Formerly chief of the London bureau of an American weekly, ROBERT MANNING is now an assistant secretary of stale.
BY ROBERT MANNING
Colonel Wallingford-Stone is an estate agent — that is to say, he is a real-estate man whose particular responsibility is to manage properties which are owned by one body (in his case, the owners are the commissioners of the Church of England) and which are leased to other bodies (in this case, your humble intermediary). Renters occupy these homes as owners, but in fact they have only the responsibilities of owners and the privileges of renters. Though they may have renovated them, decorated them, or even have built them at considerable expense, the inhabitants do not in the full sense “own” their houses, but occupy them on long-term leases of from twenty-five to ninety-nine years, granted by the Church, the Duke of Westminster, Her Majesty the Queen, or whatever other institution or person happens to own the land on which the houses are built. This is a fair enough arrangement, provided you learn all about it before you move in.
The terms of repair and improvement are written into the long-term leases, and they are enforced according to a variety of circumstances, among them the degree of benevolence of the landowners or lessors. Properties owned by the Church of England — and there are some 27,000 houses and other buildings in London alone — are maintained in a manner that seems to derive more from the Christian virtue of rectitude than that of charity or forbearance. Their estate agents are reputed to be among the sternest in Britain. And of these, if I am not mistaken, the sternest of all is Colonel Wallingford-Stone.
He is a tall, slender man of about forty-eight or fifty, with a sharpfeatured face, a copper-plated ax blade for a chin, and eyes sculpted from agate. His well-cared-for frame is enclosed, at working hours, in the uniform of middle-class English authority-dark coat, sharp-collared shirt with dark tie, striped trousers, and an air of unbreachable certainty.
Before I ever set eyes on Colonel Wallingford-Stone, I had a few clipped telephone conversations involving some confusion over a garage, and a brief correspondence in which I, out of desire that sprang not altogether from generosity, offered to have my house painted this year instead of next, provided that a phrase in the lease was altered so as not to require a repainting next year. My wife and I were delighted when the colonel, presumably after much deliberation, gave us permission.
The house, small but stately Regency not far from the center of London, certainly needed paint. It was one of a row that since the war have begun to climb back toward a tranquil elegance. Its brick and stone exterior was in scrofulous state. Peelings of its last paint job curled from its sides; its woodwork had cracked in thirst for white lead and linseed oil. Close examination did not tell with certainty what color it had last been painted; its sister houses were all coated in various shades of a bilious cream or yellow that is favored, not unanimously but all too widely, in London. The city is beautiful in spite of it.
Scraping away the dirt and trying to assess what smog and fog had done to alter the shade over the years, we decided that previously the house had been painted white or a shade very close to white. We decided to duplicate this slight nonconformity on the part of our predecessors. I duly won approval from my company for the painting job. (It was my company that owned the lease, not I. I, in turn, rented the house from the company.)
“What color will you have it?” asked the painters, a large firm of considerable repute and experience at just this sort of job.
“White,”said my wife, and they beamed with approval at this break from the monotony of bilious yellow. With dispatch — and, of course, paintbrushes, coveralls, and ladders — the painters had the job under way. In two weeks they were done. The house gleamed, clean and gay in the bright spring sunshine. With its soft-blue door and flowerpots, its manicured garden aglow with bloom, and its lawn smooth as green baize, the house was transformed. We had brought a touch of Riviera to Blomfield Road.
Soon after, the phone rang at my office. “Wallingford-Stone here,” said the voice. Firm. Commanding. Decisive. “I see you are painting your house.”
I replied with perhaps a tinge of astonishment in my voice. After all, the painting had not begun until after a month of negotiations with the colonel, and since he lived only across the street he had no doubt not been mistaking the activity of the last two weeks for some Indiana apple-tree planting pageant. “Why, yes,” said I. Firm. Knowing. Informative.
“I assume, old boy, that the paint I see now is only the undercoating.”
At this point, a note of incredulity, of weakness must have slipped into my voice. “Why — er — a — no. Not at all.”
“You’re not painting it white, old boy?”
“Why, yes, we are.”
“Sorry, old chap. You can’t paint it white. Not an estate color, you know.”
“Not a what?” I asked, swallowing the small cherry pit of panic.
“Not an estate color. You must paint an estate color.”
“Good God, Colonel. It’s a fine time to be telling me.”
“All very clear in the lease. Completely clear. Says right there in print that it must be an estate color. We can’t make exceptions, you know. Why, there’d be chaos all up and down the street. Simply can’t be done.”
“With matters gone this far, you surely can’t ask us to do it all over again?” I said.
“Not only can, but must, I fear. Rules are rules, you know.”
It was either Clausewitz or Al Smith — it doesn’t make any difference — who said, “When you’re losing a battle, either develop a cough or hang up.” So I told Colonel Wallingford-Stone, “I’m afraid you’ve caught me quite by surprise, Colonel, and I can’t respond properly until I’ve had a chance to examine the lease and to think about this. It is something of a shock, you know.”
“I am sorry, old boy.” Was there a hint of softness there? “But you must try to understand. Do think about it over the weekend and let me hear from you.”
“I’ll do that,” I promised.
I kept the news to myself until I could dig the lease out of the office safe and transport it, along with a précis of my plight, to the company’s London solicitors.
The phone rang the next morning. “I’d advise you to try to talk the estate agent into a special exception,”said the positive voice at the other end. (By God, he sounded like a colonel, too!) “We haven’t got a — ”
“Let me finish — leg to stand on.”
“Right,” he said.
“Sure as I am of my own — ”
“Right. The lease does say the Church commissioners can approve another color. See if you can talk them into it.”
The next step took some planning. I decided to meet the colonel on terrain that would be familiar to him, and perhaps impressively so. Probably because of the house committee’s need for funds, I was a member of a men’s club that is considered by Englishmen to be reasonably exclusive and numbers among its members some of the leading lights of Britain, including the Prime Minister. Most pertinent of all, the club has a decidedly military cast and at lunchtime is thickly populated with young elegants of that top-button outfit, the Queen’s Household Cavalry, and middleaged ramrods with high pedigrees, distinguished military records, or, as is so often the case in Britain, both. I invited the colonel to lunch at my club.
I arrived early and sipped a gin and bitter lemon until the attendant notified me that my guest had arrived, and gestured toward the men’s washroom. There were two men, both almost identically attired. One, short and elderly, lethargically attacked his hands with a fingernail brush. The other, tall and brisk in movement, snapped-to a water faucet, wrung a hand towel as if it were the neck of a Mau Mau, threw it toward a towel hamper, and before I could get my hand out, extended his and said, “Manning, I presume. Nice of you to have me.”
I led him upstairs to the bar, there to begin the slow process of wanning first his cockles with drink, then his heart with the sincerity and common sense of my logic.
“What will you have to drink?” I asked.
“I abominate alcohol,” said the colonel. “I’ll have some of that. Plain.” He pointed to a bottle of bitter lemon.
“I’ve spent the morning trying to find out what was behind that story in the Times,” said I, seizing on the incident that for the preceding thirty-six hours had joggled the interest of a goodly part of England and most of the capitals of the world.
“What story?” said the colonel. “ I don’t read the Times. Can’t stand its policies. Frightful policies.”
“How do you classify the Times’s policies?" I inquired, truly curious.
“Liberal!” No Garrick, no Booth, no Gielgud could in one word surpass the eloquence with which he spat that curse.
I bravely charged again toward some Cemetery Ridge on which this attempt at amiability might begin. “This club” — I nodded toward its gleaming brownness, excellent sporting and military paintings, teak ashtrays made from the deck of H.M.S. Nelson — “is the favorite of a lot of shooting men and fishermen.” A look of interest came at last to Wallingford - Stone’s face.
“I tat,” he said.
“You what?” I asked.
“I tat. Have a very nice crossstitch. I sit and tat, and my wife and I discuss the news.” From across the bar, the Irish barman slipped me a quick glance of sympathy.
“How interesting,” I said. “I once did a cross-stitched locomotive.” It was not a lie. Some thirtyodd years ago, in the fifth grade of the Alexander Hamilton grade school in Binghamton, New York, I had indeed attained a barely passing grade in sewing by executing in blue and red cross-stitch the outlines of a locomotive on a checked gingham bag.
The comparative animation that entered Wallingford-Stone’s spirit encouraged me, and indeed the lunch did take on a politeness and amiability that augured well. Through the pâté and toast we talked of London and of general affairs, ho indicating in every way a degree of intelligence and understanding that went well with his demeanor and his obviously well-to-do but not rich status. Just as the cold lobster salad came in and he waved away the wine waiter for a second time, he said amiably, “And now what are we going to do about this problem of yours? When I left I told my colleagues that you were certainly not going to have me to lunch without bringing that up.”
“You were perfectly right,” I started to begin. “I — ”
“I’d like to help, old boy. Really would. But it’s simply not possible. I admit that the house looks marvelous. But we can’t have it. If we let one paint a different color, everyone will be after us. The next one may paint it purple or blue. Who knows? Not everyone has good taste, you know. No, simply won’t do. We can’t make an exception.”
It will cause nothing but pain to record the rest of that conversation. The last few words will suffice: “You are most kind and most understanding, old fellow, and I truly wish I could help you. But I fear you simply must go back and tell them that you have a brutal estate agent who insists on the letter of the law.”
I retreated from this high-caloried Dunkirk to my office, there to occupy myself with lesser affairs, of a global nature, then made my way home to House Beautiful. There, on the terrace, my wife waited, a warm smile on her face and cold martini in her hand. “How was lunch?” she asked.
“Well,” I said. “He seems to have us over a barrel.”
A smoker could have lit a cigarette off the sparks of her glance. “Munich!” she said. That was all.
It was enough. “WallingfordStone,” I said to myself, “the battle is joined.”
And it was, too, though the Archbishop of Canterbury was not yet aware of the fact. He had the law and, I suppose, the power of prayer on his side. I had the prettiest house on the street. Between these two great injustices, could there be any compromise?
In the next morning’s mail there came a brief note from the realestate firm which said, with piercing simplicity, “Dear Sir: With reference to your luncheon conversation with Colonel Wallingford-Stone, we enclose an official estate color card.” The card contained a glossy rectangle of but one color, malaise yellow.
I handed the card to my seconds.
That was three years ago. The duel that followed lasted for several months, one of those private conflicts that escaped the notice even of those microscopists of trivia, the London gossip columnists. There is no need to go into details: by dint of obstinacy, mild eloquence, and repeated personal calls at the office of the Church commissioners, I won permission to leave the house as it was, gleaming white. Neighbors drew courage from this. In the ensuing months, three other houses on the canal were repainted either white or, in timorous half-measure, a shade that verged closer to white than to yellow.
A victory, I suppose, over that most formidable of antagonists, British custom. But was it?
This spring, I visited London again, and on the way into the city from the airport had my driver detour by way of my old house. I looked for the monuments to victory. In vain. There in yellowish symmetry stood the sedate houses. The timeless time and fog and soot of London had removed all hint of the quiet revolution. As I sped past,
I conjured a fleeting vision of Wallingford-Stone seated across the street in his drawing room, comfortably tatting and humming to himself, “There’ll Always Be an England.” I hummed the tune too.