It is unlikely that any of the obituaries of Richard Rhys, the ninth Baron Dynevor, will present him as an establishment outsider, perhaps even a victim of the class system. Being born into a distinguished aristocratic family which Burke’s Peerage traces back to the reign of Henry II and, according to some sources, being a direct descendant of the King of Wales is hardly the stuff of misery memoirs. Yet the life of Lord Dynevor, a gentle and generous man who died recently at the age of 73, is a reminder of how double-edged privilege can be.
Richard Dynevor was a loyal best friend to the writer Willie Donaldson, who himself died three years ago and whose biography I have written. Both men were born into wealth and both, by the time they met at Cambridge, had decided that they were going to have nothing to do with the life that was expected of them. Richard left Cambridge to fight for freedom in Hungary and caused a stir when, as a future peer of the realm, he addressed a protest rally in the Albert Hall.
Together in the early 1960s, the young Richard Rhys, as he was then, and Willie Donaldson set out to become figures in the world of theatre. “There were no clouds on the horizon,” Richard told me while I was researching my book. “It was all blue skies.” The clouds appeared soon enough. Willie Donaldson ran through the first of several fortunes. Richard’s father died in 1962, leaving him a title, 23 farms, 2,000 acres, a 12th-century castle once painted by Turner, a deer park – and, most significantly of all, death duties amounting to more than £1m. Over the years, the castle was sold, the deer park taken on by the National Trust and the inheritance of a great land-owning dynasty dwindled.
The new Lord Dynevor, who could have had a moderately easy life, chose to follow his own path. As an undergraduate, he had been worried that, with an education that had taken him from Eton to the Grenadier Guards to Magdalene College, Cambridge, the establishment would get him. He was not the first young toff to think along those lines but almost always, having enjoyed a brief flaring moment of individuality, they come in from the cold to enjoy a life on the inside.
Willie Donaldson had a gift which allowed him to use his life as material; Richard, with a heavier weight of ancestry, had a tougher time. He worked in the theatre. He set up a publishing house. He was a champion of all things Welsh. His unlikely circle of friends included J P Donleavy and Carly Simon (“The King!” Carly Simon exclaimed when I mentioned his name. “Oh, how’s the King of Wales?”)
Willie, his closest friend of all, would test him sorely over the years, needing to be rescued from all sorts of scrapes – financial, romantic and narcotic. In return, Richard would have to put up with appearing in his friend’s books and columns, sometimes in the role of buffoonish aristocrat. When he objected, Willie would say: “But you must see how funny it is.” And Richard did.
It was probably not an easy life, that of the ninth Baron Dynevor, but it seems to me – and I only knew him through his connection to Willie Donaldson – that it had a sort of quiet heroism to it. He was a fiercely loyal friend and, in spite of all the pressures of history and class, he managed to be his own man, rather than impersonating a role handed down to him.
Whatever happened to the have-a-go heroes?
An unseemly spat has developed among the have-a-go heroes of Glasgow Airport. The baggage-handler John Smeaton, who came to symbolise the defiance of the ordinary citizen in the face of terror when he said “This is Glasgow – we’ll set aboot ye” as two terrorists spilt out of a burning Jeep Cherokee, was not called as a witness at the trial of Bilal Abdulla. Indeed, a taxi-driver who tackled the two terrorists has recently claimed that Smeato, as he is now known, “just stood there smoking and watched while we got stuck in”.
It is a controversial claim. After the incident, it was Smeato who was awarded a gallantry medal by the Queen, met the Prime Minister and other leading politicians, appeared on the Pride of Britain awards and was voted Scotland’s third most eligible male (David Tennant and Jamie Murray occupied the top spots). His brave words have appeared on T-shirts around the world.
But this new tussle, unlike the one at Glasgow Airport, is unimportant. The world needs its share of ordinary heroes, who can not only do the right thing but can then play the part appropriately for the media. Smeato has contributed to our national morale and deserved his moment of fame.
‘Tis the season to be horribly, horribly drunk
It is the time of year when double standards over alcohol bloom like the gin-flush on a boozer’s nose. There are scandalised public pronouncements about the human and economic cost of excessive drinking, the cause of a 9 per cent annual rise in hospital admissions, according to the latest figures. Yet in every paper and on every radio show – particularly those with a young audience – getting drunk at Christmas is celebrated with almost religious zeal. Perhaps we should simply admit it: Britain likes booze and has a soft spot for drunks.