Holly Eley: Writer for 'Rolling Stone' and editor with the 'TLS' who later became a gamekeeper
Friday 24 September 2010
Holly Eley, literary editor-turned-gamekeeper, was born in 1940 in Leeds, where her father, Bruce Urquhart-Pollard of Craigston, was serving in the army. He ended the war as a Major in the Engineers, his most important military work securing the national supply of timber to make pit props for the mines. He had gained his knowledge of forestry at his ancestral castle in Aberdeenshire, which he inherited, along with its large mortgage.
Unlike most lairds of his generation Urquhart disdained shooting and fishing in favour of planting trees, hundreds of acres of them. While he reforested and restored the achingly beautiful castle, built in 1604-07, he and his wife Bobs, who had trained as a painter at art school, sent Holly to boarding school in Hertfordshire. She excelled academically, and at 16 was offered a place at St Hilda's College, Oxford, which her father vetoed.
Instead he sent her to be finished at Schule Schloss Salem, Kurt Hahn's school, governed by a Leadership Council that included the pupils. It was emphasised that the school could only run efficiently if the students shared the responsibility for discipline. Holly chafed under this regimen, and finally absconded because she could not bring herself to inform on a Greek princess. She pitched up in Rome, where she had family connections, until her parents relented and arranged for her to board there. She used most of her time to look at pictures, and fell in love with Fabrizio Pratesi, from an upper-class Roman family and only a couple of years older than herself.
Oddly enough, given her parents' views and her own temperament, Holly returned to London in 1958 to come out. She was one of the last group of 1,400 young women to be presented to the queen as debutantes. While doing the season, she got a job as a sort of runner for Eric Estorick, the American sociologist and collector, specialising in Italian modern art, who in 1963 opened the Grosvenor Gallery. Between 1960 and 1964 he made 14 trips to the Soviet Union, and Holly was involved in the excitement, with its whiff of Cold War danger and hint of art intrigue.
Holly and Patresi lived in Rome and a property in Tuscany. Holly soon had two children, and also worked, a little mysteriously, as private secretary/researcher to the future Italian Prime Minister, Giulio Andreotti, maintaining his cuttings book and personal files. He sent a Christmas card every year, and she maintained a discreet silence about her work for him, remaining loyal throughout his trials. She would say only that nearly everybody in Italian public life was tainted by the Mafia.
Private life in Rome at the time had much in common with Fellini's 1960 film, La Dolce Vita, especially drugs. Holly and Fabrizio were in the same social set as John Paul Getty, but the writer Caroline Moorehead, who knew Holly during her time in Rome, says she was not involved in the drugs scene.
The dolce vita took its toll on the marriage, and Holly left the children with the nanny and went to Ibiza. Returning to Rome she found reconciliation impossible and took the children with her to San Francisco, where her sister Sara was in the fashion business. Holly eked out a living writing for Rolling Stone about music and social issues such as refugees and women's rights.
Holly then took the children back to Britain. She bought a house in Camden Town, where she lived with an old Etonian playwright (and skilled carpenter), Gavin Eley; they married in 1974. She bought a flat in Primrose Hill and the family lived on and off at Portmeirion in North Wales, the eccentric Mediterranean-like village designed by her friends, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis and his wife Amabel Strachey.
Eley commuted to London, where she was working on the New Review, the literary magazine started in 1974 by Ian Hamilton which lasted for 50 issues. When it closed down, along with several other colleagues Holly migrated to the Times Literary Supplement when it reopened in 1979 after the one-year shutdown of Times Newspapers.
Though at first Eley didn't see the point of the highly academic TLS (but needed the wages for prep-school fees), she came to relish the editing, at which she excelled, and made close friendships. The publisher Rizzoli had offices in the same building which were almost always empty, and Holly often slept there during the day, as she was working nights covering black music and jazz for several papers. She also published in the US a pseudonymous novel about the break-up of a marriage. She decided it would be uncomfortable reading for some people she cared for and wanted to withdraw it; but publication was too advanced to do anything but change the author's name.
Her TLS colleagues included Jeremy Treglown, the editor from 1982-90. When her marriage to Eley ended in 1984, Holly and Jeremy, he said, "slipped out of the office and got married at Camden Town Registry Office." She stayed on, commissioning and editing reviews of art books, books on Italy and biography. I was among the writers lucky enough to be inherited by her.
When she retired in 2006 she embarked on a new career that astonished those who did not know her well. She and Jeremy had long lived in a cottage with a wonderful garden on the Ditchley Estate and Holly became the under-gamekeeper of Ditchley Park, patrolling her traps and keeping down the grey squirrel and rabbit population with her beloved Biretta 20-bore. This was Holly at her happiest. She had always been a good shot – at one time in her life she gave lessons to grand women who wanted to learn to shoot to protect themselves against terrorists.
When she got older, although her beauty never faded, she began to resemble her father (to alter slightly Treglown's description of his father-in-law) "in the way [she] held her head back and gazed along [her] straight nose like a shortish guardsman."
She was a stylish host and the most generous guest, turning up with an enormous Ibizenco sausage, a rare bottle or some delicate smoked salmon from her son William's estate. A great and gifted conversationalist, even in the last few weeks of her life Holly was devouring books, and preferred talking about them to any other subject.
Her own literary ambitions were a little thwarted. As an editor she was peerless; at the request of clued-up publishers such as Christopher Maclehose she did heavy-duty work with writers such as Edmund White and Richard Ford, who became close friends. She wrote poetry, and she worked and worked on her new novel. But little came of it. But her resources of charm, humour and wit were never exhausted. In her last few days she got her daughter, Sista, to add an automated message to her email, saying, "I'm almost out of the office."
Holly Mary Belinda Urquhart-Pollard, writer, editor, gamekeeper: born Leeds 23 June 1940; married 1964 Fabrizio Pratesi (divorced; one son, one daughter), 1974 Gavin Eley (divorced 1978); 1984 Jeremy Treglown; died Ditchley 19 September 2010.
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