The New Mrs Simpson: Zsuzsi Starkloff And Prince William

On 28th August 1972, at the Goodyear International Air Trophy at Halfpenny Green Airport, in the village of Bobbington, Staffordshire, a crowd of nearly 30,000 people had gathered to watch a dashing pilot put on a skilled display in his Piper Cherokee. Within minutes of take-off, the aircraft began to lose altitude at an alarming rate; clipping a tree, one of its wings was torn off, causing it to crash before it was engulfed by flames.

Horrified spectators raced towards the burning wreckage, but were overcome by the heat, leaving the pilot and his single passenger trapped inside and facing certain death. The passenger was Vyrell Mitchell, an experienced airman and demonstrator pilot who had worked for Piper Aircraft since 1967; the pilot, Prince William of Gloucester, also a highly competent aviator, was ninth in line to the British throne.

Born in Hadley Common, Hertfordshire on 18th December 1941, William was the son of Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, the third son of King George V, and Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester, the daughter of John Montagu Douglas Scott, the 7th Duke of Buccleuch. As a member of the Royal Family, he served as a page boy for the wedding of his cousin, The Princess Elizabeth, when she married Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark on 20th November 1947 and also attended her coronation on 2nd June 1953.

Above: Prince William prepares for the Royal Wedding (1947)

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Bryter Layter: The Songs Of Nick Drake

Around midday on 25th November 1974, Molly Drake knocked on her son Nick’s bedroom door.  It was not all that unusual for him to sleep late but she was a little concerned when no reply came.  Entering the room, she was horrified to see her son lying across his bed, looking pale and lifeless. She knew at once that he was dead. Over the past year, Nick Drake had been subject to periods of intense depression and introspection. He had always been a quiet, somewhat sensitive soul, but it seemed that life had started to become troublesome and problematic for Nick, feelings that were poignantly reflected in the lyrics and music found in the three albums he left behind.

Born in Burma on 19th June 1948, Nick was the son of Rodney Drake, an engineer with the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation and his wife Molly, a talented singer who would encourage her son’s musical proclivities; the couple already had one daughter, Gabrielle who was born in 1944 and would later become an actress. The Drake family returned to England in 1950 and settled in Tanworth-in-Arden. At the age of 9, Nick was sent to Eagle House, a boarding school in Berkshire before attending Marlborough College, where he excelled at music and was a keen sportsman.

After spending six months at the University of Aix-Marseille, Nick went up to Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge in October 1967. One fellow student remembered how Nick had been disillusioned by Cambridge, recalling that ‘He had this wonderful vision of going up to Cambridge – the dreaming spires, the wonderful, erudite people. We went up to visit and he was in this grim, redbrick building, sitting in this tiny motel-like bedroom. He was completely crushed. He just sat there saying ‘it’s so awful’. It was anathema to him. Torture.’ Continue reading

Dreaming On The Verge Of Strife: Julian Bell And Rupert Brooke

A young Apollo, golden-haired,
Stands dreaming on the verge of strife,
Magnificently unprepared
For the long littleness of life.

Frances Darwin Cornford

Written after her first meeting with the poet, Frances Cornford’s pithy verse, On Rupert Brooke, was to prove eerily prophetic. Within a decade, Brooke would be dead after contracting septicemia on his way to Gallipoli. Cornford’s words could just as easily have been written about Julian Bell, another young Cambridge poet, whose life would also be cut short as a consequence of war. Bell was fascinated by Brooke, whom he greatly admired, and believed that they both shared a similar outlook towards war and duty, one that his Bloomsbury elders could not understand.

From an early age Bell had heard tales of the fabled Brooke from members of his family who had known Brooke at Cambridge. Bell also went up to the same University’s King’s College, where Brooke’s presence haunted the aged stone walls, its corridors and staircases seemingly reverberating with anecdotes about his legendary charm and beauty. Although Brooke would eventually become a Fellow of King’s, this was a feat that eluded Bell despite two attempts. Similarly in his lifetime, Brooke was an acclaimed poet whose reputation was only enhanced by his death, Bell however never came close to achieving comparable fame, and today his work remains largely unknown.

Just as Brooke had spent the last few years of his life abroad, travelling to America, Canada and the South Seas, as described in his Letters from America, published posthumously in 1916, Bell left for China in 1935 after he was offered a Professorship at Wuhan University. Teaching English literature to his Chinese students, Bell held Brooke up as a perfect example of what he believed to be a quintessentially English poet.

Remarking in a letter to his former lover, Lettice Ramsey, he declared Brooke to be ‘the most remarkable human being I’ve ever heard of,’ but whilst he could not help but notice the obvious similarities between himself and the war poet, he acknowledged that he had not been blessed with ‘all his gifts’ nor had he enjoyed ‘that sort of brilliant career.’

Bell’s upbringing, coupled with the overwhelmingly pacifist nature of Bloomsbury, led him to adopt his family and Bloomsbury’s attitudes towards war until the early 1930s. By that time, the tumultuous political situation at home and abroad meant that he was starting to question Bloomsbury’s belief in the supremacy of discourse over direct action as the best means of providing a solution to the problems that besieged Britain and Europe. Brooke himself had been deeply dismayed by the pacifism of his former Bloomsbury friends after the outbreak of the First World War, and this sentiment pervaded much of his subsequent poetry. In contrast Brooke openly embraced the declaration of war, from the belief that it would usher in the excitement that he felt was essential to young men, something that had been absent from his life thus far. In an essay that appeared in The New Statesman and Nation entitled An Unusual Young Man, Brooke wrote with characteristic nonchalance, ‘Well, if Armageddon’s on, I suppose one should be there.’ Continue reading

On An Ancient Isle: Kathleen Raine, Gavin Maxwell And Mijbil

One of the most renowned British female poets of the twentieth-century, and an accomplished scholar of Blake, Yeats and Hopkins, Kathleen Raine’s contribution to British poetry is without question. But Raine’s personal life was complex and, at times difficult, blighted by her intense love for the Scottish naturalist and writer, Gavin Maxwell, who, because of his homosexuality, could never return her passion with the intensity she longed for.

Born in Ilford in 1908, to a Scottish mother and English father, Raine spent part of the First World War living with her Aunt Peggy in Northumberland. The experience of living in the Northumbrian countryside gave her a  strong and lifelong  appreciation for nature. Raine went on to read Natural Sciences at Girton College, Cambridge, where contributed to the student magazine, The Experiment; her involvement with the publication would lead not only to her friendship with Julian Bell, but her eventual marriage to its editor, the poet Hugh Sykes Davies, in 1930.

Several years later, Raine left Sykes Davies for another poet, Charles Madge (who later founded Mass-Observation) and Julian Bell attempted to find her a job with Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s publishing house, the Hogarth Press. Bell’s efforts were unsuccessful and Virginia Woolf  wrote to his brother Quentin,  ‘Julian came to tea, and made such a wonderful picture of a Miss Raine who was once the wife of Sykes Davies but is now penniless, living with a communist, and he said, six foot two, and noble as Boadicea, so that we must give her a job at the Press. And then she comes, and she’s the size of a robin and had the mind of a lovely snowball. How can she run the press?’

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