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Women of Unimaginable Courage

Women of courageI don’t often get a chance to practise curtseying, a skill I learned at ballet school before I hit double figures. But today I had the pleasure of doing a minimalist bob at the same time as I shook hands with Princess Anne who came, she said, wearing two hats, although I could not see any. The first hat was the one she earned as patron to the Special Forces Club, the second as Commander in Chief of the Fanys or First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, a group used these days as a support mechanism to all the emergency services in times of crisis. Back in 1942 it was deemed necessary for the SOE women about to parachute into occupied France to be made Fanys in order to give them, it was hoped, some protection as officers if they were captured. Sadly it did not help these three nor 13 of the 39 other women sent into France who did not survive. Either hat would have more than qualified the Princess to unveil today’s plaque to the heroines Andrée Borell, Denise Bloch and Madeleine Damerment who, before leaving the UK, spent some time in this house. Then it was called the London Reception Centre at 101 Nightingale Lane used by M15 following instructions that all refugees from occupied Europe had to be escorted here for interviews to ensure they were not a plant or enemy agents.

Military historian Paul McCue spoke briefly about the individual women. Denise Bloch, shot at Ravensbruck was, he admitted, ‘not the fittest,’ Madeleine Damerment, the assistant postmistress killed in Dachau, was a woman of absolute loyalty and Andree Borell, the first woman from SOE to parachute into France in 1942, was “the  best of us all,” according to her male colleagues. He did not mention her barbaric end when her injection of phenol, intended to render her unconscious, wore off and she fought the Nazi guard trying to push her into the oven and death. She was 24. Witnesses heard her screaming. I could not stop myself thinking about this today and how deeply her courage deserves to be remembered. Thanks to Brian Stonehouse, the fellow SOE agent and artist subject of an earlier blog here, who was able after the war to provide SOE chief Vera Atkins with a sketch of the four women he had noticed arriving at the all-male Natzweiler-Struthof camp, Borell was at least identified and her extraordinary bravery until the end of her short life, recorded for posterity.

But today’s event was moving in other ways, not just because the small group of Fanys were evocatively dressed in 1940’s uniform. The house at 101 Nightingale Lane is now the wonderful Nightingale Hammerson care home and two inmates, guests at the ceremony now in their 90’s, had also suffered in the conflict. Both were eleven year old ‘kindertransport’ children who never saw any of their family again and both were able to chat about their experiences without rancour and even to laugh as they told Princess Anne how they survived in Britain. Theirs too are almost unimaginable stories yet it would be good if the small group of school children present will somehow try and imagine the choices facing some children and their parents in 1938 and 39 when they return to discuss them in history lessons.

The Verdict of History – Cherchez La Femme

Winston Churchill died on January 24, 1965, fifty years ago next month. Extraordinarily, it was exactly the same date as his father’s death in 1895 and one that Winston himself had predicted for his own death. I was there, like thousands of others, queueing to pay my respects on a freezing January day, a day I will never forget.

But, however sure Churchill himself may have been of the day he’d leave the world, his success while in it could never have been predicted with the same certainty. Other than by his mother, the American society beauty, Jennie Jerome, who was unwavering in her support and belief in her son’s destiny.  Jennie, however, died in 1921, twenty years before her son became prime minister and led Britain to victory over the Nazis in World War Two. Yes, he was born into a world of privilege and money – his ancestor was the 1st Duke Marlborough and his grandmother, the 7th Duchess, lived at Blenheim, Britain’s most magnificent palace. Yet his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was merely the second son so inherited neither money nor dukedom while his mother, although often described as a dollar princess, had neither dollars nor did she become a princess. Winston had to make his own way in life and his brief period in office as Home Secretary (1910-11) was justifiably considered a failure, ending with a controversial visit to the siege of Sydney Street.  A few years later, as 1st Lord of the Admiralty, he was largely responsible for the disaster at Gallipoli and the intense criticism was so great that his wife, Clemmie, said afterwards she thought he ‘might die of grief’ It was Jennie who then went to visit him at his home in the country bolstering his fragile belief in himself and persuading him he still had a rosy future in politics. It was Jennie who, in 1895, after his violent and abusive father died when Winston was 20, sent him to meet the Irish American orator William Bourke Cockran, on whom he was to model his own style.

Throughout Winston Churchill’s long period in the wilderness, (1929-39) when he faced scorn, criticism and derision, if he continued to believe in his ‘lucky star’ and have courage that it was his ‘destiny’ to lead-it was only because his mother had so fiercely instilled this faith in himself. And in 1940, aged 65, he became Prime Minister and single-mindedly pursued the fight against Nazi Germany. Although he lost the first post-war election in 1945 as Britons believed they had been fighting for a new world and did not want a reminder of the old, twenty years later, when he died, there was a national outpouring of love and gratitude, as if pent-up emotions that had not been expressed since 1945, could now be released. It was a chance for many of those born after the war, baby boomers just like me to learn for the first time about who was Winston Churchill, saviour of the nation?

I grew up in a family which considered Churchill close to God and one of my first adult memories was being given a day off school on a snowy and bitterly cold January day in order to wait in line, one of 321,360, who wanted to pay my respects to this God-like figure by walking around the coffin containing his body at the lying in state in Westminster Hall. For many, including my father who had crossed the channel in a tank on D day plus one, this was an opportunity to re-connect with those with whom they had served and fought and seen injured for the last five or so years. For many, the war years had not been discussed in the intervening 20 years as jobs had to be found, relationships repaired and the business of life taken up. Of course I couldn’t fully understand any of that at the time. And yet I can remember what I was wearing on that day – my school tweed coat. I didn’t have another because in 1965 one winter coat was all any child possessed. And I remember the solemnity of the day, an emotion that survived for the next 40 years which, I accept, fuelled my desire to write a biography of Jennie, a woman largely dismissed in the intervening years as a socialite, a mongrel, a woman who used her son for her own vainglorious ends, a woman who had 200 lovers. And more.

However, reputations come and go, the mother’s as well as the son’s and seventy years after the end of World War 11, many now criticise Churchill as a warmonger (unjust), as a disastrous peacetime politician (just), a man who had supported the fickle pro-German British King, Edward 8th (foolish), and a father who was unable to bestow the love and understanding his children so desperately craved (both just and unjust). Winston Churchill was a politician who might have been consigned to the dumpbin of history had it not been for those critical five years from 1940- 45. But what five years.

And as I examined his mother’s life the more I realised that hers was the vital formative influence propelling him towards political leadership, instilling in him the belief that, as a half American, he was uniquely well placed to make a compelling speech addressing both Houses of Congress, summoning up his mother’s memory cherished across the ‘Vale of Years’ to strengthen Roosevelt’s resolve to bring the USA into the War. It was she who encouraged him to make speeches that can hold the attention of a room, she who acted as his personal tutor sending him a constant stream of books including Henry Fawcett’s manual of Political Economy, Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Plato’s Republic.  It was she taught him to appreciate art as well as humour. She who told him how hard he must work as ‘for a man life means work if he means to succeed’.  Without Jennie, Winston would have remained a half formed thing, more Blenheim and bluster without substance and grit. But without Winston the events of the 1940’s are too appalling to contemplate.

So, half a century following the great man’s death, as reassessment justifiably takes its toll, surely it is to the mother one should turn first and raise a glass in thanks to Jenn

Prison and Fashion – an unlikely link?

Brian Stonehouse The Green Dress c 1955

Brian Stonehouse The Green Dress c 1955

As I start to write segments of my book on Paris in wartime (and beyond) it’s hard to get prisons out of my mind – especially Nazi ones. On Monday I interviewed the surviving daughter of a French resistante, one of the bravest imaginable who even tried to escape from Ravensbruck, possibly the only woman ever to try and escape from this particular hell hole. But she was re-captured and made to pay cruelly. Amazingly, she survived her punishment of torture, solitary confinement and a diet verging on starvation and was liberated by the Swedish Red Cross in 1945. One of the most extraordinary documents which also survived, and which her daughter showed me during our interview, was her mother’s prison ID card, stamped with the dates of her various prison stays mostly in France but culminating in Ravensbruck. The barbarity is so hard to believe that these pieces of tangible evidence are more important than ever.

Before her arrest, this sophisticated Parisienne was noted for wearing elegant Lanvin suits while undertaking highly dangerous missions. And the unlikely link between prison and fashion, which will be threaded through my book, (pun intended), continued the day after this moving interview when I visited the unusual exhibition of works by the SOE secret agent and artist, Brian Stonehouse at the London gallery, Abbott and Holder until December 23rd.

http://www.abbottandholder-thelist.co.uk/brian-stonehouse-vogue/

Stonehouse, who moved to the US after the war where he became a Vogue illustrator, (one of the last before photography took over completely), may not be a household name in the pantheon of British secret agents. However, he played a critical role at one point in post war SOE history as his artistic skills enabled him to help identity four women he had seen hours before they were sent to their deaths at Natzweiler-Strutof camp, where he too was being held in the summer of 1944.  He had noticed the women’s arrival and, after the war, dredged his memory to produce sketches of them in order to try and help with identifying them. Within hours of their arrival, the women were given lethal injections of phenol in an attempt to drug them before their bodies were thrown in the crematorium. But one of the women, although drugged, apparently woke up when her body was flung into the furnace and began to struggle just enough to scratch the face of the German executioner forcing her back in. It is believed that this brave woman who resisted until the last, was Vera Leigh, a milliner before the war and another true Parisienne.

Stonehouse, a remarkable man who survived two and a half years of torture and solitary confinement himself in a variety of camps, is now being celebrated in London for his artistic talent. The Imperial War Museum holds many of the drawings he made on the liberation of Dachau and of the War Crimes Tribunal but these fashion sketches show he was a man of many talents. As for the numerous women whose stories I am unearthing, their bravery was second to none but they still cared about how they look. From the moment war was declared in September 1939 fashion was viewed in France at least as yet another small way in which German dominance could be resisted.

There is a book to accompany the exhibition – Brian Stonehouse: Artist,  Soldier, War Hero, Fashion Illustrator – by Frederic A. Sharf with Michelle Finamore

Troubled Waters

Learning that Patrick Modiano was the 15th Frenchman to win the Nobel Prize for literature since the first was awarded in 1901, beating such American favourites regularly passed over as Philip Roth, surely makes anyone interested in culture at least pause for breath…What is it about French literature that the rest of the world holds in such esteem? And it’s not those plain covers, classy admittedly, but full of snobbery too as if a picture on the jacket might lower the tone. These are not books for children after all.

The Swedish academy, in awarding the 2014 prize, described Modiano as ‘a Proust for our times’ since his work has to do with memory and he is troubled by loss, above all lost time. Born in 1945 to an Italian-Jewish father and Belgian actress mother, he has said: ‘Like everyone who has neither ground nor roots, I am obsessed by my prehistory. And my prehistory is the troubled and shameful period of the Occupation.’  And there is lots to be troubled about there. However, since it seems that only one of his 22 novels has been translated into English, The Search Warrant, it is hard for non-French speakers to judge. This novel touches on France’s recent history, in particular the round ups of Jews by fellow Frenchmen during World War Two,  when Paris was occupied by Germans but the orders were given from Vichy, the so-called free zone. Those seized, including hundreds of children, were sent first to Drancy and then Auschwitz. French police using French buses were responsible for the roundups. French president Jacques Chirac apologised for French complicity in the tragedy only in 1995 and many French are still reluctant to address openly the issues of how their families behaved during those appalling five years.

It seems to me that any thinking person of a certain age who wants to write is – eventually -magnetically drawn to writing about the barbarity of the 20th century. For one who grew up in France it must be impossible to avoid those extremely long shadows. I was born several years after the end of World War 2 and in England but have spent much of the last year thinking about les années noires in France for a book I am working on.  And last week, appropriately on the same day that the prize was announced, I saw the much acclaimed French film Violette, based on the life story of French writer Violette Leduc and her painful struggle to become a writer detailed in her bestselling memoir, La Batarde.   

Apart from wondering why French films are always so long, so intense, so full of walks and bicycle rides through woods and so determined to leave nothing to the imagination, Violette is historically fascinating. Not only does the film feature a rather too young and beautiful Simone de Beauvoir winning the Prix Goncourt  for her ground breaking The Second Sex, there is also much about the wartime black market as well as an abortion (illegal of course). It is visually stunning, full of fabulous 40’s fashions and plenty of those plain covered books with nothing but the title. So chic they reminded me of a Chanel jacket. Or was it the plentiful black market food that reminded me? But then apparently Modiano’s father survived the war by making black market deals with occupying Germans. One things for sure, it seems to me that just as important as remembering is not judging.