Blog

Category Archives: Biography

What is it about 2016 and anniversaries and why being in Jersey makes me reflect?

What is it about 2016 and anniversaries and why being in Jersey makes me reflect?

The wedding dress worn by Wallis Simpson’s 1st mother -in-law, now restored at a cost of more than £4,000

There’s a huge anniversary at the end of this week and everyone in the literary world and beyond is getting very excited about it. Publishers have spent years preparing books on the great man while scholars are falling over themselves to find something new to say, reinterpreting the will or the plays, discovering a greater depth to what he really meant, why he mattered to suffragettes and just how much did he know or invent?

But, excited though I am about Shakespeare, there’s another date this week that’s been exercising me and I am not talking about the Queen’s 90th birthday. April 24, one day after the big birth and death date, marks thirty years since the death of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor. I’ve been called by a number of journalists wanting to know how the public perception of That Woman has changed in the thirty years since her death. A German radio station has even prepared an hour long programme on the significance of the Abdication eighty years on…German? Yes, for reasons not difficult to fathom.

To most who ask, I answer that the change came in 2011 with the discovery of 15 unpublished letters which I detailed in my biography of Wallis. But this week I learned another intriguing fact. I am in Jersey to give a talk about Wallis and am told (blushing because I did not know) that Wallis’ first mother-in-law, the mother of Win Spencer, was a Jersey girl! Agnes Lucy Hughes married Earl Winfield Spencer of Chicago in Jersey’s Town Church at St Helier on 10th December 1887. Her magnificent cream silk wedding dress was made by one Madam Henry of New Street, St Helier and was recently restored for about £4,000 by the Jersey Museum for an exhibition which, after it was first shown in Jersey, travelled to America. Now I am intrigued: Agnes was apparently already living in Chicago when she met Earl Winfield Spencer but obviously Jersey mattered enough to her to return there for her wedding. Their unfortunate son, Earl Winfield Spencer Jnr., a handsome pioneer naval aviator, is known to history as the first husband of the infamous Wallis Simpson. But less well known is that another brother, Dumaresq Spencer, died fighting in World War One – a war for which he volunteered and did not have to fight since America initially did not join in the war. I am reminded of him as I walk past Dumaresq Street in Jersey – another clear indication that Jersey was of considerable importance to the Spencers since Dumaresq is one of the oldest names associated with the Island.

Does it matter? Yes actually, it does. I have always known that Win Spencer’s mother was deeply patriotic – so much so that when Dumaresq was killed in World War one she was quoted as saying that if she had another son she would gladly give him to the war effort. I could not understand such exaggerated patriotism. Now I almost do.

But in fact, I was excited to come to Jersey because of its relevance to my forthcoming book, Les Parisiennes, How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940’s about women in wartime Paris, when it was occupied by the Germans. I have tried hard not to be judgemental in the book since, after all, how can those of us in Britain, who were not invaded, understand the pressures of a Nazi Occupation? But the Channel Islands of course were occupied. Nowhere could they understand quite as well as here in Jersey and Guernsey what Occupation meant on a daily basis.  So, I can’t wait to return to Jersey and talk about this rather different subject. Well … perhaps not so different. If we hadn’t had the Abdication 80 years ago not only would we not be celebrating such a long reign by our present Queen but, who knows, we might not be celebrating anything much at all. But that is to enter into the ‘what if’ territory from which most sound historians run a mile. But,just occasionally, it’s irresistible as well as amusing to contemplate. And that is why anniversaries matter; they make us stop to think of how we got to where we are.

Good Community Relations

Interfaith Community Relations in Bradford

The Book of Marriage Records Bradford Synagogue

The Book of Marriage Records Bradford Synagogue

In anticipation of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day and the importance of respecting other communities, I’ve been thinking about a day I spent recently in Bradford where I witnessed a warm coming together of Muslim and Jewish communities. It’s not what you’d expect from reading an average diet of British newspapers or listening to George Galloway, former MP for Bradford West.

I went to visit the synagogue in Bowland Street, Bradford, where my grandmother, the music hall star and Bradford pantomime favourite, Miss Lily Black, was married more than a hundred years ago. The synagogue, founded in Moorish style in 1880 and now a Grade 2 listed building, is desperately in need of funds for repairs if it is to survive. I’d wanted to see it for years but, with the once flourishing community in decline, I knew I could put off my visit no longer. In 2013 the synagogue was saved from closure only thanks to a fund raising effort mounted by the secretary of a nearby mosque, together with the owner of a popular curry house, a local textile magnate and the leader of the local Jewish community, Rudi Leavor. This released much needed funds to repair a leaky roof. It’s a start. After a most delicious lunch at the Sweet Centre curry restaurant, next door to the synagogue, I was reassured by owner Zulficar Ali that he was keeping an eye on the beautiful old building.

Lily was married in Bradford because, barely out of her teens, she had converted to Judaism. She obviously thought it was better to have the ceremony outside London, where she had grown up in a working class haberdasher’s family without much money, left school at 14 and struck out on her own as an artist’s model and actress. In seven years she had made a career for herself and travelled around the country performing, but what did she know of life beyond the stage?

According to Ernest Aris, who went on to become famous as a children’s illustrator and who often drew Lily for several Bradford newspapers, she was “delightful, the most charming Principal Girl this city has seen since Madge Crichton played Cinderella at the Royal. She will make a great hit,” Aris predicted of her while she was starring in Robinson Crusoe at the Prince’s Theatre, “she is sprightly without being vulgar, she has a sweet voice and a personality which would melt even the heart of a Free Church Councillor!”

Ernest Aris clearly had a soft spot for Lily, who was, he added, enshrined in his susceptible heart. However, while performing at Bradford, Lily met and fell in love with my grandfather, Leo Hirshfield from a Birmingham silver making and jewellery family, when he came to try and persuade her to be photographed for a Raphael Tuck postcard. She was only 20 when she accepted his proposal of marriage, converted to Judaism and the couple were married in Bowland Street synagogue on September 25, 1910.

Lily was sufficiently famous for a reporter to attend the wedding. He commented “there were only a few of us present and among the witnesses were Mr and Mrs Henry Cohen of Leeds (Leonora Cohen was the militant suffragette who became famous in 1913 when she flung an iron bar into a jewel box at the Tower of London. She was remanded in prison and went on a hunger strike) and Mr Jacob Moser, Lord Mayor Elect of Bradford. The bride wore a sensible gown of grey silk and was addressed by Rabbi Dr Strauss who told her that “you, my dear bride, have idyllic Ruth of old as your example. You like her have said and verified the touching words whither thou goest, I will go, thy people shall be my people and thy god my god.”

There was a small reception held at the Midland hotel and, immediately upon marriage, Lily gave up performing and rarely talked about her years on the stage. For seven years she had had had a stellar career touring the country and working hard and long hours. She was also in demand as an artist model largely for her spectacular thick and curly reddish gold hair. Now all she wanted was a comfortable and secure home life and she and Leo produced three children, Desmond, who became Lord Hirshfield, a labour peer, Norman who became a Conservative councillor and Mayor, and my mother Joan, who married, in 1946, Major Eric Rubinstein. I was born in 1951 my sister Jane in 1948.
I wish I had asked her more questions as there is so much I now want to know. I am so thrilled at last to have seen the synagogue where her new life began and happy to know that there is new life in the area which is keen to preserve the past. Zulfi Karim, Secretary of Bradford Council of Mosques, who is on the board at the Central Westgate mosque a few hundred metres up the road from the synagogue said: “It makes me proud that we can protect our neighbours and at the same time preserve an important part of Bradford’s cultural heritage.”

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.

Get involved

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

About the author

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