Matthew Parris

Without a word of advice, Paul Methuen set me free

He made a great impression on me, aged 18, because of his deep internal honesty

29 October 2015

9:00 AM

29 October 2015

9:00 AM

At the time he will barely have noticed me. In his mid-forties and (to me at 18) middle-aged, he was our host at a dinner in his beautiful old house in Kingston, Jamaica: a wooden mansion that in its time had seen the town spread up from the harbour and push back the sugar plantations. But as you’d expect from a man for whom garden design was a passion, Paul’s house had kept its generous grounds from the age of sugar.

Everything about Paul Methuen was generous: from his hospitality, to the sheer variety of his guests, to his warm and wicked sense of mischief and the measures of the whisky he dispensed (and consumed). In truth there were no measures: the idea of measuring a drink — indeed of measuring anything except the interiors and gardens he loved — would have been alien to Paul’s nature.

The great mahogany table was magnificently laid, the candle flames hovered motionless in the still, tropical night, and the crystal and silver shone. To me it seemed another world. This was a big dinner party, centred around the Shakespeare — and the Shakespeare playhouse — he had sponsored in Kingston. Paul had invited my mother, a keen supporter of his theatre. I trotted along behind: an eldest son shortly to take up a place at Cambridge, returning to an England I had left aged four. As it turned out, I was to make my life and career there. None of this could I foresee.

Paul did not know me, nor I him. To me he seemed exotic: a towering and extravagant figure — old-fashioned yet faintly outré, and just tremendous fun.

One heard gossip, of course, but there were things in Paul’s deeply traditionalist world that one simply didn’t name, so now he is dead I shall respect those proprieties. His friend on the island (and, as a designer, his client) Nöel Coward, when pressed in old age on the inevitable question, used to demur by replying that the question came too late to matter and anyway the answer would upset too many old ladies. In Paul’s case, I doubt the old ladies would have been greatly surprised. Tall, dark and strikingly handsome, he was not the marrying kind.

It was a luminous evening. Evenings at Paul’s always were, people said, though I had no chance for real conversation with my host. I simply observed him. I later supposed that if I had ever even really impinged on his consciousness, he had long forgotten me.

But I never forgot him. You know how it is that someone, something, some almost random, fleeting, utterly unimportant scene, makes an impression and the impression sticks when what went before and after has long faded — and you don’t really know why? That evening lodged deep. In my imagination the picture of Paul did too. He must have been the cause of a kind of awakening that resonated through my life thereafter.

In that moment I had seen that it was possible to grow old, never marry, be solitary, be sociable, and have a wonderful life. I also saw that money could make a big difference. The thought occurred to me for the first time that it would be a fine thing to become a rich old man. Perhaps I had been worrying about such things, and that is why his example struck so deep. Some 30 years later I did find a companion in life, but companionship — and the years before companionship — have been illuminated for me by the lesson that one is not ‘rescued’ by finding a mate. Life is grand, either way.

Of course Paul never said a word on this. Utterly undidactic, he wasn’t teaching a lesson, but living it. He had a kind of deep internal honesty that was in no wise at odds with his great discretion.

He was being himself; and I saw that you could, and not care too much what people thought, and have a grand old time, and lots of friends, and the sky would not fall in. Funny to say this of so old-school a figure as Paul but, ‘liberal’ as my own upbringing had been, meeting this (in some ways) throwback to another age was liberating to me.

Paul Methuen’s memorial service last Saturday, at St Peter’s in Seaview on his beloved Isle of Wight, filled the little church. Organised by the Sea View Yacht Club (Paul was an avid and outstanding yachtsman) the occasion was warm and funny. There were few tears, because his life had been such a hoot. The congregation was well-stocked with upper-crusty yachting types of a certain age, and I was almost the only man there with no handkerchief in his top pocket: genial company, including some of the old ladies who most certainly wouldn’t have been shocked. The hall was filled with people who loved Paul and who regaled us all with tales of derring-do, while the actor Keith Baxter gave a marvellous account of Jamaica days with Coward and Ian Fleming. Keeping my other thoughts to myself, I simply recited Shakespeare’s ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun…’ from Cymbeline, as Paul had made me promise to do a decade ago, when he was in his eighties.

Neither of us had realised the occasion would wait until he was 91. Much later in both our lives we had made contact, and seen a good deal of each other in his old age. Paul had been undiminished almost to the end. He was (people told me) proud of what his young guest in Kingston had made of himself in the ensuing half century.

I hope he knew how much I admired him. Paul taught a lesson beyond the one I’ve mentioned. It is that when we least imagine it, others, sometimes younger, sometimes hardly noticed by us, may be observing us. When we least think it, we may be teaching — even inspiring. Paul did.

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Show comments
  • Ipsidixit

    I’d hardly call someone who hates their gender or even the colour of their skin ‘free’.

    • trace9

      “his deep internal honesty”? – puts him forever in chains..

  • trace9

    “.. centred around the Shakespeare”.. Any in particular.. Liked the bit about top-pocket hankies, tho’, & for once they may have actually been useful.

  • scampy

    Yes but what homosexuals do will always be regarded as filthy unnatural and disgusting by a huge world wide majority?

  • BigCheddar

    I don’t always agree with MPs views, but I do always appreciate his writing. A beautiful and evocative piece once again, thank you.