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Lady in Waiting by Anne Glenconner review – // VIDEO: Princess Margaret's Childhood Friend Describes the Secret Behind Royal L...// Interview 'I’m no snowflake'

Anne with her father, Lord Glenconner, in 1953.

Lady in Waiting by Anne Glenconner review – fascinating portrait of English repression

Observer book of the week

Autobiography and memoir

The marriage and social milieu of Princess Margaret’s childhood friend reveals a vanished era of upper-class eccentricity


Rachel Cooke


Sun 24 Nov 2019 07.00 GMTLast modified on Sun 24 Nov 2019 18.24 GMT


Being very common, I have something of a mania for aristo-lit: a passion for stories about big houses and the wanton eccentrics who inhabit them that began in childhood with Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, continued into my teenage years with all things Mitford, and now finds ongoing sustenance mostly in diaries (Chips Channon, I salute you, and all who sailed in you). Nevertheless, I have to admit to being somewhat unprepared for Lady in Waiting, in which Anne Glenconner muses on her stiff upper lip and how it saw her through a marriage lasting 54 years to a man whose idea of a honeymoon treat was to take her – a girl who had been a virgin only hours before – to a fleapit of a hotel to watch two strangers having sex (“That’s very kind, but no thank you,” she said when invited to join in). Is her memoir a horror show or a delightful entertainment? A manual for how to live, or how not to live? In truth, I’m not sure even she would know the answer to these questions.


The eldest child of the fifth Earl of Leicester, Glenconner was maid of honour at the Queen’s coronation and lady-in-waiting to her childhood friend Princess Margaret. She grew up at Holkham Hall in Norfolk – a house so huge that if the footmen put raw eggs in a bain-marie as they walked from kitchen to nursery, they’d be boiled on arrival – and, aged 23, married Colin Tennant, later Lord Glenconner, the owner of a Scottish castle called Glen and of the Caribbean island of Mustique. Tennant was, she tells us repeatedly, great fun and so generous. But it can’t have been too much fun when he deliberately trapped her in the fold-up bed in their cabin on a train, or when he took her to a cock fight (one of the cocks attached itself to her head, causing it to bleed; far from being sympathetic, he was furious that she’d ruined the betting).


 It’s impossible not to admire her fortitude as she deals with her fear and her grief

What of his generosity? Well, there were certainly lots of parties, attended by Bianca Jagger et al. My favourite story, however, involves the visit to Glen of his aesthete kinsman, Stephen Tennant. Uncle Stephen being not at all keen on the purple of the heather, Colin kindly sprinkled the moors with blue paper flowers. “Oh, darling!” said Uncle Stephen. “That’s much better, isn’t it?”


Glenconner knows that she’s privileged, and if the staff, the houses and the holidays come with a price in the form of a man who lies in the foetal position when he cannot get his own way, and who wears paper knickers (in order to be able to eat them for a party trick), so be it. She can cope. She has a Gypsy caravan into which she can escape when it gets too much – and later, she takes refuge in her duties for Princess Margaret, that great lover of prawn cocktail and Antiques Roadshow. (HRH, incidentally, is another of those she insists was great fun, in spite of all evidence to the contrary.) Additionally, she has her stoicism – which is where it all gets interesting. Much as I loved reading about the way, say, that she and her mother, the countess, would gather jackdaw eggs using a ladle attached to a walking stick (apparently, they’re as delicious as plover’s eggs, though since I’ve tasted neither, I can’t possibly comment), after a while there’s no ignoring the painful and widening disjunction between the outward whirl of her life and the repeated tragedies that befall her family.


Her first son, Charlie, a heroin addict, dies of hepatitis C. Her second son, Henry, dies of an Aids-related illness at just 29 (as a photo caption helpfully reminds us, her husband informed her that Henry was ill just moments before the couple donned fancy dress for the Peacock Ball they were throwing to celebrate his birthday). Her third son, Christopher, following an accident during his gap year, ends up in a coma for four months; it takes him years to learn to walk again. These are unimaginably terrible events, and it’s impossible not to admire her fortitude as she deals with her fear and her grief; as she patiently sits by Christopher’s bedside, refusing to believe he will never wake up. But as she admits, her two older boys were also the victims of a system, cold and inflexible, that insists on nannies, boarding schools and a certain emotional distance on the part of their parents (“There I was, immersed in royal life, while my eldest son was running wild,” as she understatedly puts it).


As a girl, Glenconner spent years away from her mother and father, having been evacuated during the war; they left her with a nanny who tied her by the wrists to her bed every night before she went to sleep. But though she remembers vividly the pain this caused her, somehow she cannot avoid visiting on her own children a similar fate. When they cry as she drops them at boarding school, she weeps too – and yet still she drives away. In the end, her book isn’t only a record, funny and sometimes dazzling, of a way of life now almost disappeared. It’s an unwitting examination of English repression: both of how it gets you through and of how it can slay you.


• Lady in Waiting by Anne Glenconner is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£20).


Lady in Waiting by Anne Glenconner review – a bestselling glimpse of the royals

Book of the week

Autobiography and memoir

The candid life story of Princess Margaret’s aide, which has proved a publishing hit, provides insights into the aristocratic system and the real life behind The Crown


Kathryn Hughes

Sat 7 Dec 2019 09.00 GMT


Nothing goes down better with a section of the British public than a posh old lady who isn’t afraid to talk dirty. It’s the contrast between the drawling vowels, blossomy complexion, sculpted cheekbones and sexual frankness that turns us into what Nanny would probably call “giggling ninnies”. Anne Glenconner, who at the age of 87 has published a bestselling memoir, was a big hit this autumn on The Graham Norton Show, Loose Women and all manner of breakfast television sofas. One of her plummiest anecdotes concerns her mother, Lady Coke, trying to explain sexual intercourse in terms of canine coupling. “Do you remember Daddy’s labrador getting on top of Biscuit? Well, that’s what happens when you get married and have sex, except you will probably be lying down in a bed.” Cue peals of shocked laughter from the studio audience.


In fact, there’s nothing especially odd or even socially elevated about Lady Coke’s advice to her eldest girl on the eve of her 1956 marriage. Anne belonged to the generation of girls who were too young to have served in the WAAF and, instead of jitterbugging with young men, spent their chaste teenage years knitting socks for them. You didn’t need to have been brought up on the 27,000 acre Holkham Hall estate, nor been crowned “Deb of the Year” by Tatler, to have arrived at your courtship years without knowing much about men beyond a vague rule of thumb that some were “safe in taxis” while others most definitely were not.


Colin Tennant, the man Anne was marrying, really wasn’t safe anywhere, which doubtless explains his appeal. The evening after her disastrous wedding night to the mercurial banker, the blushing bride found herself whisked through Paris for a “surprise”. This turned out not to be dinner at the Ritz, but rather a seedy brothel where she was forced to watch a couple have sex, as if performing a public service. When they asked if Anne would like to join in, she replied politely: “That’s very kind of you, but no thank you.” Cue more studio laughter.


 The blushing bride found herself whisked through Paris for a 'surprise' – not dinner at the Ritz but sex at a brothel

She must have got the hang of it pretty quickly because the first of the five Tennant children was conceived on the honeymoon. What has made this book such a hit, however, is not the rolling out of anecdotes about saucy toffs, but rather the access it provides to the workings of the royal family in the second half of the 20th century. In 1971 Anne was appointed lady-in-waiting to her childhood friend Princess Margaret. The two little girls who had delighted in jumping out from behind the curtains at the footmen in wartime Holkham Hall now spent their adult days together, opening hospitals, looking interested in prisoners’ artwork, and trying not to yawn when seated next to a particularly boring bishop. They would also share off-duty times on Mustique, the midgy Caribbean island which Tennant had bought for a song in 1958 and turned into a playground for millionaires. Cue some larky tales about Bianca Jagger and David Bowie with sand between their toes.


Anne even has a stake in season three of The Crown, where she is played by Nancy Carroll as the counsellor and confidante of Helena Bonham Carter’s Margaret. In an oddly dreamlike merging of memoir and dramatic narratives, Anne recently found herself sitting side by side with Bonham Carter on Graham Norton’s sofa promoting their parallel projects. Naturally the two women knew each other already, Bonham Carter being cousin to Tennant, AKA Lord Glenconner.


This makes the upper class sound like a cosy tight-knit clan, but one of the chief revelations of Lady in Waiting is just how cruel and wasteful the aristocratic system has historically been to women. Because of the cast-iron rule of male primogeniture, Lady Anne and Princess Margaret were obliged to spend their entire lives as left-overs “waiting” for someone to decide what to do with them. When Anne Coke was born in 1932 as the first child of a man who would become the fifth Earl of Leicester she was a “big disappointment”, who “broke the line” by being a girl, the first of three sisters. As a result of her wrongness the magnificent Holkham Hall and the earldom passed on her father’s death to her male second cousin. Margaret too was hexed by her gender: if the clever, headstrong girl had been born a boy she would have leapfrogged our present Queen to succeed their father in 1952. Instead of useful, purposeful public lives, the mischievous best friends found themselves entirely surplus to requirements.


This sense of being in the way was compounded when both women were disqualified from marrying the men they loved. Before her marriage to Tennant, Glenconner was blissfully engaged to “Johnnie” Althorp, who would later go on to father Diana, Princess of Wales. But as a result of Johnnie’s father Earl Spencer muttering about Anne having some distant mentally “defective” cousins (who also happened to be first cousins to Princess Margaret and Queen Elizabeth), the dashing cavalry officer slunk away without telling his fiancee that the match was off because of her “mad blood”. Princess Margaret, meanwhile, was famously not permitted to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend on the grounds that his earlier divorce was incompatible with her sister’s position as head of the Church of England. Instead, both women accepted men on the rebound whom their families considered distinctly below the salt. Margaret married “Tony Snapshot”, as Glenconner’s father wittily called Antony Armstrong-Jones. Meanwhile, Glenconner insisted that his own daughter’s fiance, Tennant, whose family fortune was far too recently based on bleach, line up with the beaters rather than the guns when attending a shoot at Holkham Hall.


Perhaps both young men were cross about having such non-U names (“Colin” and “Tony” sound as if they belong at a Rotary Club social rather than Buckingham Palace). Whatever their reasons, they used their “artistic” temperaments as a cover story for some truly appalling behaviour. Armstrong-Jones took to leaving notes for Margaret along the lines of: “You look like a Jewish manicurist and I hate you”, while Tennant thinks nothing of embarrassing his wife at parties by tearing off his paper underpants and eating them. Both men have mistresses, both men present their wives with a “love child”. Tennant’s final act of cruelty came in 2010 when he left a scrappy handwritten will bequeathing his fortune – still huge despite the financial depredations that had come with Mustique – to a local employee. What makes it all so much worse is that Glenconner says that she still isn’t sure whether he did it simply as a stunt to ensure that his reputation as an eccentric aristocrat would survive post-mortem.


Although Glenconner never mentions any kind of mental health diagnosis for her husband, Tennant is clearly troubled; he spends hours in a foetal position begging her to talk him down from his own anguished self. Her real focus, at least in this book, is on her best friend Margaret, who she believes has been horribly traduced in recent years as a narcissistic monster of rudeness and self-regard. While never resorting to a cover-up, Glenconner provides a nuanced character portrait of a woman whose life sounds truly wretched. Above all, she emphasises that Margaret was marvellously supportive during the years in which Glenconner was forced to endure the death of her first two sons and the permanent disablement of her third following a motorcycle accident. In particular she wants us to know that, long before Princess Diana became famous for fighting the stigma of Aids, Margaret was visiting dying patients at the London Lighthouse hospice; they included Glenconner’s second son, Henry. HRH didn’t do hugs, but she was funny and her jokes made the young men laugh.


In return it’s clear that Glenconner was marvellous to her unhappy friend. Her account of Margaret’s final year, bundled up in bed and wanting nothing more but to hold hands or watch Antiques Roadshow with her, is beautifully, which is to say tactfully, done. Indeed, discretion and honour emerge as the hallmarks of Glenconner’s career as a royal servant, culminating in this book which manages to be both candid and kind. Above all, she demonstrates a remarkable readiness to own up to her own mistakes. In particular she worries that the classic absentee mothering style of the aristocracy, involving nannies and boarding schools, may have been at the root of her eldest son developing the drug addiction that eventually killed him. If only, one can’t help thinking, members of the present royal family would follow their admirable servant’s example of honest self-reckoning and personal responsibility.


• Lady in Waiting is published by Hodder & Stoughton (RRP £20)



'I’m no snowflake': Anne Glenconner on Margaret, marriage and Meghan Markle

Hadley Freeman

The former lady-in-waiting’s memoir is a surprise bestseller. She discusses family tragedy and why Princess Margaret was more fun than people think


Hadley Freeman @HadleyFreeman

Fri 20 Mar 2020 08.58 GMTLast modified on Fri 20 Mar 2020 15.48 GMT


Since it came out five months ago, a debut work by an 87-year-old has become a publishing phenomenon. Lady in Waiting: My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown by Anne Glenconner has sold more than 200,000 copies in the UK and retains a tenacious hold on the bestseller lists. Written by the former lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret, its broad appeal might seem surprising, not least because Margaret was hardly the most popular royal. But Lady Glenconner’s book has two things going for it: the first is that it is not what it seems; it is definitely not “a lavender sort of scented memoir”, as Glenconner put it when she appeared on The Graham Norton Show last November. And its other great strength is Glenconner herself.


“Are you really tired after your journey? Did you find a taxi when you got off the train?” she asks when I arrive at her home on the Norfolk coast. She has the accent of the Queen – “really” becomes “rill-eh”, “off” is “orff” – and is dressed like her too, in a blouse, cardigan, pleated knee length skirt, tights and loafers. It is easy to picture her striding around the world, making small talk with Imelda Marcos, which is what she used to do with Princess Margaret. I lean in to kiss her, but then ask if she’s refraining because of the coronavirus. Glenconner looks at me as if I’ve left my marbles on the train: “I’ve been through the second world war and lived with someone with Aids at the beginning [of the Aids crisis]. I’m not scared of a little virus, you know,” she says. She turns on her heel and marches down her long hallway, and I have to scoot to keep up with her.


Glenconner was born Anne Coke (pronounced Cook), the daughter of an earl. “So I married down somewhat,” she says with a satisfied smile, as her husband, Colin Tennant, was merely the Baron Glenconner. In her book, Glenconner describes her current home as “a cottage” but these things are relative: compared to the nearby Holkham Hall where she grew up, and Glen, the enormous estate in Scotland belonging to her late husband’s family, I guess it is a cottage. To me, it looks like a sizable house, with a warren of rooms filled with family portraits and vintage toys that are now kept for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She takes me to the pretty sitting room, where we sit on either side of the fire. “When Princess Margaret would visit the two of us would sit just like this,” she says. “One time she came with her kettle and said: ‘I’m going to be independent, Anne, all you need to do is give me some milk.’ I was a bit doubtful and I was right because suddenly one morning it was ‘Anne! Anne!’ ‘Yes, ma’am, what is it?’ ‘I think the kettle’s broken!’ Of course, she hadn’t turned it on. But she did want to help …” Prince Charles, another “proper friend”, stops by often: “And people are really fond of him now, you know. All that talking to plants and his green things, it’s all come true. People don’t laugh at it.”


I tell her that even the most republican of my friends love the book.


“You know, I’ve never written anything in my life at all, and I thought: ‘Well, people like me might buy it.’ But it’s gone way beyond that. I certainly didn’t think the Guardian would be interested in my book. I know you’re a very leftwing newspaper and somebody like me is not quite your cup of tea, so that’s encouraging.” On a table nearby, a Daily Telegraph is tucked discreetly under a cushion.


Glenconner composed the book in this room, dictating her life story into a recorder. “Somebody said: ‘Do you get writer’s block?’ I said: ‘No, writer’s diarrhoea!’ I just talked and talked,” she says. Glenconner’s distinctive voice has a no-nonsense briskness to it, undercut with a wry but warm sense of humour. She manages to laugh at things others might find less amusing: the patriarchal aristocratic system that meant she couldn’t inherit her family home (“I tried awfully hard to be a boy, even weighing 11lb at birth, but I was a girl and there was nothing to be done about it”); her husband taking her to a “perfectly disgusting” live sex show during their honeymoon; even her son Henry’s funeral when he died from Aids – “I couldn’t help a tiny smile because, as is Buddhist custom, his coffin was covered with pineapples and other tropical fruit, so it looked like a giant fruit salad as it came into the crematorium.”


“It’s no fun for anyone if you’re sitting around being a misery. I’m no snowflake, probably a battle-axe. I was brought up by my mother to get on with things,” she says. Her family crest is an ostrich swallowing a horseshoe, signifying the family’s ability to digest anything.



Glenconner’s family has a long relationship with the royal family: her paternal grandmother was Edward VIII’s mistress and her father was equerry to George VI. Glenconner was Princess Margaret’s devoted lady-in-waiting for more than 30 years, and this is what spurred her into writing her book, as she was horrified by a recent biography about the princess, which she describes as “that horrible book, we won’t mention the name of the somebody who wrote it. I don’t know why people want to rot her like that.” When I ask if she means Craig Brown’s book, Ma’am Darling, she gives a pained, terse nod.


Determined to rectify the common perception of the princess as spoilt and spiteful, Glenconner writes about Margaret’s various kindnesses to her. They were, she says, real friends, even if one called the other “Ma’am” and the other didn’t. “I would have felt quite uncomfortable calling her anything else. But she was so funny, that’s what people don’t get,” she says. After the princess died, the Queen thanked Glenconner for providing her sister with many of the happiest moments in her life.


I’d been warned beforehand not to ask about Meghan Markle so I ask instead if, having spent so much time with Margaret, she has extra empathy for the other spares, Princes Andrew and Harry. But Glenconner knows what I’m up to: “You’re edging closer to asking me about Meghan Markle,” she tuts. “I’m going to put another log on the fire before I answer that!”


Markle’s mistake, she says, was to not understand that all the royals, even the spares, work hard: “I think she thought she could drive around in a golden coach. But it’s actually quite boring. Princess Margaret did so much charity work, and without any photographers, unlike the Princess of Wales.” (Glenconner is a staunch royalist, but her sympathies are with the more traditional branches of the family; even Princes William and Harry, she says, “go on about their mother the whole time. I think it’s a bit much.”)


Coverage of Glenconner’s book has focused on the royals, but it’s the descriptions of her own life that gripped me. First, her marriage to Colin, who had frequent mental breakdowns and was a bully; when Glenconner asked him why he screamed at people so often, he replied: “I like making them squirm.” He insisted on telling her about his holidays with his many girlfriends (“I said, ‘Can we talk about something else?’”), but Glenconner got her own back, and makes one fleeting reference in her book to having a “dear friend”. This is the one subject she won’t be drawn on: “I’ll tell you absolutely nothing at all, except that he made my life possible. We had lunch once a week and the occasional weekend for nearly 40 years, and that’s all I’ll say.”


Despite everything, Glenconner painstakingly emphasises her husband’s good qualities in the book, such as his sense of fun and imagination – partly, she says, for the sake of their children, but also because it was true. He turned Mustique from unpromising scrubland into a celebrity pleasure island, where Mick Jagger would lead singalongs in a beach bar. Colin’s parties were legendary for their loucheness, such as the Golden Ball, which was photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe, when Bianca Jagger was carried in by a troupe of boys painted entirely in gold and wearing only “a coconut strategically placed below”. The celebrities revelled in the privacy from the media: on one holiday, Glenconner delicately pointed out to Princess Margaret that her bathing suit was transparent. “‘Oh Anne,’ she said, somewhat exasperated. ‘I don’t care. If [people] want to look, they can look.’ And that was that.” Colin died in 2010 but, Glenconner says, he would be “absolutely delighted” that Mustique is still causing scandals, with questions over who paid for Boris Johnson’s recent holiday there.


The couple had five children: Charlie, Henry, Christopher and twins May and Amy. Glenconner loved being a mother, but, despite not having been entirely happy with aspects of her childhood – absent parents, nannies, boarding school – she repeated it with her own children, leaving them behind as she helped her husband in Mustique. “It’s just what you did, what all our friends did, the shooting parties all winter we went off to – we didn’t think. I didn’t even want them to go to boarding school …” she trails off.


The three youngest children had the same nanny throughout their childhood, but the two eldest, Charlie and Henry, had many different ones, their father sacking their favourites on a whim. By the age of eight Charlie had severe OCD. As a teenager, he got into drugs. Henry married and had a son, but in the late 80s he came out as gay and within 18 months he had Aids, at a time when the diagnosis turned you into a pariah. “I would take Henry to A&E, and it was full when we arrived and within half an hour everybody had left and I was alone with him. He was so ill that we would sit on the floor, with his head in my lap. That was quite hard to write about.”


Meanwhile her youngest son, Christopher, suffered a catastrophic head injury while on a gap year in Belize. He was in a coma and a doctor told Glenconner that she should forget about him. Instead, she nursed him and when he woke up four months later she took him home and cared for him for the next five years. He was left with life-changing injuries, but he has married twice and has two children.


After Henry died and Christopher recovered, Charlie also seemed to be recovering from his addictions. But it was too late: he died from hepatitis, and Glenconner buried her second child. “Often people don’t talk to me about the children, maybe because they’re interested in the other things. But I like talking about them, and perhaps the book has given me a way to do so,” she says.


Her book’s success has thrilled her: “Aren’t I lucky?” She is planning a trip to New York, where Tina Brown will throw a party for the US launch. She is also working on her first novel, Murder in Mustique: “I’m the new Miss Marple!” she says delightedly.


Glenconner talks me through the family photos that surround us: Charlie as a handsome teenager, Henry’s son and his children, one of the twins getting married. A photo of Glenconner holding Charlie and Henry as babies is so bittersweet I can hardly look at it. “Oh I know,” she says when she sees me wince. As I’m about to leave, she touches my elbow gently. “I’m glad you asked me about the children, it was kind of you,” she says. “Because the book really is about them, you know.”

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