Blog

Why Books Matter in Prison

On Thursday my day started with a parcel, both unexpected and unordered, delivered by my cheery postman. ‘Young Titan,  the Making of Winston Churchill’  by Michael Shelden had been sent to me by a fellow Churchill obsessive, a man who knew that, tantalisingly, I had never been able to prove the existence of a serpent tattoo on the arm of Winston’s mother, the dashing Jennie Jerome, when I wrote my biography of her some years ago. This book, he believed, contained that elusive proof.  Well, it almost did. Perhaps proof in the form of an image will never see the light of day but I’m now convinced about the inky serpent on her wrist.

How lucky I am to have spent a few hours imagining this other world of racy Edwardian England visiting a high class tattoo parlour in Jermyn Street. Later the same day I voluntarily took myself off to prison for a night. Okay, I was fed and watered, took in my own sleeping bag and change of clothes and had congenial company in the other cells from 5 other publishers and agents. But even so, when the lights went out they went out. And in those moments before sleep it was just possible to imagine ‘what if’… What if that happened day after day, night after night, if the door was well and truly locked and there I was, left in a stifling airless cell with no hope of waking up to … well, anything really to offer hope of a better life? Is it surprising that the Howard League for Penal Reform is worried by the high number of suicides in UK prisons: 70 last year. This year, with record overcrowding in UK prisons, looks set to overtake even that tragic figure.

We ‘lucky’ six were all there as part of a ‘get- books-to-prisoners’ campaign organised by independent publishers, Pavilion Books. Their offices incorporate six powerfully atmospheric police cells with graffiti on the doors and no windows. One famous occupant in the sixties was former Rolling Stone Brian Jones charged with drug offences. We were using them to raise awareness of the cruel government ruling which forbids prisoners from receiving packages. All packages. Women cannot be sent underwear, for example. They have to save up and buy it. But saving up enough prison pay to buy a book is an almost unachievable target.  Books offer escape into another world, they offer insight into other people’s life stories. They are one of the few means prisoners have to glimpse or prepare for a different life when they emerge. They are not a luxury but an essential. We should be deluging prisoners with books not depriving them in some form of bizarre double punishment.

Please support this campaign by writing to your MP, tweet using the hashtag  #booksforprisoners or donating to the work of the Howard League, the oldest penal reform charity in the world.

 

I’ve got prison on my mind right now!

I’ve got prison on my mind right now!

This weekend I spoke in the beautiful old Town Hall in Devizes and right next to the entrance way was the old lock up cell for the town, ‘more of a dungeon than a prison,’ I was told. ‘You wouldn’t want to spend a night in there.’ I don’t suppose anyone who got thrown in to it especially wanted to either. But rough and ready justice was often doled out a hundred or so years ago.

And my current reading material is a book I picked up at San Francisco airport called ‘Orange is the new Black’ and was completely hooked throughout a long flight before I knew anything about the current phenomenon of the TV series based on the book.

For those who aren’t watching, the story concerns a pretty young middle class woman, Piper Kerman, who foolishly delivered a suitcase of drug money as a young jobless graduate from the prestigious Smith University keen to earn money. Ten years later, engaged to be married, her past caught up with her and she is convicted and sentenced to 15 months inside.

What saves her are books. Books by every post. Books from her adored family and books from people she doesn’t know. Books that she lends out in prison. Books that enable her to stay sane and enter another world.

Yet, bizarrely, the British government recently ordered that prisoners are no longer allowed to receive any small packages, which effectively means that books are banned in UK prisons. Yes there are libraries, but these are often not open at the brief time when a prisoner might visit and the book selection is often old and torn. Books are one of the few means prisoners have to improve their life inside and prepare for a life beyond. Often the books needed are legal books to help them prepare their cases for appeal. Or just books to read to pass the interminable time of day. Many leading writers, actors and poets have campaigned against the government’s bizarre ruling. Next week six leading figures from the publishing world are hoping to spend a night in a cell themselves to highlight the need to overturn this ban. I hope to be one of the ‘lucky’ ones who can spend a night on a cold stone floor in this important cause. If you want to support me please do NOW go to www.justgiving.com/AnneSebba1 where you can read more about the campaign, press the button for Anne and donate. Thank you!

Museums and Women!

Blog on Museums and WomenAs book titles go, Museums and Women is about as boring as it gets. But in John Updike’s hands, of course it is emotional and sensuous, intellectual and erotic. It is the title of a short story (and subsequent volume) about a small boy first visiting a museum with his mother which morphs into a tale of adultery with a woman working in a museum. It is beautifully written.  It was left on a table for me to read at the club in New York where I am staying this week. I had plenty of other reading material with me but, waking early from jet lag, this fifty- year old volume spoke to me.

One of my favourite cities for visiting Museums is New York and today was no different. I was aware of the newly opened Memorial to 9/11 Museum on the site of the tragedy which announces that it “will display artifacts associated with the events of 9/11, while presenting stories of loss and recovery.”  There is an associated gift shop selling T Shirts and other memorabilia. Not surprisingly,  it is deeply controversial and it wasn’t a difficult decision for me to go instead to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue. There I looked at all the children thronging the Egyptian galleries of the Met and wondered what their memories of childhood visits to admire ancient statuary would be. What could they possibly make of the faces with no noses, the bodies with no arms and magnificent jewellery?

I was there to see the amazing ball gowns designed by legendary 20th century Anglo-American couturier, Charles James. One of his 1950’s creations would cost around $12,000 in today’s money so they were a true “investment piece” as the phrase goes. James was born in England in 1906 to a British army father who never understood his creative son and treated him cruelly and a Chicago socialite mother, almost wealthy enough to be called a dollar princess and whose contacts among American high society were to prove invaluable when her son set out in Paris, first as a milliner.

He returned to England during the war but Post-war established himself in New York.

What’s not to like about a designer who says: “My dresses help women discover figures they didn’t know they had.”

Or this “All my work was inspired by women who were not merely lovely or rich but personalities and who seemed to share some of my own feeling about life in general.”

But it’s not just that I warmed to the man. The inaugural exhibition of the newly renovated Costume Institute Charles James: Beyond Fashion is spectacular technically and visually. http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2014/charles-james-beyond-fashion/images

By using robotic electronic cameras, most of the ball gowns on display are individually deconstructed on an adjacent screen which explains and explores James’s design process, focusing on his use of sculptural, scientific, and mathematical approaches to construct his revolutionary and magnificent ball gowns.

The exhibition is not just entertainment for women. James himself saw himself as a creative artist on a par with many famous writers and musicians of the day. He is also an inventor. He needed women for his art but, as the Met curators rightly recognise, this story is not just about fashion, it goes way beyond fashion.

Charles James : Beyond fashion is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until August 8th 2014

Tales from the front line … Finding the right words for Pain and Courage

View from my bedroom: Paris rooftops

View from my bedroom: Paris rooftops

“Je suis fini,” I told the librarian in the subterranean Bibliotheque Nationale, to guffaws of laughter. “Vous avez fini,” he reprimanded me as he brought his laughter under control. Yes, I agreed with him I had finished but in English we might also say ‘I am finished for the day or with these books.’  Clearly, I had said something totally inappropriate, probably best left to my imagination but I am pleased I at least provided him with some amusement for the day. As usual, I’d been up since 5 am in order to catch the 7 am Eurostar and had made my way across Paris to the Bibliotheque Francois Mitterand, (BNF),  a building that feels as if you are working in a prison or nuclear bunker, for a day of research. At first I was refused entry because my (very small) rucksack on wheels was deemed too large, but with my inadequate French I finally persuaded them to allow me in. And once I started work the atmosphere was serene, the chairs fabulously comfortable and the café delicious. I must keep going with the French lessons!

View from my bedroom: Paris rooftops

Plaque outside the Memorial de la Shoah

When not at the BNF I go to Nanterre, repository of many resistance archives, to immerse myself in yet more harrowing accounts of women in concentration camps or in factories working as slave labourers, or to the Holocaust Museum, where the librarian explains why she often does not have what I am looking for “because we deal with death not life, and with the nobodys in life who have no one to come and deposit papers with us.” And as I am finding my way around the city to a number of other resistance museums or repositories of World War Two papers, I can see why so many Parisians complain about passenger safety on the underground.  The short amount of time the metro doors remain open at stations is a source of regular complaint and this week I was one of those ‘snapped.’ The automatic doors close violently and stop for nobody. I was trailing my very small suitcase trying to get through the crowds when bang – they shut on me, poised halfway out, causing instant rib pain. But at least I got out and sat down to recover my breath. I’ve done nothing more than bruise a rib but it’s very painful. Very painful? How do I dare even to write that as I research lives that were truly, achingly, desperately painful, often with little or no food or heat and full of fear, threat and torture. Yet few complained.

Best of all are my interviews with old people who have lived through the experiences. I’m keeping the best details of these for the book itself but one memory that will stay with me is meeting two friends, one almost 90 the other a little older, comparing memories. One says to the other: “But you – you were in the resistance, no?  I never knew. All these years. Why didn’t you talk about it?”

“What was there to talk about?” she replies. “It was just what one did.” Again and again, I ask myself, what I would have done? Courage, like pain, are just two words I need to understand better in French as well as English.

 

 

Paris in the springtime

Worth La Belle Dame sans MerciParis in the springtime may be a romantic cliché but the day I have just spent in the city was everything the song promised. It was one of those blue sky sunny days which offer so much hope for the summer to come. And it was in the middle of Paris fashion week so the city was full of statuesque women wearing platform soles and 6 inch heels, painted nails and powdered faces, bizarre hair styles and outrageously wonderful clothes. There was also a half marathon so hundreds of muscular types were wandering around looking dazed in their blue plastic wraps declaring their achievement. And of course, the inevitable Paris traffic chaos.

Paris is fighting hard to keep its title as the fashion capital of the world. London, bursting with the creative fashion talent of so many young British designers, is intent on chasing it into second place. But as one designer described it to me: ‘Paris is still where you are judged at the highest level. To succeed in Paris is still the greatest challenge.’

He has a point. Somehow Paris has an allure, an allure that perhaps still trades on its glory days of The Belle Époque, the days when rich Americans with shiny new fortunes would bring their daughters to Paris to give them some old world polish, hoping to take the brassy look off their very nouveau fortunes before launching them onto impoverished British aristocrats. They were the dollar princesses and nothing defined their superiority over their English sisters better than their fabulous clothes and their ability to wear them with style, ease and confidence. They knew how to cause a stir when they entered a room. Edith Wharton advised any young American girl preparing for a grand marriage to have approximately eleven Worth gowns in her trousseau; Jennie Jerome had twenty three, a fact which caused her fiancée, Lord Randolph Churchill, no end of difficulties in finding a house big enough for them all.  Wharton also advised young women to keep this year’s model for a year before wearing so as to let the ostentation fade a little.

Charles Frederick Worth, born in Bourne, Lincolnshire in 1825, an Englishman who reinvented himself in Paris, is the man responsible for establishing the idea of haute couture as we know it today. Blame him for the idea of a brand as he labelled all his creations – a small critical rectangle of fabric usually sewn in the waistband – cultivated an international clientele of aristocrats, royals and actresses and plenty of mystique. He saw himself as an artist and created out of the commercial transaction of buying a gown a theatrical experience. But he also had responsibilities to ensure that his aristocratic clients never encountered his courtesan or actress clients, of whom there were many. Some of these were given a special prix d’artiste, the forerunner of film stars borrowing gowns from famous houses in the hope of bringing them fame.

In 1850, just as Worth was starting out in Paris (he had left England just five years before and was not yet established) there were an estimated 158 couturiers in Paris and 67 maisons de nouveates confectionées. By 1895 that figure had risen dramatically to 1,636 couturiers and 296 maisons de nouveates confectionées, the best of them, as Maison Worth, clustered around Place Vendôme and Rue de la Paix.

This week sees the publication of a fabulous book about Worth* with truly lavish illustrations thanks to the Victoria and Albert’s unique archive of over 7,000 official house records. And it is full of interesting tidbits. On one occasion Grace Elvina, the Marchioness of Kedleston and a loyal Worth client, found herself wearing an identical Worth gown as the Queen of Spain, a woman she had invited to dine at her home. She went quickly upstairs to change and chided the master afterwards. But he was not especially penitent. He did not need to be.

One of the loveliest museums in Paris is the Musée Carnavalet, in the fashionable Marais where it is always a pleasure to be a flanêur, currently has an exhibition entitled **Roman d’une Garde-Robe, or Tales from a Wardrobe, which brings alive in a wider sense the world of haute couture in Paris for its privileged clientele and those who served them.  The show is based on the wardrobe of Alice Alleaume, head saleswoman at Chéruit, rival to Worth and in fact the first couture house to set up in Place Vendôme. Her sister, Hortense, was head saleswoman at Worth. The whole family was immersed in fashion and the exhibition brilliantly captures the spirit of la Belle Époque as well as the freedom of the twenties and the difficult years of the depression. It’s especially good at showing the links between artists and photographers who were clearly fascinated by elegant Parisiennes who shopped not only at Worth but at Paquin, Doucet and Chéruit and one painting illustrates how a whole family would be involved in the dressmaking process – children too. Dressing to the best of one’s financial resources is a tenet deeply engrained in the psyche of a Parisienne. It’s a sacred duty, what they owe themselves. But, oh, where did they find the time for all these fittings and  regular changes of outfit throughout the day.

Parisian haute couture did not end in 1939, with the outbreak of War, nor even in 1940 with the German occupation.  Lucien Lelong, President of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture had to negotiate with the occupying German regime. He courageously refused Nazi demands to take the entire couture industry to Germany and made a spirited fight to keep Parisiennes well-dressed in gowns made by French houses as well as hundreds of seamstresses working in small ateliers. But there were also important sales to Nazi wives which helped keep the industry alive during the war years but meant that after liberation some couturiers were tainted with the collaborationist brush. Thus the flame never burned out and after the war Christian Dior with his ‘New Look’, but others too, breathed new life into an industry vibrantly alive today.

 

*The House of Worth Portrait of an Archive V& A Publishing  £35.00

**Roman D’Une Garde-Robe  Musée Carnavalet until March 16