A Rabelaisian gallimaufry of hilarity and hedonism

Celia Lyttelton’s review of An Unanchored Heart for Perspective Magazine

Rory Knight Bruce’s memoir is a Rabelaisian gallimaufry of hilarity and hedonism, plus a lot of hard grafting, hard times (very hard), and exceedingly good times too. It’s a life lived to excess, fuelled by steely determination and enough booze to sink a frigate. Some passages made me roar with laughter. Like John Clare and Housman, in prose, his descriptions of places, travels and observations of nature are vivid and poetic; his lyrical Lindisfarne poem ends one of the chapters.

The author loves animals as much as his vast circle of friends. As soon as he could walk, he was riding cows on his father’s Devonshire farm. Later he became a polymath, student politician, magazine publisher, fishmonger, dole receiver, ad salesman at the Spectator and the Evening Standard and writer. This is his third book.

His childhood was frugal and solitary, and his ex-POW father would sit drinking whisky while watching porn – he’d escaped the Nazis by doing the “Long Walk” down to the toe of Italy. At the village school (a two-mile walk) Knight Bruce was “Rory the tiger”; winters were a “clod of desolation” and they were sometimes cut off for weeks by snow. Father and son lived in noble poverty: a portrait of Charles II could be a Lely, but has never been authenticated because “I would have to sell it”. Rory was an early developer and his au pair crept into bed with him aged ten after taking him to a Paris suburb where her family ate horse meat and haricots. There is much shagging throughout, though he’s discreet about his legion of lovers.

His mother, “the Bolter”, left him aged one. She was a TV quiz show hostess, wrapped in furs, with a fleet of fancy cars and husbands, including a Russian prince. She whisked him away to prep school and then Stowe, after which Rory went to Edinburgh University for a seven-year bender of bars and balls, writing and acting in his own play, editing the NewEdinburgh Review and being honorary secretary of the NUS on £50 a week.

When Rory’s father died, the “wailing Finn” who’d been his carer for 25 years refused to move out; the farm was a poisoned chalice, and half of it went to the “glugger”. 94 bottles were discovered hidden under the beds. Rory made minimal repairs to the Georgian farmhouse, replacing missing slate roof-tiles with old LPs.

Rory reached the apogee of his chequered career as editor of the Standard’s Londoner’s Diary for seven years. Sections of the book are littered with name dropping, indigestible, as if the author has swallowed the Tatler Bystander pages. “Was my life no more than an imitation of Fielding’s Tom Jones?” the author ponders in the last pages; it would be a spoiler to reveal whether the ending is happy or not.