The Full Story Of ‘Maryann’ & The Missing Book
Earlier this week a reader pointed out that a copy of Maryann Forrest’s extraordinary and prescient ‘HERE: Away From It All’ is currently selling on eBay for 450 squids. That’s an astonishing thing to have happened to a forgotten novel, but for those of you who missed the full story of Maryann Forrest and the Missing Book, I’ll attempt to explain it all here. I’ve covered the unfolding of this particular tale in dribs and drabs, but now I’ve put together the full story.
Several years ago, now, I wrote a very early ‘Invisible Ink’ column from the Independent on Sunday that went like this.
This column requires two kinds of detective work; I track down the authors, but if you’re interested, you have to locate the books. Throughout the process, one author has continued to block further investigation. I knew the Australian-born Maryann Forrest was someone to check out when I read a description of her in Time Out as ‘a stunning writer, so superb and alive a talent’. Then Anthony Burgess picked up on her first and only major novel, describing it as ‘deeply disturbing’ but ‘a keen literary pleasure’. ‘Here (Away From It All)’ is an adult ‘Lord Of The Flies’ involving wealthy holidaymakers instead of schoolchildren. A Greek island has been ruined by opportunistic tourism; overrun with timeshares and package tours, its natives have been marginalised and employed as service personnel. One day an unspecified world event occurs which ends all contact with the island, so that foreign currency is suddenly rendered worthless. Hotel guests find themselves paying their bills with watches, rings and necklaces. But when the material goods run out, they need something else to barter with. And as the rules of civility become ever more strained, the islanders start to exact revenge.
The protagonist, a young mother, watches in horror as the unnamed island – the world in microcosm – breaks down into rebellion and anarchy. The revengers have Greek names but there is no racism here, because a silver thread of humanity runs through the characters, thus refusing easy demonization, and the heroine remains upbeat even as all hope fades. The tale is post-apocalyptic and descends inexorably to a horrifying climax, but is written from a deeply personal viewpoint. Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ is probably the only book that comes close in its bleak subject matter. Written in 1970, ‘Here’ feels alarmingly prescient, but when I tried to find out more about its author I drew a total blank. One editor suggested that she had actually escaped the world by moving to the Greek island described in her novel, but this seems unlikely as there are two other books, ‘Us Lot’ and ‘Immaculate Misconception’, written within three years of her first. It appears she was using a pseudonym, and although there are plenty of Mary Ann Forrests listed in the Australian electoral rolls, the trail runs cold after that. Perhaps a reader can help? All three books can still be found cheaply on the internet, but there are no reprints.
I followed the article up with this:
A few weeks ago I asked if anyone knew what had happened to Maryann Forrest. Her brilliant first novel ‘Here (Away From It All)’ received wide praise, but when I tried to track down the author, the trail ended in Australia. One editor suggested that she lived on the Greek island where her book was set, but I couldn’t see her doing that unless she was prepared to be lynched by the locals. This week I received a letter which began; ‘My first husband came across your piece about Maryann Forrest, asking if anyone knows where she is. Yes I know, for I am she.’
I visited Polly Hope, visual artist and opera librettist, in London’s Spittalfields, where she thrives in her graceful art-filled studio house, along with four dogs, a cat, chickens and friends, and found she had adopted an alias (she had an Australian grandmother) to write the novel. Polly was living in Greece during the period of the military junta, and would very likely have faced deportation upon publication. This raises an idea I hadn’t considered; Perhaps other authors were also successful polymaths who simply sought to pursue varied careers. Polly covered her tracks so successfully that her three books are tough to find, but she has an unfinished novel waiting, so I’ll end optimistically and ask a publisher to rediscover her uniquely powerful voice.
What I didn’t explain that on Midsummer’s Eve, Polly’s birthday, she always threw the most astonishing parties. I became a regular visitor to her house and we spent many afternoons arguing about art and literature. Here’s part of a piece I wrote for The Times about one such visit:
You never know what’s behind a London door, especially when you’re visiting the house of a woman who doesn’t exist. I’d been searching for a missing novelist, and the trail led to Spittalfields, in London’s oldest surviving quarter.
Behind the door was what I first took to be a farm; there was a cobbled courtyard with a gilt hen-house, chickens, dogs, cats and sundry shrieking birds. Here, on Midsummer’s Eve, a concert was to be held, taking its theme from the zodiac. Its creator was a tall, elegant woman dressed in white who introduced herself as a visual artist and opera librettist. Beyond stood a studio filled with sculptures, and a barn with a chandelier that on closer inspection proved to be made of jam-jars, bicycle wheels and kitchen utensils. It was a world apart from the rowdy curry-hustlers of Brick Lane. As the guests gathered, I considered their hostess’s remarkable career.
In 1969, a young author called Maryann Forrest wrote a novel that shocked the critics. The book was championed by Anthony Burgess, who found it ‘a keen literary pleasure’. Unusually, there were no biographical details on its cover. When I tried to trace its creator I drew a blank. How could someone described by Time Out as ‘so superb and alive a talent’ simply disappear? One publisher suggested that she had moved to the Greek island of her novel, but I’d discovered she had written two further books. On the back cover of one, Forrest – blonde and attractive, but reticent and unsmiling – had been photographed glancing away from the camera, surrounded by life-sized fairytale paintings in a pose that recalled Alice In Wonderland.
Polly was born into an aristocratic family. Her father, General Sir Hugh Stockwell, had been a protégé of Monty, and had commanded the Anglo-French forces during the Suez crisis. His daughter trained as a dancer, grew too tall, and decamped to art school.
Moving to Rhodes, Polly married and bore a son. Running the family involved dealing with an endless parade of friends and relatives, so she elicited a few hours’ work a day from everyone, beginning with a task list left out at breakfast. ‘My husband and I lived by the week,’ she explained. ‘We didn’t scratch each other, but no great plans ever came together.’ With a partner who felt that no gentleman should ever work, Polly started writing because she needed the money. ‘Here’ garnered raves, and led to her second novel, ‘Us Lot’, which captures the thrill of being young, directionless and alive to the world’s possibilities. It’s a sexually precocious work, remarkably clear-eyed about the motives of men on the make.
Polly admits she was drawn to fables, and the timelessness of storytelling. She continued to a claustrophobic and mysterious third novel, ‘The Immaculate Misconception’, inspired by her own family, illustrating it herself, then switched to a bewildering array of media including ceramics, murals, tapestries, fountains, photography, jewelry, portraits, embroidery, bronzes, operas, even ecclesiastical vestments. She’s as happy knocking up a wedding dress as she is designing a statue in Hyde Park. One wall of her house quirkily commemorates her menagerie of past pets.
Being a female artist was a less acceptable profession when she began her career, but Polly has since become something of a global phenomenon. It’s not hard to see why; there’s a pleasing warmth in her work that holds universal appeal. Her designs for the German production of ‘Kiss Me Kate’ last year are vibrant and gloriously decorative. Drafting in studio helpers from friends and family, she continues to produce an astonishing range of art. ‘Never go near my mother,’ says her son, ‘because she’ll always find work for you.’ Her creations range from something the height of a building to objects that can be placed in a matchbox. In Tokyo she produced a vast tree 23 floors high in just a month. ‘The idea was so you could see where you were when you got out of the lift,’ she explains, ‘at the root, the trunk or in the topmost branches.’
At London’s Barbican complex Polly created a 1,400 square metre mural, writing a clause into the contract warning that they could not stick posters over it. When this happened (with a grim inevitability that seems to afflict the Barbican) she took the matter to court and the mural was eventually painted out. She says they can always uncover it again.
It’s rare to find someone working in so many different artistic spheres. ‘I’m a Gemini,’ she explains, ‘so everything came in pairs; two husbands, two countries, two careers.’ Her second husband was Theo Crosby. ‘Whenever we signed into American hotels as Crosby and Hope, the desk clerks fell about laughing.’
She was introduced to her largest project by her husband, who had been appointed the architect of the Globe Theatre by Sam Wanamaker. The task was to occupy the next twenty five years of Hope’s life, and was completed after hours as charity work. Her designs ranged from statuary to stonework, from backdrops to busts.
Moving into music, she became a librettist. She enjoys collaboration but not community art, and believes that a benign dictatorship starts at her front gate. ‘I just make things,’ she explains, ‘I’m a jobbing artist. But nothing has ever come easily. It’s as hard now as it always was.’
The zodiac concert is joyous, but I’m fascinated by the hundred-plus guests who have attended. They look like present-day members of the Bloomsbury group. A tall, poker-thin lady who might be a modern Edith Sitwell, another dressed entirely in parrot feathers, a florid gentleman whose latest collection of ribald poetry, ‘Sodomy Is Not Enough’ is being tipped as a coming cult – you might expect to stumble across them on some country estate, but they seem entirely at home sandwiched between the Balti houses of the East End.
Meanwhile, Polly has an unfinished historical novel waiting in her desk. I suspect she’s keen to be given a deadline to finish it; repose doesn’t come naturally to ‘jobbing artists’. As I leave, I hope that a publisher will rediscover her unique voice. She feels her best work always lies ahead. ‘After all, Verdi produced one of his great operas, ‘Falstaff’, at eighty,’ she reminds me, lighting a cigarette. And then the door is shut, and the chaos of Brick Lane closes about me once more.
Polly and I continued to be great friends until her death. Her clear-eyed lack of sentimentality singled her out as a unique person, and I miss her terribly. To her old friends I no doubt seemed like the (comparatively) young chancer who tipped up out of the blue looking to sell a story on her. Nothing would have been further from the truth. Just before her death, she put her books out in electronic versions and even painted a new jacket for a hardcover release of ‘HERE: Away From It All’. I have owned the original since my twenties, and have her reprint before. In it, on the dedication page, it says ‘To Chris – thank you for finding me.’ She was always there, not waiting to be found at all, just getting on with things, but I think she did enjoy readers rediscovering her work. Sadly, Polly had completed the first volume of a planned historical trilogy – it was superb, but we could find no publisher for it. She had also written a libretto for ‘Tanks’, an opera about her father, which I saw and was given a recording of – it’s superb. There are people who simply have too many talents, and cannot find uses for them fast enough.