Joanna Hodgkin

Journeys in Vanished Worlds

Hi, I’m Joanna Hodgkin and also Joanna Hines. Hines is fiction and Hodgkin is non fiction which is where my focus mostly is these days. My two non fiction books, Amateurs in Eden and Tell Me Who I Am (with Alex and Marcus Lewis) will  soon have a page each. Two works in progress, Quakers in Love and A Good(ish) Man in Burma already have a page of their own, recent posts shown below. Why two books in progress? Good question.

 Amateurs in Eden started me on non fiction. But there were questions left unanswered when the book was finished. The principle one concerned the mysterious relative who left her all his money on his deathbed, thus funding some of the Durrells’ years in Paris and Corfu. Who was he and why did he do something so arbitrary – and cruel to his wife and children? 

I’d been interested in Harold Fielding Hall for a long time. His story seemed to mirror that of a distant relative on my father’s side, Thomas Hodgkin, the medical pioneer, and his decades long love for his cousin, Sarah Godlee Rickman. I thought the stories would work well together: both concerned people of complex and interesting faith, mysterious women who needed to step out from the shadows, love affairs that ended in tragedy. Many thousands of words later, I realised that each one stood alone and needed its own book. Each one revealed fascinating pockets of experience that have been too little explored. 

While I was wrestling with the avalanche of material thrown up by these explorations, a more experienced writer of non fiction told me that only 5-10% of what I was learning would make it into the final edit. The short blogs on these pages are mostly bits of the 90% that didn’t make the final cut, or reflections on some aspects of the two books. Only one post (for Amateurs) is an extract.

There are still questions – see ‘Missing, One Daughter’,  and ‘Last Rites, Lasting Wrongs’ – always I am haunted by the certainty that no matter how much I’ve found, that crucial letter, image, diary entry is out there somewhere, just waiting to be discovered.

 So do  get in touch, with queries, answers, comments using the contact form.

My latest posts

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April 17, 2024Where did troops stationed in North Africa during the Second World War go for rest and recuperation? They went to a place praised as an ideal holiday destination, recommended for its ‘sunny Mediterranean atmosphere, its smart modern towns, its abundance of gay night haunts and restaurants’, a place where battle weary ‘men fresh from sandy months in Egypt’ found ‘fresh greenness a welcome change’. The name of this idyllic spot? Gaza. Today the name has become famous worldwide as synonymous with unimaginable horror: tens of thousands dead, hospitals destroyed, nearly two million people homeless and helpless in their own land. Electricity and water cut off. Famine. October 7 was a vicious massacre. What has happened since has been called out and out genocide.   In 1944, when Nancy lived there, the image Gaza conveyed to the world could not have been more different. Nancy had gone to Jerusalem from Cairo when Rommel was poised to march in triumph into the city. She stayed when the danger was over because didn’t want to return to Larry. The marriage was over.  She found work in Gaza, in a refugee camp filled with Greeks who’d fled Nazi occupied Greece. After her years in Corfu, she spoke enough Greek to be useful.  How she would weep to see the total destruction of the ancient buildings and the landscape she knew, and the misery of its inhabitants. We humans are so good at destruction – a few weeks to flatten a thousand years of history. [...] Read more...
July 7, 2023Not many people can claim to have one grandfather who was gaoler to the other. Harold Fielding Hall had that distinction, though understandably he didn’t trumpet this widely.         In 1828 Hilkiah Hall, was imprisoned for debt in Durham Gaol. Harold’s other grandfather, William Green, was working there as surgeon, later as governor. Did his parents first meet when they played together as children in the ‘debtors’ airing yard’? Durham was a small town, and the families would have had many opportunities to meet. What makes their story even odder is that the bankrupt would have been of higher social standing than his gaoler.       In order to unravel this strange connection, I’ve been reading a series of fascinating articles by Ruth Cranfield in the Durham County Local History Society’s Bulletin (now called Journal).  Through the lens of Durham Gaol, she brilliantly analyses the evolution of the prison system that is still in place today. In fact most of Durham Gaol’s buildings date from William Green’s time as governor, between 1837-1867.       The eighteenth Century prison was locally run and, crucially, paid for out of local taxes. Containment was the only criteria, and conditions in the old gaol and the house of correction (for vagrants and beggars) were grim. Reformers, like the Quakers JJ Gurney and his sister Elizabeth Fry, publicised the inhuman conditions of the nation’s prisons. Reform was in the air. The ‘new’ Durham Gaol was opened in 1819. It had its own set of rules, and the governor was answerable to local magistrates. Visiting Justices reported four times a year.        Separation was key to the reformed prison service. Women were to be housed away from the men. Bankrupts had always been kept apart from felons and vagrants, and bankrupts who could pay the governor for bedding and a feather mattress had very different treatment from those with no funds. Bankrupts were always an anomaly in the prison system;  they were not compelled to abide by the prison rules. Most had no incentive to escape, as they were safer from their creditors inside than out.         What reformers and the authorities feared most was contamination: that those awaiting trial, men and boys with no criminal history would be corrupted by contact with hardened felons. They were to be kept separate and treated differently.         Fear of contamination grew. By the time Hilkiah Hall was incarcerated in 1828 ‘enough barriers had been erected within the prison that 13 classes of prisoners could be kept separate’. In 1836 a new governor carried this principle a step further and, following an American model that was becoming increasingly popular in the UK, imposed a rule of silence on all prisoners who had been classified according to their crime. They were forbidden to communicate with each other in any way, clearly a hard rule to enforce, however many barriers they put up.            William Green, Harold’s grandfather, was a firm believer in the principle of separation, and approved of the new buildings erected by the local justices during his tenure, buildings that are still in use today. Prisoners confined to a solitary cell would be unable either to corrupt or be corrupted. In 1845 the first of the new wings was completed, with cells for 72 prisoners. Numbers continued to rise, so further blocks were built.         Faith in the principle of separation was eroded by ever-increasing recidivism and a rapidly increasing prison population. True, the prisoners loathed the single cell system, but there was no evidence it worked as a deterrent. Elizabeth Fry was not the only observer who regarded it as downright cruel. A modified system which allowed some association in small supervised groups was introduced in Durham quite early on.          But by the 1860s, when the tide of opinion was turning, the buildings had already been built and are still in use today. Prisons were also subject to greater control by central government, as now. Our present system is rooted on those nineteenth century principles. And the buildings remain.               https://www.durhamweb.org.uk/dclhs/    [...] Read more...
June 9, 2023Gossip gets a bad press – unfairly, in my opinion. It’s one of the things I miss from my years of living in a small rural community. And if we want to enter the lives of people who lived in the past, we need to listen in on their gossip when we can. Nihil humanum a me alienum puto, as the wise Roman remarked. Nothing human is alien to me.  These two wonderful old women are clearly relishing a delicious gossip under their outsize Handmaid’s Tale bonnets (perfect for a discreet natter) – and I have the image on display in my workroom.  The back of the postcard says it is based on a cartoon by Robert Cruikshank. I’ve just found  the original cartoon – and realise that Sarah Godlee Rickman, whose life I’ve been immersed in, was gossiping in 1827 alongside those two old biddies. Her whole Quaker world was buzzing with the news.   William Allen was one of the leading luminaries of their world. He’d been Luke Howard’s partner at Plough Court, a friend to the Hodgkins, an abolitionist who gave up sugar for over 40 years until the slave trade was ended. His portrait shows a wise, kindly figure. The news which sent shock waves through the Quaker world, and inspired Cruikshank’s riot of gossipers reached Sarah in Lewes in January 1827. She wrote in her Family Journal: “1827 Jan 20 A strange report reached us about William Allen – so strange that we do not like to believe it – he is likely to marry Grizell Birkbeck a woman of 70 years of age – & much older than himself – Everyone seems to regret such a step should be taken, especially as there seems just grounds to believe that the love of money is the grand inducement to the match – Grizell Birkbeck having some time ago been seized with paralysis & being now what may be called an infirm old woman – It is a strange infatuation and likely it is feared to lessen the respect bordering on veneration with which William Allen has long been regarded.” The ‘strange report’ was true. William Allen, 56, married the wealthy widow later that year. She was 16 years older than him.  Sarah was generally tolerant but she disapproved of large age gaps. Also mercenary motives in marriage.  She noted waspishly when a man she knew married someone who hadn’t been born when his first wife died. Another time she wrote that “Jacob Boys’s new wife has this day been seen at Lewes – it is said that she is neither young nor handsome and thus the smile is raised against her husband, for having chosen her for her riches.” But the following year Sarah herself married a man she was certainly not in love with, but whom she had known well for many years. John Rickman was 18 years her senior and able to offer her financial stability, a home and freedom from the drudgery of running a small school. The man she had loved – Thomas – was not available as they were first cousins, and she was not cut out to be a tragic heroine. After some agonising she chose a decent life with a man she liked. Was there gossip about her too? Almost certainly. She insisted on a small wedding and stage managed it carefully. She’d attracted her share of gossip in the past, and no doubt the bonnets were nodded vigorously once again.  How can we begin to understand the past if we don’t try to eavesdrop on their gossip? It’s as old as humankind. [...] Read more...
March 30, 2023Advice for invaders: when planning to take over a sovereign state, it’s a good idea to frame it as a ‘rescue mission’. At the height of the imperial era, the British knew this well. By 1885, when they were getting ready to take over Upper Burma, a narrative was in place that provided a large enough fig leaf to justify what was in reality naked aggression. The Rangoon merchants in the south of Burma, which was already under British control, wanted free access to the teak forests and mines of the secret kingdom of Upper Burma, and there were fears that the French might step in first if the British delayed. The cover story was simple: King Thibaw was a ‘gin soaked tyrant’ straight out of the Arabian Nights and his ‘harridan queen’ was even worse. Every Burman ‘lived in the utmost abhorrence and terror’ (J George Scott). The young royals’ nadir of depravity was the massacre that took place soon after he came to the throne in 1878. As the 41st of the 48 sons of King Mindon, Thibaw’s legitimacy was far from certain: about 70 his rivals, male and female, were slaughtered in a night of utter savagery. Nearly 70 years later that cover story was still in place: ECV Foucar (They Reigned in Mandalay, 1946.) relished the gory details of Thibaw’s reign – ‘as bloodsmeared a page as any in the history of the human race, not excluding the troubled story of our own century.’ (Had he forgotten the massacre at Amritsar in 1919?) ‘The madness of the House of Alompra was at its height. It was almost as if Thibaw and his Queen Supayalat, who was also his step-sister, had come to realise that they were doomed, and with this foreknowledge entered upon a wild orgy of unbridled licence and bloodshed … (his dots)’ Foucar liked his contrasts: ‘The river steamers of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company carried travellers, staid merchants and bagmen , from the stolid security of Queen Victoria’s realm to the fabled city where torture and sudden death were meted out at the whim of a drink inflamed youth and his dainty bejewelled Queen …!’ All those phlegmatic Brits aghast at the excessive orientals in ‘Mandalay the golden’: He goes on: ‘Royal eunuchs and concubines, telegraph clerks and Manchester merchants all moved within the shadow of the palace that was styled the Centre of the Universe. Music and carnival there were in full measure’ but the music and the shrill voices of the dancing girls were often mingled with the screams of tortured victims and the hoarse laughter of the executioners.   In fairness to Foucar, he admitted he had given his imagination free rein in writing this account, but even so, Maurice Collis, who had lived in Burma for some years in the 1920s and 30s, did not challenge any of it when he reviewed the book in the TLS. The myth was simply too useful to be revised. Whatever the errors of those staid Brits who ran the country after 1885 they paled into insignficance next to Thibaw and his ghastly bride.  And so it continues. The Kipling Society website offers the following on the last king of Burma: ‘the nonentity Theebaw, a shallow-brained alcoholic youth, dominated by his ignorant, greedy and vicious wife Soopaya-Lat, already his evil genius and soon to be a byword’. This vicious couple had 80 members of the royal family slaughtered though ‘to avoid the shedding of royal blood, these were clubbed or strangled, and thrown dead and alive into a trench which was then covered over and trampled by elephants. Theebaw and his court were surprised and resentful at the horror this aroused abroad, in the day of the electric telegraph.’ The legend has become fact. Until very recently, everyone was agreed in their condemnation.  Not quite everyone. Right from the first, Harold Fielding Hall was sceptical. He was exactly the same age as Thibaw – both born in 1859 – and he had been working in Upper Burma for six months before the annexation. Employed by the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation in the teak forests south of Mandalay, he heard the rumours. He could hardly avoid them, since the company he was working for provided the trigger for war. But he had his doubts: ‘As I got to know the people I became sure that these tales could not be true.’ He returned to Upper Burma the following year, this time as the lowliest of the low in the Indian civil Service, a position so low it did not even have an English name: for those first years he was a ‘myook’. When he wrote about it later, he called himself a ‘subdivisional officer’ which sounds grander, but the India List is blunter – and also shows that most myooks were Burmese; in fact many of his superiors assumed all myooks were natives of Burma.  While learning Burmese, getting to know the people with an informality that was only possible in the first two or three years after the annexation, he kept trying to find out the truth about King Thibaw, Queen Supayalat and the night of the massacre. Eventually his persistance was rewarded. He met a young woman who had been an attendant to Queen Supayalat and gradually she told him all she could remember about her years in the famed palace of Mandalay. She had only come to court a few years later, but his conversations with Ma Thein Me gave Harold enough information to know what to ask those who remembered the night of the massacre.  It was a frequent topic of conversation among the villagers and minor officials who were his companions while he was a lowly myook. ‘I have heard it spoken of many and many a time in the villages when work was over and cigars were lit in the warm dusk.’ The massacre was terrible, a violation of every Buddhist teaching in that most Buddhist of countries, but it saved them from a battle for supremacy in which many thousands would have died. Ma Thein Me said, ‘Would it have been better that the king should have seventy children, as (his father) Mindon had, to raise up trouble in future? Have English queens never killed their rivals, or English kings allowed their wives to be executed?’ Besides, the general consensus among the Burmese, and now among historians who take the trouble to examine the evidence, is that Thibaw and Supayalat had no advance knowledge of the massacre, which was ordered by the last of King Mindon’s four principle queens: Sinpyumashin who was Supayalat’s mother. When King Thibaw heard of the slaughter, he wept. As for that ‘gin-soaked’ accusation, there’s no evidence for it at all. Queen Supayalat’s maid of honour, who had heard all the gossip, was certain that he only once tried alcohol, soon after coming to the throne when ‘he was so giddy at the sudden change that he hardly knew where he was. One evening he was led away by some of his pages and drank some beer, and disgraced himself. But he only did it once, and he was dreadfully ashamed of himself for long afterwards, that all the teaching of his days in the monastery were broken so quickly’. In all the long years of his exile, years of boredom and frustration that might have driven anyone to drink, there is no mention that he ever touched even beer. Harold never claims that Thibaw was a model king. How could he have been? For one thing he had been happily living in a monastery when he was catapulted onto the throne while still a teenager. A swift transition from dutiful obedience and study to great wealth and the trappings of power was disastrous. The picture that Ma Thein Me paints is of two young monarchs, much in love, who didn’t have the first idea how to rule, who never left the palace and were often badly advised. When the British were advancing up the Irrawaddy, one of the chief ministers tried to get King Thibaw to focus on the approaching catastrophe, but without success. ‘The kingdom is in the hands of children,’ he told a friend, ‘There is no hope at all.’ And the cruelty charge? Rivals to the queen might disappear suddenly and the maids of honour often had ‘frights’ but ‘when the danger was past, we quickly forgot about it’. This was not the British way. After the annexation, the imperial grip established a vast and complex machinery of ‘justice’ – a machinery that for the most part appeared arbitrary and incomprehensible to the Burmese. Ma Thein Me was in no doubt about what the Burmese had lost when Thibaw was deposed: ‘Perhaps he was a bad king; but he was our own king, and we understood his ways, while those of the English Government are to us as strange as the ways of the gods, for no one can tell what they will do next, or why.’ Yet still many Westerners prefer the myth of the alcoholic despot and his evil queen. The mud so merrily chucked at the last king, seems likely to stick for a while longer.   [...] Read more...
March 14, 2023The day Harold Fielding Hall died was not short on drama. Just hours before drawing his final breath, he wrote, or dictated, a new will which left everything to the four year old daughter of his cousin. His wife and children were to receive nothing. It’s a bit of a cliché in fiction, the deathbed altered will – I used it myself in my first psychological thriller, Dora’s Room – useful in a book, but horribly cruel in real life. His daughter Margaret was ten, his son just nine. Neither of them ever understood the reason for his decision, but the rejection hurt for the rest of their lives.  Harold died on 5th May 1917 at the Bell Inn, Brooke, a hamlet on the northern edge of the  New Forest. It’s a tranquil place now, and must have been even more sleepy then, the horror of the First World War and the recent turmoil in Russia for the most part far away. Its main claim to fame was its golf course, one of the oldest in the country, which had recently been extended to 18 holes. A photograph taken at about this time shows a solid, brick building which stands at the junction of three roads, with window boxes on the first floor, trimmed hedges and a sign advertising a tea garden at the back.  The main building remains little changed on the outside, though new buildings have been added to the side and the interior is much altered.  His will was clear, brief and uncompromising: once funeral expenses and debts have been paid, all the residue is to be placed ‘in trust for Nancy the daughter of my cousin … for her own use and benefit absolutely … ’ There’s no mention of his wife Evelyn or of their children. Harold and Evelyn were not divorced – she would never have countenanced that – but she had taken the children to live with her mother and sister a few years before, when it became impossible for them to continue living together as a family.  The will was witnessed by two people. One was H B Lawford, a solicitor whose address is given as 12 New Court Carey Street, London WC. Herbert Bowring Lawford had been born in 1864, so was five years younger than Harold. He was educated at Marlborough and at Trinity College Oxford. In 1915 he was listed in the London City Directory as a parliamentary agent with Sharpe, Prichard and co, 12 New Court. Like his father, he was a member of the Company of Drapers. Unlike Harold, who was almost entirely self taught and had begun his career in the colonial civil service at such a lowly level it had a Burmese name – myôok. For Harold, having such an eminent and established solicitor to draw up his new will was a sign of the progress he’d made in his life. The second witness was ‘A E Tyrell, Grosvenor House Southampton (Nurse)’. Grosvenor House in Southampton had recently been established as ‘a nursing home and private nurses’ institution’ by Julia Mocatta. It’s possible that Harold had been a patient there, as his health had been poor for many years. Or that he had been staying at the Bell Inn for some time and when his health deteriorated, a nurse was sent for.  Harold’s final will is unusual for another reason: he names ‘The Public Trustee’ as sole executor. The Public Trustee was to ‘sell call in collect and convert into money my said estate and effects in such a manner as he shall think fit’ and to invest the residue, after all necessary expenses had been met, ‘in trust’ for his cousin’s daughter.  The Public Trustee had been established in 1906, to provide for people who had difficulty finding a friend or relative to be executor. Generally the Public Trustee was appointed when the deceased had no known relatives. Harold had plenty, including Nancy’s father, his cousin, Thomas Myers, a sister Florence who was married to an army officer and many other cousins. So why did a man well-provided with friends and relatives hand responsibility to the public trustee? Did he know that his friends and close relatives would disapprove of what he was doing so much they would refuse to act as executor? Or did he simply hope to spare them the controversy that was sure to follow? His death certificate is even more unusual. The cause of death is given as 1) Capillary Bronchitis and 2) Pulmonary Oedema, certified by Syer B White MB. That, and the fact that he is said to be a male of independent means are about the only sections that were correct in the original. The date was wrong: 4th May was written down – which was clearly impossible as his will was dated the following day. His age was given as 65 years; amended to ‘about 57’. His name was given as Harold Fielding Hall, but, the note beside in the margin stated it should have read ‘Harold Fielding Patrick Hall otherwise Harold Fielding-Hall’. All these corrections were made by ‘William Holloway Registrar’ who had drawn up the original document. His note reads, ‘corrected on 11th August 1917 by me W Holloway Registrar on production of Statutory Declarations made by Herbert Bowring Lawford and Amy Edith Tyrell’.  Someone familiar with these kind of records declared Harold’s to be the most amended death certificate she had ever seen.  All of which points to a degree of rush and confusion surrounding his death. It’s possible that in this third year of the war the Registrar was no longer competent, all the able younger men having been called up. It may be that when she learned what had happened Harold’s wife was threatening to contest the will, which given that it was dated the day after his apparent death, would indeed have been suspicious. It may be that the eminent HB Lawford, having witnessed the will, raced off to catch the last train back to London leaving the nurse to stay with the dying man and deal with the form filling that followed, and that she was over-hasty and got into a muddle. In 1917 the fifth of May was a Saturday. The death certificate is dated the following day, Sunday. It’s hard to know why this had to be set down so quickly, unless Amy Tyrell was eager to get back to Grosvenor House as soon as possible. Was it usual for registrars to operate on a Sunday? The amendments were made on an August Saturday – no five day week for Mr Holloway, clearly.     The details of that final day are both vivid and obscure. Trying to unravel them is critical to understanding much that went before. It’s a work in progress – and slow progress, at that.                             [...] Read more...
March 10, 2023In July 1905 a remarkable short story appeared in Temple Bar Magazine. Its author, Harold Fielding Hall, was well known for his book on Burmese society and religion, The Soul of a People, which was on the way to achieving almost cult status among Edwardian readers. It’s still in print – and still worth reading – more than 100 years later. He’s remembered now as the most sympathetic of the European observers of the Burmese.          He wrote several short stories, but ‘His Daughter’ is by far the most memorable. It concerns a middle-aged, former colonial civil servant, who goes in search of his illegitimate, mixed race daughter. The topic would have been challenging enough for his bourgeois readership, but the timing of its appearance is extraordinary.       In July, the month it was published, Harold Fielding Hall came back to England on the SS Staffordshire from Rangoon; he was planning to marry Margaret Evelyn Smith. He had served for twenty years as a colonial civil officer in Burma. Given the timing, publishing an account of a man’s desperate search for his missing child was not exactly tactful. What did she make of it? Did he persuade her, by changing the dates around, that it was something he’d heard from a colleague, nothing at all to do with him? ‘His Daughter’ was fiction, for sure, but she must have known that his fiction was almost always a way to deal with things that were troubling him. Like an abandoned daughter. All his life he fulminated against society’s hypocrisy around what he called ‘the flesh and the devil’, and advocated a more generous and realistic attitude to sexual arrangements. In the last years of his life he was still jotting down notes that reflected his obsession such as, ‘Almost all fathers adore their illegitimate children. If they abandon them it is because of the shame society attaches to it. If there was no shame the children would have a father and a name’.        ‘His Daughter’, the most vivid and heartfelt of all his stories, is surely based his own story.       It begins with an evocative description  of a bleak winter evening in London. ‘It rained a fine thin rain that floated in the air like mist. It hung upon the houses and closed in each street with dreary indistinctness, the lamps made red halos round them and dwindled in the distance to dim stars. The horses slipped on thee greasy roadway and those in the rank stood beneath their waterproofs with drooped heads.’      A man called simply Masterton turns with relief into the warmth of his club. ‘There was a feeling of ease, of comfort, of asylum that soothed him after the homeless desolation of the streets.’ The first friend he approaches is on his way to take ‘my girls’ to the theatre. Another who might have made up a rubber – four players were needed for a game of whist – is probably kept at home by his wife on account of the weather. ‘We aren’t all free men like you, Masterton,’ the friend says cheerfully. A young man he meets on the stairs and tries to persuade to stay with an offer of ‘fizz’ apologises, but he has just got engaged and is off to meet his fiancee. ‘Don’t wait talking to a stupid old man like me,’ Masterton tells him. ‘Run off, my boy. I am very glad. Good luck.’        Masterton finds two friends dining there and the three men talk over their meal ‘in the large room hung with pictures of soldiers and administrators famous in the East in their day’. The world they have left behind. ‘All the talk, all the names, all the stories were of the East where they had lived. Of the great city in which they had dined, of their own country, of Europe, there was never a word. It seemed as if they had ceased to live, and were only memories.’       One by one his companions leave him, but Masterton remains. ‘His rooms were near by, but of what use to go there? If one has to sit and smoke it is less lonely to do so by the fire in the club than in furnished chambers.’ Gloomily he imagines what the future might hold, how he might die with only a doctor and a nurse to keep him company, how news of his death might be received by his friends in the East, ‘Poor old Masterton! Not so old, either, only forty-eight!’ (In 1905 Harold Fielding Hall was 46.)        ‘And out of the fire rose memories of that other life where he had work, had friends, had an interest. Then he had a future. Now he had only a past.’       When he was working in the East he had mocked the men who married out there. It was no place for a wife, and most young wives left swiftly so married couples lived apart for years. But at least they had children. As Masterton reflects, ‘That was what man lived for, to have children – a daughter!’       At this thought, Masterton comes to a decision. He leaves the club, telling the porter he is going away, and doesn’t know when he will return. The scene now shifts abruptly to a town in Burma. Fielding Hall is unsparing as he describes Masterton’s response to the town he used to know so well. ‘The palms, the bamboo clumps, the thatched cottages, the brown people. He knew them all. At one time they had all spoken to him in a tongue he knew. Now they spoke no more. He even wondered if he did not hate them.’        He enters a convent; the Mother Superior and another nun receive him coolly. He has come about a girl who was given into their care, but the Mother Superior says she cannot give out information to just anyone. ‘I am her father,’ he tells her. Her response: She ‘bowed in cold acquiescence.’ All these years he has supported the girl, who goes by the name of Miss Jane Grey, anonymously, through a firm of solicitors. Now he wants to take her with him to England. He explains, ‘I have lived all my life out here, and there in England – it is lonely. My daughter will be someone to keep me company – even though her mother was Burmese.’        The nuns are surprised. He has come too late. The girl was eight when she came to the convent, but she had left three years before, when she was seventeen. For a while she had worked as a teacher. But at eighteen she married. A Burman. One final barb. The nun says:      ‘She never knew who her father was. You are late coming for her.’      ‘Too late,’ says Masterton.      ‘She often dreamed of her father,’ said the other sister. ‘She was my favourite. Poor little Jane.’      Masterton leaves with the name of his daughter’s husband, a clerk in a government office, and after several false attempts he finds someone who can direct him to her home. He goes down a lane which is bordered by hedges of oleander and hibiscus. On either side are neat houses in gardens gay with tropic flowers. Outside one house, ‘in the dust of the road were two naked babies who laughed and rolled’.      ‘But when they saw Masterton they ceased. They stared, and with a sudden puckering of little mouths they burst into a cry, and rising to their legs they staggered towards the gate. Warned by the cry, a woman came out of the house. She seemed like any other Burmese woman, somewhat untidy, bright, self-confident. Running to her babies she caught them in her arms. And as Masterton stood and watched he heard her soothing them and talking.    ‘ “ Tut, tut! Don’t cry. See, the ugly foreigner will go. Let’s hide.” And with a laugh Masterton’s daughter ran away from him with his grandchildren.      ‘He turned away. As he went there came upon him a despair, a loathing of himself, his life, of all about him. The setting glow in the sky, the great stars, the dusty streets, the houses, the people, the smells and sounds filled him with disgust. They were not his. He had given his life to them and he hated them. And the children hooted at him as he went.’                                            ‘His Daughter’ has a raw honesty unmatched in any of his other fiction. The evocation of the desperate loneliness of the man who has spent all his life in a distant culture and who, as his career draws to a close, returns ‘home’ only to discover that he belongs nowhere. The anguish of glimpsing his daughter, and the longed-for grandchildren – ‘that was what man lived for, to have children’ – only to find that he is now ‘the ugly foreigner’ and the gulf dividing them can never be bridged.        In 1905 Harold Fielding Hall must have thought he had escaped Masterton’s fate by marrying Margaret Evelyn. Perhaps his circumstances appeared so different that he was able to persuade his wife there was no resonance with his experience. They returned to Burma together. They had two children. He was at the peak of his career, both as a civil servant, and as a writer.       The marriage was not a success. He died estranged from wife and children – his English children.        And what of his Burmese family?        That is what I’ve been trying to discover.        [...] Read more...
March 6, 2023A few days ago a friend sent me a photograph of a small watercolour, painted almost 200 years ago. He wrote ‘I have been given a floral watercolour miniature from my aunt Rachel’s house on which she noted on the back that it was painted by Sarah Rickman in 1830. Would this Sarah have featured in your research, do you think?’ Yes! She didn’t just feature in my research: she was its star. Sarah Godlee Rickman (1798-1866) and her cousin Dr Thomas Hodgkin (same dates, he was the medical pioneer who identified the leukaemia that bears his name) were close as children and considered marriage in their youth. But at that time Quakers forbad marriage between first cousins though it was common enough in the rest of society: Queen Victoria, Charles Darwin – no one murmured when they married their first cousins. But they weren’t Quakers. When her husband died, five years after she painted this water anemone, Thomas who had stayed single spent two years trying to get the Society of Friends to fall into step with the rest of society. They ignored him. He and Sarah had to give up their hopes of making a life together.   All her life, in tragedy and delight, Sarah was a maker.  She did brilliant silhouettes – the Wellcome library bought a whole album of them without knowing who had done them – all with her distinctive ‘SR’ signature These examples show her portrait of William Miller, the well-known engraver, who was two years older than her, and his sister Elizabeth, two years younger, who became the third wife of Thomas Rickman the  architect. They date from one of her long visits to Edinburgh. The Millers were delighted by the addition of such a bubbly and sociable young woman to the small coterie of Quakers north of the border.  Her leatherwork was so professional that recipients of her gifts complained people assumed they had been purchased – nothing amateurish about anything she did. When she and her sisters ran a little school in Lewes, she made a leaving gift for each girl, gifts that were treasured for decades – and which maybe survive still. In 1824, back home with her family in the Bear Yard in Lewes, she began a ‘Family Journal’ full of gossip and news and reflection, laughter and tears, a document in which a  whole family and their circle dance across the pages. When I read it first, they became so familiar, as if they had just left the room, that it was hard to believe she’d been writing nearly 200 years ago. And she painted. I’d seen sketches she did as preparation for silhouettes, but this is the first botanical painting of hers I’ve found. One of the many singular things about Sarah is how much of her survives. She was neither rich nor famous, but her legacy has been treasured by her family and others through the generations. An anonymous friend put together a handwritten account of her ‘Life and Writings’. Nicholas Godlee, great grandson of one of her brothers gathered as many of her letters and papers as he could – and generously let me work through them all when I was writing about the lifelong devotion between Thomas Hodgkin and her. Nicholas’s interest in her had first been sparked when he inherited a small table she had made. Cabinet making and sculpture were all activities she plunged into with zest.  Perhaps this is her secret. In spite of the many difficulties in her life, she embraced each day with honesty and gusto. Friendship, literature, family, creativity – she enhanced the lives of all who knew her – ‘the sun of our system’, as a sister described her – funny, warm-hearted, waspish and kind. Her personality somehow survives in the objects she made. Like this little painting of the water anemone. Hardly a great work of art, but the creation of a woman whose life was itself a work of art. And it sets me wondering. How much else that she made or wrote still survives, scattered and still treasured? Nicholas had two volumes of her Family Journal, from January 1824 to December 1828, but there are references in her letters to later volumes. It was passed around her family who insisted she carry on. Have all the later volumes been destroyed, or are they still treasured, still surviving?  [...] Read more...
February 26, 2023November 27th 2022: an unlikely gathering took place in Lordship Rec, a park in Tottenham, North London, organised by the wonderful group of people who are Tottenham Clouds.  About thirty people had joined to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of a quiet man who left a mighty legacy: Luke Howard. He was a pharmacist, which at the beginning of the nineteenth century meant someone who worked in the field of chemical experimentation, not just doling out medicines – though he did that as well. But his passion, from childhood, was observing the weather. Most especially, clouds. His paper, On The Modification Of Clouds, was read out to a small scientific group one evening in 1802 – as a member of the Askesian Society, he had to produce a paper or pay a fine.   Amazingly, the impact of that paper resonates still. The names he chose, Cumulus, Cirrus, Stratus and Nimbus are still the basis of cloud naming. He is recognised as the father of meteorology. He was also the only Englishman that Goethe called ‘Master’ – but that’s a digression. On the day we gathered, the sky was dense with those endless dense white-grey clouds that seem to blot out everything. In his words:  I relish his scolarly description of a skyscape which is basically a huge mash up of every kind of cloud there is cumulus, cirrus, stratus with nimbus thrown in just in case. There was a lot of pluviam about to effundens that afternoon, but the six of us in the photograph were more intrigued by totting up the greats: if Luke Howard is my great x 3 grandfather, and your great x 4 grandfather, what kind of cousin are we?   Distant, is the only answer to that. I wasn’t there because Luke Howard is my many greats grandfather – genes too diluted to claim any honour – but because he is a man I have come to know well. In the story I’ve been researching of Thomas Hodgkin (1798-1866) and his decades-long love for his cousin Sarah Godlee (1798-1866 also) Luke Howard plays a more than walk-on part. He was a luminous figure in the Quaker firmament of the early nineteenth century, but he was also a neighbour and mentor to Thomas and his brother John when they were boys. Thomas’s brother John married Luke Howard’s daughter, Elizabeth. Their stories were interwoven all through. Elizabeth’s correspondence with her deeply unhappy younger sister Rachel gave me my first window into the world of those Quaker women born at the turn of the century. Elizabeth was someone with a gift for happiness, as her less fortunate sister knew. Elizabeth’s death at the age of 33 was one of those tragedies whose consequences ripple out beyond her own circle for decades to come.  The best known image of Luke Howard shows an alert man with a far seeing gaze, appropriate for someone who spent so much of his life looking up at the sky. When he was sitting for his portrait at ‘Glovers’, Elizabeth reported : ‘It is undoubtedly now a very good likeness, but taken, we must allow, in a moment of animation which is not our dear father’s usual mood. Fancy him just roused up by some remark which takes his attention and pleases him and saying “Now, Robert, what is that? Let me hear that again?” and thou wilt have it just.’ Elizabeth used the old-fashioned ‘thee’ and ‘thou’, as did all Quakers at that time. Plain speech was important to them. But the note of asperity – ‘animation is not our dear father’s usual mood’ – speaks volumes.  My favourite image of him, however, was sketched by Elizabeth’s eldest son, Eliot. He was seven when she died. The following summer he and his siblings went to stay with their grandparents, Luke and his wife Mariabella, at their home in Ackworth, Yorkshire. Now in semi retirement, Luke Howard was devoting his energy equally to meteorology and farming, and the children enjoyed the animals and activity. Eliot wrote – in French; they were a family that expected a lot of their children – to his father still in London recording his delight in being allowed to chop down a small tree. Note the very clearly marked wedge where the axe must fall. And is that his jacket lying on the ground behind him? Eliot continued to decorate his letters with cartoons all his life.   Presumably the two little girls on the left are his younger sisters, and the woman with them either their governess or their aunt. Is the second person with the stick behind their grandfather his old coachman? Luke Howard wears a top hat to observe the chopping of the tree. Maybe he was already moving away from the traditional Quaker dress for men. He was on the verge of leaving Quakers in the upheaval which was tearing the movement apart – the Beaconite controversy. Whatever tensions and unhappiness surrounded the family – and Eliot’s little brother Thomas is conspicuously absent, most probably in trouble for quarrelling – Eliot looks to be enjoying his moment of action. [...] Read more...
February 24, 2023When young Thomas Rickman boarded the London to Liverpool coach on a dark December morning 1807, he faced an instant dilemma. What words should he use? Did he greet his fellow travellers as ‘you’? Or ‘thee’ and ‘thou’? His allegiance to the Society of Friends dictated the latter. But the temptation to use the pronoun everyone else regarded as normal was almost overwhelming. When settling in for a long journey, the inside travellers were always quick to assess the company they’d be keeping during the long day ahead. Coach travel was made or marred by one’s companions. Thomas’s clothes already marked him out as an oddity: the wide-brimmed hat, breeches and antiquated coat that Quakers still wore in the early nineteenth century – did he have to compound his outsider status by the way he spoke? His concern is surprising for two reasons. Firstly, he was not technically even a member of the Society of Friends: he had been disowned three years before because of his marriage to his first cousin Lucy, a woman he’d loved from boyhood. First cousin marriage was common in nineteenth century England – Charles Darwin and Queen Victoria both married first cousins and no one batted an eyelid. But Quakers followed their own rules, and Thomas and Lucy had faced fierce opposition from family and friends. Still, disownment did not mean the kind of never-darken-my-doors-again severance the word implies. They continued to attend meeting and to be supported by the same family and friends who had earlier discouraged their marriage. But in December 1807 Thomas and Lucy’s hopes for a life together had been torpedoed. His corn factor business had failed and as a bankrupt he had no way to support his wife. Three days earlier he’d seen her leave on the Lewes coach to go back to her parents. That evening he had written in his journal ‘Sat down very solitary to my Dinner my tears flowed oh Lucy how has thou felt this Day many feelings rushed on me’ – (Punctuation was never Thomas’s thing.) With his life in freefall, one might assume he was too stressed to bother about the opinion of his fellow travellers on the Liverpool coach. Not so. On arrival in Liverpool he noted with relief, ‘To bed early with some Gratitude for the support experienced thro’ the Day and having been favour’d to keep the plain Language thro’ the Journey and while here’. To be a Quaker in the early nineteenth century was to be ‘other’. The early years of bitter persecution had long gone, imprisonment and even death were no longer the price to be paid for membership of ‘our society’. Now Quakers had to endure a less obvious and often underestimated trial: embarrassment. To wear odd clothes, to refuse to take your hat off (men), to insist of odd quirks of speech – all this marked you down as seriously weird. And young Quakers had the same longing to fit in with their peers as anyone else. Some years later, Thomas Rickman’s nephew Burwood Godlee, always regarded as the epitome of the conformist Lewes Quaker, wrote to his brother who was starting a new career as a barrister in London encouraging him to stick to the Quaker ways, however hard that might be. He admitted that ‘the peculiarities of Quakerism’ had been a ‘scene of contest my whole life from a boy’. Even for Burwood, who never ventured far beyond the safe world of his tight knit Lewes circle, the temptation to avoid social embarrassment was ever present. I sympathise. In this ‘post-religious’ age, to admit to being part of a Christian community is to invite scorn, bafflement, derision or – perhaps worst of all – pity. You’re religious? Really? After Darwin and Dawkins, after the endless scandals of abuse and persecution? When large chunks of the Christian hierarchy appear to be obsessed with what people do with their sexual organs? and now even undoing all the progress that’s been made in terms of equality and generosity towards all people? You really identify with all of that? By a twist of history, to be Quaker is to escape much of the contempt. I attend an Anglican church but I only have to mention my roots in the Society of Friends, to trigger instant relief: ‘Oh yes, Quakers. I have a lot of respect for them’. Whenever I mention the embarrassments of religion to fellow worshippers there is immediate recognition. Lots of people take care to distinguish between being religious and being spiritual. Latter ok, former suspect. Same with prayer. Tell people you are meditating for half an hour every morning and they accept it easily. Tell them you’re praying and most look away, embarrassed in their turn, as if you’d admitted to something one really doesn’t speak about in polite – or ‘cool’ – society. Which is why, I suppose, the embarrassments of religion are so seldom discussed. Because they are … well, embarrassing. So what is the solution? Talking about it is a start. Beyond that, for me anyway, it’s a work in progress. And what of Thomas and his Lucy? A week after his arrival in Liverpool, he noted in his diary that he had been seized with anxiety and ‘in a fear of something happening to my Lucy’. Her health had been precarious since childhood and any kind of stress was liable to precipitate an attack of erysipelas. She had been unwell for several days and died in her sleep on the night of 13th December 1807, having finished a letter to her husband ‘believe me as ever, most tenderly thine,’ before turning in for the night. Thomas’s journal is a blank for a week after he got the news, and for several days it was barely coherent. Alone and practically destitute in Liverpool, he got through his grief by tireless walking whenever he had the chance, and often during his lonely walks he paused to sketch the churches in the area. In time, his study of church architecture led to the publication of An Attempt to Discriminate the Styles of English Architecture from the Conquest to the Reformation in 1817. He divided medieval architecture into Norman, Early English, Decorated and Perpendicular, a system of classification that has been used ever since. He’s remembered now as one of the leading Gothic architects of the day. He gradually drifted away from the Society of Friends and became an Anglican, though he remained close to his Quaker cousins. Who continued, as I do now, to sometimes struggle with the embarrassments of religion.   https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/04/christianity-evangelical-embarrassment-jesus-religion – Gdn article referring to embarrassment in religion   https://metro.co.uk/2018/03/13/embarrassing-admit-christian-7383571/ TR’s journals in RIBA library at V and A [...] Read more...
May 24, 2017In March 2016 I wrote an article about The Durrells on TV for The Times – which you can read here Perhaps it’s just as well that when my mother Nancy set sail with her new husband Lawrence in March 1935 they had no inkling of the legacy, literary and cinematic, that their journey would inspire. They were both 23, naive and full of enthusiasm as they headed for Corfu, an island that will be for ever linked with Lawrence and his younger brother, Gerald. There have been several books, a couple of TV adaptations and now, more than 80 years later, The Durrells, a gentle ITV six-parter, loosely — very loosely, for in fairness the producers have been honest about their intention to reinvent the originals — based on Gerald’s Corfu trilogy.          My Family and Other Animals is the reason. It’s a gloriously funny and evocative book that imprints the Durrell clan on its readers: vague, embattled Mother, caustic Larry (Lawrence), gun-toting Leslie, spotty Margo and animal-obsessed Gerry (Gerald). Plus a host of colourful neighbours and visitors. It was a work of fiction from the beginning. For one thing, Gerry deleted every female consort from the story, starting with his sister-in-law, my mother, Nancy, She did not mind her obliteration in the least. She relished the book and said that though the incidents were all made up, the essence of the family she had adored was preserved in their speech and escapades. She cited one incident in particular: Larry, in a drunken stupor, sets fire to his bedroom. While the fire burns and his family race around trying to put it out, he roars instructions from the bed, contributing nothing, but claims all the credit when the job is done. “If it hadn’t been for me you would probably all have been burnt in your beds.”          What she would have made of the various screen adaptations I’ve no idea; she died in 1983, long before the first one. She loved talking about her time in Corfu and the ebullient family she had married into and would probably have welcomed any excuse to remember it all again. And you can see why TV producers keep coming back to it: vivid, memorable characters, a fabulous landscape, passages of laugh-out-loud hilarity and a small zoo’s worth of winsome wildlife. With all that going for it, how could it fail? Well…             Earlier versions have remained fairly faithful to the original, focusing on Gerry and his animals, keeping his perspective and sticking pretty much to the original book. So, faithftil to a fiction, at least. Even if for me they never quite came off. With The Durrells the saga has drifted so far from its original moorings as to be almost unrecognisable. The spotlight has swivelled from Gerry (brilliantly played by Milo Parker) to his mother, Louisa, played by Keeley Hawes. She’s still the hard-pressed matriarch, but now ten years younger and much easier for contemporary women to identify with. Her sons could never say of this Louisa, “She’s really not much good as a mother, you know,” as her older sons do in the book, or address her as, “you stupid woman,” which Larry did the first time Louisa and Nancy met. This version of Mother Durrell is capable and fierce, almost a modern-day tiger mum.         Hawes’s new, feisty Louisa makes the “brave” decision to move to Corfu to try to heal her fatherless brood, (though it is not spelt out, the actual Mr Durrell died of a brain tumour in 1928). The 1935 reality was that Larry and Nancy decided to follow friends to an island paradise of cheapness where he could write and she could paint. When Mrs Durrell discovered this she announced that she was coming too. She had only lived in England for six years, had moved frequently and had no particular attachments there. According to Nancy, she said: “What do you expect me to do on my own with all these children?” Larry refused to travel with his family, going on ahead with “the lamppost” as he called Nancy, who was several inches taller than him. Once in Corfu he mostly chose to live apart from his family, only returning when the need for warmth and baths became overwhelming.     At first it seems as if The Durrells is making a move back towards what passed for reality in that pre-war household. In the opening scene Louise sneaks a furtive cup of gin before heading off to rescue Gerry from his appalling school. In real life she was a dedicated gin slugger. Again in the series, thus fortified, she subjects the headmaster to a tongue-lashing before removing her son for good. In reality, Louisa endured daily wrestling bouts with Gerry to drag him to school while he clung to the railings and shrieked. Often he won and they both retired home with headaches and mild fevers. The new Louisa, however much gin she has, remains sober and composed.       Still in Bournemouth, a romantically inclined neighbour recommends boarding school for her unruly youngsters and Louisa makes a little face: she’s clearly not the kind of slipshod mother who would consign her adolescent children to the care of strangers.        Yet, like most parents living in India in the 1920s, this is precisely what the Durrells had done. Larry went to boarding school in Darjeeling at 9 and when he was 12 he was left in England for two miserable years while his family returned to India. Leslie boarded only for a year, but with even more disastrous results: various fights and beatings left him with a permanently damaged eardrum. Even Margo did her time in Cheltenham.           Would Nancy have recognised her husband and his family from this new incarnation? My hunch is that she might well have put a tick next to Callum Woodhouse, who plays Leslie, though it’s a softer, less troubled version of the young man she knew. Too often the real Leslie played stooge to his older brother’s vicious put-downs, which drove him into helpless rage, but he adored Nancy and hated it when she suffered a similar fate. Occasionally Leslie would rush in, aim his gun at Larry and roar that he would murder him if he didn’t stop. “And,” said Nancy, “sometimes I really thought he would.”           Yet Larry, as scripted for the actor Josh O’Connor? Surely not. The of Gerald’s book — the Larry who in reality was beginning a lifetime correspondence with Henry Miller and grappling to find his authorial voice in The Black Book — this Larry is nowhere to be seen. In The Durrells Larry is portrayed as a bumptious adolescent who might just possibly be aiming for a dim pass in A-level English.            We know he’s a writer because he tells us he is and occasionally bashes away at a manual typewriter, but there’s no sign of the real Lawrence’s inspired verbal extravaganzas, no hint of the man whose only passion was literature, not a glimpse of the writer whose Alexandria Quartet astonished a whole generation. This Larry couldn’t tell Tropic of Cancer from Club Tropicana.         Does it matter? Not really. The series makes no claim to be accurate, and everyone who reads the books is of course free to make their own interpretation. If it entertains and helps to point a new swathe of readers back to the books and to the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, then all is well.       The postwar Nancy I knew was a far from impartial critic, but I’m sure she would have been pleased to see how the family refuse to lie down and be forgotten. So long as you weren’t too closely involved, they were a wonderfully life-enhancing bunch, She remembered all the Durrells with great affection — apart from her former husband, whom she left in Cairo in 1942.         One of the reasons for the collapse of their marriage was probably that after war broke out she no longer had his mother and siblings up for her and poke fun at his excesses.       Still, there is something extraordinary in the unstoppable afterlife of the Durrells’ brief stay Greek island. We’ve had the books, the TV adaptations and six-part series. The family must appeal to some fundamental need we all have for there to been a time when Corfu bathed in perpetual summer sunshine, the English were regarded by a benign peasantry “little lords” and eccentricity had free reign. What next? musical, perhaps?  Those two young newlyweds, hopeful and unknown, who boarded the SS Oronsay in March 1935, would surely have been utterly amazed. [...] Read more...
April 3, 2017The Lost City of Z, directed by James Gray, was released in 2016. It starred Charlie Hunnam as Major Percy Fawcett, with Robert Pattison as a fellow explorer Henry Costin, Tom Holland as Fawcett’s son and Sienna Miller as his wife. Major Fawcett. The film tells the story of Fawcett’s final expedition into the Amazon rainforest in search of the fabled city of El Dorado. All that is known for certain is that he, his son and another companion disappeared. Rumour and speculation have circled round their final weeks ever since – and their probable fate is still being hotly contested.   I was eager to see the film, as the vanished major – missing presumed murdered – had an unlikely connection with my mother.  The first man she ever fell in love with was the flamboyant Roger Pettiward, a fellow art student at the Slade. She was flattered by the attention of this tall, red haired Oxford graduate, who had all the social poise she was so aware she lacked. On their first outing together he arrived dressed in a peacock blue Harris tweet suit, check shirt and neatly folded umbrella. They decorated the Slade walls with extravagant cartoons, and took great delight in behaving outrageously during the dances, roaring up and down the room in a kind of ‘Lancers side step gallop’ and crashing into any hapless dancers not quick enough to get out of their way. The problem for Nancy was that she never knew where she was with him. Their relationship never developed into anything definite, and it was never sexual. Even so, time spent with him was ‘pure, instinctive, joyous release’ – something totally new for her.  It ended when Roger Pettiward agreed to accompany his friend Peter Fleming (brother of the more famous Ian) on an expedition in 1932 to discover what had become of the missing major. Fleming had replied to an advertisement in The Times for ‘two more guns’ for an ‘exploring and sporting expedition’. Pettiward spent a last night in London with Nancy and then disappeared.  His expedition with Fleming was, in the words of Ben Macintyre, ‘just as brave, quixotic and futile as Fawcett’s original quest, and much funnier.’ His account of their journey, Brazilian Adventure, is a glorious celebration of a vanished spirit of derring-do in a rainforest that must have seemed indestructible.  Reality and myth are repeatedly intertwined: Fawcett was friendly with Conan Doyle and Rider Haggard who was inspired by his adventures to write The Lost Word. Fleming and Pettiward had grown up with these novels of lost kingdoms and jungle adventures and used the language of their storybook heroes so that water was always ‘Precious Fluid’ and gunshot ‘the well-known bark of a Mauser’. The links continue: the insouciant James Bond owes much to his creator’s admiration for his older brother. And then, of course, there’s Indiana Jones … It was while Pettiward was enjoying hardship, adventures and laughter in the Amazon that Nancy, who’d had to drop out of the Slade because her funds had dried up, found herself, almost by accident, in a relationship with a young estate agent who wanted to be a poet: Lawrence Durrell. She was dismayed when Pettiward blanked her on his return: he was soon to marry Diana Berners Wilson, a fellow student whose background was similar to his own. In August 1942 Captain Roger Pettiward was killed in the commando raid on Dieppe.  The debate around the disappearance of Fawcett and the others continues. There’s a thorough exploration of the different theories on the Murder is Everywhere blogspot https://murderiseverywhere.blogspot.com/2010/02/death-of-percy-fawcett.html Leighton Gage knew the Brazilian Orlando Villas Bôas who had spent many years living among various Amazonian tribes. A member of the Kalapalos tribe told Bôas that he’d been one of the villagers who had murdered Fawcett and his team because of their taboo-breaking behaviour. One of the group had urinated in the river upstream from the village, an unforgivable outrage; also a child who was being a nuisance was first pushed away, then slapped – another no-no to the villagers. Finally they had refused to share their food, also unacceptable. For these affronts they were murdered. Bôas’s account is challenged by others who say that Fawcett was far too experienced and sensitive a traveller to have allowed these outrages. Far more likely that they simply lost their way and died of starvation and disease. As the centenary of their vanishing approaches, no doubt the debate will resurface.  Another footnote: for a long time it was believed that Fawcett’s search for El Dorado had been doomed because no such city could have existed in the heart of the Amazonian rain forest. Now evidence has come to light that shows not only did they exist, but that he was looking in the right place. But for the wrong thing. Extensive ditches and mounds have been discovered that show the outlines of large interconnected cities, the traces of a thriving civilisation that was wiped out by the diseases brought by Europeans in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. A brief account can be found here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dphq5X-rMew And what of the film itself? My opinion when I saw it first was that “If you can divorce it from real life, the film is quite fun – and his side kick is brilliant (turns out it was Robert Pattison, who has been called ‘the sexiest man alive’ – not in this film, just a cracking good actor). But the ending annoyed me. Given that precisely what did happen to them has never been properly explained, a walking off into the unknown, three dots kind of ending (like that brilliant finale to Gods and Men) would have been much more satisfying rather than the obligatory Hollywood father-son schmalz ‘I love you Dad,’ – ‘I love you too, son,’ so now we can all die happy even though we are about to be slaughtered and probably eaten. Also I would merrily have any script writer who lets a mysterious gypsy woman pronounce to our hero, ‘Eet ees your destineee!’ silenced with a poison dart immediately.” Major Fawcett, Roger Pettiward, the brothers Fleming and James Bond, Nancy and the young man who went on to write The Alexandria Quartet and the lost city of Z, or El Dorado – all those unlikely links that touch on a life.  [...] Read more...
September 16, 2012Looking through an old journal just now for some notes I took on a book about memory (and I found them!) I also found a couple of entries written in May 1994, when Penelope and I visited Kalami with our husbands, staying in the White House. I did not read this when I wrote the chapter in Amateurs, but my memory for once seems to have been fairly accurate. None of us had ever been to Corfu. A few bits: “I had not realised how strange this whole thing would be … Trying to unpick the odd bits: now, after so long – 40 years since I first started to hear about it – I have come to the place Mum used to talk about so much, the place I had heard about so much that it began to seem a mythical place. And of course in some ways it is a mythical place still because the Corfu and the Kalami that L described in Prospero’s Cell was always a myth, an idyll but  a blighted one because they fought so much. “It feels like a kind of homecoming, returning to a place I have never visited, but which was part of the landscape of my childhood, … and which is still a kind of paradise. “Four o’clock in the afternoon. A breeze is blowing off the sea, there is some wispy cloud inland. Skin feels sun-warmed and salty. I am on the little boat harbour; about 14 little boats are gently turning about their anchor ropes, water lapping by my feet, sound of the breeze in the olives and the cypresses  … so many magical things we have seen already.” [...] Read more...
February 9, 2012Today is the official launch day – but the party was on Tuesday. It was held at the Wheatsheaf just off Charlotte Street, a small pub with a proper 1930s atmosphere. Apparently it is where Dylan Thomas and Caitlin first met, so it is quite possible that Larry and Nancy met there also. Plus they have a delightful upstairs room. It was the coldest night of the year – what is it that book launches have in common with moving house? They seem to prompt either extreme weather conditions or transport strikes. However, despite Siberian temperatures outside, it was a really great party – a lovely mix of people from all different bits of my life. My fear had been that everyone would stay with who they knew, but in fact there were all sorts of unexpected meetings and links. Lennie Goodings of Virago raised a toast to the book, I gave a speech which lasted all of 30 seconds and was really just to introduce the two actors both of whom Penelope and I had known since the 60s. They read two very short bits of poems: Shirley read the section of the poem The Prayer Wheel which gave me the title for the book, and then Ellis read the poem which Larry wrote after Nancy left him and never published. And they were wonderful – often I find actors too stagey for poetry, but Shirley and Ellis gave the words their full weight – perfect. Meanwhile, Judith and Zoe from Virago, highly professional publicist and editor, turned barmaid to make sure glasses were kept filled. Some guests couldn’t wait to start reading.   Meanwhile Sebastien Sandys of LXV books displayed the copies brilliantly And sold out! After which, the author and her agent were free to relax … [...] Read more...
January 21, 2012Double page extracts from the book in today’s Times’ Review, with the picture of Nancy with the Durrell family at the centre. Larry and Nancy had found a little villa close to the Wilkinsons’ bungalow. It was on the hillside just south of Corfu town, overlooking the sea and Mouse Island. Their first home, which Larry dubbed Villa Bumtrinket, was primitive, “a little hut, really”, said Nancy. A headlong plunge through the olive groves brought them to a shingle beach, mundane by the standards of their later swimming places, but in those first weeks of discovery it seemed miraculous to be able to scamper down to their own private stretch of sea. Soon Larry’s mother and the rest of the family were installed at the nearby Villa Agazini, the strawberry-pink villa of My Family and Other Animals, so that during their first summer they were all within walking distance. Sailing, swimming, soaking up the sun, reading, talking, exploring… that first summer was everything they had hoped for and more. One day Nancy, Larry and the Wilkinsons set off to walk across the island. Nancy was bowled over by the beauty of their route along ancient tracks. As they arrived in one remote village, all the men rushed out with chairs, bowing and gesturing to them to sit down while the women crowded round to examine these exotics who had appeared in their midst.  Nancy was wearing only a little halterneck top in checked cotton, which she had made herself, plus matching shorts, a straw hat and sandals; the women couldn’t make her out at all. “You a boy or a girl?” they asked, pinching her as if to see if her skin offered any clues. Having ascertained her sex, they made them welcome with figs and cheese and drink; for her the whole experience seemed fabulous. When they arrived at the other side of the island, the beach was amazing. It was their first sight of the rugged and dramatic west coast that was to become so important to them over the next few years.  On a fine April morning in 1936 Spiro drove Nancy, Larry and Theodore to visit an acquaintance of Theodore’s who lived in the northeast of the island. The road was bumpy, but the landscape was stunning: Mount Pantokrator rising up on their left; the sparkling Ionian Sea below them on the right; olive trees, cypresses and flowers vibrant in the spring sunshine.  Larry and Nancy were smitten with the area. In Prospero’s Cell “N” is reported as saying, “the quietness alone makes it another country”. Nancy was keen to be in the wildest place she could find, while Larry wanted peace and quiet away from the “pack of brats” — his siblings — so he could work without interruption. As soon as Spiro found suitable lodgings, Nancy and Larry headed north. In 1936 Kalami was just a few little whitewashed houses on a gentle bay, the steep hills behind rising up towards Mount Pantokrator. Nancy and Larry took two rooms in a house built on a flat rock on the southernmost curve of the bay. It belonged to a carpenter called Athenaios and his wife Eleni. Nancy was as intrigued by the clothing of her neighbours as the peasants were by hers. Even in the height of the summer the peasants wore thick woollen vests with long sleeves, believing that to leave them off would mean certain pneumonia. They were horrified to see Nancy and Larry wandering around in shorts and swimming costumes — or worse still, nothing at all. They made an effort to find skinny-dipping spots that were out of sight of the locals, but in their passion for taking their clothes off they probably didn’t always succeed.  Larry had finished Panic Spring the previous December, and all that summer he was working furiously on what was to become The Black Book. Inspired by the example of his friend Henry Miller, he was attempting something that was, for him, entirely new. After a morning of intense work, the boats provided relaxation. Sometimes they’d row across the bay, sometimes they ‘d go exploring in the Van Norden. As their confidence increased they sailed round the top of the island and discovered a deserted beach. They stayed there for a fortnight, sleeping under the stars, doing nothing very much apart from swimming and sailing and lounging about. For Nancy that fortnight was pure delight, combining her great love of simplicity and wildness, and they returned every summer. When she was in her sixties, surrounded by books, furniture, paintings, she commented that she had always imagined ending her days in a cave, owning nothing but a tin mug, plate and spoon: she was remembering those timeless summer days of solitude and freedom on the wild western beaches of Corfu.  Since Anaïs Nin’s death in 1977, and more importantly that of her husband Hugo, much more detail has emerged about her life. Nancy had read and enjoyed her dreamlike House of Incest, but it is unlikely that she was aware that Anaïs had a passionate affair with her own father when they were reunited after an interval of 20 years. In fact, Nancy never got to know Anaïs that well. She was under the impression that the affair between Henry and Anaïs was more or less over by the summer of 1937, but during this time of what her biographer calls “relative sexual stability” Anaïs was limiting her sexual activity to Hugo, Henry and Gonzalo Moré, a Peruvian of Scottish, Spanish and Indian descent. Nancy referred wistfully to the fun she might have had if she’d been able to join Anais with “the Spanish refugees” she was supporting, unaware that helping the Spanish refugees’ was code for Nin’s affair with Gonzalo. Thirty years later, after they had met up again in California, Anaïs wrote to Nancy that it had been pleasant to see her again, before adding the significant qualification, “or rather, to really see you for the first time as 1 did not ready know you in Paris—Henry and Larry were in the limelight”. Their relationship was mediated through their menfolk. In the 1930s, even a woman as groundbreaking as Anaïs was torn between her belief that a woman artist should be the equal of a man, and a residual sense that a woman’s primary role was as a handmaiden to a great man (in her case, Henry). It is hard to imagine now just how difficult it was in the 1930s for women artists to break through in a male-dominated environment, not only in a practical way, but in the far more complex matter of self-belief. Larry had instantly impressed her, but that did not stop Anaïs from noting his public bullying of Nancy. She describes an evening the four of them spent together, which seemed to her like a long voyage because their conversation ranged so widely, a “beautiful flow”. She goes on to describe how Nancy’s “stutterings and stumblings”, and the way she seemed to look to Anaïs to speak for her, reinforced her determination to forge a genuinely female voice, to write “as a woman, in a different way from Henry and Larry”. And a little later she writes, “Poor woman, how difficult it is to make her instinctive knowledge clear!” “Shut up,” says Larry to Nancy, Anaïs writes in her diary. “She looks at me strangely, as if expecting me to defend her, explain her.” Nancy’s inarticulateness inspires Anaïs to speak for all women. “Nancy, 1 won’t shut up,” she insists. “1 have a great deal to say, for June , for you, for other women.” But in the end she couldn’t speak for Nancy, because they did not know each other. Nancy didn’t help the situation either. Anaïs writes that when she asked Nancy her opinion of the diary, Nancy with characteristic honesty, replied that she thought it was marred by “a straining for effect”. After which, Anaïs cooled rapidly.  Larry announced that he was going to spend three or four weeks in London over Christmas. Without her. “I can’t remember what he said he wanted to do, or whether that was really what he wanted to do,” said Nancy, and nor did she care much, so long as she too was free to do her own thing. Most probably she did not inquire too closely, since Larry would only have been able to countenance her freedom if he had another woman in view. The companion he had chosen for the London trip was, unbeknownst to Nancy, a young painter called Buffie Johnson, whom she described dismissively as “just a cheery, rather rotund girl”. Larry told Buffie his marriage was as good as over.  Nancy was looking forward to some uncomplicated fun and decided to go skiing. She kitted herself out with dark blue ski pants arid jacket, and a bright yellow bobbly sweater she’d knitted herself. Henry saw her off at the station. He was troubled by the rift between his friends, and expressed to Larry his dismay at seeing them heading off in different directions. He hoped Larry would soon return and nestle down in their Paris flat, adding gently, “I rather think you’d be better off.”  As Switzerland was the conventional place to go, she thought she’d have more fun in Austria. At the Hotel Goldener Adler in Innsbruck she was told that Mutters was a good place, but Mutters turned out to be a disappointment.  Someone told her of a place that sounded suitably remote. She took a bus part of the way, then proceeded through the snow on foot up the valley to the single hotel at its end, and her bag was conveyed on a sledge. She fell in love with the place at once: a small hotel standing all alone against a backdrop of small hills and mountain slopes. “It was absolutely marvellous,” she said. “Just what I was longing for.” The sun was shining, adding to the effect which made it, she added significantly, “tremendously like Shangri-La”.  There were maybe a dozen young people, most of them novice skiers like herself. Even better, there was a handsome young ski instructor who straight away paid particular attention to the beautiful, solitary girl who had tramped through the snow to join them. The first morning they set off for the nursery slopes and skidded around in the snow, falling down and laughing and generally having a wonderful time before coming in for lunch. In the afternoon they returned to the slopes and in the evening after supper they played games, including “a sort of bar billiards”, said Nancy vaguely. The precise details of the game were unimportant, compared to the sheer fun of it. They sang songs.  The next day the same blissful formula was repeated: sunshine and hilarity on the ski slopes, good humour and easy company over meals and in the evening. The ski instructor was showing definite signs of interest, which Nancy enjoyed, but most important of all she was relaxed and happy, revelling in uncomplicated pleasures almost for the first time in her life. It was “a wonderful release after Paris. Absolute bliss”. On the third night, soon after she had gone to sleep, she was woken by a noise at the door. The light came on, and there in the doorway stood Larry. He was in a foul temper, claiming he’d had to walk from Paris — a slight exaggeration, but he had made the last part of the journey on foot, stumbling up the valley through the snow while someone walked beside him with a lamp. “I don’t think,” said Nancy, “my heart has ever sunk quite as much as it did at the sight of a cross, cold, damp Larry arriving just as I thought I was going to have a most wonderful time in this place.” Then came the inevitable interrogation. What had she been doing? She tried to fend him off with vague statements: “This is an awfully nice place.” But he was having none of it. “Why did you tell me you were not having a good time?” he wanted to know. “You’ve been lying to me again!” The cross-examination lasted most of the night, and when they went down to breakfast the following morning he refused to say good morning her new-found “jolly friends”.  “As soon as you’ve finished breakfast we re off,” he told her. While everyone else went off to enjoy themselves in the sunshine on the ski slopes, she and Larry trudged miserably back to Mutters. They had no money to get back to Paris, and had to wait in the Goldener Adler while Nancy telegraphed the bank for cash. Most of that week was spent cooped up together in the hotel bedroom. The details were vague in Nancy’s memory. “He wanted me to do a drawing of some sort, a woodcut of two animals. He wanted it for a card or something.” Their new-year card survives: an image of a lion and a unicorn, nursery-rhyme creatures famous for their fighting. “The lion beat the unicorn/All around the town.”     And Nancy’s unicorn is most subdued. All Nancy remembered clearly was that it was a “nightmare week”. Writing to Henry, Larry put a mock heroic gloss on the whole dismal business, describing it as his “crazy catapult jump across Europe to join Nancy”, and invoking the spirit of Lost Horizon, the film that was so much a part of their mythology at the time. “I tell you Conway made no more violent attempts to reach Shangri-La than I did to deliver my little Christmas present.” He congratulated himself on the clever detective work which had made it possible for him to run her to earth at four o’clock on Christmas morning, though he did let slip that now they were tearing each other’s hair out. But he ends by addressing Henry as “my dear Conway” and saying blithely “Shangri-La for ever!” As so often, the conventions of their correspondence meant private misery was portrayed as farce. © Joanna Hodgkin 2012. Extracted from Amateurs in Eden; The Story of a Bohemian Marriage; Nancy and Lawrence Durrell https://oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/kt8q2nd18q/entire_text/ – follow this link for permission to reproduce the image! [...] Read more...

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