9 June 2011

On this day 90 years ago

Ninety years ago today Jennie Churchill, American mother of Winston, died. She had fallen down the stairs after slipping on some high heeled shoes which had not had their soles adequately scored. At first it was thought she had just sprained an ankle but then gangrene set in. She had the lower leg amputated and for a while it seemed as if she would recover. But on June 9th 1921 she suddenly haemorrhaged. Winston famously ran through the streets in his pyjamas to be with his adored mother before she died. She was just 67 and still radiating the energy and vigour which made her so attractive to younger men.

Although married to Montague Porch, a Nigerian civil servant, she was still known as Lady Randolph Churchill and buried, as she had requested, at Bladon churchyard just outside Blenheim Palace because she wanted in death to lie next to her errant first husband, Lord Randolph Churchill.

19 May 2011

Who am I ?

Self identity with the subject of one’s biography is, as Richard Holmes famously wrote, the first crime of the biographer. That's okay then...No one is ever going to confuse me with Wallis Simpson and yet, working with a new website designer is forcing me to think closely - Who am I? How do I want people who do not know me to think of me…? All of this is horribly introspective but necessary, I am told. When strangers look at the opening page of my website they need to feel welcomed, intrigued. I have a few seconds to engage them. How do I do that? For the last few years I have been constantly thinking about image as I contemplate the way Wallis Simpson has been portrayed in the 75 years since the Abdication. My new book may not change many people’s perceptions of her but the weight of the establishment has been so heavily against her that I cannot help but question whether all of the hatred and disgust, mostly from people who never knew her, was deserved. If she had looked dowdy, frumpy or fat would she have seemed more appealing? Did the glamour, sparkling jewels and elegant clothes act as a barrier to trust? What subliminal message do we all give from the clothes we wear and the colour of our nails? Perhaps, like Wallis, I should spend more time thinking about this. On the other hand perhaps I have better things to do…

21 April 2011

Not so ancient history on Crete

Seventy years ago next month, one of the bloodiest battles of World War Two began. German paratroopers landed on Crete on the morning of May 20th 1941. They encountered fierce opposition from Greek and Allied forces, including many Anzacs, and at first it looked as if the invasion would be a Nazi disaster. But, in spite of suffering appalling casualties, after ten days the Germans conquered the island. For the next four years the Nazi invaders encountered some of the fiercest resistance from a civilian population anywhere in Europe. The retaliation was brutal and has left lasting scars.

It is impossible not to think of those years as I wander around the small square at the south end of Kondylaki Street in Chania, the beautiful port town of Eastern Crete where I am staying. As soon as the Germans seized the island they demanded a complete list of all members of the Jewish community on Crete which then totalled around 300. Three years later, by then swollen with refugees from other parts of Greece, they were all rounded up. At dawn on May 29th 1944 the entire area of the old town was blocked off by trucks as loudspeakers ordered the Jews out onto the street. Allowed to take nothing with them, they were herded into the square today full of cafes pulsing with life and shops selling vibrant clothes and gaudy souvenirs. They were driven to a nearby prison where they remained for two weeks with little food and no changes of clothes while their homes were looted. Finally, on June 9th they were all loaded onto a converted tanker en route for Auschwitz via Athens but were torpedoed by a British submarine targeting German ships and all drowned.

The Jewish presence on Crete, dating back to the 4th century BC not long after the conquest by Alexander the Great, was wiped out in one day. The ancient synagogue of Etz Hayyim, although much looted and attacked over the years, is all that remains. For the last decade there has been a determined effort to revive Jewish life in Chania and on the eve of Passover a local restaurant hosts a community Seder, or Passover meal, which attracts a motley crew of Greeks and tourists, both Jewish and not. I sat next to a Russian who was next to a half Greek half Turkish man , not Jewish, but who said he came because he liked to celebrate the revival of Jewish life. Another guest felt guilty that the local community had not been able to do more in 1944.

Later this month there will be commemorations of the Battle of Crete in various parts of the island perhaps the last time that anyone who was alive at the time will attend.

23 March 2011

Meeting Elizabeth Taylor - twice

So Elizabeth Taylor has finally gone. I met her only twice but both occasions were unforgettable. In 1972, I was a junior reporter for Reuters in Rome and the bureau sent me to doorstep the restaurant where she was having dinner to ask for news of the latest apparently violent split from Richard Burton. Would they make it up? I dressed in my finest and the Maitre D.allowed me in, while a queue of male reporters was left standing outside. Miraculously, La Taylor then invited me to take a seat on the banquette next to her and was so utterly charming that of course, aged 20, I found my tongue completely tied. How could I possibly ask such a woman whether she was going to kiss and make up? We chatted, I think, about the weather, the food, and the film she was making but not the story that the newspapers wanted. I wafted out of the restaurant mesmerised after my proximity to a legend and of course completely unaware of the rocket I would get from the office the next day for my failure to plunge the knife.

Ten years later, writing the biography of Enid Bagnold I went to interview Taylor again, this time to talk about the film in which she shot to fame, National Velvet, as Enid had written the book. Once again I was overwhelmed by her charm and the power of her extraordinary beauty. This time we had a real conversation about how desperately she had wanted the role of Velvet as soon as she had read the book. “I loved the part because Violet was an extension of me,” she told me. “I already rode every morning and I knew how to jump.” Young Elizabeth, who until then had appeared in Lassie Come Home but little else, became an instant star when the film came out. Enid complained about the way Hollywood had recreated Aintree complete with Palm trees. But this wartime feel-good movie, released in January 1945, lifted a nation weary from war and lifted a young girl into celebrity status from which she suffered for the rest of her life. It also made Enid Bagnold, who died thirty years ago this month, quite a lot of money as well as fame .

18 February 2011

Don't blame the women

Reading about the horrific sexual attack on war reporter Lara Logan gives me a certain sense of deja vue. In 1972 - almost 40 years ago - I was interviewed for a job as a foreign correspondent at Reuters. I was 20 and knew nothing of the world. The then managing director of Reuters, Gerald Long, after a pleasant half hour chat in his fine suite on the top floor at 85 Fleet Street turned to me and asked: “And er Anne, how would you feel if you were raped by an advancing army?”

Whatever I mumbled, and I have no doubt it was both fatuous and na├»ve, clearly didn’t matter since I got the job as a graduate trainee at Reuters - the first woman on whom they chanced their arm, or more appropriately perhaps, leg. Although I didn’t speak Italian I was quietly despatched to Rome because it was thought women might have ways of getting a story, Italian style.

A couple of decades later I wrote a history of women reporters called Battling for News (just republished by Faber Finds as Battling for News: from the Risorgimento to Tiananmen). So I know this is not the first time women reporters have been attacked. I know that women, just as men, have always been prepared to use tricks - or good looks - to get a story. And I know that sometimes (ok, often) it’s the male editor who is to blame, especially where television is concerned, for exploiting a pretty woman in a flak jacket who appears on a screen in your own front room. Talk about vicarious thrills!

Nobody today has heard of Hilde Marchant but in 1936 when she was sent by Daily Express Editor Arthur Christiansen to cover the women’s angle of the siege of Madrid she was dubbed “the best woman reporter that ever worked in Fleet Street.” Martha Gellhorn and Virginia Cowles were already there. Women and how they reported a war had become the story.

Anne Sharpley, accused by male rivals of sleeping with a police chief to get a story, was quite open about sex being a weapon in her armoury and her habit of pulling out telephone wires after she had dictated her own story. She took the view that men with their natural clubbiness had other advantages.

And as one example among many don’t forget Yvonne Ridley kidnapped by the Taleban in 2001 and pilloried by fellow journalists, including other women, who told her she had responsibility as a single mother. But are men ever asked the same question? Famously John Simpson not only dressed up in a Burqa to get himself smuggled into the Nangarhar Province, near the border with Pakistan but he was a father and since then also has a young child. It’s a decision each journalist has to make for his or her self and whether or not Lara Logan once modelled swimwear is irrelevant. Don’t forget men get attacked and tortured too. Men have babies and children at home. And men sometimes cry. Don’t blame the women for being there and certainly don’t blame them for being attractive.