We have become rather immune to surprises since Donald Trump was elected the most powerful man in the world.
But when Charles James Spencer-Churchill, the 12th Duke of Marlborough — better known in a previous incarnation as Jamie Blandford, the junkie-jailbird marquess — reveals that he is advising the American President on climate policy, the news is a little unexpected.
It’s almost as unlikely as his own transformation, from an archetypal black sheep into a Wodehousian grandee whose rumpled clothes and vague manner conceal a great store of humanity and understanding.
Former jailbird aristocrat, Charles James Spencer-Churchill (pictured with his wife Edla), reveals he has formed the world’s unlikeliest friendship with the US president after they bonded over climate change
Installed in Blenheim Palace for five years, the 63-year-old duke has thickened out since his scapegrace days, and his messy hair is thinning.
His eyes may be a touch rheumy, but they’re no longer hooded; his complexion is ruddy, no longer grey. (Blame fresh air, not alcohol — he’s been off drink and drugs for well over a decade.) But he has retained his legendary charm.
In 1993, even the British Press was amused when he escaped through a west London skylight to avoid one of his many arrests.
Today, he has won over a group of children in the village of Bladon near Blenheim Palace by opening their new schoolroom. ‘I told them that I’ll come back to plant a tree,’ he says with a broad grin, ‘if they plant one, too.’
In his gleaming red Range Rover, the duke arrives at the palace bang on time, and now leads the way to his private apartments through a modest doorway in its imposing façade.
Dressed in grey flannels and a blue blazer, adorned by a pin displaying crossed American and British flags — a gift from Trump — he briefly disappears, to return in jeans and a Marlborough team polo shirt that exposes a welter of bracelets and bangles on both wrists.
He wants to talk about a scheme he and some friends are cooking up, a global reforestation programme to be led by the U.S. president in which they hope to plant a trillion trees, using the latest drone technology.
President Donald Trump (pictured alongside Theresa May) meets Charles James Spencer-Churchill at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, in 2018
But first he’s aware that he must field some questions about his responsibilities and rehabilitation. This he does masterfully. When he doesn’t want to answer something, he’ll say: ‘I’m not sure that’s very useful.’
Or he’ll digress, as if misunderstanding. Or he’ll divert you by sharing an amusing confidence.
At one point, for example, rather than address my question about what sadness drove him towards self-destruction in his youth, he suddenly produces his phone and retrieves a picture of Princess Gloria von Thurn and Taxis, the German socialite who, in her wilder days, was never out of British society magazines and gossip columns.
She has a huge cigar between her lips. ‘Took this in Spain last week,’ he says. ‘Captioned it “Gloria T and T, mid der cigar. Cuba! Cuba!” She looks like Castro, actually. Got his balls, too.’
Actually, it’s not an entirely unrelated diversion. Princess Gloria and her husband Johannes are themselves great arboreal enthusiasts and in part responsible for the duke’s new ambitions.
It was through the princess that, 35 years ago, he met the flamboyant John Mappin, whose own wealth derives from the royal jewellers Mappin & Webb.
The 63-year-old has lived in private apartment at Blenheim Palace for five years
This Cornish landowner and businessman is also known to Trump and has spent the past few years advising on Right-wing campaigns. Since the president’s election, he and Marlborough have become increasingly close.
‘So we [Mappin and I] were having a pizza together in June 2017, just after the president had withdrawn from the Paris Accord on climate change, and we were discussing the optics.
‘Although Trump was quite right in my opinion, because the Chinese are getting away with murder [environmentally], he had clearly provided ammunition for what I call the Extinction Idiocy mob.
‘We both realised that the president cares deeply about the environment, about clean air and water, so the question was how to counter the attacks.’
They decided that trees might be the answer. Marlborough knows his trees. Two thousand of his 11,500 acres are given over to forestry — some of which dates back to the early medieval era.
‘John and I have been talking for some time about the need to plant more, to replace some of the three trillion that have been lost in the last 500 years.
‘We decided that if the president were to initiate a massive global reforestation programme, aimed at carbon capture and air filtration — not to mention soil and wildlife enrichment — he could not only silence his critics but leave a beautiful legacy.
‘I mean, none of us — not even the scientists — really knows the role of carbon in global warming, but who can complain about more trees? Also, this plan would demonstrate that the Left, who have really jumped on the green bandwagon, don’t have a monopoly on environmentalism.
‘John reminded me of something once said to him by Prince von Thurn and Taxis — that trees bring luck. I replied it was certainly true of my family, who’ve been doing very well for the last few hundred years. Then I said: “Trees are life!” and it stuck.’
Those three words are now the working title for their campaign and an increasingly popular hashtag.
While Mappin has been travelling the world to raise interest, holding meetings with a host of people from the Chinese to Kazakhstanis — and roping in such Republican celebrities as Cheers actress Kirstie Alley and the U.S. sports billionaire Jeff Webb — Marlborough has been gently nudging Trump.
The association between this odd couple goes back an indeterminate time (‘Saying how long isn’t very useful’) but began when Marlborough used to join his uncle, the late Lord Charles Spencer-Churchill, for holidays in Palm Beach, ‘and, you know, it’s a very small place’. Trump, of course, has his Mar-a-Lago estate there.
Relations stepped up a gear when, after controversy in our Parliament over a mooted state visit by the president in 2017, the duke let it be known that Blenheim could be made available for what he refers to as ‘a dress rehearsal’.
And they flourished when Trump arrived in Oxfordshire the next year: ‘He grasped me by the hand and said: “I think we’re going to get along just fine”.’
Since both men are great admirers of the duke’s distant relative, Sir Winston Churchill, Marlborough gave Trump an exquisite bust of the great man — ‘It went back to Washington the next day on Air Force One.’
Trump also told Marlborough how he had carried in his own hands, and replaced in its old position in the Oval Office, the Epstein bust of Churchill that his predecessor Barack Obama had ordered to be removed (‘it must have given [the President] a hernia’).’
An invitation to stay at Mar-a-Lago was duly issued to the duke’s family — his wife and two young children — which was taken up in February, and he used the opportunity to talk with the President about, you guessed it, trees.
The first step was to suggest propagating a ‘Blenheim Oak’ at Mar-a-Lago, with an acorn from one of the Duke’s ancient specimens. That has since proved impossible due to American import restrictions (though Marlborough is sure ‘there will be a way round that’).
The second was to float Trees Are Life as a presidential initiative. ‘And he definitely registered an interest. So my aim is to walk a fully-formed idea into the Oval Office in time for the 2020 elections, and my friends and I are now working on the costings, spread-sheets and so forth. ‘The president is known for his common sense and when people see common sense instead of political bickering, they vote for it,’ says Marlborough.
With that thought, it’s time to pile into his 650hp juggernaut — not exactly eco friendly — as we speed through the park to survey his woods, part of the remains of the ancient and vast Wychwood Forest, home to some 900 oaks, with ages ranging from 400 years to 1,000, and now the scene of their assisted propagation.
It’s an interesting ride down the muddy tracks, as he swerves and brakes to avoid the flocks of pheasants being raised for shooting.
‘Want to know why I drive a Range Rover?’ he asks. ‘Because Range Rover gave me one!’
To allay any nerves, he volunteers that he’s had a clean licence for 15 years, ‘not even a speed awareness course. Do you know,’ he adds after a particularly sudden lurch, ‘I’ve never, ever, hit a sheep.’ A sheep? ‘Yes, we’ve got quite a few, they help keep the grass down.’
The duke loosens up when he’s behind the wheel, even giving away a few personal details.
He skis two months a year, he says, but when he’s in Britain ‘there aren’t many days when I’m not here or at our farmhouse over in Wootton’.
Are the rumours that he’s a go-anywhere shooting fanatic true?
‘I do one or two days a year,’ he admits with a metaphorical wink. Considering he’s so grand, Marlborough is endearingly short of ‘side’ or snobbery.
Maybe it’s something he learned in prison or during his years of addiction, and he certainly admits that ‘when you’re cruising up and down the Harrow Road at night, you do come across all sorts of people’.
None, perhaps, so strapping as his head forester Nick Bainbridge, who is waiting in a clearing next to Blenheim’s famous ‘King Oak’, a 1,000-year-old giant that’s ten metres in circumference and more than twice that in height.
‘God, you’re built like a butcher’s dog,’ says the duke, slapping Bainbridge on the back.
Then it’s back into the Range Rover, to visit the ‘Harry Potter Tree’ by Blenheim’s lake, as featured in The Order Of The Phoenix film: a 17th-century cedar with an enormous hollow that — if one owns it — one can climb into.
‘I proposed to my wife in there,’ he says, with a dreamy look.
The wife in question is his second, Edla Griffiths, a Welsh-born ceramicist whom it’s said he met at a bus stop on the King’s Road in the mid-Nineties — and who many claim has been his redemption.
They married in 2002 and have two children (Araminta and Caspar, known as ‘Caviar’ Caspar for his expensive taste in seafood). It’s said that, in 2007, Edla told him to shape up or ship out.
Others assert that it was the prospect of limits on his inheritance that scared him into sobriety. His only comment today is: ‘As they say in AA and NA [Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous], it’s different strokes for different folks. Now I’m a man, I have put away such childish things.’
But boy, were those things childish. Starting in the Seventies, Jamie Blandford-as-was managed to amass more than 20 criminal convictions over 30 years, leading to three short terms in jail.
It would be tedious to enumerate all the follies that made him infamous, but they included burglaries and drunken car crashes, assaulting a policeman, attacking a vehicle in a road-rage incident and forging a prescription. In 1986, he told one judge that he had been spending £5,000 a month on heroin and cocaine.
It’s hardly surprising that his first marriage, to kindergarten teacher Rebecca Few Brown, only lasted a few years. (They have one child, the current Marquess of Blandford, 27-year-old George) Not that she helped matters, in 1994, by posing for Tatler magazine clad only in stockings and a camisole.
The 11th Duke, known as ‘Sunny’ on account of his original courtesy title being the Earl of Sunderland, called her a ‘filthy little scrubber’ and that year began a legal action to limit his heir’s role in running the estate. As a result, it’s often reported that the current duke was disinherited by his father for several years. In fact, the result was more opaque.
The pair were certainly estranged for two decades, but in 2008 Sunny publicly announced their reconciliation, and father and reformed son began to look at the future of the estate in their own inimitable fashion. ‘I once asked him about a particular project,’ relates Marlborough, ‘and he replied: “You’ve got eyes and ears. Use them”.’
Did it work? The duke veers off at a tangent. ‘This is my reality,’ he says. ‘I’ve never once woken up and pinched myself. You ask Bunter about Beaufort, or Charles about Goodwood, and they’ll say the same thing.’ He’s talking about fellow dukes with stately homes and estates.
Apparently ‘everyone’ to whom he mentions Trees Are Life says: ‘I’m in.’
But where does that leave those of us who aren’t business tycoons, landed gentry, philanthropists or presidential confidantes? ‘It’s a knock-on effect,’ says the duke. ‘If people know that I’m propagating my oaks in pots, they might plant a tree, too.
‘The Amazon forest is disappearing at the rate of 100 acres an hour — but if everyone chips in, for a trifling amount of money, we can do something to remedy that. Otherwise, trees are going to be rarer than rocking-horse s***.’
How might that line play with Trump? Quite likely, very well.
But even if the most divisive president in American political history is re-cast as a new green god courtesy of this global forestry project, it still won’t be such a jaw-dropper as the story of the current Duke of Marlborough.
If once he attracted attention for all the wrong reasons, now it’s for all the right ones.
Truly, the prodigal — and exceedingly amiable — toff has returned.