Wednesday, July 21, 2010


A stack of my grandfather's typewritten memoirs sits in a cubby next to my computer, ready to be picked up and idled through whenever procrastination strikes. I discovered Bunny Chantrill during such a moment.

I flashed off an email to my father (we Chantrills are an email clan, rather than a phone clan): "Dad! Did you know your father had a cousin named Bunny who played Rugby for England in the 1920s?"

He'd heard.

"Well, why didn't you tell me?"

I already knew the answer to that question. Chantrills beat their chests about famous ancestors as often as they pick up the telephone, which is almost never. It's not surprising that poor old Bunny is dispatched with a short paragraph in "I Remember: Volume I":
One of Sylvia's brothers, Bevan Stanislaw, b. 11 February 1897, was named for [my grandfather's] father and also called Stasho by the family, he played Rugby for England. He was known as Bunny, and this later proved an embarrassment for [my grandfather] when he played Rugby for the Wasps, as everyone expected him to be another Bunny Chantrill. When last heard of, Bunny was in South Africa.
With my grandfather's memory so little forthcoming, I turned to Google, and holy crap it turns out Bunny was a legend. According to the Bristol Rugby website:
"Bunny" Chantrill was one of the most capable full backs to have donned a Bristol jersey. A small but immensely powerful man, he relished the physical side of the game. Tackling was his forte, and countless attacking players were "Chantrilled", as the local press described his powerful tackling... After a couple of seasons during which Chantrill terrorised sundry attackers he was selected for England. He played for all four matches in the 1924 championship in which England won the Grand Slam. He had an exceptional game against Scotland, a hugely talented side, and it was only through his courage and appetite for the tackle that England won.
As I dug deeper, I discovered that Bunny's Rugby-playing career had been interrupted by the First World War, in which he'd served as a second lieutenant in the Queen's Own Hussars, Gloucestershire Regiment, before joining the Royal Flying Corps in early 1918, the final year of the war. About his war record itself I found little, but if he survived four years as a junior officer on the Western Front, he must have been either wildly lucky on the battlefield, or wildly lucky in his postings. From our postmodern vantage, it's easy to speculate that his fearless tackling on the playing field might have reflected the psychological impact of the war. Unless, of course, it's the other way around: that he survived the war, physically and mentally, because of his ability to attack without fear. "I love tackling more than anything else in rugby," he's reported to have said. "What a glorious feeling it is."

By 1929, age and injury had put an end to Bunny's Rugby career, and he left England to mine for gold in South Africa. He stayed there until his death in 1988, serving in the South Africa Air Force in the Second World War and outliving two wives.

There are several Rugby and World War I websites with pages devoted to Bunny Chantrill, many of them stuffed with grainy images of my broad-shouldered cousin, standing cross-armed in a blood-spattered jersey or flying toward his opponent on a cigarette card. My favorite has him shaking hands with King George before the Scotland match in 1924, a white plaster flashing above his right eye. He has a distinctive strong-featured face, so you can pick him out easily without looking at the captions.

But for all that biography out there on the internet, the public remains unaware of the most salacious detail of all, one that would have ROCKED middle-class interwar Britain to its CORE! Yes, folks, listen up! For two paragraphs above Bunny's notation in "I Remember: Volume I", my grandfather reveals the following:
[Bunny's mother's father] Northam had kept two separate establishments: one, the legitimate one, in Bristol, and a second one in Kidderminster, where he was frequently absent on business. Neither wife knew of the other until Northam died and his will was read, distributing his estate between his two families. [Bunny's] mother inherited the great house in Bristol.
Nothing more is said about the scandal, my grandfather being a Chantrill. But damn my eyes if it doesn't have the makings of a juicy novel.

Monday, July 12, 2010


My father, raised in the London suburbs on postwar rationing and imperial decline, filled my childhood with gloomy British aphorisms. Youth is wasted on the young. Many are called, few are chosen. I'm glad I can't remember most of them, because they're all showing a disturbing tendency to be proven true.

He did give me one piece of practical advice. If you must write, he told me, with a sorrowful shake of his head, go off and do something else first. Otherwise you'll have nothing to write about except writing.

Of course, he was right about that too. At age thirty-seven, I've finally sold my first novel and started a weblog, and I've got so much to write about I hardly know where to start. I'll blog about history, about current events, about motherhood, about publishing, about my upcoming novel, about (pace, Dad) writing. I might even throw in a post about Tiger Woods, in a desperate attempt to gather more hits.

This blog stands for a lot of things. It stands for hearty breakfasts and dark chocolate, for going out running even when the weather sucks, for classic literature and trashy novels, for old-fashioned dinner parties and new House episodes and champagne cocktails and listening to the other side of the story.

And I guess it also stands for following your father's advice. Most of the time.

What do you stand for?