My Great Aunt Norah's wartime diaries, 1938-1948
In the beginning, there was a handsome prince.
This page from Norah’s 1938 diary is titled ‘Crazes’. It is one of the blank ‘Memoranda’ pages that follows all the printed information thought to be suitable for a teenage girl: dates of Bank Holidays, postage rates, suggested careers for women, sovereigns of England, British Prime Ministers, the lighting up table, Latin verbs, and much more besides.
These blank pages are where Norah bursts into the diaries with her own interests and enthusiasms. In case it is hard to decipher, the page above reads as follows: Crazes: Bira, Jimmie, Eric, Woolley, Arthur, Bernard, Fish – Henry, Bira, Marionette, Frank. This particular enthusiasm? Boys!
Let’s start, as Norah did, with Bira, or B. Bira, as he signed himself in her autograph book in September 1938, or to use his full title, His Royal Highness Prince Birabongse Bhanudej Bhanubandh of Siam, the young racing driver who shot to fame at Brooklands in 1935.
Source: ‘The Prince of Motorsport Part 1′, http://www.vivaf1.com/blog/?p=6320
When he began motor racing in the mid 1930s, Bira cut a dashing figure. His wife, a seventeen year old art student when he met her in 1934, later wrote that he was ‘beautifully proportioned, with a slim waist and hips, broad shoulders and very strong arms and legs: I found him incredibly good-looking. His black hair shone with Brylcreem. He had smooth, pale gold skin … and he was a wonderful dancer” (The Prince & I: My Life with Prince Bira of Siam (1992), p. 18). Bira’s car, famously pale blue with a yellow trim in the colours of the Siamese national flag, was the inspiration for what fashionably became known as ‘Bira blue’. 1935 was the year of his first Grand Prix at Donington Park and we can guess that young Norah, then aged ten, began her fandom then.
The race track at Donington had opened amidst great local excitement in 1931. The main gates were half a mile or less from Hill Top, a short walk in a southerly out-of-town direction down the main Nottingham-Ashby road. An alternative route was by way of the ‘gap ticket’ favoured by Norah and her older sister, Helen. Crossing the fields towards Donington Hall, keeping the fenced edge of the race track close by to their left, once out of view they would shin up a low-branched tree and, taking care not to snag frocks or graze thighs on the knotty wood, shuffle along the branch to clear the perimeter fence. Hearts racing, Helen and Norah would drop cleanly into the race track grounds like burglars in the night, brushing themselves down and making for the crowd.
My guess is that it took Norah’s mother some time to accept this minor criminal act and that while she just about managed to turn a blind eye to the antics of her grown up daughter, for a few years she deemed young Norah too young to take part. We can assume that she had already relented by 1937, when Bira came third in the T. T. Race at the Park. Unless, of course, Norah’s brothers and sister brought the signed scrap of paper (below) home for her as a consolation. In the spring of 1938, however, when Bira came to Donington to compete in the British Empire Trophy Race, Norah had just turned thirteen, and there was no stopping her.
Norah’s diary, 12th January 1938: Bira was married at Siamese Legation to Ceril Heycock. Packed my school books. Mild. Rainy. Norah’s first mention of Bira is just two weeks into her first-ever diary, when she notes his marriage to Ceril Heycock, a young English art student, and (the day before) the launch of her wedding present yacht. I wonder if Norah read the newspaper interview where he jokingly discussed his post-wedding plans, telling a Penang journalist ‘My Bride will Drive on Honeymoon’.
Norah noted Bira’s triumph at the Crystal Palace Trophy Race on 2nd April 1938. Days later, he was on his way up to Donington Park.
6th April 1938: Practised on the piano. Cars practising on the track all day. Cold Sunny.
7th April: Bira crashed in two cars. Went up to garden and brought back narcissi and primroses. Cars practising on the track & a man injured and taken to hospital. Sunny.
8th April: H[elen] & M[arsie] went to play called ‘Philidda.’ Went to bed early. Felt excited. Went to Isley Walton with Helen and came back with Joe. Lovely morning.
9th April: Went to Park with Helen. Man stopped us. Saw Bira and got his autograph. Saw his wife. Dodson won, Bira second. Close, dullish.
10th April: Got up late because of the Daylight Saving. Saw Bira and his wife going home. I saw Bira’s van going back. Lovely, sunny.
11th April: Washday. Awful. Helen went to work. Scrubbed the living room in the afternoon. Saw pictures of Bira in the papers. Bill gave me them.
From the cottage at Hill Top, Norah could hear the whirring of the engines all day long as they careered round Coppice Corner, down Starkey’s Straight and into the Melbourne Loop. Helen and Joe added fuel to her fire, walking with her to the high sloping pastures at Isley Walton which provided a better vantage point as the cars practiced for the race. When the big day arrived, Norah and Helen scaled the fence looking for another free ‘gap ticket’ and, almost thwarted by a vigilant official, slipped into the event. Afterwards, when Bira had finished in second place, they clamoured for his autograph. Norah’s lifelong love of motor-racing was formed here. My mum and I found newspaper cuttings about Formula One champions inside her kitchen cupboards in the days after she died.
You’ll see from the list that Bira was back again in September, when Norah was a bit disappointed by his performance but still managed to go ‘crazy over him again’.
So what was it with Bira, the prince from Siam? I am reminded of sociologist Angela McRobbie’s research on Jackie magazine in the 1960s and 1970s, where she emphasises the safety of the celebrity pin-up, as young girls test out their romantic and sexual feelings in a safe space.
In addition, Bira’s young English wife was only a few years older than Norah. Did she fantasise about such a life for herself, the fairy tale made seemingly more achievable through the faux intimacy with which celebrity and royal lifestyles were presented in newspapers and newly affordable magazines?
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