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.

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