The Caribbean lost one of its great characters last week. Not a sportsman, statesman, comedian nor entertainer, but someone who defied formal categorisation and remained rather indefinable - an eccentric indubitably, and a true Brit born not just of the silver spoon but with the whole tea set intact. Yes, Colin Tennant, aka Lord Glenconner was one on his own for sure, the last of a breed in the West Indies who bestrode Mustique, south west St Lucia and a few other places besides for nigh on half a century. In 1959 he acquired that Grenadine backwater, a scrub covered, mosquito ridden Mustique for a song, then spent years and half a fortune developing its infrastructure having given Princess Margaret a few prime acres for her wedding present.
After Royalty, the new aristocracy followed - rock stars, media moguls and socialites, in search of escape and hedonism alike which Colin was more than happy to facilitate over the next twenty years. After various management and financial wrangles he decamped to another gilded piece of paradise between the Pitons in St Lucia, importing Bupa, a pet elephant, for company. More trouble ensued over land development and Colin eventually settled for a relatively quiet life running his small estate centred on the Bang bar and latterly selling off plots of subdivided land. I first became familiar with him in Barbados in the 1970’s through his son Charlie who enjoyed bejewelled teenage years in Mustique before sadly dying young; family calamity became a theme but Colin somehow maintained a stiff upper lip throughout.
His trademark outfit of white cotton pants, white cotton shirt and hat never seemingly changed, and I can truthfully aver that I never saw him in anything else throughout our acquaintance. Sometimes he’d misplace the hat and get cross. He was a patriarch, with a loyal staff and following in rural St Lucia and prone to the occasional tantrum when things went awry. Once, in some down at heel shop in Soufriere, he overheard me mention I had to go to Castries the next day and kindly offered a lift (this in the days before a properly surfaced west coast road existed); he collected me in the morning in a battered jeep and we set off on a journey scheduled to take two hours. It lasted eight. At every wayside halt, for every fruit seller, fisherman or higgler in Anse La Raye or Canaries he had a friendly word, or they for him. Chats turned into discussions, long ones; at one stage, just as I thought we were getting somewhere, he drove into a deep drainage gully, almost writing off the vehicle. Four Rastas hauled us out, and we repaired to a rum shop to thank them. The Laird of Lucia I called him, which he quite liked.
Another time I found myself in some smart hostelry, which was unusual in itself, when suddenly Princess Margaret walked in unannounced, clutching her customary bottle of Famous Grouse (half empty as I recall), followed close behind by Colin and his wife Lady Anne, the Princess’s Lady in Waiting. We were introduced, and chatted briefly. A while later I felt a light touch on my forearm. It was Colin, whispering over my shoulder: “Stephen, Her Royal Highness has requested you accompany us to supper”. Lawd God Almighty, I was dumbstruck for a moment. What could a poor boy do? I’d never had the Royal Command before (then or since), me dear ol’ monarchist Mum back in Rochdale would have been proud. As a vehemently (dis)loyal subject of the Crown, I suppose I had no choice, and dutifully accepted. Besides, I was bloody hungry. Later in a memorable evening Colin lifted an eyebrow disdainfully when I failed to rise as Marj briefly excused herself from the table for a fag. As I told him later - I wasn’t going anywhere, so why bother getting up. He despaired.
Only last Christmas, he learnt that a London psychotherapist Joshua Bowler was his illegitimate son from more than fifty years ago by Henrietta Moraes and, true to form, gladly accepted him into the family fold. I bumped into Colin a year ago in late afternoon on an isolated beach at unfashionable Laborie on St Lucia’s south coast. He was taking his evening stroll miles from home, alone in his thoughts at 83, a ghostly figure in the gloaming, in the twilight of a life well spent. We shared a pot of tea. He seemed tired, something in his pale blue eyes said this would be the last time I’d see him. And it was. Many will miss him.
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