I may be an author of eleven books but actually I like talking about them almost more than writing them. Not just because it means I travel to interesting places to give my talks but mostly because I like meeting my readers, hearing what intrigues them about my books, telling the story in a different way.
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. Read More
Interfaith Community Relations in Bradford
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.”
As I start to write segments of my book on Paris in wartime (and beyond) it’s hard to get prisons out of my mind – especially Nazi ones. On Monday I interviewed the surviving daughter of a French resistante, one of the bravest imaginable who even tried to escape from Ravensbruck, possibly the only woman ever to try and escape from this particular hell hole. But she was re-captured and made to pay cruelly. Amazingly, she survived her punishment of torture, solitary confinement and a diet verging on starvation and was liberated by the Swedish Red Cross in 1945. One of the most extraordinary documents which also survived, and which her daughter showed me during our interview, was her mother’s prison ID card, stamped with the dates of her various prison stays mostly in France but culminating in Ravensbruck. The barbarity is so hard to believe that these pieces of tangible evidence are more important than ever.
Before her arrest, this sophisticated Parisienne was noted for wearing elegant Lanvin suits while undertaking highly dangerous missions. And the unlikely link between prison and fashion, which will be threaded through my book, (pun intended), continued the day after this moving interview when I visited the unusual exhibition of works by the SOE secret agent and artist, Brian Stonehouse at the London gallery, Abbott and Holder until December 23rd.
Stonehouse, who moved to the US after the war where he became a Vogue illustrator, (one of the last before photography took over completely), may not be a household name in the pantheon of British secret agents. However, he played a critical role at one point in post war SOE history as his artistic skills enabled him to help identity four women he had seen hours before they were sent to their deaths at Natzweiler-Strutof camp, where he too was being held in the summer of 1944. He had noticed the women’s arrival and, after the war, dredged his memory to produce sketches of them in order to try and help with identifying them. Within hours of their arrival, the women were given lethal injections of phenol in an attempt to drug them before their bodies were thrown in the crematorium. But one of the women, although drugged, apparently woke up when her body was flung into the furnace and began to struggle just enough to scratch the face of the German executioner forcing her back in. It is believed that this brave woman who resisted until the last, was Vera Leigh, a milliner before the war and another true Parisienne.
Stonehouse, a remarkable man who survived two and a half years of torture and solitary confinement himself in a variety of camps, is now being celebrated in London for his artistic talent. The Imperial War Museum holds many of the drawings he made on the liberation of Dachau and of the War Crimes Tribunal but these fashion sketches show he was a man of many talents. As for the numerous women whose stories I am unearthing, their bravery was second to none but they still cared about how they look. From the moment war was declared in September 1939 fashion was viewed in France at least as yet another small way in which German dominance could be resisted.
There is a book to accompany the exhibition – Brian Stonehouse: Artist, Soldier, War Hero, Fashion Illustrator – by Frederic A. Sharf with Michelle Finamore
I came closer to understanding what it means to be part of a Greek tragedy last week. I’m not talking about Aeschylus or Euripides of course but today’s everyday tragedy for many Greeks who feel that the rest of the world despises or is mocking them and has many of the elements of traditional Greek drama. There are the conflicting emotions of fear and pity and conflict between men as well as between nations, but so far no catharsis.
“What is happening in Europe today doesn’t represent the original European spirit, which is the spirit of cohesion and solidarity,” explained Dimitris Kounenakis, Mayor of Aghios Nikolaos, a region of Eastern Crete long beloved by tourists, especially Brits.
“At the moment there is a division between northern Europe and southern Europe and we would like just one Europe, for rich and poor alike, not one exploiting the other.”
It happened like this. A Greek friend who knew how much my husband and I loved Crete, so much so that we have built a home there, introduced us to someone whose job is to make sure the deprived and disadvantaged, women and children on the margins or in violent and abusive relationships, are aware of all the projects and initiatives that exist to help them. The idea is to make sure that local people know that the European Union is not all about road building – although there is plenty of that – but has some very tangible benefits to help those in need. She mentioned us to the Mayor and he wanted to thank us for our confidence in the region by inviting us to a moving little ceremony in his office overlooking the Marina. The original friends were there, luckily interpreting and translating as my beginner’s Greek stretched no further than a brief sentence thanking the Mr Kounenakis for bestowing on us such an honour. I hope he understood what I was trying to say as the day before, in the butcher’s, I had apparently asked for hen rather than chicken and on a mountain walk, asked a man with a donkey how old he was, meaning of course the donkey but used the wrong pronoun. I received the Greek equivalent of a very old fashioned look.
Reverting to English, I told the Mayor why I loved the island so much; for its history – the idea that paths I tread have been trodden by countless others for thousands of years – for its food, and for its people. I cannot imagine a better place for a writer to work that is both stimulating and peaceful. The ancient myth may warn ‘beware Greeks bearing gifts’ but we welcome them! Greeks are the most generous people imaginable with homemade cheese or spinach pies appearing at all times of day and night. I dare not think how long it must take some kind person to prepare these delicacies.
Then it was the Mayor’s turn again and he explained to us all the activities he has undertaken to preserve and improve the environment in the region within his jurisdiction, pointing out that there are now 23 ‘Blue Flag’ beaches, denoting that they meet stringent criteria for biodiversity and sustainable development. And then we were joined by a Greek chorus of journalists and a local TV film crew who wanted to record the moment when we were presented with a certificate and two bottles of Cretan olive oil, and I presented the Mayor with a copy of one of my books and we repeated once more why we think we have discovered a corner of paradise.
Greece may recently have been overtaken by Cyprus and even Portugal as Europe’s problem child but that does not mean the Greek crisis has gone away. Some people think we must be mad to have a house here but, in a land where antiquity surrounds you on all sides, it’s hard not to believe that the country can withstand one more drama- if not drachma. Life on the ground is good, the sun shines most days and Crete is such a lush and fertile island that most of its inhabitants can grow much of what they need so won’t starve. But for many without jobs, especially in towns on the mainland, life is still painful. And most painful of all is being lectured to by Germany; history is short and memories are long and in Crete of all places, the Nazi Occupation from 1941 to 1944 was harsh and brutal.