Posted by: Philip Carr-Gomm | August 24, 2009

My Father, Francis Bacon and Don Quixote

Francis Carr-Gomm

Francis Eardley Carr-Gomm 1924 – 2009

Two weeks ago my father died, and I thought I would just share with you a little about his life. A number of people had said what a good idea it is to interview parents or grandparents, because so much gets forgotten when they pass away. Four years ago we filmed an interview with my parents about their lives and now that my father has gone I’m so glad we did this.

In it my dad talked about how happy his childhood had been in Warwickshire, where he was born in 1924. This happiness was marred, though, when he was sent to boarding school and was separated from two of his brothers, who were sent to a different school.
When he was fifteen, war broke out, and we can imagine how difficult life must have been, putting up with a boarding school in which cold baths in the morning and boxing were compulsory, and which he hated, living apart from his mother and father, and two of his brothers for long stretches of time, all the while hearing news of war, of the fear of invasion, of the chaos and destruction, and the looming enemy of Hitler, with his cohorts, who like Saruman’s orcs must have seemed supernaturally evil: the Nazis, the Gestapo, the SS. These words still frighten us today, how much more so for a teenage boy who could not know that they would eventually be defeated.
At the age of 18, as soon as he left school, he joined the army. One of his closest friends, Theo Austen, a distant relative of Jane Austen, had tried to persuade him to join a parachute regiment. Francis wisely declined, and Theo was killed in action on D-Day. Instead he joined the 60th Rifles, now known as the Royal Green Jackets, and was trained to be a lieutenant. In those days officers were chosen, not by merit, but by class. Public school boys were made officers, working class kids joined the rank and file. As a result, young men who had only just left school were put in charge of men who were older and more experienced, and this is what happened to my father. At the age of twenty, he was sent to the front line in Italy in the Autumn of 1944 after a training that was so basic it didn’t include even the most rudimentary first aid, and he soon found himself having to give orders to men who knew more about fighting than he did. Although he was only in action for 8 months, his experiences there marked him for life. Sixty years later, in his eighties, tears would still come to his eyes when he talked about the noise of shells falling all around his platoon, who were bombarded continuously for two months, and of his sense of utter helplessness when he and his men commandeered a farmhouse on the front line, only to find a young woman on her own, giving birth to a child as shells burst around them. On his first day on the front line he was told to lead his men on a patrol through No-Man’s land, only to find the Germans had spotted them and began shelling them.
A donkey ate the phone line that linked him to his colonel, they drank water from a well only to discover a dead cat in it, he had to tackle and hold on to one of his men who suddenly decided he’d had enough and wanted to bolt out of the farmhouse to run to a certain death, and of course he experienced the reality of fellow soldiers meeting their deaths under fire.
Life in Italy had its good moments, though. He used to laugh at the absurdity of it all: of the time when he locked his Sargeant Major in a cell inadvertently and left him for some time, of how he couldn’t stop his platoon dressing up as women when victory was declared, and of how they swept past the Colonel swathed in feather boas in the victory parade. He remembered his great sense of joy at hearing the famous tenor Gigli sing at a performance in the Roman baths of Caracalla, and of his sense of confusion on having his bottom pinched by a member of the Borgia family. This incident, which could have led him to a life of luxury perhaps, occurred as he took tea with a countess, whose adult daughter was evidently feeling playful at the time.
The war over he tried to pick up the thread of his education. When he was at school at Bradfield he had taken his exams for Oxford, and had been offered a place to study history at Trinity College, but on returning from Italy he decided to enrol at London University’s School of Slavonic Studies to study Russian. This was a time when many left-wing intellectuals were finding themselves attracted to communism, which Francis found infuriating. He knew about the atrocities of Stalin, and later wrote a book about the dictator’s horrendous precursor, Ivan the Terrible. Unable to cope with the prevailing sympathies of his fellow students and professors, and having failed to get a job with the Intelligence services (for which he was interviewed, in true James Bond style, at the office of an ‘Import Export Agency’ located just across from Buckingham Palace) he left the School of Slavonic Studies with a diploma, and, knowing shorthand, took on a job as private secretary to Lord Willoughby de Eresby, the MP for Rutland, who lived for some time at the Ritz, where he would receive Francis, dictating a few letters to constituents, before they took tea together. At other times they would meet in his office in the House of Lords.
By this time Francis had already met the love of his life, my mother Jane, and they were soon married – in 1948 – living first in a flat owned by the family estate in Courtfield Gardens, where my sister and I spent the first few years of our lives, and then in a house in Notting Hill Gate.
Francis tried his hand in the world of publishing, and worked on the staff of a new magazine, The Ambassador, and then got a job copy-writing for the official publisher in England to the Holy See – Burns Oates and Washbourne.

From the world of Catholic publishing he moved on to working as a history teacher for Carlisle & Gregson, a ‘crammer’s’ who had the distinction of cramming Winston Churchill after he had failed his exams at Harrow. The owner and principal of Jimmy’s, as C&G’s was known, was Ross Nichols, who would later become a Chief Druid, and who was a friend of Jane’s family when they moved from South Africa to Oxford just before the war.

Once we were all installed as a family in Notting Hill Gate, my father decided to start his own magazine, which had a unique slant. It was a history magazine, but unlike its rival History Today, it included articles on the future too, and so was called ‘Past & Future’. It ran for seven years and brought to our home a succession of scholars, eccentrics and artists. Although ‘Past & Future’ was a professionally produced magazine, Francis ran it from the dining room table at home, cutting and pasting text together with prodigious quantities of Cow-Gum: something which we now do of course on our computers with the flick of a mouse. When I was eleven I followed in his footsteps and started a magazine that I sold to school friends. He helped me buy the various bits of equipment I needed: hectographic jelly and coloured ink that I used for the first edition, then a gestetner duplicator for later editions. As he sat in the dining room bashing away at his typewriter with two fingers and snipping bits of paper to glue them down, I was bashing away with one finger in my bedroom onto wax stencils, pausing occasionally to use pink correcting fluid with its odd smell, whenever I made a mistake.
My dad arranged an interview for me with his friend and employer Ross Nichols, and I remember going along to the old Chief Druid’s house with my best friend, Jonathan Miller, to interview him about the Druids and Stonehenge. If one of a parent’s roles is to make the right connections for their kids, then he certainly did his job well that day. Jonathan went on to choose journalism as a career, and ended up working on The Times, and I went on to study Druidism with Ross.
In fact, although he was never particularly interested in spirituality himself, and actively disliked Christianity for what he called it’s ‘bloody history’, he was surrounded by friends who were keenly involved in the spiritual quest, and these included Christmas Humphreys, who founded the London Buddhist Society in 1924, Justine Glass, who wrote ‘Witchcraft, the Sixth Sense & Us’, John Michell, the great Earth Mysteries writer who died this year too, who whenever I met him would always ask kindly after my father, Martin Pares, who was deeply interested in the western esoteric tradition, and Hope & Doris Brameld, who followed the spiritual teachings of the White Eagle Lodge. And of course, he became friends with Ross Nichols, who once took him to his nudist resort in Hertfordshire, where they swam together with the founder of the modern Witchcraft movement Gerald Gardner. Nichols and Gardner are two key figures of the modern Pagan revival, and to have swum with them is equivalent, for those in that world, to having swum with people as significant as say Marx and Lenin. Unfortunately by the time I found out about this, Francis couldn’t remember what they discussed as they splashed about or sunbathed on the lawn.
Francis decided to stop publishing his magazine in the late 60s, to devote his attention instead to a new project, which he and Jane were able to work on together: ‘Residence Recitals’. Their idea was to present recitals of music, poetry and the writings of famous people in the actual houses they had lived in. The idea was elegant and simple: research blue plaque houses, find those that had rooms large enough to welcome the public, and then if permission could be obtained to hold an event, create a programme that would showcase the work of its famous resident. You can imagine that already this required considerable work, but in addition to this, over the years Francis was able to create dozens of well-crafted recitals based on published writings and private letters that he would then give to often well-known actors to read. Here he was in his element – never afraid to jump into a new role, he became an impresario, directing famous names like John Gielgud, Michael MacLiammor, and Barbara Jefford with an astonishing assurance. The final ingredient in the Residence Recitals recipe was provided by my mother who took charge of the catering, at first buying it in, and then later actually providing it herself. She knew that if you feed and water your audience you end up with a very happy crowd, who have been nourished not only culturally but physically too.
The Recitals were so successful that they ran for 12 years, by which time others had begun to copy their formula. All the while, when he was editing Past & Future or working with the recitals, Francis was also busy with his passion for solving the mystery of the authorship of the Shakespeare plays. He published articles in his magazine about it, founded The Shakespeare Authorship Information Centre, and for over thirty years, right up until he died, edited a digest of press comment about the question, that he entitled ‘The Stratford Tragi-Comedy’. He favoured the theory that Francis Bacon wrote the plays, and was a member of the Francis Bacon Society, travelling to Canonbury Tower in Islington and London University for their meetings right up until earlier this year. He also believed that Bacon wrote Don Quixote, normally attributed to Cervantes, and in 2004 his book ‘Who Wrote Don Quixote?’ was published, that laid out his theory in detail. Such was his fascination for the Shakespeare authorship question that Jane was pleased to be able to read out to him, just before he died, an article in the Sunday Telegraph that announced new developments in the authorship puzzle.
One of Francis’ greatest attributes was his active mind that constantly questioned received wisdom and enjoyed challenging the status quo.He wrote under the name of Francis Carr, dropping the Gomm, because he found it clumsy. When he was 48 his first book was published: ‘European Erotic Art’, printed rather exotically on flesh-coloured paper by the Luxor Press. This was followed nine years later by his biography ‘Ivan the Terrible’, published in 1981, and then his most successful book, ‘Mozart & Constanze’, in which he turned his passion for mysteries into trying to work out who may have killed Mozart. With luck the film ‘Amadeus’ came out a few years later in 1984, which led to the book being printed in mass paperback form in the USA the following year.
Francis was never bored. He never retired and kept on working away at his favourite subjects right to the end. In the last six months of his life he wrote a play about Pushkin, who died in a duel defending his honour in St.Petersburg. It is now being considered by the BBC. When he came to spend his last few days with us, we were planning to stage a read-through with my mother Jane, our daughters Sophia and Charlie acting as Pushkin’s wife and sisters, me as Pushkin, and my son Lawrence as his enemy Georges Dantes. To write a play when you’re 85 – that is just fantastic! But because he had indentified so much with the story in those last few months, at the last moment he said he wouldn’t be able to take it – it would be too emotional for him. Instead, during those last few days, he talked and talked, walking once out into the garden into the sunshine, but mostly lying in bed, surrounded by people he loved.
What does he leave us? In addition to his four published books and his Pushkin play, amongst his papers all the Residence Recitals scripts are there, and they would make marvellous radio productions. There is also the manuscript of a book he wrote, and dedicated to Jane, that tries to solve the mystery of who was the Dark Lady of the Sonnets, which was never published. In addition he leaves a website and stacks of papers on the Shakespeare Controversy, a collection of seven years’ editions of ‘Past and Future’, and more personally for those of us who knew him, a host of memories of his jovial talkative self: a reminder to us that it is possible, if we are as lucky as he was, that we can be active right into our old age and that we never have to toe the party line if we don’t want to. He believed we were free to change our ideas and opinions whenever we liked, and in the last few weeks of his life he decided that he was no longer interested in politics, and had become a pacifist.
Ronald Hutton, who is the Professor of History at Bristol University, and a newly appointed Commissioner of English Heritage, on hearing of Francis death, wrote to me saying that he was a ‘remarkable personality’ and ‘a significant player on the English cultural scene of his time, and although his literary causes were unorthodox, I think that posterity will be interested in them.’ We will all miss him very much. Above is a photo of him, taken in 1948, when he became engaged to my mother at the age of 24.


Responses

  1. Philip, I’m sorry to hear of your father’s passing, I know it must be a difficult time for you. He sounded like a great man. A blessing on your and your family.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your father’s story Philip. What a fascinating life! I found it very inspiring that he retained such a wonderful engagement with life right until the end. I really hope that all the lovely memories that you have of him will help in some way to get you through such a sad time. Your Dad seems like an extraordinary man and has left you a wonderful legacy, not only in his work but also in the amazing example of his having lived so well and creatively.

  3. Sorry for your loss Philip. I also lost my father about 2 weeks ago, so this article had a special resonance for me. I’m sorry I didn’t know Francis, as he was clearly a fascinating man.

  4. My condolences to you and your family, and my blessings for having such a fine man as a father and grandfather to your clan. This was truly a moving remembrance.

  5. Hello Philip,
    I was so touched by your writing about your father. I can see how he influenced your life so deeply. I think there is a lot inbetween the lines of what you wrote, too. I gather from your writing that he was with you when he died? What an honour. I was with my father 5 years ago when he died and my mother last year. Its almost like we midwife them….. How is your mother now he is gone?
    My thoughts are with you and your family, its so wonderful that your children knew their grandfather well.
    Its a very touching rememberance that you wrote I think he is very close to you even now.

  6. Wonderful to read that Philip. I so wish I could have been with you all last Sunday. Will you please email me with your email address asap – I need to ask you something. Lots of love Xxxxxxx

  7. Dear Philip,

    On very many levels and in very many ways, I too was deeply touched to hear about the passing of your father and send my love and empathy for any loss and sadness you and your loved ones may be feeling during this time.

    Thank you so much for your sharing of the remarkable richness of his life with us; his talent, diversity, openness and creativity is truly inspiring. Reading about him resonated and awakened so much in me in regard to my own parents and my partner’s parents as well the generations of our grandparents and greatgrandparents before them.

    From your lucid and loving words of a life well – and from the very well of life – lived, together with the music streaming in the silences between your lines – I sensed so much of him and the beauty of your relationship to each other – in you, in your own creativity and in the content, breathe and integrity of your own writing as well as in your passion for and service to the Order – whilst your identity and work being uniquely and unmistakably your own.

    Thank you also for telling us about the manuscript of the book he wrote, and dedicated to Jane that tries to solve the mystery of who was the Dark Lady of the Sonnets was. I adored this! Perhaps some day you will tell us more? Your mum is surely just as remarkable as he was, too!
    With Love and Blessings,
    Gabriella

  8. I’m very sorry to hear of your loss Philip. I wish you all strength and the ability to remember as much as you can. I read an Egyptian quote last year that has stayed with me – it was something along the lines of ‘Speak the name often of those who are gone and they gain immortality through the voices and minds of others.’

  9. That’s quite a life, right there.

    “his sense of confusion on having his bottom pinched by a member of the Borgia family. This incident, which could have led him to a life of luxury perhaps, occurred as he took tea with a countess, whose adult daughter was evidently feeling playful at the time.”

    I don’t blame her. From the photo, he was quite a looker in his day.

    “and in the last few weeks of his life he decided that he was no longer interested in politics, and had become a pacifist.”

    That is just brilliant. Absolutely fabulous.

    I’m sorry for your loss. I’m glad that it prompted you to write about him.

    • Thank you for writing this. I have read your father’s book ‘Who wrote Don Quixote?’ and always wanted to thank him for writing it, as it is such a rare jewel. Hardly anybody else wrote about this subject. I have done some research on it myself and find it to be the most fascinating story of our time.. I wrote to your father once before the book was published but never got to thank him for having written it. I am glad I can write to you now and express my gratitude. Your father was a wonderful man.

      • Thank you Maria! And of course it is very heartening for my mum to be able to read all these responses and to know his work was appreciated. Very best wishes, Philip

  10. I am sorry to learn of your Dad’s passing for both personal and professional reasons. The personal – sadness on the death of a man who was most obviously a charming and learned fellow, always curious and questioning. The professional – I am writing a book about the legacy of “Don Quixote,” and have just completed an extensive journey through La Mancha. I read “Who Wrote Don Quixote?” while traveling through Spain, and you may be sure it drew the most peculiar reaction.

    On my list of people to interview now that I’m back in Arizona, was your Dad. Tell me, Philip, is there someone you might recommend I correspond with by e-mail or I chat with by phone who likewise questioned Cervantes as the author of “Don Quixote”? Again, condolences from the American Southwest.

    • Dear Tom, I’ll email you directly, but it’s a lovely thought that you travelled through Spain with the book! And sadly I’m not sure there is anyone whom I can suggest you connect with over this subject. All good wishes, Philip

  11. Philip,
    What a joy it was to read your biography of your father, a labor of love I’m sure. I wish I had known him and heard his stories personally. Thank you for posting it. Blessings to you and your family, Sue

  12. This was a wonderful read, thank you so much for posting it. Your family will be in my prayers.


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