I think I became a student of history about five minutes after I was weaned. I have always been intrigued with the tales of men and women who went before and their attainments and their failures. I’m not stuck in the past and attempt to live my days for the moment in which I am currently dealing with life, but historical awareness enables me to put it all in context. That I was for a time a history teacher was really no surprise to anyone who knew me.
Of late there has been a bit of an editorial page dustup in staid old Victoria, what in light of all the evil changes the newcomers have perpetrated on the old Empress what with killing that bastion of the glory days of the Raj by getting rid of the overpriced and uninspired Bengal Lounge.
And of course the Empress makes me think of Francis (Rats) Rattenbury, the dude who designed and built the thing. The dustup aforementioned revolves around the fact that there is no statuary depicition of old Rat in Victoria, whose architectural attainments in the city include not only the Empress, but also the Legislative Buildings, among others
Of Rattenbury’s legacy, I can only say this. As in Christopher Wren’s London, Victoria is a case of “if you seek Rattenbury’s monument, look around you.” In his day, some loved Rattenbury’s efforts, others loathed them and found them false. One critic said of his Legislative Building that it looked like a railway station in some remote state in India. I’ll reserve comment from an esthetic perspective, but I kind of like its appearance.
But, I think, muckraking journalist that I am, that it’s the personal story of Rattenbury that intrigues. It is the oh-so human history of a man who didn’t just think with his ‘big head,’ as the saying goes. In other words, the appelation ‘Rat’ was kind of well-earned.
At the peak of his success (actually at the beginning of the downhill slide) Rat took a mistress. She was a Vancouver girl named Alma Packenham; a classical pianist of moderate success, 30 years his junior, a looker, already twice divorced, and she smoked cigarettes in public. In other words, a hottie way back around the time of World War One.
Rattenbury ditched his wife, Florrie – and even went so far as to cut off the heat and lights to the family home – and moved to palatial digs across the street with his new squeeze. Eye-candy on his arm, he then stepped out into staid Victoria society. It never really worked. Folk disapproved and began to shun them.
Ultimately they decided they should go off and make their impact elsewhere. They moved to England – to the Channel town of Bournemouth, mainly because Bournemouth is very reminiscent of Victoria (and it is, I’ve been there and was struck by the similarity). But, Bournemouth, which was designed to represent a fresh start, instead marked the beginning of the end.
And such an end it was. It was the stuff of a movie, and it has been. A British made for TV film from 1987 called Cause Celebre tells the grim tale. Alma in the film is played by none other than Dame Helen Mirren, and a fine job she does of it. Cause Celebre captures the Rattenbury/Alma denouement brilliantly.
OK. Here’s how it goes. By the time they’d set up housekeeping in England, old Francis was pretty much past it in terms of (ahem) keeping Alma satisfied. Advancing age combined with severe alcoholism had taken the lead out of the pencil, as it were. Alma, meanwhile, talks Francis into hiring a chauffeur. They do so, and that chauffer, a dimwitted lad of 17 named George Stoner, began to do more with Mrs. Rattenbury than just drive her around to the shops. The boy was also seething with jealousy and resentment over old Francis and to make a long story short, one night in 1935 he goes into the parlor and bludgeons the old boy to death. A very sad ending. But wait, there’s more.
There is a trial, and poor Stoner is convicted of Murder One and sentenced to hang. Alma, despite having huge complicity in the evil act, gets off scot-free. However, gossip and the rumor-mill will not let her alone. So, one day, a few months after the trial, Alma, in a deep depression, wanders down to a riverbank and there, most dramatically, commits hara-kiri.
Stoner, meanwhile, is released shortly after Alma’s death – she left a note attesting to her role in the matter – and according to recent reports he was still very much alive.
So, those are the thoughts that run through my mind when I consider a statuary commemoration of old Rat and can only think, why the hell not? He should be remember ed for his work, not for what he did (or didn’t) do with his dick.