From Rus­sia with love

At the turn of the last cen­tury, the royal fam­i­lies of Bri­tain and Rus­sia were linked by blood and mar­riage. Martin Wil­liams en­joys this spir­ited ac­count of their of­ten un­easy re­la­tion­ship

Country Life Every Week - - Books - Michael Wi­gan

At a time when An­glo­rus­sian re­la­tions are un­der in­tense scrutiny, Frances Welch’s new book is pe­cu­liarly rel­e­vant. In The Rus­sian Court at Sea, pub­lished in 2011, she chron­i­cled the exodus of the sur­viv­ing Ro­manovs from a Rus­sia descend­ing into the abyss of the Red ter­ror. Now, she winds back the clock still fur­ther, to an era when mat­ters of state were con­ducted, not only in the chan­cel­leries of Europe, but across the tea ta­bles and aboard the yachts of in­ter­twined royal dy­nas­ties.

to the out­wardly af­fec­tion­ate and oc­ca­sion­ally an­tag­o­nis­tic crowned heads who ex­changed vis­its in the pur­suit of na­tional in­ter­ests of­ten in­im­i­cal to those of their hosts, diplo­macy was very much a fam­ily affair.

Mat­ters of state were con­ducted across the tea ta­bles of royal dy­nas­ties

In 1896, in the twi­light of her marathon reign, Queen Vic­to­ria presided over the largest em­pire in his­tory. Her grand­son, Kaiser Wil­helm II, had ruled Ger­many since 1888; her beau­ti­ful but highly strung grand­daugh­ter, Alexan­dra of Hesse, had mar­ried the tsar of Rus­sia in 1894. to claim that Vic­to­ria had been du­bi­ous about the al­liance would be less than truth­ful. When the en­gage­ment was an­nounced, she wrote that ‘the state of Rus­sia is so bad, so rot­ten, that at any mo­ment some­thing dread­ful might hap­pen’.

to Alexan­dra’s elder sis­ter, she fret­ted over ‘the aw­ful in­se­cu­rity to which that sweet child will be ex­posed… my blood runs cold when I think of her so young… her dear life and, above all, her hus­band’s so con­stantly threat­ened’.

Vic­to­ria would never know just how pre­scient her dire mis­giv­ings were. For now, she and her sorely tried courtiers were faced with the prospect of wel­com­ing the new tsar and tsa­rina, as well as their in­fant daugh­ter and an army of re­tain­ers, to the tar­tan-draped halls of Bal­moral Cas­tle, deep in the Scot­tish High­lands.

It is hard to fathom quite what Ni­cholas II, who was more ac­cus­tomed to the giltencrusted splen­dours of Moscow and St Peters­burg, made of the skir­ling bag­pipes, fire­side chats and out­ings to lo­cal shops. His diary en­tries were la­conic and mainly lim­ited to the ap­palling weather and the sport to which he was dragged in pour­ing rain and fleet­ing shine by his wife’s un­cle, the fu­ture Ed­ward VII.

When not on the hill­sides, he was ei­ther pos­ing for fam­ily pho­to­graphs or be­ing but­ton­holed by the Prime Min­is­ter, Lord Sal­is­bury, who con­fessed to find­ing him more agree­able than the bump­tious Kaiser. If it was true, as a his­to­rian later main­tained, that ‘nei­ther she (Vic­to­ria), nor Eng­land, nor Lord Sal­is­bury, knew any more about his (Ni­cholas’s) real sen­ti­ment to­wards Eng­land than if he had never been to Bal­moral at all’, the whole ex­er­cise at least pro­vided an ex­cuse to re­new the bonds of blood across the miles and gen­er­a­tions.

there were to be two fur­ther en­coun­ters be­tween the Bri­tish and Rus­sian royal fam­i­lies be­fore the cur­tain was rung down in Au­gust, 1914: one at Reval (now tallinn) in 1908 and one on the Isle of Wight the fol­low­ing sum­mer. Each was im­mac­u­lately chore­ographed; both were deemed suc­cess­ful by their uni­form-wear­ing, para­soltwirling pro­tag­o­nists.

the irony was that those del­i­cate ques­tions of pro­to­col and eti­quette, of menus, pre­sen­ta­tions and dec­o­ra­tions, were to prove so many ir­rel­e­van­cies in the face of the bru­tal re­alpoli­tik of war and rev­o­lu­tion. In jux­ta­pos­ing the triv­ial with the mon­u­men­tal and the in­tensely per­sonal with the in­con­ceiv­ably re­mote, this book shines a light into an ex­tra­or­di­nary, in­ter­mit­tently hi­lar­i­ous and ul­ti­mately tragic cor­ner of 20th-cen­tury diplo­macy.

For Jonathan Drori, who grew up in Kew and was, for nine years, a trustee of the royal Botanic Gar­dens, trees are not just trees, but med­i­cal repos­i­to­ries, cul­tural and re­li­gious icons and util­i­tar­ian civil­i­sa­tion chang­ers. For his new book, he’s picked species from ev­ery con­ti­nent, de­scrib­ing them with a con­nois­seur’s pas­sion and ex­pand­ing on the var­i­ous ways they have af­fected the course of his­tory. ac­com­pa­ny­ing each text are French il­lus­tra­tor Lu­cille Clerc’s deft draw­ings re­veal­ing the trees in their nat­u­ral sur­round­ings and parts of their anatomy.

Mr Drori rev­els in ev­ery idio­syn­crasy and the var­i­ous ways in which trees have changed our lives. Willow bark, for ex­am­ple, pro­duces as­pirin, the com­mon­est pill in the medicine cabi­net, its painkiller chem­istry hav­ing first been dis­cov­ered by the an­cient Egyp­tians.

the Egyp­tians also val­ued the frank­in­cense tree for its resin, which re­leases a bal­samic fragrance when heated; they im­ported it from ara­bia from about 2,500bc and used it in em­balm­ing their dead (it still serves as an an­ti­sep­tic to­day). through the ages, in­cense has been burned in tem­ples of all faiths, its fra­grant aroma con­nect­ing wor­ship­pers with di­vine thoughts. no­body would guess from the tree’s scrubby, non­de­script ap­pear­ance that its resin could pro­duce such trans­ports of de­light and that frank­in­cense was once the world’s most valu­able com­mod­ity.

We learn how trees and crea­tures are um­bil­i­cally linked. For cen­turies, the acorns of the Cal­i­for­nian tanoak formed an es­sen­tial com­po­nent of the na­tive amer­i­can diet. Euro­pean set­tlers then fed the acorns to their pigs and used tan­nin from the bark to treat their leather shoes and sad­dles. as the pro­duc­tion of leather goods be­came com­mer­cialised, the trees were over-ex­ploited and tanoak forests be­came se­verely de­pleted, lead­ing to the de­cline of the leather in­dus­try.

in the 1950s, tanoaks were re­grown for their strong, fine­grained tim­ber, but they later suc­cumbed to the greater de­mand for fast-grow­ing conifers and, more re­cently, to an in­va­sive fun­gus. ‘in 100 years, tanoaks had made the jour­ney from vi­tal in­dige­nous food source to worth­less weed,’ Mr Drori laments.

his ex­cite­ment at ev­ery ar­bo­real pe­cu­liar­ity—from the use of graf­fiti on bark since Vir­gil’s day to the in­tox­i­cat­ing nec­tar of the lime, or Lin­den, tree—means he never says any­thing dull. this at­trac­tively put-to­gether book is sim­ply de­light­ful.

We learn how trees and crea­tures are um­bil­i­cally linked

Bri­tish and Rus­sian roy­als, in­clud­ing Tsar Ni­cholas II and Queen Vic­to­ria, pic­tured at Bal­moral

One of Lu­cille Clerc’s deft il­lus­tra­tions: the sil­ver birch

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