This weekend, instead of me questioning other people, two interviews about me appeared, one in print and one on the radio. I already knew, of course, how tricky it is, when you are under pressure, to convey exactly what you want to say and yet this really brought it home. This is how other people will see me!
Listen to the BBC programme here – there is also a podcast of this edition of Private Passion available.
Here’s another article where I talk sexism, Elizabeth Taylor – and women’s lives
Walking around London these days it’s hard not to be struck by the number of large, often life-sized bronzes in public places. In a selfie obsessed generation, tourists can often be seen posing on the bench in Bond Street in between a rigid Churchill and Roosevelt. Yet a mere 3% of all statues in public places are of women. What a pathetically shocking statistic. And most of those are of Queens or allegorical figures. How can we expect children to grow up with a healthy view of diversity and range of careers open to them if all they see around them are images of successful men?
There is a major statue of Millicent Fawcett by the artist Gillian Wearing being prepared for Parliament Square to commemorate the anniversary of (some) women being granted the vote in 1918. Wearing’s design will show Fawcett in her prime, aged 50 in 1897, the year the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies was formed. Some 52 other suffragist campaigners who fought for the right to vote for women will at least have their images engraved on the plinth.
About time too. But even that may not yet go ahead if planning permission is refused. I was asked this week to write in support of the statue to the City of Westminster Millicent Fawcett Statue
And I have just spent an hour or so talking about Virginia Woolf and the need to have her commemorated in Richmond-upon-Thames where she lived for about ten years from 1915- 1924 and I now live and work. You might think that Richmond would abound with blue plaques and busts of one of its most famous residents, one of the most famous women writers of the last century, a brilliant diarist and the founder of literary modernism. But no. Because Virginia suffered from severe mental illness throughout her life and made a remark, often quoted, about Richmond and death (she would, she said, if given the choice prefer the latter) it is assumed she hated living here. In fact it was a highly creative period for her. She wrote short stories in Richmond, her first novel, ‘The Voyage Out,’ was published the year she moved in and, together with husband Leonard Woolf, began publishing at the Hogarth Press, which they founded in Richmond.
My words were being filmed for a promotional video intended to help raise money for the Virginia Woolf statue, the first ever full figure life-size bronze depiction of her. There is a campaign underway to fund the statue, which has already been designed by award-winning sculptor Laury Dizengremel and which has Virginia seated on a bench. It will deliberately show a smiling, friendly Virginia, in the hope that young people will set next to her and feel something of her spirit and be inspired. For more information or better still to donate go to http://aurorametro.org/virginia-woolf-statue/
After giving several talks about Les Parisiennes and speaking to reading groups about the choices facing women in Occupied Paris, I now realise what the number one question from the audience is: what would you have done? I also realise that I don’t have a clear cut answer and have found myself saying different things on different occasions. It is an impossible question. I have always shied away from ‘what if’ questions on any historical subject. We cannot re-create all the other variables that go into making one straightforward answer. If I were a mother I would do one thing (sleep with a Nazi if it meant giving a crust of bread to my child and my action was not treasonable?) If I were a daughter of elderly parents I might do another, if I were a singer or dressmaker would I sing to a German audience or make clothes for a German woman? Who knows? On Monday I might do one thing on Friday another, in 1941 what might be murky could be clear cut by 1944. Would I deliberately cause trouble by walking out of a restaurant if the enemy walked in: what purpose would be achieved by that? Would I instigate a revolt in a prison if by my actions others would suffer? How do I (or those of my generation who have grown up in peace) begin to imagine what it felt like to be frightened, to feel a permanent visceral sense of tension?
Every talk I give results in a fresh set of questions focusing on different aspects of my book. It keeps me on my toes. This week I was asked why didn’t French women instigate more revolts against the Occupiers? Why aren’t there more women in French politics today? (Actually, I think there are quite a few). Which characters do I like best and what have I learned from my research? And it is not just old people in my audience asking the questions. I have had young history teachers who flatteringly tell me they wish they had brought their ‘A’ level class. I am often asked: What happened to all the Franco-German babies?
Often, the questions aren’t questions at all but statements; so many people have stories of their own that they want to share of an aunt who survived a camp, or of an uncle who was killed, or of a friend of a friend. Did I by any chance come across this particular woman or, is it okay to publish the diaries of someone who their mother knew during the war but did not survive? Often there are questions which I am barely qualified to answer but I can usually refer the questioner to someone who would be and then this torrent that seems to have been unleashed usually has to be stopped or we’d overrun our time. None of my other books provoked this amount of questioning.
1. 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.
Luckily the days have long since passed when caring about fashion denoted an airhead. Men and women can now be openly interested in clothes and style and still be considered to have an active brain. Some of the sharpest journalistic brains now report on fashion trends and what that means to the economy as well as the history of clothes and design. Arguably, the pendulum has swung too far the other way as women CEOs and MPs, not just those in media, must be interested in clothes, fashion and looking immaculately soignee, while their male colleagues can still pass muster with a careworn, rumpled look.
Back in the day, I was told as a young Fleet Street journalist that I could not possibly be a serious news reporter and care about clothes or all I’d be given to write about were fashion shows. Wish I’d had the courage to reply then, Course you can, stupid, and at so many levels.
For behind the comment lurks the belief that what we wear is superficial, that it indicates a life devoid of seriousness where books and matters of the mind are concerned. No, actually, we can do both. Ive been thinking a lot about fashion recently for my current book on Women in Paris during the War, Occupation and Beyond; Les Parisiennes. These women cared desperately about what they wore and how they looked, seeing it as their patriotic duty to dress as well as they possibly could in spite of the restrictions. They decided that wearing the most outrageous shoes and hats trimmed with whole fruits, plants, feathers and whatever was an act of defiance to the Germans and showed support for their husbands if they were away fighting or in prisoner of war camps. Okay so its not exactly being part of the resistance if such a thing existed. But it was their way of showing a determination to be just a little bit resistante. By contrast, the British and American women, fighting the same war, saw it as their patriotic duty to be as dowdy as possible, reflecting the harsh times. The different responses provide fascinating historical and cultural insights.
So I couldn’t have been more delighted to be featured for the first time in my life in the fashion pages of The Times recently. My fashion advice? The importance of being comfortable. Well I am the proud owner these days of a freedom pass with no pretensions to being a model. But the truth is I do care about fashion and have a serious interest in matters that concern women, which is sometimes, but not always, an interest in clothes and fashion.
Oh and here is that column…