Against The Wind: The Bluster Of James Robertson Justice

A man of many considerable talents, if anyone personified the phrase ‘a life well-lived,’ it would James Robertson Justice. Despite an elaborately concocted tale about how he entered the world in a whisky distillery on the Isle of Skye, Justice was born in Lee, South London on 15th June 1907, to a geologist from Aberdeenshire and his English wife. Throughout his childhood, Justice spent little time with his father, who often worked abroad for months at a time and though Justice senior eschewed his Scottish heritage, his son embraced it as a way to feel closer to his absent parent.

After attending Marlborough College, where he was placed a disappointing 68th out of 89 in his year, Justice briefly read sciences at University College, London before deciding to follow in his father’s footsteps and study geology at Bonn University in Germany. He would later say that he had not only completed his degree at UCL, but had also been awarded a doctorate at Bonn, both of which were untrue. Returning to England, he took a job as a reporter for Reuters and became a colleague of Ian Fleming, but his journalistic career soon fell flat, in small part because he frequently insisted on arriving for work in his pyjamas and dressing gown.

Easily bored and consumed by wanderlust, Justice decided to travel to Canada where he worked as a lumberjack and a gold-miner; yet he was soon eager to return to Britain and paid for his journey home by washing dishes aboard a Dutch cargo ship. Back in London, he embarked upon a new venture as an ice-hockey player for the London Lions; it lasted for one season until he turned his attention to motor-racing. Continue reading

Lucky Jim: Slough’s Canine Collector

Guarding his territory and gazing out over the platforms where he roamed so freely more than a century ago, Station Jim stands to attention in his glass case on Platform 5 of Slough railway station. Commuters pass him in their hundreds every day, some taking the time to read the remarkable inscription that rests by his paws.

Jim first came to Slough as a puppy in 1894 and was soon trained to perform his duties as a canine collector on behalf of the Great Western Railway Widows and Orphans Fund. He was taught to bark gratefully whenever a coin, usually a penny or halfpenny, was placed in the wallet attached to him by a harness.  In addition to this, Jim learnt a great many other tricks in order to amuse patrons and encourage their benevolence. It was said that he could beg, play dead and sometimes even posed with a pipe in his mouth and a cap on his head. Occasionally taking a trip himself, Jim would board a train and end up at Paddington or in nearby Windsor and even once travelled as far afield as Leamington Spa. Continue reading

Behind Those Luminous Eyes: Vivien Leigh And Cats

Vivien Leigh loved cats all her life and was rarely without one by her side. Leigh’s own delicate features and bright blue-green eyes lent her a feline quality that was often remarked upon by others. Olivia de Havilland, her co-star in Gone With the Wind, spoke of how, when meeting Leigh for the first time, she had been struck by her ‘elegance and compose’ and likened her to ‘a small Siamese cat, and the tinkling charm of a Chinese wind lantern.’ Rex Harrison who had starred with Leigh in the 1937 film Storm in a Teacup, also remembered her as ‘very like a cat. She would purr and scratch. And she looked divinely pretty doing either.’

Born in Darjeeling, India on 5th November 1913, Vivian Mary Hartley was the daughter of an English officer in the Indian Cavalry. The Hartleys moved to England in 1919, leaving several years later to travel around Europe before returning in 1931. Soon after, Vivian met Leigh Holman who was thirteen years older than her and a accomplished barrister. They married the following year and in 1933, Vivian gave birth to their daughter, Suzanne.

However, as she told her friend Maureen O’Sullivan (who would go on to have a successful film career herself), Vivian had not abandoned her dreams of becoming ‘a great actress.’ Changing her name to ‘Vivien Leigh’ one she felt more suited to her chosen profession, and finding herself an agent, in 1935 she was cast as the lead role in The Mask of Virtue, winning rave reviews for her performance after the play opened in London. More importantly however, she had come to the attention of the acclaimed actor, Laurence Olivier; the two starred together in the 1937 film Fire Over England, and although both were married, they embarked upon a passionate affair.

A year later, Leigh decided that she was destined to play Scarlett O’Hara in David O. Selznick’s film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel, Gone With the Wind. The casting of Scarlett was one of the most widely talked about events in American cinematic history and Selznick felt that Leigh was not right for the part. She nevertheless managed to convince him otherwise and her performance in the film not only won her an Oscar for Best Actress, but catapulted her into international stardom. 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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