Fes­tive cheer

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

Sussex Life - - Front Page - By Philip Pay­ton

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.

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