An aristo’s lot… leaks, bills and a demented father: The Earl of Sandwich’s touching memoirs as he chronicles his dad’s slow decline into Alzheimer’s disease and death
- A touching diary of John Montagu’s father’s decline into Alzheimer’s disease
- It chronicles the realities of sharing a house as his father’s condition worsens
- The memoir reveals the antics of an increasingly forgetful and demanding father
by John Montagu (Skyscraper £10, 224 pp)
Leaking house, leaking pond, leaking puppy, leaking father… these touching diaries of John Montagu (now the 11th Earl of Sandwich), chronicling his father’s slow decline into Alzheimer’s disease and death over eight years, have them all, in dripping abundance.
Drip, drip, drip. It’s January 1987 and a fountain-like noise is coming from the attic of Mapperton House, the Tudor pile in Dorset which John and his wife Caroline share with John’s 81-year-old twice-divorced father, known as ‘Higgy’ or ‘Hinch’ (for ‘Viscount Hinchingbrooke’).
Water is cascading through the ceiling onto the canopy of Hinch’s four-poster, onto his mattress and onto the floor. John rushes about with buckets.
The next morning, water is found streaming through the 18th-century ceiling of the staircase hall. John calls the emergency plumbers but they’re ankle-deep in water at another manor house nearby.
John Montagu (now the 11th Earl of Sandwich) (pictured with his wife Caroline), chronicling his father’s slow decline into Alzheimer’s disease
It’s delicious to read about other people’s domestic crises, especially if they live in stately homes. They put one’s own broken radiator into perspective.
A typical day at Mapperton includes multiple sheep, deer or cattle getting through the fence into the garden, a pond losing water fast, iced-up lavatories, badgers fusing the electric fence, an ‘accident’ by the new puppy, and bills demanding yet more money.
Welcome to the world of keeping a stately home going in the late Eighties. With all this going on, you feel John could do without the antics of an increasingly forgetful and demanding father.
For a detailed chronicling of the daily-worsening realities of sharing a house with a relative who has Alzheimer’s, these diaries could hardly be bettered. As I read them I felt, along with John, affection for the old man diminishing to fury brought on by sheer exhaustion.
John and his wife Caroline share with John’s 81-year-old twice-divorced father, known as ‘Higgy’ or ‘Hinch’ (for ‘Viscount Hinchingbrooke’) (pictured)
Hinch’s decline starts gently with a bit of absent-minded behaviour, such as pressing the gramophone needle into a record to try to turn up the volume.
He starts forgetting names and fretting about small things. He insists on wearing a jersey and tweed jacket in a heatwave. A few months later, he’s found shivering in an empty bath. He falls over, drinks vodka after breakfast, and refuses to stop driving. He’s an increasing liability.
And, annoyingly for John, he treats the ‘honesty box’ in the garden — the box used by the visiting public to pay for their small purchases — as his bank, raiding it daily for funds.
Doesn’t sound too bad? You could just about live with all that? Maybe, but then the erratic sleeping habits begin.
Hinch puts himself to bed after lunch and wakes up at supper time demanding breakfast. He refuses to go to bed at bedtime, when everyone is exhausted. He wakes up at 4.30am, and hammers on John’s bedroom door once every 40 minutes from then on. They install a gate but he climbs over.
It’s January 1987 and a fountain-like noise is coming from the attic of Mapperton House (pictured), the Tudor pile in Dorset
‘He is exasperating,’ John writes, ‘and he is driving me slowly mad.’
John barely conceals the feeling — which may have crossed the minds of those living with an Alzheimer’s sufferer — that it would be better for Hinch if it was all over.
But he carries on. ‘Convalescence is rampant,’ John writes wryly, and ‘my old resentments seem to rise with his convalescence.’
Amid this anguish there are moving moments, such as when Hinch, hardly able to recognise his children, is taken to church and remembers the liturgy.
John barely conceals the feeling — which may have crossed the minds of those living with an Alzheimer’s sufferer — that it would be better for Hinch if it was all over
Or when John looks down the garden at the autumnal beauty and contemplates that ‘it’s all because one retired and sulky ex-MP planted an orchard which he’s now too old to see’.
Get him to a nursing home, I found myself pleading, when the morale of the whole household is turned upside down.
They do get him to a nursing home — a heartbreaking journey, as they tell him he’s just going for a visit, he doesn’t know where he is, and no one has any idea that he will, in fact, be there for four years until his death aged 88 in 1995.
Since 1995, John and his wife have managed to rescue Mapperton and keep it going.
In his welcome video on the website, the earl admits he doesn’t actually make the sandwiches in the cafe. Having read this affecting chronicle, I’m planning to go there.
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