St John’s Wood Library recently hosted a visit from author Tim Coates, talking about his latest book. The story of Mary Cornwallis West (nee Fitzpatrick), known as Patsy, culminated in a sex scandal that stirred the public at the height of World War I. Patsy had had ‘scandalous’ episodes earlier in her life, or rather throughout her entire life, but this time the situation erupted. Weaving the story from a small sample of documents and an official attitude of erasing inconvenient liaisons, Tim Coates brings alive a time long gone, but whose fragments are still perceptible.
How did he stumble upon Patsy’s story, the audience wanted to know. It was a process fascinating in itself. Mr Coates, whose work has always revolved around literacy and stories (he’s written thirty books, has been a retail book seller, entrepreneur and advocate for libraries) came across some papers published by the British government from 1700s until 1930s, called Blue Books. He found the content and writing captivating: the authors (“Their sentences and perceptions have precision, discipline and rhythm, to a standard which has become rare”) were writing as the events were unfolding, without hindsight. Among the richness of these documents, a brief one caught his attention:
“In the matter of Second Lieutenant Patrick Barrett, no more will be said.”
The matter therefore had to be discovered! Mr Coates proceeded to explore and research collections and archives in several countries in order to write Patsy: the story of Mary Cornwallis West.