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What Brighton means to me

One of the most powerful images from the Vienna Portraits exhibition currently at the National Gallery is by Egon Schiele of himself and his pregnant wife dying of Spanish ‘flu. He was to succumb to it himself three days later, aged just 28, later described by the Nazis as a ‘degenerate’ artist. I cannot empty my mind of this picture and the thought of all that lost brilliance. Yet in an exhibition where death is continually hovering and suicide ever present,  it’s impossible to know how would he have dealt with all that was to follow after 1918?

Between 50 and 100 million people across the world died of what became known as Spanish ‘flu.  One of the most shocking aspects was the way it could sometimes claim its victims in a day and was especially virulent among the previously healthy young.  After waking up with a shivery twinge, victims might find by lunchtime that their skin had changed colour to a vivid purple and a few hours later they were dead, sometimes choking on thick scarlet jelly that suddenly clogged the lungs. The pandemic has been described as “the greatest medical holocaust in history” and may have killed more people than the Black Death killed in a century.

I have often thought of this pandemic as my own aunt, my father’s older sister, Irene, died aged 12 in 1918. My father’s family had moved to Brighton hoping this would be safer than London because of the new terror of Germany’s doodlebugs. But Brighton, being a port, was in fact more dangerous as the disease was thought to have been carried ashore by travellers. My grandfather, a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant who had been in England less than 20 years, never recovered from the loss of a favourite daughter and gave up on joy and God.  They were buried with my aunt in a Brighton cemetery.

Brighton can never for me be simply a seaside resort.  I have always known that my father was deeply scarred from the loss of the sister he barely knew when he was six and the consequent suffering endured by his family for whom emotions must have been ‘unexploded’ and so I relished a book which looked at the town twenty years later during World War Two.  Alison MacLeod’s  Unexploded is partly about attitudes to Jews and immigrants in Britain at the end of the thirties but it is also a deeply felt examination of repressed emotions waiting to explode as of course they do in the course of the novel. The background history is fascinating, never intrusive, but there is plenty to learn here about politics and history of art. For example Picasso’s Guernica is on show at the Whitechapel Gallery from December 1938 to mid-January 1939, the hero, Otto,  is a ‘degenerate’ artist and Virginia Woolf, whose suicide frames the book, enters to give sparsely attended lectures. I shan’t tell the story but it’s a powerful, often painful, read and Evelyn and her defective husband Geoffrey are utterly believable protagonists.

One other book I have read this week is Robert Harris’s brilliant thriller,  An Officer and a Spy. In this retelling of the Dreyfus affair virulent anti-Semitism in France is overt, barely repressed and with consequences which have shuddered down the ages. Even those of us who thought we knew this tale cannot fail to see it through fresh eyes.

 

 

Hidden panels, dusty books, silence at all times? That’s not today’s library.


 

A romantic library

Stacks of Books Here

When John Bayley proposed to Iris Murdoch she suggested going somewhere romantic to discuss the idea…the London Library!

Last week, on the day it was opened, I climbed the neon escalator of the world’s newest library – the £189m Library of Birmingham, which over nine floors houses a collection of one million books, more than 200 public access computers, theatres, an exhibition gallery and music rooms! This is exciting at a time when public libraries are hit by the double whammy of government cuts and increasing use of the internet.

Birmingham library was formally opened by Malala Yousafzai, the teenager shot in the head in Pakistan by the Taliban for championing women’s rights. Malala spoke about how books were weapons to beat terrorism and how she believed that the only way to global peace was through reading, knowledge and education.

Where has this extraordinary young girl learned such composure and confidence? Through books, she insists. Some books travel with you back centuries, others take you into the future, some take you to the core of your heart and others take you into the universe, she said.

Looking at the fabulous collection here in Birmingham – its most valuable books are copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio and John James Audubon’s Birds of America – worth between £6m and £7m each- we can only hope there are more like her.  But it isn’t these books that will change the world, beautiful though they are. It’s ordinary stories, novels, biographies, philosophies and histories.  And the serendipity of finding something in a library is especially fun; who else has had pleasure in this book and what did they make of it?

The new Birmingham library is a stunning piece of architecture with roof gardens overlooking the heart of Birmingham and a wild flower meadow.  I am sure Iris Murdoch would have found it an intensely romantic place. Libraries aren’t just worthy places of silence any more they are vibrant, buzzy, humming exciting places to be. I’m glad that my own grandfather came to Birmingham from Krakow so that when I finally get around to writing his extraordinary story I shall have an excuse to research there. For the moment I shall continue to admire the steel girders eventually supporting my own personal library (well a study or an office, in truth) but it will house quite a lot of books that are very special to me so I am happy to call it, rather grandly – a library.  Really a library is just a nice place to be. Let’s have more of them.

 

Going Native

I have just watched (again) the incomparable Judi Dench star in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I love the film but after my daughter kept telling me I reminded her of Evelyn, the Judi Dench character, not in looks but in my behaviour, I thought I’d better see why.

Evelyn embraces the new culture of India because she wants not simply to exist but to thrive there. She wears Indian clothes, loves Indian food and finds a job at a local call centre. She falls in love with India. And all I’m doing is merely trying to learn how to speak Greek. I don’t wear Greek clothes nor do Greek dancing. Although I do love Greek food. The trouble is I’m still, after two years of lessons, at the deeply embarrassing stage where I keep making completely inappropriate remarks. I asked the butcher  - apparently – for a live chicken as he told me when he answered me in flawless English and then asked if I wanted it whole or jointed. When passing an old boy with a donkey in the mountains I asked him what his name was and how old he was (I meant the donkey, obviously).

It’s not just that I am trying to learn the language as a good way to stave of Alzheimer’s, though that would be nice since God knows, the memory isn’t what it was when I learnt amo, amas, amat. It’s because when you learn a language you can communicate, you can understand the culture… I shan’t be reading Zorba the Greek in the original quite yet but I do know now that it is incredibly impolite to phone people between 2 – 5pm, which is why there are two words in Greek for afternoon; the early afternoon and the later afternoon and you can phone only during the later one.

A recent poll of 2,000 people by the British Council found that most British adults struggle with their inability to speak a foreign language when abroad, causing them embarrassment on holiday, even in Spain… and Spanish is a lot easier for Brits than Greek, where the word for ‘yes’ is the counter intuitive ‘nai.’ (But then in India, too, people shake their heads confusingly to mean yes.)

According to the editor of Wanderlust magazine, holidaymakers from the UK tend to assume that everyone will be able to understand them. “We’re nervous about doing it and not doing it right”, she explained. It’s an attitude bred from imperiousness as much as nervousness and nowadays, when so many people in the EU are fluent in many languages, it’s usually true. Brits struggling to speak a language badly will be answered in English so it’s tempting to give up.

Today, after 6 weeks of fairly intensive lessons, I had my test: I had to go to the market, under the eagle eye of my teacher,  and do all the shopping in Greek. No sign language allowed. When I wanted something bigger, I had to find the words, no touching allowed when I wanted to check if the avocados were ripe or too hard. Incidentally, that is one of the easier words in Greek (skleros means hard as in the way my arteries are going from all this intense brain activity). I know the words for aubergine, courgette, tomatoes and grapes. But I also need to remember the plural form and make them agree with adjectives … I managed to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘my grandchildren like broccoli’ and ‘how much is this?’

Sounds easy, uhh? You try it. Seriously go on, more of you should. I came home today with some lovely looking produce, not all of it quite what I had in mind but I’m sure it will get eaten. And lots of people had a good laugh!

 

Urgent: Message to Girls Leaving School. Find your inner rod of steel

Recently I gave a talk to almost 800 people…girls, staff, pupils and parents at St Mary’s Calne, the Wiltshire Girls’ School celebrating  its 140th birthday this year with a new, dynamic American headmistress.  Reflecting on wishy washy prizegivings of my youth, I wanted to strike as stirring a note as possible because we all know the stats; girls seem to outperform boys in schools, universities and early training courses. Yet why are more of them not running major Global Corporations, Banks or Arts Institutions? What happens?  Some blame all- girl schools for feeding their pupils a diet of so called skills which ultimately damage them in the workplace. “They are not so much skills, I think, as dating tips for women who will grow to live – or, if you prefer, die – by the rules.” Here is what Tanya Gold says:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jul/22/baking-botox-traps-road-womens-emancipation

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Of Books and Babies

Before you read this post here is a short film to remember all those pioneering women reporters:

https://www.kcl.ac.uk/newsevents/news/newsrecords/2013/07-July/Anne-Sebba-The-Rise-of-the-Woman-Reporter.aspx

I am in the happy position of seeing a book that I wrote twenty years ago republished this month. Most excitingly, the book has been reviewed – a great surprise in these days of such tight space for reviewing even new books.  But then it wasn’t merely the old book in a new jacket. I had been allowed to add a whole new chapter, to update it – a rare treat as few writers get the chance to change an old book. It’s way too expensive and publishers aren’t keen on allowing anything more than dates and typos to be corrected; in other words nothing which requires resetting paragraphs or adding pages. I have quite a fat file of ‘Material that emerges after the book has been written,’ bulging with interesting information on all my other books. But what to do with it? Sadly, probably nothing. Yet often in the case of biography it is only after a book has been published that someone whose existence you may not even have known about approaches you with information they have been holding on to, not knowing what to do with it until your book appears. I have had some wonderful stories told to me (often in confidence) at an event when someone has approached me quietly, afterwards, and asked to share a story or a letter. It’s often a breathholding moment

 

But this time it was a history book that was republished –Battling for News  is an account of how women reporters have fought over the centuries for the right to report, not only wars but sporting and political events, or other danger spots normally left to men. I finished writing this book, heavily pregnant with my last child, a daughter, and was correcting proofs in the middle of the night at the same time as soothing or feeding her. Her early months were very much tied up with my thoughts about women’s progress in the world of work. As I wished this book on its way, I whispered sweet nothings to her, reassuring her she could be whatever she wanted to be. I really believed that to be the case. For this was in many ways the most personal book I had ever written.In 1972, twenty years before her birth, I had been hired by Reuters, the first woman they had risked on their prestigious graduate trainee scheme. I was sent to Rome as a trainee and had hoped to report on many danger spots around the world. But then I became pregnant for the first time and Reuters was not keen on foreign correspondents who were also mothers…unreasonably as I thought at the time. By the time I came to write Battling for News, which includes a historical account of the first women to report wars – women like Jessie White Mario who had to tend the wounded on the battle field before writing up her reports about Garibaldi’s progress in unifying Italy – I believed that all the barriers against women reporting wars on equal footing with their male counterparts were now torn down, that women reporters had achieved equality with their male counterparts. And so they had in many ways. After all in World War 2 British women were refused accreditation to the front line, hence their need to resort to ruses like dressing up as a hospital orderly or stretcher bearer in order to report on D Day landings as Martha Gellhorn did.

But now, another twenty years on, I saw that in fact women reporters, especially those on TV, faced different difficulties. They were expected to be young and pretty as well as brave and fearless and, if they were putting themselves in harm’s way, not to be a mother as well, as Yvonne Ridley learned to her cost when she was kidnapped and very publicly criticised for abandoning her daughter. I saw too that if women are passionately engaged in a story perhaps it makes them better reporters because they never give up but ferret out the details in a determined effort ‘to bear witness’. But that also comes with a cost. Marie Colvin was determined never to give up and was tragically killed in Homs in February, 2012. Several women reporters I have written about after facing relentless dangers and witnessing the carnage of bombs and IEDs finally succumb to post traumatic stress disorder. Some, like Christiane Amanpour of CNN, and Janine di Giovanni, now freelance, are very successful and offer a powerful role model to myriad young girls emerging from media college who want to emulate them. But, as I was repeatedly told, achieving that success has not been an easy ride and what may seem like a glamorous and exciting lifestyle is behind the scenes, dangerous, demanding and dirty. It is made tolerable by the support of colleagues and a solid media organisation. But even that can go wrong as when Lara Logan was attacked and brutally raped in Tahrir Square and came within an inch of her life. And she was one of the most experienced women reporters in the field. I know that twenty years on it’s a more complicated world and any young woman, not just a reporter, will face a difficult time in myriad ways getting a job, staying employed in that job, staying sane and – if she wants it – having a family.

As for my daughter I still tell her she can have anything she wants if she is prepared to work for it. But she is clever enough to know that is only half true.