Interview: Lady Anne Glenconner, Lady in Waiting
- Credit: Archant
Royal revelations, astonishing anecdotes, enduring friendship and devastating loss - Lady Anne Glenconner’s memoir is an extraordinary book which will make you laugh, gasp and cry
Lady Anne Glenconner is very excited when we speak. The next day, she is due to appear on Graham Norton's famous television red sofa alongside acting royalty and although she has spent her life rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous, she is thrilled at this rather unexpected opportunity.
As lady in waiting to Princess Margaret for three decades, and having spent her early childhood playing with both the young princess and her sister, now Queen Elizabeth II, at her family home on the Holkham estate, her life has been an extraordinary one.
But her book Lady in Waiting is no traditional royal memoir.
It might be full of famous names and outrageous anecdotes, but it is in the ordinary that this book strikes a chord. Its content will cause a stir, it will certainly raise eyebrows, but it is in the heartache and challenges of family life, the struggles with loss, addiction and mental health that the book is at its most powerful.
The book is already at the top of many Christmas lists and as season three of The Crown airs on Netflix - in which she features and in part what prompted her to write it - there is certain to be more interest in her life story. "I met a publisher before who asked whether I thought of writing a book. Then when Helena Bonham Carter came to see me to ask me about Princess Margaret - who she is playing - it made me think back on all those times and I thought, well, why not give it a try?"
Holkham provides the strong spine to the story of her life, from her early happy childhood playing on the beach and riding bikes around with Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret to later years, as she returned home to pull her family close after some dark times.
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The patriarchal system, something starkly highlighted in the book, meant that she was never to inherit the estate, but she shows no bitterness and describes her book as "a love letter to Holkham".
"I came to launch the book recently and as I came down the avenue, to the obelisk, there was Holkham in front of me, lit up, looking beautiful. I felt like I did at my coming out dance in the 1950s. It almost made me cry. I still love it here."
There are revelations a-plenty in the book of wild parties and hedonism, of bizarre moments on royal tours and mixing with US presidents, a pet elephant and her husband's flamboyant costumes and behaviour (he always wore scuba gear on the plane to and from Mustique just in case it crashed). There are beautifully observed behind the scenes details of the Queen's coronation, for which Lady Anne was a maid of honour, and which ended with her spending the evening with her uncle and two sheiks in the 400 Club in the West End; a trip in her later years to Russia with a friend, who unbeknown to Lady Anne was trying to meet a hitman "to discuss getting rid of her son-in-law".
Then there are the tales of life in Norfolk, of growing up with her life intertwined with the royal family (her mother was lady-in-waiting to the Queen and her father equerry to the King); The Queen Mother's amusement at the nudists on Holkham Beach, who she was "longing to see", while suggesting her corgis could 'nip their bottoms', or as children, the parties at Buckingham Palace with a fearsome Queen Mary.
It is the intimate details of her friendship with Princess Margaret which are the most revelatory.
"I laughed more with her than anyone else," she says. "So much rubbish had been written about Princess Margaret by people who had never met her. I wanted to write about the real woman I knew and hopefully, show to people, what an absolutely wonderful woman she was."
The book also reveals moving details of Princess Margaret's deterioration in her last months, during which time Lady Anne was almost constantly by her side. It was a reflection of the very special relationship which the two women shared.
It was often during their darkest days that they were there for one another the most and there were none darker than when two of Lady Anne's sons, Henry and Charlie, died and her third, Christopher, had a terrible motorbike accident which left him in a coma for months, with doctors believing he had little chance of recovery.
Had it not have been for Lady Anne's sheer bloody-minded determination, which led eventually to her creating coma kits for other patients and having an article published in The Lancet, Christopher would most likely not have recovered.
"Our friendship was very special, she was always there during that time offering support. When Henry had Aids she was incredible. There was huge stigma still attached to the disease and very little understanding. But she was extraordinary. Some of my very great friends, and I don't blame them, suddenly didn't come and stay with us anymore. Margaret was there with us and she would bring her children.
"She would hug Henry and, long before Princess Diana visited, she would come to see him at the London Lighthouse and would not just support us, but meet other patients."
In later years, following the scandal of Princess Margaret's divorce from Tony Armstrong-Jones and her new relationship with Roddy Llewellyn, she would frequently spend quiet weekends out of the spotlight with Lady Anne to escape the press intrusion.
"She would come and stay with me in my cottage here at Burnham Thorpe, always with her Marigold gloves at the ready and she would love to dust the book shelves, do some cleaning and even clean the car. When it was warmer we would spend time in the garden together, weeding side by side. I think she liked being able to just be herself. They were such fun times."
Lady Anne's husband Colin Tennant is central to many of the most outlandish stories in the book. He famously bought the island of Mustique, which eventually became a playground for the rich and famous, and where Princess Margaret owned a house - a wedding gift from Colin and Lady Anne, which gave her the privacy she craved.
Their marriage was complex. She writes about his fierce temper, the state of his mental health and his many affairs. Yet in spite of this, they were very much in love and were married for 54 years, and she describes them as a "good team".
"It was an extraordinary marriage really. In fact my father thought Colin was somewhat flaky and offered me the chance to buy a redundant estate farmhouse in Burnham Thorpe so I had something for myself in the future, just in case. It turned out to be a wonderful decision. It has been my home for a lot of years; it still is and I absolutely love it."
"But Colin gave me the most amazing experiences. When he bought Mustique, I thought he was absolutely mad. We turned up for the first time, it had poisonous manchineel trees everywhere, huge mosquitoes and these wild cows. When we arrived we were forced to climb up the poisonous trees to escape the feral cows - I wondered if we might ever come down again.
"For a while it was like living like Robinson Crusoe. For a long time there really was nothing there. Margaret wanted to come and visit, but the only shower was a bucket with a hole in. She didn't mind though."
She speaks fondly of her father, the 5th Earl of Leicester, and mother, who she describes as great fun, and the book gives a wonderful glimpse of life on the estate before, during and just after the war.
"My mother had a Harley Davidson which she would zoom around on, wearing her goggles. It was quite a sight. She was incredibly good for my father who was very shy and reserved."
When the family launched Holkham Pottery after the war as a way to generate an income for the estate left ravaged by the conflict, Lady Anne found herself in a rather unexpected new role. Terrible at the potting wheel, she appointed herself as saleswoman, travelling all over the country trying to sell Holkham pottery, in her mother's Mini Minor packed with suitcases full of carefully-wrapped samples.
"I was the only woman on the road and certainly the only aristocrat and I was still a teenager. I would go all round the country, staying in these travelling salesman hotels. It was quite an eye-opener.
"There was usually only one bathroom and I would have to queue up on the landing with my towel and wash bag and wait while all the men went in and had a shave - they never asked if I would like to go first.
"Then in the evenings, in the lounge, at 9pm, the trolley would come round and there would be tea - and occasionally alcohol, and they would all say 'Anne, can you be mother?' and I would serve them. But I really quite enjoyed it and it was an amazing experience - I ended up going to America to sell the pottery, which was a real adventure."
She says the book is one of extremes and that writing was both a happy and sad experience.
"I felt at times, it was like I was going to a psychiatrist, especially when talking about the boys. When I did the reading for the audio version, it did make me cry. I can't think now how I managed during those terrible times. But if you are living through something, you just somehow do."
As she writes in the closing chapter: "The 87 years I've lived on this earth have been many things, good and bad, but above all extraordinary."