Origin stories fascinate me: especially those we tell ourselves about ourselves. In this compelling memoir the journalist and one-time Horse & Hound hunting correspondent Rory Knight Bruce looks back on his childhood in rural Devon, his time at boarding school and student days, his travels in Greece and working life in London.
Alongside a labyrinth of pithy anecdotes, keenly observed characters and timely mots justes runs the thread of the search for self-knowledge. That thread always leads back to early childhood, when he is abandoned by his mother, who wafts away in a taxi to a glamorous London life. Sporadically present at bejewelled arm’s length, she never shows an ounce of maternal feeling.
An absentee mother and distant father with a cruel streak – this vacuum of affection is revisited often, and leaves an indelible mark. The unanchored heart of the title could refer just as much to his errant mother’s as to the writer’s own.
Like many children from well-connected but broken families Knight Bruce becomes a professional guest, staying with friends for holidays and weekends, honing the social skills that will serve him well in later life. He charms his way into most situations: jobs in advertising and journalism, where he crosses the great divide between sales and editorial at The Spectator; grand parties to which he is uninvited and, of course, women’s beds and hearts. The elder statesman of field sports journalism turns out to have also been a notorious womaniser.
Seduction is at the heart of his memoir, as he wins readers over with a delicious mix of contrasts: disarming honesty and artfully constructed anecdote; vulnerability and archness; refinement and manual labour.
‘All memory, however, is unfair, the kiss of a coward’, he writes towards the end of the book. Reliable or not, Knight Bruce is irresistible, from vivid accounts of his bond with his dogs to the dying days of Fleet Street. As the Italian phrase goes: si non è vero, è ben trovato (even if it’s not true, it’s a good fabrication). This is an entertaining glimpse into the life of a dwindling species: the cultivated gentleman-rogue.
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.
Don’t be put off by the title of local author Antony Homyold’s first novel, Salvation (published by Anthony Eyre). It is not a religious tale, although it does have a strong Catholic thread running through it. The book tells the story of Ralph Sebright, who, as a 12-year-old boy in 1940, is traumatized when the ship on which he is being evacuated to Canada is torpedoed and he finds himself in a crowded lifeboat for seven days. He survived, but many hundreds did not, a fact that is to haunt him for the rest of his life.
The rest of the book follows Ralph’s life as he is first sent to Jerusalem on National Service as part of the British peace-keeping force caught between fanatical Jewish settlers, who had been promised their ancient land under the Balfour Declaration of 1917, and the native Palestinian Arab inhabitants. Ralph is wounded in one incident and invalided home before attending Cambridge University where he is drawn to fellow student Mary.
But in this short book of just over 100 pages there is no time to explore any characters in depth and Ralph soon has to choose between developing his relationship with Mary and accepting an exciting posting to Beirut. He decides to return to the Middle East where he renews his friendship with Major Mac, his company commander in Jerusalem. One day he receives a letter from Mary saying that she is going to marry a colleague they both knew at Cambridge. Ralph is devastated, remembering that at their last dinner before he left for Beirut he felt she had expected him to say something and he had missed the opportunity to commit himself.
As time passes, Ralph, now fluent in Arabic, receives several overseas postings and is promoted to Head of the Foreign Office’s Middle Eastern Section. But he feels that something is missing and, after talking to a Catholic priest and later to his old friend Major Mac, he decides to take early retirement and become a priest. Almost 60 when he is ordained, he becomes a parish priest in West London; at the same time he becomes a chaplain to a prison where he gets to know an imam, who also holds services at the prison and introduces him to the Quran, in particular the verses that forbid violence against civilians.
One afternoon he boards a bus for Victoria Station and happens to sit behind a young man speaking Arabic on his mobile. The man sounds agitated and Ralph notices he has a knapsack and is looking at a sheet of Arabic text. Instinct tells him it is a prayer sheet and the man is a jihadist. Acting intuitively, Ralph recites aloud in Arabic one of the verses the Iman has given him and hears the man gasp. Two stops before Victoria the man gets off the bus. It is almost a year after the 7/7 bus bombing. The book ends with Ralph, now over 80, drawn back to Palestine where he has an uncanny encounter with the granddaughter of the woman who treated his wounds in 1947.
Antony Hornyold has written a moving and at times poignant account of the conflicts in the life of his main protagonist and in the Middle East, succinctly outlining tensions that continue to this day.
Roger Hardy, The Bride – An Illustrated History of Palestine 1850-1948. Anthony Eyre, Mount Orleans Press, Cricklade, 2022. pp 320. Maps. Illust. Notes. Bibliog. Index. Hb. £25. ISBN 978-1-912945-33-7; Pb. £15. ISBN 978-1-912945-34-4
Books about the history of Palestine are not lacking: Roger Hardy’s “select” bibliography includes nearly 250 volumes. He successfully marks out his own work by splitting it into six chapters with apposite headings: Pilgrims and Predators, 1850-1917; Palestine Raj, 1917-1929; Days of Rage, 1929-1949; An Interlude of War, 1939-1945; Things Fall Apart, 1945-1948; and ﬁnally, Epilogue: the land and the people. This division, supplemented by Hardy’s limpid style, makes for as easy a read as one could ask for of a tangled period of history. Hardy further distinguishes his version of the history by his use of contemporary texts and photographs – and the history of photography in Palestine. The texts can be telling. In July 1916 an Arab Jerusalemite in the Ottoman army, ordered to transfer to the front in Suez, writes in his diary: “I cannot imagine myself ﬁghting in the desert front. And why should I go? To ﬁght for my country? I am Ottoman in name only …” In the early 1930s, Thomas Hodgkin, private secretary to the High Commissioner, Sir Arthur Wauchope, writes of a visit to the cinema (to see the silent 1925 version of Ben Hur): “When the Roman ofﬁcer Messala remarked to Ben Hur: ‘To be a Jew is to crawl in the dirt!’, all the Arabs shouted and stamped … But when Ben Hur with ﬂashing eyes replies: ‘My afﬂicted nation has shaken off its other persecutors before now, and the day will come, be sure, when it will rise up and shake off the yoke of Rome,’ then all the Jews in the audience joined in a splendid seditious cheer”. One could have done with more such snippets, though as Hardy himself points out the quotations are necessarily drawn from the educated classes: what the peasant in the Palestinian ﬁeld felt is less easy to bring to light.
The ﬁrst photographic image of a Palestinian subject dates from 1839. From then on, use of the new medium grew rapidly, with photographs from the Holy Land much in demand in Europe and the United States. Hardy’s description of the growth of the industry almost amounts to a book in itself. In particular he tells the story of how in 1896 the family Larsson left Sweden to join the American Colony, a devout Protestant group founded by a lawyer from Chicago, Horatio Spafford, and his Norwegian-born wife. Lewis Larsson did not take to the religious millennialism of the American Colony, but within it he was able to develop a thriving photography business, producing and marketing a signiﬁcant record of daily life in the villages as well as of more prestigious subjects.
The families engaged in the American Colony split up acrimoniously in the 1920s. In an adjudicated settlement Lewis Larsson was awarded a building that was later to become the Swedish consulate, while the Vester family (the Spaffords’ daughter had married a German, Frederick Vester) kept the building that was eventually to become the American Colony Hotel. Visitors to the hotel today may well not be aware of its early association with a strict religious group and with the development of photography.
The nearly 140 black and white photographs in the book are of widely ranging subjects – from politicians to peasants, from villages to the King David Hotel. They are of splendid clarity. This is due of course to the skill of the photographers, also to the high quality of the publisher’s paper and reproduction, but perhaps above all to the often remarked upon quality of light in Palestine. Jack Robertson, who founded the Near East Arab Broadcasting Station (Sharq al-Adna) in World War II, put it romantically as follows: “Jerusalem is white stone walls against a sky of deep, unquenchable blue … Jerusalem is sunlight against the pine-woods … Jerusalem is the heaped-up, dazzling, tawny glow of oranges on stalls outside the Damascus Gate”. However that may be, the photographs amply fulﬁl Hardy’s aim of bringing his story to life.
As for the politics of the story, the author, as beﬁts a man who spent over twenty years with the BBC World Service, makes almost palpable efforts to be impartial in his judgments. What is striking with regard to the formal efforts of the British Government to devise a future for Palestine – from the White Paper of 1922 to the Bevin plan of 1947 – is that none of them accepted that the Arabs of Palestine were a nation with the same rights to sovereignty as other nations.
The Bride: an illustrated history of Palestine, 1850–1948. By Roger Hardy. Cricklade, UK: Mount Orleans Press. 2022. 320pp. Hardback: £25.00. ISBN 978 1 91294 533 7; paperback: £15.00. ISBN 9781912945344.
Roger Hardy’s bride is the land of Palestine, coveted by outside actors for religious and political motives, from the middle of the nineteenth century to the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. For the Arabs who formed the majority of its population under the Ottoman empire, its fate was dire. As Hardy puts it, the bride was ‘bought and sold’ and ‘abused by those who sold her and those who bought her’ (p. 248). The book traces the history of what was then a backwater under Ottoman rule, starting with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and Syria at the close of the eighteenth century. Napoleon’s expeditions into the Middle East led to the awakening of great power interest in the region. Then, Hardy moves to the Egyptian occupation of Greater Syria between 1831 and 1840. This in turn opened the door to western consuls, who saw themselves as protectors of the various Christian denominations in the Holy Land.
The attitude of those of religious persuasion was encapsulated at the inaugural meeting of the Palestine Exploration Fund in 1865. The chairman, William Thomson, Archbishop of York, told members: ‘This country of Palestine belongs to you and to me, it is essentially ours … It is a sacred duty which we now undertake, to endeavour, by a new crusade, to rescue from darkness and oblivion much of the history of that country’ (pp. 13–4, full record of the meeting made available to the author by the Fund). Hardy comments acidly that it was Palestine’s misfortune ‘to be coveted by others who were convinced they had a better right to it than its inhabitants’ (pp. 13–4).
The watershed of political transformation came in 1917 with the Balfour Declaration, announcing the support of Lloyd George’s government for a Jewish homeland. In the same year, Allied forces under General Allenby entered Jerusalem and the British Mandate that followed ended in humiliating failure. In the aftermath of the devastating attack on the King David Hotel in 1946, the occupying power came to terms with the new reality: Britain was unable to guarantee the safety of its citizens. Consequently, the British handed over responsibility for Palestine to the newly founded United Nations (UN). Soon after, the state of Israel was born and, in the brief war that ensued, the highly motivated and well-organized Zionist forces triumphed over their divided and incompetent Arab opponents. Their success was greatly helped by the two waves of Jewish settlement before the Balfour Declaration. Under the Mandate, the Zionists were given the right to settle and buy land and, during the Second World War, another wave of settlers arrived. In 1947, the UN General Assembly voted for the partition of Palestine and gave the Zionists the legitimacy they sought to set up their own state—swiftly recognized by the US and the Soviet Union. Hardy tells this tangled tale with even-handed eloquence, his text enlivened with first-hand accounts of participants.
The most original feature of the book is a collection of superb black and white photos, the first taken in 1862 and the last in 1956, which capture the country beautifully as light falls on limestone walls or scrubby hillsides. In the Ottoman days, Sultan Abdul Hamid II employed Armenian photographers, whereas in the 1930s Hungarian-born Zoltan Kluger, a refugee from Nazi Germany, created a heroic image of the men and women who tilled the land on collective farms, or kibbutzim. But pride of place goes to the photographs from the American Colony, a utopian American–Swedish community founded in 1881 whose most notable physical legacy is the hotel of the same name in Jerusalem. In the 1920s, shortly before the community broke up, the output of its photographic studio, which operated as a collective, had become its most profitable activity. Its collection is now largely housed in the Library of Congress.
Hardy has written an engaging book which rightly illustrates the prolonged injustices meted out to Arab Palestinians. In his epilogue the author asks pertinently why they should have had to pay for the suffering of Jews under the Nazis in Europe and why their demand for independence and sovereignty has been consistently denied. Hardy, who calls himself a journalist rather than a scholar, has written for a wider public than might be expected from the title. Overall, The Bride is an engaging book that will be of interest to anyone concerned about the origins of one of the most intractable problems in the Middle East.
This book plunges you into the dark, confusing mindset of a 16th-century Europe divided between two antagonistic belief systems. Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I were the first British women to rule as crowned monarchs in their own right, overseeing the brutal execution of hundreds of their own subjects for professing the rival faith. The principal difference between the Catholic and Protestant persecutions was slight: during Elizabeth’s reign, Catholic martyrs were hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn crossroads; during Mary’s reign, leading Protestant martyrs were burnt at the stake at Smithfield’s meat market. The actions of the Queens’ various councillors and spy-masters remain fascinatingly opaque, although both fake conspiracies and real plots informed the final chill decisions of state. Which is why this life of an obscure Spanish duchess brings such unexpected enchantment.
Jane Dormer, who was English through and through, was one of those rare souls who rose above the murderous passions of her age. She clearly married her bluff Spanish soldier husband for love; their wedding was held in secret, after the death of Mary had removed any political advantage from the match. However, she had the good manners to take her formal leave of Elizabeth as she left England.
Sir John Hawkins in 1581, aged 44. (National Maritime Museum.) Jane Dormer helped him escape the clutches of the Inquisition.
Jane clearly listened to some mad plots in her long life, but was wise enough to never put anything down in writing. She concerned herself with getting hostages returned, releasing prisoners of war and delicately chiding monarchs into paying promised pensions. She was invariably more successful in getting things done as a genuine Catholic exile trusted by the King of Spain than any of England’s official ambassadors, but even with them she found something in common, if only how to liven up her Spanish kitchen with English cheese and butter, imported with the aid of a bureaucrat working for the Spanish Inquisition.
Simon Courtauld is the perfect narrator, intimate with both the landscapes of Spain and the dense tapestry of English dynastic politics.
A slow train used to take all day from Madrid to reach the little town of Zafra in Extremadura. The indefatigable hispanophile Simon Courtauld told me about it 30 years ago or more, enthusing about the Plaza Grande and the Plaza Chica, not then marred by loud music from bars.
A 17th c. view of Zafra by Israël Silvestre
Zafra has a curious connection with England because Jane Dormer, a lady in waiting to Queen Mary Tudor, married a Spaniard in the entourage of the Queen’s king-consort Philip. She left England in a ship stuffed with relations, retainers and horses in 1559, never to return. But she lived until 1612, the last 40 of her 74 years as a widow administering huge estates and negotiating the tangle of exiled Catholic politics.
Her steward Henry Clifford wrote a life of Jane Dormer, Duchess of Feria, but it is vague on dates and gives no explanations. Now Simon Courtauld has delved away to produce a proper biography, Lady of Spain.
Clifford didn’t exaggerate her standing, for Courtauld reproduces a letter from Queen Elizabeth, half in her own hand, remonstrating at her absence from England but calling herself her “friend and sovereign”.
The Duchess even wrote to James VI before he came to the English throne, telling him to become a Catholic, following it up with another friendly letter as though she had not committed lese-majesty.
Almost a monarch on her estates, she dealt with the machinations of spies, zealots, popes and kings. An English ambassador brought her cheese, on the grounds that they both hated Spanish food, though a recipe book she left showed a liking for bizcochos (sponge fingers) and marmolet of quinces.
I’d thought she’d presided over events mostly at Zafra, but Courtauld cites a secondary source saying she kept to her Madrid house. Her husband planned the Renaissance transformation of Zafra castle as a miniature Escorial, work on which he had inspected with Philip II. The rebuilding was finished by her son.
Her body returned to Zafra at Candlemas 1612, the patronal day of the parish church. There it narrowly escaped a body-snatching plot by the nuns of the convent of Santa Marina, which she had built next to the castle. They reasoned their founder deserved to be buried in their chapel. Only a lock on the coffin and the insistence of the Abbess of Santa Clara, her destined burial place, that it be opened to prove she lay within, ensured that the plot was thwarted.
Courtauld is sympathetic to the woman, but sees the world from a very different angle. He quotes J A Froude (1818-94), whose History of England ends with the defeat of the Armada and Catholicism, declaring that Philip II had a “heart to which an iceberg was warm”, as a man ” to whom love was an unmeaning word”. That’s not my picture of Philip, walking affectionately in the bright private galleries of the Escorial with his children.
No matter. The author fills every page with the people whom Jane Dormer knew, or might have. You need a genealogist’s brain to keep them all in play. The great problem is that the Duchess left tantalisingly little trace. Where there are letters there may be no reply. But there are vivid scenes, such as her visits to the sick in old age, leaving money done up in paper under their pillows.
Courtauld concludes: “Neither Sir Francis Walsingham nor Lord Burley was ever able to pin anything significant on her.” That may be because, while favouring Mary Queen of Scots, she plotted no treason. Or it might be that those spymasters preferred to monitor her contacts. In a kaleidoscopic world of double agents, Jane Dormer had made her choice and let events blow round her.
Every summer, the English in their millions jet off to Spain, swelling the hundreds of thousands already living out their retirement in the Spanish sun.
In the 16th century, a visit to Spain was a rather less enticing prospect for residents of England, even before the two countries went to war. It wasn’t just the absence of air-conditioning and the stomach-churning passage across the Bay of Biscay. There was also the danger that your beach reading might not get past the bloodhounds of the Inquisition, who nosed through the luggage of new arrivals for unsound texts.
It isn’t surprising that few English men and women at this time voluntarily went to Spain. Those who had no choice in the matter – merchants, sailors, diplomats – made haste to depart at the earliest opportunity (Henry VIII’s ambassador to the Spanish court, Sir Thomas Wyatt, even composed a poem celebrating his recall to England). Yet, for one small group, Spain presented a haven: Catholics unwilling to conform to England’s new Protestant order.
Foremost among these was Jane Dormer, wife of the Duke of Feria, the Spanish grandee who left England shortly after Elizabeth I’s accession to the throne and died in Madrid a full half-century later.
Simon Courtauld’s short new life of Jane not only memorialises this largely forgotten figure, but also casts a sidelight on the motley collection of traditionalists, zealots and chancers who abandoned England for the Spain of Philip II.
Dormer was born into a Catholic gentry family from Buckinghamshire. Then as now, the expectation was that she would marry a suitable Englishman of similar breeding. But a more exotic destiny awaited her. Through family connections, she entered the household of Mary Tudor as lady-in-waiting.
Shortly after becoming queen, her mistress married Prince Philip of Spain (later Philip II). Jane caught the eye of his confidant, the Count of Feria, a blunt yet dutiful aristocrat 15 years her senior.
Gomez Suárez de Figueroa y Córdoba, 5th Count and 1st Duke of Feria
Courtauld considers it to have been a love match: Jane, a contemporary wrote, was ‘of shuche lively hewe that who so fedes his eyes on her may sone her bewte vue’, and Feria was duly smitten.
Yet, while the marriage brought Feria no financial gain, Jane did possess one crucial asset: information. Philip was absent from England for most of his four-year marriage to Mary and depended on Feria, whom he left behind for periods at Mary’s court, to supply him with intelligence about his wife. Few were better placed to procure it than Jane.
Jane and Feria (who was raised to the rank of duke in 1567) married shortly after Mary’s death in November 1558, before the possibility of a Catholic wedding was ruled out. Feria remained briefly in England as Philip’s ambassador to Elizabeth I, but his irascible, plain-speaking style ill suited him for such a role and he was soon replaced. With Jane in tow, he returned to Spain via Flanders and France, where the newly-weds were sumptuously entertained by Mary Stuart and her husband Francis II.
They were accompanied by two dozen attendants and a train of refugee monks, for whom there seemed no future in England. En route, Jane gave birth to their first son.
The book’s most novel parts deal with Jane’s years in Spain, where she lived between her husband’s estate in Extremadura and Philip II’s court in Madrid. At first, she struggled with the weather and the food – she requested consignments of herring, salmon and Shropshire cheese from England – but within a few decades she was producing recipes for Spanish cakes and biscuits.
She became an important figure at Philip II’s court, where the king treated her as an oracle on the inscrutable English queen and she in turn acted as spokeswoman for England’s increasingly downtrodden Catholics.
Although the 16th century is commonly regarded as an era of polarisation, Courtauld shows how Jane was able to a degree to straddle divisions of religion and politics. She remained a pious Catholic throughout her life and provided succour to Catholic exiles in Spain, yet also served as unofficial consul general for English Protestant visitors to the country. She involved herself in intrigues against Elizabeth I, but never formally renounced her allegiance to the queen.
Occasionally, Courtauld exaggerates Jane’s influence. She was never, for instance, a serious candidate to become Philip’s Governor of Flanders after the death in 1571 of her husband (who had been due to take up that office), however noisily the Catholic exiles championed her cause. Dynamic Jane may have been, but in the i6th century women not of the blood royal were still required to operate in the shadows.
Yet, overall, this is a balanced, colourful and revealing biography of a pioneer of Anglo-Spanish living.
Few modern writers know and understand the historical complexities of Spain as well as Simon Courtauld. His Footprints in Spain is a must for anyone wanting a detailed insight into Spanish culture, Catholicism, countryside and the corrida.
Now he brings Spain to the court of Mary Tudor with a biography of Buckinghamshire landed beauty Jane Dormer, who married the leery Duke of Feria, twice her youthful age. “She was a darline of lively hewe,” court poet Richard Edwards recorded.
Here are stories of influential Protestants against Catholics, intrigue, diplomatic missions, even an abortive attempt by a ‘dishonourable adventurer’ called Stukley for the Spanish to invade Ireland. Throughout her life in Spain, Jane Feria championed Catholicism. ‘Her saintly reputation drew many to her deathbed.’ Not so a recent Duke of Feria, imprisoned, so Courtauld tells us in one of many fascinating and amusing asides, ‘for kidnapping and corrupting a young girl’.