Tom Sutcliffe considers European ties


Old men inevitably complain, and if we are living longer we have more time to complain and more to complain about. There seems to be very little sense of history among the young, or understanding of quite recent historic experience. It strikes me as strange that an English Roman Catholic should be leader of the Conservative MPs’ group opposed to the Treaty of Rome (for the UK at least) and eager to leave the European Union which seems to me to be all about level playing fields for trade and collaboration on ecological necessities. I am only 75 and come from a very military and naval background. The war dominated my childhood as it had dominated my parents’ and grandparents’ early adult lives. Pompey in the mid-1940s was full of soldiers and sailors. War damage fills all my childish recollections.

Going into Europe, being in Europe has never been an issue for me. My first foreign trip was three months in Denmark in summer 1946; my second a trip by Hurstpierpoint Colege choir to Holland in spring 1957 with me as soloist; my third an exchange month spent en famille in Cannes in August 1957, followed by a week in Paris with my mum’s second cousins Susanne and Paul de Montgolfier, whose daughter Edith had visited my maternal grandmother in our Emsworth home in 1954. My grandmother spent a year in Weimar in 1903 aged 18, being “finished”, and spoke fluent German. Friends she made then included a young army officer Walter Petzel from Poznan, whose daughter Inge Bagh remained a close friend of my mum’s – who also spoke German having been an au pair in Dresden in the early 1930s, When peace came, communication restarted. Artillery General Petzel had behaved impeccably in his commands in the East, and had been retired in January 1945.

 One year after a bit of tourism took the train across Italy to Alassio where one of the elderly Italian cousins lived, Giorgina Mansel. I spoke practically not a word of Italian, though my French was passable. I arrived at Gioegina’s house only to learn from her maid that she was down on the beach meeting a couple of friends at their hotel. I left my luggage and walked down the hill, which was steep but the beach not far. I had no idea who would be Giorgina, nor her friends. But somehow it was all perfectly obvious. There she was, a 67-year-old (though I had no idea what age she was) with a couple of rather grand-seeming English friends: Sir Charles and Lady Belgrave. He had for over 30 years been British advisor to the Sheikh of Bahrain. I did have supper with him once in 1964 in his house in Victoria Road, Kensington – where everything was served by Arab servants to the clap of his hands. Giorgina was very sweet to me. Did I drive, she asked? And I did. Would I go back up to the house and collect her Vauxhall Velux and bring it down to the beach to pick her up. I stayed with her for about four days. Her married name came from having had an English husband who was a painter from Thame in Oxon. In some ways the most interesting encounter of that period in Alassio was a meeting at the house of an expatriate friends, Mrs Coquelle, who told me she had seen my grandfather Tommy Swayne playing a role in The Pirates of Penzance in Peking – and indeed my mother was born in Tientsin and my grandparents were out there for four years, as my grandfather was in the Royal Army Service Corps. Since he had committed suicide while a patient in the Officers’ Resthome at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, this was one of the most positive links I ever had with him. Mrs Coquelle’s house was full of Chinese top quality antiques. During the war she had had to leave it. But fortunately a German officer who had taken up residence there for a time, later in the war, was a gent and had neither stolen not broken anything.  

I next moved on to Florence where I went and visited Giorgina’s nephew and niece Alberto and Anna-Maria and their daughter Rossana, who I later got to know well and who taught psychology at Florence University and took patients for analysis as well (who she said were often victims of unhelpful religious upbringing). I think most of my English cousins never pursued any of these connections. But for me they were a marvellous source of an alternative viewpoint. My mum and dad were married in 1935 at St Jude’s Southsea by Revd Arthur Swayne, one of my grandfather’s two priest brothers. Arthur had been vicar of St Aidan’s Leeds and married (a very fashionable Scarborough event) Eva Margaret a daughter of the pioneering engineer and industrialist James Kitson, whose nephew Robert was close to the artist Frank Brangwyn. The commissioned murals that eventually ended up as mosaics by Brangwyn make the church extremely memorable. Kitson money was well spent. Arthur’s first cousin William Shuckburgh Swayne was Bishop of Lincoln from 1920 to 1932.

When Bishop George Bell, reputation now completely unclouded, confirmed me in 1955, my mother gave me A Communicant’s Manual by B W Randolph, Principal of Ely Theological College. The family tradition was definitely Anglo-Catholic. But the Kitsons (or certainly Lord Airedale) were Unitarians. Family and religion are a complex mix.