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Swellboy on… The man who created Mustique

Celebrating the man who drew the great and the groovy to this Caribbean island

Swellboy on… The man who created Mustique

Image: Brijesh Patel

September 16 2010
Nick Foulkes

Reading his obituaries last month, I was reminded of the time I met Colin Tennant, or Lord Glenconner as he was by then, on the beach between the Pitons – the two almost conical mountains that rise from the Caribbean to give St Lucia its most noteworthy topographical feature. It was about 15 years ago, a time when I seemed to be spending a fair amount of time in the West Indies, where my professional duties consisted of drinking rum, smoking cigars, playing backgammon, purchasing trinkets, ascertaining the extent of the use of obeah or voodoo and otherwise taking the temperature of whatever nation I found myself in. What impressed me about St Lucia was that I could take a taxi to the rainforest and ask the driver to keep the engine running while I did my David Attenborough bit to justify my having bespoken a safari suit.

Anyway, one morning I was strolling along the beach to clear my head after a violent tropical storm when I encountered a figure clad in white pyjamas and a floppy straw hat, easily recognisable as the quondam Lord of Mustique. Already well into his sixties, he seemed perfectly happy living in exile from his creation, in a ramshackle house on the beach, the chief ornament and amenity of which was, if I remember correctly, a large silver bed. He reassured me that come high season the place, which he had called “Bang”, as in “Bang between the pitons”, was a bustling restaurant.

Even then he seemed to be a charming anachronism. I would like to say that he resembled a character from a novel, but it would be difficult to assign him an author: he embodied elements of Conrad, Greene, Waugh (both Alec and Evelyn), Monsarrat and more. I was fascinated to meet him, as one of a very few men of means and taste who, in the two or three decades after the war, had decided to create their own version of paradise to be enjoyed by themselves and a few like-minded friends.

The Aga Khan, who invented the Costa Smeralda, was one; Prince Alfonso von Hohenlohe, who founded the Marbella Club, was another; and they changed the way the rich took their holidays. There was clearly something in the Zeitgeist as each “developer” was of noble birth, was unafraid of thinking big and had an aesthetic vision: whether the architecture of the Cala di Volpe, the Andalusian finca/pueblo style of the Marbella Club and Puente Romano, or the Caribbean cottage ornee style of theatre designer Oliver Messel, who created the architectural language of Mustique. And one other thing: they were rich, although in Colin’s case not quite rich enough.

Working in different parts of the world at roughly the same time, these men did much to shape what would become known as the jet set. One day I would like to write the history of the jet set, a sobriquet coined by Italian novelist and intellectual Alberto Moravia in 1965, to describe “a group of parasites who should all be placed on an island and uniformly annihilated”. Well, Colin Tennant made sure that at least half of Moravia’s wish came true as, during the 1960s and 1970s, the groovy and the great piled into Mustique, led, of course, by Princess Margaret.

At the time, the Caribbean was an unattainable myth for most northern Europeans, so this creation of a yet more exclusive pocket of decadence in a sea of sybaritism seemed impossibly glamorous. I am slightly embarrassed to admit that in the early 1980s, when I was at college and a group of friends went out to stay in the Mustique house belonging to one of their parents, I remember being rather envious of the souvenir cigarette lighters that they returned with.

I have only visited Mustique once, and that was about a decade ago. It was charming, and I can see why rich people go there; as a place to live a simple life of utmost luxury it takes some beating. But already the posh bohemia had given way to the new plutocracy.

I remember that around 175 people were working to bring the Great House, Tennant’s old home, up to the standards required by its new owner, Lawrence Stroll: uplighters were being installed to illuminate the palm trees; the desalination plant was gearing up to produce 50,000 gallons each day; a library to rival the Bodleian was being installed in the quasi-baronial panelled splendour of the book room; the remote control for the lighting, the fountains and the music in the secret garden with Kama Sutra bas reliefs was being overhauled; and as the beach had disappeared during the hurricane season barges were frantically dumping sufficient sand to silt up the Suez in the hope that the beach would be installed on time.

Who knows? Maybe one day I will have the good fortune to pass by again. But with the death of Colin Tennant it occurred to me that today’s rich would simply not be prepared to put up with the discomfort of Mustique when it was “discovered”. And I can’t help feeling that when the inconvenience was removed from the equation, a fair bit of the charm went with it. It seems strange to say, but looking at the old pictures of Mustique I am struck by the innocence of it all; not of course that they didn’t get up to their fair bit of naughtiness, but there was also boundless optimism and panoramic vision. Time has moved on and I suppose I must content myself with the knowledge that at least I was fortunate enough to meet the man who “founded” Mustique.

See also

People, Mustique