Monthly Online Book Magazine - November 2008
Rosalind Erskine: The Passion Flower Hotel
Sometimes you come across a book you bought several years ago and still treasure. I have many such books in my collection. ENID BLYTON's THE ROCKINGDOWN MYSTERY was a book I simply couldn't be without. I never had my own copy, but borrowed it from the ginger-haired twins who lived next door, and sort of hung onto it. I still have my REGENCY CLASSICS ROBIN HOOD, and KING ARTHUR.
But although you can research these books to your heart's content on the Internet, trying to find out about ROSALIND ERSKINE, author of THE PASSION FLOWER HOTEL has proved something of a headache. You can find out, of course, that ROSALIND ERSKINE's real name was ROGER ERSKINE LONGRIGG, born in Scotland in 1929 and died in 2000; that he wrote under various pseudonyms, including LAURA BLACK, GRANIA BECKFORD, MEGAN BARKER, DOMINI TAYLOR, IVOR DRUMMOND, and FRANK PARRISH. The Independent obituary for Longrigg on March 1, 2000, cites 55 books as his tally, using eight different noms de plume, all of them financially successful. For the full biography/obituary, follow this link: Roger Longrigg Obit. It does take rather a long time to load, but it's well worth the wait and utterly fascinating.
You can find scans of some of the titles written under those pseudonyms, but a search on PASSION FLOWER HOTEL comes up with multiple references to the appalling film starring Natassja Kinsski and based (loosely) on the novel, and little else of value. Yet the book, first published in paperback by PAN in 1962, has a stunning front cover, shown right, and could feasibly be described as a modern classic. A search of the best source of PAN BOOKS scans for the years up to 1970 fails to turn up this title and cover. This is my attempt to redress the balance, and give readers a chance to find out about ROGER LONGRIGG, ROSALIND ERSKINE, and above all, the sublime THE PASSION FLOWER HOTEL.
Described on AbeBooks.com by one bookseller as a "book about a British Bordello", THE PASSION FLOWER HOTEL has one of the greatest and most deliciously erotic heroines in modern British fiction. Sarah Callender attends Bryant House boarding school, where she has just finished reading a sociological study of prostitution. Being an ardent fan of the school story genre, and wishing from an early age that I could have attended boarding school, the attraction of Sarah Callender is enormous - she's the girl I always fancied, the girl I wanted to marry, (before I met my beautiful, wonderful wife, of course) and the character in school-genre fiction that I find most appealing of all. She's the culmination of all those fantastic school story heroines, the ones that tackle the hooded ghost, the ones that are popular and at the same time, inspire the greatest jealousy, the ones that grow into beautiful young girls and go on to be quite special in their own way. Does that sound too pervy? I hope not - it's a natural progression from adventure, midnight feasts and so on, to sexual precociousness and the awakening of desires and wanting to be with the opposite sex. Remember that at the time this was published, the homosexuality laws had only just been repealed in Britain:
'I expect,' I said, 'there are lots of boys like you at Longcombe.' 'Like me? In what way?' 'Lecherous but cowardly.' 'That's not quite fair.' 'Perhaps not,' I said, insincerely but diplomatically. 'I'm sorry if I sound rude. I mean I expect you are all very virile but frustrated.' 'God, yes. The maids are a wash-out.' 'Don't you have romantic feelings for smaller boys?' 'When did you ever hear that?' 'I suppose I read it.' 'Only perverted swine go in for that sort of thing.'
Seeing a marketing opportunity for her and four of her special friends, the delightful Sarah decides to form a club to investigate the possibility of selling their services to their male counterparts at the local boys' boarding school. The five girls meet in their spare time and start to draw up slogans and tarriffs for their services, until they're ready to advertise their wares.
The five, comprising Sarah, Janet, Melissa, Virginia and Mary-Rose, form "the Syndicate" and come up with the slogan "THE SYNDICATE WILL MEET YOUR NEEDS", followed by "ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS". Their selling point contains three categories: "Vision Only; Touch; and Nothing barred". Now they set about establishing a clientele, and decorate the area beneath the school gym accordingly,as the "Passion Flower Hotel". Sarah, being the brains behind the venture, manages to avoid any contact with the customers, but her fellow syndicate-members start to grow suspicious. As the term progresses, customers start to turn up with special requests, such as for girls built larger than the five fifth-formers, and the Syndicate is forced to draw in girls from outside their clique to meet these needs. Eventually the venture comes under threat of discovery, and all hell breaks loose. I won't spoil the ending for you by telling you what happens, suffice it to say that Sarah Callender is the daugher of a Baronet, and the consequences for her and her accomplices and their families could be quite serious. Here they discuss just how far they should go:
'Nothing Barred except the.....'
'The - ?'
'Ultimate,' said Janet.
'I support that,' I said. 'Thank you, Janet.'
'Ce n'est rien, cherie.'
'How do you put it, quite?' said Melissa.
'Nothing barred except, er - '
'Er - '
Melissa giggled. 'The word actually, is penetration.'
'Yes,' said Virginia doubtfully. 'It's a bit clinical.'
'Sounds like a story in the News of the World.'
'Sounds like aunts and whatnot.'
'Anyway, it's too vague,' insisted Melissa. 'We've got to say exactly what is barred. Or it's not businesslike.'
'Quite right,' I said.
'Well, but,' said Virginia, 'penetration...'
'Sounds so married.'
'Like buying a house.'
'Shut up, Melissa.'
'Invasion? Intrusion? Inclusion?'
'Shut up, Melissa. The bell will go in a sec.'
'Nothing barred short of...'
'Damn and blast. There is the bell.'
'La leçon de froggish.'
'How French I feel.'
'Entire Operative feel French?'
'Entire Operative feel très, très française. Some parts of Operative even more than others.'
'What about a French word?' said Janet. 'Nothing barred short of...quelquechose.'
Now this passage of conversation could have come from any one of a dozen classic school stories - only the subject matter is different and perhaps a little risqué. The book is actually nothing more than a "rites-of-passage" for Sarah and her chums, while the writing is nothing short of inspired. Here the syndicate draw up their tariff for the boys of nearby Longcombe School:
LIST OF CHARGES
'The Syndicate Will Meet Your Needs'
'Actions Speak Louder Than Words.'
THE PASSION FLOWER HOTEL is a delightful read, hilarious and observant at the same time, written at the time when Britain was emerging from the Dark Ages of censorship - LADY CHATTERLEY'S LOVER had just been published after a lengthy and attention-grabbing legal battle. Authors were falling over themselves to write material that broke the bounds of decency and censorship. ERSKINE's approach was to take the establishment and paint it as quaintly and wittily as he could without descending into the depths of salaciousness and depravity. Public School reputations were already in tatters at the beginning of the 1960s with the various spy scandals and the emergence of closet homosexuals as Britain lowered its standards. THE PASSION FLOWER HOTEL manages to amuse and to titivate without explicit sexual content, with just the suggestion of impropriety at a top English Girls' Boarding School, something that may have taken place then, possibly still takes place, and would no doubt shock the parents even in an era when anything goes and the British public are apparently unshockable.
THE PASSION FLOWER HOTEL spawned a sequel, PASSION FLOWERS IN ITALY, not as good as the original, but worth a look, and easier to find than the original in online booksellers. Whilst the plot is decidedly lightweight, there are some fabulous opne-liners and observations on the upper class. We get to meet Sarah's parents and sister in more detail, and Sarah is her usual brilliant, frothy, pithy, delightful self. But the story lets it down. What's more, the cover has Sarah's name misspelt as CALLENDAR... A third book, PASSION FLOWERS IN BUSINESS (see panel right for cover) is much harder to find, and not really worth a mention here. Looking forward, PASSION FLOWER HOTEL is crying out for a proper sequel, one in which Sarah is readmitted through the doors of Bryant House to have further scintillating sexual awakenings, perhaps with a new male member of staff - watch this space, as they say!
It was also produced as a film, as I've already mentioned, stage play and a radio play. Now the radio play is something altogether different, with a brilliant script by an extremely talented playwrite, BERT COULES, who kindly furnished me with links to some comprehensive background information on the author. The play was aired on BBC RADIO and starred the delightful MOIR LESLIE as Sarah Callender. This would have been in the late 1970s/early 1980s, and it is to my lasting regret that I ditched my cassette recording of this lovely production when I started to convert all my cassettes to CDs. I wonder if the BBC could be persuaded to issue it as an audio CD....now there's a thought.
As ROSALIND ERSKINE, Longrigg manages to achieve the impossible, to get inside the heads of the girls at Bryant House boarding school. He thinks like a girl, and he fooled everyone in 1962 into thinking he was a woman; it was only years later, via the Daily Express's William Hickey column that we learned his true identity. PASSION FLOWER HOTEL was a masterpiece, a modern classic, a novel that you can read in one sitting, just 155 pages (PAN edition), and one that occasionally sells in antique booksellers' for £150 or more. I've seen it at boot sales for 20p - what a bargain! And, of course, it was published at a time when Pan Books dominated the mass market with their eye-catching and colourful covers, brilliantly illustrated by one the most talented cover artists around at the time. This book is sheer joy. A modern classic if ever there was one, and a book I could simply not be without. The front cover is sublime, a picture, undoubtedly, of Sarah Callender herself, photo-realistic and saucy. Described as "by Nabokov out of Angela Brazil", The Passion Flower Hotel is witty, erotic, scandalous and so thoroughly enjoyable, I really wish it was the one book I'd written myself, and I remain in awe of the great ROGER ERSKINE LONGRIGG..