Category Archives: Essays

Rhodes – a lost culture

Greek Island - RhodesI have just spent a few days on the idyllic Greek island of Rhodes. We ate well, enjoyed the tourist shops and explored some fascinating ancient and medieval sites. But the heart of the visit was the short time we spent inside the oldest Synagogue in Greece, now the only one remaining on Rhodes. The day we are there, July 22nd, it is – unusually – bursting with vibrant international life.

Seventy years ago, it was a different story.

In 1943 Rhodes, formerly ruled by the Italians, was taken over by the Germans. On July 23rd of the following year, even as the tide of World War 2 was turning against the Nazis, 1,673 members of the Jewish community were rounded up and shipped off on a long and arduous journey to Auschwitz, where most of them were killed on arrival. Forty two Jews who were able to claim Turkish nationality were saved from deportation, thanks to the actions of the Turkish Consul General, Selattin Ulkumen, and one hundred and fifty one survived Auschwitz. Today there are just a handful of Jews living on the island but, for the 70th anniversary commemoration of the deportation, descendants of those who once contributed so much to the island culture and history have reassembled from Canada, South America, the USA, Africa and Europe and we, with no connections to Rhodes beyond friends whose family was once a pillar of the community, find ourselves among them in the boiling sunshine as they search for homes where their grandparents or great grandparents once lived and flourished.

Greek Island - RhodesFor the Jewish community of Rhodes has a rich history dating back to the second century and, at its height in the 1930’s, had a population of almost 4,000 people and six synagogues. Many were Sephardic Jews who fled Spain at the time of the Inquisition in the late 15th century and spoke to Ladino, a particular variant on Spanish and a language now in danger of dying out. Although there were periods when they were not welcome, generally Jews on the island lived in harmony with their rulers. It is good to be reminded not only of this rich heritage but the important contribution Jews made to the island culture.

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.


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

On this day 90 years ago

Ninety years ago today Jennie Churchill, American mother of Winston, died. She had fallen down the stairs after slipping on some high heeled shoes which had not had their soles adequately scored. At first it was thought she had just sprained an ankle but then gangrene set in. She had the lower leg amputated and for a while it seemed as if she would recover. But on June 9th 1921 she suddenly haemorrhaged. Winston famously ran through the streets in his pyjamas to be with his adored mother before she died. She was just 67 and still radiating the energy and vigour which made her so attractive to younger men.

Although married to Montague Porch, a Nigerian civil servant, she was still known as Lady Randolph Churchill and buried, as she had requested, at Bladon churchyard just outside Blenheim Palace because she wanted in death to lie next to her errant first husband, Lord Randolph Churchill.

Not so ancient history on Crete

Seventy years ago next month, one of the bloodiest battles of World War Two began. German paratroopers landed on Crete on the morning of May 20th 1941. They encountered fierce opposition from Greek and Allied forces, including many Anzacs, and at first it looked as if the invasion would be a Nazi disaster. But, in spite of suffering appalling casualties, after ten days the Germans conquered the island. For the next four years the Nazi invaders encountered some of the fiercest resistance from a civilian population anywhere in Europe. The retaliation was brutal and has left lasting scars.

It is impossible not to think of those years as I wander around the small square at the south end of Kondylaki Street in Chania, the beautiful port town of Eastern Crete where I am staying. As soon as the Germans seized the island they demanded a complete list of all members of the Jewish community on Crete which then totalled around 300. Three years later, by then swollen with refugees from other parts of Greece, they were all rounded up. At dawn on May 29th 1944 the entire area of the old town was blocked off by trucks as loudspeakers ordered the Jews out onto the street. Allowed to take nothing with them, they were herded into the square today full of cafes pulsing with life and shops selling vibrant clothes and gaudy souvenirs. They were driven to a nearby prison where they remained for two weeks with little food and no changes of clothes while their homes were looted. Finally, on June 9th they were all loaded onto a converted tanker en route for Auschwitz via Athens but were torpedoed by a British submarine targeting German ships and all drowned.

The Jewish presence on Crete, dating back to the 4th century BC not long after the conquest by Alexander the Great, was wiped out in one day. The ancient synagogue of Etz Hayyim, although much looted and attacked over the years, is all that remains. For the last decade there has been a determined effort to revive Jewish life in Chania and on the eve of Passover a local restaurant hosts a community Seder, or Passover meal, which attracts a motley crew of Greeks and tourists, both Jewish and not. I sat next to a Russian who was next to a half Greek half Turkish man , not Jewish, but who said he came because he liked to celebrate the revival of Jewish life. Another guest felt guilty that the local community had not been able to do more in 1944.

Later this month there will be commemorations of the Battle of Crete in various parts of the island perhaps the last time that anyone who was alive at the time will attend.