Blog

Category Archives: Essays

A Room of one’s own… or not?

Some reflections on needing space to write, written before lockdown…

Published by Aurora Metro

By Anne Sebba

A Room of one’s own… or not?

Sitting, standing, working or simply being alone is a necessary condition for any writer. At least relatively alone. Some journalists are able to block out the background noises of a hectic newsroom and be alone in their heads to find the stillness and stimulation necessary to create. Luckily I trained in such a noisy, frenetic newsroom in the days when Fleet Street was synonymous with such places. I worked alongside reporters, often called firemen, never firewomen, who really did wear trench coats and dangled cigarettes as if they had just emerged from the set of a Hollywood detective movie. There were no remotely female friendly shops or cafes, just smoky pubs, where ‘a lead’ or ‘a scoop’ was discussed. It was the early 1970’s, less than 30 years after the end of World War 2. Yet I failed to realise how close it was to that War until I had to do nightshifts and would park just below St Paul’s in a bomb crater repurposed as a large open car park. On those occasions, the graveyard shift, the news floor was truly silent. But the rest of the time the shouting and bustle, fury and adrenaline (or was it testosterone?) trained me not to be precious about needing silence. But silence is precisely that: precious.

My first full length book after I left Reuters (or, more correctly, after they asked me to leave when they learned I was pregnant) was a biography of the novelist and playwright Enid Bagnold, a Sussex neighbour of Virginia Woolf who longed for Woolf’s admiration.  I learnt from Bagnold as much about the art of writing itself as about carving out the time to write.  If I could only have imbibed by osmosis the way she eschewed clichés. Her own birth she described as ‘sperm shot across two centuries to arrive at me.’ Such an earthy – and original – simile was typical of her prose, which she once described as ‘beautiful vomit’. But she also gave practical advice to mothers trying to write with children at home in the days before going to a coffee shop to set up your laptop was the norm. Go into your study, she advised, assuming every woman had such a room, and close the door whether you are writing or not. Find something to work at even if just a letter. Today social media makes this all too easy but of course is usually little more than a distraction, displacement activity.

A Room of one’s own… or not?

And yet recently (with age?) I have started to think differently about needing absolute silence. Now that I have so much of it, I am not sure I am so keen on it. After all I am often the one to speak out loud while writing recognising that sometimes I need to hear how the cadence works. Let’s agree for the moment, ninety years after Virginia Woolf herself wrote her ground breaking text, about the inviolable principle of a room of one’s own, especially for a woman who may be able to write only in the snatched interstices of a day caring for children. But when we emerge from that room just how much interaction is useful with readers?

What about another room in which to share what you have written? Although nobody else but you is going to create the book, article or short story, many writers find some measure of collaborative effort and discussion (or just plain editing) a necessary spur or corrective. Most writers strike a balance; do the initial creating alone but have a first reader – a spouse, partner, professional editor or grown child with whom to discuss what you’ve written. (Although perhaps it’s not such a good idea to be in the same room when this first reader reads.  Shouldn’t you let them undertake this poisoned chalice of a task alone, out of earshot of any grimaces or groans? )

How do I manage this balance of solitariness versus the rest of life?  I invent small treats or rewards for myself, as insignificant as going to the local supermarket. Sometimes I go for walks in Richmond either along the river or through the park and since I live within a stone’s throw of where Virginia herself lived and worked – Hogarth House in the for her not so aptly named Paradise Road – it is hard not to wonder if the source of my peace of mind and inspiration was ever a source for her?  Since she produced some of her finest work during the decade she was here I cannot believe that Richmond was wholly inimical to her creativity. Other times, I give lectures around the country and travel to research information which may well be extraneous to my overall subject simply to make sure I have some interaction with the rest of the world. I like it when other people say to me:  ‘Have you read this book? Have you thought of that approach? Have you considered interviewing X?’ Sometimes I might even take my laptop to work on in bed … it’s a temporary room of my own but I like to feel the vibrations of life elsewhere in the household.

But there is of course alone and total isolation and most of my writer friends dislike total isolation but crave alone in short bursts.

All of this has been brought into sharp focus for me by my current preoccupation: I am writing a biography of Ethel Rosenberg, a woman sent to prison in 1951, living in solitary confinement for the last two years of her life, who wrote to her husband in another part of the prison regular letters of powerful emotional depth, insight and (in my view) some literary ability. Both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had been condemned to death for conspiracy to commit espionage and could see each other only occasionally when he was brought to sit in a cage next to her cell. They could not touch. Yet, when the letters were published, some anti-communist critics criticised Ethel’s style as ‘petit bourgeois’ or ‘full of bathos’ or complained that she tried too hard because she used a dictionary to find a more unusual word and a notebook to store phrases. It’s a salutary reminder for me that what I may consider being alone is a far cry from this; total isolation. I find it extraordinary that she wrote at all, that she (mostly) kept her spirits above the lowest depression level and functioned as a dignified human being with fire in her belly and integrity. Pretentious? Striving for effect? What writer doesn’t strive for that, male or female, whether in a room of one’s own, a prison cell or a crowded noisy café? We may need a room of our own most of the time but we need to feel the vibrations of life as well. Some of us need that more than others.

Ethel Rosenberg : An American Tragedy will be published in UK and US in June 2021

Ten Reasons to be cheerful in the time of Coronavirus

Blog about Ten Reasons to be cheerful in the time of Coronavirus

Because we humans are (mostly) a perverse bunch, being told I can undertake only one form of exercise a day makes me want to spend the whole day running, jumping, skipping, cycling. It’s not as if I ever did that but, just because I can’t, I want to!  In this weird new world where the government is not simply telling me how to live my life but actually ordering me how to do it, it would be so easy to collapse under a pile of negativity or anxiety or to rebel  – How do they know whether or not I have already been out once?  But actually it’s not difficult to play the game and do what I am told because I know all our lives depend on it, mine included. I have in any case spent the past two years in semi isolation, desperately trying to write a book in the immediate aftermath of my husband’s sudden death and deal with probate, a situation guaranteed to lure anyone into depths of depression even without associated grief. What kept me going was my mantra ‘once the book is done’ I shall be free …. free to spend a week at a spa, free to travel wherever I wanted, free to meet all the friends I have had to shun so rudely over the past two years. Even free to behave badly.

But then, within days of delivering my manuscript, this. And my car was broken into. Desperate times I know. And what’s the worst?  I can’t even see my gorgeous growing grandchildren.

So I am taking a deep breath and thinking about some of the things that really matter. Staying alive is number one. Looking after elderly relatives and making sure they (and I) are fit for when we eventually emerge and can say ‘I used the time to do something I never would otherwise have done.’ No wonder sales from DIY shops are booming. We all have an urge to prove, through creativity, we are still alive. And for me that’s the best way to stave off anxiety and depression.

So here are Ten Reasons to be Cheerful in the time of Coronavirus, with the big caveat that I do know I am the luckiest person because I have always worked from home. It’s a necessary condition for any writer to produce anything, although I can’t pretend I like being solitary. I have just had to get used to it over the years, which has been a useful preparation for widowhood. I have delivered a new book after almost five years and soon will have to edit that. I need to be at home, alone, to do this. I have spent all my working life working from home. In a sense there is nothing new about this. On the other hand as a freelancer who gives talks, ten of which have been cancelled, I have lost an important income stream as well as a chance to get out and meet my readers.

Here are the TEN

  1. The pear tree has dozens of blossoms. I bought this tree as a birthday present for my husband and it never produced any fruit in his lifetime. Last year I had four pears and this year I think there will be dozens.
  2. I did some gardening and actually enjoyed it. I love looking out of my study window onto the garden, watching to see if the birds are eating their fat balls from the new feeder and straining to see what has started to bloom. My small London garden gives me more pleasure and sense of peace than I could possibly imagine, an inspiration for anyone, and just the right level of minor distraction for a writer.
  3. I am exercising in different ways. Today I went for a solitary cycle ride along the towpath using my husband’s very old bike. I could hear the birdsong. I even have an old rowing machine, something I thought I was desperate to give away as it was always my husband’s toy. No longer. I’ve discovered I can row and watch television at the same time.
  4. I have cleared up some cupboards (and found my wedding dress wrapped up in a bag). Lots of other things have found their way into the rubbish bin where they should have been years ago.
  5. I am learning how to make sourdough thanks to a writer friend I barely knew who kindly sent me my first starter. I shall get very fat but what a lovely way to put on the pounds with homemade sourdough bread.
  6. I am reading books that have been sitting on my shelves for years. ‘Just give me five minutes to read’ has been my (much mocked) Cri de Coeur ever since I can remember. Suddenly I have fifty five of those minutes. I shan’t read worthy books. I shall just read for pleasure and information.
  7. I am listening to other books thanks to Audible on big headphones when I walk or from my iphone speaker when I cook or take a bath
  8. The kindness of strangers. Lots of communities have set up deliveries for the elderly but it isn’t just the old who are in difficulty. My younger daughter is being looked after by her boyfriend’s parents in the country where she is happy and well, working from home to set up a new website for her company remotely.
  9. I have plenty to eat. I am cooking for the freezer as if it is another person. As a non-meat eater, I depend on fresh fruit and vegetables and keep making enormous vats of vegetable curries, vegetable stews, soups even vegetable tagines. Far more than I can possibly consume myself.
  10. Think of all the money I am saving… no nail bar visits, no hairdressers, no clothes to buy and even the odd refund from train journeys not taken (although actually that is a battle I am still fighting)
  11. One more for luck and because I never could count … I was excited to be asked to write an article for Aitken Alexander, the agency who have wonderfully represented me for more than twenty years, as part of a series they have created where authors respond to isolation. Here is what I wrote for them about the calming effects of knitting!

Can we make any of these changes permanent? Being more accepting of what we have is one I certainly intend to keep in my personal armoury. And learning to let go of some things I can really learn to live without.

Ten things I learned while writing Les Parisiennes

One cover, two books1. There is always a choice in life. Choice is inside our heads. How do we think even if choice appears to have been taken away, how do we act? Women in Paris faced an extreme: would I have walked out of a cafe if a German soldier entered thereby risking my life? Would I have delivered political leaflets, what exactly would I have done to help a friend in prison standing up for what he/she believed in?
2. Women can handle weapons and are extremely brave under torture sometimes more than men because they have to prove themselves.
3. Right and wrong are not always clearly defined. There is a great big muddy grey area in between. The photographer who took the image on my book cover, Roger Schall, survived four years of enemy occupation by publishing photographs of monuments and buildings in Paris, and landscapes in France with captions in German for the German market. In return he was allowed to take photographs in and could capture the atmosphere of enemy occupied Paris which otherwise might never have been understood.
4. Learning a foreign language may be a life saver … as several camp prisoners said that understanding what their captors were saying helped keep them sane and retain some power over their situation.
5. Never procrastinate or put off to tomorrow…the story of Miriam Sandzer (and many others) clearly indicates that had she gone to England with her fiancé when she had the chance and he first asked her, she would have been spared much of her subsequent torment but she could not abandon her elderly parents and dithered, however understandably.
5. The world has double standards … Look at the way women were punished after the Occupation, often shaven and humiliated, without trial, for degrees of fraternisation with the enemy while the men, many of whom practised economic or industrial collaboration, often got away without punishment after the war because their businesses were necessary in the rebuilding of the country. One reason for punishing the women was revenge, or ancient settling of scores or to cover their own shame at a humiliating military defeat.
6. French women really ARE different especially the way they think about Fashion. Looking your best at all times was considered a way to show the German occupier that they were not beaten, that they retained pride in their own identity. Even arriving at the prison camp in Ravensbrück other nationalities noticed how French women looked elegant.
7. How much of Paris life carried on as normal during the occupation for some people such as those with access to theatres and cinema life flourished. Cinemas were warm places for couples to go even to make love but keeping the opera houses, theatres and cultural institutions open was playing in to German hands as it pleased the enemy to enjoy the entertainment Paris had to offer.
8. How easy it is to close your eyes to things happening on your own doorstep and do nothing. There were warehouses in central Paris, camps for those who could prove they had an Aryan spouse, which were used as sorting centres for looted goods to be sent to Germany.
9. How privileged I and my generation are to have grown up in peace and security as a child of the post-war period of plenty. I have never experienced real fear.
10. Being a mother puts choice into a different category. Some mothers slept with Germans simply to get hold of food for a starving child, others bravely handed their children over to a passeur, a social worker or nuns, rather than risk their certain death, yet had no idea where they were being taken nor if they would arrive there safely .

And number 11 (because I believe in adding one more for luck! )
War can also be a time of fulfilment and an opportunity to meet people from other milieus and can give an erotic charge to an otherwise dull life…Comtesse Pastré, newly divorced, discovered she could be a force for good by opening her Chateau to refugee Jewish Musicians from Paris and Odette Fabius, from the haute bourgeoisie, disillusioned with her husband’s philandering, became a resistante and fell passionately in love with a Corsican communist trade union leader in Marseilles.

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.”

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.