Category: UK

The Queen’s Lender, Historical Fiction by Jean Findlay, reviewed by David Garyan

The Queen’s Lender by Jean Findlay

Historical fiction set in the time of James VI and I

Reviewed by David Garyan


Price Beyond Rubies: On Writing “The Hat Jewel,” an article by Jean Findlay, published by Interlitq
Read Jean Findlay’s Interview with David Garyan, published by Interlitq
Read David Garyan’s review of Jean Findlay’s biography on C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Chasing Lost Time
Read David Garyan’s review of C.K. Scott Moncrieff’s Ant, edited by Jean Findlay


The Review

Jean Findlay’s The Queen’s Lender is a novel set in history, but fortunately for the lover of fiction, the book doesn’t read like a historical text. In fact, events unfold themselves in the most effortless way—as if the reader is witnessing a play instead of reading silent words. Findlay’s characters are serious, like King James; extravagant, like Queen Anne; loyal and generous, like the protagonist George Heriot; cunning and calculating, like Lady Marjorie; and quite often also funny, like The Fool. In other words, these characters are the real deal, and Lady Marjorie seems so authentic that readers will be surprised to find out she’s, in fact, Findlay’s invention, but only in the sense that it’s more probable for individuals with Marjorie’s temperament to have existed at court, rather than not; in this way, she is real, meaning the novel reads like good fiction should—it’s measured yet assertive, intellectually stimulating yet entertaining, and best of all funny without being grotesquely comical.

From the very beginning, readers find themselves engrossed in the world of George Heriot: He’s Queen Anna’s favorite jewel maker, and in time becomes not only her confidante, but also the royal family’s money lender—hence the title of the book. Although readers will benefit from acquainting themselves beforehand with Elizabethan and Jacobean England, the novel can certainly be read without a minor historical background. Through her use of plot, dialogue, setting, and description, Findlay is able to situate the reader—and this very comfortably—right into the main action.

The most wonderful thing about this book is that readers may not have intended to think historically, but they will invariably make discoveries, simply through the pleasure of reading the book alone. At the same time, those already quite familiar with the history of James VI of Scotland and I of England, will see things in a new light, precisely because of Findlay’s good sense to tell this story from the perspective of George Heriot—an asymmetrical but aesthetically appealing choice; and so, the best praise one can bestow on Findlay’s novel is that it’s like discovering the story of Beowulf through the eyes of Grendel, in the sense that while figures like James, Anna, Shakespeare, and Ben Johnson might already be very familiar to most, their story, like Beowulf’s, is rarely, if at all, told from a perspective other than their own. By using George Heriot as the eyes and ears of the court, Findlay uses her skills as a novelist to offer precisely this “new” perspective on a set of “familiar” historical events. In other words, what John Gardner did for Beowulf, Findlay has done for one of the most fascinating historical periods of the UK.

The novel begins so in Edinburgh, 1593: “A pregnant woman is a fragile being, and George has two on his hands. His wife who keeps reminding him she is his queen and his Queen who is in fact his queen.” From this sentence alone, readers can already get a small glimpse of Findlay’s witty, yet straightforward prose style. As the plot progresses, we find ourselves in a domain of shifting alliances, the birth and death of children, along with elation and grief; in this respect it’s also important to mention that while Findlay is leading us through a world inhabited mostly by the aristocracy and gentry, the jubilations and troubles we encounter in this milieu very much resemble our own. The concern, for instance, many of us have faced—to remain safely at home or leave our places of comfort in search of greater opportunity—isn’t an existential burden restricted to the realm of the upper-class. It’s a question many of us will face at some point in our own lives. George Heriot now has to decide whether he will follow his king to London, and thereby become the official jeweler of the court, or remain in Edinburgh, the city he loves and cherishes.

As we read on, a world much like our own reveals itself, full of divisions, rivalries, loyalty, and betrayal. In empires divided by religious affiliation, what will King James do? He can give in to the charms of his Bohemian ambassador and support a Protestant faction in a land ruled by the Hapsburgs, who are, in fact, supported by Spain—not only a Catholic country but also an ally to James. He can also remain loyal to Spain, but with this loyalty he will lose the support of not only the admired Bohemian ambassador, but also the entire Protest faction in that land, which he represents. While many of us will never have to undertake decisions that could influence the fate of entire nations, the existential burden of having to make difficult choices, where competing interests make it impossible not to offend those loyal to us, is something utterly and totally a part of our lives.

Findlay, as a historically aware novelist, has managed to capture the essence of a fascinating moment in time, but she has also done more than that: She has taken this history and presented it in such a way that the people within it could be individuals of our own time—characters we’ve met ourselves. Take, for example, Lady Marjorie’s son. He’s an aristocrat, but one whose supposedly excellent breeding won’t allow for the politeness to take “no” for an answer. He attempts to sell George Heriot a horse the way a used car dealer won’t stop haggling a “customer” who has accidentally wandered onto the lot. Though Heriot says he does not want “nor need a horse,” the good aristocrat won’t quit until he receives a little compensation for the animal which that good jeweler once hired from the nobleman’s father. While we, ourselves, may not have been sold horses, and surely not that way, readers will nevertheless recognize the very same traits which cause our own contemporaries to sell us something with the same haughtiness—most likely a different, more efficient mode of transportation, such as the aforementioned car.

And then there are characters like Lord Lennox and Lord Douglas—trendsetters, but not their own; they follow the trends of the most important people. When the former hears about “the buttons recently designed for the King’s jacket,” he naturally “wants some for himself,” naturally to wear them “only the day after the King wears them in public,” out of courtesy, of course; the latter meanwhile, also “wants buttons like the King’s,” but this time the trend has changed, and it has become “amethyst and gold.” Heriot, of course, like a good businessman, charges everyone upfront, except the royal family. It’s, hence, the seemingly “minor” situations in the novel which show us a world much like our own—a world full of greed, conformism, nepotism, but also of joy, family, and loyalty.

Findlay’s attention to detail is what really allows the story to come alive within the grand scheme of the history she situates her work in. Everything in this novel, as the late Harold Pinter used to say about good drama, has been “cut to the bone.” There’s no superfluous description or tedious dialogue that would make the reader stop and ask: Why? What purpose does this serve in helping me understand the larger aspects of the work? Her previous experience of working in theater is most likely what allowed Findlay to approach her fiction audience with a theater mentality. Just like one cannot expect someone to endure a tedious performance lasting one or two hours, it’s even more unreasonable to expect such patience when the effort is more solitary and lasts some days. Suffice it to say, with this novel Findlay has certainly earned the reader’s days.


About Jean Findlay

Jean Findlay was born in Edinburgh. She studied Law and French at Edinburgh University under Peter France and Theatre under Tadeusz Kantor in Kracow, Poland. She co-founded an award winning theatre company and wrote and produced plays which toured to London, Berlin, Bonn, Rotterdam, Dublin, Glasgow and the Pompidou Centre in Paris. She spent years in London writing drama and book reviews for the Scotsman, and has written for the IndependentTime Out and the Guardian.  In 2014 she published Chasing Lost TimeThe Life of CK Scott Moncrieff, Soldier, Spy and Translator with Chatto and Windus, now in Vintage paperback and with FSG in New York. She founded Scotland Street Press in Edinburgh in 2014 and now runs this small, award-winning publishing house. For writing The Hat Jewel she won a Hawthornden Fellowship 2018 and a Lavigny International Writer’s Fellowship 2019.


Ant by C.K. Scott Moncrieff, an Anthology Collected and Edited by the Author’s Great-Great Niece, Jean Findlay, revi...

C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Translator, Poet, Critic, WWI War Hero 

Best known for bringing Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (also known as In Search of Lost Time) into English for the first time.


Ant by C.K. Scott Moncrieff

An anthology of Moncrieff’s work, compiled and edited by Jean Findlay (the author’s great-great niece) written in his youth, during the war, and afterwards.

Reviewed by David Garyan


Price Beyond Rubies: On Writing “The Hat Jewel,” an article by Jean Findlay, published by Interlitq
Read Jean Findlay’s Interview with David Garyan, published by Interlitq
Read David Garyan’s review of Jean Findlay’s biography on C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Chasing Lost Time
Read David Garyan’s review of Jean Findlay’s novel The Queen’s Lender


The Review

It has become an indisputable maxim, at least in the Western literary tradition, to separate the author from the work he or she has written. Unlike Chinese culture, which views the writer as inextricably linked to the literature he has produced, our own academies treat the text as the sole “living” entity—in that sense, the single credible source from which readers should derive literary meaning. “The author is dead,” remarked the French literary critic, Roland Barthes, a man only born into this world when C.K. Scott Moncrieff was already twenty-six years old, and had, by that time, seen action in France as a commissioned officer. Moncrieff, however, though severely injured, died neither as a person nor as an author, and along with the work he managed to publish during his military service, he later went on to have a flourishing literary career as a translator of French and Italian literature, along with establishing himself as a trusted critic.

The poems and short stories, collected and edited in Ant by Jean Findlay (the great-great niece of Moncrieff) are a testament, firstly, not just to the author’s vitality, life, and perseverance, but secondly, and more importantly, the assembled literature also proves a more general point: It’s futile and perhaps also impossible to separate the author from his own creation. C.K. Scott Moncrieff was a man both of his time and likewise a man out of time, an individual of paradoxes and contradictions—a devout Catholic and unrepentant homosexual, a steadfast war hero and also the most tender love poet, an open individual unafraid to show emotion but also a spy who both preferred and also had to keep many secrets to himself. Suffice it to say, there was no one else better equipped to write the philosophical insights, vivid descriptions of humanity, and observations about the natural world we find in Ant than C.K. Scott Moncrieff.

While the majority of the work collected here has been published in various prestigious literary magazines of Moncrieff’s time, including T.S. Eliot’s New Criterion, it’s ultimately the job of the editor to assemble them in such a way that does justice to Moncrieff’s artistic vision, and this is something Jean Findlay has certainly done. It’s a great relief to know that the collection isn’t organized chronologically, but rather thematically. We enter the author’s literary world through his short stories, and the first one, in this respect, is “Evensonge and Morwesong,” a piece Moncrieff wrote while studying at Winchester, the most prestigious boarding school in the UK. In this work, he decries the hypocrisy of the master, deals with homosexual themes, and exposes the snobbery of such institutions. Moncrieff writes: “As he was transcribing the address this most consummate of headmasters received an unpleasant shock … a picture of two boys in a thicket; of the one’s charming nonchalance; of terror sickening the other, a child that had just lost its soul.” Here, Carruthers, the school master, has punished two boys for essentially the same act he himself committed; he’s reminded of this by a photo he’d long forgotten, and we find out that one of the pupils being punished is, in fact, the son of the boy he himself seduced.

As we reach the end, Jean Findlay reminds us that Moncrieff published this story in 1908, and the fact that the book opens with one of the first things Moncrieff ever wrote is only a coincidence. It’s a larger testament to the courage and openness that would make the author in question not only an excellent solider, but also a sharp, observant translator and critic. The story, in a sense, both defines the man known as C.K. Scott Moncrieff, as it reveals to readers his uncompromising, brave search for truth, and yet it also doesn’t define him, precisely because his failure to get into Oxford as a result of the story’s publication doesn’t go on to stop him from becoming one of the foremost literary figures of not only his generation, but also ours.

We subsequently jump fourteen years in time to the story “Mortmain,” published by G.K. Chesterton’s The New Witness in 1922. The main character, a soldier named Farleigh Bennett, has been seriously wounded and is preparing to undergo surgery. The injuries are so bad “as to make amputation the one possible remedy,” and it’s further unfortunate that he “had not been wounded in any glorious encounter; a bomb badly thrown by a man of his own Company had fallen back at his feet from the parapet and, while he groped for it in the dark trench, had exploded actually under his right hand.” This work is a prime example of how the author is so intimately connected to his work. Moncrieff himself, according to Jean Findlay’s biography, Chasing Lost Time, was wounded by a “British shell aimed at the German trench [which] fell short and exploded in front of him.” The brave officer was nominated for a medal, but as Findlay writes: “Charles initially refused the award because he was injured by his own barrage, and because he did not think himself more deserving than anyone else.” We hence see—and this very clearly—how the author’s life and experiences are at once present in “Mortmain.” While Moncrieff, unlike his character Bennett, never lost his own limb, his own injuries were nevertheless permanently disfiguring, and it’s not difficult to imagine how he, similarly to Bennett, may have perceived his own leg to be a separate, independent entity from the rest of his body, unable to find coordination with the whole. Thus, the story’s supernatural element of the limb having its own life serves as a parallel for the author’s private struggle to “start” a new life after the war, while simultaneously having to bear the burden of the old one as well.

After “Mortmain,” we jump four more years ahead in time to “Cousin Fanny and Cousin Annie.” Published in 1926 by T.S. Eliot’s New Criterion, this story is perhaps the most touching, yet bittersweet in the entire collection. Crafted with Proustian-like memories of childhood that influence the future, we follow Alec, who spends many of his days with Cousin Fanny and Cousin Annie, mainly because his parents travel to India. Recollections of Cousin Annie’s generosity towards him, and Cousin Fanny’s mother dying on the Queen’s birthday, along with memories of his own birthday, serve to emphasize the borders between life and death.

Alec grows up and joins the war effort, and except for one visit during this period, he gradually loses touch with both Fanny and Annie. Memories, however, of the generosity they had shown before his leave for school—how Cousin Fanny had given him “a pound, which he didn’t quite like to take if she was so poor, except that he needed it, really, more than she did,” and how Annie had given him “a huge cake which she had baked for him”—trigger a desire to visit them once more. When he does, however, it’s already too late, as Annie has died, and this leaves Alec feeling incredibly upset: “Every single day since her childhood Annie had had to prepare all her own meals, and, until extreme old age, other people’s as well. He thought of all the services that had been rendered him every day of his life, at school and in the army, and how easily he had taken it. What had he ever given Annie? Kisses, when he was little; and a china dog—and she had spent every moment when she was not in her kitchen by his bedside when he was ill. Why this was the bed he had been ill in.” When he meets Fanny and tells her that Annie has passed away, he’s surprised at her heartlessness: “Well, we must all die some time, I suppose.” The story is fascinating because while it does closely resemble the sentiments and nature which formed the author’s own character, the resemblance is exactly the opposite. In other words, the author, during his own life, was completely devoted to taking care of his family, relatives, and friends.

In her biography, Findlay recalls a time when Moncrieff’s brother, John, accidentally killed himself while cleaning a gun; upon receiving the news, the grief-stricken man promised to do everything in his power to support his family, and he wrote the following to his brother’s widow, Anna: “I swear to you that as long as I live I will do all I possibly can to be a father to them [the children] and a helper to you.” Indeed, we would never expect these words or actions to emanate from a character like Alec, who, in the author’s words, accepts services of support easily and without second thought, but it’s precisely this reversal which shows us the traits that Moncrieff himself admired—honor, commitment, and sacrifice for the family.

From the section “Short Stories,” the collection moves to “War Serials,” and while war does also feature in works like the aforementioned “Mortmain” and “Cousin Fanny and Cousin Annie,” the pieces in this section are assembled in a way that brings forth the potent descriptive powers Moncrieff had as a writer. We begin with “Halloween,” which is, as Findlay writes in the anthology’s introduction, “a weekly story for the New Witness,” that Moncrieff wrote “while in the trenches and on sick leave with trench foot in 1916.” The story revolves around the main character, Allison, a soldier moving with his Company through Belgium towards the city of Ypres, in preparation for battle there.

The scene is both tranquil and chaotic, which mirrored Moncrieff’s own experiences in war. He was known to raise the spirits of soldiers by reading literature to them, but was at the same time calm under fire, always demonstrating the highest level of courage in dangerous situations. As he once wrote to his mother in an October 27th, 1914, letter: “There is something rather stimulating in being under fire.” As the war dragged on, however, this “stimulation” naturally turned into contempt, and finally into weariness; through it all, however, courageous Moncrieff remained, and, in fact, so does his main character, Allison, who states how he’d “grown savage now after a whack on the head from some passing projective, drove the scattered troopers—they were calmly sitting here and there among his own Jocks—like sheep before him on to the road—where they fell in and duly disappeared.” With the same courage our author demonstrated during the war, Alison goes on to describe his situation: “And now we ourselves were neatly sandwiched: for our guns had begun to shell an outlying row of houses just behind us while the enemy plastered the town and the fields in front. But we got out somehow, and by midday were spread out in front of the Steenebeek, and digging ourselves in for dear life with our entrenching tools.” Indeed, Moncrieff himself would’ve been no stranger to such experiences, and neither would the men under his command; the story, thus, brings to life not only the individual who was C.K. Scott Moncrieff, but also paints—and that precisely—a vivid account of the war; this is another instance where the author can be said to be inextricably linked to the work he has produced.

Moncrieff’s insights about people and his understanding of human nature are further highlighted in the war serial, “On Being Wounded,” which starts this way: “It is extremely interesting to have seen the business of being wounded from the point of view of a casualty. For those who only know the wounded soldier as a carefully washed individual ministered to by efficient nurses and seen against the staged background of a ward filled with sunlight and bright flowers, the reality of the thing cannot exist.” Many subtle things are happening here, and perhaps there are also aspects of his personality that Moncrieff himself would become aware of only later. It’s important to understand that our author, especially in his later years—but not only then—lived a life which was incredibly transparent and emotionally open, yet at the same time that life was also one of secrecy and necessary evasion: He was a poet, comfortable enough to reveal his own thoughts and feelings—to publish them as well; yet, he had to keep his homosexuality private. Later, he slowly began to be more comfortable with his own identity, revealing also that aspect of himself, but there was now something even more compromising than his sexual orientation—he’d become a spy, and truly, no one could know about that.

Moncrieff became aware of the difference between appearance and reality quite early—indeed much earlier than anyone else his age. Hence, reading “On Being Wounded,” the reader will by no means be surprised to see him ponder the difference between the world we see on the surface and what exists underneath it, all at the young age of twenty-eight. Already then, Moncrieff understood there’s a distinction between how the wounded man “presents” himself to others and how he “exists” by himself; the former implies happiness while the latter embodies the suffering only victims themselves can understand.

In addition, Moncrieff speculates about the relative nature of time, in the sense that we can’t pinpoint exactly when something happens—more specifically when a man has recovered from his wound: “But it is doubtful whether the man himself can make any more accurate an estimation of his condition. There is a continuous, insensible shifting of the perspective from the moment that he feels the thud made by the arrival of the bullet to that when he realizes one day at the end of his convalescence, that he is well again. The gradual changes are so subtle, the inability to reproduce any one state of consciousness when in the next is so complete that the most introspective must hope for nothing better than confused reminiscence.” Moncrieff, here, as an intellectual, is utterly ahead of any contemporary and even those who came after him: He’s realized something psychologists are only now starting to understand about human memory—that it’s malleable, open to suggestion, and rarely ever fixed. What we remember not only changes with time, it’s also influenced by the future—what we hear and see around us, what we’re told, and most of all our recollections, change by listening to what others want us to believe.

From the section “War Serials,” we move right back to Moncrieff’s earliest days, to the final part of the collection, which is the author’s poetry, divided into “Early Poems,” “War Poems,” “Love and Dedicatory Poems,” and “Satirical Verse.” One curious thing that may jolt readers is having to move from the early verse directly into the war poetry, and then finding themselves among stanzas of love. Upon closer inspection, however, the editorial decision seems sound: Even if Moncrieff, at a young age, did find out what it’s like to feel strongly about someone, it was ultimately war that made him see the fragility of human life, allowing him to gaze, truly, into the limitless depths of love. While his romantic poems before the war, such as “The Beechwood,” and even the earliest poem handwritten in pencil at university are certainly strong, it’s ultimately his poems written in the most terrifying states of despair which really capture love in its most naked, unforgiving forms—it’s in those works written after the deaths of his closest companions, Wilfred Owen and Philip Bainbridge, where Moncrieff’s creative power is at its highest. And would the reader expect anything else? I will quote the poem written after Owen’s death in full:

When in the centuries of time to come,
Men shall be happy and rehearse thy fame,
Shall I be spoken of then, or they grow dumb,
Recall these numbers and forget this name?
Part of thy praise, shall my dull verse live
In thee, themselves—as life without thee—vain?
So should I halt, oblivion’s fugitive,
Turn, stand, smile know myself a man again.
I care not: not the glorious boasts of men
Could wake my pride, were I in Heaven with thee;
Nor any breath of envy touch me, when,
Swept from the embrace of mortal memory
Beyond the stars’ light, in the eternal day,
Our contended ghosts stay together.

It’s truly unfortunate that life had to drag men like C.K. Scott Moncrieff to the deepest depths of despair in order to lead them up their creative mountains, but that’s often the burden geniuses must bear. This collection, skillfully edited by Jean Findlay, proves, finally and conclusively, what we’ve probably suspected but have yet to express—had Marcel Proust not written À la recherche du temps perdu and brought it to life for Moncrieff to discover and translate, the latter would’ve become an accomplished poet in his own right.


About C.K. Scott Moncrieff

Charles Scott Moncrieff was born in Scotland in 1889 and died in Rome in 1930. He published poetry in literary journals from the age of sixteen and after studying at Edinburgh University, went into the First World War as a Captain in the KOSB. From the trenches he wrote trenchant literary criticism, war poetry and war serials. Wounded out, working at the War Office he contributed short stories for T.S. Eliot’s New Criterion, G.K. Chesterton’s New Witness and J.C. Squire’s London Mercury. Later as an editor at The Times he translated The Song of Roland and Beowulf and started on Marcel Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, a work that was to make him famous. Leaving London in 1923 to work as an undercover agent in Mussolini’s Italy, he settled there. As well as continuing work on Proust’s lengthy novel, he translated much of Stendhal, Eloise and Abelard and some of Pirandello.

C.K. Scott Moncrieff: A Man Out of Italian Time (Review of Chasing Lost Time, a Biography by Jean Findlay)

Jean Findlay, Founder and Head of Publishing at Scotland Street Press, author of Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Soldier, Spy, and Translator

Reviewed by David Garyan


Price Beyond Rubies: On Writing “The Hat Jewel,” an article by Jean Findlay, published by Interlitq
Read Jean Findlay’s Interview with David Garyan, published by Interlitq
Read David Garyan’s review of C.K. Scott Moncrieff’s Ant, an anthology compiled and edited by Jean Findlay
Read David Garyan’s review of Jean Findlay’s novel The Queen’s Lender


C.K. Scott Moncrieff: A Man Out of Italian Time

C.K. Scott Moncrieff was a man of contradictions; like the land, Italy, he came to inhabit in the last years of life, it may perhaps be more precise to think of him not as the person who translated À la recherche du temps perdu into English, but as the embodiment of all the greatest virtues and likewise the lowest vices which the old country has exemplified over its long history—and continues to exemplify. In many ways, it’s neither Marcel Proust—as many literary enthusiasts too often believe—nor his monumental work that came to define the soldier, translator, and spy; instead, it was the tense contradictions found in Italian life described here by Luigi Pirandello about his native Sicily which really formed the man known as C.K. Scott Moncrieff.

Scott Moncrieff’s outlook on life largely resembled the one Pirandello used to describe Giovanni Verga‘s; the two men’s lives were all about—though Pirandello only writes about Vega in the previous paragraph—ambitiously going “where their certain fantastic sensuality” brought them, and because of this they tended to suffocate and betray “their true, hidden passion, with that ambition of an ephemeral life.” For the sake of brevity, we’ll avoid a discussion of the latter artist’s specificities, but the former, as Findlay writes, led a life full of opposing tensions: “A Catholic convert, he was also a family man, military man, a manly poet. A homosexual who flirted with women and had lasting emotional relationships with a number of close female friends.” Truly, this personality was closer to what Pirandello has described—the Italian soul—than what Proust embodied.

Those who live on the aforementioned island, which the great playwright and poet called home, have perhaps been given no choice but to learn the ways of successfully navigating the demands of life in the midst of totally opposing tensions—after all, it’s the descendants of exactly these people who once enjoyed the privilege of existing at the crossroads of civilization, but, at the same time, precisely because of this, they’ve also had to hold the curious distinction of perhaps being the most subjugated individuals in the world. “Palermo,” as the late American actor George C. Scott once joked, “is the most-conquered city in history. First the Phoenicians, the Romans, Carthaginians, Byzantines, then came the Arabs, the Spaniards and the Neapolitans. Now comes … the American Army!” The Chicago Tribune offers a likewise witty retort to the statement: “The Normans. Don’t forget the Normans. Or the Greeks, Vandals, Goths, Swabians, Aragonese, Savoyans, Austrians (in a trade for Sardinia and future considerations) and, finally, the Italians, through annexation via a referendum that was probably rigged.” It’s certainly been a complicated history, and organized crime hasn’t exactly helped disentangle the place—by any stretch of the imagination—from an altogether different type of colonialism, but this is for another discussion.

What’s true is that those who reside on the island at once know the importance of displaying the highest honor and commitment in relationships, but they’re also equally comfortably in showing off those very same traits in revenge and hostility. Additionally, there’s the utter and total tendency to view foreigners and native strangers alike with the utmost suspicion—at the same time, individuals also possess the comfort of being both extremely open and curious about others to an extent I have never seen; all this is a matter of survival skills, I guess—skills passed down throughout the years from having to play good host to Romans and Arabs alike, people who, in all honesty, weren’t always such bad guests themselves, bringing innovation and culinary curiosities just the same. Who knew that arancini actually originated under Arab rule? And who knew, according to a UMass website, that the “orange was first introduced to Europe by the Arabs via Sicily?”

For good and bad, hence, the psyche of this nation has been shaped by what many would consider to be a negative phenomenon—domination—and for the most part, people have learned to make this a part of life; nevertheless, the ease and tact with which Italians are capable of navigating diametric opposition is also the reason why they can comfortably treat public resources and spaces in the most reckless, irresponsible way while having the capacity to maintain the greatest sanctity and cleanliness among family and in the home—streets and infrastructure littered with garbage while the floors at home are clean enough to eat from; such contradictions have not only been pointed out by Pirandello—a man Scott Moncrieff greatly admired and enjoyed translating—but also other Italian writers like Borgese as well.

It’s precisely this tendency to embody both the closed and open disposition—the mental effort to somehow synthesize diametrically opposed psychological forces so well described by both Pirandello and Borgese—that the great translator, solider, and spy himself embodied; and many times, as Jean Findlay, Scott Moncrieff’s great-great niece and biographer writes in her book, on more than two fronts: “Charles had a tough, discerning mind which disciplined his own life into several compartments: the literary man to Prentice, Marsh, and most of the world; the family man to his mother, brother, and relatives; the spy to Louis Christie and the Secret Intelligence Service, and the Rabelaisian homosexual to Vyvyan Holland alone. He was a man who one day could write a metaphysical religious poem of great depth, and on the next a filthy, funny limerick. He could, as Findlay describes, send a dirty limerick to Vyvyan Holland and in the very same letter he could thank precisely the same individual “for sending an Anthology of Catholic Poets.” The ability to reconcile such opposing forces and live with them is one of the trademarks of the Mediterranean sensibility, but they’re also the necessary ingredients for gregarious individuals, fond of hosting lavish parties, and, very naturally, spies—chiefly spies.

Even before Scott Moncrieff began translating the work that would really make both him and Proust famous in the Anglophone world, those reckless yet austere characteristics—especially typical of the Italian soul—and so well described by Pirondello and Borgese—were already very much a part of the future translator’s character, and the reader realizes this when he recklessly publishes “under his own name an ambitions story called  Evensong and Morwe Song,” in which he had “painted a recognizable picture of a Winchester master.” Winchester is world-famous for being the most prestigious boarding school in the UK, having existed in its present location for more than six hundred years. The fact that the young artist’s work had so to say painted a recognizable picture shouldn’t have been a problem, except for the fact that, aside from dealing with homosexual themes, it likewise exposed the “snobbery” and “hypocrisy” in such institutions. Findlay writes the following about the incident: “Even one hundred years later, a school magazine would hesitate before publishing such a story,” and although she admits that the family, to this day, has no idea why his scholarship to Oxford was rejected, it seems sensible to believe that the aforementioned episode had a great deal to do with it, given that he excelled in his studies, and more tellingly, that admission did not just depend on a “competitive entrance examination,” but also on “the report from the headmaster at Winchester,” at that time a man by the name of J.M. Burge. Since the latter’s endorsement was at best lukewarm, it is plausible to assume that the failure in securing the prize didn’t stem from a lack of academic competitiveness but rather with the contents of the recommendation.

At the same time, it’s hard to believe that Scott Moncrieff would ever have dared to pull such antics in the presence of his family, given that he had an almost austere (in the best possible sense) dedication and love for them. Anxious as he was to see Proust published in English, he was nevertheless quite embarrassed about the prospect of his relatives reading the Sodom and Gomorrah part of the novel, going so far as to change the English title to Cities of the Plain. Findlay writes that he was “glad in a way that his father would not see it, yet knowing that there were other family members whom it would no doubt offend. He was well aware that the active and promiscuous homosexual world described by Proust was offensive to most people, so in translation he had tried to soften the blow by not being as direct as Proust could be in French, using euphemisms and hidden innuendos where he could.” Once again, we see how the contradictory elements of recklessness and piety could fully manifest themselves in the man. Later in his life, upon discovering that his pet owl had died because he had left him alone to peruse Florence on a visit to the “fleshpots and fiaschi,” by his own account, the remorse was far too great, according to Findlay: “He wrote a gloomy and confused letter to Prentice saying that he had inherited the family trait of ‘accepting diametrically opposite advice and feeling the full importance of things that don’t matter.'” The reader never really finds out what these unimportant things or specific advices are, but one gets the sense that we’re talking precisely about the contradicting temperaments so well described in Italian, particularly, Sicilian personalities.

Being a homosexual in a society which not only imprisoned one of its greatest writers—Oscar Wilde—in 1895, but also handed down two years of hard labor which, according to Findlay, greatly contributed to “breaking his health and confidence,” was certainly risky business. Indeed although “he had written one of his most poignant pieces, De Profundis, in prison and been inspired while there to compose the Ballad of Reading Gaol,” Findlay’s former statement certainly holds far greater weight, as the notable Irish author would go on to die only five years later, at the young age of forty-six, in 1900. In 1907, when the young Scott Moncrieff began visiting Robert Ross (Wilde’s lover and literary executor) at Half Moon Street, which was a “haunt of the literary homosexual coterie,” those tragic details would’ve been no stranger to the impressionable schoolboy. And yet, he, even at such a tender age, already had the capacity to discern the importance of appearances; it’s perhaps, then, his capacity in mastering the ability to maintain them—something which would serve him well as a spy in Italy—why he ultimately chose the country to begin with, or more correctly, why he was chosen for the role by Louis Christie.

For all intents and purposes, and for all the good and bad which comes with that, Italy is the quintessential country of appearances. Anyone who was born here or has lived in it for some time—again for better or worse—will know the importance of maintaining a “tidy surface,” even when what’s underneath is in total ruin; in addition, the ability to maintain a proper exterior is good even when the effort actually contributes to ruining the precious life underneath. Unlike the specific traits discussed before about Sicilians, the concept of bella figura captures the imagination of all Italians; literally translated as “beautiful figure,” the term does not simply encompass the ability to project attractive physical attributes; on the contrary, even Italians are sensible enough to understand that not everyone can have Aphrodite-like beauty—the term, hence, really encompasses the capacity to act with proper dignity, respect, and tact in any given situation. Everything must have the proper presentation and decorum—moderation being the lifeblood of Italians; at least that’s what they say or seem to believe.

Naturally, a person who drinks too much at a party and thereby ruins its decorum has violated the tenets of bella figura; however, a woman dressed to the nines—simply out to buy groceries—seems to be tolerated just fine in these parts and such behavior is even heartily encouraged, and not just by the men either. Is this truly moderation or have we, once again, returned to the wicked duality of Pirandello and Borgese? And what about the all-too-exaggeratedly elegant piazzas and duomos—well, again, moderation in this respect would be a grave sin for Italians. Max Weber’s idea of the Protestant work ethic seems—just as a momentary, humorous aside—to be challenged here, as the Catholics supposedly have less propensity for labor, suffering from some kind of Mediterranean or mañana-madness-inducing shortage of capital, and yet it’s the Protestant churches which are generally much less extravagant and grand.

Returning to our discussion of bella figura, that, apart from its seemingly positive attributes, also has rarely-spoken-about undertones which are, to say the least, actually quite dark—something I discovered not long ago; in a conversation with a friend, who jokingly said that Italy’s communitarian nature, along with people’s desire to protect the virtues and sanctities of their associations, may seem very positive, until you realize there may, perhaps, be no problem with the happiness a husband receives from cheating on his wife, so long as no one finds out about it and the harmony of the community isn’t ruined—again, the importance of appearances. It’s precisely this type of lifestyle, based largely on semblances, that the soldier, translator, and spy—not himself an adulterer, but whose “sin” of homosexuality was very well interpreted as being just as grave in his time—had to adopt, and do so quickly; in a sense, he had to become an Italian before he ever had the chance to translate Proust, and certainly before he was actually forced, in a sense, to relocate to the old country for the sake of his “health.” It’s perhaps, then, not a stretch to say that the man known as C.K. Scott Moncrieff was not so much the translator of À la recherche du temps perdu (a work he not only translated very well, but interpreted in such a way that it ended up, to this day, best representing the novel in its time, despite the criticism he received for being too libertine in his interpretation) but rather the conduit for the highest virtues and likewise lowest depravities that Italians and their culture represented—not only then, but also now.

Even the German scholar of Proust, Ernst Curtius, is recorded as having written the following, included by Findlay in her biography: “I had imagined the translator of Proust to be an aesthete. He was something much better: an individual character … He was a Roman body and soul. It was not an antiquarian or artistic interest that drew him to Rome, but the everyday life of the city.” Despite Ernst’s totally captivating portrait of the soldier, translator, and spy, nowhere, however—at least in my analysis of the matter—is the case for Scott Moncrieff’s Italian soul more apparent than towards the end of the book, where Findlay writes: “Beneath the bravura was an exhausted man with far too much on his plate and no one to look after him. He [Scott Moncrieff] found in Pirandello’s chaotic world the irony he saw in his own life; that the appearance is rarely the reality and the layers of subterfuge people erect to present a face to family, friends, or the public is excellent material for drama.” Indeed, the Italian respect and affirmation for the arts—the need to uphold its reputation as being one of the progenitors, along with Greece, of Western culture—means, at once, that drama is not only highly appreciated but also actively encouraged by its citizenry, but only on stage, where the fourth wall prevents it from leaking out onto the incredibly ritualistic society held together by honor and decency, lest such a spectacle should ruin the meticulously constructed bella figuras of all those consuming the show in their chairs, naturally with all the proper etiquette; its bona fide, altogether genuine human display in public, however, is completely frowned upon, even if the person is on the verge of a breakdown—through all their fault in most cases or perhaps even none of their own.

In this sense, neither the biography nor perhaps even the living biographer can ever fully answer the question of whether Scott Moncrieff would’ve enjoyed living in Italy if his medical condition didn’t “demand” his relocation there; from the book we’re given to understand that health concerns, along with his work as a journalist and translator, were merely a cover, mainly because Britain now once again needed capable spies on the ground in the old country: “There had been one hundred intelligence agents based in Italy during the war, but since 1918 numbers had hugely decreased because officially Italy was politically friendly on the surface. However, it was apparent the country now needed watching again,” and who better to watch it than a capable person like Scott Moncrieff, a man of duty, honor, clever resourcefulness (what many Italians often refer to as sa arrangiare—literally, knowing how to arrange, and what the Italian-American anthropologist, Thomas Belmonte, has also referred to as arrangiarsi).

Findlay confirms that “the job description could have been written for Charles, his sense of honour was still paramount. Recruiting Charles was an enormous help to Louis, who was needed to travel in countries across the Mediterranean—Greece and Turkey, also Egypt, Yemen, Aden, Muscat, Iraq, and Palestine.” In any case, aside from the question of whether Scott Moncrieff would’ve enjoyed living in Italy out of his own volition or not, what’s undeniable is that he was an expert in the country’s customs and culture, and not just because of his Catholic conversion. Aside from the tenets of bella figura, the soldier, translator, and spy was also adept at what Italians refer to as the aforementioned arrangiarsi; literally it means to make do, but the real meaning is more akin to making something out of nothing—it’s the calculated ability to utilize the correct strategy in any given situation in order to make the right connections, to say the perfect thing, and to, literally, arrange all public and private matters in ways which are beneficial to you. An uneducated man living in Naples, for instance, where job prospects are already far and few even for those with university degrees, must necessarily be skilled in the art of arrangiarsi or effectively perish; good arrangiarsi exemplifies everything from washing car windows at red lights if you have absolutely nothing to ensuring your sons and daughters marry above their respective stations if you have only a little and are looking for more. As with bella figura, in the best sense, the aforementioned tenets imply a capacity for creativity and innovation; in the worst sense, however, they can also lead down the altogether undesirable roads of excessive cunning, deceit, and corruption.

In any case, Scott Moncrieff’s translation of Proust, to this day, embodies the best sense of making something out of nothing, precisely because there was no model to work from and no one to help him. Aside from that, Proust wasn’t exactly the most organized individual (well, it’s difficult, anyways, to hold that against any writer), and Scott Moncrieff had to navigate various hurdles before he could even enjoy the comfort of what most publishers might call a perfectly typeset page, let alone our own privileges granted by Microsoft Word. As Findlay writes: “Proust’s novel was published in France before, during and after the First World War. There was a shortage of typesetters: many were dead and those who remained were overworked with under-trained assistants. The first volumes were printed with a lot of typesetter errors, far more than average because Proust was a complex writer and not all typesetters could follow the ideas or the sense of his sentences. Charles, however, did understand Proust. He also worked in a newspaper office and knew how typesetter errors occurred. In France the box of e’s and the box of a’s were adjacent to each other and to mistake le for la was a common error, but more so in Proustian compound sentences where the le or la is one of the many objects of the sentence, and could well be an idea. Much of the work in translating Proust was for Charles also a work of interpretation and instinct. He did not have access to the original manuscript (which was in longhand and extremely difficult to decipher anyways) and he still had a demanding day job.” If this doesn’t symbolize the best traits of arrangiarsi, I don’t know what does.

When his brother, John, accidentally shot himself cleaning a gun, the good translator took on more work (perhaps a greater amount than he could handle) to support his family; in this sense, too, he embodied the best of what honor and responsibility mean in countries like Italy, where family really is the centerpiece of every social activity. Having received, ironically, the tragic news immediately after securing a well-paying appointment, equaling “the purchasing power of over £100,000 a year,” Scott Moncrieff wrote the following to his brother’s widow: “by the greatest good fortune, I have now arrived at a decent position in the world and I swear to you that as a long as I live I will do all I possibly can to be a father to them [the children] and a helper to you. I think I knew more about him, knew him more intimately than anyone else but you—and I wish I could be with you to dry your tears, or mingle them with my own.” These are certainly not the words of archetypal hedonists concerned only with their own welfare and pleasure. As Findlay writes: “Charles contributed to the family income until his death. He was able to ensure that David, his nephew, was privately educated, and he visited the family in Oxford regularly.” Certainly we’re talking about a complex, contradictory figure, and this is meant in the best, almost exalted Mediterranean sense—having the capability to be flexible when life’s whims demand it, and yet, at the same time, marshalling a stoicism rigid as a rock when that very same life requires unbending dedication.

Indeed, one of the most touching and beautiful instances in the book where we witness those aforementioned traits is after the death of his father, when Scott Moncrieff begins to feel the full “call of family responsibility.” In the midst of deciding the future of Anna’s house in north Oxford, he oscillates so much between whose name it should be transferred under—his or hers—that Anna later remarked in a letter to Prentice the following: “Charlie changes his mind so much.” Indeed, the man is flexible to the whims of life’s demands, and, yet, at the same time, in the midst of this flexibility, he never wavers in the commitment to help the widow of his brother, simply because, in the end, it doesn’t really matter whether the house is in her name or his—he will be in both cases completely committed to the task of helping her financially. Having myself lived in this strange land for two years, no other trait I can think of but this indecisiveness yet stoic commitment to people and also things can perhaps be considered more representative of the Italian soul—it’s why, once again, many parts of the country can comfortably present crumbling infrastructure to the public, and, yet, those very same citizen may sport floors clean enough to eat from in their own private homes; the proverbial traits that Borgese and Pirandello have described so well.

Possessing this Italian soul is precisely why Scott Moncrieff may have allowed himself to take liberties with the translation, much to the chagrin of Proust and his later critics, who often attacked him for destroying the façade of the original. And yet, what “purists” don’t seem to understand is that the effort of translation is less about the bare transmission of words and more about the communication of culture. This is something that Peter France, the noted scholar at Edinburgh, quoted by Findlay in her book, also confirms—that it’s “not merely a technical task to be carried out with proper efficiency (as done ideally—though not so far in reality—by a machine). The sort of translation to be discussed here has to do with the values, the personality, the intention that underlie the original. In relation to these, the translator’s duty is in part ethical (or even political).” It was Scott Moncrieff’s job, hence, to connect the void not just between the Protestant and Catholic attitude, but also between their two respective literary traditions, mainly because “Proust was stylistically and morally foreign to a protestant English audience, and bridging that gap was part of Charles’s role,” as Findlay so correctly emphasizes.

The translator, soldier, and spy we’ve come to know as C.K. Scott Moncrieff was, in this respect, certainly a man of his time, even if reading the biography often gives us the sense of exactly the opposite—an individual trapped by the oppressive circumstances of his surroundings. Indeed, those not in possession of the Italian soul, which allows for the navigation and, ultimately, reconciliation of life’s contradictions, may view his existence according to the parameters of the latter—a sort of Stephen Dedalus-like figure trapped in the grayness of his native Ireland, seeking to exile himself from both his location and generation, except this time we find ourselves in Scotland and the Catholic identity is embraced instead of rejected. Findlay, to some extent, confirms this view, writing: “He was leading a double life and thinking double thoughts. His letters home extolled the ideal family life, while in London he was drawn as by a magnet to the Ross establishment, the antithesis of family life. However, a change was happening in him, as the war changed everyone. The gulf between his professed beliefs and his actions was beginning to show: he felt the battle of good and ill, the confusion, within himself; he did not know where he stood, and was tired and sore.” Reading the passage, one would be tempted to go down the path of the Stephen Dedalus interpretation, but it would be an altogether wrong assessment for a man like Scott Moncrieff, mainly because, in fact, he did embody those previously-discussed Italian sensibilities—the soul—a fiery divergent character in the most passionate instances, and the cold, determined stoicism in the most testing moments; and further still, the ability to not only embody such oppositions but also possess the strength to synthesize the antithetical forces within the confines of one anima, perhaps in the purely dialectical Hegelian sense, but perhaps also very naturally in the “mixture of litanies and sperm,” exactly that sense of style proposed by Montesquieu, who believed, as Findlay writes, “that the sacred and the profane create an invigorating blend and thereby embrace the whole of life.” This idea, upheld by all means and methods, and for all intents and purposes, is drama not for the stage but precisely for the streets—it’s the drama in all its contradictory Italian sensibilities of the soul that Pirandello, like Scott Moncrieff, actually embodied in real life, according to Findlay: “The plays and stories hit a switch in Charles—Pirandello tackled appearance and reality with a twist. Human situations are rarely as they seem from the outside, there is often a secret story, sometimes a sombre, sexual one. Pirandello’s plays touched incest, adultery, prostitution, with a keen and compassionate eye, unveiling dark stories from the inside.” Indeed, having to live “much of his life under great threat,” and at the same time being “bound by honor and secrecy,” it’s completely understandable why the solider, translator, and spy would’ve “sympathized with Pirandello’s themes intimately: his plays dealt with necessary lies and secrecy.”

In many respects, it would be wiser, hence, to look more at the man as Goethe (had they been contemporaries) might have seen him, precisely at the time when he himself visited Italy—that very moment when his own soul came to understand a people’s solemn and stoic resignation to things that simply don’t work, along with their ability to adapt and live merrily with such reality. Noticing the utter pollution of a particularly beautiful street in Palermo that “in its length and beauty,” was one that “vies with any in the Corso in Rome,” he emphatically clamors: “By all the saints …. Is there no helping it?” The shopkeeper replies. “Things with us are as they are,” going on to explain that surely they could brush away the horse dung and dust, but what good would that do to their already-rickety brooms, which are barely functioning, composed of nothing except for “very little besoms of palm-branches, which, slightly altered, might have been really useful; but as it was, they broke off easily, and the stumps were lying by thousands in the streets.” Either way, in this respect, the beautiful street will be polluted by something. The great Goethe, realizing this, along with noticing the cheerful way in which his newly-made acquaintance has communicated his town’s dilemma, the quick-witted German pronounces that this was “consolatory proof to me that man has always humour enough to make merry with what he cannot help.” In this respect, too, Scott Moncrieff was a man who had the power to change many things, and, in fact, moved a great deal of stones he was capable of lifting, but his mountains stayed firm—as nature intended them to be—and for this, no human being can be blamed.


About Jean Findlay

Jean Findlay was born in Edinburgh. She studied Law and French at Edinburgh University under Peter France and Theatre under Tadeusz Kantor in Kracow, Poland. She co-founded an award winning theatre company and wrote and produced plays which toured to London, Berlin, Bonn, Rotterdam, Dublin, Glasgow and the Pompidou Centre in Paris. She spent years in London writing drama and book reviews for the Scotsman, and has written for the IndependentTime Out and the Guardian.  In 2014 she published Chasing Lost Time: The Life of CK Scott Moncrieff, Soldier, Spy and Translator with Chatto and Windus, now in Vintage paperback and with FSG in New York. She founded Scotland Street Press in Edinburgh in 2014 and now runs this small, award-winning publishing house. For writing The Hat Jewel she won a Hawthornden Fellowship 2018 and a Lavigny International Writer’s Fellowship 2019.

Peter Robertson Featured on Apple Podcast, “The Art of the Invisible,” hosted by Zuzana Morvayová

Peter Robertson by Allen Frame

Click here to listen to the podcast
“The Art of the Invisible,” Episode 20, with Peter Robertson

About Peter Robertson

Peter Robertson was born in Glasgow in 1960, of Scottish and Irish descent, son of William John Robertson, formerly Chairman, West of Scotland Refractories, and Isobel Murray Imrie; he was the step-nephew of Ames Lyell Imrie CBE, variously City Chamberlain of Edinburgh, City Chamberlain of Dundee, and Consul of Sweden at Edinburgh. He was brought up in Perthshire, and educated at King’s College, Cambridge. He is the President, Publisher, and Founding Editor of The International Literary Quarterly (Interlitq), a not-for-profit corporation in the State of New York.

A journalist by profession, he also taught for the British Council in Madrid, and was later employed as an Editorial Assistant for the Alfaguara Publishing House in Buenos Aires. He was then contracted by the International Monetary Fund as a linguist, and for which organization he also conducted research. Subsequently, he acted as a Consultant for a number of international agencies, including the World Bank, the European Investment Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and UN Women.

As an author, his fiction has been translated into several languages, and he has published translations of work by authors such as Jorge Luis Borges, Rosalía de Castro, Rubén Darío and Paul Éluard.

He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Linguists, and a Fellow of the English Association.

He lives in Argentina and Scotland.


About Zuzana Morvayová

Zuzana Morvayová studies Innovation and Organization of Culture and the Arts at the University of Bologna. Since February 2020, she has aired episodes of her Apple Podcast, “The Art of the Invisible,” which focuses on the people who work behind the scenes in various artistic fields, such as art, filmmaking, and publishing.

Keeping Up, a story by Dilys Rose

Edinburgh, Scotland

Fiction by Dilys Rose


Keeping Up

Cilla is dreaming of a pirate, of the swashbuckling, buccaneer variety—roguishly handsome, with a luxuriant beard and glinting earring but none of the stink and ingrained filth that are part and parcel of the trade. No eyepatch or knotted headscarf but he is brandishing some kind of bladed weapon, a cutlass, surely—isn’t that what old-school pirates ran with? He is a distance away and yet somehow close enough to smell pipe tobacco and seadog rum on his breath. She hears herself murmuring ‘sea-green eyes’ when Frankie’s querulous voice barges into her dream and dispatches the brigand.

Cilla. Cilla! We’re anchoring in ten. If you don’t get a move on, we’ll have to wait for ever!

If they’re anchoring in ten, they’re already too late. Everyone wants a place on the first batch of tenders, and queues for the escalators will already be dozens deep. Cilla rolls over on her bunk and peers through the porthole of their shared cabin. In the distance, squat, blocky buildings line the quay against a backdrop of parched scrub. At least they won’t be spending their shore day there.

She’d only meant to close her eyes while Frankie wrapped up her morning flirt with the waiters, not to actually nod off. Cilla blames the food. There is always so much on offer, and quality food at that. The kitchens work round the clock to turn out ever-more tempting dishes and the aroma of freshly baked bread infiltrates the ventilation system at all hours. Though Cilla always sticks to the Light Continental Option, even on a shore day when everyone stocks up on breakfast, the waistband of her favourite holiday trousers is already beginning to pinch. Frankie, damn her, can tuck into a Full English every day without any change to her coat-hanger frame.

After being marshalled by bumptious, semaphoring stewards onto a packed escalator descending to the lower decks, the two tramp the gangway to their allotted tender where, by means of some sly elbowing, they secure a spot from which to view their approach to The Jewel of the Eastern Mediterranean. More queuing and more gangways before Cilla and Frankie, lurching after several days at sea, join the hordes pouring through the archways of the Old Port and onto the paved, mediaeval streets.

The journey from the deck of their cruise ship to Dubrovnik—a distance of no more than a few kilometres—has taken the best part of the morning. Preparations for lunch are underway and the city reeks of grilling meat and fish. Their first stop: queuing at the ATM for local currency; their second: queuing at the adequate but overpriced public toilets; their third: securing a bench in the shade so Frankie can apply sunblock.

You could always cover your arms, says Cilla.

I could, says Frankie, but I don’t want to.

As ever, Cilla has dressed for comfort and concealment. As ever, Frankie has opted for style: a sleeveless white dress with a gold border at the neck and hem, strappy gold sandals and matching toenail polish. Her colour coordination is marred by blazing epaulettes of sunburn, from lounging too long on the lido the previous afternoon, ogling the ship’s all-male dance troupe as they leapt and flexed, rehearsing for the final night’s extravaganza.

There’d better not be loads of stairs, says Frankie, squinting through a gold-trimmed visor at a slice of ancient wall, glimpsed between rooftops.

Frankie finds stairs difficult. If they’d booked a city tour, a workaround for those with mobility issues would have been on offer but Frankie prefers to soldier on and kid everybody— including herself— that she’s still in her prime.

We don’t have to do it, says Cilla.

What’s the point in coming at all if you don’t do the main sights? Who goes to Paris and doesn’t do the Eiffel Tower?

I’ve never done the Eiffel Tower.

But that’s just you, Cilla, trying to be different. Cilla went to Paris and didn’t do the Eiffel Tower. Cilla went to New York and didn’t visit the Statue of Liberty. Cilla went to Agra and didn’t see the Taj Mahal

I did see the Taj Mahal. I sent you a postcard.

Did you? Nobody bothers with postcards any more. Must have been a while ago.

It was. Cameron and I were on our honeymoon.

Oh, Cameron, says Frankie. Ancient history, then.

Not to me it isn’t!

Cilla takes slow, deep breaths while Frankie bats her eyes at a bronzed hunk, smoking in a coffee shop doorway, and resolutely ignoring her. She has never married and considers Cilla’s twenty-five-year marriage and ensuing decade of chaste widowhood a huge yawn. Though Frankie’s own life—if her version of events is to be believed—has been awash with steamy and/or stormy affairs, she shows little sign of abandoning hope that Prince Charming may still rock up and sail her off into an incomparable sunset.

The two women have been friends for fifty years. Not always the very best of friends but, despite jags of rage and corrosive irritations borne of long familiarity, their lives now peg along on similarly solitary lines. Since Cilla became a widow, they’ve taken their annual holiday together. They’ve done self-catering cabins, budget packages, city breaks and bus tours but as this is something of a watershed year, they’ve splashed out on a cruise. It’s a pity, they agree, that their budget hadn’t stretched to single cabins.

I so want to do the wall, says Frankie. If only my stupid feet are up to it.

Perhaps we need a Plan B, says Cilla, leafing through her guide book. The cathedral has paintings by Dalmatian and Italian artists, including one by Raphael.

If they only mention one Raphael, nothing else will be worth bothering with.

The reliquary contains the head and a leg of a thirteenth-century saint.

Who wants to see creepy old body parts?

The maritime museum hosts a fine collection of seahorses.

Fun for five minutes, says Frankie. Which way to the wall?

Cilla indicates the slow procession of crumpled shorts, bulging bum bags and floppy hats: no longer an invading horde but a vast herd of docile cattle, plodding across flagstones buffed to a sheen by centuries of feet and hooves. The streets are so congested it’s hard to appreciate the mix of Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance architecture the city is renowned for. In the main square, in front of an ornate town hall, a band of men in white shirts, black trousers and crimson cummerbunds sing in doleful unison to a loose horseshoe of audience.

Klapa, says Cilla. They sing about tragedies at sea, lost love and such.

Oh, let’s not stop for the doom and gloom, says Frankie. They’ll be passing round the hat in a minute and we don’t have any coins.

As soon as they pass through the ticket booth and begin to climb the first flight of steep, uneven stairs, the heat hits them. Frankie, who insisted on leading the way so she didn’t have to play catchup, gasps at every step. Cilla’s heart begins to thump assertively.  She, too, must pace herself. She presses against the sun-baked stone to let a group of nimble Japanese matrons squeeze past. Oblivious to the tailback, Frankie continues upwards. Perhaps she doesn’t hear their gentle twittering. Frankie is quite deaf but refuses to admit it.

When they reach the ramparts, the Japanese group patter past Frankie. Cilla catches her breath, takes in the shimmering expanse of sea.  Frankie, groaning, massages her ankles.

Couldn’t they have got us here before it was so hot?

What a view! says Cilla.

The colour of the sea’s a bit wishy-washy, says Frankie, standing on tiptoe so she can see over the perimeter wall. Reminds me of that mouthwash of yours. By the way, I used some this morning but I don’t care for the taste.

Bring your own, then.

Surely, Cilla, you don’t begrudge me a capful of mouthwash?

That’s not the point.

The point is that Frankie crams every beauty product imaginable into her toilet bag but forgets some essential item, like soap or toothpaste. Always.

The sky is unbroken blue. It is almost noon and fiercely hot, with only the thinnest slivers of shade. Encrusted with tourists, diamond-shaped ramparts encompass domes, steeples and pitched roofs and the seaward sections extend over sheer cliffs. The walls were built in the thirteenth century to protect the city from invasion, Cilla reads. In the fifteenth century, numerous towers were built upon them; some are still standing. There’s one! she says, gesturing to where the Japanese women are arranging themselves for group photos, their laughter dipping and darting like bright birds.

Spare me the history lesson, says Frankie. My God, look at all those stairs!

We don’t have to go all the way round.

But if we don’t go all the way round, we haven’t really done it, have we?

Does it matter? says Cilla.

It matters to me, says Frankie.

The taverna where Frankie insists they have lunch—persuaded by the moustachioed hunk touting for trade at the entrance—is packed but does have terrace seating beneath a vine-laden trellis.

I never want to see that wall again, says Frankie.

But we did it! says Cilla. And you have to admit the views were sensational.

My feet are killing me.

Shall we treat ourselves to wine?

If you say so, says Frankie, though God knows what the local stuff is like.

They have Italian wines as well.

No, no, says Frankie. When in Dubrovnik—

When the waiter—yet another Adonis—arrives, Frankie quizzes him about the wine list, only to settle, eventually, on a carafe of house white. Having read that sharing plates are the norm, Cilla enquires about portion size but, despite his eloquence on the wine list, the waiter is vague.  Not that it matters. Frankie has set her heart on the local speciality—squid ink risotto—and so Cilla, who’s allergic to seafood, has no alternative but to order something else.

This is just another tourist trap, says Frankie. Do you see any locals eating here? It can’t possibly be authentic.

You chose it.

We were hungry, Cilla. We had to eat somewhere. I’d just have liked to eat somewhere authentic.

Do you think they’d have such hot waiters in an authentic place? Or linen tablecloths, traditional music? If you want the real deal, the guide book says, expect a surly proprietor, Formica tables and blaring MTV.

You’re such a smart-arse, says Frankie. And I bet that guide book is way out of date.

Like us, says Cilla.

Speak for yourself, says Frankie. I keep up, Cilla. I keep up.

The wine arrives promptly, the food tardily. Thirsty from so much walking in the heat, both women drink deep.

I don’t know why you have to bang on about portion size, says Frankie. Anyone can see you don’t exactly starve yourself.

You eat as much as I do, says Cilla. A lot more, in fact.

Maybe, Frankie preens, but I can get away with it.

Do you have to be such a bitch?

I just tell it like it is, Cilla.

Well, don’t bother. I know how it is.

The wine has gone to their heads. They are talking too loudly. Not that it matters; everybody is jawing away and drowning out the weeping strings. The food eventually arrives and the portions are enormous. Frankie wrinkles her nose at the purplish-brown mound on her plate, samples a forkful suspiciously and, loudly enough for half the terrace to hear, pronounces it revolting. She summons the waiter—there really is no need for the finger-snapping—and tells him to take it away.

You want something else?

No, dear, she says, stroking the waiter’s smooth, golden forearm with a mottled claw. My friend doesn’t like big portions. We can share her dish—can’t we, Cilla?

With a shrug, the waiter departs, skinny hips snaking between closely packed tables, Frankie’s rejected plate of squid ink risotto held aloft.

By the time they have polished off Cilla’s more-than-ample chicken salad, drained the carafe of wine and paid the bill, the terrace is all but deserted.

We’re running a bit late, says Cilla.

Just a quick look?

We’ll have to be quick.

Tipsily, they veer off the main drag and plunge into a web of backstreets, only to find the gift shop shutters drawn, their doors and grilles bolted. The only sign of life is a slit-eyed cat, basking on a dusty windowsill.

I thought you said they don’t do siesta here, says Frankie.

They don’t. Maybe it’s some kind of local holiday.

So, we’re not going to get any souvenirs? I promised my yoga teacher I’d bring her some lavender oil.

She’ll cope, says Cilla, opening up her map.  I don’t think we’re going the right way. We have to work out where we are, and which direction we’re facing, before we go any further.

But we can’t be late back! says Frankie, a rattle of panic in her voice. The tenders won’t wait. No exceptions, they said. No exceptions!

I’m trying, says Cilla, to prevent us being late. We could have asked a shopkeeper for directions but as you can see there aren’t any shopkeepers to ask.

That’s a fat lot of use, then! says Frankie. But I wouldn’t trust a local, to be honest. Remember that bus driver on Crete?

It was Corfu.

Same difference. That guy screwed us around on purpose, says Frankie. Bastard. I bet he bragged about it to his pals in the Ouzo bars.

I’m sure he had better stories to tell, says Cilla.

At the end of their week in Corfu, which until then had been remarkably hitch-free, they’d decided to save on the shuttle and take a municipal bus to the airport. The guide book had made it seem straightforward enough but despite asking the driver to let them know when to get off, the bus clattered past the airport and was miles down the road before they realised. They had no choice but to lug their suitcases off the bus, drag them across the road and wait, amid maize fields teeming with locusts, for a bus from the opposite direction to return them to the airport.  It was quite a wait. They only just made their flight.

Come on, Cilla. We don’t have time to stand around while you ponder that map.

We don’t have time to take a wrong turning.

Oh, for God’s sake! I told you we should get somebody to put Google Maps on our phones.

But we don’t know how to use the App, says Cilla. And you said it was more trouble than it was worth. You said you’d rather rely on common sense—

I don’t remember saying anything of the kind, says Frankie, but we really must get up to speed on technology if we’re to survive in the modern world. I mean, you can’t even operate a self-service checkout, can you, Cilla? You need somebody to help you buy a loaf of bread! You should have asked that boy of yours to set us up with Google Maps. You’re always banging on about what a whiz he is with techy stuff. What’s the point in having children if they can’t help out when you need them to?

They are standing at a fork in the road. Cilla folds her arms. Frankie digs her knuckles into bony hips. Their mismatched shadows—one short and skinny, the other tall and stout—are cast across the intersection, like Laurel and Hardy squaring up for a scrap.

If we’re late, they’ll go without us! Frankie bleats. They’ll hand over our passports to the ship’s agent and we’ll be left high and dry!

Could be worse, says Cilla, at least we have our credit cards.  But the thought of missing the boat, of having to negotiate repatriation with Frankie and she’s breaking out in sweat. Her chest tightens.  A glittering confetti fills her field of vision. Is it the wine? Is she having a panic attack, a stroke? She takes slow, deep breaths, blocks out Frankie’s bleating and concentrates on a plain, dark door until the confetti begins to evaporate and her pulse rate subsides.

Cilla has never been great at map-reading and the print is so tiny it’s barely legible, even with her new glasses. The sun bites into the back of her neck as she compares the branching backstreets with the street plan.

Maybe Frankie is right: if they’d had Google Maps, a mechanical voice would be issuing instructions on which way to turn and how long it would take to reach their destination. Hot, tired, footsore and not a little anxious, they might have found the default voice annoying but they could have relinquished responsibility and tottered on, trustingly, without making decisions, or bickering, or having to think.

Okay! she says, I’ve got it. It’s this way.

Are you sure? How can you be sure?

If we leg it, we should get there in time. Just.

Can’t we just take a taxi?

We’re in a pedestrian precinct, Frankie. Do you see any taxis? The whole city centre’s a pedestrian precinct.

But I’m so tired! My head hurts. And my feet! My poor, stupid feet—

Just one push, Frankie, says Cilla. It can’t be far.

Cilla hopes that she will never again find herself at this crossroads: its crooked sheaf of street signs, its closed doors and shuttered windows, its pitted mediaeval walls and time-smoothed paving stones. Determination battling with desperation, she sets off; every so often she glances over her shoulder to check that Frankie, her friend of fifty years, is keeping up.


About Dilys Rose

Dilys Rose lives in Edinburgh, and is a novelist, short story writer and poet. She has published eight books of fiction and four of poetry, most recently the novel Unspeakable (Freight, 2017), set in seventeenth-century Edinburgh. Her poetry pamphlet, Stone the Crows (Mariscat Press), was published in 2020. A fifth collection of stories is due out in 2022. She divides her time between Edinburgh and a small studio on the East Lothian coast, where, throughout the pandemic, she has been writing and making collages.