The Lives of Others

An Unanchored Heart by Rory Knight Bruce

AN UNANCHORED HEART by Rory Knight Bruce
Reviewed by Juanita Coulson for The Lady

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.

Juanita Coulson

The Lady, 3 March – 6 April 2023

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.

“A darline of lively hewe” – Jane Dormer, Duchess of Feria

Lady of Spain cover

The Field

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’.