The Empress of Ireland (No. 51)
Christopher Robbins, The Empress of Ireland, Slightly Foxed Edition No. 51
Christopher Robbins, The Empress of Ireland, Slightly Foxed Edition No. 51
Christopher Robbins, The Empress of Ireland, Slightly Foxed Edition No. 51
  • Pages: 384
  • Format: 110 x 170mm
  • Publication date: 1 June 2020
  • Producer: Smith Settle
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Binding: Cloth hardback
  • Trimmings: Coloured endpapers; silk ribbon, head- & tailband; gold blocking to spine; blind blocking to front
  • NB: Hand-numbered limited edition of 2,000
  • ISBN: 9781910898451
  • Preface: Antony Wood
  • Number in SFE series: 51
Made in Britain

The Empress of Ireland (No. 51)

A Chronicle of an Unusual Friendship

Christopher Robbins

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The subtitle to this delicious book is ‘A Chronicle of an Unusual Friendship’, and it would indeed be difficult to imagine two more unlikely companions than its author and his subject, the 80-year-old gay Irish film-maker Brian Desmond Hurst.

The straight and very English Robbins was young, green and broke when he was first introduced to Hurst by a bogus Count he’d met in Spain, as a possible scriptwriter for a forthcoming film. It was an unusual interview, conducted at a drunken lunch party in Hurst’s grand but shabby Belgravia drawing-room. To his astonishment, with no questions asked and no scriptwriting experience, Robbins was offered the job. The film, he learned, was to be a great religious epic covering ‘the events leading up to the birth of Christ’.

During the coming months as Robbins struggled to get his head round this fantastic commission for which he knew he was spectacularly ill-suited, he began to realize that he had indeed entered a fantasy world. Hurst, he discovered, really did have a distinguished past as a prolific if maverick film-maker who had worked with all the leading British stars of his day. Now he was old and on his uppers and living in the past. Yet with a fearful inevitability, the innocent Robbins was gradually drawn into Hurst’s louche and irresistibly irresponsible world, where rent boys mingled with dodgy members of the upper classes, and where champagne flowed but the milk bill was never paid. (‘Are you bi-sexual?’ he asked Hurst, after one particularly puzzling episode. ‘I’m tri-sexual,’ was the answer. ‘The Army, the Navy and the Household Cavalry.’)

Haughty, outrageous, infuriating, manipulative, Hurst was all those things, yet he was also witty, spirited, clear-eyed, often generous and always entertaining. The great religious epic was never made of course, Robbins was never paid and the script was never finished. But in The Empress of Ireland he produced a comic masterpiece, a picture of a particular kind of gay life in the 1970s, and of a wickedly unapologetic old rogue it’s impossible not to like.

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Comments & Reviews

  1. Christopher Robbins’s method is of chronological revelation – we learn about Hurst as Robbins does, and he takes us deeper and deeper into his world, his history and his nature, stripping away the layers like peeling an onion. It is no surprise that one of Hurst’s best friends was the legendary blagueur and international conman Gerald Hamilton, upon whom Christopher Isherwood based his Mr Norris; Robbins’s relationship with Hurst is deeply similar to that of William Bradshaw (Isherwood’s alter ego) and Norris, and the book offers a kind of joint portrait, with Robbins constantly outwitted and wrong-footed by his outrageous partner, whom he comes, in some peculiar way, to love . . .

    The Empress of Ireland is a fine book about the liberating friendship of opposites, about the masks of personality, about the coming of wisdom. It is also endlessly funny and brilliantly colourful. Something of a masterpiece, in fact.

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