Fairly recently I bought a copy of Lost Empires by J.B. Priestley and when I realised it was published in 1965 I decided to read it for The 1965 Club which is hosted by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings.
Lost Empires is supposedly an account of Richard Herncastle’s life on the variety stage. It begins in 1913, Richard is a young aspiring watercolour artist, he’s the nephew of Nick Ollanton a very famous stage magician and when his Uncle Nick offers him a job as one of his assistants in his act Richard agrees to join his merry band.
They tour around Britain playing in music halls, most of them being called ‘The Empire’. Uncle Nick is a bit of a tartar and is particularly harsh with his female assistant Cissie who is also his ‘bit on the side’. But Cissie is lonely and interested in Nick, he’s besotted with Nancy who is one of the other turns on the music hall bill. Nancy isn’t interested in him though and it’s the much older Julie from yet another variety act who he ends up having a rather torrid liaison with. She’s part of the popular comedian Tommy Beamish’s act and also his squeeze on the side, so it’s a dangerous affair for both Richard and Julie. All of the men have been targeted by Nonie – yet another female on the variety bill. She’s one of those women who love to tease men by shoving her bits up against them whenever she can.
I particularly liked Doris who appears towards the end of the book. She’s one of those women who is permanently angry. “She was a devoted wife but only in a furious way, as if being married to Archie was the last straw.” Well – it made me laugh!
I’m not going to say anything else about the plot for fear of ruining it for anyone who might decide to read it. It’s ages since I read anything by Priestley and I have to say, I loved The Good Companions in the past and don’t know why it took me so long to read anything else by him. There’s great writing and some wonderful characters, especially the female ones and for me some laugh out loud moments. Although this book was published in 1965 it pointed out the problem that younger women had with older and more powerful men taking advantage of them – all very topical now.
Apparently this book was dramatised for Granada TV in 1986 starring Colin Firth as Richard Herncastle.