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.

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.