PC 286 I’ve read that ……

A Mark Sykes (1937 – 2022), “an art dealer, gun smuggler, gambler, jailbird, bookie, womaniser, racing driver and all-round upper-class rake” has died; his obituary was carried in The Times on Tuesday 31st May. The Old-English word rake in this case means ‘a dissolute or immoral person, especially a man who indulges in vices or lacks sexual restraint’; reading of his life I felt he lived up to the moniker! Generally obituaries cover the lives of the great, the good and the interesting; certainly Mark Sykes’ life was interesting.

Sledmere House

But his name reminded me of his family and its own colourful past, so well described by his cousin Christopher Simon Sykes in his book The Big House – essentially a biography about Sledmere, a house in East Yorkshire. If you have never heard of it and are interested in how certain families are woven into our national heritage, this is a wonderfully engaging book. 

After reading it many years ago I just had to go and visit the house and see for myself the setting of so many stories. Today I remember ‘Old Tat’ Sykes the fourth baronet famous for his riding exploits, who was said to be one of the great sights of Yorkshire. (Note 1) who died in 1861 at the age of ninety-one; his son who started the day wearing eight coats, which were gradually discarded to keep his body temperature constant (Note 2): the 6th Baronet, Colonel Sir Tatton Mark Sykes, whose diplomatic career peaked in 1916 with the secret deal between France and Britain, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which defined how the old Ottoman Empire would be split up, so drawing the boundaries of the current countries in the Middle East (note 3); and the fact that when Christopher Simon Sykes’ brother inherited the title in 1978, he told Christopher he would need permission to visit the house where he had grown up!! 

I have read that we are importing a nasty habit from America – distortion. Acknowledging that ethnic minorities have been woefully misrepresented in some of our films and dramas, now I sense we have gone completely overboard, with everyone anxious to show ‘they understand’ and wanting to right the wrong. The author Lionel Shriver (her best-selling book ‘We Must Talk About Kevin’) writes that ‘in a 2021 study by the Creative Diversity Network, ethnic minorities are over-represented in British programming in comparison with their share of the population by almost a factor of two. Black people are over-represented by 2.5 times. Casting of gay, lesbian and bisexual people in television productions suggests they make up 14% of the population whereas the true figure is 3%.’   

Shriver also revealed the results of a YouGov survey about how we British understand our diversity, on the back of an American survey which believed that 41% of the USA’s population were black, whereas the true proportion is about 12%. Here respondents thought the figure was 20% as opposed to 3%; other statistics Asian 17% (true 7%) Muslims 15% (true 4%) transgender 5% (true 0.4%) vegan or vegetarian 20% (true 4%). And finally a 2018 Lloyds Banking Group study found that representation of minorities in UK advertising has double in three years to 25%, twice the actually proportion!! Distortion plays to the fears of some in the population and leads to polarisation. (Note 4)  

I have also read that a chap who was Academy Sergeant Major at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst for ten years, Ray Huggins, has died. During his tenure some 5470 future officers trained at The Academy. Reading his obituary reminded me of the wonderful repartee these senior NCOs displayed. Huggins was RSM of Old College, one of three colleges, in 1966, during my second year. It wasn’t RSM Murphy Irish Guards (Victory College) but our platoon sergeant Staff Sergeant Cameron of the Scots Guards who berated John Treasure as follows:

“Mr Treasure, Sir, you ‘orrible excuse for a ‘uman. You know what Sir?” he screamed, jabbing his Pacestick (note 5) perilously close to John’s face, so much so one imagined he could have smelt last night’s garlic on Cameron’s breath, “there’s a c**t at one end of this Pacestick and you need to think very carefully before you tell me at which end, Sir!”

Staff Sergeant Cameron Scots Guards at the rear of the platoon

As an Officer Cadet the future King of Jordan’s status was no shield. Overheard during some inspection of his tunic, boots, rifle or hair, one of the RSMs: “Sir, there are two kings ‘ere sir, you sir and me sir. But ‘ere on my parade ground there is only king sir, me sir!”

One of his predecessors was a veteran of the Battle for Arnhem, Operation Market Garden, during WW2, an ASM JC Lord. His very first words to the assembled Officer Cadets were “Gentlemen. My name is JC Lord. JC does not stand for Jesus Christ. He is Lord up there (pointing skywards with his Pacestick) and I am Lord down here (pointing to the parade ground). I will address you as ‘Sir’ but I won’t mean it. You will address me as ‘Sir’ but make sure you do mean it’.

The skull of one of my great friends at Sandhurst, Martin Ward-Harrison, was quite prominent at the back, so much so that his forage cap sat right on the edge. Any hair beneath it was deemed too long and Martin forever had to have extremely short hair. Sadly Martin was killed in Oman ten years later, probably having grown his hair at last!

Richard 10th June 2022


Note 1 The other two mentioned were the City of York and the county itself!

Note 2 A catastrophic fire in 1911 left the building a shell. It is said that Sir Tatton Sykes was too busy eating one of the milk puddings, to which he was addicted, to pay much attention, but villagers and estate workers loyally rescued pictures, statues and furniture, china and carpets, and even doors and banisters.

Note 3 Mark died of Spanish influenza three years later aged 39 and was buried in a lead-lined coffin. Globally 50 million people died in this pandemic. In 2008 his body was exhumed so that samples of his remains could be frozen in liquid nitrogen and passed to researchers looking at how the virus passes from animals to humans.

Note 4 Apparently Britons believe some 20% of the population earn more than £100,000 a year whereas the real figure is some 3%.

Note 5 The wooden pace stick was like a large pair of dividers, capable of measuring the standard marching pace of 30 inches.

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