The battle against beige

Lesley Blanch and the 1950s Woman: Waterstones, Gower Street, London, 5 July 2017

How did women who had experienced freedom, adventure and paid employment during the Second World War respond to post-war demands that they ‘settle down’ and devote themselves to the needs of husbands and children? That was the subject of a lively discussion between the writers Elisa Segrave and Georgia de Chamberet at Waterstones’ Bloomsbury branch the other night. As they explored the contrasting experiences of two specific women of that generation, these fascinating individuals were poignantly situated in their historical period.

When Elisa Segrave was caring for her mother, then suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s, she came across a cache of wartime diaries that revealed a very different woman from the conventional if distant wife and mother she had known. In The Girl from Station X: My Mother’s Unknown Life (Union Books, 2013), Segrave discovers the woman her mother had once been: Anne Hamilton-Grace was an adventurous girl from a privileged background of finishing school and hunt balls, who had driven a Ford V-8 from Tunbridge Wells to Russia in 1938.

During the war, she worked as a code-breaker at Bletchley Park, before moving to Bomber Command in Grantham, where she assisted the famous Dambusters raid. VE Day found her in Germany, amid the ruins of Hildesheim, where she found ‘not a house left standing’. There were parties, passionate crushes on other women, a romance with an American GI…

Like all the others who worked at Bletchley Park, Anne never breathed a word of her wartime activities and, once the war was over, quietly assumed the role of housewife and mother. Her diaries cease in 1955, when her beloved five-year-old son drowned and she began a long, sad descent into depression and alcoholism.

Georgia de Chamberet’s godmother, Lesley Blanch, was determined not to succumb to domesticity – and she never did. Born in Chiswick in 1904 to artistic but impecunious parents, she seized her opportunity to escape from suburbia when a mysterious Russian, whom Blanch only ever referred to in her published writing as ‘The Traveller’, entered their lives.Only many years later did she reveal that he was in fact the theatre director Theodore Komisarjevsky. He whisked her off to Paris, seducing her on the Train Bleu and introducing her to fellow Russian exiles such as Diaghilev, Rachmaninov and Chaliapin.

It was the beginning of a lifetime’s obsession with travel that would take her to such remote places as the Sahara, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Afghanistan, Bukhara and Samarkand during the last age before the mass tourism she would come to deplore had ‘overrun the globe, overwhelming its multifarious flavours and traditions and destroying forever those romantic images, or illusions, of remote lands which we once sought and which could, often, still be found.’

Towards the end of her long life (she died in 2007, just short of her 103rd birthday), her god-daughter assisted her in writing the autobiographical essays that, along with a selection of her travel writing and an account of her volatile marriage to the French novelist and diplomat Romain Gary, form the posthumously-published memoir On the Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life (Virago, 2015).

During the 1920s and 30s, after studying at the Slade, Blanch designed stage sets for Komisarjevsky and Marie Rambert, who became a lifelong friend. She also produced artwork for the London Underground. After Komisarjevsky left her for Peggy Ashcroft in 1933, Blanch acquired a set (an apartment) in Albany, where her neighbours included the theatre critic James Agate, Philip Gosse and Dorothy L Sayers, who, she recalled, ‘had an attractive voice and was usually alone, drinking wine’.

Blanch’s theatrical and artistic flair carried over into her next career, as a journalist. A new collection of her profiles, essays and travel articles, Far to Go and Many to Love: People and Places (Quartet), has been edited by De Chamberet, who also provides an absorbing biographical introduction. Illustrated with period photographs and a selection of Blanch’s stage designs and other drawings, the articles range from the 1930s to the 1980s, and include several unpublished manuscripts found among her papers.

Her opening salvo as a journalist appeared in Harper’s Bazaar in 1935. Entitled ‘Anti-Beige’, it was in effect her manifesto, the declaration of a lifelong war against dullness, convention and timidity that found expression in brightly coloured clothes, Middle Eastern robes, floating scarfs, beads and bangles, long before the hippies made such attire fashionable. But this flamboyant romanticism concealed a determined professionalism, and the article landed her a job on British Vogue, on which she served as features editor from 1937 to 1944, writing articles on women’s war work, often illustrated by her friend, the photographer Lee Miller.

A 1945 article for The Leader introduced the still novel personality of Peter Ustinov to a wider public: ‘When he ambles about the room, I’m reminded of a performing hippo on its hind legs. But as a conversationalist, he’s as mercurial as any Harlequin.’ There are memorable portraits, too, of Billy Wilder –‘The façade is Austrian Baroque, but the structure is, I fancy, Pittsburgh steel’ and Vivien Leigh –‘She tore off her eyelashes – the false ones – and those beneath were almost as long.’

Blanch’s acute observations of places and people can be found in pieces on subjects as diverse as polygamy, souks, picture postcards, the Orient Express, Christmas in Mexico and life in post-war Bulgaria. Her travel pieces are all the more poignant in view of the subsequent fate of many of the places – Kabul, Aleppo, Palmyra – she describes so vividly, and the collection as a whole forms a richly engaging record of a life lived to the full.

Both books provoked fascinating contributions from audience members about their own experience and that of their parents’ generation, and this summer evening in Bloomsbury also engaged with the ideas, issues and choices that face young women as they create, write and engage with life today, and the continued relevance of inspirational women from the past.


The welcome return of the stag beetle

On my evening walk the other night, a ‎stag beetle flew past me at eye level, little more than two feet away, affording me an amazing view of the creature in flight. With its body at a 45-degree angle, its heavy antlers aloft, its wing-cases open and its legs dangling awkwardly beneath its buzzing wings. It looked for all the world like some clockwork flying machine invented by Leonardo da Vinci.

You most often see stag beetles in flight at dusk, at the close of a warm day in June. It’s a minor miracle they get airborne at all – indeed they often have to launch themselves from trees to take advantage of a supporting breeze. Usually they zigzag about clumsily, like oversized bumblebees, but with enough wind in their sails they can go at a fair clip. Though dwarfed by some tropical species, they are the largest terrestrial insect in Europe, and an impressive sight by any standard.

These fabulous creatures have attracted the attention of writers and artists for hundreds of years. Pliny the Elder noted that the Roman scholar Nigidius named the stag beetle “lucanus” after the Italian region of Lucania, where people used them as amulets (they are a member of the scarab family). The reference forms the basis of their scientific name, Lucanus cervus.

In 1505 Albrecht Dürer painted a powerful and astonishingly accurate watercolour of a stag beetle (left, now in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles), its antlers raised as if for combat. Macbeth, contemplating the murder of Banquo, says that before “The shard-borne beetle with his drowsy hums/ Hath rung night’s yawning peal, there shall be done/ A deed of dreadful note,” and “the beetle wheels his droning flight” through the country churchyard of Gray’s Elegy.

At the risk of anthropomorphism, I find a certain tragic grandeur in the life cycle of the stag beetle. After five years buried in a woodpile in the guise of finger-sized maggots with fierce orange mandibles, they pupate, and then the adults emerge in May or June in all their Baroque splendour. The male flies off in search of a mate, who then lays her eggs. By the onset of autumn – if they haven’t already become a handy, protein-rich snack for magpies or foxes – they die.

Despite their fearsome appearance, stag beetles are strictly vegan; the adults, having accumulated enough fat as larvae to last for the rest of their brief lives, ingest little but sap and the juice of rotting fruit. Quite harmless to humans and animals, they play an important role in the environment by breaking down dead wood to form new soil.

Nationally they are endangered, a victim of our practice of tidying away any pile of rotting wood, the use of grinders to obliterate tree stumps, the destruction of hedgerows, and pesticides. Perhaps counter-intuitively, they seem to fare better in London suburbs than in the countryside, perhaps because of the absence of agricultural chemicals and the number of compost heaps, rotting fences and decaying sheds.

If you live in southern England, this is the perfect time to spot them. In order to understand which habitats are best for the insects and to improve conservation measures, the London Wildlife Trust is calling on Londoners to report any sightings to the Greenspace Stag Beetle Survey.

Stag Beetle Survey:

Outside London, you can report sightings to the People’s Trust for Endangered Species as part of their Great Stag Hunt:

Both groups provide useful information on how to make your garden stag-beetle friendly by creating a log pile in which their larvae can mature.

Six of the Best


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The Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award shortlist readings

These days I seem to be shuttling between book events at Daunt’s in London’s Marylebone Road and Waterstones’ flagship store in the old Simpson’s Art Deco palace on Piccadilly. I was at the latter just over a week ago for the launch of Meike Ziervogel’s excellent new novel The Photographer, and back last Thursday to hear the six writers shortlisted for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award read from their work.

The award is presented annually for the most promising debut published in Britain during the previous year. From its inception in 1954, it has consistently picked out novelists who have gone on to have long and distinguished careers. Early winners included Brian Moore for Judith Hearne and Alan Sillitoe for Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and the prize was subsequently awarded to Paul Bailey, Gilbert Adair, Jackie Kay and Diran Adebayo.

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Just the Facts? Some thoughts on writing non-fiction


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Talk given at the Authors’ Club in London, 26th April 2017

Ryszard Kapuściński: Some of it was true

The term ‘non-fiction’ is freighted with implications and expectations. The chief of them is an implicit contract with the reader that what is to be found between the covers will be truth rather than fictive invention. ‘But what is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.’ Of course the author of a work of non-fiction has a responsibility to the facts, but the relationship is never a straightforward one, because even supposed facts are open to interpretation.

Genre is significant here too: the different categories of non-fiction – history, biography, travelogue, nature writing, memoir and the wider genre now known as ‘life writing’ – lay claim to differing balances between objectivity and subjectivity.

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