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Reviewing the reviews

Reviewing the reviews

One of the few enjoyable aspects of reading reviews of one’s own books (amid the violent heart lurchings which ensure that some authors determinedly never read their own reviews) is seeing what different aspects or anecdotes strike a chord with different reviewers.

One that several reviewers have noted with Les Parisiennes, and which is key to my book, is what women do in extremis to survive and what survival means to different people. I have written a piece for this month’s PORTER magazine about how some women in Paris under German Occupation believed that remaining stylish was key to their self-respect and even a form of resistance as it proved their determination not to give in.

Lucy Yeomans, in the editor’s letter, commented “at times of uncertainty fashion has historically responded with both flair and flamboyance …a subject touched upon in Les Parisiennes…”

In terms of world politics, it is hard to imagine a less certain time. Will Britain (or world fashion) manage to respond to this time with either flair or flamboyance? It would be good to think so!

Watch this space!

Read the review here

Ten things I learned while writing Les Parisiennes

One cover, two books1. There is always a choice in life. Choice is inside our heads. How do we think even if choice appears to have been taken away, how do we act? Women in Paris faced an extreme: would I have walked out of a cafe if a German soldier entered thereby risking my life? Would I have delivered political leaflets, what exactly would I have done to help a friend in prison standing up for what he/she believed in?
2. Women can handle weapons and are extremely brave under torture sometimes more than men because they have to prove themselves.
3. Right and wrong are not always clearly defined. There is a great big muddy grey area in between. The photographer who took the image on my book cover, Roger Schall, survived four years of enemy occupation by publishing photographs of monuments and buildings in Paris, and landscapes in France with captions in German for the German market. In return he was allowed to take photographs in and could capture the atmosphere of enemy occupied Paris which otherwise might never have been understood.
4. Learning a foreign language may be a life saver … as several camp prisoners said that understanding what their captors were saying helped keep them sane and retain some power over their situation.
5. Never procrastinate or put off to tomorrow…the story of Miriam Sandzer (and many others) clearly indicates that had she gone to England with her fiancé when she had the chance and he first asked her, she would have been spared much of her subsequent torment but she could not abandon her elderly parents and dithered, however understandably.
5. The world has double standards … Look at the way women were punished after the Occupation, often shaven and humiliated, without trial, for degrees of fraternisation with the enemy while the men, many of whom practised economic or industrial collaboration, often got away without punishment after the war because their businesses were necessary in the rebuilding of the country. One reason for punishing the women was revenge, or ancient settling of scores or to cover their own shame at a humiliating military defeat.
6. French women really ARE different especially the way they think about Fashion. Looking your best at all times was considered a way to show the German occupier that they were not beaten, that they retained pride in their own identity. Even arriving at the prison camp in Ravensbrück other nationalities noticed how French women looked elegant.
7. How much of Paris life carried on as normal during the occupation for some people such as those with access to theatres and cinema life flourished. Cinemas were warm places for couples to go even to make love but keeping the opera houses, theatres and cultural institutions open was playing in to German hands as it pleased the enemy to enjoy the entertainment Paris had to offer.
8. How easy it is to close your eyes to things happening on your own doorstep and do nothing. There were warehouses in central Paris, camps for those who could prove they had an Aryan spouse, which were used as sorting centres for looted goods to be sent to Germany.
9. How privileged I and my generation are to have grown up in peace and security as a child of the post-war period of plenty. I have never experienced real fear.
10. Being a mother puts choice into a different category. Some mothers slept with Germans simply to get hold of food for a starving child, others bravely handed their children over to a passeur, a social worker or nuns, rather than risk their certain death, yet had no idea where they were being taken nor if they would arrive there safely .

And number 11 (because I believe in adding one more for luck! )
War can also be a time of fulfilment and an opportunity to meet people from other milieus and can give an erotic charge to an otherwise dull life…Comtesse Pastré, newly divorced, discovered she could be a force for good by opening her Chateau to refugee Jewish Musicians from Paris and Odette Fabius, from the haute bourgeoisie, disillusioned with her husband’s philandering, became a resistante and fell passionately in love with a Corsican communist trade union leader in Marseilles.

Wearable Publicity; Having a scarf designed to accompany a Book

Wearable Publicity; Having a scarf designed to accompany a Book

Wearable technology may be all the rage but wearable publicity is a lot more fun! I must be one of the luckiest of authors as I have had a scarf designed especially to accompany my latest book, Les Parisiennes; How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940’s. It’s a fabulous pure silk scarf made in Italy but dreamt up here in London by a brilliant young designer, Emma Greenhill. Emma offered to design the scarf as she started her fashion career in Paris and spent a year there working for John Galliano and Karl Lagerfeld, really getting to grips with what it takes to create a Parisienne! Having learned that luxury matters, (she subsequently worked in fashion PR for many years for a variety of big names, most recently Hussein Chalayan), now that she is setting up her own company she is determined only to use luxury fabrics and has her scarves made in the same Italian factory that manufactures items for Gucci and Alexander McQueen – as you can tell as soon as you touch them.

It is entirely appropriate that she has made a luxury fashion item to accompany this book as being stylish, even during the Occupation when shortages were dire, was anything but trivial for Parisian women; they believed that looking your best at all times was crucial initially as a way of showing support for their husbands and sons at the front, just as the magazines told them they must, but then, when defeat overwhelmed them, continuing to try and look their best as a way of not succumbing to their German occupiers. It was even a form of resistance, to show that they had not been ground down, and it kept thousands of frightened and impoverished women employed in their ateliers, beading, attaching fur or inserting pockets and linings. So, when shortages of fabrics meant new clothes were almost impossible, women spent hours cutting down old clothes, sometimes the suits of their missing husbands, or turning two bags into one, covering wooden shoes with fabrics and creating extravagant creations on their heads that passed as hats. Many people commented on the vegetables, flowers and cascades of ribbons that now appeared on the brims of hats. So keen were Parisiennes to appear fashionable at all times that, even as they arrived in the brutal camp of Ravensbrück, the other women prisoners already inside muttered and whispered about “Those Frenchwomen”…one woman smuggled in a powder compact – an unheard of luxury – while another wore an Hermès silk scarf.

The beautiful limited edition scarf Emma has designed for Les Parisiennes has at its heart a woman on a bicycle since women in wartime Paris went everywhere on bicycles – private cars were impossible to maintain and there was no fuel. Yet, as women were legally not allowed to wear trousers at the time (too masculine!) many designers made a form of divided skirt or culottes, which were really trousers in disguise! There are many other symbols in Emma’s scarf such as the caged bird with plumage in the three colours of the French tricolour which was a brooch designed by Cartier to represent how Parisians felt during the Occupation. But, come the Liberation, the bird was freed as the cage doors were opened. As I wear my scarf I shall proclaim to the world Parisian women certainly know how to do fashion.

Les Parisiennes can be bought at all good bookshops and on line in all the usual places www.emmagreenhill.com to see a selection of Emma’s scarves.