Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Bastille Day in France. In England it is The Day of the Scarlet Pimpernel

Bastille Day marks the beginning of modern France. For her there were yet to come many changes of direction (revolution, restoration, followed by more revolution, wars, occupation, resistance and liberation). But on this special day for France, I always think that Englishmen should spare a thought for Sir Percy Blakeney and his League of The Scarlet Pimpernel. They were the creation of Baroness Orczy, and, under the heavy disguise of useless foppery, Sir Percy was, in fact, the template for every modern action hero, from Captain W E Johns' Biggles to Ian Fleming's James Bond and even of Marvel Comics' Spider Man. In her autobiography Links in The Chain of Life (Hutchinson, 1947), she tells us of his creation or, more accurately, his arrival.

After having been to see a newspaper editor in Fleet Street about the writing of a romantic story, she made her way homeward to Kensington, feeling slightly depressed:

"It was a dreary, foggy day in November - in fact a typical London day. My way lay by underground and presently I found myself on the platform of the Temple Station, waiting for my west-bound train......You came to me on that dreary, dismal afternoon in November, out of the London fog and fumes of the underground railway. You walked along the platform, looking about you through your quizz-glass. You had on your magnificent coat of many capes and billows of exquisite Mechlin lace showed at your throat and wrists. And I heard your voice, the voice that once called to nineteen English gentlemen to risk their lives at a word from you to save the weak and innocent from persecution and from death, and I heard your funny, inane laugh which, more than a hundred years ago was the clarion call to heroism and self-sacrifice."

Since I read that passage, Temple Underground has always seemed to me to be bathed in glamour and what boy's childhood is complete without reading The Scarlet Pimpernel and seeing Alexander Korda's 1934 film of the book, starring Leslie Howard; Merle Oberon and Raymond Massey?

"They seek him here, they seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere:
Is he in Heaven, or is he in hell,
That demmed illusive Pimpernel?


  1. The columns on the platform of Temple Underground are spectacular. I noticed them for the first time a couple of months ago on my way to an AGM and happen to have a camera on me. A young couple looked at me, taking photos of the columns, as if I had lost my mind... I hope they manage to preserve the station rather than 'renovate' it!

  2. So do I! They ruined stations such as Highgate by removing glorious, long, wooden escalators, in a knee-jerk reaction to the King's Cross fire. People need to look around more at what is right there - and look up and look down. The roof span of Paddington Station is also worth a study.