This week I went to a celebration of the extraordinary life of Patricia Denise Clark, whom I knew as distinguished romantic novelist, Claire Lorrimer. It would have been her 96th birthday. It was unforgettable — a truly remarkable occasion.
Remarkable for one thing because it was held in Chelsea Old Church, which was already old when Sir Thomas More worshipped there, and which was destroyed when a parachute landmine fell nearby on the night of the 16th-17th April 1941. The blast blew the Tower over onto the church, destroying it utterly, one would have said.
Yet, against the odds, unlike 19 churches in the City and countless others throughout the country, it was restored. There is a gripping account on the wondrous London Inheritance blog; and, indeed, a fine book Chelsea Old Church, the Church that Would Not Die by Alan Russet and Tom Pocock, with a foreword by John Simpson CBE, world affairs editor of the BBC.
The Battle of Britain started on 10 July 1940. Hitler issued Directive No. 16 on 16th. To enable Operation Sea Lion, the British Air Force was to be eliminated before invasion. By mid September General Alan Brooke (as he then was) was writing in his diary “Will it be tomorrow?” You can see it, hand-written, in the Cabinet War Rooms. Chilling.
Also in July 1940, 19 year-old Pat Robins (as she then was) joined the WAAF — by mistake. She had stormed out, after insisting that her boss pay her the same salary as a twenty-one-year old for doing the same job or she would join the Army. Only she couldn’t find an Army recruiting office. So the RAF had to do.
Even so, she failed the eye test without her glasses and nearly didn’t get in. So she put on her glasses, memorised the bottom three lines of the sight-test card, took off the glasses and joined a different queue.
And almost at once she found herself working with the Dowding System, which used new and highly classified RADAR to plot incoming planes. She and her colleagues, like those at Bletchley Park, were sworn to a secrecy that continued for thirty years after the end of the war.
She was a Filterer, a complex role, requiring her to turn conflicting information into a coherent picture of incoming aircraft. She and her fellow WAAFs did ground-breaking work, according to Aviation Expert Tim Willbond. The RAF promoted her early and as high as they could imagine a woman going — to Deputy Filter Centre Control Officer. Some compensation — they have put a figure inspired by her into their exhibit in Bentley Priory Museum, the opening of which she attended, see above.
The daughter and granddaughter of romantic novelists, Claire was already writing stories for women’s magazines during the War.
It earned her petrol money to take herself and her girl friends to NAAFI dances.
After the war, she followed her mother, Queen of Romance, Denise Robins, and wrote full-length light romance. Robins legitimately claimed the title before her great friend Barbara Cartland. Before the War, buses could be seen in London bearing the slogan, “Robins for Romance” .
She followed his advice. (Even though she had never been very keen on history.)
The result was Mavreen, 2 million sales in its first year, several weeks on the New York Times best seller list and a whole new career trajectory.
Mind you, she was displeased that her publisher insisted the heroine marry the Vicomte instead of the highwayman, and set off on a sequel to remedy the situation.
Always ready to experiment, Claire wrote books in a variety of periods and genres as her invention led her. She set herself and her advisers high standards. “Exacting” was the word her friend and long time PR guru Tony Mulliken used. Ruefully.
She also stayed up to date with every development in publishing. Indeed, the first time I met her face to face was to celebrate the launch of some of her most popular titles as e-books. With glamorous new covers and updated blurbs, they found an enthusiastic audience. She had just finished her latest book only a few weeks before she died. And had ideas for another story.
We left the church to the strains of The Entertainer played on the organ. As I said, Remarkable. An honour and a great pleasure to have known her.
I salute you, ma’am.