31 December 2010

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.

7 December 2010

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 £750 for SANE the mental health charity started by Marjorie Wallace and chosen by Wendy.

27 November 2010

Adding some sparkle to your life

I have just held some of the most exquisite jewels that once belonged to the Duchess of Windsor. My heart was racing. If you are a biographer, you can’t get much closer to your subject - or at least to this particular subject - than handling jewels she once owned and wore, even trying them on for size. (They fitted me rather well, actually) This jewelry blazed forth to the world not just that Wallis was rich but that she had exquisite taste and was in the vanguard of modern design. She may have been stripped of the royal initials HRH that most lawyers believed were her due but no one could stop her wearing a ruby crown above a diamond heart with emerald initials, a gift from her husband. It is now on offer again to the highest bidder, and, judging by the crowd looking at the jewels with me, there are plenty of women hoping their man will prove as devoted a jewel buyer as the Duke of Windsor.

Twenty three years after the historic sale of almost all the Duchess of Windsor’s jewels, 20 pieces from that sale will be re-auctioned on Tuesday 30th November. For the past few months the exquisite objects have been tempting buyers around the world and now they are on display again in London. These highly personal pieces with their intimate inscriptions may never again be seen. There may never again be collectors like the non royal WE - Wallis and Edward.You have just three days left to see them. Hurry.

21 November 2010

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.

16 November 2010

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.

2 October 2010

Wimmin's Work

I have just been to see Made in Dagenham.It’s a film about 187 women machinists who went on strike at the Ford Motor Company in 1968 initially when their work was down graded from skilled. Slowly the issues broadened out into an all out strike for equal pay for women and one of the best moments in the film is seeing the idea dawning on these brave, if rather too well dressed and coiffed women, that equal pay is not only a right it’s an achievable right. It’s a beautiful film and when the men turn against them, very moving. At least, it made me cry.

It reminded me of how, ten years later in 1978, I too faced the power of my own union, the NUJ, or at least a small part of it. I wanted to take maternity leave and come back to my job at Reuters in Fleet Street. But, as the Father of the Chapel reminded me, I was just one woman with one problem and they were in the middle of fighting a pay claim for all five hundred or so journalists. To support me in my battle to keep my job open until after the baby’s birth would divert energy and risk weakening the fight for more money for us all...surely I understood that?

I understood enough to resign from the NUJ and realise I lacked the courage of the Dagenham women. I resigned from Reuters, paid back my maternity leave and became a freelance journalist and member of the ever-supportive Society of Authors. Later that year the law changed but I had produced my baby too early. It’s hard to believe these antiquated ideas are so recent, until you see the bouffant hairstyles, black rimmed eyes and fabulous Biba dresses. I remember wearing them! Discrimination against women in the workplace still exists but not quite like it did in the sixties and seventies before the law changed. The film started from a Whistledown Radio programme in 2003, The Reunion, in which the Dagenham strikers were brought back together to share their experiences and at the end you get to meet the real women.. .

27 September 2010

What some people do in bed

Me? I take a hot water bottle to bed with me as my bed partner (aka the husband) doesn't like the electric blanket on his side. Some people, according to Curtis Brown agent Karolina Sutton, take an ipad to bed with them. But the really exciting news is what they do with it. It's called instant gratification. They order new books which are immediately downloaded and this impulse buy gives the author royalties that would not otherwise have accrued. This is what is called an additional sale, a sale that would not have happened if the ipad owner had to go into a bookshop and buy a book in daylight hours. We've heard so much about the death of the book that it was a blessed relief to hear about this thrilling nocturnal trend at the Society of Authors AGM on Monday evening. Fionnuala Duggan, Director of Random House Group Digital, identified another exciting new ipad trend; high volume sales on Boxing Day and Christmas Day when new ipads are given but have no books on them. These, too, she identified in ringing tones as that most cherished of all things: a new market. So authors, we can breathe again - The book lives on. Unless, in a generation, no one can read and ipads are just for games. Me? I still like my hot water bottle even though everyone said once the electric blanket was invented....

22 September 2010

Music Never Lets you Down

The gorgeous Valerie Solti said at the opening of this year's Proms that Music Never Lets You Down...It's a wonderful phrase I haven't been able to dismiss from my mind since she said it. I don't suppose it's one that either the pianist Joyce Hatto or her husband William Barrington Coupe would agree with.
I have spent days and hours with him and the results, cut down to thirty minutes, can be heard for the next 6 days on i player. I have tried to be fair not soft. It is a minor tragedy in its way for those concerned. Here's the link:


20 September 2010

Reflections on Ratzinger

As the Pope leaves England some will feel inspired others bruised by his visit. I keep remembering a biography of the then Cardinal Ratzinger written eleven years ago by the Vatican expert John L Allen Jr and published by Continuum. It was five years before Ratzinger's election as Pope Benedict XV1. This time the press has been consumed by Child Abuse Scandal in the Catholic Church

But here is what I wrote then. It feels like a different man came to visit:

In a 1998 poll in Bunte magazine to name the 200 most important Germans, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger came in at number 30, well ahead of tennis player Steffi Graf. A prolific author translated into several languages, Ratzinger has enjoyed global celebrity status unparalleled by any cardinal of the Roman curia ever, according to his American biographer John L. Allen, Vatican correspondent for the Kansas-based National Catholic Reporter.

For the past twenty years, Ratzinger has been head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the body which used to be known as the Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition and which still has the power to censure a thinker, ban a book or condemn a line of thought. In trying to examine how Ratzinger, once considered a progressive young theologian and liberal at the Second Vatican Council, has ended up as the chief architect of a great wave of repression in Catholic theology, John Allen has dug deep into the archives of Ratzinger’s native Bavaria, where he spent his childhood in the shadow of the Nazis, and does not flinch in his accusation that Ratzinger is guilty of at best, a selective memory, at worst, the sin of omission.

By way of setting the scene, Allen introduces Joseph’s great uncle on his father’s side Georg, one of the towering Bavarian figures of the nineteenth century. While the present cardinal has every right to admire his great uncle whose political and literary works were impressive, he cannot be ignorant of his uncle’s anti-Semitism, Allen argues. “It seems reasonable to expect some comment on views that obviously played their own unintended role in creating the conditions in which the Holocaust was possible.”

In 1939 Ratzinger entered a seminary in Traunstein but when this became a military hospital he returned to his gymnasium until 1943, when he was drafted into the anti-aircraft corps. In a 1993 interview he maintained that he never took part in active combat but admitted that while on duty at the BMW plant he witnessed slave labourers from the Dachau concentration camp.

According to his biographer, the way Ratzinger describes his Traunstein experience today, it sounds as if most of the political chaos and the war was “out there” while he was reading great literature, playing Mozart or joining his family on trips to Salzburg. “The truth, however, is that the horrors of the Reich were right there in Traunstein, staring Ratzinger in the face just outside the door of the gymnasium or across the seminary playing field.”

Traunstein, like many other German towns, was not spared the horrors of Kristallnacht and also had its own prison for ‘political criminals’. Some of its citizens, including people known to Ratzinger and his family, did show resistance to the Nazis and a few paid the ultimate price. Yet although Ratzinger has offered many details from the war years about army service or schooling, it is striking that he leaves out any mention of the upheavals which left the town Judenfrei by 1938.

”In a city of fewer than 12,000 people, even allowing for the chaos and confusion, Ratzinger must have known what was happening. Even if he was not aware of them at the time he certainly knew the history by 1997, when he wrote his memoirs. One gets the impression that the Third Reich has meaning for Ratzinger today primarily as an object lesson about church and culture and only the details consistent with that argument have passed through the filter of his memory…This reading of the war omits what many would consider its main lesson, namely the dangers of blind obedience.”

The biography also examines in unsparing detail where Ratzinger stands today on issues of inter-religious dialogue. He is a fierce opponent of the various movements towards Catholic d├ętente with other religions, not just Judaism. Yet although John Allen states that there is little question about Ratzinger’s personal respect for Jews or opposition to anti-Semitism, the theological position he holds on Judaism - that for Christians, Jewish history and scripture reach fulfillment only in Christ - is deeply offensive to some Jews and has been branded a form of “theological anti-Semitism“ by some scholars.

At a time of widespread disquiet about the recent downturn in dialogue between the Catholic Church and Jewish leaders such views matter. When the Cardinals of the Catholic Church gather before long in the Sistine Chapel to elect the next pope, they will, Allen argues, in effect be deciding whether or not to continue the uncompromising policies Ratzinger has been the central force in shaping.

This is a brave book to have been written by one whose daily work is still intimately connected with the Vatican

8 September 2010

Clue: Sometimes I feel like one of these (23 across)

Texting is impoverishing our language – discuss? What do OMG, LOL and BTW do to enrich the English language? Reflecting on this recently I realized the Germans have a way of overcoming the problem. An article in The Economist talked about an Eierlegendewollmilchsau, an amazing creature roughly translated as an egg laying woolly milk sow … or a jack-of-all trades

6 September 2010

Amazing mother fighting for justice

I interviewed Sheila Blanco for The Times last month. She is an extraordinarily brave and courageous woman, absolutely determined to get Justice for her son Mark, who was 30 when he died in mysterious circumstances after attending a party with Pete Doherty and friends. Today Sky News is delving even further into the story determined to find out the truth about how he died. Listen to it and make up your own mind. It won't bring Mark back but he deserves justice.

5 September 2010

Keep Snarling Lionel

Lionel Shriver is cool about a complete endorsement of Jodi Picoult complaining about the way women novelists are never hyped in the same way that men are (plain old envy perhaps, asks Lionel?) Nonetheless "When my novels are packaged as exclusively for women, I'm not only cut off from a vital portion of my audience but clearly labelled as an author the literary establishment is free to dismiss. By stereotyping my work's audience as self-involved and prissy, women-only packaging also insults my readers, who could all testify that trussing up my novels as sweet, girly and soft is like stuffing a Rottweiler in a dress."
Read the article
Keep snarling Lionel...I like Women with androgynous names. I'm writing about one called Wallis and I do not want a girlie cover for her either. Something strong and blue.

4 September 2010

Walking Between the Raindrops

The most important moments happen in kitchens, says David Grossman the Israeli novelist in London briefly this week explaining why he wanted a mother as the main protagonist of his new book. “I needed someone who would NOT collaborate with the machinery of government nor with warfare,” he said. “A man would not run away from the “notifiers” but a woman could and does.” Listening to him talk about his characters in The End of the Land at Friends’ House on Thursday night, and then later Henrietta Foster’s film on Newsnight - (well worth watching on iplayer)
- I could feel his own raw agony and how, as he said, war radiates into the bubble of family destroying whatever it finds there. So why a mother not a father? Grossman says the appeal of being a novelist is to become the character he’s creating. “I love the idea of being invaded by so many people who are different from me.” Tragically Ora was not so different from him. His own son, Uri, was killed in the Lebanon War in 2006. Mother or Father, war anywhere is the most brutalising form of existence contrary to every form of nurturing creativity that a mother and a father can make together. How long can anyone in Israel keep “walking between the raindrops” without getting splattered, Mother or Father? Grossman has not yet embraced despair but he is not exactly full of hope either.

31 August 2010

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
northernmost 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
www.gitlbraun.com 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 www.haringey.gov.uk 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 www.csm.arts.ac.uk
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.

30 August 2010

Artful lessons in power dressing

Anne caption

Evening Standard: Feb 18 2010

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?

Forthcoming Events

September 15th, 2010
All day lecture to Abingdon Nadfas members on Jennie Churchill

October 7th, 2010 11.30
Anne will be talking about William Bankes the Exiled Collector to Blackmore Vale Nadfas

January 13th, 2011 10.30
Anne will be talking about Jennie Churchill to Thames DfAS at Bourne End