Category Archives: Talks and Lectures

Tales from the front line … Finding the right words for Pain and Courage

View from my bedroom: Paris rooftops

View from my bedroom: Paris rooftops

“Je suis fini,” I told the librarian in the subterranean Bibliotheque Nationale, to guffaws of laughter. “Vous avez fini,” he reprimanded me as he brought his laughter under control. Yes, I agreed with him I had finished but in English we might also say ‘I am finished for the day or with these books.’  Clearly, I had said something totally inappropriate, probably best left to my imagination but I am pleased I at least provided him with some amusement for the day. As usual, I’d been up since 5 am in order to catch the 7 am Eurostar and had made my way across Paris to the Bibliotheque Francois Mitterand, (BNF),  a building that feels as if you are working in a prison or nuclear bunker, for a day of research. At first I was refused entry because my (very small) rucksack on wheels was deemed too large, but with my inadequate French I finally persuaded them to allow me in. And once I started work the atmosphere was serene, the chairs fabulously comfortable and the café delicious. I must keep going with the French lessons!

View from my bedroom: Paris rooftops

Plaque outside the Memorial de la Shoah

When not at the BNF I go to Nanterre, repository of many resistance archives, to immerse myself in yet more harrowing accounts of women in concentration camps or in factories working as slave labourers, or to the Holocaust Museum, where the librarian explains why she often does not have what I am looking for “because we deal with death not life, and with the nobodys in life who have no one to come and deposit papers with us.” And as I am finding my way around the city to a number of other resistance museums or repositories of World War Two papers, I can see why so many Parisians complain about passenger safety on the underground.  The short amount of time the metro doors remain open at stations is a source of regular complaint and this week I was one of those ‘snapped.’ The automatic doors close violently and stop for nobody. I was trailing my very small suitcase trying to get through the crowds when bang – they shut on me, poised halfway out, causing instant rib pain. But at least I got out and sat down to recover my breath. I’ve done nothing more than bruise a rib but it’s very painful. Very painful? How do I dare even to write that as I research lives that were truly, achingly, desperately painful, often with little or no food or heat and full of fear, threat and torture. Yet few complained.

Best of all are my interviews with old people who have lived through the experiences. I’m keeping the best details of these for the book itself but one memory that will stay with me is meeting two friends, one almost 90 the other a little older, comparing memories. One says to the other: “But you – you were in the resistance, no?  I never knew. All these years. Why didn’t you talk about it?”

“What was there to talk about?” she replies. “It was just what one did.” Again and again, I ask myself, what I would have done? Courage, like pain, are just two words I need to understand better in French as well as English.



Travelling for Work

Travelling to work takes on new meaning when you have to make a day long journey for just an hour of work, the length of a lecture.



Last week I left home before dawn to get down to Cornwall but hit trouble as early as Reading station. Standing in the freezing, snowy cold, trains were constantly cancelled, changed or delayed because of the floods that had hit the West Country the week before.  The force of the water had dislodged several lines that ran close to rivers and so, although the tracks remained, the ballast underneath them had been washed away in many places.  New landslips were being reported as I stood there. The poor beleaguered train staff did their best and in the end advised anyone to take whatever train was on offer if it was going approximately in the right direction. I did and with a coach ride, plus diverted train, plus car arrived eventually at Fowey by about 5 pm. I quickly changed, gave my lecture on behalf of the Fowey Harbour Heritage Society and went to bed. I left at dawn the next day, happy I’d done what I’d been asked but sad I didn’t have longer to enjoy this beautiful part of the world.

This week I went in the other direction, to Saltaire, the model village just outside Bradford built by mill owner and philanthropist Titus Salt in the early 19th century to improve the lives of his workers. Saltaire is now a Unesco World Heritage Site and the vast Salt’s Mills alongside the River Aire are home to a spectacular collection of paintings by David Hockney, the almost local boy who studied at Bradford School of Art before going to London and the Royal College of Art. Read More

New Zealand Women

Photography by Bev Short part of her All Woman exhibition

Photography by Bev Short part of her All Woman exhibition

In 1893 New Zealand became the first country in the world to give women the vote. After two decades of campaigning by women such as the Liverpool-born Kate Sheppard, who was also a temperance campaigner, politicians believed that empowering all women in this way might have a positive effect on morality in politics or even controlling men’s drinking habits. It was another twenty five years before Britain gave its female population – and then only those over 30 – the right to vote.

So, no surprise then that the New Zealand Portrait Gallery in Wellington has just opened a striking exhibition of photographs called All Woman * by another British immigrant, Bev Short, a Plymouth-born mother of two daughters, who came here ten years ago and says her aim is to create a debate about what it means to be a real woman today.

Her exhibition was opened by Melissa Clark Reynolds, once an impoverished, teenage single mother who struggled to finish her education, became a millionaire aged 35, and now works as an entrepreneur, philanthropist and climate awareness evangelist. It features women as disparate as a tattoo artist, sheep shearer, violinist, lance corporal in the NZ infantry, fire fighter, electrician, orthopaedic surgeon and a former Miss Zealand, mostly in unexpected poses not necessarily related to their work.

According to an introduction from Helen Clark, New Zealand’s first female Prime Minister who served from 1999 to 1980 and is currently administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, the UN’s third highest position:  “The show is a celebration of Kiwi women in the 21st century, some of whom … are redefining our idea of family and society, while others are making New Zealand proud on the international stage.” In 2006 Forbes Magazine ranked Clark 20th most powerful woman in the world yet few people outside New Zealand have heard of her.

Bev Short said the most shocking thing she discovered while working on the exhibition was the high incidence of domestic violence – against women and children. “I think that says something about the men in this society and it’s not just lower socio-economic groups or non-whites.”

Among the most powerful images is former international equestrian Catriona Williams, who represented New Zealand until she fell from her horse aged 30 in 2001 leaving her a tetraplegic. Yet instead of picturing her in a wheelchair, Short has her fully made up, with jewellery, wearing a magnificent red ball gown lying on a white sheet, her beautiful face radiating courage to her audience. “My ambition is to be able to dance with my husband once more,” she says. On the adjacent wall is Barbara Kendall, a retired windsurfing gold medallist now a motivational speaker, posed with curlers in her hair,  a phone in one hand, iron in the other, laptop open and child’s dress on the ironing board… a portrayal of multi-tasking with universal resonance for women.


New Zealand is also famous for having relatively more book buyers per capita than any other country and this week The Forrests, the eagerly awaited novel by prize winning New Zealand author, Emily Perkins, was published and immediately needed to reprint.  The Forrests  has already been tipped as a likely winner of the Man Booker prize – at least by the Hay Festival where she is coming to speak in June. The last New Zealander to win the then Booker prize was another woman, Keri Hulme,  in 1985 with The Bone People .Perkins, who after living for eleven  years in London now teaches creative writing at Auckland University, is following in a powerful tradition of female New Zealand writers from Katherine Mansfield,  who  believed that power, freedom and independence were more exciting than love, to Janet Frame  (Angel at my Table)  and my own favourite, Margaret Mahy, whose brilliantly imaginative Lion in the Meadow I read night after night to my children .

Birthplace of Katherine Mansfield

Birthplace of Katherine Mansfield

Apparently this is precisely what Rudyard Kipling predicted when he came to New Zealand on a brief visit in 1891, according to his biographer, the New Zealand-based writer Harry Ricketts. Ricketts discovered a short story Kipling then wrote for the New Zealand Herald in which his narrator says, thinking of the future of Colonial literature, “Hark to the women now. They tell the old story well.”


I am here to give a series of lectures about American women who shocked the British establishment including Wallis Simpson, Jennie Churchill and the so called Dollar Princesses, women who married into the British aristocracy trading money for titles. These women did not have careers and were often at the mercy of their parents who used them for their own social advantage. Katherine  Mansfield, born in 1888, certainly shocked the establishment. She wrote to friends of how she loathed the idea of  marriage as “The idea of sitting and waiting for a husband is absolutely revolting and it really is the attitude of a great many girls…” Perkins told me that although Mansfield and Frame were a major influence on her writing, “I see New Zealand’s female literature in the 21st century as a constellation rather than a linear tradition. It has opened up dramatically in the last twenty years.”

Anne Sebba is the author of That Woman A Life of Wallis Simpson (Phoenix £7.99)

Wallis Simpson in Shanghai…again

Advice to Pedestrians in Shanghai

A shorter version of this diary appeared in The Telegraph March 15th 2012

Researching my biography of Wallis Simpson in Shanghai a few years ago I had a hunch. Now I am here again trying to take that hunch one stage further even though my book has been published. In 2010, I believed I had discovered the name of a man Wallis coyly described in her 1956 memoir, The Heart has its Reasons, merely as ‘Robbie.’  She said she could not give his full name but he sent her baskets of exotic fruit and dancing with him underneath a bower of flowers made her feel she was in Shangri La. Life was so good, it was “almost too good for a woman.”  Why could she not identify him?  And why was continuing the friendship with him in 1924-25 ‘purposeless?’ He was not married so it was not a question of destroying a marriage. Yet, as he had a male business partner the possibility that he was gay, unmentionable in the 1920’s, cannot be discounted.

I guessed – but could not know – that Robbie was quite probably the architect of the clubhouse for the 66-acre Shanghai racecourse.  This clubhouse, the epicentre of smart expatriate life, was rebuilt in the 1930’s by one H.G. F. Robinson, according to the foundation stone. Sure enough, the London archives of RIBA confirmed that a British architect by this name had gone out to Shanghai in the early part of the last century where he founded a successful partnership, Spence, Robinson and Partners.

But it was only a guess – until my book was published. Then, after giving a talk at Cheltenham Literary Festival last autumn, I was approached by an elderly lady queuing patiently to buy my book. “I hope you’ve mentioned my Uncle Harold Robinson,” she said as my pen was poised to sign. It was an extraordinary moment not only because she thereby confirmed what I had surmised but then proceeded to tell me much more. We have been corresponding ever since and she has filled in some gaps, sent me photos of her uncle and told me other stories. “Uncle Harold would never hear a word against Wallis,” explained my informant, now almost 90, whose own family lived in Shanghai’s International Settlement. “He thought she was wonderful.” Uncle Harold introduced Wallis to a highly sought after doctor in Shanghai society, Dr Hugo Rudolf Friedlander, known as Freddy. “Dr Friedlander became much involved with Wallis and ‘her problem’ and recommended a surgeon for her.” What problem? Ah well, my mother had ideas on that, added my informant tantalisingly.

So, on this visit I am trying to discover more about Dr Friedlander and, after a morning poring through various Shanghai directories, including an impressive tome called Men of Shanghai and North China, I find him.

In 1923-4, Dr H. R. Friedlander MRCS LRCP lived at 396, Avenue Foch and practised at 3 Peking Road.  His consulting hours were advertised as 11.30 am – 1 pm. What, I wondered, did he do the rest of the day?  My Cheltenham source revealed that Dr Friedlander left Shanghai in a hurry in 1929 following a scandal involving her aunt, a British woman who left her husband and three sons for him. The new family moved swiftly to Kent, although Friedlander himself died in 1960  in Auckland, which is where my research will take me next. Watch this space.


I am giving talks about Wallis at both the Beijing and Shanghai Literary Festivals, the latter a firm fixture on the Shanghai cultural map for the past decade, the former still a tender sapling. Wallis, jealous to a fault, especially when younger women such as Marilyn Monroe pushed her off the front page, would be thrilled at the current interest in her story. Both festivals are the brainchild of Michelle Garnaut, a creative Australian restaurateur and generous philanthropist who set up a restaurant called M on the Bund in one of the grand old buildings on Shanghai’s main street just as the economic boom was taking off.  The sister restaurant, Capital M, in Beijing overlooks Tiananmen Square. Both locations bear her hallmark quirky, colourful style and writers are pampered throughout their stay, culminating with a fabulous author dinner on Sunday night before returning, Cindarella-like, to our lonely writing lives. She attracts dozens of sponsors – thank you Virgin for flying me there and back – without whom these festivals could not exist. Authors could do with more Michelles around the world enthusiastically promoting their books.


In Shanghai my session on Wallis Simpson was introduced by the British Consul-General, Brian Davidson, now on his third posting in China after a brief spell in Lithuania in between. We compared notes over lunch about the difficulties of giving the same talks for the twentieth time and making each one sound as if it were the first. He addresses Chinese industrialists, persuading them to invest in Britain. I think I have an easier task. Sebastian Wood, the British Ambassador, said over dinner two nights before that armed guards permanently stationed at the gate of his residence were a constant reminder to him of quite how different this country was. In case we had not already noticed, the mistranslations we saw everywhere did the job. At the passport inspection barrier we were encouraged to ‘raise our children up’, on the airline we were offered a ‘distinct wet tissue’, in the car park we were warned to ‘note relaxin vehicles,’ whatever they may be.


The main story while in Beijing may have been the annual  National People’s Congress, but I was more interested in a story in the China Daily Post headed ‘Flushed with Success’ about a protest demonstration by women in several parts of China agitating for more female lavatory stalls. After all, everyone knows that women take longer than men and there are always queues outside women’s toilets, rarely at men’s.  Who said this was a different country? Women of Britain take note!

Anne Sebba is the author of That Woman, a Life of Wallis Simpson Duchess of Windsor (Phoenix £7.99)

Visiting Germany in 2012

Daniel Liebeskind/ Felix Nussbaum house in Osnabruck

Travelling to Germany to give lectures this week, I go first to the pretty medieval town of Osnabrück. My kind hosts show me the sights, starting with the historic town hall of this so called City of Peace where in 1648 a treaty was signed ending the thirty years war. Ah, if only that had been that… The town hall,  with its impressive oil portraits of the signatories and 12th century chandeliers, is a good place to sit and ponder. Osnabrück is also the city where, as recently as 2009, the British had a garrison, the biggest in Europe outside the UK. It is partly the reason for my being invited to give a talk as British army wives decades ago decided that a good way both to cement relations between victor and vanquished and one which would give themselves a reminder of British culture was to form a group called British Decorative and Fine Arts Societies, an offshoot of the better known National Decorative and Fine Arts Societies – or Nadfas.
Just across from the old town hall, in a cobbled square that no doubt comes alive with Christmas markets, I visit the Erich Maria Remarque house. I’d always wondered about that name and what else he had written. In fact he was born in Osnabrück in 1898 as Erich Remark but later took Maria in memory of his mother and changed the K to the more interesting ‘que’ when he became famous. He was extremely handsome and the museum tells the story of Remarque’s complicated private life as well as his work – his friendship with Marlene Dietrich and marriage to Paulette Goddard – and how he fell foul of the Nazis for his damning indictment of war. When they could not reach him they killed his sister instead. After World War 2, he lived in Switzerland, worked on screen plays and many other novels, some of them bestsellers but never quite repeating the success of his early work. All Quiet on the Western Front, which examined the experience of ordinary soldiers, was rejected by numerous publishers until Ullstein took it on. Seeing the much scribbled on hand written manuscript was a reminder of the many different perspectives have created this powerful country.
“Ah yes that happened in former times,” I kept hearing, or “Those were dark days.“ Many ordinary Germans lost homes, possessions, parents and loved ones and it is true that few of the older generation in Germany have not suffered.
But the strongest and most painful reminder of quite how dark those days were came from a visit to the Daniel Liebeskind museum dedicated to that other son of Osnabruck, Felix Nussbaum. Nussbaum, born in 1904 into a prosperous and cultured family, died at Auschwitz  aged 39 in 1944. The Nussbaum Haus is dedicated to his memory and is extraordinary not least for the vast number of Nussbaum paintings that have survived and come back here, including many self- portraits. The building itself , the first Liebeskind building to be finished, shows how the architecture contributes to the experience as it is full of oblique angled walls, sloping windows and angular niches giving a strong sense of lost orientation and withering hope. The growing coldness of the materials – zinc and cement – add to the sense of impending doom for Nussbaum and yet his most powerfully assertive work was arguably created when, after hiding for months in Belgium, he knew he would not survive yet continued painting. Facing the certainty of death he created The Triumph of Death in which he tried to assert that, even when the world is in ruins, a dance of death goes on. He wanted it to be seen as an artistic response and act of liberation and self -assertion amid all the barbarity.

Image taken from WikipediaThe Felix Nussbaum Haus in Osnabrück, Germany. A museum, designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, which houses around 160 paintings by the German-Jewish painter, Felix Nussbaum, who was killed in the Holocaust.”