Hidden Secrets

Poppies of Remembrance at the Thiepval Memorial, Somme © Brian Harris

The build up to Remembrance Day always reminds me of the importance of memories. I’m talking here about national memories as much as personal ones. Two organisations most closely connected in the public’s imagination to memories in this context are the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, who I worked for part-time from 2005 to 2015 and the Royal British Legion, who I will be working for from now until 2021. Both these great bodies focus a significant part of their work on remembering the individual servicemen and women who died in the service of their country. They do much else besides but both have outstanding archives that tell the story of the organisation and the people involved in them.

Menin Gate, Ypres, where over 54,000 names of the missing are recorded © Brian Harris

Having spent all my working life using archives I thought it would be a moment to reflect on the importance of archives and their role in preserving the nation’s memories, the world’s memories in some cases. If I asked anyone to name, say, three archives that would be places to consult when writing about the Second World War they would probably come up with Imperial War Museums, National Archives and the National Army Museum. You might not expect to find anything relevant to that topic in the archives of, for example, Barings Bank or Burberry or even the Met Office. But let me assure you that you can find material in the most unexpected places.

I am a regular visitor to the national collections such as Imperial War Museums and the National Archives but I also enjoy visiting the smaller archives that focus on one single issue, such as the Alpine Club or the Henry Moore Foundation. I did a quick calculation and jotted down the names of 38 archives I have visited in the last few years and I do not think that is close to the total I have consulted one way or another over the course of my working life.

It is hard to have a favourite because all archives are wonderful in their own right but one stands out for me as an experience I will never forget. I was writing The Colonel of Tamarkan, the biography of my grandfather, Brigadier Sir Philip Toosey, who was the senior British officer at the bridge camp over the river Kwai in Thailand. He spent all his working life at Barings Bank in Liverpool bar a few years in the early 1920s. Fortunately he did not live long enough to see it disgraced and then absorbed by ING in 1995. I wrote to bank in the hope that they might have kept personnel files from the Barings’ days and got a response by return to say that they had and I was welcome to visit. I made an appointment and set off with a spring in my step and a notebook and pencil in my bag.

Phil Toosey in Peru, 1935, on business for Barings

I arrived at an enormous glass and concrete building in the city and felt distinctly out of place among so many dark suits coming and going at great speed. The receptionist phoned through to the archives for me and there soon appeared the archivist himself, dressed in a brown tweed suit and wearing reassuringly thick glasses. He ushered me through the atrium and towards a brown domestic-sized door through which I stepped as if into another world. In fact, it was another world. It was an office full of old-fashioned filing cabinets and shelves bulging with books and folders. I was completely enchanted. The old office had apparently been transplanted lock, stock and barrel into the new building.

Toosey, February 1946, six months after being released from captivity and three months after arriving back in Britain

Sure enough the material was as good as the archive promised it should be. An entire personnel file on Toosey, including a fascinating exchange of a dozen or more letters between his boss, the Liverpool Agent for Barings, Alan Tod, and Evelyn Baring in London. So concerned were they for Toosey’s welfare (read mental health in today’s parlance) that they decided what he needed post-war was perspective with which to begin his new life after three years as a prisoner of the Japanese.

They sent him to South America as a roving ambassador for the firm but really with a view to giving him a chance to find his feet again. It worked and he was forever grateful to Barings. So was I. What a treasure trove and so beautifully preserved. On the surface the file had nothing to do with the history of the bank but in reality it had everything to do with it. The bank was run by men, and a very few women, who were individuals with personal history, characters, foibles and in this case, a war record.

Other archives have been equally valuable and nothing is more thrilling than finding something that even the archivist did not know was there. In the Royal Geographical Society I found a piece of paper slipped into the back of a notebook which had not been unfolded for years. Very carefully the archivist and I took it out and read it. It made us laugh. It was a memo sent from camp 3 to camp 2 on Everest in 1924. Written by Edward Shebbeare, one of the support team, it read: ‘I’ve been out on the glacier for hours looking for Beetham. Either he is lost or he is with you. If the latter, he’s a bugger for not letting me know.’

For that book I also found the now famous trunk in the attic that contained all Sandy Irvine’s correspondence from the trek and the mountain from where he was never to return. There were photographs, sketches of his changes to the oxygen sets and, hauntingly for me, the final letter he wrote to his mother on 26th May 1924. The trunk was in a family attic in North Wales and it was the most significant archive find of my life. Until 2018, that was. But that is still under wraps and will be revealed in February when Dressed for War is published.

So when you think about remembrance, or just national memory, spare a thought for the wonderful archivists up and down the country and all over the world who take care of this precious material. If it had not been for organisations understanding the value of keeping material for the future and for archivists cataloguing, preserving and caring for it, the history of our lives would be greatly impoverished. An archive might be kept under a bed (yes, I’ve seen those) or in a cupboard in a private house. It might be in the corner of an office or in an attic. Material might be stored in cellars, attics, barns, stables or in carefully monitored air-conditioned buildings. It is all important and valuable. How this will be kept in the future in this, our digital age, I do not know. But for now I acknowledge archivists at every level because they deserve our gratitude.

These precious diaries are stored in a family collection

Announcing Audrey

It is a very strange feeling when you hand over a proof of a book for the final time. This precious document that you have shared with an editor, a copy editor, a proof-reader and an indexer, is suddenly ready to be shared with others. There is a momentary feeling of loss that, for me at least, is comparable to a bereavement. Well, a bereavement over the loss of an animal, say, not a relative – let’s not be over-dramatic.

But when I pressed the final send button to launch Audrey back through the ether towards London I felt a terrible, almost physical sadness. She was no longer my private, treasured friend with whom I have spent the most intensive nine months of my life since I laid down my research papers and clicked out the first words of draft one on 7 January 2019. It seems a lifetime ago, as it always does, but it also seems to have gone far too quickly. In a strange way it is a lifetime. I have come to know Audrey over the course of most of her long and varied life, that is with the exception of the years of her retirement. I have found her fascinating, lovely, loving, amusing, passionate and ambitious but also private, infuriatingly self-deprecating and mischievous when it came to covering her tracks.

Now she is almost ready to be launched on the world in her final form. The book, with 416 pages including twelve pages of index and eight pages of photographic plates, will be available from 6 February 2020. Rather wonderfully that is my grandmother’s birthday, though she is no longer with us. She knew Audrey well as my grandfather and Audrey were cousins, born two years apart. My grandparents used to visit her on business trips to London and she and Victor stayed with them on the Wirral more than once.

The title for my book, which we have pushed back and forth for months, has been decided upon by the publisher: Dressed for War. The cover image took even longer to negotiate but what a stunning one it is. Undoubtedly the most beautiful cover I have ever had but then Audrey deserves nothing less. It was an American design used by Audrey for the September 1943 issue of Vogue with a list of contents on the left-hand side that included renovations, coupons and repairs. A stark juxtaposition but somehow a beautiful summing up of Audrey’s editorship during the second half of the war: beauty and excellence balanced with practical, no-nonsense advice.

For now Audrey is still under wraps at the publishers. I will get to see her one more time before she goes off to the printers to check the layouts and see the final version with plates, index, updated acknowledgements and footnotes. My job is to ensure this wonderful woman reaches as wide a public as possible. Audrey’s extraordinary life, her exceptional leadership and her championing of women’s causes in the middle of the twentieth century deserve to be better known, especially at a time when women’s rights are under threat as at no other time in our recent history. I want to celebrate her editing skills, her ability to attract, handle and maintain relationships with some of the most brilliant but tricky artists and writers of her time. And I want readers to understand that history has created a black and white portrait of a woman so colourful that it needs to be corrected.

You can pre-order Dressed for War at your local independent bookshop, at all other major bookshops in Britain, and online. The book will also be available as an e-book and an audio book.

Catapulting Audrey

I was going to post this blog on 4 August after I had handed in the finished draft of my biography of Audrey Withers to my editor, Iain MacGregor, on 31 July, as per contract. However, on 25 April Iain asked whether I could bring the deadline forward by six weeks and deliver by mid-June. It is the kind of question that focuses an author’s mind in a way almost no other can. I agreed to have a go. My feelings on the way back from London that afternoon ranged from blind panic to the thrill of the challenge. Over the last six weeks I have gone from one to the other on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. But I met my deadline and delivered the book last Friday, a week before Iain was expecting it. That surprised even me.

My son pointed out that there are a lot of diet cokes in the bin…

The main reason it was possible to do what seemed almost unthinkable on the morning after my meeting with Iain was because I was able to clear the decks and my diary thanks to the support of my incredibly kind and understanding husband, Chris. He retired last year and was able to act as gatekeeper and cook so that all I had to do was to work. Sometimes that work involved thinking and puzzling over some knotty little problem or other so I did that while working in the garden or walking on the riverbank with the dogs or on my cycle ride to the library. But in the main I sat in my office, staring at a screen, thumbing through my notebooks with an exasperated ‘where the hell did I make a note of that?’ or looking out of the window at the sun-kissed garden wondering when it would rain.

This morning we did a cross comparison of the difference between draft one of Audrey and the final version which is at least draft seven. Here it is.

As you will see from the amount of red on the screen, not much of the brilliant first plan survived contact with the editing enemy. I was astonished, to be honest. I had not realised just how much I had changed in the last two months (I had started editing before my critical meeting with Iain).

When I finished the first draft, I had the weekend off, then sat down on Monday morning and read the whole book through from cover to cover and tried to get a feeling for the overall story. That took three days and by the end I realized I had got a book that could work and although it was in need of a great deal of editing, it was at least a narrative. The next time I read it was for facts. Had I got everything in that I wanted to include, such as the vital memos or the story of her first marriage or her relationship with Lee Miller? That took two weeks and involved me using both my screens, one for the draft and the other to double check my electronic files. That is when a lot of changes took place and I needed a couple of visits to Vogue House to check issues of Vogue from the nineteen fifties.

The third read-through was for cadence. It seems a funny word to use but it is the best one I can come up with. Every chapter has to have a certain type of pace. Audrey once described how the readers of Vogue had to be led through the magazine page by page and there should be no ugly juxtaposition of stories. She was once very critical of a piece in American Vogue shortly after the war which featured luxurious clothes in Rome opposite a photograph of a starving child. For a book it is sometimes helpful to be able to change the pace and go from a piece of high action or drama of, say, war reporting, to a completely different type of event, such as a family funeral. For it to work it has to be deliberately but carefully done. I want my readers to feel some emotion. I once got ticked off by a WI lady who accused me of making her cry several times when she was reading Stranger in the House and she was rather put out when I said I was sorry but very pleased too. It is a sad book, telling some terrible stories about the impact on women of men returning from the war. Good that she was moved, good that she cried. I cried when I was writing some of those stories. War is a terrible thing and it has a long, long tail. A psychologist from Germany once said to me: ‘Hitler wanted the Third Reich to last for a thousand years. He didn’t succeed but the fallout from his experiment will last for generations.’

By the time draft three was completed I had had my meeting with Iain and the pressure was on. It was fortunate that I had got to where I was in the editing process because I could see how it would be possible to accelerate the next iterations. I think Audrey has benefitted from very close and energetic attention because I was forced to keep up a cracking pace and it meant that any research I still needed to do had to justify the time spent on it. I had one fantastic day in May reading the diaries of Harry Yoxall, Condé Nast’s managing director in the UK. He wrote about 250 pages a year and had the pages stapled and bound in slip cases with the year on the spine.

I had read the Second World War years at his great-grandson’s house in Surrey but the rest of the diaries were with his grandson in Suffolk. I needed to read the years Audrey was at Vogue, so 1931 to 1938 and 1946 to 1960. Twenty-two years or 5,500 pages or, even more scarily, 1,375,000 words. How the hell was I going to manage that in ten hours? In the end I worked out a way to scan his handwriting for Audrey’s name. He had quite a distinctive way of writing A and it made it relatively easy to find mentions of her. Less easy when the diaries were in French, which half of them were! Sometimes he typed letters to his wife and then used them as diary pages.  They were a joy, especially the one from March 1953 when he attended an investiture at Buckingham Palace the day Audrey was given her OBE by a very young and nervous Queen Elizabeth. He was worried that the knighting sword was so heavy she might chop off the head of one of her subjects. That was a great discovery, as was the moment when I found out for sure that Audrey had left Vogue of her own volition and had not been gently asked to leave, which is what I and others had assumed. She told him over lunch in June 1957 that she intended to retire at the end of the decade. The trip was more than worth the day and a half it took to get there and back.

There have been other finds too, in the bowels of the Law Library in Oxford and in the microfiche copies of the Daily Sketch at the British Library but this blog is already too long…

So that has been the process and I plodded, raced, panicked, wept, laughed my way through the next weeks as I beat and bashed my writing into some sort of shape which I hope Iain will be able to work with. The next months are crucial as Audrey will be edited, copy-edited, proof-read, fact-checked and finally sent to the indexers prior to printing in the autumn. I have no idea how many more changes will be made but I expect quite a few. I am both excited and exhausted, but most of all relieved that I made it.

Clearing the First Hurdle

My very messy desk and one patient dog, Tiggy, who sits in her wine box behind the desk day in, day out, while I’m writing

Well, as promised in my last blog, here I am on 4 April 2019 with the first draft of Audrey under my belt. I kept a note of the daily word count to prove to myself that I was making progress so I thought I would be brave and publish it here. It shows, to me at least, the days when I struggled to get into the writing mode and other days when things went fluently. That is the nature of writing non-fiction in my experience: I get onto a roll and power through a segment, as I did on 19 February or get stuck up a blind alley as shown by the dismal figures on 4 March.

Do these figures actually tell me anything about my writing? To some extent they do. On 19 February I wrote the last half of chapter seven which covers the breathtakingly exciting period in Audrey’s editorship when Lee Miller was covering the battle of St Malo and the liberation of Paris. My diary entry from that day reads: ‘After gym spent all day writing 5384 words on Lee in France. All good stuff but utterly exhausting. Off to plan skiing clothes.’ Not very informative but the truth is that writing is exciting in my head but boring for the rest of my family. When I am locked up in my office for eight hours, I am hors combat to all and when I emerge my brain is so fried that I am not very good company. For what it is worth, I had returned from skiing on the first weekend in March so the reason for a small word count on the first Monday was not that I was stuck but that I had to spend the morning doing admin.

What next? I have 102,821 words in a draft and now the process of editing begins. For me this is the most exciting and creative part of writing non-fiction. I get to read the book for the first time as I almost never re-read anything while I’m completing the first draft. It is also a time of truth. The raw writing is full of repetition, facts that need cross-checking and an unhealthy number of adverbs. I could probably cut 1,000 words just by removing those unnecessary fillers which I know I put in to emphasise emotion or action but which add little to the work. So those will come out in the first edit, as will padding which inevitably creeps in when I am not entirely sure of myself, especially when dealing with family emotion. How do I know, for example, how Audrey felt at her father’s funeral? I do not know but I have to make an educated guess based on her relationship with him shown through her letters and her thoughts in her autobiography

Ah, the autobiography. Now there is a book I have had trouble with. Audrey published her autobiography in 1994 at the age of eighty-nine. She devoted less than half of it to her years at Vogue and a portion of the later chapters deal with her father’s correspondents and his art collection. In fact, that book is more interesting for what she leaves out than for what she includes. It is a prime example of her desire to cover the traces of her personal life. There is, for instance, no mention of any of her friends by name. Not a single one. But I know from her letters that she had many friends and was popular with her own age group and people of her father’s generation as well. The dramatis personae in her version of her life are her immediate family, her two husbands and about eight colleagues at Vogue.

My favourite example of Audrey taking control of her own story are the couple of sentences that she devotes to her first wedding. ‘Our friends had assumed that Jock and I would marry, and one day we did. From my parents’ point of view it must have been an unsatisfactory affair, to a man they had never taken to, and not in church but at a registry office.’ Hm. Not a very promising start to married life a reader might conclude. But Audrey was writing with hindsight and a divorce behind her. Through Percy Withers’ letters at Somerville College and Harry Yoxall’s diaries it is possible to build a richer and clearer picture of her nuptials. Far from disapproving of Jock, her parents accepted him readily and Percy wrote to one of his friends to say how pleased he was that Audrey was marrying at last. There was a huge party the night before the wedding, which took place on 2 September 1933 (thank you Somerville College archives), and a reception at the Savile Club in London which was attended by about 100 guests. It is true they got married in a registry office but that would not have bothered Percy Withers as he was an atheist. Mary Withers did have a religious bent but she bowed to her husband’s persuasion, as she did on so many other things… but that is another story. So, you see how I’ve had to read between the lines and take Audrey’s own record of her life with a large pinch of salt. A whole bucket load, in fact.

I interviewed Pam Makin who worked for Audrey from 1949 to 1952 and who spoke to me about her energy, passion and sense of humour.

One of the myths that has grown up around her is that of the intelligent but austere blue-stocking. A headmistress-type with little emotion but great strength of character. It is true that she was intelligent, formidably so according to some colleagues, and it is true that she could be headmistress-like at work, but what that hides is her true personality. She was kind and generous, giving every member of staff at the office a personal and carefully chosen Christmas present every year. She was ‘one of the quietest listeners now living’ according to her friend, the artist Paul Nash, while Maur Griggs, an older friend, wrote of the gleams of friendly fun in her eyes. Later in her life she showed her passion when she described her happiness in the early months of her second marriage. Those letters to Edna Woolman Chase (editor-in-chief of Vogue), carefully preserved in the magical archives of Condé Nast in New York, were a revelation in their honesty, sheer delight and surprise at finding herself so happy. Audrey was not austere but passionate, fun, adventurous, impetuous at times. She adored foreign travel and wild swimming, she wrote poetry and went to concerts and the theatre as often as her work would allow. And she loved cats. She described herself once as being like a soda stream, fizzing with pleasure. That is the Audrey who is beginning to appear in my work.

My next three months will be taken up with beating the book into shape, teasing out the development of Audrey’s personality over the decades and planting her firmly, enthusiasm and all, in her life’s work as editor of Vogue. Appropriately, as Audrey loved America, I will be posting my next update on 4 July, the day before I fly to Boston for my son’s wedding. How about that for a neat circle?

 

Ready, Steady, Go

There is something intensely exciting about starting to write a new book. I don’t mean starting from scratch, I mean that delicious moment when most of the research has been done and you feel it is time to pull a blank page to the fore, to pick up a pen (or keyboard) and write. Although this is my thirteenth book, the sense of thrilling anticipation and out and out terror gets stronger, not weaker. When I wrote Fearless on Everest in 1999, I do not think I had a clue about the enormity of what I was attempting to do. This time I know full well and the pressure is great. It is another biography, my third, and this time it is of a woman. Her place in history is acknowledged by a small coterie of people who understand her unique contribution to the twentieth century. Her name is Audrey Withers and it is quite likely you will never have heard of her but I plan to put that right in my biography.

As the time-frame for this book is very short, it is due to be published early 2020, I thought I would do a quarterly blog with updates as to its progress and to share some of the highs and lows of writing biography. Apart from anything else, it will give me the incentive to be honest with myself about where I am in the process.

Writing historical biography, as opposed to social history, is a challenge on many levels. Key is to keep the central character to the fore in all relationships, however grand or overpowering the other characters might be. And in my case, they are both grand and overpowering. I have Condé Montrose Nast, father of the American magazine publishing empire and one of the most powerful men in early twentieth century New York. Many people I speak to in Britain do not even realise that Condé Nast, who gave his name to the brand, was a real man. But he was. By the time he entered the era about which I am writing he was so rich that he would book a suite at the Ritz with two bedrooms and two bathrooms so that he could have a hot and cold bath in the evening and not have the inconvenience of having to wait for one to drain before refilling it.

Then I have Cecil Beaton, the society photographer who worked for Vogue for over thirty years. At the beginning of the war, when Audrey Withers had just taken over as editor, Beaton was out of favour in New York and it was Audrey who got him reinstated. She needed his brilliant eye and his satiric pen to capture wartime London for her, especially during the Blitz. After Beaton comes the brilliant, brave Lee Miller who worked as Vogue’s war reporter from 1942 and whose reportage from the continent from 1944 onwards occupied in all seventy-seven pages of the magazine over a period of eighteen months, more than that of any other writer or photographer of the era. She was Audrey’s eyes on the ground and it was Audrey’s passion for making Vogue relevant in wartime that shaped her editing of Lee’s articles.

An issue with this book all along has been that Audrey destroyed all Vogue’s archival papers and photographs from its inception in 1924 to 1942 in order to support the wartime paper salvage effort. This action, while noble at the time (I guess), has produced agonies for me and other historians of Vogue because there is nothing extant from that period. Not a letter nor a memo. Just the magazine itself, where reading between the lines has become a dark art.

I have spent two and a half years, the last twelve months full time, researching this biography. My greatest challenge has been to find Audrey’s voice. She was a private person who did her best to cover her tracks in life – and with some degree of success I might add – but I have been able to unearth more than I thought I would thanks to a key find in the archives of Condé Nast in New York in October. Of that more anon.

Most of my research is stored in carefully labelled folders in Drop Box. For biography I order it in character files. Audrey has a folder which contains subfolders on her early life, her education, her employment, her parents, her marriages (a very thin one at present), her official personal details such as birth, death, marriage certificates and the 1939 National Register. Within that folder there is also a file of obituaries and letters, by date, from people who knew her and who have written to me. Beaton has a folder, as does Condé Nast, Lee Miller, Edna Woolman Chase (editor of Vogue worldwide) and so on. Then there are folders with general archive material and these are listed by date and then character. Old editions of Vogue are précised month by month and copy by Audrey highlighted where relevant.

Leuchturm Notebook from September to November 2018

In addition, I have three notebooks full of interviews, observations, pencil notes from my visits to the Tate Archive, the National Archives, Vogue House, Condé Nast, Somerville College and visits to private individuals who worked with Audrey. Those sit on my desk, indexed thanks to the foresight of the designers of Leuchturm 1917. In all it comprises about 500,000 words.

Most of this material will never make it into the book but it serves as background material, a sort of historical tapestry against which Audrey’s life was set. The challenge is to make sure that she is always to the fore and the material does not swamp or obscure her.

On Thursday 3 January I tidied my office in preparation for beginning work on Monday 7, accidentally polishing my desk with oven cleaner rather than furniture polish. The smell was appalling but the desk is thankfully undamaged.

My desk in the attic of my home in Oxford. Over the years I have gathered endless items of memorabilia which help to ground me when I am writing.

My plan is to write the first draft of 110,000 words by 28 March 2019 then take three days off to walk in the Lake District, write another blog and brace myself for the next three months which will be editing what one of my fellow writers calls the ‘shitty first draft’.

If you are interested, please look out for my next update in a blog on 4 April 2019.

Desperately Seeking Someone

Researching non-fiction is a bit like being a police detective, I imagine. Sniffing out clues and piecing together a story that brings the facts to the fore in a convincing way. I also imagine it must be near impossible to put a perfect case together as life is not neat and linear. It is chaotic, veering off in this or that direction and leaving traces which sometimes lead to vital clues and at other times a dead end. I will stop with the police analogy as I am out of my depth, basing my knowledge on Agatha Christie or PD James’s crime fiction.

The trunk in the attic © Julie Summers

However, I am in the right part of the stream when talking about sniffing out clues about people’s lives for my non-fiction books. I am known as the ferret by my irreverent god-father. Others might describe me as a nosey-parker but whichever sobriquet you choose, the truth is that I am persistent in my pursuit of facts. In 2000 I found a trunk in the attic which no one in the family believed still existed. In this now famous trunk I found a blue foolscap folder, tied with a blue ribbon, and the title ACI Everest 1924 which gave me eleven letters written by Sandy Irvine to his mother, father and sister from the Mount Everest expedition. Also in the file were photographs, drawings, invoices for clothing and notes on his work on the truculent oxygen sets for the climb: all unseen for over seventy-five years. It was the archive find of my writing career to date and brought the book to life in a way that I had not anticipated. Suddenly I had this young man’s voice and it was thrilling.

When I was writing the biography of my grand-father, Philip Toosey, who was the colonel who built the bridge on the river Kwai, I had more material than I could possibly have wished for. There are collections all over the world charting the Death Railway from all sides of the story. Military histories focussing on the fall of Singapore are outnumbered by autobiographies from Prisoners of War in the Far East by about ten to one. And my grandfather had added to this mass by recording thirty hours of conversation with Professor Peter Davies on reel-to-reel tapes in the early 1970s. Having an embarrassment of riches can be almost as off-putting as having too little material. You have to work very hard to find the individual personal voice among so many.

Toosey in his study at Heathcote c. 1974. This is here he and Peter Davies did the bulk of the tape recordings © Toosey Family

Eventually I did but in the most peculiar way. Every time Peter Davies went to interview Toosey, as he was universally known, he would start with ‘Well, Brigadier, today we will talk about …’ and then he would give a topic such as Baring’s Bank, Dunkirk or the Allied bombings of POW camps. One day I happened to be chopping carrots for my children’s lunch when Toosey himself announced the topic of the day: ‘Well Peter,’ he said, clearing his throat and bracing himself for what came next: ‘Today I would like to tell you about my experiences with women.’ ‘Oh heck,’ I thought, ‘what do I do now?’ Should I turn off the tape or fast forward it in order to preserve my grandfather’s privacy or should I listen, like a diligent historian? I listened, of course. And the listening was rewarded with the following: ‘Like most Englishmen, I could write the story of my sex-life on a postage stamp.’ I got off light there, I thought with relief.

Alex Toosey 1949 © Toosey Family

He then did go on to talk a bit about brief encounters in Piccadilly and Peru but his focus was on my grandmother, who he met in 1930 and married the following year. He described her as ‘formidable’. She was known as the regimental sergeant major and ‘we all love and respect her.’Over the course of the next two years I got to know this man who was in awe of his wife. I had known him as a child, of course. He died when I was fifteen. But that does not give you the kind of knowledge you need as a biographer. The tapes helped me to understand him in a way that no books ever could. Sometimes he would laugh when telling a story, at other times his voice would break, particularly when he was speaking of the men’s suffering in the prison camps. However, most impressive of all was his energy, his love of life and his determination not to be beaten down, however ghastly the circumstances. At the end of the war he was on a panel screening prison guards for war crimes. Some he had to condemn and it was not something he took any pleasure in. Revenge was not in his character.

Saito at Toosey’s grave, Landican Cemetery, 1984 © Toosey Family

A Japanese guard who had given him a serious beating for allowing some prisoners to escape in 1942 came up in front of him. Toosey insisted he should be set free without punishment. He knew that this man, Sargeant-major Saito, had had to punish him because he had flagrantly disobeyed Japanese orders. He also knew that Saito had saved him from a far worse fate: cross examination by the Kempi Tai (the Japanese secret police). Saito finally came to Britain in 1984 to pay his respects to Toosey. He visited his grave and wrote to Patrick, Toosey’s son, after the visit: ‘I feel very fine because I finish my own strong duty.  One thing I regret, I could not visit Mr Philip Toosey when he was alive.  He showed me what human being should be.  He changed the philosophy of my life.’ By the time I finished the book I believe I had my man.

Now I am embarked upon a third biography, separated in time by fifteen years and eleven books, and yet the task is the hardest to date. Audrey Withers was Vogue’s editor from 1940 to 1960. She was married twice and worked in later life as a volunteer for the Liberal Democrats. She received an OBE in 1954 and the Bi-centenary medal from the Royal Society of Arts in 1961. Yet despite being a public figure and publishing an autobiography, she has succeeded in remaining almost completely in the shadows. So reticent was she about personal matters that she filleted her father’s archive before she gave it to Somerville College, Oxford, removing all copies of personal letters referring to her. It is tantalizing to say the very least.

So I am have to piece together the jigsaw puzzle that will, I hope, paint a portrait of this remarkable woman by reading biographies and autobiographies of all the people she worked with. The relationship she enjoyed with the American photographer, Lee Miller, was the closest one she had during the war. Lee became Vogue’s war correspondent and I discovered recently that it was Audrey who worked hard to get her press accreditation so that she could go to France in 1944. Artemis Cooper’s biography of Elizabeth David gave me clues about Audrey’s interest in fresh and home-grown ingredients, while Hugo Vickers revealed that Audrey had been instrumental in persuading Vogue to reinstate Cecil Beaton as a photographer on the magazine after he had fallen foul of Condé Nast in 1938. Audrey’s own autobiography is more revealing for what it leaves out rather than what it includes and I am only now realizing that this is useful as it gives me clues about what mattered to her.

Valuable resources, which she could not destroy, are letters in the Condé Nast archives in London and New York. She was a prolific correspondent, as was Edna Woolman-Chase, the editor-in-chief of Vogue. Edna once complained that Audrey wrote too many memos and they were too long. That might be so but they are invaluable to me. These are full of detail of everyday life in London in the 1940s and 1950s. They give glimpses of personalities and offer reminders that famous photographers or writers, such as Cecil Beaton, Norman Parkinson and Elizabeth David, were real human beings with feelings, foibles and fury. I have a rich palette for the Vogue years and I am fortunate to have access to this material.

Of her private life, however, there is precious little. Here she did indeed succeed in hiding a great deal. Husband number one is a shadowy figure ‘who was never without a girlfriend’ and who has eluded my most determined efforts to track him down. There is minimal material from the 1911 census and an announcement of his second marriage in 1964. I know where and when he was born and died but apart from that there is almost nothing. When I say almost nothing, I do know one or two things that are revealed by the official records. I know, for example, that he did not volunteer for service at the outbreak of the war, unlike Audrey who was a driver for the Auxiliary Fire Service. That is recorded on the National Register from September 1939. He was working as a salesman for a bookshop in London, which would not have been a reserved occupation and he was only thirty-two. That strikes me as strange and I hope eventually to find out why.

Jock Stewart, c. 1948, in London © Julie Summers

There is one fuzzy photograph of Jock, taken at a wedding just after the war. He is about six feet tall which I worked out from comparing the height of the taxi behind him, the woman to his left and taking into account perspective and the height of a London pavement. He is quite good looking and well-dressed but his shoes are not shiny, so that tells me that he had not been in the military. He has thinning fair hair, large ears and full lips. The way he carries his hat and umbrella tells me he is a man with confidence. I would so love to find another picture of him, though. A younger Jock. But none appears to exist.

I also know that he described himself as ‘head’ of the household at 31 Blomfield Road in the 1939 register. The other occupants of the house, which was divided into three flats, were his wife, Elizabeth Stewart, his parents and a spinster who lived on the top floor. I realized that Audrey compartmentalized her life to such an extent that she had two names. At home she was Elizabeth Stewart while at work she was Audrey Withers. She recorded her occupation as ‘journalist’ while her mother-in-law is ‘unpaid domestic help.’ It was then I understood her mother-in-law kept house, did the shopping, cooking, washing and ironing while Audrey worked long hours at Vogue, often not returning until 10pm, something she had mentioned more than once in letters. Slowly a picture of the domestic life in Blomfield Road began to emerge. I even managed to work out which floor Audrey lived on from a chance remark about moving downstairs to sleep in her parents-in-law’s sitting room during the Blitz.

This is the work that will occupy me for the rest of this year and I confess that I love it. I shall find my subject, as I did with my other two biographies, and it will all come together in the end. In the meantime, where are the passenger lists for Southampton-New York for April 1938?

 

 

A Sense of Place

Brocket Hall, Hertfordshire © Julie Summers

Where were you born? I think it is fair to say that most people know their place of birth and probably the name of the hospital, maternity home, house name or number where they came into this world. Thinking about it, though, it is in some sense a strange question because chances are you have no personal knowledge of the place and you have probably never returned. Is it not a little unusual to imagine that you might meet up with people who were born in the same place as you? And further more to do so annually and in great numbers? I was born in Clatterbridge Hospital in Birkenhead and not far from Liverpool but I have never met anyone in my life, other than my siblings, who was born there. Two of my sons were born at the Rosie Maternity Hospital, now the Rosie Hospital, in Cambridge and as far as I know they have never met anyone else born there either.  So how extraordinary was it for me to visit Brocket Hall last month and to meet over fifty people who were born at the hall when it was a maternity home between 1939 and 1949?

Brocket Babies at the 2018 reunion © Julie Summers

The story of the Brocket Babies features in chapter one of Our Uninvited Guests and it is a remarkable story in so many ways. At the outbreak of the Second World War Brocket Hall belonged to Arthur Ronald Nall Cain, the second Lord Brocket, a well-known Nazi sympathiser. He was so close to the German Foreign Minister in the nineteen thirties that one of the bedrooms in the hall was renamed the ‘von Ribbentrop Room’, though it has since reverted to its previous name, the Queen Victoria, because she liked to stay in that modest but luxurious bedroom when she visited the hall in the mid-nineteenth century.

The Queen Victoria Bedroom, once known as the von Ribbentrop Room © Julie Summers

Brocket Hall has one of the most colourful histories of any of Britain’s country houses from royal love affairs, mad wives and illegitimate offspring to a healthy dose of society intrigue. In the nineteenth century the hall had been in the possession of two prime ministers: the Lords Melbourne and Palmerston, the mother of the former having been lover of the Prince Regent, later George IV. Naturally enough there is a room named after him too: the Prince Regent Suite. So how glorious from a historian’s point of view that this house, with its walls hiding past scandals, was taken over by the Red Cross and used as a maternity hospital for a decade at a time when childbirth was clinical and married women held up as paragons of virtue.

During the war the Prince Regent Suite was stripped of its furniture but the Chinese wallpaper lent colour to the recovery room and some mothers said they thought they had died and gone to heaven. © Julie Summers

Mothers recovering from childbirth in the Prince Regent Suite ©Imperial War Museums

There are photographs of mothers in the Prince Regent Suite sitting up in metal-framed hospital beds knitting white caps for their babies, attended by nurses in crisp white uniforms set against the background of the sumptuous Chinese design hand-painted silk wall-paper chosen by the Prince Regent for the room in which he would entertain Lady Melbourne. Not so however for those poor girls who found themselves carrying a baby conceived out of wedlock: they belonged to a class of woman to be condemned and whose babies would be taken away immediately after birth. Those whose families could afford to pay would send their daughters to Lemsford House, just outside the gates of Brocket Hall, where they were held until it was time to give birth in the delivery suite in the hall. Those who could not afford to pay were sent to Brocket Hall and worked below stairs in the kitchens and cellars. They were known as the Brownies. It is not clear from the records how many Brownies worked at Brocket Hall during and after the war but it would have been scores, if not hundreds. I found it a sad and chilling reminder of society’s relatively recent attitude towards illegitimacy. Indeed when I was growing up in the mid-nineteen seventies and a school friend of mine fell pregnant she was considered to be ‘in disgrace’ and her baby was delivered and adopted immediately. But she never returned to school.

Babies were cared for in the extensive cellars are Brocket Hall. A trainee nurse is bathing a very angry baby ©Imperial War Museums

In all, 8,388 babies were born at Brocket Hall including several pairs of twins. At the last count the couple who organise the Brocket Babies website (www.brocketbabies.org.uk) have a mailing list of over 1,100 ‘babies’ who were born there between September 1939 and November 1949. That is more than one in eight of all the babies. I find that fascinating.

Why does it matter to them where they were born? They could not possibly remember anything of Brocket Hall as they would have left with their mothers to go home, or with the Church of England Adoption Agency, after two weeks. But matter it does and it is clearly an essential part of who they are today. I believe it gives them a sense of belonging to an exclusive community whose existence was called into being by an event in history that none of those born at Brocket Hall experienced in person, namely the outbreak of the Second World War. But their mothers did. Each and every one of them lived through the war and but for the decision of the Ministry of Health to move expectant mothers out of the cities for their safety, all of them would have given birth in the City of London Maternity Hospital. It is one of the many strange juxtapositions of the Second World War.

Waddesdon Manor, home to nursery schools from Croydon © Julie Summers

For me it begs the question of how much a sense of place, especially in our childhoods, has an impact on our later lives. I wrote about Waddesdon Manor, home to over a hundred babies and children under five years old. Some of them have memories of their time in the stunning surroundings of Ferdinand de Rothschild’s splendid Loire-chateau inspired country house. Fifty-four girls from the Convent of the Assumption in Kensington spent the war in the house and grounds of Aldenham Park in Shropshire while 400 boys from Malvern College were sent to Blenheim Palace for three terms. Everyone I spoke to or whose memoirs I read made the point that the opulent surroundings, however temporary, that were part of the backdrop of their childhoods made an impact on their subsequent memories. It is a little detail from life on the home front in the Second World War that affected the lives of millions of people.

One final thought: I observed not only how much Brocket Hall meant to the Brocket Babies but also how much the Brocket Babies mean to the people who run the hall today. Their enthusiasm for this part of the hall’s history makes me realise that, as usual, history is at its best and most fascinating when we can see it brought alive, literally in this case, and see or hear the individual stories behind the statistics. Long may the Brocket Baby day continue.

This Game of Ghosts

Totleigh Barton Manor, the first Arvon centre from 1968. The manor is mentioned in the Domesday Book.

I spent a week in July teaching narrative non-fiction to a group of writers in Devon. It was a memorable week, not least because the weather was perfect and the Arvon Centre at Totleigh Barton is truly a magical spot. My fellow tutor and travel writer, Rory MacLean, enchanted us with his stories from his books and we talked in depth about all aspects of non-fiction. One that really struck a chord with me was what the past can tell you. We all too often think of the past as a black and white world inhabited by ghosts and sad memories but that is only half the story.

RANCOURT CEMETERY AND POPPIES, SOMME, FRANCE.EUROPE. THE WW1-1914-1918 CEMETERIES AND MEMORIALS MAINTAINED BY THE COMMONWEALTH WAR GRAVES COMMISSION.
COPYRIGHT PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN HARRIS © 2006
brianharrisphoto@ntlworld.com

A dozen years ago I worked for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission on their ninetieth birthday commemoration book and I remember distinctly Peter Francis, who was in charge of the project, saying to me: ‘We don’t deal in death, we deal in life and memories.’ It really surprised me but when I thought about it that comment made complete sense. Doctors and nurses, police, firemen and undertakers – they all have to deal with the reality of death but we, who write about the past, work with memories. They are what last when a person moves from this life to the next, or to oblivion, if you prefer.

Major General Sir Colin McVean Gubbins

Our job as writers, as I see it, is to nurture memories, to bring alive on the page people who have lived in the past and whose lives touched others in a way that makes it relevant to write about them today. Three from my most recent book immediately spring to mind: Colin Gubbins, Ronald Knox and Gavin Maxwell who, were respectively the head of Special Operations Executive, the Roman Catholic scholar who translated both books of the bible during the war and the author of Ring of Bright Water. Gubbins inspired the special agents who would risk their lives in Nazi occupied Europe, acting with their countries’ resistance organisations and working as saboteurs, assassins, radio operators or couriers. He led with energy but also with empathy and humanity. All who knew him realised what a great man he was. Ronald Knox successfully translated both books of the bible in less than five years, completing a task that many believed would take ten scholars a decade while acting as priest to a girls’ school evacuated to Shropshire. Maxwell, a misfit in so many ways, found his milieu among the agents of SOE who he trained in Northern Scotland in weaponry and survival. The impact of these three men, so different in character but all shaped by the war, touched hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. But Our Uninvited Guests also tells the stories of people who lived what we might try to call an ordinary life, or at least one that we can more easily identify with: schoolboys and girls, expectant mothers, wounded soldiers, sailors and airmen. Their lives are also important and are to be celebrated. I find the courage and resilience of people fascinating and inspiring, from the twenty-two year old administrator of Howick Hall hospital who drove her Austin 7 through the worst snowstorm of the century to get to work to the seven year old boy who carried messages from Highworth Post Office to Coleshill House on roller skates.

The Bishop’s Throne, 1312-16, Exeter Cathedral

The morning after we all left Totleigh Barton I spent a couple of hours in Exeter Cathedral. It is one of the greatest Gothic cathedrals in Western Europe and it boasts the longest medieval stone vault in the world (96m or 315 feet for those who, like me, love detail). It also has the largest Bishop’s throne I have ever seen. Standing 18m (59 feet) high it is almost impossible to photograph but what is really impressive about it is the fact it is made from local Devon oak held together by wooden pegs and was made between 1312 and 1316. That means the oaks must have been growing about two hundred years earlier. It makes my mind spin when I think that I can touch something, very carefully of course, that is over 1,000 years old.

This magnificent statue is entitled: ‘Elder brother to the Lord Carew of Clopton’

The side-chapels around the choir are full of splendid memorials to knights and their honourable wives. Clutching their swords and resting their feet on dogs with bared teeth, they are destined to spend eternity encased in painted stone, enshrined in Gothic tombs with spiky pinnacles and long Latin inscriptions celebrating their achievements. Or, if you are cynical, their investments. However, I found myself particularly drawn to the memorial inscriptions on the walls of the nave and choir. Simpler than the tombs but equally impressive, they celebrate lives of people who in one way or another were associated with the cathedral. I was delighted to see how many were devoted to women and I was surprised at how personal they were and how heartfelt the lamentations. It is all too easy, as one of the writers at Totleigh Barton reminded me, to think that death was so prevalent in nineteenth century Britain that people became inured to it. Far from it, we both agreed, and this was richly illustrated in the lovely tablets I found in Exeter.

Memorial to Susannah Bealey

Felicia Jemima, the eldest daughter of William Lord Beauchamp of Powyke, died on 11th October 1813. No age was given but the raw emotion is there for all to see, over two hundred years on: ‘Words cannot express her worth, her virtues and accomplishments, nor the just grief of her lamenting family, but in heaven received by angels, she will meet her due reward’.  Rachel Charlotte O’Brien who was burned to death at the age of nineteen in rescuing her infant from a house fire in 1800 is also commemorated. It is heartbreaking to read such detail but also beautiful to think that their memories were so treasured. Susannah Bealey (her stone is illustrated above) was the wife of a local doctor. She died on 21 April 1798 aged 22 years and 3 months. Six months later her only child, Joseph, was buried in the same grave. He was just 18 months old.The ‘disconsolate relatives’ celebrated the ‘amiable qualities of her heart and an excellent and cultivated understanding.’ What a tribute.

Jessie Douglas Montgomery, who died in October 1918, is commemorated as ‘an ardent and unselfish worker in the cause of higher education and for the good of others.’ I looked up details of her life and found that a memorial fund was set up in 1919-20 in her name and that the files for this are at the National Archives in Kew.

Naturally these people commemorated in the Cathedral had standing and their families influence but if you visit any parish church or local graveyard there are headstones and memorials to people who lived long ago but whose lives were colourful and real. I do not think of myself as a maudlin type, just one who loves life – past and present – and who wants to celebrate the extraordinariness of ordinariness.

Flower Power

My friend Emma recently gave me a book about authors’ gardens. It is a beautiful publication that celebrates the gardens of great writers including Agatha Christie, John Ruskin, Beatrix Potter, Virginia Woolf and Rupert Brooke. She joked in her note to me that perhaps one day my garden would make it into such a book. Um, no. At least, not anytime soon. But it did get me thinking about my garden and the role it plays in my life.

The bottom pond June 2018

I have always enjoyed the garden but for the first dozen years we lived in Oxford it was simply an additional space to the house for the boys to play in. As they grew older and the call for sandpits, tree houses, go-kart tracks and slippy slides receded, we began to look at doing something more structural with our outside space. First came a pond. After all, who can resist a water feature? Then a second pond, higher up the rockery, and a stream to link them. There is something timeless and beautiful about running water – always calming and refreshing. The pond has been a source of endless delight and fascination. It is populated by newts, frogs, beetles, snails and endless flights of damsel and dragon flies as well as the occasional Border terrier who splashes about to cool down on a hot summer’s day.

The view of the bottom of the garden in 2016 with an old shed, tree roots in the lawn and a privet hedge that seemed to go on for ever

We became more ambitious and by 2016 a major project to refurbish the bottom half of the garden was underway. Chris stood in the middle of the lawn with a glass of Prosecco and waved his arms around: ‘I want a big round lawn, a wall, raised vegetable beds and colour all summer.’ He announced. His dream was realised by a brilliant Venezuelan garden creator called Aristides Escallonia. What a name and what a talented young man. I have spent the last two seasons learning the hard way how to grow vegetables, fruit and salad while Chris worked out how to mow a round lawn with a lawn mower that wants only to go in a straight line.

 

The vegetable garden and wall in spring 2017 replacing the shed and the old privet hedge

Chris mowing the round lawn with a truculent lawnmower that has its own ideas about going in straight lines

The vegetable garden in June 2018. The wall is now painted yellow and the greenhouse doubles as a mini-conservatory in the winter

Why am I telling you about this when I usually talk about writing? Well, it occurred to me this last week, as we were preparing to open the garden for the National Gardens Scheme (an organisation that raises nearly £1 million a year for charity), that my garden is a lot like one of my books. It has structure, chapters, anecdotes and detail. In fact, as I start my next book, I am thinking about it in the way I am planning the next development in our garden: creatively but within the scope of what is factual, or in the case of the garden, possible.

Paving stones lead from the formal vegetable garden through a woodland area to the pond

A book needs some hard landscaping to work. An overall structure is vital otherwise the reader will just wander aimlessly around wondering what this is all about.  The same applies to the garden. There is something magical about moving from one space to another or from one chapter to the next. From the outset of any book I have a clear idea of the scope and its shape but the detail develops as I go along. In most cases my books are limited by the war years but this new book is larger in timescale because it is a biography. The focus will be the years 1940 to 1960 but it will dip into the late nineteenth century at one end and refer to the early twenty-first century at the other.

Rosa Nostalgia – a true beauty

Now that I have the structure in my head – I never commit it to paper for some odd reason – I can work on the contents. If I think of the historical dates as solid forms like trees then the events that occur in the book and which affect my characters are the shrubs and roses. Oh yes, I have to mention roses. They are my absolute favourite flower and I have dozens in the garden: climbers, ramblers, shrub and tea-roses. They are white, pink, red, orange and yellow. Each is a beauty and has a special place in my heart. I know who gave it to me or where I bought it, when I planted it, how often I have pruned it and how many times it flowers in a season. My characters develop like roses to some extent and I like to think that I come to love or at least admire them, as much as I do my roses, when I write about them. Would it be too far-fetched to imagine Cecil Beaton as a splendid Danse du Feu? or Audrey Withers as Zephirine Drouhin? Who knows? And does it matter? It is my metaphor after all.

Danse du feu, a magnificent climber and one of my favourite red roses

Perennials are minor characters but they are essential in any narrative or good border. I have a strong affection for dahlias, lupins and hydrangeas – not the bosomy type but the panticulata varieties. Peonies also feature in luxuriant shades of white, pink and deep red-purple in my borders and these will also appear in the book. They are the surprise players who add greatly to the narrative but need propping up by the structure of the story. In Our Uninvited Guests one of my best surprises was the French agent Pierre Delaye. He occupies just two pages in the chapter about the Free French but he was a stand-out fascinating man and I enormously enjoyed weaving his story into the main narrative.

And finally there are the annuals. It is always tempting, especially before open gardens, to sprinkle pretty annuals around the borders to add a flash of colour. Resist, I always say to myself. Having too many characters in a book is equally to be resisted. It causes confusion and runs the risk of just becoming a list of names in the index. Over the past couple of months people have asked me why I did not include this house or that person in Our Uninvited Guests and my reply is very much the same as when someone asks me why I don’t plant azaleas or camellias – they don’t work in the context. In the case of the plants it is because we don’t have acid soil. In the case of the book it is usually because Bletchley Park (the most requested) has been done to death and in fact no one actually lived in Bletchley Park, they just worked in the huts, or that the person in question left no records. There is always a case for leaving things out, as there is in a garden and I have come to realise that it is essential to have the courage to do that.

Our Oxford garden, June 2018, ready and dressed for Open Gardens, but just for one day…

My passion for my garden and for writing is almost equal. Hard to say which would win in a head to head contest. Luckily I do not have to decide but if I’m honest, the garden feeds my writing but not vice versa. When I’m deep into writing a book I am wholly in the present (and the past) and my garden is then just a delicious respite from the atmosphere of my writing room. But when I am in the planning phase, as I am now, hours in the garden give me much needed mental space and band-width to let ideas pop into my head and begin to form. It is an organic process planning a book and what better place to do it than in the middle of a shrub border with mud under my finger nails, burrs in my hair and plants all around me.

 

Agatha Christie and the Knox Commandments

Link

In March I had an email from a lady in Australia who I have been corresponding with over the past year or so. I suppose she is what I would describe as an e-friend but I feel that makes her sound unreal, which she most definitely is not. Whatever the description of our relationship, I have discovered that she has excellent taste in reading. She told me recently that she has been reading my books interspersed with detective stories by none other than Agatha Christie. Wow. To be selected to feature on a bookshelf or bedside table next to the greatest writer of detective fiction of all time is quite an honour.

As it happens I have been a huge fan of Agatha Christie for the past thirty-five or more years. After my university final exams, for which I had worked harder than for any other set of exams in my life, I went into a period of shut-down. I hid away in my parents’ farmhouse and read first the entire works of Dostoyevsky, which was perhaps not the wisest of moves, and then the entire works of Agatha Christie, which was a much better decision. I found such pleasure in inhabiting her various worlds and learning to appreciate her brilliant construction, feinting and plot-twisting. What I did not know then but I do know now is that she was a founder member of the Detection Club, formed in 1930, during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, an era when classic murder mystery novels were overwhelmingly popular.

Monsignor Ronald Knox © Lafayette, NPG London

The club included among its members the writers Dorothy L. Sayers, Hugh Walpole, G.K. Chesterton (its first president) and Monsignor Ronald Knox. This last man is the link in the chain to my most recent book but I will come to that in a while. The club’s oath is glorious: ‘Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?’

Members had a set of guidelines which were drawn up by Knox and were known as the Knox Commandments. It might seem rather odd that a man of faith, a man described by some as the greatest Roman Catholic scholar of the twentieth century, should be a member of a detective writing club but that is the delight of this great polymath. He wrote detective stories in the same way he might have set a crossword puzzle. He was not interested in the emotional motives of his perpetrators but in the solving of a crime that could keep the reader guessing right to the end of the book. And he wrote the books – ten in all – to supplement his modest stipend.

His Commandments number ten, of course, and were adhered to by the members. They forbid the murder being committed by the detective. A Watson-type side-kick has to reveal all thoughts that pass through his mind; the detective cannot conceal any clues he finds, and twin brothers and doubles ‘generally must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them’. Most of the rules stand the test of time, such as no supernatural or preternatural agencies being permitted or no hitherto undiscovered poisons, but others strike one as anomalous today such as ‘no Chinaman must figure in the story’. He also suggests that no more than one secret room or passage should be allowed. Unless today’s detective stories are set in old houses I feel the secret passage is rather outdated. Having said that, Knox spent the Second World War in a haunted house in Shropshire, so I suspect that secret passages were not far from reality at Aldenham Park.

Ronald Knox gave up writing detective stories in 1937 at the request of Lady Daphne Acton (although he did publish one last story in 1947). He had taken her on as a pupil as she wished to convert to Catholicism as he had done twenty years earlier. She was twenty-five, beautiful and highly intelligent. Before they first met he had been alarmed at the prospect of instructing a young woman – his own experience having been at Oxford and then at Bury St Edmunds where he came across few women in the course of his ministry. But he need not have worried. She put him immediately at his ease and he was soon captivated by her. Her brother-in-law invited him to accompany them on a cruise to the Adriatic and it was there that the two of them made a pact: Ronald would give up writing detective fiction (Lady Acton threw a copy of Double Cross Purposes overboard) and she would stop wearing the colour of lipstick he disliked. That went into the blue waters as well. She would offer him peace and a place to work, which he yearned, and he in turn would continue to instruct her.

In June 1939 Knox moved books, curtains, furniture and a lifetime of memories from Rose Place in Oxford to the Acton’s family home, Aldenham Park in Shropshire. His plan was to fulfil his life’s ambition which was to translate both books of the Bible from the Latin Vulgate into English. It was a task American scholars had estimated would take a decade using ten translators. Knox completed it in less than five years and in considerably less peace and quiet than he and Daphne Acton had anticipated. A day before Chamberlain announced that the country was at war with Germany, nine nuns and five lay sisters from the Convent of the Assumption in Kensington arrived at Aldenham at the invitation of Lord Acton.

Sisters from The Assumption, Kensington Square, London photographed at Aldenham Park in c. 1941. Their habits were purple and designed by House Worth © The Assumption Archive

Three weeks later fifty-five girls between the ages of eleven and seventeen arrived to be taught by the nuns. Lord Acton had been approached by the Reverend Mother and thought it more satisfactory to have a girls’ school at his country house than the army. It turns out he was right. To have the army take over was the worst possible outcome for home owners as their needs were opposed in almost every way to those of the previous incumbents. Large country houses had been looked after by armies of servants for a small number of spoilt inhabitants. When the tables were turned and armies of officers and soldiers were looked after by a small number of men from the catering corps, the houses were found to be completely inadequate: no central heating and few bathrooms were just some of the problems that confronted the new occupants.

Knox moved into the gardener’s cottage and worked in the corner of Lady Acton’s sitting room. It was in this small space that the Knox Bible was translated in an atmosphere of girls, ghosts and godliness. It was surely one of the strangest juxtapositions of the Second World War. Ronald Knox continued to correspond with members from the Detection Club and remained close personal friends with Agatha Christie, whose house Greenway in Devon was requisitioned by the US Coast Guard.
Lives entwined, experiences shared and all mixed up on a bookshelf in Australia. Thank you, Ellen Hall, for reminding me how much I love historical coincidences.

Girls, Ghosts and Godliness appears in Our Uninvited Guests