Sunday Times, 10 April 2016
Sir Anthony Montague Browne’s hairbrushes are the detail that catches the eye. Do men, these days, have more than one? Do they have anything more than a comb and a tube of gel?
Montague Browne, a former RAF pilot and private secretary to Winston Churchill, died in 2013. His widow, Shelagh, kept the brushes in remembrance. His hair clung to them, and after a long, strange story his DNA was extracted, proving that he, not Gavin Welby, was the father of Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury.
Welby reacted to the news with astounding grace. He had asked for the DNA test himself and was clear-sighted about what it might reveal. It was a fine, priestly and topical lesson to all those politicians who have been dodging and weaving over the Panama papers.
“There is no existential crisis,” he said, “and no resentment against anyone. My identity is founded in who I am in Christ.”
The story of the unearthing of Welby’s true paternity evokes the vanished world of postwar Britain, not just of men with multiple hairbrushes, but also of drunks and gamblers, rakish RAF heroes and racing drivers and of the potency of rural gossip.
It is the world of Anthony Powell’s 12-volume novel cycle A Dance to the Music of Time in which the variously damaged, privileged characters move through lives of infidelity and concealment, all lost in a world the war and its aftermath had made terrifying and uncertain. People had become opaque.
“One passes through the world,” wrote Powell, “knowing few, if any, of the important things about even the people with whom one has been from time to time in the closest intimacy.” He could have been writing about the story of Welby’s discovery of his true father.
Welby’s handling of it has also made it a story of a very Anglican mix of liberality, faith and realism.
The tale began to emerge two years ago from the borders of East Sussex and Kent where Charles Moore, the Daily Telegraph columnist and official biographer of Margaret Thatcher, heard it said by neighbours that Montague Browne was the true father of Welby, who had been confirmed as archbishop in February 2013.
Long before that, Welby’s apparent paternity was already a gossipy issue. Gavin Welby was a high-living fraud. He dated John F Kennedy’s sister and the actress Vanessa Redgrave, he was a Lloyd’s “name” and he was twice a losing Conservative party candidate.
His life was all founded on lies. He was an alcoholic whose father had sold quack remedies in America. Gavin imported whisky illegally and put it about that he had aristocratic connections. He lied about his wartime military rank; he was a lieutenant, not a captain. Jane, his wife and the archbishop’s mother, described his courtship as “bullying”. The marriage ended after three years and Gavin died alone in his Kensington flat in 1977.
The archbishop has spoken frankly about the difficulty of his upbringing by such a man, describing his childhood under the shadow of the alcoholism of both his father and mother as “messy”.We now know it was not his true father who was causing his pain. The irony is sharpened by the fact that Montague Browne was a man who embodied the Establishment eminence Gavin had so mendaciously craved.
The story is, first, that of Shelagh Mulligan, whose first husband died in a car crash. She had separated from her second, the racing driver Lance Macklin, when in the early 1960s, with a son and a daughter to support, she became the personal secretary of Churchill’s wife Clementine.
It was in that job she first met Montague Browne, a pilot decorated for his service in the Far East and now Churchill’s private secretary. He took the post in 1952 and stayed until the great man’s death in 1965.
He was clearly almost too good to be true; he was certainly a very Anthony Powell, if not a 1950s comedy film, character. Shelagh had been to see the movie Carlton-Browne of the FO and the next morning she ran into a man in a bow tie and a yellow waistcoat who introduced himself by saying: “My name is Anthony Montague Browne of the Foreign Office.” She laughed at the faintly preposterous encounter, but he must have seemed like a rock of stability to a young woman with such a tumultuous romantic history.
Montague Browne was married but, in Lady Churchill’s words “très infidèle” and he began an affair with Shelagh. He told her: “I have a daughter. And I’m told that I have a son . . . I shan’t tell you [who he is]. But you’ll find out one day.” After years of indecision he finally left his wife and married Shelagh in 1970.
In the same job Shelagh also got to know Jane Portal, niece of Sir Charles Portal, the wartime chief of the air staff. She was pretty and very attractive to men but also, as she admitted in a statement last week, an alcoholic. “I was already drinking heavily at times,” she says of the period of Gavin Welby’s courtship. She has not drunk since treatment in rehab in 1968.
“Although my recollection of events is patchy, I now recognise that during the days leading up to my very sudden marriage, and fuelled by a very large amount of alcohol on both sides, I went to bed with Anthony Montague Browne,” she said in a statement. She did not know that Justin was to be the result of that liaison: “It appears that the precautions taken at the time didn’t work.”
“I still recall,” she said, “our joy at his arrival. So this DNA evidence proving that Gavin was not Justin’s biological father, so many years after Gavin’s death, has come as an almost unbelievable shock.”
Justin himself had heard rumours that Gavin was not his father but he had discounted them. As far as he was concerned he seemed to be a honeymoon baby as he was born almost exactly nine months after Gavin and Jane married in haste.
After the divorce, Justin, who went on to Eton, spent much of his time with Gavin. Montague Browne said to Shelagh: “The poor child was left like a little football.” As Churchill might have said in the light of Justin’s later career, some football.
Shelagh noticed her husband kept in touch with Jane and prevented them meeting. He was also interested in the progress of Justin. Suspicious, she challenged him and he “hotly denied” that he was the father. She did, however, discover evidence of his continued habit of infidelity that made her doubt these denials.
In 1975 Jane married Charles Williams, a former cricketer, banker, biographer and Labour peer. They are still together. The marriage created a rift between the Montague Brownes and Jane. Shelagh suspected that this was in part due to Anthony’s jealousy of Williams’s success as an author. He took pride in his time with Churchill, but he felt it had been downhill since, professing himself “unfulfilled”.
When Justin became archbishop, he began to make regular appearances on television. Shelagh was struck by his close resemblance to her husband. But even in old age he continued to deny it.
Finally, with Montague Browne now in a nursing home, he told Paddy Macklin, Shelagh’s son, that he would like to see Justin before he died.
Macklin called the archbishop and told him he thought Montague Browne was his father. “He did not seem terribly surprised. He sounded composed,” Macklin said. It sounds credibly Welbyish at that moment, but he also elsewhere professed himself astounded. In the event, Montague Browne died before Welby could visit him.
When Moore spoke to Welby about the story, he recognised that it would be a news story and said: “Well, let’s get a DNA test. Certainty is better than doubt.” And the truth finally emerged.
Moore asked Welby how the news affected him. “I am one of those people who processes things more subconsciously than consciously. This news is important and interesting. But this is by no means the most difficult thing that has happened to us.” Far from it. Welby and his wife,Caroline, lost their first child, Johanna, in a car crash when she was seven months old.
Coincidentally, I was speaking to somebody last week — an atheist — who had been present and intensely moved by a speech Welby made about his bereavement. “He spoke with such honesty,” he said, “it was incredibly thrilling.”
Welby succeeded the scholarly and saintly theologian and poet Rowan Williams as archbishop. Having been a banker and very much out in secular society, he was seen as a worldly choice to replace the brilliant but somewhat unworldly Williams. And so it proved. Welby revived the Anglican social conscience as he became the spokesman of the public outrage against the behaviour of payday lenders, modern-day slavery and the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.
Perhaps the difficulty of his upbringing at the hands of the bullying Gavin had made him even more worldly. He has always seemed to be involved with the lives of the people in ways that are unusual in holders of that high Establishment post. But the handling of this story has shown Welby — and therefore Anglicanism — at its very best. Like his church, he has shown himself able to make sane and gentle peace with the storms that afflict human lives.
He even responded to the awkwardness of having a newly extended family — a new half sister, Montague Browne’s daughter, Janie, and her son Guy — with grace and, as usual, a flawless command of tone.
“I would not wish to push myself on anyone. This is an entirely private matter. But once the dust has settled, if they wanted to meet me, yes, that would be very interesting,” he said.
The story is, as I said, reminiscent of Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time in which the shady and damaged rich responded to a world that had freed itself of one conflict only to face the possibility of another much worse conflagration. Their uncertainties and those of the world made them increasingly difficult to understand.
But the Welby story introduces a new form of understanding that can shine a light on the consequences of that generation’s behaviour. Welby himself noticed the fact that now we can take those hairs on those brushes and, through DNA sampling, identify ourselves and our predecessors.
But can we really identify anything truly fundamental about ourselves from genetics? The only properly devout — and realistic — answer is no and here yet again Welby delivers: “Although there are elements of sadness, and even tragedy in my father’s case, this is a story of redemption and hope from a place of tumultuous difficulty and near despair in several lives.
“It is a testimony to the grace and power of Christ to liberate and redeem us, grace and power which is offered to every human being. I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes.”
His faith and serenity are long way from the rich, decadent, faithless postwar world that Powell described. It was a flashy but drab world in which “work and play merge[d] indistinguishably into a complex tissue of pleasure and tedium”. Gavin Welby was of that world, as in their various ways were all the characters in this distinctly novelish tale.
Such a world, of course, still exists but, just occasionally, someone such as Justin Portal Welby, the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury, emerges to tell us it needn’t.