died, Elizabeth Maguire inherited his estate at Ochiltree and £45,000 in diamonds, which made her attractive to the 13th Earl of Glencairn. As the Countess Glencairn, she needed a new estate manager or factor and found him in her childhood friend John Tennant, who in 1769 moved with his wife and children to their new home, Glenconner farm, where, as well as managing the estate, he leased 139 acres of farmland for his own use.
Tennant believed that literacy was the key to progress. Before he moved to Glenconner, he and a neighbouring farmer, William Burnes, sent their children to a progressive little school where they read Milton and Dryden; one of Burnes’s children, the poet Robert Burns, became a family friend. But literacy introduced rural families to more profitable ways of making a living as well as to poetry. Tennant became an agricultural improver, enclosing and draining land, and planting it with potatoes and turnips to supplement the oats that were Scotland’s traditional crop. Two sources of income, farming as well as factoring, meant he could afford to prolong his sons’ education into their teens, widening their horizons from the prospect of a life spent labouring in the family fields. One became an evangelist in India; another joined the Royal Navy; others migrated to Ireland and Cape Town. Charles Tennant, his sixth child (he had sixteen in all), left home aged fifteen to start his apprenticeship as a handloom weaver in the village of Kilbarchan, near the textile-manufacturing town of Paisley.
This was propitious. The Scottish textile industry was beginning to grow at an exciting rate, thanks to fresh capital investment, increasing imports of cheap cotton fibre from India and the Caribbean, and new manufacturing techniques. Output of cotton and linen fabrics soared, and would have soared more but for a bottleneck further down the production line: bleaching. Textiles need to be bleached; as well as whitening the cloth, bleaching cleans it and prepares it for dyeing. The traditional method had changed very little since the age of the toga and its cycle could take up a whole summer. Cloth was steeped in a weak alkaline solution (sometimes urine and water) for several days, and then washed and spread out in the open air for several weeks; the process was repeated half a dozen times before a last steeping, this time in sour milk, after which the cloth would be washed clean again and spread out to dry for a final time.
The spreading out, known as ‘crofting’, took up space as well as time, occupying large stretches of ground that might have been used more profitably. And the Scottish sun could never be relied on: bleaching by sunlight was one thing on the banks of the Nile, the Ganges and the Euphrates, or even the Tiber or the Seine, but quite another on the Clyde, which often has less than half the annual sunshine of seaside resorts only 400 miles away in southern England. ‘It is a pity that a country so charming as Scotland should not be favoured with a finer climate,’ wrote the travel writer Kohl on his upriver journey to see Tennant’s Stalk, unaware of the distant connection between the climate and the chimney.
3. As infernal as any earthly place
In Anne Glenconner’s memoir the word bleach is mentioned only once. In the context of her father’s resolute snobbery, she writes that while the Coke fortune could be traced to the fifteenth century and sprang from law and land, ‘the Tennant family had made its – albeit vast – fortune through the invention of bleach in the Industrial Revolution’. The ‘albeit vast’ is instructive; the wonder being that such a simple product, used in modern households mainly as a disinfectant, could make a family as rich, if not far richer, than three or four centuries of landowning. But the invention of bleach changed everything. Textiles employed more people in Britain than any other manufacturing industry throughout the nineeenth century, and in some years accounted for two thirds of British exports in an era when Britain dominated world trade. A chemical mixture that shortened the bleaching process from months to hours played an essential role in Britain’s industrial growth.
After his weaving apprenticeship was over, Charles Tennant began to show signs of commercial and social ambition. He took on a further apprenticeship, this time as a bleacher, and he and a business partner bought a few Paisley bleachfields cheaply. Marriage followed to the daughter of a part owner of an alum factory – alum was an important ingredient in cotton dye. Socially as well as professionally, he had secured his position among the up-and-coming of Scotland’s new industrial class. Another partner in his father-in-law’s factory was the chemist Charles Macintosh, the raincoat inventor, and he and Tennant became friends and fellow experimenters, members of a small scientific community that had Glasgow University at its centre, and the steam technologist James Watt and the chemist and physicist Joseph Black as its distinguished mentors. By the late eighteenth century, scientists in Sweden and France were experimenting with chlorine as a whitening agent, but its harmful effects on the human body made its industrial use too dangerous to be practical. Then the French chemist Claude Louis Berthollet discovered that the chlorine solution could be made less noxious by adding an alkali. Learning of this, perhaps from James Watt after a visit to Paris, Tennant and Macintosh opened a small factory that produced bleach on the Berthollet principle, passing chlorine gas through an alkaline solution of slaked lime and water. It wasn’t a success: the liquid mixture was unstable and cumbersome to transport. Within a year, the two partners had devised an alternative by changing the state of the mixture from liquid to solid. Passing chlorine gas over slaked lime that was damp enough to absorb it, and then drying the lime and crushing it into powder, they made what Tennant called ‘bleaching salt’.
A patent was granted in 1799 and within a few years bleaching salt had become an indispensable part of cotton and linen manufacture. A new factory was needed. Tennant chose a two-and-a-half-acre site by the canal in St Rollox, a northern district of Glasgow. Barges brought fuel from the Lanarkshire coalfield and took away bleaching powder to wherever it was wanted. Over the next forty years, the factory grew to forty times its original size and diversified into other chemical processes, making the soda needed for soap production and the vitriol (sulphuric acid) that increasingly went into the manufacture of so many things, including bleach, dyestuffs and fertiliser; so that by the time Charles Tennant died in 1838, St Rollox looked like an industrial San Gimignano. Prints made to commemorate the opening of the first railway to reach Glasgow, which Tennant promoted and helped to finance, show trains of flag-flying carriages steaming neatly to and from a cluster of smoking towers on the horizon. In the foreground, two gentlewomen with a picnic basket sit in a field where sheep graze further off. Close to, a beautiful tree in full leaf represents nature pure and undamaged.
Of course the reality was different: as early as the 1820s the St Rollox factory was prompting bitter complaints from those unlucky enough to live near it. A pall of yellow smoke hung over the factory day and night. ‘The smell of the works is at all times very offensive when the wind is north and makes her sick and inclined to vomit,’ a complainant’s lawyer told an inquiry in 1822. ‘Whenever the wind is in the north it pours down upon her. She considers this wholly arises from the manufacture of vitriol – and if Mr Tennant would give that up, she would let him carry on the other thing as he pleased.’ Another resident described the damage done to the vegetable crops in local gardens and hedge plantings: ‘During the present season several thousand of seedling beeches along with six thousand seedling thorns have been entirely destroyed.’ Twenty years later, a cartoon ironically captioned with the words ‘St Rollox . . . a Clear Day’ showed nothing but a roiling sea of black ink. Tennant’s Stalk was built as the solution, but people were quick to doubt its efficacy: winds certainly drove its fumes further away, but on still days the pollution stayed as local as before.
To be outside the works was bad; to be inside them almost insufferable. In 1847, a civil engineer, George Dodd, described Tennant’s as ‘infernal in appearance as we can well imagine any earthly place to be’, with its ‘heaps of sulphur, lime, coal and refuse . . . the intense heat of the scores of furnaces . . . the smoke and thick vapours which dim the air . . . the swarthy and heated appearance of the men . . . and the various acids which worry the eyes, and tickle the nose and choke the throat’. But the Tennant family’s confidence in the enterprise never weakened. They knew their products were essential to Scotland’s prosperity; in evidence to the 1822 inquiry, two mill owners said it would be a ‘national calamity’ if the St Rollox factory were to close even for a few weeks. And so it went on flaming, smoking and fuming on Glasgow’s northern heights. In the 1870s, a Glasgow health inspector could still remark that ‘a sparrow didn’t dare fly over the works’ for fear of losing its life.
But dangerous and nauseous as the fumes might be, they were eventually dissipated in the atmosphere. Soda ash, which the factory began to make in 1816, brought a far more permanent problem. An essential chemical in the glass, textile, soap and paper industries, St Rollox pioneered its manufacture by the Leblanc process, the invention of Nicolas Leblanc, physician to the Duke of Orleans. The process used expensive ingredients – rock salt, limestone, sulphuric acid and coal – and it was tremendously wasteful: every ton of soda made in the factory produced two tons of hazardous waste, high in sulphur content, liable to give off hydrogen sulphide (the gas that smells like rotten eggs) and sometimes to catch fire of its own accord. Eighty tons of it came out of the vats every day, to be dumped on the open ground west of the factory, where it eventually covered a hundred acres and in places reached down eighty feet. It became a hideous grey wasteland: a dystopian park with a dismal water feature, the Pinkston Bog, where seeping groundwater mixed with the alkali, to be drawn off by pumps and course down various sewers and streams to add to the Clyde’s pollution.
This was the blighted land I saw from the train, and it need never have grown so large.
In 1872, the company rejected a cheaper, less wasteful and cleaner method of making soda that had been devised by the Belgian chemist and industrialist Ernest Solvay. Nobody understood so at the time, but the rejection of the Solvay process was a blunder that marked the beginning of the Tennants’ long – and at first barely perceptible – industrial decline, a downward line on the graph that more or less matched Britain’s performance over the same period as it was overtaken as the world’s pre-eminent industrial power by the USA and Germany. The Leblanc method couldn’t compete on price, and by the 1890s most of the world’s soda ash came out of plants using Solvay’s alternative, which in Britain had been licensed to Tennant’s rivals, Ludwig Mond and John Brunner. The Tennants decided to stick with what they knew rather than risk capital investment in new technology. It was a conservative decision and, like many other aspects of the Tennant story, it exemplified what a century later was to become a conventional explanation of British industrial failure.
What British industrialists lacked was sticking power: in an English culture that viewed industry as an unpleasant intrusion into the rural idyll, they were too easily seduced by transformational ideas of themselves as landed aristocrats and country gentlemen. Show them a peerage, a steam yacht, a foxhound pack, a trout stream, a grouse moor or a golf course, and they went off hallooing in pursuit. A pattern emerged. The early generations made the fortune, the middle generations consolidated it, the later generations spent it: hard work, followed by the intelligent investment of profits, followed by freewheeling pleasure and decay. One or two members of the Tennant family began to understand themselves in this way. Broken Blood, a fine study of the family dynasty by a junior member, Simon Blow, has lives-gone-wrong as its theme, and the same melancholy preoccupation haunts Emma Tennant’s final book, Waiting for Princess Margaret, in which she resents her half-brother Colin Tennant for his narcissism and because, when their father died, he quickly expelled her from rooms she kept in the family home in a dispute over their father’s legacy.
4. The scene at Basil’s
I met Colin Tennant in 1979 on Mustique, where I went to try and write an overambitious piece in which the leftist movements that were then growing in the Caribbean would be seen through the prism of the wealthy Europeans and North Americans who spent their spare time on Tennant’s island. I remember that he wore a wide-brimmed straw hat and what India knows as kurtha-pajama, a long white shirt over loose white cotton trousers, and that we talked in a kind of Moghul kiosk that he’d erected near his house on the beach. He was tremendously affable, talking knowledgeably about the island (by now he was only a minority shareholder in the company that owned it) and inviting me to see the Caribbean plantation islands ‘as the Middle East of the eighteenth century’, with sugar rather than oil as the energy source that the world wanted. There was more talk about oil – its high price, combined with the low price for Caribbean exports such as bananas and bauxite, had lowered living standards on several islands, with social unrest as a consequence. Tennant was unflappable at the prospect of a new order. ‘When a stranger walks into the room,’ he said, as though the world were a London club, ‘you don’t turn your back on him or shout rape. You go up and shake him by the hand.’
He showed me the sights. They included the wreck of a French liner, which had been stranded offshore for years and now broke up the waves like a reef; Basil’s Beach Bar, a small platform that stuck, pier-like, into the sea; and, from a respectful distance, a view of one or two of the pseudo-classical villas that had been designed by the celebrated English stage designer Oliver Messel. Eventually we reached the group of huts known to a few islanders as ‘Tennant’s Tenements’, which housed the domestic servants who served the villas. Most were temporary migrants from St Vincent, the closest of the larger islands, and their huts were the equivalent of tied cottages: if they lost their jobs, they lost their homes, too, and went back to St Vincent. The huts had nowhere indoors for their occupants to wash. Tennant said they were waiting for showers to be installed – ‘But these people are much better off here than they would be in St Vincent,’ he said, trying to complicate and soften the simple moralism of an outsider.
That night I went to Basil’s Beach Bar. This had taken some negotiation, because Princess Margaret was to be there, too; she was leaving the island the next day, and after the farewell supper party at her villa, Les Jolies Eaux, she wanted to have a more intimate drink with one or two friends. If I went, Tennant said, I mustn’t approach her or speak to her.