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How Chickens helped soothe my Grief

One thing I never thought I would be doing this summer was mucking out a smelly chicken coop. I’m fond enough of animals (well, dogs) but nobody would describe me as the rustic type.

But then I also never thought I would be saying goodbye to my beloved life partner and husband of 43 years. The two are not unconnected.

Death is a fact of life we all know we will face eventually but on July 23 it jumped up and hit me before I was remotely ready. My husband Mark https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/mark-sebba-obituary-f0jcnthh2 was a youthful 69, we were planning several activities to celebrate his 70th birthday later this year including a trip to St Petersburg, the city where his father had been born just before the revolution. We had a party planned, having missed the 60th (too busy). But in the meantime we were going to spend the summer in Crete, at a house we had created together in his retirement as a way of discovering and enjoying the grandchildren.

God laughs when men make plans, we often joked before this laughter struck us loud and clear. This year we had built at the bottom of the garden a chicken coop, made out of recycled wooden shutters for five or six hens to live in at night. The idea was that they would roam free in the day time as, we were reassured, there are no foxes in Crete. This, we thought, would be a wonderful experience for small children to understand about caring for animals, what their needs are, as well as learning about the food cycle, where food comes from and to value it as something precious, not to be wasted, and not necessarily bought in plastic boxes from supermarkets.

But, less than a month after the chickens arrived, and just a day after they produced our first egg, my husband had a sudden heart attack and died. Prophetically his last Instagram post was a picture of this egg, something that gave us great excitement but also (and how could we have realised it then) so much hope for the future. A promise of something unknown inside the shell. It was also of course an intimation of the cycle of life. I cannot begin to describe here the appalling sense of shock, grief and loss that our family has experienced but we have always believed, whenever setbacks have hit in the past, that life for those who are left must go on. And so the summer holidays continued, as far as was possible, as we had planned them.

The grandchildren (ages from 2-11) were immediately captivated by the chickens, only a few months old when they first arrived and nervous. But soon they became confident and, joined by a 6th, a rooster, spent most of the day outside, pecking at scraps and seeking shelter in the shady scrubland underneath a clutch of carob trees. They began to tease us when it was time to put them back into the safety of their coop at night and tried to elude us by staying out. Just like small children who refuse to go to bed when it’s long past their bedtime. Even though we all had a hand in trying to make their nesting box as comfortable as possible, providing fresh straw and cleaning it out, the chickens still seemed to prefer egg laying in the undergrowth. We learned that independence comes in many forms and each chicken has its own character, too.

The hens have not exactly hit their stride as far as egg laying is concerned. But most mornings this summer there was at least one, albeit small, egg awaiting us as the children fought over who was the first one to go down, let them out and feed them their leftover scraps (watermelon rinds and corn on the cob husks their favourite) and the one who could have a totally fresh egg for breakfast in return.

My daughter and I, as we contemplated our incalculable loss, spent hours mesmerised by watching the still unnamed chickens. Their water has to be changed, the dirty house scrubbed out and new pellets and grain provided in the chicken food dispenser. At first we resented the amount of time we had to spend cleaning the smelly coop, a deeply unpleasant activity especially in such intense heat. Yet they asked for so little and are prepared to provide us with so much. Of course six chickens cannot assuage the pain of losing a devoted husband and father. But it is hard to discuss death with small children and these creatures made it easier for us to talk about the grandfather they loved, the pleasure he derived from this spot in the garden, as well as the facts of life and the food chain.

Saying goodbye to them until next year was especially painful because this was one of ‘Grandpa’s last plans’. We hope, when we see them again next year, our grief will be less raw and they may be laying bigger eggs.  

If this article has stirred you I would be so happy if you wanted to donate to Cardiac Risk in the Young, which helps detect those at risk of suffering a sudden heart attack like Mark. You can either write a charity cheque payable to Cardiac Risk in the Young (reg charity number 1050845) and send it to CRY Head Office, Unit 1140B,The Axis Centre Cleeve Road, Leatherhead KT22 7RD . Please write in memory of Mark Sebba on the back of the cheque. Or donate online using the following link https://www.c-r-y.org.uk/donations/custom-donation-amount/ and mentioning Mark Sebba. Thank you

 

Putting myself in the interview chair

Putting myself in the interview chair

This weekend, instead of me questioning other people, two interviews about me appeared, one in print and one on the radio. I already knew, of course, how tricky it is, when you are under pressure, to convey exactly what you want to say and yet this really brought it home. This is how other people will see me! 

Listen to the BBC programme here – there is also a podcast of this edition of Private Passion available.

Here’s another article where I talk sexism, Elizabeth Taylor – and women’s lives 

 

Women in Public Places

Millicent Fawcett Statue

Walking around London these days it’s hard not to be struck by the number of large, often life-sized bronzes in public places. In a selfie obsessed generation, tourists can often be seen posing on the bench in Bond Street in between a rigid Churchill and Roosevelt. Yet a mere 3% of all statues in public places are of women. What a pathetically shocking statistic. And most of those are of Queens or allegorical figures. How can we expect children to grow up with a healthy view of diversity and range of careers open to them if all they see around them are images of successful men?

There is a major statue of Millicent Fawcett by the artist Gillian Wearing being prepared for Parliament Square to commemorate the anniversary of (some) women being granted the vote in 1918. Wearing’s design will show Fawcett in her prime, aged 50 in 1897, the year the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies was formed. Some 52 other suffragist campaigners who fought for the right to vote for women will at least have their images engraved on the plinth.

About time too. But even that may not yet go ahead if planning permission is refused. I was asked this week to write in support of the statue to the City of Westminster Millicent Fawcett Statue

And I have just spent an hour or so talking about Virginia Woolf and the need to have her commemorated in Richmond-upon-Thames where she lived for about ten years from 1915- 1924 and I now live and work. You might think that Richmond would abound with blue plaques and busts of one of its most famous residents, one of the most famous women writers of the last century, a brilliant diarist and the founder of literary modernism. But no. Because Virginia suffered from severe mental illness throughout her life and made a remark, often quoted, about Richmond and death (she would, she said, if given the choice prefer the latter) it is assumed she hated living here. In fact it was a highly creative period for her. She wrote short stories in Richmond, her first novel, ‘The Voyage Out,’ was published the year she moved in and, together with husband Leonard Woolf, began publishing at the Hogarth Press, which they founded in Richmond.

My words were being filmed for a promotional video intended to help raise money for the Virginia Woolf statue, the first ever full figure life-size bronze depiction of her. There is a campaign underway to fund the statue, which has already been designed by award-winning sculptor Laury Dizengremel and which has Virginia seated on a bench. It will deliberately show a smiling, friendly Virginia, in the hope that young people will set next to her and feel something of her spirit and be inspired. For more information or better still to donate go to http://aurorametro.org/virginia-woolf-statue/

The Questions People Ask

One cover, two books

After giving several talks about Les Parisiennes and speaking to reading groups about the choices facing women in Occupied Paris, I now realise what the number one question from the audience is: what would you have done? I also realise that I don’t have a clear cut answer and have found myself saying different things on different occasions. It is an impossible question. I have always shied away from ‘what if’ questions on any historical subject. We cannot re-create all the other variables that go into making one straightforward answer. If I were a mother I would do one thing (sleep with a Nazi if it meant giving a crust of bread to my child and my action was not treasonable?) If I were a daughter of elderly parents I might do another, if I were a singer or dressmaker would I sing to a German audience or make clothes for a German woman? Who knows? On Monday I might do one thing on Friday another, in 1941 what might be murky could be clear cut by 1944. Would I deliberately cause trouble by walking out of a restaurant if the enemy walked in: what purpose would be achieved by that? Would I instigate a revolt in a prison if by my actions others would suffer? How do I (or those of my generation who have grown up in peace) begin to imagine what it felt like to be frightened, to feel a permanent visceral sense of tension?

Every talk I give results in a fresh set of questions focusing on different aspects of my book. It keeps me on my toes. This week I was asked why didn’t French women instigate more revolts against the Occupiers? Why aren’t there more women in French politics today? (Actually, I think there are quite a few).  Which characters do I like best and what have I learned from my research? And it is not just old people in my audience asking the questions. I have had young history teachers who flatteringly tell me they wish they had brought their ‘A’ level class. I am often asked: What happened to all the Franco-German babies?

Often, the questions aren’t questions at all but statements; so many people have stories of their own that they want to share of an aunt who survived a camp, or of an uncle who was killed, or of a friend of a friend. Did I by any chance come across this particular woman or, is it okay to publish the diaries of someone who their mother knew during the war but did not survive? Often there are questions which I am barely qualified to answer but I can usually refer the questioner to someone who would be and then this torrent that seems to have been unleashed usually has to be stopped or we’d overrun our time. None of my other books provoked this amount of questioning.

 

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