So many memorable moments, so many vivid memories

So many memorable moments, so many vivid memories

Guest blog by Torin Douglas

September 2019

Photographs above: Chiswick Book Festival Director Torin Douglas; the sun shines on the festival

Can it be just a week since I went to pick up the prizes for the Festival’s annual ‘Quiz Night at Fullers’ from Foster Books, the oldest (and most photogenic) shop in Chiswick High Road? Stephen Foster had kindly donated four copies of ‘A Vicarage in the Blitz – The Wartime Diaries of Molly Rich’ to reward the winning team. It is beautifully illustrated by the late artist Anthea Craigmyle, who grew up in the Vicarage of St Nicholas Church, where her mother was the vicar’s wife.

As I walked in to the bookshop, who should I see but John Rowe, the Chiswick actor who has achieved new fame – and great reviews – in The Archers, as his character, Jim Lloyd, has moved centre-stage. I offered him a complimentary ticket to our Archers Academics session, to be chaired at the weekend by Jane Garvey, and he accepted with thanks.

Cryptic, classy and crammed – the hors d’ouevres

Photographs above: Festival Quiz night at the Griffin brewery; AN Wilson in the Burlington Pavilion at Chiswick House. Photograph below: Local authors night at Waterstones. Photograph by Roger Green

The Quiz Night in the historic Hock Cellar at Fullers Brewery is technically a ‘pre-Festival event’ because the opening night is always held at Chiswick House. It still got the Festival off to a terrific start on Tuesday evening. Quizmaster Alan Connor (former editor of BBC Two’s Only Connect) was on entertainingly cryptic form, urging teams to shout out as soon as they identified Harold Pinter, Iris Murdoch, John Betjeman and other names on the Chiswick Writers Trail. The brewery’s new owners, Asahi of Japan, were as generous as their predecessors and, with finger food from the wonderful Cookbook Festival team, a great time was had by all.

On Wednesday evening, we were at Waterstones for the Local Authors Party, where 20 writers are each given two minutes to ‘sell’ their books – or be cut off in mid-flow by a loud blast on a horn from Jo James, the Festival’s charming and indefatigable author programme director. 150 people gathered to hear a wide and inspiring range of speakers, among them Maggie Pigott, whose new book ‘How To Age Joyfully’ has a foreword by Dame Judi Dench. As if to prove her point, she was followed by Pat Davies who, in her mid-90s, has just been awarded France’s highest award, the Legion of Honour, for her wartime service, and spoke eloquently about the wartime memoirs of her father. Another speaker in her 90s was Lotte Moore, grand-daughter of AP Herbert, who still visits schools talking about her childhood memories, Lotte’s War.

James O’Brien of LBC Radio, currently one of Chiswick’s most celebrated authors, took his 2-minute turn and signed books downstairs, generating a long queue down the High Road. Waterstones sold more than 75 copies of his book ‘How To Be Right’ – a proper reward for the hard work of manager James Barber and his team, who were to sell many more books over the next few days. Local distillery Sipsmith donated cans of gin and tonic, to mark the launch of its own book – ‘Sip: 100 Gin Cocktails’, and we also gave a platform to Better Mental Health in Chiswick to launch its new initiative, the Read Well Book Club, which attracted great interest.

On Thursday evening, some 250 people came to Chiswick House to hear one of the Festival’s favourite authors, AN Wilson, talking entertainingly about his new biography ‘Prince Albert: The Man Who Saved the Monarchy’ – a follow-up to his sparkling 2016 Festival appearance discussing Queen Victoria. An exhibition highlighted Albert’s own visits to Chiswick House, notably 175 years ago in 1844, when he hosted a fete for the Tsar of Russia and 700 of the great and the good – described at the time as one of the finest fetes ever seen in England.

The main course

Photographs above: Sir Mix Hastings; Cahal Dallat; Lucy Briers with James Hogg and Peter Egan

On Friday evening, the focus switched to Bedford Park and St Michael & All Angels Church, where another Festival favourite, Max Hastings, spoke about his new book on The Dambusters to an audience of around 250. As a preamble, he showed a clip from the 1955 film which helped build the legend and he asked our new sound team to turn up the volume on their excellent equipment. The pews shook as the aircraft prepared to unleash Barnes Wallis’s deadly bouncing bomb – an unexpected precursor of life as it may sound in Bedford Park when the Third Runway gets underway and the flight paths change! Max was in his element – delivering a pitch-perfect lecture – to the delight of the audience. “Even better than last year” and “Max never disappoints” were two of the comments as people filed out into the night.

Meanwhile at the London Buddhist Vihara, 100 yards away, Cahal Dallat was giving a lecture about one of Chiswick’s two winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature – ‘WB Yeats in Utopian Bedford Park’. The building was, from 1877 to 1939, The Bedford Park Club, where Yeats’s father, painter John Butler Yeats, joined in debates with fellow artists, writers, critics & political thinkers; where the young WB Yeats witnessed the pageants that were to inspire his drama & co-founding of the Irish National Theatre; and particularly appropriate, Cahal said, because of Yeats’s search for a spiritual dimension, in Hindu & Buddhist literature & teachings.

At 8pm, we were in another of Chiswick’s iconic venues – the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation Theatre at ArtsEd in Bath Road. The session there was ‘Remembering Richard Briers’ – Chiswick’s own national treasure – with the actor’s daughter Lucy; his friend and Ever Decreasing Circles co-star Peter Egan; and Richard’s biographer James Hogg. It was a wonderful evening – warm and full of very funny anecdotes about Richard appearing in an commercial for his local garage and how Lucy first introduced him to Kenneth Branagh, who transformed his later career by casting him as Malvolio, then Lear and as the blind man in his film of Frankenstein with Robert de Niro. There were occasional tears too, as they recalled a last lunch with Richard just before he died – and we watched a TV clip (including black and white pictures of a very young married couple), in which Annie Briers recalled how she had to improve Richard’s diet, after discovering he used to fry everything, including scones!

London’s most literary location (?)

Photographs above: Cookery writer Trine Hahnemann; the audience for Cressida Cowell in St Michael & All Angels Chuch; gazebos outside the church; the cake stall, the queue and BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour presenter Jane Garvey with Dr Cara Courage and actor John Rowe

And so to the weekend itself, where we were blessed with beautiful weather and made the most of the green space around St Michael’s. It was filled with marquees (for the Cookbook demonstrations and children’s events) and gazebos containing the famous Book Festival cakes (and sandwiches and savouries); valuers from Chiswick Auctions; books and merchandise from the Cookbook Festival and a raffle from The Chiswick Calendar; and representatives of the three Festival charities – InterAct Stroke Support, Doorstep Library and, for the first time, The Felix Project which distributes surplus food, that would otherwise go to waste, to charities and schools.

Plenty of room too for the queues that formed ahead of the most popular sessions – most notably for Cressida Cowell on the Sunday, when over 350 children and parents lapped up her inspiring talk and then queued again for well over an hour in the sunshine for her to sign their books.

Along the Bath Road, we had a new venue – the ‘early years annexe’ of Orchard House School in Rupert Road (famous for many years as the Wendy Wisbey Dance Studio). The first speaker there was local novelist and former Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis (watched by daughter Sophie Ellis Bextor and family and many others). Later came the eagerly-anticipated session on Women In The Archers, chaired by Jane Garvey – and that was where I met up again with John Rowe. He was slightly late and Jane had begun her welcome as he arrived, so I escorted him to a seat in the front row. Apologising for interrupting her, I introduced him with four words – “John Rowe, Jim Lloyd” – and the whole audience erupted in spontaneous applause, to John’s great surprise.

Just one of the highlights of an unforgettable weekend, which helped reinforce the Observer’s recent verdict that ‘Chiswick may be Britain’s most literary location’. Thank you to everyone who helped make it happen.

Torin Douglas is the Director of the Chiswick Book Festival

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Lucy Cufflin’s guest blog on the 2019 Cookbook Festival

See also: Turnham Green Terrace piazza launch

2019 Chiswick Book Festival in pictures

2019 Chiswick Book Festival in pictures

The 2019 festival was rich with authors who live locally talking about fascinating topics: Polly Devlin on her memoir Writing Home, Lucy Briers about her late father Richard Briers, who lived for many years in Chiswick, whose biographer James Hogg joined Lucy and actor Peter Egan to celebrate his life; Cahal Dallat on WB Yeats and Tom Mangold on the Profumo Affair.

Graham Holderness talked to broadcaster Julian Worricker about Meat, Murder, Malfeasance, Medicine and Martyrdom: Smithfield Stories: Wat Tyler, Anne Askew, Sweeney Todd, Jack the Ripper, Heinrich Himmler & more … a gruesome presentation if ever there was one; Jane Garvey chaired a session on the much more wholesome topic of Women in the Archers and Marthe Armitage discussed the progression of design over the twentieth century and her own beautiful book The Making of Marthe Armitage: Artist and Printmaker. Children’s author Cressida Cowell, creator of the series How To Train Your Dragon, talked about her latest venture: The Wizards of Once.  

From further afield we had Ken Livingstone, talking about his book Livingstone’s London and festival stalwarts Max Hastings, with Chastise, the story of the Dambusters, and AN Wilson, on his latest book: Prince Albert: The Man Who Saved the Monarchy .

Plus the usual favourite activities – the festival quiz at the Griffin brewery; the local authors evening at Waterstones, which this year included James O’Brien, and workshops which included bookbinding for children.

Photographs below: Polly Devlin; Lucy Briers, James Hogg and Peter Egan; Cahal Dallat; Tom Mangold; Julian Worricker and Graham Holderness; Jane Garvey; Marthe Armitage; Cressida Cowell; Ken Livingstone; Max Hastings; AN Wilson; festival quiz; James O’Brien; children’s bookbinding session; the sun shone on this year’s festival. Local authors’ night at Waterstones. With thanks to Roger Green and Jim Cox for use of their photographs. 

Biography of American wartime spy Virginia Hall

A Woman of No Importance

Interview with Sonia Purnell by Bridget Osborne

September 2019

A Woman of no Importance is the story of Virginia Hall, an American spy who changed the course of World War II, whose story has never been told before. It reads like a thriller: ‘a suspenseful, heartbreaking and ultimately triumphant tale of heroism and sacrifice’. (BookPage) and has been very well reviewed.

its author Sonia Purnell has form in producing well researched, beautifully written historical memoirs. Her last book First Lady, on the life of Clementine Churchill, was chosen as a book of the year by The Telegraph and The Independent. Her first book, Just Boris, (about Boris Johnson) was longlisted for the Orwell prize. A Woman of no Importance is selling so fast it’s had two reprints in two days and Sonia, who lives in Shepherd’s Bush and has appeared at the Chiswick Book Festival, is currently promoting it on a book tour in the States.

“I’ve always been interested in spies” Sonia told me. “My father was a spycatcher, working in British counter-intelligence, so that world has always interested me”. She stumbled across Virginia Hall researching World War II spies on the internet and wondered why so little had been written about her. Glamorous, American, hugely successful and with the memorable feature of a wooden leg, she couldn’t work out why she Virginia seemed so elusive. She was without question a hero, who played a significant role in altering the course of the war. In 1942, the Gestapo made it a priority to track down the mysterious ‘limping lady’ who was fighting for the freedom of France. An urgent Gestapo transmission read: “She is the most dangerous of all Allied spies. We must find and destroy her.”

As she dug deeper, Sonia realized that part of the reason Virginia Hall was not more celebrated was because after the war she went on to work for the CIA, so it suited her purpose to remain out of the public eye. But it was also that she didn’t conform to the romantic / tragic heroine stereotype, thinks Sonia. She was too good. “She didn’t conform to the feminine ideal” she says, “I’ve seen internal job appraisals from her former CIA bosses. Men tried to do her down because they saw her as a threat. Even her SOE controller during the war described her as ‘embarrassingly successful’.“

That Sonia should have read her internal CIA appraisals speaks volumes about the meticulous nature of her research. Virginia had “about 20 different code names” she says. She spent three years tracking down the story, spending time in the Resistance archives in Lyon and in Paris and America and getting to know Virginia’s family in Baltimore. She also discovered a historian of prosthetics at the Science Museum. It was an “epic detective operation” she says – “not easy”.

Photographs below – Virginia as a child with brother John and father Ned; Virginia and John as adults; Virginia as a young woman. She grew up on a farm and had an affinity with animals

Virginia became the first Allied woman deployed behind enemy lines, despite the encumbrance of a wooden leg (she’d literally shot herself in the foot in a hunting accident in Turkey at the age of 27, and named her prosthetic limb affectionately ‘Cuthbert’). Working for the SOE – Special Operations Executive – she established vast spy networks throughout France, organized weapons drops and became a linchpin for the Resistance. When the Germans laid a trap and captured almost all the SOE operatives in southern France at one meeting,  she didn’t go. She managed to get all 12 out of prison in a spectacular jail break involving classic subterfuge such as hiding files in pots of jam.

Even as her face covered wanted posters and a bounty was placed on her head, Virginia refused order after order to evacuate. Eventually her cover was blown and she escaped by hiking over the Pyrenees into Spain. “She couldn’t reveal she had a wooden leg” says Sonia, even though they were pushing through deep snow. “If they’d known she would have ended up in a ravine because they’d have thought she would slow them up”. Even after she escaped she plunged back in to the war in France, adamant that she had more lives to save, and led a victorious guerilla campaign, liberating swathes of France from the Nazis after D-Day.

A Woman of no Importance is available from Amazon and in all good bookshops – providing that is they’ve not sold out and are waiting on the next reprint.

Photographs below – ID papers from when she was posted to Tallin in the 1930s; steering a gondola in Venice; painting by Jeff Bass of Virginia transmitting messages from a farm in the Haute-Loire, July 1944; Virginia was the only civilian woman in the Second World War to be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, for extraordinary heroism against the enemy. She received the medal in Washington, DC on 27 September 1945.

Read about Sonia’s previous books on Clementine Churchill and Boris Johnson here.

Terrorism linked to domestic violence

Domestic violence linked to terrorism

Festival review by Bridget Osborne

October 2019

Photograph above: Jess Phillips MP in the Chamber of the Houses of Parliament

Labour MP Jess Phillips says she’s had it explained to her in graphic detail what some angry men would like to do to her. She gets messages like this one: ‘Unless you change your attitude, be afraid, be very afraid… Wherever you are, keep looking over your shoulder … You and your Remain friends have been warned’ and messages which are much more explicit than that.

Paula Sherrif MP says she gets death threats ‘every single day’. ‘I’ve received death threats, I’ve received rape threats, I’ve been shouted at in the streets, I’ve had abusive phone calls’. 23 year old Neo-Nazi Jack Renshaw was recently jailed for life for making preparations to kill his local MP Rosie Cooper and a female police officer. He’d bought a 19 inch blade to slit the MP’s throat. As he was sentenced, one of his supporters in the public gallery said ‘we are with you, Jack’.

When Jo Cox was murdered she was shot and stabbed multiple times by a man with far right views. He believed people with liberal and left wing views were the cause of the world’s problems. He saw her as a ‘collaborator’ and a ‘traitor’ against white people. He used those exact words. Trigger words like ‘surrender’, ‘collaborator’, ‘betrayal’ are used by Boris Johnson and his coterie and repeated back by the perpetrators of hate crime. Jess was told she would be ‘dead in a ditch’ if she carried on expressing her views.

What part of this is ‘humbug’? This is not a bunch of hysterical women having a fit of the vapours over nothing. There is clearly a direct link between the use of inflammatory language by politicians and the upswing in violence particularly directed against left wing women.

Jess Phillips spoke at the 2019 Chiswick Book Festival about this targeted violence against women. She was talking to Joan Smith, who has written a book about domestic abuse and terrorism. Her research shows that the perpetration of violence against their own families is a common trait among men who go on to become terrorists, yet it’s not something which has been considered to any great extent by those whose job it is to identify terrorist suspects and prevent acts of terrorism. What they both had to say about the extent to which violence against women is routinely ignored was shocking.

Photographs above: Jess Phillips MP, Joan Smith’s book Home Grown; Joan Smith

Terrorism starts in the home

What do the attacks in London Bridge, Manchester and Westminster have in common with those at the Charlie Hebdo offices, the Finsbury Park Mosque attack and multiple US shootings? They were all carried out by men with histories of domestic violence. Yet ‘terrorism is seen as a special category of crime that has blinded us to the obvious’ said journalist Joan Smith, author of the book Home Grown. Joan has done extensive research into the backgrounds of terrorists and says we should be looking for the obvious. The men who commit acts of terror don’t suddenly become violent overnight; they have a history of violence. That violence isn’t evident to police and intelligence officers because it’s hidden, or rather it’s overlooked. There are no red flags because violence committed within the home isn’t taken seriously. ‘The extraordinary link between so many tragic recent attacks is that the perpetrators have practised in private before their public outbursts’ she says.

From the Manchester bomber to the Charlie Hebdo attackers, from angry white men to the Bethnal Green girls, from US school shootings to the London gang members who joined ISIS, Joan Smith has shown that, ‘time and time again, misogyny, trauma and abuse lurk beneath the ‘justifications’ of religion or politics’. Now she says her work is being taken seriously and criminology departments at universities are asking for copies of her book. “The reaction has been ‘Oh, we’d better come and talk to you’” she told the audience at the Chiswick Book Festival. But before she pointed it out in 2017, criminal authorities routinely missed this connection, which should have been staring them in the face, because violence against women has become dangerously normalised.

Jess Phillips’ exposure to male violence is not a new thing. She told the audience at Chiswick Book Festival that she had worked for many years with Rape Crisis centres and every year on International Women’s Day she had taken to reading out all the names of women & girls murdered by men. “There’s been an outcry about knife crime, but no corresponding outcry against domestic violence against women. There’s a big action being taken by the Centre for Women’s justice at the moment because the incidence of cases being passed from police to CPS has fallen by 22% in the last year… Men get away with it and women give up reporting it”.

Case studies of domestic abusers-turned-terrorists

Joan’s book looks at a number of case studies. Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the man who drove a 19-tonne cargo truck into crowds of people celebrating Bastille Day in Nice in July 2016, killing 86 people and injuring 458 others, “was a horrific abuser” said Joan. “Only after they (his family) had managed to get him out of the house did he take any interest in religion or jihad. He hadn’t been to a mosque until three weeks before”.

Darren Osborne, who killed Makram Ali and injured twelve others in the attempt to kill as many Muslims as he could by driving his van into them outside the mosque at Finsbury Park “hadn’t shown any interest in politics before he was thrown out of the family home in Cardiff”.

Jess’s conclusion: “the narcissistic wound of being thrown out of the family home causes them to take up a cause to continue to be violent”.  “A long tail of violence leads up to men becoming terrorists. They don’t just snap, any more then they do when they kill their wives. There’s usually been a reign of terror” said Joan.

Haron Monis, the Iranian-born refugee and Australian citizen. who took hostages in a siege at the Lindt Chocolate Café in Sydney in December 2014, was another example of the pattern, said Joan. He was a serial sex offender. He said he was acting for Islamic State, but the Iranian government told the Australian authorities he was a con man. “He’d been in Australia 15 years. They charged him with 43 counts of rape because they found his stash of videos where he’d filmed himself and he was still let out on bail”.

Salman Ramadan Abedi, the suicide bomber behind the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017 which killed 23 people and wounded 139 others, had previously punched a muslim woman unconscious because he thought the skirt she was wearing was too short. He had no criminal record for that; he was just given a ‘restorative justice’ sentence, where he had to sit down with his victim and talk about what he’d done – a reaction which is in any case not considered suitable by women’s groups for sex crimes.

Joining ISIS to have sex slaves

In interviews with returnees from Syria, Joan found that about half of them had become involved in ISIS because they’d wanted to own sex slaves. Elliot Roger, the 22-year-old Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured fourteen others at Isla Vista, near the campus of University of California, Santa Barbara considered himself “the perfect gentleman” said Jess. “He had a thing about blondes and couldn’t understand why he was still a virgin. He decided to take revenge because he couldn’t get a girlfriend”.

Jess has been on the receiving end of “huge long diatribes explaining exactly how they’re going to hurt and rape me” from men who disagree with her politics, so she’s very well aware of “a culture of grooming young angry men online”. Her conclusion, from long association with the violence of men, was that “victimhood of women is not seen as being unimportant. 177 women murdered in their homes last year. If there were 177 men murdered at football matches, football would be banned”.

Public policy implications

In terms of public policy, Joan, who sits as the independent chair of London crime reduction board, has suggested an offenders register for those who have been violent within the home. The response was that it would be impracticable because it would just be too long. Jess’s suggestion is for young men who have grown up in violent homes to be flagged up in the Prevent programme, designed to spot radicalised would-be terrorists early on. “We don’t want people being targeted unnecessarily, but can’t be squeamish about terrorism” she said.

It’s interesting that within two weeks of this discussion, our Prime Minister was dismissing the idea that the language of betrayal is linked to threats of violence against women MPs as ‘humbug’.

Home Grown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists is available in bookshops or online

Prince Albert: The Man Who Saved the Monarchy

Prince Albert: The Man Who Saved the Monarchy

Festival review by Bridget Osborne

September 2019

AN Wilson at the opening session of the 2019 Chiswick Book Festival at Chiswick House; Prince Albert: The Man Who saved the Monarchy book cover

AN Wilson is a prolific writer of biographies as well as the author of more than 20 works of fiction and a huge body of work as a journalist. He wrote Resolution, a fictional account of Captain James Cook’s second voyage, and Scandal about the Profumo affair, but the subjects of his biographies also include such towering literary figures as Leo Tolstoy, CS Lewis, Hilaire Belloc and John Betjeman and in the past few years he’s written highly acclaimed books on the Victorians and the Elizabethans. A more erudite speaker you could hardly find, but I’d no idea he was so witty.

In an hour-long talk at the 2019 Chiswick Book Festival on his latest book Prince Albert: The Man Who Saved the Monarchy, he made jokes about the Duke of Edinburgh, Boris Johnson, Sergeant Wilson, John Le Mesurier’s character in Dad’s Army and Tinkerbell, and held his audience effortlessly, with a disarming smile and a dry wit. Wilson argued that Prince Albert was worthy of a book in his own right ‘not just as a companion to my book on Victoria’. Albert was important, he said, ‘because we owe him’.

Developing the constitution

After the four Georges, the monarchy needed saving. Although Albert was very young when he came to England to marry his cousin, ‘he had a very clear idea what his function was going to be’. He’d studied at Bonn University (under the same tutor who later taught Karl Marx) and saw that the monarchy had to be woven into the developing parliamentary system if it was to survive. Queen Victoria didn’t have quite the same vision, but according to Wilson he kept her on track, developing the constitution as ‘a wonderful mix of the power of the executive and symbolism of the monarchy’, because he foresaw that the extension of franchise was inevitable.

I’m pleased that the portrayal of Victoria and Albert we’ve seen in the ITV series Victoria appears to have been accurate. Tom Hughes’ portrayal of Albert is exactly as AN Wilson describes him: a shy boy, who abhorred sexual promiscuity and impropriety and whose best friend throughout his life was his brother, but also an intelligent man who had a vision for the monarchy and for this country.

Cultural debt

Wilson told the audience at the opening night of the Book Festival in the Burlington Pavilion at Chiswick House, that we also owed a great cultural debt to the Prince Consort. He was a patron of the arts and a patron of music. The V&A was originally proposed as just the ‘Albert museum’. We have the Royal Albert Hall because he encouraged the building of symphony halls and we have one of the greatest scientific centres in the world, Imperial College, because he understood the value of modern science. It was because he was voted Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University that science was introduced as an area of study. Once Cambridge deemed science worthy of admission to the curriculum, other universities followed suit. Prince Albert was genuinely interested in how machinery worked – he could have been an engineer or a scientist – and he was also mad about photography. One of the early photographs to be on sale to the public was a photograph he took of the royal family at Osborne House.

Wilson told the audience that Victoria and Albert became personally very rich from the Duchy of Lancaster – from the development of the spa town of Harrogate and the docks on Merseyside, and their ownership of agricultural land in Wales whose coalfields powered the industrial revolution. But Albert was a compassionate Prince; he travelled around the country a lot and met people who worked in factories and mills and schools. As a result, he realised that the working-class lived in squalor and he pioneered model cottages in Kennington with sanitation, flushing toilets and living room – unheard of in the houses of the working class.

The mention of John Le Mesurier’s character in Dad’s Army was with reference to his situation vis-à-vis Ian Lavender’s character Private Pike. The youngest member of Warmington On Sea’s Home Guard called Sergeant Wilson ‘Uncle Frank’, though it was clear to the audience that he was far more likely to have been his son. Such quite possibly was the relationship between Albert and his Uncle Leopold, though his paternity was never proven.
The reference to the Duke of Edinbugh was pure name dropping. They met at a function while Wilson was writing the book. The Duke exclaimed ‘not another bloody book about Prince Albert’ and told him that as Albert had only lived a short life, so it only needed to be a short book.

Did you know?

Prince Albert visited Chiswick in June 1844. He was here to attend a banquet for Tsar Nicholas I of Russia at Chiswick House, hosted by the 6th Duke of Devonshire. Also there were the King of Saxony and around 700 members of the principal noble families in the country. It was described as ‘one of the most splendid fetes ever given in this country’.

Marie Colvin’s Final Assignment

Paul Conroy – Under the Wire: Marie Colvin’s Final Assignment

Festival review by Bridget Osborne

September 2019

Photograph above: Paul Conroy talking to Julia Wheeler in the Andrew Lloyd Webber theatre at the 2019 Chiswick Book Festival

Paul Conroy’s hilarious. He’s talking about death and destruction in the war zones of the couple of last decades, so it shouldn’t be that funny really, but he has the Liverpool scally’s natural ability to tell stories, and he has some corkers.

He met Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin when they were holed up in a decrepit hotel on the border of Syria and Iraq with about 40 other members of the international press, all trying to get across the Tigris to report the war in Iraq. There was a boat operated by Syrian secret police which went over once a day. Once a day they all trooped to the office of the police, were offered tea, refused passage and they all trooped back again. After a few days Paul got fed up with this. He decided to build a boat, sent his driver off to buy inner tubes for lorry tyres and fashioned some sort of inflatable craft from tyres and ropes. They set off after dark. He’d given the driver money to bribe the border guards, but still, as he was pumping up his makeshift craft with a couple of others, they came under volley of fire. They were captured, had bags put over their heads, and were led to believe that they’d be shot. They thought they’d had it, until one of the guards asked him where he was from. “Liverpool”. “Ah Steven Gerrard” said the guard, excitedly. They started chatting about football, as you do. The bag came off. ‘“Any chance we could have the bags taken off us?” my two colleagues asked after about half an hour. “Nah, you’re all right.”’

They were let out, but when he got back to the hotel he was given the cold shoulder by the rest of the press pack, for making their chances of getting on the boat that nigh on impossible. So he drank alone at the other end of the bar, until Marie Colvin strode in, demanding “who’s the boat man and where is he?” “That would be me” he said. “I like your style” she replied. She bought him a whisky and it was the start of a beautiful relationship which took them to Libya, and ultimately to the war in Syria, where she was killed and he was injured.

Our job is to get the story out

Marie was famous for her fearless reporting from some of the worst situations in war zones – and for wearing a black eye patch because she’d lost an eye covering the civil war in Sri Lanka (she wore a diamante eye patch to parties). They shared a belief that it was their job to get the story out, no matter what. “She called me boatman till the day she died. It was very hard to hook her up with any other photographer. One found her scarier than the war. One she didn’t like because he was too ‘metrosexual’. He probably combed his hair or something”. How did Sunday Times deal with that? “She was a bit of a nightmare to manage”. While his exchanges with the Sunday Times picture desk in London were brief, she argued for hours with editors, persuading them that as she was on the ground, she knew best what the story was.

In Libya Paul took the famous photograph of Ghaddafi after he was killed. “We the got a call from London to say they wanted a picture of his unmarked grave. What part of ‘unmarked’ did they not get?”. Despite being given directions by her excellent contacts, it took them three days of wandering about before they found it because, he said, “Marie had a terrible sense of direction”.

Paul told the audience at the 2019 Chiswick Book Festival that he was slightly shielded from the horrors they saw, being behind a camera lens: “You’re constantly seeing traumatic stuff, but the camera is a bit of a barrier. You’re concentrating on the light, on technical stuff. Whereas I was standing back, she was completely immersed in it, looking into their eyes as they told their story. If people are going to tell you their story you have a responsibility to tell it well”.

An incredible sense of humour

She dealt with the trauma she’d witnessed with humour. “She had an incredible sense of humour, but dark”. They both coped badly with being at home between trips. “People say ‘how was it?’ but what do you tell them? How much do you tell them? How much do they really want to know?” They couldn’t quite reconcile themselves to the fact that people around them were bothered about such things as car tax, so they got back to war zones as quickly as possible. They went to Syria once Arab Spring had spread across the region. “The Syrian army said any journalists found near Homs were to be executed and bodies thrown on the battlefield”. That was enough to put most foreign correspondents off. Marie and Paul found themselves a guide to take them in.

“We had to walk through minefield, sneaking past an army checkpoint 50 yards away. We could hear them talking. We were following the guide’s white trainers. I had hold of Marie because she had a tendency to veer off to the left as she just had the one eye”.

Journey into Homs

Their journey to Homs was made by motorbike and in the back of trucks. Finally they had to walk the last three kilometres through storm drain, bent double. “Coming out the other end into Homs was like walking into hell. Neither of us had ever seen anything like it”. There was a small, civilian neighbourhood being demolished by huge firepower. “There was no fighting, just slaughter. There were a few rifles against this massive artillery. At the field clinic there were bodies stacked up, blood everywhere”. Paul took pictures of Marie with hundreds of women and children, widows in a basement trying to find shelter from the almost constant bombardment. “That was probably the best piece she ever wrote. It was Mediaeval slaughter and her piece conveyed the horror”. The photograph in the basement was the last one he ever took of her, and one which he said greatly annoyed the Syrian government.

“The Free Syrian army was getting intelligence that Assad’s ground forces were coming”. They went back through the tunnel and filed their story. The army didn’t invade then, and the Sunday Times told them under no circumstances were they to go back in. So they switched off their phones and went back through the tunnel. “All the people who had helped us to get in the first time were dead”. They realised the situation had deteriorated so much that if they waited till Friday to make their despatch to the Sunday Times it would be too late, so Marie did a broadcast for the BBC by sat phone. She did three broadcasts in all, knowing that it would attract fire.

Their last night before she was killed “we were like kids at a sleepover”. She thought she was going deaf. He shone a torch into her ear and fished out the rubber cover off an earphone which had been wedged in her ear. They couldn’t sleep for giggling. “Every time one of us began to doze off, the other one started up again”. They got up later than planned next morning and left at 6.30am rather than 5.30am. As the rockets began landing on either side of them, he realised the operator was finding the target, as they were getting nearer. Marie was killed instantly with French photographer Remi Ochlik. Paul was injured. He would have bled out from a gaping hole in his leg, had he not made a tourniquet from an ethernet cable.

His book Under the Wire came out in 2018 and is now available in paperback.

The Art of the Thriller

Peter Hanington & Alan Judd: The Art of the Thriller

Festival review by Bridget Osborne

September 2019

Photograph above: Left Julian Worricker; Centre Alan Judd; Right Peter Hanington

Broadcaster and journalist Julian Worricker discussed the art of writing thrillers at the 2019 Chiswick Book Festival with one veteran and one fairly new writer of the genre: Alan Judd, (real name Alan Petty) and Peter Hanington. Alan is a former soldier and diplomat who writes both fiction and non-fiction, with ten previous thrillers under his belt. Peter worked as a journalist for over twenty-five years, most recently at The World Tonight and Newshour on the BBC World Service. He has one previous novel to his credit: A Dying Breed.

Spoiler alert

Julian Worricker, who broadcasts on the BBC’s News Channel and on Radio 4, used to present the Breakfast show with Victoria Derbyshire on Radio 5 Live. Discussing the release of the film Titanic, they had been careful not to let slip what happened to Leonardo diCaprio and Kate Winslet’s characters, he told the audience at the 2019 Chiswick Book Festival. He did however say that the Titanic had sunk, and received an angry email from a listener greatly irritated that he’d given away the end of the film!

Mindful of that, he was careful not to give too much away about the plot of either book, but rather focused on strategies for writing a thriller. Alan said he always set out with a beginning, an end and a ten point plan, so he knew how he wanted to finish but he didn’t necessarily stick to the route he’d planned to get there. Peter on the other hand is a writer who develops the plot as he goes along. Interestingly both said they’d had whole chapters ruthlessly chopped by their editor. In Alan’s case, his first editor told him he didn’t need the last chapter of his first book. “As she said it, I knew she was right” he said. Peter’s editor “tends to remove the first two or three chapters”. A thriller is like an engine. It has to motor on.

Both authors have read a lot of thrillers themselves. Alan reminded the audience that Raymond Chandler famously said that if you were stuck as to how to develop the plot, just have a character come in to the room with a gun in his hand.

Photographs above: Alan Judd; Accidental Agent book cover

The importance of speaking with an authentic voice

They both also have a perfect background for writing thrillers. Alan had served with the British army in Northern Ireland, so his chief character, Charles Thoroughgood was introduced in his first novel A Breed of Heroes, as an army officer in Northern Ireland. You can write a perfectly plausible story, he said, as long as people don’t know the circumstances in which your story is set. He worried about his peers in the army and later in the diplomatic service finding his plots plausible. Authenticity is important and it is appreciated.

British historian Peter Hennessy described A Breed of Heroes as ‘one of the best spy novels ever’. Alan brought back his character twenty years later, by which time he had graduated to the diplomatic service. The problem he’d found with his most recent novel Accidental Agent, was that he’d painted himself into a corner by promoting Thoroughgood to the head of MI6. “The trouble with the head of MI6 is that they just go to meetings all the time. They don’t have assignations in back streets”.

Photographs above: Peter Hanington; A Single Source book cover

Peter’s character William Carver is the ‘dying breed’ referred to in the title of his first book. An old hack who is set in his ways, cannot be doing with meetings, BBC bureaucracy or internal politics, and cares only about the story. He’s grumpy, he’s difficult, does not suffer fools gladly and is a damn good journalist. Peter was a senior editor on the Today programme and had ample opportunity to work with such reporters. “I used to ride the tube home after a 12 hour shift and fill notebooks full of jottings” he said. He took aspects of character and experience from a pool of journalists. I interviewed Peter about his first book at the 2016 Chiswick Book Festival. You can watch the interview here.

His second book A Single Souce has chapters set in Eritrea and in Egypt during the rise of the Arab Spring. Kevin Connolly told him he had to use an inhaler when reporting on the events in Tahrir Square in Cairo, as tear gas brought on his asthma. The Eritrean part of the story has to do with “one of the greatest moral crises of our time”, said Peter, the movement of people as refugees and their treatment as they crossed borders. He and his wife have hosted three Syrians and a Ugandan for the charity Refugees at Home. Eritrean refugees had told him first hand accounts of the conditions they had risked hazardous journeys to escape.

Photographs above: Julian Worricker; Alan Judd; Peter Hanington

A sense of place

Physical locations  are hugely important, they both agreed. You have to describe them correctly if they are to be recognisable. If you manage that, you can set the scene and create the atmosphere you want for your characters to be at home in and your plot to develop. Georges Simenon once started a story with a man on a barge coming on deck in the early morning and lighting up a cigarette. “He had you right there” said Alan.

Language can get in the way of creating the atmosphere you want. Asked if he’d had any disagreements with his editor, Peter said he’s been determined to keep in the description of a fountain ‘plashing’ instead of ‘splashing’. His editor had been right, he admitted, that such poncy use of language made the reader aware of the writing and distracted from the creation of the scene. An editor’s job is to ‘kill your darlings’ – a phrase attributed to William Faulkner. Or as Peter put it “an editor’s job is to tell you to get over yourself”.

Inspiration to write

Peter grew up in Chiswick and went to Chiswick School. When asked what inspired him to write, he said: “my English teachers at school”.

Success

What does success look like? Why do they write? Lee Child apparently sells a book every nine seconds; that’s certainly one incentive. “I’d be happy with one every nine months” said Peter. “It would be nice to have a better bank balance” said Alan, but mostly what he hopes for is respect for his work, or appreciation. “I’m trying to make sense of the world” he said.

“It’s amazing when someone says they like one of my phrases” said Peter. Alan read out one of Peter’s descriptions, of a man with spiky black hair, gelled so he looked like ‘an oil stricken sea bird’. If someone praises his syntax Peter said, “it’s like someone has paid a compliment to one of your children”.

“Better” said Alan.

Chiswick Garden ‘most important in UK’

Chiswick Garden ‘most important in UK’

Images above: Dutch Codlin apple 1820 painted by William Hooker, grown at Chiswick by Robert Thompson; Hoya pottsii brought back from China by the Socety’s plant collector John Potts; Penstemon ovatum

Royal Horticultural Society Garden

Chiswick was once the home of ‘the most important garden in Britain’ according to Fiona Davison, Head of Libraries and Exhibitions for the RHS.

In the 19th century the Horticultural Society (before it became the Royal Horticultural Society) chose Chiswick to be their nursery, to which they brought exotic plants from all over the Empire and worked out how they could thrive in our climate. ‘They scoured all of London’ she told an audience at the Chiswick Book Festival in 2019, ‘and chose Chiswick because it has the most fantastically fertile soil.’ The area had been a centre for market gardening for centuries for the same reason, ‘so residents of Chiswick really have no excuse not to have lovely gardens’ said Fiona.

Images above: Jospeh Paxton 1853; Plan of the arboretum at Chiswick 1826

The Hidden Horticulturalists

Her fascinating book The Hidden Horticulturalists, The Untold Story of the Men who Shaped Britain’s Gardens tells the tale of the working class young men who applied to work at the Horticultural Society’s garden in Chiswick, based on hand written notes she found in a book in the RHS library.

Among them was Joseph Paxton, who was in his early twenties when he met the Duke of Devonshire, whose land adjoined that of the Horticultural Society. So thoroughly did he charm the Duke that he offered him a job on the spot, as head gardener at Chatsworth. That was the start of a rags to riches career. He designed Crystal Palace and through his association with Prince Albert over the Great Exhibition, made connections which enabled him to end his life as a millionaire and an MP.

‘This little patch, 30 acres in Chiswick, was the most important place in the world for gardening. The East India company sent people off to get new samples and gardeners in Chiswick had to work out whether they were able to grow here’.

Images above: Rhododendron dalhousiae brought back from Himalayas by Joseph Dalton Hooker; Pink Quilled Chrysanthemum, collected in China by John Reeves; A yellow calceolaria and a rose illustration from The Horticultural Magazine 1837

Chrysanthemums from China caused tremendous excitement when they realised they could get them to grow, and also Chinese roses, which flowered for much longer than native Western European ones (of which Dog roses are a good example).

‘We should be very proud of the gardeners and what they achieved’ she says. They developed the technology for making glass houses too, ‘though they fried a lot of plants by accident’ in the process, she says.

The Hidden Horticulturalists is available in hardback in book shops and online. Thanks to the RHS for permission to reproduce the images.

Image below: Cartoon showing the rain-soaked flower show at Chiswick Garden in 1828

W B Yeats Nobel prize winning poet

W B Yeats, Nobel prize winning poet and one of the foremost figures of 20th-century literature

Profile by Lucinda MacPherson

January 2019

Chiswick-based Irish poet, Cahal Dallat, is a man with a mission: to remind Chiswick, in a tangible and permanent fashion, of its major role in the history of English Literature in fostering the poetic/dramatic genius of early Bedford Park resident WB Yeats, the only poet writing in English and brought up in Great Britain to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Yeats died 80 years ago ( January 28th 1939) and while his place as one of our most popular poets has never been more assured (his poems When You Are Old, He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, The Lake Isle of Innisfree and Easter 1916 always feature in ‘best-loved’ lists) his standing as theatrical innovator and founder of a national theatre, and his reputation as a Modernist poet, a political poet, and a visionary, has increased exponentially in international academic circles over those eight decades.

A number of Yeats favourites were actually written in his Bedford Park years. Though born in Dublin he spent two-thirds of his first three decades in London, the majority of that time at two addresses in Woodstock Road and Blenheim Road.

And his interest in drama began with amateur dramatics in the Bedford Park Club (now the London Buddhist Vihara) and became a reality with his first West-End-staged play, Land of Heart’s Desire, written as a favour for actress Florence Farr, a Bedford Park neighbour.

Most Yeatsian academics and biographers are aware the Yeatses lived in Bedford Park, variously described as the first garden suburb or that Bohemian artists’ colony: but most concentrate on his Irish background and his interest in the landscape, legends and lore of his mother’s native County Sligo, side-lining the significance of Bedford Park in the development of this major international literary figure.

That’s something that Cahal’s WB Yeats Bedford Park Artwork Project will put right, he says. Known to BBC Radio 4 audiences for his regular Saturday Review contributions, to the literary world as a critic, poet, and resident musician at London’s famous Troubadour Earls Court Coffee-House #poetrymondays organised by his wife, poet Anne-Marie Fyfe, (a former chair of the nationwide Poetry Society and both of them also well-known for their jointly-hosted Bedford Park Festival Poetry Nights) Cahal has explored, and expounded on, the impact on Yeats of Bedford Park’s aesthetic, avant-garde and occasionally anarchist attitudes, at academic and literary conferences, festivals, universities and colleges all over Britain, Ireland and the USA over many years. It’s a story of Chiswick influences and interconnections that he also re-tells regularly on foot, on what Yeats described as London’s pavements grey around the many Bedford Park, Chiswick and Hammersmith locations that played a major part in the poet’s early poems.

But Cahal does admit to a personal angle: most people discover Yeats at school, he says, but Cahal had already grown up with the poems and songs before realising they belonged to the world of the A-level syllabus. His maternal grandfather, like Yeats’s, was from Ballisodare in County Sligo, and when Cahal and Anne-Marie first visited London after a Paris trip, it was to call on Glens of Antrim friends who were, as it happens, cousins of Yeats’s famous love-rival Major John McBride, who married the beautiful Maud Gonne who had troubled Yeats’s heart since their first meeting in Bedford Park in 1888.

As Irish writers choosing to bring up their family in London, Cahal says, he and Anne-Marie can understand why Yeats’s painter father, John Butler Yeats, wanted to be at the cultural centre of things. Hence his move to Bedford Park where, with the development of the new Turnham Green District Line Station allowing him to pop into the West End or Westminster to paint portraits of actors and aristocrats, his young Irish family could enjoy a healthy pastoral atmosphere, walks by the river and, in the case of the young Willie Yeats, when he wasn’t walking to Godolphin (then a boys’ school) in Hammersmith, the chance to play at cowboys or pirates among the foundations and half-built houses of the world’s first garden suburb, or simply to dream in winding, leafy avenues.

What John Butler Yeats can’t have imagined is quite how much this new speculative housing development (dreamt up by Dublin-born Jonathan Carr) would influence his growing sons, Jack, who became Ireland’s leading twentieth-century painter and Willie, for whom Chiswick’s incredible cultural diversity (Indian gurus, Russian anarchists, German socialists, American Utopian philosophers, Scottish story-tellers, Icelandic folklorists…) and his father’s well-placed Bedford Park friends (including, poetry publishers, newspaper editors, engravers, actors, set-designers, playwrights, translators, and political thinkers) would foster his early poetic ambitions.

It’s a complex, fascinating, multi-faceted story, Cahal admits, and in his two-and-a-half-hour walks, from Hammersmith by way of William Morris’s house and Old Chiswick Churchyard to the winding avenues, artists’ studios and Queen Anne architecture of Bedford Park, he can only sketch the many fertile interconnections and relationships in what was the hub of an dazzling nineteenth-century social network with amazing implications for twentieth-century politics and art.

A multi-faceted project too, as the story, and the proposed artwork, aren’t simply about acknowledging Yeats’s genius or celebrating Bedford Park’s pride in the progressive and aesthetic ideas and aspirations that fostered that genius, but about recognising, for example, how a supportive community can bring out the creative best, especially in the young; how well planned neighbourhoods – even trendy, speculative nineteenth-century housing developments – allow individuals to achieve their full potential; how migrants like the Yeatses have found in cities, in multi-cultural London in particular, not just economic opportunity but the cultural networks that have allowed them to enhance the host culture – London’s creativity being a microcosm of world culture – and to give something back to their own culture as Yeats’s poetry and drama, flourishing in a West London garden suburb, sparked a major cultural revival in Ireland, a key part of his home country’s growth to political independence in the twentieth century.

Not least among the artwork’s aims is to suggest to tomorrow’s schoolkids and college students, heading from their Bedford Park or Chiswick homes to tube station or bus stop en route to school, that like one young local schoolkid 140 years ago, they might dream of becoming an artist, a writer, a poet, might even win a Nobel Prize and be remembered as Yeats will now be, properly remembered!

With a committee of Bedford Park residents including Chiswick Book Festival Director, Torin Douglas, St Michael and All Angels Vicar, Fr Kevin Morris, councillor Gerald McGregor and author Polly Devlin, together with academic Matthew Fay whose great-grandfather, actor Frank Fay co-founded the world-famous Abbey Theatre with Yeats, and with patrons including Rowan Williams, poet and former archbishop, Chiswick journalist Fergal Keane, actor Ciarán Hinds, Marie Heaney, poet Eavan Boland and Sligo’s Yeats Society Honorary President, Martin Enright, the WB Yeats Bedford Park Artwork Project has already begun receiving donations and commitments from a number of organisations, and can be contacted via info@wbyeatsbedfordpark.com.

The committee have spent recent months looking at potential artwork locations at the entrance to Bedford Park, viewing recent public art in Britain and Ireland, especially examples associated with literary figures and major heritage sites as Bedford Park certainly is, and discussing with likely artists how the complex synergies and synchronicities of Nobel-Prize-winning WB Yeats’s Bedford Park life might be expressed visually. So watch this space!

[Line-up for November’s lecture, On the Pavements Grey: WB Yeats in Utopian Bedford Park, the official launch of the WB Yeats Bedford Park Artwork Project, hosted by the Embassy of Ireland in Grosvenor Place and sponsored by the Irish Literary Society (estd. 1892, in the Yeatses’ Blenheim Rd, Bedford Park home, and still going strong!)

From left, lecturer, project founder/organiser, and local Chiswick poet/musician, Cahal Dallat; with his wife, poet Anne-Marie Fyfe, who read excerpts from Yeats’s letters and autobiography; actor Ciarán Hinds (centre, fresh from his National Theatre run in Brian Friel’s Translations but also well-known to Game of Thrones fans) who gave moving and impassioned readings of some great Yeats poems; Irish Literary Society chair, Shevaun Wilder; and Ireland’s Ambassador to Great Britain, Adrian O’Neill, who hosted the lecture, launch and reception after having taken the annual WB Yeats Bedford Park Walk last summer with Cahal and having become, along with a number of Chiswick and Bedford Park organisations, as well as poets, artists, actors, historians, politicians, writers and academics, a keen supporter of the project.

The poet WB Yeats was the subject of a session at the 2019 Chiswick Book festival, to mark the 80th anniversary of his death.

Marthe Armitage artist and patternmaker

Marthe Armitage, artist and patternmaker

Profile by Bridget Osborne

September 2019

“Strand on the Green is a hard place to move away from”. Marthe came here as a child, when her parents moved across the river from Kew, and she has never left, apart from a period spent as a wartime evacuee in Oxfordshire, a spell at boarding school in her teens and a couple of years in India as a young woman when her husband was working there. “The river is so amazing, nobody can build on it, the tide goes up and down, there are the boats, the bird life, it’s endlessly fascinating” she told me. The river is a source of inspiration for an artist and many of her motifs include plants, birds and animals.

As a nine year old she saw houses four and five Strand on the Green being built and as a young mother she walked her three children to school At Strand on the Green school. She now lives in a modern house designed by her architect son Jeremy and his wife, and the old family house now accommodates her studio, where she designs and produces her prints with her daughter Jo. In her book The Making of Marthe Armitage Artist and Patternmaker there is a chapter devoted to life by the river. “Strand on the Green is an oasis within the bustle of London” writes Jeremy.

Arts & Crafts influence

“I left a very expensive school with nothing” says Marthe, nothing that is except her School Certificate and “vague artistic leanings”. Fortunately the family’s neighbour at number five was the head of the Chelsea School of Art, who encouraged her to pursue those vague artistic leanings. She studied at Chelsea but always considered herself somehow less of an artist than others she studied with. “The people I’ve always admired could only draw; that’s what they wanted to be doing all the time. I wasn’t like that”. She counts herself very lucky to have studied there and says it was “an exciting time”, but as was the custom of the era she married and wasn’t expected to pursue her own career.

As a young mother at home, with no money to spend on luxuries, she designed her first wallpaper for her own house, then some for an acquaintance and gradually built up a small but faithful clientele. Her her first design, Angelica, was produced as a simple floor print. Having observed Indian printers using block prints in the early 1950s, she experimented with her own. Inspired by the pattern making of William Morris and CFA Voysey, she found that linoleum was the perfect material for creating her printing blocks. She still uses lino in preference over other materials developed later, and still follows the same process of drawing, tracing, cutting out the pattern, inking and printing that she has all through her development as a pattern maker.

The way she works is to start with a grid of four boxes and draw her design in each, building it up bit by bit. I watched as she sketched out first a flower in each quadrant, then a swirl. Essential to do it that way, she explained, to see how the pattern flows across to borders of the grid. The drawing is key and though for a long time she undervalued herself as an artist, it is her talent at drawing, honed at Chelsea Art School, which enables her to be such a good patternmaker.

After the drawing, the print-making: ‘Then the real stuff began’ writes Jo, ‘with the smell of the turps, the stickiness of the ink and the magic of the impression left behind when the block was pulled away from the paper’.

“Drawing is very different from print” says Marthe. “The first time you take a print off it’s such a shock because you can’t tell what it will look like. Usually I think it’s a failure and put it away. But then I get it out again and I show it to someone else and I think maybe it’s alright”. The whole process from initial sketch to printing takes about two months and about one in seven designs she abandons.

Her success has come about slowly, partly because she had so little faith in herself, but also because she says it’s only recently that hand crafted designs have become fashionable again. “I took one or two of my designs to interior designers in Fulham Rd but my designs weren’t fashionable”. Fortunately Hamilton Weston took an interest in her work in 2004. They showed it in their showroom and the features editor from World of Interiors wrote a feature about it. Hamilton Weston sell her wallpapers while Marthe and Jo’s own company handles the sales of fabrics.

“Pattern is not talked about enough”

“Would you prefer to be described as an artist or as a craftswoman?” I asked her “I’m an artist – patternmaker” she says. She quoted me the English philosopher RG Collingwood: “the difference between craft and art is that a craftsman knows what he’s aiming at. Artists don’t know where it’s going to end”. She first did lino cuts at school, but at art school she learned drawing and painting. “Pattern is not talked about enough” she told me. “The composition is all-important – the satisfactory balance of things”.

“Abstract art has a pattern. Music has a pattern. It’s the abstract part of figurative work. With abstract art you start from balance and rhythm and composition. There are some lovely paintings which have been very badly composed”.

Marthe is a member of the Art Workers Guild, ‘a body of more than 350 artists, craftspeople and architects working at the highest levels of excellence in their professions’. You have to be elected as a member by your peers. She is one of only four female past masters.

She is also a born again Christian. She worships at Christ Church on Turnham Green, where you can see one of her designs etched into the glass doors of the church. One of her pieces is also permanently on show on the Chiswick Timeline mural, on the railway bridge over Turnham Green terrace.

Her book The Making of Marthe Armitage Artist and Pattenmaker is absolutely gorgeous, with far more pictures than writing, which is important in an art book. The publishers Graphical House haven’t stinted on full page, beautifully printed, very detailed designs as well as old family photographs and images of her studio. It’s available in a variety of covers – all hand blocked prints in her trademark muted colours. She would be pleased to think of it being used in art schools and hopes it might give some inspiration to young artists just starting out.

You can buy Marthe’s wallpapers from Hamilton Weston – hamiltonweston.com

The book from marthearmitagebook.selz.com

and the fabrics from Marthe Armitage Prints Ltd – marthearmitage.co.uk

Sadie Jones Costa prize winning novelist

Sadie Jones

Interview by Bridget Osborne

September 2019

Author of The Outcast, Small Wars, The Uninvited Guests, Fallout talks about her latest book The Snakes

I am thoroughly enjoying Sadie Jones’ excellent book The Snakes. It reads a bit  like a thriller, but is deeper, examining the unwholesome relationships within a family and unravelling their dark and destructive secrets. Alice O’Keefe, in The Bookseller, wrote, ‘I was expecting this to be good. But, I have to tell you, I was awestruck… I may not read a better book this year.’

I’ve interviewed Sadie once before and she said then how difficult it was to write her second novel Small Wars, because her first book The Outcast won the Costa prize for Best First Novel, so the pressure was immense. She tells me now that “with every book” (this is her fifth) “the pressure increases. It gets harder as you go along”.

The Snakes is about a couple who are recently married and living in London with all the usual pressures of paying the mortgage and not being able to escape from a job you’re not enjoying. At least that’s the case for Dan, who works as an estate agent but really wants to be an artist. Bea on the other hand is fulfilled by her job as a psychotherapist and feels slightly guilty that she enjoys her work when he doesn’t. Their backgrounds are very different too. He’s from a mixed race, ordinary London background and is completely used to worrying about where the next penny is coming from, all the time. She is from a family who are immensely wealthy, who she never mentions and very rarely sees. They didn’t come to their wedding and she refuses to take their money.

They go on a three month trip, driving across Europe, and on the way through France call in on Bea’s dysfunctional ex-junkie brother Alex, who is supposed to be doing up an old building as a hotel but, as they find out when they get there, is clueless as to how to achieve it. It’s when Bea and Alex’s deeply unpleasant parents turn up out of the blue that things really start to unravel.

It struck me that in The Snakes, as in Outcast, the drama stems from a traumatic event in childhood. “Childhood is traumatic by definition” says Sadie, “growing up is an agonising process” so not only is childhood trauma a good source of drama for a writer, but it is “a universal and essential truth”. Sadie’s books are not easily pigeonholed, so I ask her what she wants to achieve, what she wants her readers to take away from her books. “I want people to be moved” she says, “to feel”. She describes The Snakes as “a reality tale, specific to our era; a political book but not a cold book”. Explaining that further, she says she doesn’t want to be political in the journalistic sense but “we live in very tough times; there’s so much outrage; people need to feel their anger expressed”. The result, she says is that some people have described her book as ‘political’ while others have likened it to a Greek tragedy.

To say that her books are about the essential human condition sounds glib, but they are about human nature. Reading The Snakes I fall into the world she creates, totally immersed in her story and not thinking about structure or character development or dialogue. So well crafted is her work there’s nothing that stands out to call you back to the reality that it is an artificial construct, which is of course the effect she’s aiming for.

“Because I feel that story is so important I always try and find the place where story and writing meet. As a reader I get angry with books that are all about the style and I get bored by stories which are badly written. When reading a story it’s annoying if you can see the bones and the skeleton. I like the glass between the reader and the story to be as thin as possible”.

Does she write for herself or her readers? If she had no readers would she do it anyway? “Yes” she says. “I have an imaginary platonic reader in mind, a version of myself, but I’m sure all writers have this compulsion to write”. Her difficulty is to “turn off the inner critic” and free herself to write. She is always “scared”, only becoming more confident once she’s got in to her stride and is beginning to feel she’s saying what she wants to say, at which point she begins to be a bit happier about turning it over to her readers.

She writes in the mornings and finds four or five hours at a time are enough of a stretch. Her children have reached adulthood, so as an empty-nester, without the confines of the demands of family, she finds she has to be even more disciplined than she used to be. She’s already working on the next novel. She finds it easier to break off and deal with the demands of the real world, such as phone calls from people like me so she can publicise her latest book, if she has that cushion of fiction and of knowing the next project is safely under way.

Sadie appeared at the Chiswick Book Festival in 2019. The Snakes is published by Harper Collins.

chiswickbookfestival.net

Mark Billingham crime writer

Mark Billingham

Interview by Bridget Osborne

September 2019

Author of the Tom Thorne series of crime thrillers, talks about his latest book Their Little Secret

Mark Billingham’s latest book Their Little Secret is number 16 in the Tom Thorne series. The Detective Inspector goes out on a routine call with the Homicide Assessment Team to a suicide by tube train. It wasn’t a homicide so he should have handed it on, but there was something about the death which niggled …

Like any good writer of crime thrillers, Mark makes you invest in Tom Thorne – his taste in music, his insubordination, his disastrous love life. I read the first few of the series Sleepyhead, Scaredy Cat, Lazybones, The Burning Girl, avidly, but gave up after that because they were a bit too gory for my taste. This one is more of a psychological thriller I think. Still gory but dwelling less on the oozing viscosity of it all.

I ask Mark what kind of sick, twisted individual produces books like his? “Everyone has a twisted imagination” he says. “We live in a very dark world”. I wondered whether the crimes committed by his villains were inspired by real ones. “My last book The Killing Habit was based on real crimes. It was about the Croydon cat killer, but usually they’re not” he says. “Two or things came together which had been percolating in my consciousness”. He’d been fascinated by con men. “Why con men? Why not women? Men are far more gullible”.

In Their Little Secret there are two very different types of liar who come together to commit crimes. The concept of folies à deux, a shared psychosis, is something he had come across while making a documentary series on Couples who Kill for TV. “I was fascinated by Myra Hindley and Ian Brady. He wrote to me. He wanted me to know how miserable his life was in prison, but also how clever he was. I remember the last line of his letter: ‘the ball is yours’ ” Did he write back? No, he didn’t.

“People want to tell you their stories” he says. They tell him all sorts of dark things. I told him I’d stopped reading the Tom Thorne series after Burning Girl. Have his books got less horrible or have I just become inured to it through watching television dramas like Peaky Blinders and reading all the Scandi Noir books? “My books have got darker in tone” he says “but less gory. You throw the kitchen sink at it when you first start writing” New writers look at the books which are selling and think they need to add in lots of blood and guts. He now knows better. “Violence is interesting from the point of view of its effect on people, not for its own sake. A single spot of blood on a pristine kitchen floor in much more effective than lots of blood and gore everywhere”… “It’s terribly easy to disgust the reader. Much harder to keep them interested”.

Well he certainly achieves that with Their Little Secret. It’s a proper page turner. There was nothing else done in this house for a full 24 hours and I will now go back and pick up where I left off in the series, and not be such a wuss.

What next for Mark Billingham? “Next year is a big year for me” he says. “It will be 20 years of Tom Thorne novels and I will have written twenty books”  (17 in the Tom Thorne series and three stand-alones, in which the detective has a walk-on part). His twentieth book will be a prequel to Sleepy Head. He also has some big gigs lined up. He appears in a band called ‘The Fun-Lovin’ Crime Writers’, with Val McDermid. Chris Brookmyre, Doug Johnstone, Luca Veste and Stuart Neville, who are all genuinely crime writers. They play cover versions of songs about murder and they’re good enough to have played at Glastonbury this year. “We’re playing some big shows next year” he says. “It’s all got a bit out of hand”.

Mark Billingham talked about Crime and Suspense with Linwood Barclay at the 2019 Chiswick Book Festival.

uk.markbillingham.com

chiswickbookfestival.net

Polly Devlin journalist

Polly Devlin

Interview by Bridget Osborne

July 2019

Irish journalist and Bedford Park resident Polly Devlin talks about her memoir Writing Home

I had the great pleasure of meeting Polly Devlin this week. The Irish writer has a new book out, just published, which is a collection of her writings from throughout her life.

Writing home is a glorious serendipitous mix of material ranging from the fierce history of the Devlin clan and the treacherousness of Irish bogs to life as the features editor of Vogue in London in the Swinging Sixties. Head-hunted by the American editor Diana Vreeland to work for her in New York, Polly writes about meeting Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Barbara Streisand, John Lennon and Yoko Ono but also about the instantly relatable – the joys and frustrations of motherhood and the fulfillment of a lifelong desire to sleep outside in the open (‘I hadn’t known about dew. I thought dew was a light misting …’)

One of the impressions I get very clearly from Writing Home is that Polly remains true to herself and unaffected by power and status.

Writing home to her sister, describing the offices of Vogue in London, where she landed a job at 19 by winning a competition, she is impressed, but not overawed. ‘Think of the shapelessness of home (Ardboe, Northern Ireland) and what shines there; the sun on the lough, the reflection of a brass harness on a horse’s neck, the gleam of leaves in the chestnut tree. Here, it’s the arc lights in the studio, the shine on the pearls that nearly all the girls wear, the gleam on their faces, the sheen on a satin ball dress … I feel very atavistic somehow, as if I were wearing a shawl.’

Photographs below: Polly in the Sixties; Writing Home book cover; Polly in a recent photograph taken by Jonathan Goldberg 

 Princess Margaret was ‘a madam’

When she met Princess Margaret it was not a grand occasion, but a small informal dinner at her own flat. Her then boyfriend Andy (later her husband) was a close friend of Tony Armstrong-Jones. The evening was ‘an unmitigated disaster’ she says. ‘They arrived in a little Mini and the first thing was: I didn’t curtsy. I wish I could say it was because of my integrity to my republican sentiments but the truth is I didn’t know I was supposed to curtsy … so I had a black mark against me from that moment on’.

Princess Margaret. She says, was ‘a madam’. I’m sure she now knows how to behave in whatever strata of society she finds herself, in several continents, (she curtsied to the Queen when she received her OBE for Services to Literature in 1992) and she’s acquired a liking for good champagne and a fair amount of wealth along the way, but she seems unaltered by rubbing shoulders with the great and famous. She retains a very clear voice that is her own and when you meet her, comes across with a directness and honesty which is immensely refreshing.

Maybe it was the two years having weekly lunches with Diana Vreeland so Polly could channel the London youth zeitgeist which gave her confidence: ‘I had absolutely no idea; but terror … loosened my tongue, and a fair few of the items in that famous Vogue column ‘People Are Talking About …’ sprang straight from my crazed verbal inventions as I sought to unclamp my teeth from a piece of pastrami without her noticing’.

Photographs below: Polly with daughters Rose, Daisy and Bay 

Estee Lauder ‘a piece of work’

She’s also a fantastic writer. She manages to convey a huge amount with a few well chosen words, so that after reading her book I feel I know her intimately and like her tremendously.

She admits to vulnerability. One searing entry is about having been abused as a child. She doesn’t remember it but found out many years later that the STD infection she suffered from all her young life could only have been caused by penetration. She realized then why she had been profoundly miserable for many years, despite the gilded career. She had suffered from anorexia as a young woman and her abuser had done such terrible physical damage to her that she had to have her children by caesarean.

The chapters weren’t designed as an autobiography. Her publisher, Pimpernel Press, asked if they could publish a collection of her writings. It was her good friend Carmen Callil, founder of the Virago Press, who suggested she arrange them chronologically, so they hang together as a memoir.

Her comments on the famous people she interviewed are revealing an insightful. ‘I once watched Estee Lauder – there was a piece of work – test new aftershaves for men; there was a cross-looking Frenchman there who I think had concocted the smells. Every time La Belle Dame Sans Merci uncorked a bottle, his face contorted with anxiety. After a few sniffs she announced ‘This is the only possible one, the rest smell of soap. I want sex.’ You never saw a happier Frenchman.

Abandoning Ursula Andress at Hogarth roundabout

She says she ‘hated’ interviewing. She actually abandoned an interview with Ursula Andress because she was so banal. Talking to her in the back of a Rolls Royce en route from Heathrow to fit in with the actress’s busy schedule, by the time they reached Chiswick, Polly had had enough. She  got out at the traffic lights at Hogarth roundabout and walked off.

Some interviewees of course she admired: ‘Janis Joplin, I adored her’ … ‘John Osborne was the most wonderful talker’ … ‘Barbara Streisand was a fantastic phenomenon, she was just rude’.

At 78 she says she’s now given up writing, although she finds it ‘as easy as a cow pissing’ and still responds to desperate entreaties from long term editors with gaps to fill. Her husband, whom she loved for 50 years, died a few years ago after a dreadful illness which meant he had to have both feet amputated. She still teaches writing in America though she spends most of her time here at her beautiful home in Bedford Park, as she wants to cherish the time with her six grandchildren.

Who does she admire in journalism now? Marina Hyde and Hadley Freeman in the Guardian “I think they’re two of the wittiest writers around”.

And what does she think of living in Chiswick? “Love it. I love walking down Turnham Green Terrace, chatting to the guys in Wheelers and meeting people in the street. I love the village atmosphere and I love the new benches. Who do I admire? Karen Liebreich (who organised the new benches by the railway bridge in Turnham Green Terrace). Philanthropist, genius, she ought to be a Dame. Write that.”

Photographs below: Polly in her garden at Bedford Park and inside the house, with her dog Queenie

Polly Devlin spoke at the 2019 Chiswick Book Festival. Writing Home is published by The Pimpernel Press Ltd.

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Richard Briers CBE actor

Richard Briers CBE actor

Biography by James Hogg reviewed by Bridget Osborne

July 2019

Photographs above: Richard Briers; More Than Just a Good Life cover; The Good Life BBC photo

The actor Richard Briers CBE lived in Chiswick for about 50 years. He died in 2013. He had become something of a ‘National Treasure’ through his role as Tom in The Good Life with Felicity Kendal, Penelope Keith and Paul Eddington in the 1970s. Less well known now is the fact that he was also very much identified with the early success of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays around the same time or that he went on to play major Shakespearean roles, making no fewer than eight films with Kenneth Brannagh.

In More Than Just a Good Life, his biographer James Hogg quotes many of the people he worked with as well as his daughters Katy and Lucy. The actors who shared their memories of him read like a Who’s Who of British film, television and theatre. James writes The Good Life was the pinnacle of a 60 year career and ‘sits atop a mountain of roles that represent one of the most productive and varied careers in British entertainment history’.

The 2019 Chiswick Book Festival celebrated the life of one of Bedford Park’s favourite residents with biographer James Hogg, Lucy Briers and and Ever  Decreasing Circles co-star and friend Peter Egan.

Early life

Richard Briers grew up in Wimbledon during the war. His mother served as an ARP warden and his father worked on ambulances. School didn’t interest Richard. He became a ‘junior spiv’ according to his younger daughter Lucy, selling sweets to other kids at school. He himself once said that he might have become a real life Arthur Daley is he hadn’t discovered acting. He loved PG Wodehouse, Danny Kaye and the Victorian actor-manager Sir Henry Irving. He read PG Wodehouse, impersonated Danny Kaye and studied Sir Henry Irving and by the age of 15 had become obsessed with Shakespeare.

His first job, as a clerk in an electrical company bored him to tears. He kept his spirits up by acting in an amateur dramatic society, and joined another group when he was stationed at RAF Northwood for National Service. It was his cousin, the comic actor Terry Thomas, who persuaded him he should try for drama school. He applied to RADA and auditioned the same day as Albert Finney and Peter O’Toole, who both got much higher marks than him. He reckoned it all came naturally to them whereas he had to work much harder. Alan Bates and Peter Bowles were also contemporaries. Peter Bowles (who became a really good friend) remembered he was really bad at accents, which was one of the reasons he specialised in playing ‘rather nervy, up-beat middle class types’. He won a prize for diction and was known for the speed and precision of his delivery. His daughter Lucy (now an actress herself) thinks his nerves might have helped him – ‘no one could match dad for speed and clarity’.

His first acting job was ‘in rep’ at the Liverpool Repertory theatre, where he met his wife Annie, though on first impressions she thought he was gay. She was the assistant stage manager at the theatre, earning more than he was at that stage. Richard played all sorts of parts ‘you learn so much doing rep. It’s the variety’ and it was where he honed his craft.

His breakthrough came when director Harold French gave him the lead role in There’s Something About a Sailor in 1957. After that, offers came flooding in for West End roles. Not long after, Frank Muir and Denis Norden cast him in Brothers In Law for television – 13 episodes with an audience of 16 or 17 million (nearly half the population) in the days when there were only two channels. Denis Norden told James Hogg: ‘TV was a very placid medium. It needed energy. Anybody who brought energy to the screen immediately stood out’.

That led to a show called Marriage Lines, written specially for him – ‘a pre-cursor to just about every British middle class sitcom there has ever been’. It captured the public’s imagination in the early ‘60s and in it he played opposite Prunella Scales (best known later as Basil Fawlty’s shrewish wife in Fawlty Towers).

Photographs above: pages from More Than Just a Good Life

‘I enjoy being recognised’

By 1963, when their first daughter Katy was born, Richard and Annie were living at 16 Pleydell Avenue in Stamford Brook. By now Richard was earning enough money to buy a house. Annie put her career on the back burner, as they couldn’t both be away, but carried on doing a bit of acting. Seeing him go out every day and do what she wanted to do, while she stayed home, would have driven her mad says their daughter Lucy, who is herself now also an actor.

TV adverts were in their infancy and Richard was very much in demand. Marriage Lines had made him popular, instantly recognizable, the bloke who everyone wanted as their neighbour. He was always insecure about money, always very hard working, a reaction perhaps to the insecurity of the war years and his father’s rather patchy ability to provide.

He also loved being recognized. ‘I have a very gregarious character and I enjoy being recognised’ he once said. ‘If I played baddies all the time, people might not want to talk to me and that would never do’. He said of himself that he played characters which were quite old-fashioned, middle class Englishmen – in contrast to the prevailing trend for northern working class actors playing bleak, gritty realism.

‘One of our greatest farceurs’

Noel Coward asked him to star in Present Laughter. He described him as ‘one of our greatest farceurs’. From there Richard did Relatively Speaking with Michael Hordern, Celia Johnson and Jennifer Hilary, which was considered by critics to be Ayckbourn’s best-crafted play. Ayckbourn was young and still working at the BBC when he wrote it and they became good friends. Ayckbourn called him ‘Anadin’in reference to the advertising slogan – ‘nothing acts faster’.

Relatively Speaking was very well received and ran for 350 performances (about a year). The play was the toast of the West End. Noel Coward’s reaction on discovering Alan Ayckbourn was only in his twenties was simply: ‘Oh, dear God’. Richard Briers became identified as one of Alan Ayckbourn’s coterie of actors and he was very much a part of the playwright’s early success.

Voice of a generation

Richard and Annie’s second daughter Lucy was born in Queen Charlotte’s hospital in 1967 (as Katy also had been). Two years later he started presenting Jackanory, a children’s TV show in which really famous actors sat and read children’s stories. He said he felt better qualified to do the show as a father. His daughters describe life with him as great fun. When he was working in theatre and coming in late, they had to creep around in the morning so as not to disturb him and they weren’t allowed anywhere near him if they had a cold. But when he wasn’t working he was great fun, with a very mischievous sense of humour. If there was any telling off to be done he would stand back and let his wife do it, while he pulled faces behind her back.

In 1973 he was asked to do Roobarb and Custard – mad tales of a very energetic green dog and a pink cat, for children’s TV, with a great script and very distinctive, scribbly graphics for the animation. He did the voices. He had a reputation for being tremendously hard working and his work in TV, radio and theatre often overlapped While recording Roobarb and Custard he was also doing Absurd Person Singular alongside Sheila Hancock.

Roobarb and Custard went to air 21st October 1973 and got 7 million viewers straight away. It meant his voice was instantly recognisable to a whole generation of children. Grange Calveley, the creator (who based the series on a very energetic sheep dog he and his wife rescued from being euthanised) says Richard was a master of the art of swearing. That’s a recurrent theme. He called everybody ‘love’ and regaled them with tales redolent with some very ripe language. Richard’s agent thought Roobarb and Custard would only last six weeks. In fact they made 30 episodes which were shown just before the evening news and the show was brought back in 2005 – Roobarb and Custard Too. more than thirty years later.

Photographs above: Penelope Keith, Richard Briers, Paul Eddington and Felicity Kendal in The Good Life – BBC photos

The Good Life

After Lucy was born in 1967 the family moved into a much larger house in Chiswick. Katy remembers them not going on holiday much until the 1970s because their father was always afraid of being out of work, or being forgotten, but in the 1970s he was evidently feeling more confident, as they started going on regular holidays to Cornwall.

When he was offered The Good Life by the BBC, he had mixed feelings about it, unsure whether a return to sitcom was best for his career or whether he should concentrate on being a serious actor, but once he got to know the writers and the team which was being assembled, James Hogg writes that ‘he bought into it 100%’. Richard’s character Tom had reached the age of 40, was doing a job he loathed and was unfulfilled. He and his wife Barbara decided to use their garden to become self-sufficient. The idea of self-sufficiency was catching on in the seventies but seen as a leftie, hippie kind of thing, so the comedy was based on snobbery: ‘we don’t do that kind of thing in Surbiton’. Richard is quoted as saying that what made it work was that the neighbours got on and that both couples, Tom and Barbara and Jerry and Margo, were likeable.

Richard said: ‘Making the Goods and the Leadbetters old pals and Tom and Jerry colleagues, at least initially, was a stroke of genius on the writers’ behalf. It gave the show a wonderful platform and led to conflicts of loyalty, making the whole thing a lot more interesting. With Tom, who I actually thought was quite selfish and conceited, there wasn’t a great deal to latch on to, unlike Jerry and especially Margo, who was a marvellous character, and so we started making the show and the character began to mature, just based on myself’. In 2007 he described Tom as a ‘selfish parasite’, obsessed: ‘it was always about him and his plans. Poor old Barbara never got any presents, any treats’.

He carried on doing theatre while he was recording The Good Life, working with Peter Bowles in Absent Friends, another Ayckbourn play. Richard was considered one of the ‘definitive interpreters’ of Ayckbourn’s work, writes James Hogg. Alan Ayckbourn said: ‘He recognised what I wrote very quickly and his instincts were always right: when to speed up, when to slow down, when to leave that moment and when to darken things. He was a true interpreter’.

His wife Annie said Richard loved being in his plays and loved being part of something successful. It was Richard who brought Felicity Kendall to the cast of The Good Life. He saw her in The Norman Conquests (for which she later won the Best Newcomer award). He was then a big star and she was was just starting out in her career. Her co-star was Penelope Keith, so they got both actors from that play. Paul Eddington was also acting in an Ayckbourn play when The Good Life started.

Life after The Good Life

By the end of the seventies Richard was desperate to do straight theatre again. The public’s perception of him had changed. Before The Good Life he’d been known as a versatile actor who was good at comedy, says Lucy. He had a reputation rather than a brand. Afterwards he was Tom Good, Middle Englander, and approaching National Treasure status. The antidote was to play Ibsen’s The Wild Duck (about which the critics were quite condescending) and then Bertie Wooster on radio. In the 1980s he started doing pantomime. Then he did another TV sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles and continued as a jobbing actor – in everything from a Restoration comedy at the Chichester festival to Extras on TV with Ricky Gervais. In 1989 he received an OBE and in 2003 a CBE.

Partnership with Kenneth Brannagh

Kenneth Brannagh offered him the part of Malvolio in his production of Twelfth Night in 1987. Brannagh was 26 and had no money to offer. Briers did it because he wanted to do something that challenged him as an actor again. ‘He had an almost permanent twinkle ad was on the edge of a laugh at all times’ recalls Kenneth Brannagh. He could be ‘waspish and sharp’ when tired, but was always kind. The reviews for Twelfth Night were like nothing he’d ever had before, with several critics describing his performance as a ‘revelation’. It was the start of a great partnership.

Richard Briers went on to play King Lear, the complete opposite of a sitcom. Brannagh said: ‘Richard had to take a few deep breaths before agreeing to the world tour of King Lear, but he had a really strong capacity for creative risk and was at a point in his life where a new adventure for him and Annie was something intriguing’. … ‘The biggest challenge was leaving Fred the dog behind’. They did 102 performances in 30 countries and Annie went with him. He’d done a coffee advert with Penelope Wilton just previously, which had paid enough that he hadn’t had to worry about how successful the King Lear tour was. He was worried because after The Good Life, the public didn’t like him playing characters which were nasty or unsympathetic.

Kenneth Brannagh was impressed by his professionalism and his leadership by example. He was always on time (early) and always prepared, lines learned. He went on stage in a broken ankle in a cast to play one of the most physically demanding roles in theatre. ‘He always threw himself at it’ said Brannagh. ‘Full energy, full voice, full commitment from day one’. He was also a great scholar of actors and acting, so drew on how the greats had played the part or how he thought they would have played the part. Lucy said ‘Ken was learning, but so was dad’ so it wasn’t just a case of an old, grand actor helping out an up and coming one. She found him playing Lear quite traumatic. He played him as a manipulative bastard who played his daughters off against each other. He gave the performance of his life in Zagreb and all the other actors just stood in the wings watching. Brannagh: ‘other actors felt what it was like to be in the presence of greatness’.

He went from playing Lear to Ratty in Wind in the Willows at the National. Alan Bennett’s adaptation with Gryff Rhys Jones and Michael Bryant in 1990. From the sublime to the ridiculous. Alan Bennett says ‘he could be quite crotchety’. He also played Uncle Vanya for Kenneth Brannagh. Peter Egan acted and directed (with a little help from Brannagh once he got called off on another project). ‘To watch Richard develop through a Chekhovian character like Uncle Vanya and to bring his wonderful suburban humour and his mania to it was a privilege’.

Richard made eight films with Kenneth Brannagh including Much Ado About Nothing, which they filmed in Tuscany in the summer of 1992. It had a huge Hollywood cast – Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, Keanu Reeves – and also the cream of British theatre – Kenneth Brannagh, Emma Thompson, Kate Beckinsale and Brian Blessed. It’s considered one of the most successful adaptions of Shakespeare of all time, commercially and creatively and won loads of awards. His partnership with Brannagh enabled him to tackle big, classical roles and be taken seriously as an actor after his sitcom success. It was a career changer.

Monarch of the Glen

The came Monarch of the Glen, another long-running, successful TV sitcom, which aired 2000 – 2005 for seven series. Richard played Hector MacDonald, the curmudgeonly and extravagant father of the main character. It took him away from home for long periods, which he didn’t like. Going up to Scotland to film one time, he bumped into a group of American tourists in the bar on the train who were on a Monarch of the Glen tour. They thought he was part of it, so he just played along with it and went into full tour guide mode.

End of his life

Accepting his OBE in 1989 he did a comedy trip as he walked along the carpet to meet the Queen. She said: “I think you got this for making people laugh”. When he got the CBE in 2003 he took it more seriously.

He started coughing a lot an experiencing shortness of breath. 2007 he was diagnosed with Emphysema. He carried on working and enjoying being a grandparent. He didn’t do self-pity. His typical rejoinder was ‘I’m fine love, just a bit of a cough’ or ‘’I’m completely buggered. Would be surprised if I last a week’.

He managed to cram a lot of work into his final years. Miss Marple and Torchwood among them and London Assurance at the National theatre with Simon Russell Beale. The last film he ever made was Cockneys V Zombies, which he thoroughly enjoyed making. His role as an old man in a care home involved killing zombies with an AK47 gaffer taped to his zimmer frame.

He died of cardiac arrest on 17 February 2013, at home in Chiswick. He trended on Twitter for a day ‘which would have amused and baffled him’. His funeral was held at St Michael & All Angels Church. The last time Fr Kevin had met him at a church fundraiser he’d said “I do enjoy these things even though I’m not religious”. ‘ “Well” Fr Kevin told the congregation as he looked at Richard’s coffin covered in flowers and surrounded by candles, “you are now”. The congregation burst into laughter’. There was also a memorial 14 months later, with many of his actor friends present and a speech from Kenneth Brannagh.

His friends who contributed their memories to the book read like a Who’s Who of British theatre, including: Sir Alan Ayckbourn, Simon Beresford, Michael Billington OBE, Sir Kenneth Brannagh, Peter Bowles, Bernard Cribbins OBE, Dame Judi Dench, Ricky Gervais, Sheila Hancock CBE, Nerys Hughes, Griff Rhys Jones OBE, Dame Penelope Keith, Felicity Kendal CBE, Dame Sian Phillips, Simon Russell Beale CBE, Prunella Scales CBE, Dame Emma Thompson, Sir Tom Stoppard, Kevin Whatley, Dame Penelope Wilton.

More Than Just a Good Life is available in bookshops and on Amazon.

How to Age Joyfully

How to Age Joyfully

Book review by Bridget Osborne

July 2019

How to Age Joyfully: Eight Steps to a Happier, Fuller Life by Maggy Pigott

We’re living longer; we need to take charge of our own well-being in our third age says Maggy Pigott. In July 2019 she launched her book How to Age Joyfully and within a couple of weeks it was ranked 15 in the Amazon Best Sellers for books about ageing. Her book was also one of the online distributor’s ‘hot new releases’.

How to Age Joyfully is a practical guide in how to do just that. In one way it’s a statement of the bleedin’ obvious – keep active, eat healthily, stay fit – but in other ways it’s quite revelatory, her ‘eight steps’ set out in short, dense chapters, packed full of practical ideas and useful information, meticulously researched.

Her main message – ‘We’re living longer – let’s live better!’ is delivered with the fervour of a convert rather than the patronizing tones of a young, fit person imparting knowledge to those hopeless saps over 60 who know no better, to whom you have to speak slowly in words of one syllable. Maggy has had a career as a high powered civil servant and thought her enjoyment of life was over when a debilitating illness forced her to give up work. Her route back to physical fitness and mental wellbeing has been through dance.

Photographs above: Maggy Pigott; Maggy taking part in a dance performance; at her book launch 11 July

Her missionary zeal for living life to the full is infectious. Ageing, she says, has made her ‘bolder, not older’, which is how she came to approach Dame Judi Dench to write the foreword – now there’s a role model for old age if ever there was one. How to Age Joyfully has also received endorsements from Baroness Sally Greengross, former Director General of Age Concern, former Health Secretary Alan Johnson, and writer and broadcaster Gyles Brandreth.

Maggy goes dancing several times a week and much of the rest of her time is taken up with Open Age, a charity which champions an active life for older people. They provide a wide range of physical, creative and mentally stimulating activities to enable ‘older people’ (over 50) to develop new skills, fulfill their potential and make new friends. Maggy is donating half her royalties to the charity.

How to Age Joyfully: Eight Steps to a Happier, Fuller Life was published on 11 July 2019 by Summersdale Publishers Ltd.

How To Age Joyfully