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Category Archives: Biography

A Dying Breed

It’s been a dreadful week for deaths. It always is, I know. But recently, I daren’t open the obits page for fear I’ll meet someone I know or someone I was hoping to interview but left it too late.  There are always far too many obituaries of men and women who die long before their time such as the beautiful and talented Candida Lycett Green, who has just died at 71 from pancreatic cancer. We mourn them all.  But often it is reading the obituaries of women when I let out the deepest sigh…oh why didn’t I know about them when they were alive? Why did they keep all these amazing life experiences so quiet?

The three women whose obituaries have filled my thoughts this week were not exactly young nor unknown. Helen Bamber, aged 89, Aline Berlin, 99, and Philippine de Rothschild, a mere 80, had all lived full and rich lives. Of course for the loved ones and close family there is always a hole left whatever the age of the dead person as well as the hope that the person might just have lived for this birth or that announcement. But, overall, these three women should be celebrated not merely for having lived life to the full but for brushing as closely against evil as it is possible yet triumphing over it.  They embraced life and refused to succumb to bitterness.

I had the privilege of meeting Helen Bamber, a woman who never knew any other life apart from helping others in the direst circumstances. From the age of 20 she dedicated her life to those who suffered torture, trafficking, slavery and other forms of extreme human cruelty. She volunteered to go out to Germany in 1945 immediately after the war and work with the Jewish relief unit under the auspices of the United Nations Relief Agency in the just liberated concentration camp of Bergen Belsen. She spent two horrific years there and promised the dying that she would bear witness to their torment. They could not have imagined how hard she would work to do that over the next seventy years. As she travelled around the world to document torture and its aftermath in many countries those who met her said she seemed determined to help everybody. In 1985 Helen founded the Medical Foundation for the care of Victims of Torture, a pioneering organisation as nobody until then had time to listen. It’s an appalling reflection of the 20th century that the need for her work increased.  She married and had two children of her own but amazingly was never overcome by the harrowing stories and continued helping others almost until the end. There is more here:

http://www.helenbamber.org/

Aline Berlin grew up in an immensely wealthy Russian Jewish family in Paris but privilege did not shield her personal tragedy when her first husband, Andre Strauss, died of cancer five years after they were married leaving her a widow with a young son just as war with Germany loomed. She was ‘lucky’ in that she and her family could pay for exit visas from the American consulate in Nice and she escaped from France just in time spending the rest of the War in North America. She married a second time, to Hans Halban, a French nuclear physicist who had also managed to escape France and although the couple had two sons this was not an entirely happy marriage. In 1956 Aline married Isaiah Berlin, the academic and philosopher who had been in love with her for some years. The Berlins were married for more than 40 years and together enjoyed a life devoted to music, books and travel.

While in New York Aline had befriended Ceēile de Rothschild, another French emigrée, and the women played golf together – something at which Aline excelled. But another Rothschild, a cousin by marriage, was not so lucky. Philippine de Rothschild was ten years old when she saw her mother, the beautiful Elisabeth Pelettier de Chambure, a Catholic living apart from her husband Philip de Rothschild, arrested by the Nazis in her home and taken to Ravensbrück where she was killed. Elisabeth is the only member of the Rothschild family killed in the Holocaust. After the War, Philippine became first an actress working at the Comédie Franēaise and then took over and expanded the family wine business, Chateau Mouton Rothschild becoming a world renowned expert in the business.  She commissioned well known artists to design labels – the Prince of Wales obliged for a 2004 vintage – paying them for the privilege of having their work attached to a bottle with ten cases of selected Rothschild wines.

Next week’s obituaries may reveal another crop of extraordinary women – and no doubt some men too – who hid their lights. Of course none of us wants another war in order to prove ourselves but I can’t help wondering if my own generation will yield obituaries half as interesting as this generation now leaving us.

 

What I really mean when I say I am going to Paris for a few days…

Why does nobody believe me when I say I am going to Paris to work? No, not shopping, I pronounce confidently, it’s a research trip.

‘Ha, ha! Have a nice holiday,’ they say as they wave me off. If I told people I was going to Berlin or Edinburgh, or even Geneva, they wouldn’t make the same automatic assumption.

Is it because of the latest shenanigans with President Hollande and his motorcycle helmet that people assume Paris is code for doing something else? Or is it historic, this attitude to Paris? Certainly a German soldier posted to Paris in 1941 rejoiced. Of course it was better than the eastern front. It had food, women, perfume and brothels.

A tiny part of me, of course, doesn’t mind the teasing. It’s why I am writing the book I am about women in Paris in the 40’s, both during the war and after it. I knew instinctively when I proposed the idea that what de Gaulle managed to do after the war for the whole of France was writ large in Paris. He ensured that the idea of Paris, the notion of a city, depended upon its reputation as a hub of beauty, gastronomy and fashion – and he succeeded magnificently. Paris is exciting. It is a breathtakingly beautiful city whose buildings, if not its honour, remained virtually intact after the war. The brothels may have been closed down (more or less…at any rate they were made illegal in 1946) but, seventy years after the liberation, Paris is still the city of romance par excellence. Parisian women look stunningly fashionable, just as they tried to do throughout the War.

Well, mostly they do.  The everyday reality is different for anyone who travels beyond the centre to the suburbs. Try telling anyone who spends days in the subterranean enclosure that is the Bibliotheque Nationale or the National Archives, which are located miles outside the centre in a desolate part of the city,  that you are going for a romantic holiday. The train from the airport to the centre – for those who do not use Eurostar – comes past a number of dreary suburbs including the hellish Drancy. How could anyone live in a town whose name is a byword for the evil perpetrated on French soil?  The metro is often crowded full of thousands of jostling, unfashionable, ordinary women going about their daily business as well as beggars and thieves just as in every European city. Tragically people throw themselves under trains here just as they do in London. I have noticed however that French seem not to treat the metro as a convenient place to have a smelly curry in the way do in London.

Fabulous shops in Paris, boutiques

So what about the shopping?  Well, there are some fabulous shops in Paris, boutiques which are not part of any chain selling wildly original objects displayed eye catchingly. There is a sweet smelling artisan chocolatier or patisserie on every street corner and an ‘artisan’ bag or belt maker on several others. Haute cuisine and haute couture are put within the tempting reach of every miserable passer-by. Right next door to my hotel is a fabulous designer hat shop but so far the prices have kept me just a window shopper. I just look longingly at the beautiful designer shops and popup shops and the unusual –objects- which-I-really- don’t-need-shops. I even found myself stopping outside a designer spectacle shop today and feeling deeply covetous. So far, other than the occasional gift, I have kept away.

ColetteBut yesterday my resolve cracked as my research took me to a new part of town – the Comedie Francaise archives are located not only right in the centre of town but in the Palais Royale, nestling among the historic arcades full of designer boutiques. The writer Colette lived here and ever watchful had a good view of several unsavoury comings and goings during the War. My hands were dangerously cold, I decided. I had to have some gloves, some Parisian gloves I convinced myself. And as my cosseted fingers recovered their feeling I recognised that these fabulously expensive gloves are just softer, sleeker, longer more supple than any gloves I have ever bought in London. No I am not acquiring a Parisian shopping habit. They are only gloves after all.

The Pram in the Hall – Enid Bagnold Writer and Mother

gaudier-brzeskaA talk I gave recently at the October Gallery – The annual Persephone Lecture

I have never thought it a particular advantage to know the person you are writing about. You will have known them at a particular time or in a particular role. Above all, for a child to write about a parent seems to me a recipe for disaster – unless you state from the outset this is a very one sided memoir. Children are often the least useful witnesses a biographer can find. Yet, try as we might to be objective, I think biographers too should plead guilty to subjectivity, to seeing their subject through a particular prism. Perhaps they lived in the same village, studied at the same college but in particular I believe that what we really cannot shed is the age we are at time of writing. However much I think I can imagine a particular emotion, or I am sure that I know what a particular experience must have felt like, I want to take this opportunity – openly and unequivocally – to admit my failure. Only now, having hit 60 myself and living through an age-obsessed time when the secret of eternal youth is promised from many quarters, do I really understand what Enid Bagnold – not exactly a vain woman but one who cared about her looks – meant when she wrote that one of the few counterbalancing factors for the pain of growing old was that, thanks to fading eyesight, she couldn’t really see all those wrinkles and grey hairs that worried her so much in anticipation – (although true to her novelist’s calling, exaggerating to make her point – she is not being wholly truthful even here as of course magnifying mirrors were around in the 1980′s.) But I can now at least understand why she wanted to have a face lift (and how radical was that in the 1970′s) and I admire her honesty and truthfulness about discussing this far more today than I could possibly have 30 years ago.

And here she is as Gaudier Brzeska saw her on the eve of WW One

So, I am immensely grateful to Persephone for giving me this second chance to look at Bagnold thirty years on. And of course to Faber Finds for republishing my biography. I’m relieved to say I haven’t found a different person or a different story. But the focus, if I were writing the book today, might be slightly sharper here or hazier there. The emphasis on different aspects of her life might be weightier here and pruned there. Actually I don’t think it would be a better book (I would say that wouldn’t I?) But I now understand in a wholly empathetic way why, in her 60′s and 70′s, she was still burning with ambition to write a successful play. I remember, with shame, a feeling in my 20′s that when I reached 60 I’d be happy to stay at home quietly knitting whereas in fact my desire to travel, to meet people, to achieve and to experience life is not only unabated it is in some ways greater as I am acutely aware of the limited time left and…and I can see why it risks appearing frankly unbecoming in someone of my years just as it did for Enid.

No, I think, or at least hope, that writing the biography of EB in my late 20′s gave me a youthful enthusiasm which suited my subject and gave me a perspective on her young days and early married life I might not have had now. I was rooting for her when the boyfriend didn’t work out (after all it wasn#39;t so far away for me that I could still remember those rejections, sharp longings and early fumblings) but most of all I deeply identified…and I say this fully aware of strictures by that great biographer Richard Holmes that self-identity with one’s subject is the first crime of a biographer…with her passionate desire to have babies and having had them to have more of them and then to be the best mother there had ever been. I understood the passionate and oh so unexpected flood of love when her first golden-haired child arrived – love neither she, nor I, knew we possessed. And then she found it a second time for her equally beautiful son – just as I was to do. My pigeon pair as I learned. The Squire, her truly great novel not just about motherhood but about what she believed it meant to be a woman, springs from that deep well of unconditional love. Enid wanted to go on and on, bringing up such treasures.

The Clifford Sisters for Femail Writer Enid Bagnold picturedSo let’s go back a bit. Who was Enid Bagnold? In her own sparkling and idiosyncratic autobiography (entitled I am tempted to say with no artifice but of course there was artifice aplenty) ‘Enid Bagnold’s autobiography’, published in 1969, she writes that she was driven to explore family history because of her fascination that “sperm had been shot across two centuries to arrive at me”¯. Such an earthy – and original – simile was typical of her writing (she once described her own prose as ‘beautiful vomit’) but what she is also revealing is an intense fascination with herself. Not unusual for ‘a born writer!’ as she called herself. When I came to research her biography I found all her notebooks and scrapbooks were embellished with directions/ guidance for a putative biographer – me! Pictures of the Franco-Romanian princes, Antoine and Emmanuel Bibesco, for example, princes who had been close friends of Proust, were annotated with helpful comments like ‘this is the brother who committed suicide’ or ‘here we are visiting a church together’!

But Antoine Bibesco, the man she always adored, was never going to marry the plump and rather jolly Miss Enid Bagnold, daughter of Colonel Arthur Bagnold, a man who was as much engineer as soldier, and the former Miss Ethel Alger. They were, as her parents regularly reminded her, gentlefolk, and had been for generations. Enid was constantly testing her parents either by her requests to paint nude models when she studied with Sickert (turned down) or her request to visit the old roué journalist Frank Harris, her editor as well as lover, when he was in Brixton prison – agreed to “because people of breeding do not abandon a friend in need,”¯ her father told her. Read More

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.

 

 

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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