Category Archives: Other Activities

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

Leaving the World a Better Place

Talking to A. N Wilson about TOLSTOY last night was an eerie experience. It was one hundred years since the death of the great Russian novelist and reformer and our venue to reflect on his achievements was the magnificent and newly restored Normansfield Theatre at Teddington, completed in 1868 just as Tolstoy was finishing War and Peace to be published the following year, 1869. As we sat beneath the backdrop of an idyllic woodland scene with panels of Ruddigore along the walls, I was constantly reminded that this theatre represented the life’s work of Dr John Langdon Down, a pioneer doctor who believed, radically for the time, that children with learning difficulties responded well to working on stage and with a variety of theatrical entertainments. He and his wife Mary worked together in this venture, living on site and sinking their own small fortune into the Theatre. Although he gave his name to the condition known as Down’s Syndrome, he has been neglected by medical historians and is hardly known today. Yet he was born in November 1928, just a few weeks after Lev Tolstoy, and like him he worked to improve the world. Both were concerned with the education of children and desperately cared about improving the condition of the disadvantaged, both worked together with their wives yet Sofya Tolstoy as her recently published diaries show was a desperately unhappy woman. Mary Langdon Down a deeply fulfilled one. How sad that the world knows so little about this extraordinary pair of reformers. I hope to be in this wonderful theatre again and soak up some more of its sparkling atmosphere.

Remembering Tolstoy

Listening to the wonderful Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, talking with such a depth of knowledge and empathy about Tolstoy last night made me nostalgic for my schooldays. If only he had been my Russian teacher wouldn’t I have worked harder at my Russian studies, instead of scraping through O level and failing to grasp the pain of being human in War and Peace? There’s an essay about Tolstoy every night this week at 11 pm to celebrate the centenary of his death. Tonight it’s the turn of his biographer AN Wilson. On Saturday November 20th, the actual date of the great man’s death, I’ll be discussing the Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy with AN Wilson at the Richmond Festival of Literature. As ever the question for biographers like me is: should we be examining the life to help us understand the work? As the Archbishop said, Tolstoy’s fiction is Tolstoy explaining himself, pouring himself out in words. I’ll go with the Archbishop on this one.

Which book? Blogs aren’t book reviews

Deciding what to write about for my first Blog has occupied rather too much of my time for something that is meant to be spontaneous. I assume it will be about a book – what else since I am lucky enough to have publishers send me these, often unasked for, hoping I will Blog about them. But then, rather like not wishing to favour one child against another, the question is ‘which book?’ Blogs aren’t book reviews’, my friend tells me. I was still thinking about this as I drove in the downpour and floods recently to the northern most part of London imaginable that is still London, and there, as soon as I entered Wood Green Library was something facing me demanding that I write about IT. An installation by artist Gitl Wallerstein Braun called Genesis. I have known Gitl for several years now and my admiration keeps on growing.

Gitl was born in 1950 in Haifa to Holocaust survivors so poor and sick that she was sent to an orphanage. She came to England, had 8 children and, when the last one left, she took hold of her life and sent it hurtling off in a new direction. She wanted to be an artist but first had to learn to speak English. So she went to Wood Green Library and started studying. Right from the beginning. Hence the donation to Wood Green library – officially one of the busiest in England. “I wanted to give something back,” she told me.

Aged 50, she enrolled at Central St Martins School of Art and since graduating in 2006 has worked with enormous dedication and to great critical acclaim. The latest picture is high over the books – I’m not sure what that’s telling me, but I can stare at Gitl’s pictures of textiles for hours and find so many different meanings. They are intensely suggestive and sensual. The inspiration this time for Gitl was finding an old artist’s palette in an auction room but, as I look at the hole for the artist’s thumb I see another eye – or is it an abyss.? All Gitl’s art has a story. Her story. But I look at this and think of many stories. It’s on permanent display so go there and stop for moment to contemplate a masterpiece. She is such an inspiration to women, to immigrants, to artists and just to anyone who wants to learn and understand and think.

Artful lessons in power dressing

Evening Standard: Feb 18 2010

Artful lessons in power dressing

Godolphin and Latymer School for Girls in Hammersmith, hosting its first Arts Festival next week, has men talking for three out of four evenings Andrew Marr, Chris Patten and William Boyd. But on Tuesday 23rd, Francine Stock and Anne Sebba, both mothers with daughters at the school, will be discussing how women use power and influence.

Sebba, biographer of Laura Ashley, Mother Teresa, Jennie Churchill now researching Wallis Simpson, thinks women excel at manipulating behind the throne. To prove her point she will wear killer high heels and a jacket by Alexander McQueen, the late fashion designer whose clothes “made women feel powerful”. Hmmm … what sort of lesson is that?