Mezzo-soprano Pippa Dames-longworth has performed throughout the world, but this Christmas she will be bringing a Victorian-style festive programme a little closer to home at the Royal Pavilion as she tells Simone Hellyer
With Love and Death in Shanghai you really can judge a book by its cover, or its title at least. As the name suggests, Doreen Elizabeth Massey’s first novel, written under the pen name of Elizabeth J Hall, features rather a wealth of both love and death.
Now living in Lewes, Lady Massey originally hails from “deepest working class Lancashire”. One of her earliest memories is of her mother receiving a letter informing her of her brother’s death.
“When I was four years old my mother received a piece of paper at the door; she started crying and said: ‘Sam’s dead’. Sam was my uncle in Shanghai, he was in the police force and he had been assassinated in 1942 as the Japanese were moving in,” she says. “I kind of had it in the back of my mind that I’d had this uncle in Shanghai that had been killed and then about five years ago, I found myself wondering what happened to those people. I knew he’d had a daughter and had married a Russian woman, but I didn’t know what happened to them after World War II.”
Lady Massey decided to make it her mission to find out what happened to her uncle’s wife and child after he was killed and the Japanese invaded Shanghai.
After spending several days trawling the National Archives at Kew, she finally found a letter written by her aunt from the US, asking for access to her uncle’s police pension.
“I kept searching anywhere I could; I went to Washington, but couldn’t find anything more. Then by pure chance my brother found an obituary for the daughter. There was an address in Seattle, so I wrote to it and got an email reply saying: ‘I am the person you’re looking for’,” she explains.
After paying a visit to her newfound cousin, Lady Massey was able to fill in the blanks and build a picture of her lost relatives. Her aunt was quite a character: “When I explained that I couldn’t find details of my aunt anywhere, this cousin said: ‘Ah no, she always took four years off her age.’ But she was like that, she was an amazing survivor. She got herself and her daughter out of Shanghai to the States and saved them.”
So enthralled was she by her family’s life in Shanghai during a particularly tumultuous period in world history that she felt a need to get it down on paper. Having recently enrolled on a writing course, Lady Massey planned to turn her uncle’s life in Shanghai into a short story. But after explaining the plot, she says her tutor exclaimed: “That’s not a short story, that’s a novel!”
Undaunted, Lady Massey set about researching the Shanghai that her uncle would have known. “I had about five letters from him to my mother that detail the despair he was going through about living in Shanghai.
“He had been made chief inspector when the Japanese were starting to move in. The city at that time was also full of gangs, drugs, kidnapping and prostitution. The letters to my mother revealed how fed up he was with all the gang warfare and being in danger all the time.”
The resulting novel accurately details the complicated politics and dangerous criminal underworld of Shanghai, but also illustrates the exotic and glamorous social scene populated by rich ex-pats. The main character Sam, loosely based on Lady Massey’s uncle, draws readers into both worlds with ease and certainly gets stuck into all facets of Shanghai society – and is where the love and death of the title becomes very literal.
As Lady Massey explains: “I wanted to make the book about two things. One was, a young man going to this strange country and growing up. I wanted him to learn about friendship, danger, duty and more about women.
“And, as a background to that, I wanted to accurately record the history of Shanghai.”
Sussex is that most quintessentially English of counties, with its rich range of pastoral and maritime associations, its cultural and social connections. Easy perhaps, given this benign image, to overlook its somewhat turbulent past, in which it has endured – and survived – much conflict and invasion from a variety of sources. Philip Payton, in his ambitious yet highly accessible text, has succeeded in embracing the essence of this complex, captivating place via its eclectic past, right up to the present day.
His story begins with ancient peoples and landscapes, the opening chapter citing the famous Long Man of Wilmington, a legendary landmark high on the Sussex Downs of uncertain lineage: possibly Iron Age or even earlier. Next, the Romans and Saxons, with a brief mention of King Cnut, whose abortive attempt to coax back the waves was said by some to have taken place at Bosham.
No history of Sussex would be complete without focusing on 1066 and the Battle of Hastings, leading to the Norman Conquest with its resulting political, economic and ecclesiastical upheavals. A defining event in English history, it is vividly described by the author, who includes a reference to the founding of Battle Abbey. Then on to the Peasants’ Revolt, the Black Death, the Tudors and Stuarts… and the Victorians.
Payton’s account of Sussex in the Railway Age makes compelling reading. He charts transport links from the early 19th century’s horse-drawn stagecoach routes to the coming of the London to Brighton railway line – the latter following heated public debate over its possible environmental effects. The railway was, however, widely welcomed as a valuable adjunct to Brighton life with its growing popularity as both a desirable tourist and commuter destination.
Back in 1881, a weekday Pullman train completed the London-brighton run in “an unheard-of one-and-a-quarter hours” – a sobering thought in these 21st century times of inordinate delays and unpredictable timetables. A forerunner of the Brighton Belle, its Pullman carriages became “a byword for unparalleled luxury”, frequented in the 1950s and 1960s by the likes of Brightonbased actors such as Laurence Olivier, with his penchant for grilled kippers for breakfast.
Sussex has had its share of literary luminaries who, as Payton acknowledges, drew inspiration from their surroundings: Charles Dickens (who stayed at Brighton’s Old Ship Inn among other addresses); Hilaire Belloc (Slindon, then Shipley); Rudyard Kipling (Rottingdean, then Bateman’s at Burwash); Henry James (Rye) and AA Milne (Hartfield). And we mustn’t forget that doyenne of the Bloomsbury set: Virginia Woolf (Monk’s House, Rodmell).
There is comprehensive coverage of the war – and inter-war – years, with William Ward-higgs’ famous song Sussex
(1907) adopted as the county’s unofficial anthem.
Sumptuously illustrated throughout, this is a thoughtprovoking and rewarding read.