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Ice Cream for the Soul or Reading for Pleasure

ICE CREAM FOR THE SOUL: ANNE SEBBA ON READING FOR PLEASURE

Council member Anne Sebba reflects on reading for pleasure.

I fell asleep last night with a book in my hands. There were just 40 pages to go until the end but, after a long and tiring day, much as I was desperate to know who lived and who died, I just failed to make it to the finish. Luckily I woke at 5am, before the rest of the household, and raced to the end, sorry it was over but happy to have shared a few days of my life with those heroic yet flawed characters. It was the most gripping and poignant story I have read for ages and urge anyone looking for a beautifully written tale in an original voice, who wants to understand how the heart functions and learn something about twentieth century history along the way (thats all of us, right?) to read Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s novel, One night, Markovitch although you have to get to the end of the book to find out why it is so named.

It’s hard to convey, in a black and white, matter-of-fact sentence why reading can bring such intense pleasure. Why getting immersed in a good book really does take you to other places, other times. Why, when youre engrossed in a good book, you really cant put it down. Like most things (playing an instrument, running or hiking) the more you do, the better you get and the more you like it but, unlike most things, you dont need any training to start. Reading is not exactly therapy but reading about someone who has experienced the same pain, sorrow, jealousy, elation, fear as you may be experiencing is a wonderfully comforting feeling. We are not, after all, entirely alone in the world.

I realise how lucky I am to have a job (as a writer) where I have to read. But most of what I read for work is factual, has source notes and demands that I take notes as I read. It has its own delights of discovery of course but it simply isnt the same pleasure as reading a novel. I cannot imagine a life where I dont have several books on the go, some on my bedside table, one always in my bag (how often have I been stuck on a train or even in a broken lift?) and others in various places.

But mostly, when we try and tell others, especially children who havent yet caught the bug, about the delights of reading the phrases that creep in have an earnest ring to them: reading is good for you, reading will help you do well at school, etc. That may be true but now at last here is a report that tells you yes, people who read for pleasure do benefit from a huge range of wider outcomes including increased empathy, alleviation or reduction in the symptoms of depression and dementia, as well as an improved sense of wellbeing. People who read for pleasure also have a higher sense of social inclusion, a greater tolerance and awareness of other cultures and lifestyles, possess better communication skills and are better able to access information. But, above all, reading is a pleasure. So why deny yourself?

Go on, have fun – read a book. Its ice cream for the soul.

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Share the report (commissioned by The Reading Agency) and your responses online using the hashtag #readingforpleasure.

About the author

Are you what you wear?

Luckily the days have long since passed when caring about fashion denoted an airhead. Men and women can now be openly interested in clothes and style and still be considered to have an active brain. Some of the sharpest journalistic brains now report on fashion trends and what that means to the economy as well as the history of clothes and design. Arguably, the pendulum has swung too far the other way as women CEOs and MPs, not just those in media, must be interested in clothes, fashion and looking immaculately soignee, while their male colleagues can still pass muster with a careworn, rumpled look.

Back in the day, I was told as a young Fleet Street journalist that I could not possibly be a serious news reporter and care about clothes or all I’d be given to write about were fashion shows. Wish I’d had the courage to reply then, Course you can, stupid, and at so many levels.

For behind the comment lurks the belief that what we wear is superficial, that it indicates a life devoid of seriousness where books and matters of the mind are concerned. No, actually, we can do both. Ive been thinking a lot about fashion recently for my current book on Women in Paris during the War, Occupation and Beyond; Les Parisiennes. These women cared desperately about what they wore and how they looked, seeing it as their patriotic duty to dress as well as they possibly could in spite of the restrictions. They decided that wearing the most outrageous shoes and hats trimmed with whole fruits, plants, feathers and whatever was an act of defiance to the Germans and showed support for their husbands if they were away fighting or in prisoner of war camps. Okay so its not exactly being part of the resistance if such a thing existed. But it was their way of showing a determination to be just a little bit resistante. By contrast, the British and American women, fighting the same war, saw it as their patriotic duty to be as dowdy as possible, reflecting the harsh times. The different responses provide fascinating historical and cultural insights.

So I couldn’t have been more delighted to be featured for the first time in my life in the fashion pages of The Times recently. My fashion advice? The importance of being comfortable. Well I am the proud owner these days of a freedom pass with no pretensions to being a model. But the truth is I do care about fashion and have a serious interest in matters that concern women, which is sometimes, but not always, an interest in clothes and fashion.

Oh and here is that column…

Are you what you wear ?

Women of Unimaginable Courage

Women of courageI dont 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 todays plaque to the heroines Andre 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 herextraordinarybravery until the end of her short life, recorded for posterity.

But todays event was moving in other ways, not just because the small group of Fanys were evocatively dressed in 1940s uniform. The house at 101 Nightingale Lane is now the wonderfulNightingale Hammerson care home and two inmates, guests at the ceremony now in their 90s, 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