Simon A Kearne’s long awaited biography of Sir Basil Milford-Vestibule is well overdue. Keenly awaited by enthusiasts of engineering and knitting alike, this comprehensive overview of an almost-legendary engineering genius and his lifetime’s work as chief engineer of The Empire Motor Company.
Kearne, (who requires little introduction), was granted unprecedented access to the Milford-Vestibule archive and through painstaking research, has crafted a biography as maddeningly eccentric as the subject himself; a book, one can’t help feeling, Sir Basil would have berated publicly but secretly adored. Kearne delves into Milford-Vestibule’s troubled early life, his difficult school years and his early love of show tunes. He uncovers the bizarre circumstances surrounding the mysterious disappearance of Sir Basil’s predecessor and mentor at Empire, Rupert Trunnion, although whether these findings can ever put the oft-whispered allegations against Milford-Vestibule to rest, will have to be left for the reader to judge.
The circumstances leading to Sir Basil’s own departure from the Empire Motor group some twenty years later have also remained shrouded in mystery for decades now, so it is to Kearne’s credit that further light on these troubling events has been shone. For example, he finally establishes precisely why ‘Hut 8’ at the Empire works was permanently sealed following the famous situation and why there was reported to be an overpowering smell of smoked herring emanating from the compound at the time.
Kearne also illuminates the pioneering experimental work Sir Basil pursued right through the latter years following his retirement. In fact, he never truly retired – his enquiring mind would never have allowed him to accept standard practice in any arena. He endlessly sought solutions to what he saw as intractable engineering challenges – much of his work years ahead of it’s time.
Kearne paints a vivid portrait of Sir Basil, the man. A lifelong bachelor, his eccentricities became legendary. His living arrangements were unorthodox; sharing a specially designed rhomboid-shaped villa with a life-sized cardboard cut-out of his beloved mother who died some years earlier in a mysterious garden-pruning accident. An event the eminent engineer never truly recovered from. Visitors to his home would often be compelled to join in conversations with his mother’s image, usually with Sir Basil voicing both parties. This, needless to say, caused some blushes amongst the more narrow-minded.
Sir Basil was also intensely superstitious. His inability to be in the presence of haddock was well documented. In later life, his various ticks and eccentric habits, such as only speaking through a sock puppet called Roger, provoked some alarm amongst associates, but his close friends took it all as part of Sir Basil‘s curious and enquiring mind.
Sir Basil’s chief preoccupation was with suspension design. Convinced that conventional steel suspension was little short of an absurd joke, he is said to have gone into paroxysms of rage if someone as much as parked a car from rival Victory Motors near his home or mentioned arch-rival Leonard Brik’s name.
Moreover, proponents of the more left-field forms of suspension design were not immune from Sir Basil’s withering tongue either. Colleagues recall him being shown an early Citroen DS shortly after it’s launch. Having taken it on a hair-raising drive around the Empire Motor compound, he screeched to a halt and strode away without a word.
Upon being asked his thoughts, Sir Basil arched an expressive eyebrow and said; “Well, my dear, abundant proof that the French know nothing – who ever thought of having mauve upholstery? Frankly, I‘m speechless – now go away!”
He then reportedly locked himself in his office and refused to come out for several days. His loyal assistant, Boothby, was later reported to have heard the sound of muffled sobbing from within. Sir Basil remained scathing about the DS to the last. “Only the spawn of pornographers and adulterers could have made such a car” he is said to have once raged to his great friend, Noel Coward.
It is said that he even publicly snubbed noted journalist, Archie Vicar at an industry function because Vicar had once written a vaguely complementary article on ‘that French wheezing jobby’. It was a sad lapse in tact, for which he doubtlessly berated himself in private. However, to the last, he maintained a fierce opposition to oleopneumatics.
Sir Basil remained convinced that fluid and gas were as inherently suspect as steel suspension media and worked tirelessly to prove his assertion. He remained convinced that the answer lay in nature. “All the best ideas have existed for millions of years my dear”, Kearne recalls him once telling Archie Vicar, over a dry Martini. “However, I simply haven’t determined which of them is the right one yet”.
This was typical of the man – the defiant confidence in his own intellect which he would playfully assert as a parry for you to challenge him upon. Sadly however, several Martini’s later this would often degenerate into heated debate, culminating in Sir Basil getting you into a headlock until you agreed he was right about everything. For such an artistic, somewhat fey individual, he had tremendous strength in his hands.
However, perhaps the most sensational (for knitting aficionados at least) aspect of Kearne’s book are selections from recently discovered notebooks detailing what was to be his final and most secretive project. Lain hidden for years, it appears from the bizarre diagrams, strange notations and encoded language that he was experimenting with a novel form of suspension using Marino wool knitted and held in tension, interconnected front to rear.
Apparently, only wool from herds bred on Aaargh, a tiny Island North of the Orkneys was deemed sufficiently supple. From Sir Basil’s notes it appears that both he and Boothby had to teach themselves knitting before he could perfect the precise structure of the woollen membrane. This may also account for reports of friends and journalists receiving quantities of gaily patterned scarves, mittens and bobble hats from the eminent engineer at Christmas.
It remains unclear just how far Sir Basil got with this project, but sources close to Vestibule suggest he was excited by the work. Tragically, both Sir Basil and Boothby, who worked tirelessly beside the great engineer for over 40 years, went missing en-route to Aaargh when their specially constructed experimental woollen hydroplane became impregnated with water during a particularly difficult crossing.
Their bodies were never recovered, nor indeed the experimental craft. A memorial stands on the shores of Aaargh, commissioned by the sheep farmers on the island, commemorating the tragedy. Indeed, it’s said residents of the Island viewed Sir Basil as something of a deity – something it seems the eminent engineer did little to dispel.
Simon A. Kearne deserves immense credit for his exhaustive research into this secretive and mercurial man and this biography stands as a worthy testament to a genuinely original thinker.