Category Archives: History

The Questions People Ask

One cover, two books

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.


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.

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 £4,000There’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 90thbirthday. 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.”

Are you what you wear?

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…

Are you what you wear ?