Jean Rhys's: 'Let Them Call It Jazz'

No special study has ever been made of 'Let Them Call It Jazz' and its origins.Which is strange, given how powerfully Rhys's story of a lonely but spirited young Creole outsider in Fifties' London still resonates with its readers. Odder still is the fact that nobody has picked up on the fact that Rhys, while hiding some of her own most humiliating experiences behind the mask of her mixed-race Creole protagonist, Selina Davis, created a young woman whomshe seemingly intended to represent the plight of the Windrush generation. Sadly, Andrea Levy never wrote about a writer whose story seems certain to have contributed to her own tenderly unforgettable portrait of a group of migrant Jamaicans inSmall Island. The connection between the outwardly bold Selina and Levy's more refined and uncomprehending Hortense cannot be coincidental. Levy admired Rhys's work.  Her familiarity with Rhys's finest post-war story is apparent on almost every page that Levy wrote.


Rhys was a notoriously slow and careful writer. Wide Sargasso Sea, her fifth and final novel, took almost thirty years from its gestation in 1937 (inspired by a once-in-a-lifetime return to Rhys's native island, Dominica) to its publication in the autumn of 1966.  'Let Them Call It Jazz' took its first dim shape in Rhys's mind almost as soon as she walked out of Holloway prison in the summer of 1949, when she announced to a close friend (Peggy Kirkaldy) that she intended to expose the wretched conditions in which women prisoners were held at a grim faux-medieval fortress known to inmates as 'Black Castle' [1]

Eleven years later, out of the blue, Rhys told a recently acquired confidante, Francis Wyndham, that she had been working on a new story called 'They Thought It was Jazz'. Published three years later by Alan Ross in the London Magazine, 'Let Them Call It Jazz' attracted praise from a discerning few for its presentation of a world with which few of the distinguished magazine's readers were familiar. Nobody knew enough about Rhys to guess how personal the story's content was. Nobody, back at a time when the fate of Caribbean migrants living in London was rarely discussed, paused to wonder whether Rhys was making a political point.

Why did it take Rhys so long to write a story that stands apart from the rest of her post-war work in its voice and the boldness of its subject matter?

Rhys's sojourn in Holloway's psychiatric wing marked the ugly climax to an escalating series of rows with her neighbours and tenants in what was then – and, post David Bowie, perhaps still is – the self-consciously conventional south London borough of Beckenham. (Selina Davis, living in an unidentified part of London after being kicked out of her Notting Hill room for not paying a month's advance rent, ends up in prison after throwing a brick through her racist neighbour's window. Rhys's troubles in Beckenham began when she committed the same offence after her neighbour's guard-dog killed two of Rhys's trio of cats.) Omitted from Selina's story – and from Rhys's carefully edited accounts of her own history - was the fact that Rhys's third husband, Max Hamer, swiftly followed his wife to prison, sent down with a two-year sentence for fraud and theft.

Rhys, during the grim years that followed Max's release in 1952, spent several months living at a derelict hotel in Bayswater, then at the heart of London's Caribbean community as magnificently and poignantly evoked in Sam Selvon's 1956 novel, The Lonely Londoners. Living at the Elizabeth Hotel, Rhys was well-placed to observe how badly women like Selina Davis were treated by a predominantly white society, and how little opportunity they were given to fight back, or to progress. Acutely sensitive about her own outsider status as a white Creole, Rhys identified with Selina's situation. Selina – as Rhys must have decided during a long and wretched period of poverty, obscurity and homelessness when she wrote almost nothing – offered her a unique opportunity to speak up for the dispossessed (a white musician robs Selina's of her only treasured possession, a song she heard in Holloway which he sells in his own jazzed-up version, for which Selina receives a meagre five-pound fee) while drawing on her own hidden life.

Silence never meant that Rhys was not thinking about her work. Rediscovered after an adaptation of Good Morning Midnight was broadcast by the BBC in 1957, she clearly had a version of the still unwritten Wide Sargasso Sea in her head when she accepted a payment (from Diana Athill of Andre Deutsch) for a novel that she promised to complete within a year. Three years later, she announced the birth of 'Jazz' to Francis Wyndham, while failing to disclose that she had been plotting it since 1949. By 1960, she had successfully channelled her enduring sense of alienation into the story of Selina. 'If they treat you wrong over and again the hour strikes when you burst out that’s what,' Selina says. And that's how it was with Rhys whenever alcohol liberated her from the unobtrusive, almost dull persona – whispering voice, gloves on, mousy smile in place – she had learned to assume as a way of passing unnoticed. Writing as Selina, the voice of her secret self, she could be free to sing, dance, rage and mock. As Selina, just for once in her long and unhappy life as a hypersensitive outsider, Rhys was able to celebrate herself both as a woman of the Caribbean, and as a woman of power. When Selina gets drunk, she sings the island songs that Rhys herself could still warble in her Seventies. More importantly, Selina enabled hercreator to highlight the cruelties imposed by a racist, postwar world upon the innocent migrants who had grown up – like Rhys herself – idealising England as the benign Mother Country, the blessed place in which all of her empire's members received their due.

The problem that Rhys's story posed in 1960 was its content. In the spring of that year, when she first mentioned its existence (with seeming nonchalance) to Francis Wyndham, Rhys and her husband were living at Perranporth, a gossipy little seaside resort in North Cornwall. Rhys herself was a notoriously incompetent typist and Max, unlike his wife's previous husband, Leslie Tilden Smith, was not equipped to be her devoted secretary. How was her illegible manuscript to be turned into a form that Wyndham could read? Too scared of scandal to use a local typist, Rhys wrote for help to her daughter, Maryvonne Moerman. Her fear that the truth about her own disgrace might be disclosed is evident in her anxious assurances to Maryvonne that the story was 'not (repeat not) autobiography, and not to be taken seriously.' We can see that attempt to distance herself again in Rhys's subsequent and bizarre attempt to convince Wyndham that he, who had published Naipaul, knew more than a writer who spent her first seventeen years in the Caribbean about the authentic way for Selina to speak. 'What do you think?' she asked him after finally sending two pages of the story in December 1960 with a disclaimer about the 'stylised patois' that she had created from ear and memory. 'Does it sound right?' Sadly, Wyndham’s response was not preserved.

No careful reader of 'Let Them Call It Jazz' can doubt that Selina speaks both for her creator and for their forlorn compatriots from the Caribbean. 'I would never really belong anywhere, and I knew it,' Rhys wrote in Smile Please, an unfinished memoir dictated to the novelist David Plante during her eighties. '…I am a stranger and I always will be, and after all I didn’t really care.' [2] And here's Selina, responding to the stranger's gift of a fiver for her stolen song, the song that was, she admits at the end of her bittersweet tale, 'all I had. I don't belong nowhere really, and I haven't money to buy my way to belonging. I don't want to either.'

But Rhys, so anxious to distance herself from Selina's shaming experiences, couldn't resist adding one almost invisible hint of an author's connection. 'So let them call it jazz…and let them play it wrong,' Selina concludes with a valiant shrug. 'That won't make no difference to the song I heard. I buy myself a dusty pink dress with the money.'

Dusty pink was the colour Jean Rhys loved best.

  1. The quotations are from Jean Rhys Letters, 1931-1966, ed by Francis Wyndham and Diana Melly, Andre Deutsch
  2. JR, Smile Please, an Unfinished Autobiography, 1979


   Added: Tuesday 02 August 2022

The Jean Rhys house

‘The chosen photograph in a silver frame stood on a small table under the sitting-room jalousies of our house in Roseau. It pleased me that it was by itself, not lost among the many other photographs in the room, of which there were many. Then I forgot about it.’ 1.

  The photograph described here is the one of her six-year-old self - as a very old Jean Rhys remembered a very young Gwen Rees Williams looking - back at her family’s townhouse in Dominica, probably around the year 1900. It’s where her memoir, Smile Please, begins.

  The house in Roseau – a handsome corner house with a consulting-room attached to the side where little Gwen watched people queuing for treatment by her father – Rees Williams was a Welsh doctor who married a white Creole islander – was demolished last week. Instead, a four-storey office block will neaten what had come to be regarded by some Dominicans as an untidy location that did no credit to the only town which cruise-ship visitors to the island are always bound to see.

  Visiting Dominica myself two years ago (this was in my ongoing role as a questing biographer of Jean Rhys), I had a hard time persuading the people stitching cloth in what had once been the doctor’s consulting-room to let me slip past them and into the shuttered house. The windows had been boarded up; I could see a patch of blue sky through the roof. Walking up the stairs, I had to press myself against the inner wall in order not to put a foot through the floorboards. Still, here and there, looking hard, I saw a pretty doorway, a decorative panel, a shadowy vista, to remind me that this had once been the home of one of the Caribbean’s greatest novelists.

‘I was watching them from between the slats of the jalousies – they passed under the window singing…three musicians at the head, a man with a concertina and another with a triangle and another with a chak-chak playing There’s a Brown Girl in a Ring….’ 2.

  Back in Rhys’s childhood, visitors entered the house through a long gallery that faced the street. One chair was reserved here for the doctor to relax in after hours, reading a weekly edition of The Times by the light of a green-shaded lamp. Sometimes, the doctor let his small daughter mix him a cocktail and bring it out to set on the table at his side. Sometimes, as Rhys remembered in Voyage in the Dark – the book was first called ‘Two Tunes’ because so much of the London-based Anna Morgan’s storyslips back into memories ofRhys’s own West Indian past – the doctor took Gwen out rowing on Roseau’s cold white bay at dusk.

‘We used to go for moonlight rows,’ I said. ‘Black Pappy was our boatman’s name. We have lovely moonlight nights. You should see them. The shadows the moon makes are as dark as sun-shadows.’ 3.

  Writing later about the eruption of Mont Peléeon Martinique in May 1902 - it buried the pretty town of St Pierre and smothered all but one of its inhabitants to death - Rhys remembered how the streets of Roseau had been mantled by ashes (‘two feet deep on the flat roof outside my bedroom’) in the days before the eruption. Children scooped the ashes up and sealed them in glass bottles, marked with the date. Rhys’s father joined a group who went across to Martinique to see the damage. He brought back a trophy, a pair of heavy brass candlesticks from a church.

‘The heat had twisted them into an extraordinary shape. He hung them on the wall of the dining-room and I stared at them all through meals, trying to make sense of the shape.’ 4.

  The Rhys house has gone for good; even the giant mango tree that once overhung the garden is in danger of being cut down. Perhaps a plaque will be set in place to remind passers-by that this was the childhood home of Dominica’s greatest writer. I wouldn’t bet on it.

  But let’s not grieve too much. The house, at the time when I visited it early in 2019, did no honour to Rhys’s memory. Shabby, neglected, passed by all without a second glance, the spirit of Rhys herself had long since left it. Better, perhaps, to take pleasure in the intensity of Rhys’s memory. To know how it felt to be a child growing up in Roseau at the end of the nineteenth century, we only need to turn to a great writer’s own wonderful work. It’s all there, every vivid moment of a past that – as Jean Rhys grew old and made a last brave effort to complete the memoir she’d been intending to write for half her life – flamed ever brighter.  We haven’t lost the house on Cork Street. It’s there, in her work, safe for us all, and safe for ever.

  Here, finally, is a glimpse from Smile Please of little Gwen at her bedroom window above Cork Street, peeping through the shutters that a patois-speaking island called jalousies at the Roseau ladies on their way to Mass.

‘I would also watch through the jalousies as they passed the house on their way to Mass. They were dressed in their best, sweeping trains, heavy gold earrings and necklaces and colourful turbans. If the petticoat beneath the dress didn’t make the desired frou-frou noise, they’d sew paper in the hems.
Frou-frou, frou-frou
Par son jupon la femme
(Frou-frou, frou-frou)
De l’homme trouble l’âme. . . .’ 5.

All quotations are from the works of Jean Rhys
1.    Smile Please (1979) ‘Smile Please’
2.    Voyage in the Dark (1934) p. 156
3.    Voyage in the Dark, p. 346
4.    ‘Heat’, Collected Short Stories (2017)
5.    Smile Please ‘Black/White’

   Added: Tuesday 12 May 2020



Ada Lovelace has become the posterchild for women in science. Hers is the name and image that is most actively used today to recruit women into the field of STEM science.

  All true - and yet. Does a drive for recruitment by gender adequately explain the phenomenon that we now know as Ada Lovelace Day?

  ALD is celebrating its first decade on Tuesday 9 October. From primary schools in Australia to science conferences in Germany; from bookclubs in Argentina to STEM discussions in Madrid; from New Zealand to Alaska - back to a whole range of events across Great Britain and above all, in London (the city where Augusta Ada Byron was born in December 1815), Ada’s identification with digital technology has circled the world.

  Pleasingly appropriate for a girl who has known to her family as ‘Bird’ and to admirers as ‘Will o’the Whisp’. But is it right that homage is being paid across the world this week to a woman whose combination of mathematical skill with a soaring imagination enabled her to predict, from the 1840s, the coming of a time when technology would expand our horizons and reconfigure our lives?

  Of course it is. My concern is only that a new myth – Amazing Ada as wunderkind, the heroic enabler - has obscured the charismatic, flawed and poignantly vulnerable young woman whose precise but imaginative interpretation of an unbuilt machine eerily anticipated the Frankenstein monster of modern technology.

  Most of us know that Ada Lovelace  was a 27-year-old  Englishwoman who predicted, back in 1843, the creation of the modern computer. It’s easy to underestimate just what an extraordinary achievement that was. It is also easy to forget how much Ada owed to the team of devoted admirers and protectors who taught, encouraged and – necessarily with a mind that operated like quicksilver – restrained her. It’s with this in mind that I’d like to tell the story of just who this pioneer of computing was.


  Ada was only a baby when her mother, the former Annabella Milbanke, left Lord Byron’s London home after a single unhappy year of marriage to that most brilliant and dangerously enchanting of Romantic poets. Ada never saw her father again. Lord Byron died at Missolonghi in 1824, while raising financial support for the Greek War of Independence. Aged almost eight, Ada knew so little about him that, taken to see the ship on which her father’s remains had been brought home for an English burial, she thought he must have been the ship’s brave captain. (It was a reasonable supposition; numerous members of  Byron’s family had followed a naval career.)

  Transformed by his early death from a heartless villain into a national hero, Byron’s image dominated Ada’s childhood homes. (Her restless and unhappy mother never stopped moving house.) Lodged behind a curtain that screened him from public view stood a glorious image of the turbaned and cutlass-brandishing poet kitted out as an Albanian warrior.

   It was Ada’s proud grandmother, Lady Noel, who had first purchased Thomas Phillips’ swashbuckling portrait of Byron back in 1814. A year later, outraged by Byron’s callous treatment of her daughter, Judith Noel nailed her treasured portrait into a box and despatched it to the attic of her country home. And there it remained, safely out of sight, until her death in 1822.

  Annabella, who loved her devastatingly capricious husband until the day she died (she never ceased to regret her failed marriage and to blame Augusta Leigh for turning a beloved half-brother against his devoted wife), brought the painting back down from the attic in 1822. Restored to a position of honour, Lord Byron’s handsome face was nevertheless tactfully concealed behind a curtain of thick green velvet. (Etiquette dictated this decision; not even Annabella had the nerve to put on show a husband whom society believed had been capable during his marriage of committing – take a deep breath - incest, sodomy, adultery, violence and even attempted murder.)

   It says something about the curious lack of imagination displayed by Ada’s biographers that neither Ethel Mayne nor Doris Langley Moore - nor even their recent successors, Benjamin Woolley and Julia Markus  - considered that such an alluringly twitchable curtain might possibly have been thrust aside  - once, or twice, or even more - by a fatherless and exceptionally inquisitive little girl, growing up in a house from which her hardworking mother, rebuilding her life as an enlightened philanthropic reformer, was frequently absent. Not look? What would any of us have done. Of course she took a peek.

  Curiosity and inventiveness were remarked upon from the start as hallmarks of young Ada’s personality. Writing to Lord Byron about his daughter’s character, Annabella commented in 1823 upon Ada’s ‘mechanical ingenuity’. Five years later, the eleven-year-old was requesting books about the anatomy of birds. She wanted to study their wings in order to construct her own means of flight, before writing a book on the art of ‘Flyology’. On 7 April 1828, a startled Lady Byron learned of Ada’s latest idea. The book about flying had been abandoned. Instead, Ada planned to construct a horse with a steam-engine inside it:

so contrived as to move an immense pair of wings, fixed on the outside of the horse, in such a manner as to carry it up into the air while a person sits on its back.

  Once launched, young Ada’s flood of ideas became unstoppable. Early in 1829, William Frend (the elderly mathematician had been recruited by Annabella to calm her daughter’s excitable mind with a brisk course in theorems), was asked instead to provide a map of the stars. Within weeks, a bewitched Frend learned that Miss Byron intended to create a  Planetarium.

  Illness cut short Ada’s burgeoning ambitions. In May 1829, Dr Frend learned that his young protegee had been struck down by a mysterious form of paralysis. By 1830, she was chronically bedbound. Well enough by 1833 to execute a long-cherished plan for learning to ride a horse (powered only by its legs), Ada never fully recovered her health. It is one of the most poignant aspects of her brief and remarkable career that almost all of Lady Lovelace’s mathematical and scientific endeavours were carried out while suffering bouts of illness that caused her acute and  daily pain. Medically approved courses of laudanum and claret fuddled her wits, while failing to cure her.

  It was in 1833, shortly after dismaying her mother by arranging to elope with a susceptible shorthand tutor (The New York Times promptly condemned Lord Byron’s daughter, sight unseen, as ‘a very coarse and vulgar young woman’) that Ada was introduced to Charles Babbage.

  Babbage was the West Country born mathematical genius whose ambitious inventions would later become entwined with Ada’s destiny. Visiting his London home at Dorset Street, Ada inspected a fragment of the Difference Engine, a sophisticated calculating machine for which Babbage was trying to secure funding. Ada’s swift grasp of how the mechanism was intended to function astonished the spectators.

  While pleased by Ada’s interest in science and by her easy friendship with Babbage (a man old enough to be the young woman’s father), Lady Byron’s chief wish by this stage was to see her reckless, clever and impetuous daughter safely married. It was Woronzow Greig, the son of Ada’s new maths tutor, Mary Somerville, who found the solution. Greig had been at Byron’s former college, Trinity, Cambridge, with William King.

   Lord King worshipped Byron. Out in the Ionian islands, where he worked for his cousin, Lord Nugent, William had himself painted wearing a copy of Lord Byron’s Albanian costume. Back home, he renamed all the fields and woods of his Surrey estate after Byron’s poems. Later, designing a great hall for his new home at East Horsley, William ordered the Byron motto (Crede Byron; Believe in Byron) to be carved into the beam that spanned it.

  Ada, for such an ardent Byron acolyte, was the ultimate trophy. Introduced, the couple fell in love and were married from Lady Byron’s Ealing home in the summer of 1835. It tells us something about the family’s ongoing obsession with the past that the Kings’ first two children, named by a proud grandmother, were called Byron and Annabella. History was being deliberately repeated.

  In 1840, a frustrated Charles Babbage attended a conference in Turin at which he explained to an attentive audience his plans for a new and thrillingly ambitious contraption. This was the unbuilt Analytical Engine, a machine that could calculate upon its own results or - in Babbage’s own striking phrase  - ‘eat its own tail’. Babbage’s hope was that a paper written in English – one that he could show to the British government as part of an argument for their investment - might emerge from this conference. Unfortunately for his plans, Luigi Menabrea’s lucid explanation of the machine’s operations appeared only in French.

  Enter Ada. Retitled the Countess of Lovelace (this was thanks to an upgrade from her mother’s cousin, Prime Minister Melbourne), Ada had been studying mathematics – and struggling to master differential calculus - with a new tutor, Augustus de Morgan. Careerwise, she remained torn between science and music – Ada was proficient upon the harp and fancied her chances as an opera singer – until a friend, Charles Wheatstone, inventor both of the concertina and the electric telegraph, came to her with a suggestion. Why did she not translate Menabrea’s paper into English?

  It is for Ada’s work in 1843 that she is revered today. Having translated Menabrea’s pamphlet and gained Babbage’s enthusiastic approval, she secured permission to add some notes of her own. Of the 66 page document that was published over the modest signature ‘AAL’ that summer, 41 pages comprise Ada’s notes.

  ‘Who can foresee the consequences of such an invention?’ Menabrea had asked. Ada provided the answer by stating that the bounds of ‘mere arithmetic’ had now been overstepped. The unbuilt engine was no mere calculating machine:

  A new, a vast and a powerful language is developed for the future use of analysis, in which to yield its truths so that these may become of more speedy and practical application for the purposes of mankind than the means hitherto in our possession have rendered possible.

  Ada’s Note A, from which the above quotation comes, was the one in which she famously suggested both that the machine might compose music and that it could weave ‘algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves’. But it is Note G which gave rise to  Ada’s questionable status as the first computer programmer. Here, explaining how a system of numbers devised by Jakob Bernoulli back in 1713 could be computed by Babbage’s machine at an unprecedented speed, Ada painstakingly drew up a diagram to show how the computation would work. It isn’t a computer programme – binary numbers were not yet in use – but it certainly looks as if it is predicting their birth. It was, by any judgment, a remarkable achievement.

  Ada’s own restlessly brilliant mind moved on. While she never lost hope that she would somehow get Babbage’s impossibly large and complex machine funded and built, Lovelace was also researching what seems to have been an early form of spectroscopy – once again, this marks her out as a prophet of the future – during the last years of her life.

  A major reason that we will never know as much as we would like about Ada Lovelace’s scientific research is that her short life – like her father, she died aged only thirty-six – ended in scandal and disgrace. In 1851, Lord Lovelace admitted to a furious Lady Byron that her daughter had been losing considerable sums of money at the racetrack. In 1852, the outraged Annabella discovered that William Lovelace was actually Ada’s accomplice, one who was still providing his fragile wife with notes of endorsement. At the time of the marriage, back in 1835, William had promised Lady Byron that he would protect her daughter and safeguard her reputation. To Annabella, this breach of trust was the ultimate betrayal. She never forgave him.

   Pawning the Lovelace diamonds, keeping trysts with a secret (married) lover; fending off blackmailers: bit by bit, it all came out. Ada, during the last years of her life, had moved into a very murky world indeed. Fear of a public scandal reached the point at which it was judged safest to burn Ada’s papers in the north London house where she lay dying, agonizingly but courageously, of uterine cancer. (The echo from her father’s life is startling. Shortly after Byron’s death, a decision was taken to burn his unpublished memoirs.)

  Did Ada’s husband and mother do her a disservice by this private conflagraton? Certainly, they procured Lady Lovelace a scandal-free death. (Ada was discreetly buried, as she had privately requested, in the Byron vault, close to the father she had never known.)

   It’s impossible to know what was destroyed during those last fraught weeks of Ada’s life, but it is significant that no trace remains of the various scientific papers to which Lady Lovelace refers in her wonderfully lively correspondence. (The letters, mercifully, were only partially destroyed.) We know that she was interested in light refraction, in photography and in working with Faraday on electro-magnetism. Sadly, it’s impossible to know what she achieved – or even hoped to achieve. Nothing remains.

   It’s thanks to the vigorous and well-intended endeavours of her husband and mother that Ada Lovelace’s name almost vanished from view until Alan Turing famously claimed, eighty years after her death, that Lady Lovelace had predicted the modern computer. Since then, as we know, she has achieved the kind of fame that few can imagine. Most importantly, her name is helping to attract a growing number of women into the STEM sciences. She has become an inspiration for schoolgirls and for those students who see her as a pioneer.

  Reading about Lovelace’s extraordinary life, we should also draw inspiration and encouragement from the example of a young woman, living in Victorian times, who adamantly refused to be confined to her expected role. Ada’s ambition was limitless and she never lowered her horizons. Her commitment and her inflexible determination becomes even more admirable when we know about the physical pain that she endured. Her dedication to getting Babbage’s wonderful, impractical engine built lasted far beyond the writing of her famous notes in 1843. Her friendship with men like Michael Faraday and Charles Wheatstone and Babbage himself was that of a professional colleague. A colleague. This, for a female living in a society that offered no support to ambitious, independent women, was a truly remarkable achievement. And for that fierce, unswerving refusal to accept the role designated for a wife and mother as much as for her prophecies of an unforeseeable future, we should raise a toast to Ada Lovelace: a valiant, enchanting heroine in her own times and a glowing inspiration to our own.

   Added: Monday 08 October 2018
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Frankenstein in Baghdad


Frankenstein has spawned more plays, films, cartoons and parodies (Young Frankenstein has just morphed into a stage version) than any other novel in English fiction. Dracula - with which an early version of Frankenstein once shared a double bill at the London Lyceum - may be the sole exception..

  Frankenstein in Baghdad, long-listed for the Man International Booker prize in 2018 - the two hundredth year since Mary Shelley's masterpiece was first published - marks a striking change of direction in the afterlife of one of literature's most influential books.

  Ahmed Saadawi, an Iraqi novelist who still lives inBaghdad, has set his new working of the archetypal story within a city ripped apart by violence. The year is 2005 andBaghdad, while theoretically under American control, remains at the mercy of warring factions. Bombing creates a daily sense of impermanence; of the fragility of life  Frequent explosions - usually caused by a suicide bomber - are followed by the collapse of buildings; the scattering of unidentified human body parts; the departure of dazed survivors, and the unsteady resumption of a life that offers an increasingly fragmented mirror to reality.

  Staying alive in this arbitrary world as best he can, Hadi, a junk dealer and scavenger, tracks down the body parts of victims. He stitches them together into the semblance of a body; as with Frankenstein's Creature, the assembled corpse is notable for its lack of any physically attractive feature. It is hideous enough to strike terror into the heart of those who behold it.

  Hadi does not mind that his home-stitched body is a mess. His intention is to display his Creature as a reproach. Its grotesque body will - he hopes - shame a corrupt and chaotic government into providing proper burials for its murdered citizens.

  Hadi's strategy falls to pieces when a dead man's soul takes up residence in the still vacant corpse. Animated and seemingly conscious of its Creator's intentions, the patchwork corpse becomes the Whatsitsname, a monster who stalks the streets ofBaghdad, hunting down the killers of the victims from whom It has been created.

  Suddenly, a new thought enters the Creature's mind, a radical idea which causes confusion about its chosen function.

  'There are no innocents who are completely innocent or criminals who are completely criminal.' This sentence drilled its way into his head like a bullet out of the blue...This was the realization that would undermine his mission - because every criminal he killed was also a victim.

  Armed with this profoundly misanthropic perception, the Creature  justifies the expansion of his mission into a search for any body parts - including those of people who are still alive - that can enable him to survive. Whatitsname now assumes the formless face of the terror that grips a city under siege.

  A highly original novel in its own right, Frankenstein in Baghdad also offers a new way of looking at the Frankenstein story. That this is deliberate is apparent from the opening page, Here, Saadawi references the articulate outcast of Shelley's fiction by quoting the Creature's appeal to Victor Frankenstein during their critical encounter by the glacier. ('Yet I ask you not to spare me; listen to me; and then, if you can, and if you will destroy the work of your hands.') Later, within his own text, Saadawi causes his own Creature to echo this plea for understanding. 'You who are listening to these recordings now, if you don't have the courage to help me with my noble mission, then at least try not to stand in my way.'

   Parenting forms a crucial strand in Mary Shelley's fiction. Victor Frankenstein's greatest crime is not his attempt to manufacture life, but his impetuous abnegation of paternal responsibility towards the Creature who owes its birth to him. Here, Saadawi makes a radical departure from the nineteenth century novelist's moral sermon. His own book opens by introducing readers to an elderly Assyrian Christian widow and neighbour to Hadi. Elishva holds daily conversations with the icon of St George within her much-coveted old style family home. (The thirst for acquisition plays a prominent role in Saadawi's book.)

  It is the icon who sustains Elishva's belief that Daniel, her lost son, will one day return; when the Whatsitsname suddenly appears at her door, Elishva believes that Saint George has fulfilled his promise. She welcomes the stranger in with the unhesitating solicitude of a parent - which is precisely what Victor Frankenstein fails to do for his home-manufactured child - and is rewarded by being spared from its predations. In a rare concession to sentiment, Saadawi eventually permits Elishva's actual grandson to show up and lead her to safety.

  The old woman's icon plays an important role within the novel. From the start, Saadawi takes care to connect the Frankenstein story of an animated corpse to the sanctification of George, a Christianised Roman soldier who - in the Muslim version of his life - survived a series of torments by Diocletian, culminating in his brutal dissection, limb from limb, before his restoration to life.

The king ordered that the saint be placed in the olive press until his flesh was torn to pieces and he died. They then threw him out of the city, but the Lord Jesus gathered the pieces together and brought him back to life, and he went back into the city.

                       - The Story of St George, the Martyr

George's significance inBaghdadis apparent from the energy with which members of Isil dedicated themselves to destroying or desecrating his image. TheChurchofSt Georgeremains the only Anglican place of worship in the city, presided over by an English vicar until 2014, when the Archbishop of Canterbury ordered Canon Andrew White home for security reasons. But George's importance is recognised all across what was once the Byzantine Empire.* An abundance of statues, icons and small scale models of the warring saint survive in Prague, as well as in Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and across the Middle East. For Christians under siege, as Saadawi makes apparent through his portrait of the faithful Elishva, only the warrior saint can protect them from the miseries imposed by forces beyond their control or understanding. When Elishva is finally persuaded to leaveBaghdad, she removes her protector from his ancient frame and carries away the defaced and smiling countenance of her guardian and friend. As Saadavi's Arab readers will have instantly appreciated, the icon's survival symbolises the power of the myth to endure. Like Shelley's Creature in the last dramatic pages of her novel, the Saint may be swept from view, but its power is undiminished.

   Added: Friday 23 March 2018
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Who created Frankenstein?

Back in January 1818, when an anonymous novel appeared in just five hundred copies, with a dedication to William Godwin, many assumed that must be the work of Godwin's disciple, Percy Shelley.

Today, we know better. A brilliant young woman, not yet eighteen, took up the challenge that Lord Byron laid down to his guests at a rented villa beside Lake Geneva in the stormy summer of 1816. Two years later, as Mary Shelley and her husband prepared to leave England for five years in Italy, Frankenstein was published.

Claire Clairmont was among the first to exult in her step-sister's remarkable achievement: 'How I delight in a lovely woman of strong and cultivated intellect,' she wrote to Byron, who agreed. ('Methinks it is a wonderful work,' he told his publisher in May 1819, while drawing attention to the youth of Frankenstein's precocious author.)

Mary, nudged by her husband, had sent Byron an inscribed copy of the book. But the homage which most pleased her came later. Writing to his recently widowed daughter in 1823 at a time when she was in particular need of consolation, William Godwin told her that Frankenstein was 'the most wonderful work to have been written at twenty years [Mary was actually nineteen] that I have ever heard of.' Coming from an estranged father not known for the lavishness of his compliments, this tribute was praise indeed.

In 2000, back at the time that my biography of Mary Shelley was first published, criticism of women's writing was still governed by the New Feminism. Throughout the previous thirty years, particular emphasis had been granted to the influence of Mary Shelley's mother upon her daughter's personality, her actions and her work. This slant obscured the fact that Mary, motherless since her birth, was also, and perhaps even more, the product of her father's views on education, of his philosophy and of his own work as an admired and original writer of fiction.

In 2000, I emphasised Godwin's influence on his daughter's personality and her work. In 2018, a year in which we celebrate the centenary of women's suffrage, the connection linking Mary Wollstonecraft to her daughter is once again being stressed at the expense of her widowed spouse. Surely, speaking at a time when the hardwon battle for gender equality is almost won, justice can and should be done to the man who actually brought Mary Godwin Shelley up, gave his only daughter the run of his own remarkable library, oversaw her education, praised her scholarly achievements and nurtured her brilliance? 

Ardent believer in equality though he was, Godwin encouraged his daughter, from the first, to see herself as set apart from Fanny Imlay, her older half-sister and Jane (later Clare) Clairmont, the sparky daughter of his second wife.. A comet had appeared in the sky just before his own Mary was born. She learned - presumably from her father - to interpret it as a sign of things to come.

And thou, strange Star, ascendant at my birth
Which rained, they said, kind influence on the earth,
So from great parents sprung I dared to boast
Fortune my friend...

Great parents, indeed. But one, whose glowing portrait hung upon the wall of her first London home, lay buried in the nearby churchyard of St Pancras. It was from Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin's gravestone that her small daughter learned her first letters. It was Wollstonecraft's Original Stories, a collection of tales for children, illustrated by William Blake, that introduced the little girl to the tale of a man who ran away from civilisation, as Frankenstein's Creature would do, to live alone, dependent upon the kindness of strangers. It was her mother's best-known work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, that taught young Mary to take pride in gaining her independence, finding her own voice, making her own way in the world. It was Mary Wollstonecraft's description of herself in Letters from Norway as misery incarnate, adrift in Scandinavia on a mission undertaken to assist a feckless lover, Gilbert Imlay, that helped to give Mary Shelley a voice for her Creature's despairing sense of his isolation.

The Creature's sense of having been unjustly outcast derived more clearly from Paradise Lost, a book that Mary may first have discovered on the shelves of her father's library.

William Godwin had, from his first weeks as a widower, recognised the need in his daughter's life for a mother to educate and nurture her. 'I am the most unfit person for this office,' he told a female friend in the autumn of 1797; 'she was the best qualified in the world.'

There were women - Mary Hays and Maria Reveley foremost among them - who clustered around the bereaved philosopher's house in the wake of Mary Wollstonecraft's death. And Godwin, despite his grief, was not slow to seek a second wife. He was cruelly disappointed to be rejected, first by Harriet Lee and then by Maria Reveley (who turned him down in favour of a cultivated merchant, John Gisborne). He courted Elizabeth Inchbald. He dropped hints about his loneliness to Wollstonecraft's friend, Mrs Cotton.

All of these women became regular visitors to Godwin's home in the Polygon at Somers Town. But it was from Godwin's male friends - the men who dined at his table and looked aside when the great man nodded in one of the frighteningly regular attacks of  narcolepsy from which he suffered  - that little Mary Shelley seems to have drawn her first literary inspiration.

Godwin's circle, formed in the years when his sober but inflammatory Enquiry concerning the Nature of Political Justice (1793) had turned him into a hero of the Left, was truly remarkable. His home in Somers Town became a private dining-club for some of the most brilliant brains of the time. Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt were regular visitors. The brilliant Irish barrister, John Curran, became a close friend.

Charles Lamb may have fuelled young Mary's sympathy for outcasts with tales of a wistful and despised monster called Caliban. (Charles and his sister Mary famously adapted Shakespeare's plays into children's tales.) It was from another regular diner at Godwin's table, Anthony Carlisle (the doctor who was in constant attendance during Mary Wollstonecraft's last hours of life) that young Mary heard firsthand accounts of galvanism: of corpses that had been electrified into a state of animation, opening their glazed eyes and moving their lifeless limbs. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, to whose vivid recitation of parts of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner she was a witness at the age of nine, introduced Mary to imagery - of solitude, of icy wastes - that would form the most familiar landscape of her own unhappy outcast: the Creature.

An equally important source for Mary's inspiration welled up from the novels written by her own father.

Little known today outside small circles of scholarlship, Godwin's novels were widely read during his life. Pioneering works, they were rich both in plot and ideas. Things As They Are, or the Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794), perceived today as the first detective novel, gave Mary the idea for the story of a fate-driven pursuit, in which the pursuer (Frankenstein) and the pursued (the Creature) are inextricably entwined, just as Falkland and Williams are in her father's novel. St Leon (1798) - a firm favourite with Lord Byron - provided food for thought about scientific quests and the secret of life.

Fleetwood, a critique of Rousseau's educational theories, had a different impact upon her life. The  book was published in 1805, at a time when Mary's own upbringing was preoccupying her recently remarried father. In June 1812, Godwin despatched his daughter northwards. She was to spend almost two years as part of the  Scottish household of Thomas Baxter, close to Dundee. While warning Baxter that ongoing poor health might mean that Mary needed to be 'excited to industry', Godwin also made it clear that the fourteen-year-old girl was not to be indulged. No 'extraordinary attention' should be granted to his child:  'I am anxious that she should be (in this respect) like a philosopher, even like a cynic,' he told Baxter. 'It will add greatly to the strength and worth of her character.'  

Fleetwood, while it did not directly influence Frankenstein, governed Mary and Shelley's romantic decision, in 1814, to establish a commune in Switzerland, together with Mary's step-sister, Claire Clairmont. The admiration that Fleetwood displayed for Switzerland's political system (Godwin himself had never been out of England) may also have encouraged the trio's momentous decision, in 1816, to join Lord Byron by Lake Geneva, in the summer during which the idea for Frankenstein was born.

The full extent of Godwin's influence upon his daughter's first, and most celebrated novel remains unproven. Much, for example, has been made of the fact that it was during the autumn that she was composing Frankenstein that Mary read Paradise Lost. It was from Milton's great work that she took both the Creature's voice (as Lucifer, the outsider) and his decision to wreak vengeance. (Lucifer's 'Farewell, remorse, all good to me is lost. Evil, be thou my good,' was echoed in the Creature's proclaimed decision: 'Evil thenceforth became my good.')   It is less noted that Milton's works stood on the crowded shelves of Godwin's home library: a library to which his daughter, from her first years of reading, enjoyed unrestricted access.

Did Mary recognise and wish to acknowledge the degree to which her father's ideas had helped to form her own? The dedication of her book, published in January 1818, two hundred years ago, provides the answer.

To WILLIAM GODWIN, author of Political Justice, Caleb Williams, &C. These volumes are respectfully inscribed by the author

   Added: Thursday 01 February 2018

Remembering hawks at Chirk

Reading Robert Macfarlane's marvellous appreciation of J.A. Baker's The Peregrine, celebrating its 50th birthday this month, I felt a pang of envy for my mother.

It might not immediately be clear why. She is, after all 94 years old, and - while still mentally agile - restricted to walking with a frame.

  What I envy is the nonchalance with which she just answered a question I put to her about her childhood at a castle inNorth Wales, back in the 1920s.

  The question was whether she remembered anything about the falconry and hawking to which my grandfather, occasionally dressed in medieval costume, was seriously addicted.  Evidence is on hand in the form of a series of photographs that were recently discovered and yes, there my grandfather is, magnificently kitted-out as a 16th century sporting baron. A large-eyed and fiercely beaked bird is perched on his leather-mantled wrist. A peregrine? I have no idea.

  My mother's eyes light up. 'I remember it all! she announces with a beam.

  This, in itself, is not reassuring. Age has given my mother confidence in the fact that she has participated in almost every old photograph we show her. Fair enough. Nobody is old enough to contradict her. On this occasion, however, she corrects herself. At first, she was convinced that the hawking took place down by the lake. Ten minutes later, she shook her head.

  'No. I'm wrong. It was in the field by Chirk Golf course, just across the road.'

  'And what birds did they use?'

  'A goshawk and the peregrines.' Pause. 'Mostly for rabbits. but often they'd take a bird in the air.'  A bird?

  She shrugs. 'A pheasant. Partridges. Pigeons.'

  She makes it sound so matter-of-fact. Robert Macfarlane mentions that a peregrine can drop on its prey at 270 miles an hour. A pigeon wouldn't stand a chance. Which explains why, during the last War, killing peregrines became a legal activity. In wartime, it's not helpful to kill the messenger. 32 pigeons have been awarded medals for their work in carrying messages and even saving bomber crews. (RAF bombers regularly carried pigeons on board, to act as rescue-signallers in times of emergency.)

  Today, according to Macfarlane, the peregrine population is once again on the increase and they've acclimatised to city-life. In my part ofNorth London, I've seen a kestrel, but never a peregrine, although we do have a dawn chorus of seagulls from their roost on a nearby roof. But it's hard not to envy my mother's memories of those long-ago days inWales, when her day often began with a visit to Bradd the trainer, down at The Hawk-house near the lake.

  One of the photographs shows eight peregrines, perched on cork-stands at the foot of a giant hayrick; another shows Bradd, a tidy, stocky figure in a shabby brown suit and a flat cap, chatting to the peregrine that's just alighted, wings outstretched, on his glove.

  'I never went near the goshawk,' my mother says. 'You wouldn't want to chat to him!'

  My grandfather got interested in falconry in 1907, while he was renting Audley End, a massive house not far from where J.A. Baker later cycled out every week, whatever the weather, to track the movements of those sharp-eyed predators with which this myopic, arthritic genius of a man had formed a passionate connection. Baker's interest - obsession - was with the birds; my grandfather's was with the sport of falconry.

  I'm not sure where the anti-bloodsports people stand on falconry, but it seems to me that the flying of birds for their prey stands in a different league to the use of guns. I hate to read of those Edwardian shooting parties at which massacre was celebrated as sport. I can't summon up similar distress on reading that, back in 1907, my grandfather was an admiring spectator at four days of hawking, during which five peregrines and a goshawk ('Mrs Gibson') killed seven brace of partridges, a pheasant, a kestrel and ten rabbits. By the Twenties, he'd become a conservationist and an enthusiast. At West Wratting, an isolated place set on the borderline of  Cambridgeshire andSuffolk, he kept a second mews of a goshawk and sixteen peregrines. At Chirk - the medievalBorderCastlethat he'd rented since before the War - my mother states that there were never less than a dozen birds in The Hawkhouse.

  I'm puzzled by a discrepancy in the photographs we are studying together. Some show what looks like a typical British rough-shooting day: four men and a dog (a pointer), with everyone dressed in scruffy suits. Other pictures show Lord Howard standing in the same landscape, but splendidly arrayed in silks and velvets. The falconer at his side wears less dressy attire, his shoulders supporting from two heavy straps a square wooden frame, hip-height, on which five or six peregrines are perched. What's going on?

  'For a pageant,' my mother explains. Pageants formed part of everyday life at Chirk, back then, with my mother and her sisters staging sword fights in the courtyard and my grandfather - on one celebrated occasion - reading his morning copy of The Times while seated at the breakfast table in a full suit of medieval armour.  To my mother, then, there's nothing remarkable in seeing her father out with the hawks while offering a fair impersonation of Henry VIII in his younger, sportier years. She explains that the Llangollen Festival regularly recruited my grandfather and his hawks to come and add a touch of medieval colour to the proceedings.

  Another century; another world. Summing the genial improbability of it all up is the fact that the President of the British Falconers' Club, back in the 1940s when my grandfather was still alive and himself an enthusiastic member of the club, was Sir Umar Hayat Khan Tiwana, the biggest landowner in thePunjaband honorary ADC to George V. Among their hawking circle, Sir Umar and my grandfather numbered the actor James Robertson Justice (Justice always refused to film during the sporting season) and - to my utter astonishment: Walt Disney.

  You read that right. Little evidence of Disney's enthusiasm for falconry appears on Google, but it was Walt's love of hawks that led to the making of The Boy and the Eagle (1967) It's a film that J.A. Baker might have enjoyed. A Hopi boy comes to the rescue of a sacrificial eagle that

that teaches him its skills in hunting. Finally, the boy himself turns into an eagle and flies away.

   Perhaps, as Robert Macfarlane suggests in his thoughtful, eloquent appreciation of The Peregrine, one of the most influential books about birds that has been written, that moment of magical metamorphosis was what its reclusive, obsessive author himself desired.

   Added: Saturday 15 April 2017

Remembering Henry James

Remembering Henry James

Henry James died of pneumonia on 28 February 1916, a hundred years ago this month. In 1915, motivated by patriotism, he had become a British subject. Britain had been his home for forty years.

The reason to remember him on this blog is that I belong to the proud little club which - for a remarkable eighteen years - has been devoted solely to the reading, and re-reading of Henry James’s works. I joined it shortly after writing my first non-fiction work, A Ring of Conspirators: Henry James and his English Circle. Having spent five years living in the congenial company of The Master, I knew I hadn’t even begun to penetrate the intricate subtleties of his writing. It wasn’t until I joined that original band of perceptive and fearsomely well-read HJ devotees that it dawned on me, for example, just how devastatingly witty Henry James could be. To apply that latecomer’s perception to the short stories (‘short’ suggests something less than the concision to which HJ was conspicuously averse) was like walking out of a grey room into sunlight: a revelation. It was the first of many.

 Are there any other writers who could inspire this kind of loyalty, over such a period? We pondered Trollope, Flaubert, Balzac, Tolstoy, Conrad; we always came back to James. One reason, perhaps, for his unending fascination to writers is the quiet heroism with which he confronted failure. It was his brother William, writing to HG Wells in 1906, who coined the expression ‘that bitch goddess, Success’. Success eluded Henry James throughout his life. Unsaleability as a writer seldom daunted him. Failure on stage almost broke his heart. (Who needs reminding of the humiliation to which James was exposed, on a public London stage, in 1895 when his Guy Domville – together with its dismayed – were booed on the same night that  Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband was being applauded for its glitter and wit?)

  This month, the Henry James club meets once again, to pay tribute to The Spoils of Poynton, the wonderful novel in which the American James described the dangers inherent within of that most British of institutions; the family inheritance. Mrs Gereth, fighting to protect the museum of wonders which she and her late husband had collected from what she perceives as the hard, philistine grasp of her son’s fiancé, embarks upon a battle which – in the eyes of all but herself – is indefensible. Even Fleda Vetch, her loyal adjutant, revolts against the acts of pillage and forced alliances by which Mrs Gereth is determined to protect her spoils.

  Concision – once again – went by the board. A projected story of 10,000 words rapidly evolved into a novel, for the length of which James, writing to his editor, was stalwartly unapologetic.

  My subject always refuses, I find, to be scraped down beyond a certain point – stiffens and hardens itself like iron. In this particular thing [The Spoils of Poynton] the very simplicity of my action forces me, I feel, to get everything out of it that it can give – as the real ay, and the best way, to be interesting: if I am interesting – which I hope.

 The small chord of wistfulness in that last phrase almost certainly derives from James’s recent humiliations. He began to write the novel in the summer of 1895, while still licking his wounds from the disaster of Guy Domville. Secluded from his usual intensely social world at a seaside hotel in Torquay, he planned out the book into which he poured all the experience he had gained from the stage. No James novel benefited from more detailed conference with the author’s Notebooks than the Spoils. From the very first, James was determined to put his hard-won theatrical skills to new and valuable use.

Osborne Hotel, Torquay, August 11th 1895

When I ask myself what there may have been to show for my long tribulation, my wasted years and patiences and pangs, of theatrical experiment, the answer…comes up as just possibly this: what I have gathered from it will perhaps have been some such mastery of fundamental statement  - of the art and secret of it, of expression, of the sacred mystery of structure. Oh yes, the weary woeful time has done something for me, has had in the depths of all its wasted piety and passion, an intense little lesson and direction. What that resultant is I must now actively show.


Continuing this same long meditative note, James referred repeatedly to his narrative as if he saw it in performance. ‘There must be a scene of some sort between the young man and his mother,’ he noted: ‘all this must be very, very, VERY brief and rapid….What action does his mother then take? There must be the scene…the scene of her, Mrs G[ereth]’s waiting for him…’ A few lines later, he referred again to ‘acts’ and ‘scenes’. All is scenic. All is as seen.

 By 8 September, James was confronting the familiar problem of concision and reproaching himself for the ‘developments’ which always led to expansion. Brevity, he was ready to concede, required simplicity, and simplicity was not to his taste. (‘I’ve been too proud to take the very simple thing…I’m too afraid to be banal.’) Having reproached himself, he vowed to attempt some other,‘simple’ things, and reminded himself that he was capable of it, as in The Real Thing and The Private Life. Nevertheless, The Spoils of Poynton was not to be subjected to such an approach. Ideas expanded; scenes reached chapter-length. And James, despite the hesitations he continued to express in his Notebook entries about the book, was increasingly certain of having found his way again. He had laid his hands upon ‘the acquired mastery of scenic presentation’ (in his own words) which would become so magnificent a feature of his last triumphant works.

It’s clear, as James turned once again to his Notebooks on October 15, 1895, that the 52-year-old author had recovered his lost confidence. Here, he muses upon the problem of getting the passive Fleda to exert a convincing influence over the terrifyingly powerful Mrs Gereth. Seldom do we gain a closer, more thrillingly intimate sense of Henry James, private, happy, and at work:

Well, eureka! I think I have found it – I think I see the little interesting turn  and the little practicable form. How a little click of perception, of this sort, brings back to me all the strange sacred time of my thinkings-out, this way, pen in hand, of the stuff of my little theatrical trials. The old patiences and intensities – the working of the old passion. The old problems and dimnesses – the old solutions and little findings of light. Is the beauty of all that effort – of all those unutterable hours – lost forever? Lost, lost, lost? It will take a greater patience than all the others to see!

In March 1896, James wrote his last notes for The Spoils of Poynton. It is one of the most perfect of all his works. By the autumn of that year, he was halfway through writing the most exquisitely painful: What Maisie Knew.

   Added: Wednesday 10 February 2016
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Engendering the Future

2015 marked the bicentenary of Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace, the woman whose visionary notes upon the most extraordinary unbuilt machine of Victorian times enabled Alan Turing to identify her as the prophet of the modern computer. (Lovelace’s translation and notes on Babbage’s Analytical Engine are given in full on

  2016 marks the bicentenary of the birth of Frankenstein, Mary Godwin Shelley’s prophetic account of a scientific achievement that, back in the early nineteenth century, seemed beyond the control of man.

  But did they meet? Byron – father to one woman, friend to the other – offers the most obvious link. In the spring of 1816, following the abrupt end to his shortlived marriage, Lord Byron left England for Europe. That summer, at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva, while Byron lamented the loss of the baby daughter he had scarcely known (‘Ada! Sole daughter of my house and heart’), the poet and Mary Shelley competed in a game of telling ghostly tales. The stories that they dreamed up were intended to frighten others as much as an exceptionally imaginative group of people – huddled around the fire on a stormy night (this was ‘the summer of darkness’ during which the after-effects of a volcanic explosion wreaked havoc on the climate of the Western world) - had succeeded in terrifying each other.

   Two tales and a fragment survived from that night. One of them transformed its author into an infamous celebrity. In 1823, the newly-widowed Mary Shelley left her task of copying and occasionally revising the final cantos of Don Juan for Lord Byron out in Italy, to return to London. There, to her mild discomfort, she encountered her own high-minded novel, transformed into Presumption; or the Fate of Frankenstein, and playing to packed houses at the Lyceum Theatre. This was the age of scenic thrills: Presumption’s hottest theatrical competitor, playing at Drury Lane, featured a horseman’s runaway gallop up a cataract, amidst raging flames. T.P. Cooke’s rendering of Shelley’s creature was praised by one excited theatregoer as ‘tremendously appalling.’ 

   In 1823, Ada turned seven. While it is fun to imagine that she might have been taken to see Frankenstein, the likelihood is remote. Lady Byron, at this early stage in her small daughter’s life, was more concerned with giving the child a good education than indulging Ada’s vivid imagination with notions of a man-made creature.

  And yet. Once the idea is seeded, it becomes hard to resist. Look at the dates. Ada: 1815-1852; Mary: 1797-1851: how is it possible that Mary Shelley and Ada Lovelace, two bold, brilliant and extraordinary women who died within a year of each other and who spent most of their adult lives in London, where they moved in the same literary and scientific circles, did not meet?

  I am not about to reveal or even propose that such an encounter did take place. Writing a twin-study of Ada and her mother, I can (at present) see no substantial grounds from which to develop such a delicious hypothesis. Instead, I’m flagging up a few of the link-points from which to draw - in a year when we can expected to be hearing a lot about both Frankenstein and its creator - whatever fanciful conclusions we please. Sydney Padua’s prize-winning steampunk novel, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (2015) showed the way by contriving a fruitful encounter between her madcap scientific duo and George Eliot: if Eliot, why not Shelley?

  Here are the connecting points. For a start, back in the autumn of 1815 when Ada was born, her impoverished father – bailiffs were sleeping in the back rooms of Piccadilly Terrace – was sending money to help Mary Shelley’s ageing father, William Godwin. (Byron was a great admirer of Godwin’s novels.) Link two. In March 1816, shortly after Byron ‘s wife of a year had left him (taking baby Ada with her) Mary Shelley, together with her step-sister, Claire Clairmont, paid a visit to the poet’s London home. Did Mary know of Ada’s existence? Such knowledge would have been hard to escape at a time when the abrupt collapse of the Byrons’ marriage had become the subject of scandal-sheets and drawing-rooms from New York to Madame de Stael’s home, out by Lake Geneva.

  Link three. Byron’s wife, playfully described by him as ‘the Princess of Parallelograms’, was a mathematician herself. Her tutor, William Frend, was one of William Godwin’s closest associates, and a regular visitor to Godwin’s London home when Mary was a child. When Ada, a precociously intelligent girl, also began to evince an interest in mathematics, her mother turned to Frend, inventor of a form of abacus that was intended to accompany his children’s primer. Tangible Arithmetic was published in 1805 and reprinted in 1812, making it enticingly possible that young Mary Shelley and Ada both learned their first maths skills from Frend’s book and used his abacus toy. (I’m still on the hunt for Frend’s toy; none reached the Science Museum, alas.)

  The links grow closer. In 1840, it was William Frend’s brilliant son-in-law, Augustus de Morgan, who introduced Ada Lovelace to Differential Calculus and equipped her with the skills required to demonstrate (in 1843) the extraordinary potential of her friend Charles Babbage’s unbuilt machine.

  Did Mary Shelley ever visit Babbage’s rooms near Manchester Square? These were the rooms at which, in 1833, Ada was shown an exquisite automaton: a miniature mechanical woman, fashioned from silver, not flesh. Although no reference is made to such a visit in Mary Shelley’s diary, this is the place at which a meeting between the two women could most easily have occurred. Invitiations to Babbage’s weekly soirees were highly coveted; Mary’s fame, both as Shelley’s widow and as the author of the infamous Frankenstein, would have made her a welcome guest.

  Between 1833 and 1851, the year of Mary Shelley’s death, two clever women who had shocked society (Ada’s private life was anything but conventional) occupied the same small London world: it was one in which women enjoyed an increasing freedom to visit the multitude of galleries, institutions and halls at which scientific experiments could be observed. Ada watched Charles Wheatstone operating a primitive form of the electric telegraph, attended Faraday’s lectures at the Royal Institution, made notes about electro-magnetism and took a ride on the new Atmospheric Railway (it could climb a steep gradient at 25 mph). It’s hard to imagine that a woman as intelligent and inquiring as Mary Shelley did not follow the same course.

  Start looking and connections glitter from every corner. And that way - as my favourite English tutor used to warn me - madness lies. She was right, but one extraordinary connection is there for all to see, hanging at the National Portrait Gallery.  Click here to see it:

  In the summer of 1840, Benjamin Haydon painted a historical record of the great Abolition of Slavery meeting at which Thomas Clarkson addressed an assembly of delegates at Exeter Hall Only a handful of women were permitted to attend. One of them was Ada’s mother, Lady Byron; there, seated right beside her and looking up at Clarkson on the platform, sits Amelia Opie, the artist whose glowing portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft hung in Mary Shelley’s home throughout her London childhood.

  Did Ada and Mary know about each other? Without a doubt. Did they meet in life? We’ll never know. It’s only in their voluminous family archives, the Abinger Papers and the Lovelace Papers, that two exceptionally farsighted women finally settled into some kind of posthumous communion, snug and safe within the hallowed walls of the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

   Added: Saturday 02 January 2016

Blucher is ye Man

‘Blucher is ye Man!’

Writing a history of the long friendship between England and Germany (Noble Endeavours in the UK; The Pity of War in the US), I was pleased to receive an enthusiastic commendation for the project from Herr Georg Boomgarten, Germany’s Ambassador to the Court of St James’s. His wife, Herr Boomgarten explained, was a direct descendant of Field Marshal Blucher. He hoped that I would make mention of the enthusiasm with which Blucher’s triumphs were received in England.

The Ambassador was spot on. Only the year of Blucher’s London visit proved disconcerting. I had expected it to be 1815: Waterloo year, the year in which Napoleon was routed and exiled, the year in which Blucher’s Prussian troops, arriving later in the afternoon on the blood-soaked lands we know as Waterloo, helped Wellington to master the field before, on 7 July, the Allies entered Paris. 

In 1815, Blucher remained firmly on the continent. Nothing would persuade him to revisit the country in which, a year previously, he had been hailed as a hero. The causes for his decision were several. Looming large among them was his anger that Napoleon, by Wellington’s decision, had been allowed to live. Blucher was equally enraged that the battle was to be known as Waterloo (the place in which Wellington had spent his night before the battle), rather than La Belle Alliance (the place at which Wellington and Blucher met, while Prussians drove the last of the French army from the field). Aged 72, Blucher was as hot-tempered as he had been back in the days when Frederick the Great told him to go to the devil for the rudeness of his letter of resignation from the army. (Passed over for the rank of major, Blucher sent in his resignation and retired to become a country farmer for thirty years.)

In 1814, however, it had been a very different story. Feted for his role in Napoleon’s first defeat, Blucher arrived in London as a hero. ‘Blucher is ye man!’ Lady Melbourne announced to a circle who were spoiled for choice of which hero or royal potentate to fete in celebration of what seemed to be the end of twenty-two years of war and – for the English – a state of virtual imprisonment within their island kingdom.

In 1814, nothing was good enough for Blucher. Escorted through the streets of London by cheering crowds, he was honoured as a doctor-of-law at Oxford (an honour that was conferred precisely a century later upon Prince Lichnowsky, Germany’s hapless ambassador to the Court of St James on the eve of war). Painted four times, Blucher’s name was conferred upon one of the boarding houses at Wellington College, where his stained glass portrait still adorns the chapel. Most splendidly of all, perhaps, George Stephenson elected to name his first steam locomotive in the Prussian’s honour. He called it Blucher

The Field Marshal paid no return visits to England, but the old allegiance was not forgotten. In 1908, Prince Blucher’s English wife was invited to the Kaiser’s magnificent new shipping port of Kiel in  order to preside over the launching of a new battleship: the Blucher. In 1908, the  Bluchers formed part of a cosy Anglo-German world who thought of themselves as belonging to both countries. Old Prince Blucher preferred life on the British island of Herm, where he reared kangaroos, to the splendours of his castle and country estate (the latter had been conferred upon the Field Marshal by a grateful King Frederick William III of Prussia) in Silesia. The English-born Evelyn had been living mainly in London with her Prussian husband since their marriage in 1907.

  War changed everything. A dismayed Prince Blucher was ordered to abandon his kangaroos and return to Silesia, while Evelyn and her husband joined the desolate Lichnowskys on a train bound for Berlin. In January 1915, camped out among a sea of exiles  in the palm-thronged limboland of the Esplanade Hotel, Evelyn heard that the Blucher – the ship that she had so proudly launched at Kiel – had been sunk by her compatriots.

  A new Anglo-German link was forged  by the Bluchers during the war. In 1916, a young German prince survived the torpedoing of his submarine and found his way to the Welsh home of Evelyn Blucher’s parents. There, at a discreet distance from the field of battle, he was treated as an honoured guest. In time, insofar as I can establish from research in a rather obscure area, Prince Ernest married an English bride.

  War and exile offered insufficient reasons for a proudly anglophile German prince to turn his back upon the country he adored. The Bluchers came back to England during the interwar years. Today, you can find the memorial to a German prince in the graveyard of St Bartholomew’s Church, Rainhill, Lancashire, close to the family estate.Perhaps, in this year of commemorating the alliance of England and Germany to defeat Napeoleon, somebody should lay a wreath upon the English grave of the truculent old Field Marshal's descendant.

   Added: Monday 26 January 2015

Concreting the Pastures

These are two untold true stories of where greenbelt land is being used for the wrong purposes and for all the wrong reasons. The material used here is free for anybody to use. Pictures are available of both areas (Surrey and Nottinghamshire) If you support the idea that Greenbelt land should be used where necessary housing is provided, but not for private gain, corrupt ends or non residential use, please suppor this by sharing it,printing it, talking about it. Democracy must have a voice and - in this situation - I know of no better way to get the news out there.

The material is fully researched, documented and - as of 23 December 2014 - current. Both these sites can still be saved. They are rare and beautiiful and none of this development needs to happen here.


   Added: Tuesday 23 December 2014

The Bauhaus in London

On 12 July 1934, an extraordinary new building appeared in north London. Alighting like a white gull among the squat brick terraces of South Hampstead, the Isokon building sprang straight from the Bauhaus. Three Long white balconies converged on a glass-sided tower; within, the furniture was curvaceously streamlined in a way that has now become iconic but seemed, back then, outrageous. Walter Gropius and Moholo-Nagy were among the early residents. Here, in the Isokon, back in the Thirties, the best of modern Germany stood defiant, joyful and utterly at odds with its dour surroundings.

Back in the first years that I saw it, the Isokon had been reduced to a shadow of its former self. Abandoned during the War, it was allowed to become derelict. Litter piled against its cracked balconies; birds flew wild in the tower. It seemed, back in the 1980s, as though an unloved and neglected masterpiece was doomed to disappear. At one moment, there was talk of a carpark being built over the site.

This week, on 12 July, the Isokon reopens its doors as a Grade 1 listed building: one of the most remarkable in London. Notting Hill Developments, working with Avanti Architects and Skandia have, with the support of Camden Council and some generous input from the National Trust, recreated the 1930s masterpiece as it looked in its first days. A book has been written to commemorate the project and a brand new gallery, open every weekend through the year, charts the history of the building and its flamboyant inhabitants.  (One, for a while, was Dame Agatha Christie.)

In this summer of 2014, a terrible war is being recalled and replayed.  Relentlessly, the media focusses all attention upon a tragic past. The focus is always upon hostility. The magificent restoration of the Isokon should help to remind us that there are other facets to the story of our long, significant, enriching relationship with Germany.

   Added: Wednesday 09 July 2014

Shakespeare alfresco

This summer, we've been visited at Thrumpton Hall (a lovely redbrick Midlands manorhouse dating back to Shakespeare's time), by the wonderful Handlebards.

  The Handlebards are four young men who cycle their way around England and the Continent each year, bringing Shakespeare to the gardens, courtyards and cloisters of castles, abbeys, pubs, village greens and - lucky us - to the Edwardian croquet lawn at Thrumpton Hall. This year, they performed - with a little help from two good-natured recruits from the audience - The Comedy of Errors.  A local band provided the music, John Holmes from Radio Nottingham came along to join the audience, and everybody had a brilliant time.

  Sitting with the actors around our family breakfast table this morning, I thought how wonderfully appropriate this all felt. Writing Noble Endeavours, my 'mission book ' about the long and intriciate history of friendship between England and Germany, I began one story among many with Shakespeare. In 1613, the summer in which England's Elizabeth Stuart married The Elector Palatine, theirwedding was celebrated with performances of Shakespeare at Whitehall. Out at Heidelberg, the adoring young Elector built a little Shakespeare theatre for his play-loving wife.  And it was there, out at Heidelberg, that the actors from the Globe found a welcoming haven when, that very same year, the Globe Theatre burnt down.

  Nearer still to the spirit of the Handebards were the groups of intrepid Shakepeare actors with whose story I chose to end my book: the English POWs who boldly elected to perform Shakespeare (in English) to their German guards during WW2, even going so far as to put on A Merchant of Venice which portrayed a heroic Shylock.  Interestingly, given our habit of stereotyping all wartime Germans as militant Nazis, the guards roundly applauded the actors, extended the performances and gave permission for the prisoners to sing (in private) the National Anthem.

  None of us know exactly how much Shakespeare's plays were performed outside conventional theatres during his own lifetime, but chances are that that they were being put on in just the way that the Handlebards are doing today. Back then, the players probably travelled by foot with a packhorse, carrying the play in their heads and performing wherever they were welcomed and - important to remember this for hungry young actors then and now - given food, drink and somewhere to sleep. Essentially, although the modern performances are doubtless more condensed, the experience is the same. Local musicians would have been recruited to add support (perhaps a music-loving host joined in on his fiddle) and the weather was probably as large a contributor to the event as ever. A rainswept alfresco Macbeth, so the Handlebards say, is a pretty unforgettable experience for all concerned, and not a bad one. 

  This year, the Handlebards are taking their tour across to Holland and Belgium.  Remembering all that I had read and been told, I urged them to extend the tour to Germany, a largely bilingual country where Shakespeare - renewed with every fresh translation - is treated almost as if he had been born there.  Shakespeare was being performed in every tiny town and  - excusing the pun - hamlet,  back in the time that one of Charles Dickens's Household Words' contributors was travelling across the country as a guildworker and sending reports back to his editor in London. When Thackeray stayed at Weimar as a youth, the Schiller Theatre put on performances of Shakespeare every week. And when Charles Sorley visited Germany in 1914, he wrote that a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream, in a woodland glade, with Mendelssohn's music, was 'the most harmonious thing I ever saw.' Even war couldn't kill off the country's devotion to England's greatest playwright.  Shakespeare's birthday continued to be celebrated throughout WW2, and Shakespeare plays continued to be performed during the years of the Third Reich (albeit with risible revisions of such awkward episodes as the marriage of a Christian and a Jewess in The Merchant of Venice).*

  I hope The Handlebards take up the idea, especially during the period when we need to remember what still binds us to Germany just as much as what divided us - and can never be forgotten or forgiven - for twelve horrific years of Nazi rule. Meanwhile, do check The Handlebards out at  Better still, search out one of their enchantingly funny performances of Shakespeare as it (almost) might have been, when given by just such a group of travelling boy actors, back in his own time.

* Intriguingly, it was at Weimar, in 1914, on the eve of war, that Charles Sorley saw an exceptionally daring performance of The Merchant of Venice, with a vixenish Portia determined to shred a desolate Shylock's pride and ensure his public humiliation. He could never, so young Sorley wrote, imagine such a controversial interpretation being permitted in his own country.

   Added: Thursday 19 June 2014

Diary of an Unknown Soldier

A gritty print shows the head of a young soldier at Verdun on the Western Front. Softly, in the quiet voice of an old-fashioned breed (it could be the voice of a Siegfried Sassoon or Robert Graves), he speaks of his private terrors. He compares himself to his colleagues. There's Tom, the oldhander who never shows fear and who now, as the young man looks towards him for reassurance, refuses to meet his eye.  There's Crompton, coldly angry, declaring his readiness to bayonet three Germans, at the least, before the end of the day. And there's the young man himself, isolated by his terror, his reluctance to die, his sense of the bitter pointlessness of their sacrifices.

  The messenger arrives.  It's time to move forward. The young man's hands pluck at the sleeve of his own uniform, as if to remind himself that he is still alive. Walking slowly uphill, he notices a soldier sitting on the side of a crater: a young man just like himself, hungrily drinking a tin of soup.  But he's wearing the uniform of a German. This is what the enemy looks like. These are the kind of men he must kill.

  The day is over. Corpses sprawl in the mud. Blind eyes stare up at the sky, but the young soldier has survived to comment on the day's results. This may look like slaughter, but here at Verdun, in 1916, loss of life counts for nothing against the fact that an advance of 200 yards' progress has been achieved on the Allies' side. This is what victory looks like.

   Everything seems so unquestionably authentic in this forgotten footage that it comes as a shock to the viewer to discover that the entire film, 17 minutes of newsreel, was made on handheld cameras in 1959.  The actors are unknowns. The tremulous voice over, that of the unknown soldier, is that of the 24 year-old writer/director Peter Watkins.

  Watkins is better known today for Privilege, Culloden and (after it was banned by Hugh Carleton Greene from television and went on to win an Oscar for best documentary feature of 1966) The War Game. He has also produced extraordinary films about the painter Edvard Munch and about life in the Paris Commune, in which the actors actually step out of character to question the intrusion of the media - the film-maker - into their lives. Originally motivated (or so it seems) by his experiences as a conscript into National Service, Watkins settled in Canterbury during the early 1950s and began directing a local group of actors there, having himself studied at RADA. Already praised in the amateur film world as a pioneer of the documentary style, he was working on The Diary of an Unknown Soldier in 1959.  It was during this time that Watkins was acting as an assistant editor to Kevin Brownlow at World Wide Pictures, a commercial film company.

  More can be read about Brownlow's influence, and about the assistance that Watkins provided for his own film - working with Andrew Mollo - from that period, It Happened Here, at Peter Watkins' extensive website ( Here, without going into Watkins's own massively ambitious later work, The Journey, I only want to focus on the value of reshowing one of a young director's earliest films now, in the year 2014. 

  Why are we not seeing it? Here is one possibilityWriting his memoirs of life as a television critic, Milton Shulman related a significant episode from the time when he worked as a film buyer for Granada Television, back in the early 1960s. Somebody mentioned a Watkins film as worthy of being shown on television. Its subject was the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and its name was The Forgotten Faces.  So impressed was Shulman by the film that he arranged for Cecil Bernstein, Vice Chairman of Granada, to have a private screening. Bernstein was awed: how had such an extroardinary piece of news footage been smuggled out of Hungary without detection? Told that it had been shot by Watkins in England, on the back streets of Canterbury, Bernstein flinched. It would not, he said, be possible to show it: 'If we show a film like that, no-one will ever believe our newsreels.'

  It would be sad to discover that this same narrow attitude prevailed today. Certainly, the eerily convincing presentation of Diary of an Unknown Soldier makes it far more watchable than much of the footage to which we are ceaselessly exposed in this year of mournful recollection.  But the powerful message that it conveys - the pointlessness of war - is as vital as ever.  So is the opinion, delivered by the narrator in the soldier's voice, that it is impossible, even during the course of a war, to dehumanise our fellow men, to regard murder as an act of heroism. The German figure, the soldier sitting on a bank and drinking his soup, is deliberately positioned in a film that was made twenty years after the outbreak of WW2. Watkins, speaking as the soldier diarist, asks himself how it is possible to view this cheerful young fellow - the two soldiers could be brothers - as his enemy? To himself, the answer is plain, but the question is clearly being directed at us, the witnesses and judges of an unforgotten past.

  Is it because Watkins' film remains so unflinchingly antimilitaristic that it is not being shown today? Is it because its exceptional technique unermines the authentic footage available from that period? Whatever the reason, it's not a good one. But anybody interested in seeing Watkins's mesmerising contribution can do so by buying the bfi issue of Privilege, on which both Diary and Forgotten Faces are included as short extras.

   Added: Wednesday 18 June 2014
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A quiet hero

On 1 June, 1943, eight German Junkers targeted a British plane, Flight 777.  They shot it down over the Bay of Biscay. The flight, a regular route from neutral Lisbon to Whitchurch, near Bristol, was fully booked with seventeen passengers. There were no survivors.

The tragedy made headlines because one of the doomed passengers was the celebrated actor, Leslie Howard, a vehement opponent of the Nazi regime. Howard had travelled home to England from Hollywood in 1939 in order to support his country. His most obvious course of action was to take roles in anti-nazi films (The First of the Few, Pimpernel Smith), but spying missions offer a more likely explanation for Howard's presence in the spy-rich city of Lisbon in the summer of 1943. Theories about why Flight 777 was shot down include the possibility that Howard's work as a spy had come to the attention of the Portugese-based Gestapo.  It has also been noted that Howard's companion on the plane (the actor's agent, Alfred Chenhalls) bore an uncanny resemblance to Winston Churchill.

The plane, a BOAC, may have been shot down for an entirely different reason. Also travelling on board, and returning from a series of negotiations to help with the relocation of German-Jewish children to England and to Palestine, was a remarkable man called Wilfrid Israel.

Described by Alfred Einstein as the noblest spirit he had ever known ('a man too good for this world'), Israel grew up in an unusually privileged world. Born in London to an English-born mother, Pauline Solomon, who refused to have any language other than English spoken at her (German) table, Wilfrid was the sole heir to one of Berlin's largest and most respected department stores, Nathan Israel. A most untypical business magnate, Israel's elegant home was filled with magnificent oriental antiquities, while his bookshelves displayed the wide-ranging interests of an exceptionally liberal and cultured reader.

Christopher Isherwood, who never quite penetrated the surface of Israel's impassive manner, portrayed him in his Berlin-based novels as Bernhard Landauer, a figure whose admirable qualities are negated by his extreme detachment. But Israel himself was very far from being detached. Holidaying with Isherwood, Spender and Auden in Germany in 1932, Israel persuaded his younger friends to study the literature that was being put out by the Nazi party.  Hitler had not yet taken power in 1932, but the magazines that Israel produced forced the young Englishmen to review their opinions of a party that they had - at that point - gravely under-rated. It was probably thanks to Israel's quiet influence that Auden, witnessing Hitler's apotheosis into the unique role of Chancellor-President in 1934, was able to recognise the atmosphere of terrified compliance in which that infamous 'free' election took place. ('Every house waves a baby's rattle...' Auden noted as he watched a frightened innkeeper rush to display a smiling face at his window. 'Every shop has pasted a notice: "We are all going to vote yes."')

The young Englishmen returned home. Wilfrid Israel made use of his privileged position as a dual national to fight for his fellow Jews in the country which they thought of as their homeland, and which had turned upon them with unimaginable ferocity. In 1936, speaking on behalf of the 600 Jews who worked for his family store, Israel visited the British Embassy in Berlin to plead for the urgent need for help in getting endangered people out of Germany.  Ambassador Nevile Henderson, rapturous in his admiration of all that Hitler was achieving to modernise the country in the year of the Berlin Olympics, was scarcely able to conceal his impatience with the request. Helping Jewish people was not, as he explained to an incredulous Israel, in Britain's interests during a time of massive unemployment and unrest. Nothing need be - or would be  - done.  

In 1938, Wilfrid Israel's family department store (the German equivalent of Harrods), was seized and placed under Aryan ownership. Its Jewish employees were singled out for immediate deportation to Sachsenhausen. Offered a plane flight to England, with a guarantee of his personal safety, Israel refused. Instead, after rescuing his former employees, he joined forces with the remarkable Frank Foley, the meek-faced British passport officer in Berlin whose official position masked his undercover work for MI6.  Working together with Foley's colleague Hubert Pollack, the three men began collaborating with a dedicated group of Quakers to organise an effective escape route for the most immediately endangered families. Pollack identified the families; Foley not only stamped their visas but frequently offered temporary sanctuary in his own home. Israel produced the considerable sums required for funding, while acting as an unobtrusive go-between to British contacts.

Today, Israel is best known for his next and most difficult endeavour: to help persuade a reluctant British government to legislate for 10,000 Jewish children to be brought to England. On 22 November, 1938, following some determined personal lobbying, Home Secretary Samuel Hoare finally oversaw the hearing and passing of the Bill from which the Kindertransport was born.  

From 1938 until 1943, the childless Wilfrid Israel (he never married) dedicated himself to the task of saving the Jewish children of Germany. At the time when Flight 777 was shot down, tragically ending his humanitarian activities, he had been engaged in negotations to relocate them to homes in Palestine.

Honoured in Israel today, eulogised by Albert Einstein for his almost saintlike qualities, Wilfrid Israel's name deserves to be at least as well remembered in England as the glamorous actor who died in June 1943 on that same fateful flight from Lisbon. 

   Added: Saturday 07 June 2014
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Munich, my family and a wonderful book This is the link to a Noble Endeavours related blog I wrote for www.goodreads

   Added: Wednesday 21 May 2014

noble Endeavours: amazing anniversaries

Here's the link to a history blog I wrote for Simon and Schuster to celebrate the (beautiful) paperback publication of Noble Endeavours

   Added: Friday 02 May 2014

Versailles on stage

In January 1918, delegates from 27 nations arrived in Paris to attempt to decide upon both the amount of reparations that a devastated country could be realistically expected to pay, and to ensure that Germany was in no position to regain her former military strength. Back at home (at least, this is the image offered in Peter Gill's magnificent new play), families and friends argued over the rights and wrongs of reparations with the passions applied in pre-war Paris to the issue of the Dreyfus trial.

Historical record suggests that families did no such thing, and that the subject of Versailles was less discussed in such middleclass familiy homes as that shown in Gill's play than personal bereavement and the struggle to maintain a near-Edwardian style of life in the harsh new light of post-war economics. While no evidence exists to show that young men of the type of Leonard Rawlinson (beautifully played by Gwilym Lee) did use personal knowledge of Germany's economic dependence on coal to plead for less punitive measures in the Treaty, it's clear that Gill is drawing up on the well-documented activities of the young Maynard Keynes, who did resign, return home, and dramatically publish his hostile opinion of the Treaty.  

A three hour play that simply paid scrupulous detail to the historical facts would achieve nothing that a documentary could not do as well, or better. But Gill has produced something that is both more beguiling and more provocative: a reimagining of events that brings together the tattered cosiness of English county life in 1919 with a wonderful portrait of a backroom at Versailles that perfectly captures the terrible mixture of frivolity and deep sincerity with which world-changing events in Paris were taking place.

Peter Gill, now 74, directs the play himself. For me, having spent the past five years immersed in writing about the history of England's friendship with Germany, as seen through the eyes of a multitude of characters, the best treat came first.  Arriving early, I walked alone into the Donmar stalls and found myself standing - the stage embraces the audience and draws them in with cunningly placed passages and bookshelves - in a drawing-room that could come straight from Forster or Priestley.

This - the Rawlinson family's home - is the scene for most of the play. The plot is not complicated. The Rawlinsons' son, Leonard, is due to go to Versailles. His sister Mabel (Tamla Kari) is unable to commit to the young soldier (Josh o'Connor) who has returned for her, having survived the war, despite the stern imperiousness of her widowed mother (beautifully played by Francesca Annis). Leonard, idealistic, conscientious and a little grim, is unable to share the devastation he personally feels about the death at the front of their neighbour's handsome son, Gerald Chater. Possibly, the two young men became homosexually involved shortly before Chater left home for good; certainly, they loved each other. Throughout the play, and bringing to it an extraordinary charisma with his undeniably sexual presence, Gerald (Tom Hughes, deliberately made to look like Wilfrid Owen), returns to Leonard: taunting, pacing, menacing and challenging, Hughes's performance, beautifully counterpointing the pained, cerebral playing of Leonard by Gwilym Lee, is what gives the play its excitement and its edge. He is more palpably real and alive than any other character.  This, clearly, is intended. The perfomance and the half-veiled relationship of these two men is what held the audience still as rabbits in the headlights.

Other characterisations might seem, perhaps, a little too theatrically neat. Mabel's friend Constance Fitch (Helen Bradley) is the clever, conscientious feminist who works in a London bookshop and will eventually, plainly, become the goodhumoured and outspoken wife of the local squire and peacekeeper (Adrian Lukis). Gerlad's mother rattles off a stream of stereotypical remarks about Jews, blacks, racial purity and so on, principally, it seems, to provide something for Leonard to make a stand against. Yet, her ranting is convincing, and it does highlight the fact that Germany was not the only country to be harbouring extremist views of this kind during the 1920s. On the home front, however, it is the performances by Lee and Hughes that hold the audience spellbound. Theatrically, this relationship stands alongside the extraordinary realisations of homo-erotic passion evoked in Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy and also in Alan Hollinghurst's mesmerising The Stranger's Child.

For the centre of a longish play (it lasts three hours, with - unprecedented for the Donmar, so far as I know - two intervals), the action moves to Paris. The setting - from the memoirs of the time that I have read - comes uncannily close to that of the old British Embassies during the post war years, at a time when the British Ambassador to Berlin used to invite a clever young German lawyer in to play badminton in the ballroom, while Ribbentrop waited in the lobby with his wine merchandise. My own grandfather's memoirs of pre-war Berlin describe duskily lit rooms with young attaches typing out their own notes, music off while the evening's theatricals were rehearsed, the ambassador (Sir Frank Lascelles) puffing on a Turkish cigarette at his paper-laden buhl desk off through a doorway.

Gill gives us just such a setting, adding to the scene a brisk and less idealistic young colleague for Leonard (Edward Killingback), a no-nonsense female commander of the office  (splendidly played by Angela Isham) and a well-meaning but helpless visitor from the upper levels of the conference (Simon Williams). Here, while the focus is on the defeat of Leonard's valiant attempts to modify the reparations regarding the Saar basin and Silesia (Germany's main sources for the crucial coal industry), we also glimpse the world to come in the brisk outlining of new interests in the Middle East: 'petroleum' is a word that Leonard parses out as if it was - indeed - a peculiarly unpleasant chemical jelly. Palestine is briefly glanced at as a home for what is judged to be the modest number of Jews likely to required a new home. Ironies, pitched to be recognised by the better-informed audience, are abundant.

The central section of the play, while crucial to the balance and subject, could take a good pruning and be none the worse for it. I would have liked to have seen some reference to England's crucial contribution of the war-guilt clause (a source of enduring regret to its composer, an exhausted and overwrought  Philip Lothian): the Clause 231 that ascribed full blame for the war to a country that would later significantly reject that responsibility. Setting this aside, Versailles is an exceptional contribution to the ongoing reflections upon what happened in the past and what might have been more wisely done. I do hope Peter Gill's wonderful three act drama gets a transfer. It needs still to be on stage in 2019, that fateful forthcoming centenary of the occasion on which a devastated country was punished, and required to pay an entirely unrealistic penalty of £6,600 million.  In terms of stagecraft and performances and intellectual fodder, there is nothing better on stage at this particular moment in London's theatres than Gill's Versailles.

   Added: Thursday 03 April 2014

A German Night at the National

Standing on the edge of a darkened stage, the villainous Mr Snow fled from an oddly menacing horde of child detectives and rushed into the audience with the (well-rehearsed) children in hot pursuit. Up the aisle he ran, out along the rim of the dress circle, and down again. At the end of our row, well-placed 'detectives' let him slip through their grasp. Hot-faced, murmuring apologies for causing any inconvenience, 'Mr Snow' squeezed his way along a row of seats just behind where I was sitting - only to be stopped in his tracks by a determined child from the audience who, evidently, wanted to sign up for Emil's detective force onstage. Release granted, the play went on.

Erich Kästner's marvellous book was the only one of an admired Jewish author's works that even Hitler didn't dare order to be cast into the book-pyre in 1933; Emil was just too beloved, too much of an icon to share the fate of Kästner's other works. Emil survived.  The book - Emil and the Detectives - first appeared in England as a stage play in 1934. Staged in this year of sabre rattling and wound picking, it serves - and perhaps is intended to serve - as a welcome antidote: a glorious celebration of fantasy and childhood that had an evening audience of English schoolchildren roaring with delight for a plucky little gang of Berliners who come to the rescue of Emil, the provincial from Neustadt who has (for this is 1929 and not everybody is sharing in Germany's resurgent economy) to recover the precious 140 marks which his mother entrusted to him - and which that devilish 'financier' Mr Snow has callously appropriated, while sharing a compartment with a small boy on a very empty train.

The production - wonderfully lit by Lucy Carter, designed by Bunny Christie and directed by Bijan Sheibani - nods homage in so many directions as to be almost dizzying. Black and white angled shots of Berlin come straight from German Expressionist cinema.  An extraordinary chase sequence through the city sewers offers a dazzlingly elegant salute toThe Third Man, with Mr Snow standing in for Harry Lime. Petzold, the largest and most disturbing of the Berlin street gang of lost children, reflects the mood of the National Socialists as he tries to turn the hunt for Mr Snow into a crusade against the foreigners in his city. 'They take what's ours. So we'll take some of it back.' 

But what struck me most - and seems not to have been picked up on so far in the reviews - is the subtle evocation of another, infinitely haunting allusion to dreadful times. When Emil's weeping mother waves her forlorn little boy off, with his single suitcase, on the train to Berlin, what Sheibani is surely intending to conjure up is the memory of all those desolate kindertransport parents, waving goodbye to the children they couldn't bear to lose, but knew they had to save. The poignancy is both understated and exact.

It's a wonderful production, full of drama, life and displaying a terrific spirit of camaderie among the huge child cast. And - most especially so in 2014 - Emil offers a welcome reminder that there's a human spirit that we can identify with and love in that country with which we rightly went to war in 1939.

   Added: Tuesday 04 March 2014

Countess Elizabeth von der Schulenburg

It's unlikely that anybody who met the bold, seductive and staunchly unconventional Tisa Schulenburg during the years between the wars, when she was living in Berlin, would have guessed that this remarkable young woman would go on to join an Ursuline convent in a former mining town, and to sculpt one of the most first and most unforgettable images of the Holocaust.

Tisa, the daughter of anglophile parents whose Mecklenburgh home, Tressow, was fuilled with mementoes of their time in London, was the sister of Fritz Dietlof, one of the the brave group of Resistance figures who were murdered on Hitler's orders for their participation in the plot of 20 July, 1944. Her memoirs describe a blissful childhood at Tressow, where the local people venerated Tisa's mother for the support she gave them, during the harsh years of 1914-1918, when Count Schulenburg was away in the army, and the German people at home were starving. Germany, more than England, venerates its soldiers and their uniforms;  Tisa's mother stepped beyond the line of expected behaviour when she cut up old Schulenburg uniforms and flags, stitching them into clothes and coverlets for the homeless and destitute.

Tisa, in her memoirs, describes how she and her classmates at a strict German boarding school responded with glee to the news of a new republic, decking their hair with scarlet ribbons and refusing to curtsey to their teachers. At home, Tisa frightened her mother's old-fashioned lady's maid by singing: 'Smear the guillotine with the aristocracy's fat'; ever more determined to become an artist, she begged permission to join the burgeoning Bauhaus. The Bauhaus, with its dangerously left-wing ideas and permissive attitudes, was too much for Tisa's father; instead, having settled in Berlin, Tisa married Fritz Hess, a charming, open-minded and extremely rich Jewish art-collector. Provided with her own private gym and a houseful of treasures, Tisa still saw herself as a communist and preached her views to anybody ready to listen.  Irony was never her strongest suit.

Reality struck home in 1933. Hitler became Chancellor and, during a year of rapidly escalating hostility towards the Jewish people and to anybody who failed to surrender their personal views to State art, State views, and a State church that enacted Hitler's policies, Tisa's husband was forced to leave Germany to save his life. Tisa's own parents and all but one of her brothers had embraced the new Germany. Tisa followed her husband into an exile that nevertheless, to a woman brought up to adore England, seemed familiar and kindly.

Tisa's life in England was not filled with the hardships suffered by so many of her compatriots. A Suffolk house in Walberswick (a favourite settling point for the incoming artistic community); a home in North London; a large group of welcoming friends; a chance to develop her career as a woodsculptor (Germany is famous for its skill in wood-carving) alongside Henry Moore: this was not deprivation.  Nevertheless, Tisa felt a wish to do something for the country that had offered so much to her. Spurning a social life in London, she found work in the oppressed northern mining communities where poverty, in the mid-Thirties, was extreme. (This was the time of ship-building and miners' strikes, when the Jarrow marchers lobbied Parliament and received, as their reward, one pound each, to take them home again to unemployment.)

Tisa was a theoretical socialist.  'I had never really met a worker,' she admitted. In 1936, she experienced her first encounters with real hardship, in the mining villages around Durham. Greeted with bafflement when she presented her thirty-strong class of working men with sheaves of prints of hard-pressed families (gleaned from the old magazines from which van Gogh drew inspiration during his stay in England), Tisa determined to do better. In 1937, she returned north. This time, she started to share her skills in woodcarving. (I can't help remembering Lady Ottoline Morrell who, as a young girl at Welbeck, set up groups of wood carving studies for the miners and modestly paid estate workers employed by her half brother, the Duke of Portland.) 

Ottoline, back in the 1890's, had offered the consolations of prayer;  Tisa came to Spennymoor armed with views on the rights of the common man.The Durham miners responded with astonishment, amusement, and gratitude. In my new book (Noble Endeavours), I describe how they 'regarded her as some sort of strange but exotic pet who appeared in pearls and furs to lecture them about the inalienable rights of the individual.'  Nevertheless, the workmen applied themselves with skill and enthusiasm; years later, Tisa's own work was given one of its first showings in County Durham where, by 1939, she had decided that her vocational future lay.

The painful story of how Tisa was trapped in Germany during the war, after paying an ill-timed visit to her dying parents, is told in my book. Tisa was in Berlin, together with her devastated sister-in-law, on the day that her brother was brutally murdered for his part in the July Plot of 1844; a year earlier, the two women had met the charismatic and courageous Claus von Stauffenburg with whose name the plot is most closely associated.  In an evening that sounds to have belonged in Scarlett o'Hara's Tara, Tisa and Charlotte had draped themself in hastily assembled rags of brocade and fetched out the last measure of gin to make a cocktail for their dashing guest.  It was Stauffenburg's combination of erudition and gaiety that most impressed Tisa: he had talked about Goethe and Shakespeare, but there also 'roars of laughter. I have never known anyone with such a capacity for laughter.  It was a glorious evening.'

Divorced from her second husband, a tolerant and well-liiked Prussian landowner, Tisa moved to the harsh landscape of the Ruhr in 1948. Here, living in an Ursuline convent at bomb-shattered Dorsten, she dedicated herself to her faith (as a Catholic convert) and her art, producing the series of remarkable works which earned her an enduring name.

'I chose the Ruhr,' Tisa explained to her old friend Christabel Bielenburg, 'wanting toi live where others had to live. No more roar of the sea, nor the smell of bracken and gorse.  I have delighted in that to the full.'

[I am indebted for much of Tisa's remarkable story to the unpublished version of her memoir, edited by Christabel Bielenburg and loaned to me by Tisa's niece, Angela Schulenburg. It would be wonderful to see this enthralling work in print in England.)

   Added: Wednesday 01 January 2014

The hatless princess

Hatless, kicking her way through the autumn leaves of St James's Park as she played with her children in the golden autumn of 1913, and wearing - to the horror of primmer strollers - a pair of short white socks, Princess Mechtilde Lichnowsky was never a conventional diplomat's wife.

  Historians are familiar with the story of the intensely anglophile and affable Prince Karl Max Lichnowsky, a Silesian descendant of the enlightened family whose kindness Beethoven had rewarded by dedicating his Moonlight and Pathetique Symphonies to them. Outside Germany, where her brilliance caused one admirer to describe her (back then) as the most brilliant mind in modern German literature, almost nothing is known of Karl Max's remarkable wife, Mechtilde.

Somebody should research a life of the Lichnowskys.  Certainly, when I was writing Noble Endeavours, this glittering and delightful couple belonged to the group of people I would most liked to have known and who best represented my ideal of international friendship and mutual respect.  Wilhelm II had picked out Karl Max as his ambassador to England in the autumn of 1912 because he trusted his old friend, and because Karl Max, like Mechtilde, was an ardent anglophile.  (He also happened to be the first cousin of the Russian ambassador in London, Count Benckendorff, a valuable connection and informant for Germany in troubling times.)

The Lichnowskys, back then, were chiefly known as the owners of two glorious homes in Germany and a fabulous collection of Old Masters.  Mechtilde was more modern ithan her husband in her tastes.  Newly arrived at what was then the German Embassy in Carlton House Terrace (significantly, back in those days when the royal families of our two countries were closely entwined, the Embassy had been placed within walking distance of Buckingham Palace), Mechtilde set out to modernise it. Away went the old-fashioned style set by the de Bunsens, back in the days when Frances de Bunsen and her erudite Prussian husband were advising Florence Nightingale on her burgeoning career in nursing; in came a new and dazzlingly contemporary display of Mechtilde's favourite painters. Out with Watts and Winterhalter; in with Franz Marc, Kokoschka and even - for Mechtilde was among the first to spot his genius - Picasso.

The Lichnowskys were not short of friends and admirers during their short stay in London. Mechtilde, attracted by the Bloomsbury Group, visited the Omega Workshop.  A photograph in my book shows her looking extraordinarily modern in a a belted skirt and striped shirt, posing in front of an Omega fabric that had been named 'Mechtilde' in her honour.  The Prince, a regular visitor to the homes of Sir Edward Grey and Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, achieved his happiest hour in June 1914, when he was called to Oxford to be granted an honorary doctorate. Responding to this tribute at the dinner that was given for him that night, the Prince declared his enthusiastic belief that 'the whole of humanity would be best served if the Teutonic peoples were brought nearer together and would join hands for the purpose of spreading their civilization to distant regions.'' Always diplomatic, he did not remark upon how much English culture owed to the inspiration of his own country.

The Lichnowskys never flagged in their efforts to avert war, and to place their faith in the fact that their desires were shared by the men whose orders they were compelled to follow. 'Mediation' was the word that cropped up most frequently in the Prince's increasingly frantic communiques to Berlin.  On 1 August, 1914, four days before war broke out, he advised the Kaiser that he had received Sir Edward Grey's personal assurance that Britain would not intervene. An interview with Asquith the following day brought the Prince to his senses.  Both men - they had become close friends -  shed tears.

On the evening of 4 August, the night after Grey had declared that Britain could not cast aside (as she had felt few qualms about doing in earlier times) her commitment to a beleaguered and friendly nation, Harold Nicolson called at the German Embassy to deliver the message of war. (Nicolson's tricky brief was to retrieve from Prince Karl Max's hands an earlier and erroneous despatch from Grey, announcing that Germany had declared war upon England.) The following morning, workmen arrived to take down the imperial eagle from its proud perch above the embassy entrance.  Daisy Pless, walking sadly through st James's Park as she prepared for her own imminent departure to her husband's country, came across Mechtilde, quietly weeping as she wandered alone along the sandy paths.

The Lichnowskys had been much admired in England.  They were given a handsome send-off.  'I was treated,' Karl Max later wrote, 'like a departing Sovereign.' Visiting the boarded-up Embassy a few weeks later, as part of a clearance team, Shane Leslie noted the sad evidence of a hasty departure: a half-filled silver cigarette case, toys scattered across the nursery floor, Mechtilde's rosary beads, abandoned where they had been dropped. Among the books, young Leslie found a little volume of Marcus Aurelius's Meditations.  A message to Karl Max had been scrawled across the flypage and dated: 'the day of war'. 'To the most true and honourable of men,' ran Margot Asquith's affectionate tribute; writing up his notes that night, Shane Leslie added an observation of his own: 'which I believe he is.' It was a brave thing to say of a German, in London, in the late September of 1914. 

The Lichnowskys, returning to their home in Silesia, were tarnished by an anglophilia which came, with the publication of a private book by Karl Max during the war, to seem close to treason. Rendered almost destitute during the years after the War, they sold their great paintings and lived in diminished circumstances. It was at this point that Mechtilde's personality came to the fore. Witty in her perceptions and skilled as an artist, she contributed drawings to The Torch, Karl Kraus's subversively brilliant magazine.  Kraus himself (the subject of a brilliant essay by Clive James and singled out by Jonathan Franzen's most recent book) was a great admirer of the Princess; it's possible that he was among the crowd of visitors who filled Kuchelna during these darker times.  Max Reinhardt; Alban Berg, Max Liebermann, Elias Canetti: these were the friends who did not desert the Lichnowskys during the post-war years.

Karl Max, a gaunt shadow of his dapper old self, died in 1928.  Mechtilde, disgusted by the hate-filled speeches of a party that was becoming troublingly visible in Germany - withdrew from her old life.  In Munich, she stayed with her sister, Helene Harrach, in an artistic house on the Biedersteinerstrasse, where the garden was filled with Count Harrach's sculptures, and the house with the young English friends of his lively daughters.

Possibly, Mechtilde was visiting Munich when one of the Harrach daughters, Irene (Nucci to her family) married my uncle John Howard de Walden in the late summer of 1934.  Photographs shows the English and German families mingling together out in the garden and on the steps of the Harrach's town house;  I can't see Mechtilde, but I feel sure she must have been there.  It's even possible that my mother, a wide-eyed eleven year old half hidden behind her bridesmaid's towering sheaf of gladioli, was introduced to a distinguished and still beautiful woman: the aunt of a dazzlingly pretty bride with whom my uncle John returned to England.

Mechtilde had been visiting Munich back in her teens when she was first introduced to a quietly humorous young Englishman called Ralph Peto.  A marriage was forbidden by Mechtilde's ardently Catholic family. In 1936, while attending a concert in London, at the Queen's Hall, the widowed princess remet her former suitor.  They fell in love, married in 1937 and settled in London, a city that would feature in the memoirs and novels for which the Princess was beginning to make her name. In August 1939, however, while paying a brief visit to her eldest son in Germany, Mechtilde was trapped there by the outbreak of war.  She never saw Ralph Peto again. (He died in 1944). 

Widowed and very short of money (all the great Lichnowssky estates had gone and the family had left Germany for new lives in Italy and South America), Mechtilde returned to London.  To quote from my book:

'Living in London among a circle of literary exiles who included Elias Canetti and a beautiful Czech baroness (Sidonie Borutin, a patroness of Rilke), whom she had known since childhood, Mechtilde continued to write, to sketch, to go to concerts and to remain joyously unconventional until her death in 1958.'

Some day soon, I plan to pay a visit to Weybidge and to see the churchyard where the Princess is buried.  It's time to pay respects in more than a blog to a woman of rare courage, charm, grace and genius.  Like all the great cast of Noble Endeavours, I have loved getting to know her. I hope readers have enjoyed reading about a few of my heroines here.  These blogs aren't works of art, but they do convey a bit of what writing this book has meant to me, its author. And if Noble Endeavours (a five year endeavour of my own) contributes a little towards helping to remind us how rich the shared history is of our two countries, and that more needs to be remembered - and taught - of our shared history than those terrible, unforgivable twelve years of Nazidom, then I will feel that every moment has been well spent.

   Added: Saturday 14 December 2013