Cat’s Paws at Work again

I finally caught up with the justly praised centenary exhibition devoted to Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes at the Victoria and Albert Museum and drooled over the fabulous costumes remarkably preserved with all their brilliance and sparkle intact. I loved the fascinating commentaries on the music of the ballets by Howard Goodall and restored footage of Karsavina showing what dancing was like before the Ballets Russes when dancers had some flesh on them. And I consumed a host of mini biographies of such key artistic figures of the early twentieth century as Stravinsky, Bakst, Nijinsky, Fokine, Lydia Lopkova and my namesake – the wild and beautiful ballerina, Ida Rubinstein. For 25 years I was a Rubinstein, too, but in those days only knew about Anton and Arthur not Ida.

But I was reminded of one story which was not told here: on June 21 1911 Nijinsky made his debut on the London stage largely thanks to the support patronage and organisation of the beautiful society hostess, Gladys de Grey by then Gladys Ripon. Each performance of the Ballets Russes was a personal triumph for Gladys none more so than the one given four days after the coronation, in front of the new King and Queen, at which she swept up and down the aisle of the Opera House personally greeting as many members of the audience as she could.

This public and dramatic success worked like a knife in and old wound for Winston Churchill’s mother, Jennie (by then Mrs Cornwallis West). Jennie could never forget how her late husband, Lord Randolph had admired, wooed and perhaps even bedded Gladys. Jennie decided to pursue an even more ambitious goal of promoting a Shakespeare Memorial and a National Theatre largely out of rivalry with Gladys. Actually Jennie’s was a brilliantly imaginative idea to raise funds for a National Memorial Shakespearean Theatre. She recreated a Shakespearean world at Earl’s Court with buildings designed by Lutyens, Elizabethan taverns and jousting competitions. But her event flopped and yet again Jennie lost money. Soon after she lost her husband too, George Cornwallis West. Jennie died in 1921 after a fall down stairs Diaghilev eight years later in 1929.

Charity Begins at Home

Charity Begins at Home

Once a year I host a literary lunch for charity at home in my basement. The charity is chosen by the writer who gives the talk and whose books we give away at the end of the lunch. Every year, as I contemplate how to feed and organise 30 of my women friends, I say never again. This year, as deep snow fell and the trains and planes stopped running and the phone rang with cancellations, I said it with meaning. And then, on the day itself, something magical happened. In the event almost everyone struggled through snow and ice to get to the lunch and almost everyone insisted they had had an inspirational time. I love seeing how much pleasure a book and the idea of how a book came into being and how its creator agonized over its birth can give.

The speaker was the novelist, short story writer and creative writing teacher, Wendy Perriam, who talked bravely and courageously about her life as well as writing. She, a lapsed Catholic, said the reason so many writers are either Jewish or Catholic is because both are such dramatic religions. Her latest novel is called Broken Places and anyone who heard her talk about it on Woman’s Hour earlier this year will know they are in for a dramatic journey with Eric the librarian. After lunch she was asked the unanswerable: how to keep going when your only daughter is dying from tongue cancer, as Wendy’s tragically was. Wendy did not exactly say that writing was therapy. How can there be any therapy to help with such a tragedy? But she certainly poured herself into her work and, as I looked around my basement, I realised how many people in that room had suffered tragedy at some point in their lives and how they had all carried on with life as they needed to live it. Donna Thomson, whose book Four Walls of Freedom about her son, who has cerebral palsy, came out last year was one example.

So now as I am folding away the ancient trestle table and returning the equally ancient chairs to the attic whence they came, I realise that far from not wanting to give another I can hardly wait to pounce on my next author. And we raised