Book Review: The Rich Spoils of Time

In 1960, the comedienne Joyce Grenfell went to stay in Scotland with her sister-in-law, Frances Campbell-Preston, who had recently lost her husband, Lt-Col Patrick Campbell-Preston, a former commanding officer of the Black Watch and a prisoner-of-war in Colditz. ?Frances,? she wrote to a friend, ?is such a remarkable and dear creature. She and Patrick were really happy. Perhaps because of this she goes on being so warm, relaxed, cosy and easy.? Shortly after this, Joyce Grenfell wrote the poem which is so familiar from funerals, including the line: ?Nor when I?m gone speak in a Sunday voice?.

In this charming autobiography, which is certainly not written in a ?Sunday voice?, but with a delightful dry humour, all these qualities are very much in evidence. Handsomely produced and impeccably edited by Hugo Vickers, who wrote the definitive biography of Dame Frances?s former employer, Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother (to whom she was a lady in waiting for 37 years), it certainly makes for a fascinating read.

The matter of fact insights into life in The Queen Mother?s households and on royal tours are especially beguiling. For all the pre-war standards, there was a frugality about the freezing cold picnics.

Of her boss, the author remarks: ?She had dignity, but never pomposity or pretentiousness?. When Dame Frances, approaching 80, began talking about retiring, The Queen Mother cut in: ?Congratulations! You feel marvellous after you?re eighty!? There are exquisitely funny vignettes about the characters of Clarence House particularly the breezy Sir Martin Gilliat (who broke the ice at one party by suggesting that the King of Thailand demonstrate his expertise at standing on his head) and Sir Ralph Anstruther, the Treasurer, forever fussing over his decimal points. ?As one of our colleagues here suspects that I make a profit on these transactions,? he wrote about a household present for The Queen Mother, ?I have calculated the contributions to four places of decimals and I shall in fact make a loss of 0.0299 of a penny?.

Dame Frances?s eccentric, cricket mad father, Arthur Grenfell, was less consistent about his finances. It was observed of his second wife, the former Hilda Lyttelton, that she was ?either driving round Belgrave Square in a Rolls-Royce, or pushing a pram with all her possessions in it?. The family vicissitudes are described with sympathy and wit, not forgetting the strange ministrations of a quack who believed that young Frances?s contours could be reduced as if she were a statue a jet of water plus a sharp rub with a horse brush. The outstandingly vivid wartime chapters remind one how much we owe to the sadly vanishing generation of which Dame Frances Campbell-Preston (born 1918) is such an admirable, modest and down-to-earth ornament.