Tuesday, 19 December 2006


ben trovato has been rummaging around the burrow bookshelves for some seasonal reading, and has come up with a gem of biography – The Empress of Ireland, by Christopher Robbins.

The personage of the title is a flamboyant gay film director in his 80s, Brian Hurst, who retorted magnificently to some uncouth labourers in his local Belgravia pub who had mockingly called him a f*****g old queen, “I am not an old queen. I AM THE EMPRESS OF IRELAND!”

The author, a struggling freelance journalist, is introduced to the Empress by a con-man whose stock-in-trade is ‘bringing people together’. Brian is looking for a scriptwriter for his projected mammoth epic blockbuster dealing with the events leading up to the birth of Christ. Christopher Robbins finds himself in a louche, unpredictable world with never a dull moment. His employer – who lives for a peppercorn rent in a house belonging to the Duke of Westminster – announces that he is trisexual – “the Army, the Navy and the Household Cavalry”. The latter are much in evidence amongst a strange assortment of visitors and hangers-on, Guards corporals mingling happily, and sometimes intimately, with belted earls. One young officer complained to Brian that he needed to be warned in advance if there were going to be any soldiers from his regiment at the house, because he had been embarrassed by the lance-corporal who brought him his horse saying “have a nice gallop, darling” as he handed up the reins.

Soon Brian, Christopher and Dave – an ex-Welsh Guardsman - take off for Tangiers, where Brian has a house, and later visit Malta. In Tangiers, Noël Coward is a frequent lunch companion. Other meals are hosted by the expatriate rich gay set, one of whom has a set of midgets as household servants [“all you get there is small talk”, Brian observes]. When one of the guests invites Dave to go sailing the next day, Dave, who doesn’t particularly fancy the prospect, says “sorry – we’re busy” and receives the incredulous reply: “Busy! In Tangier! Don’t be ridiculous! How can anybody be busy in Tangier?”

They move on to Malta, where the author is cross-examined at lunch by a Tory baroness about his antecedents. When he tells her that his parents had been expecting a girl who was to be called Amanda, and when he arrived they suddenly settled on Christopher [with A.A. Milne in mind, of course] the baroness sagely observes “Ah! so that is how you became muddled in the post?” When pressed to explain, she adds “put you on the road to being a woofter?” Christopher Robbins isn’t gay.

This deliciously written book also has its sombre side. Brian Hurst had served at Gallipoli in the First World War, and had been severely traumatised by his grim experiences there. Perhaps that is why he led such an insouciant life afterwards. And his life ended tragically: when he died at around 90, the harpies descended on his empty Belgravia house and everything of value was stolen. Maybe he would not have been surprised. Or have minded very much.


Boldscot said...

More power to that elbow, big man.
If I don't hear this stuff serialised on 'book of the week' - within the year - I will be most disappointed.
I am the Bishop of Southwark.
This is what I do.

anticant said...

The Dirty Bishop Eh? You can get it from Amazon in paperback in time for Christmas. But hurry - only three copies left.

[I shall be approaching Amazon to place advertisements in the burrow soon. Toby please note.]

Anonymous said...

Three copies prebooked.
Zola, Merkin and the original Dirty Bishop.

zola said...

Beat you all I do.
I am the Imp of Aweland

Anonymous said...

Surely that should be Awk land?.