I wish I could remember what Dr Seuss said when I was interviewing him back in the late sixties. (I’ve never kept clippings of my articles, which I sometimes regret)
All I can remember at this distance is his shining energy, his charm, good looks, good humour and integrity. I know we talked about his books – my children were young fans of four and five at the time – and how this childless man tried to give a subliminal positive message in many of his stories, like: “trust yourself”, or “be kind to everyone”.
Then there was the other doctor – Doctor Spock. At a moment’s notice, I was sent out to interview him, along with the newspaper’s star writer … the editor suddenly had a brainstorm and thought he’d like a different angle from a practising mother! No time to do any research. And now, how I wish, thanks to Google, that I had – he was so much more than his famous child-rearing book, a radical and protester at the time of the Vietnam War amongst other things.
When I had finished my probably rather pallid interview, Dr Spock’s gentle, lady-like wife took me aside, and asked me to interview her, to my amazement. I did, and listened to a hurt, angry woman, who said that her husband’s great reputation was based on her hard work bringing up their sons practically alone, while he picked her brains and dispensed her wisdom/experience from behind his desk. I couldn’t write this, and wasn’t surprised when they divorced a few years later.
Then there was the inimitable Barbara Cartland, who took me to her bosom when I told her that one of my best friends, John, was her son’s best friend, who she was devoted to. Her son and John had been at Harrow together, and when John married she lent him a cottage at the bottom of her garden. (with no plumbing)
As she roamed around her hotel bedroom talking animatedly, I decided that her crusade about honey and vitamins must work, she was so lithe and her movements so youthful at seventy-four. She was still writing prolifically her romantic novels, which she told me laughingly had their biggest sales in India.
When she died at ninety-nine, she had had over seven hundred bodice-rippers published, and left the manuscripts of a hundred and fifty more, which her sons are releasing as e-books every month. She wasn’t just a one trick pony though, one of her interests being gliding, and back in the early thirties she invented the idea of them being towed for long distances which led to troop carrying gliders. Later she was awarded a medal by the flying industry.
When her daughter, Lady Dartmouth – not yet married to Lord Spencer and so becoming Princess Diana’s stepmother – came to Hongkong, she was just as kind to me as her mother had been. She was a ravishing beauty with the kind of porcelain pink and white complexion and huge blue eyes that actress Valerie Hobson also had. (both utterly charming and beautifully mannered)
My interview with Raine, Lady Dartmouth, (known as ‘acid -rain’ by Diana and her siblings) was not as predictable as many others. I had some juicy material to work with, like her famous scene at Heathrow airport over dirty tea-cups in the restaurant, her campaign to save Covent Garden, at twenty three being the youngest County Councillor for Westminster, and becoming a member of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. A life less ordinary than the traditional fashionable life with ladies who lunch.
Iris Murdoch, famous author, was another interesting person to interview. I did so where she was staying and met her donnish husband – played so beautifully in the film ‘Iris’, by Jim Broadbent – after she had died of Altzheimers. Being young and crass, I wondered how such a plain woman could have found such a devoted husband, and only later discovered that not only she did have lovers male and female, but that her fierce intelligence was as sexy as a pretty face!
It was with great trepidation that I approached Robert Helpmann, the famous ballet dancer, producer, and great talent. I had been terrified by him in the famous film: ‘Tales of Hoffman’ as a child, and could never get his Mephistophelian power out of my mind as he flicked his long, black velvet cloak with its long tassel out of the door… even the tassel seemed to convey malice.
With no Google in 1969, I had no idea that he had started his career in the legendary Anna Pavlova’s company, but at least I knew that in the ballet world he had an enormous reputation. He was a delight – elegant, kind and charming – and even gave me advice about my ballet-mad daughter… don’t let her start until she’s at least eight, and no en point until after fourteen.
So many fascinating people … from princesses to prime ministers … feminists and activists. Princess Alexandra, the Queen’s cousin, appalled that I was a single mother. “How do you manage? ” she asked… presumably because as well as no husband, I had no chauffeur, nanny, cook, housemaid, butler, or gardener! She was exquisite and elegant in a pale lavender suede coat and matching lavender wide brimmed hat… the Maori Queen, a plain, ordinary woman who grew into a beautiful, wise one; a glamorous, blonde Italian round-the-world yachtswoman, a Polynesian prime minister’s wife; a glorious Indian woman with yard-long black hair that hung loose, vivacious and intelligent, her greatest claim to fame being lover of racing driver Stirling Moss – then a household name – now, like so many of these people – forgotten.
And yet, of all the people I met and interviewed, the one I treasure most is another forgotten name now, even by the organisation he helped to found. On a cold, wet Sunday afternoon in June 1972, I went down to Westhaven marina in Auckland, at the request of Quaker friends.
Leaving the children in the car with snacks and books, I threaded my way along the gang-planks to the 38 foot yacht, Vega. On it, I met David McTaggart, one of the founders of Greenpeace, just setting off on his historic journey to Mururoa to protest against the French atomic tests. He was in a great hurry, loading last minute supplies before setting sail, but we did it, and I gloat that that was one of the first stories about Greenpeace to get into print.
McTaggart was a hero… in spite of their unwanted presence and refusal to be bullied away, the French set off the deadly bomb anyway. The following year when he returned, they beat him so savagely that he lost the sight in one eye for several months. That story went around the world. And yet these days when I am approached outside the supermarkets by eager young enthusiasts to get me to sign up for Greenpeace, they’ve never even heard of David McTaggart.
Meeting such people was one of the special privileges of being a journalist, but so often, as a single mother I didn’t make the most of such opportunities, being too pre-occupied with how to make ends meet, or if the amah would remember to meet my tiny daughter from the school bus. These were not celebrities in today’s use of the word, but people of character and substance who had carved a niche for themselves, and by their talent or originality become well known.
I look back to my young, ignorant self and cringe. If only I had known then what I know now. And I also look back and see these people so differently… I understand more about them as I understand more about myself. If only I had had the ability then to really do them justice. This feels familiar – of course – it’s what most parents say about their parenting – if only I had known then what I know now!
Greater understanding, insight, knowledge – even wisdom – are gifts we acquire if we’re lucky, as we grow older. Yet it’s when we’re young that we have to step up, and so often blunder blindly into the unknown, sometimes realising fearfully that we don’t know, or often, thinking we know better.
So now, new generations and bright young people are setting off on their own journeys to follow their own dreams, and they will find their own heroes – talented innovators, creators and explorers in their brave new world. Some of their heroes will become rich, some will become famous, and many of them will inevitably be forgotten … and like the heroes of my day – in the words of Ecclesiasticus – they too will have no memorial.
Food for threadbare gourmets
An unexpected gathering of the neighbours for drinks the next day, and no time to do a dash into town, half an hour away, to find something to take with me. Remembering an intriguing recipe for sardines I’d used years ago, I rummaged in my store cupboard and found two tins of sardines in olive oil, and then rummaging on the internet for a recipe for sardine pate spread, I found a blog by someone called Manami. I’m grateful to her for digging me out of my hole.
Picking out the little silver bits and bones, I drained the sardines and mashed them up with two tablespoons of mayonnaise, two teaspoons of finely chopped onion, quarter of a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, a teaspoon of lemon juice and a teaspoon of black pepper.
Apart from sprinkling it with chopped parsley, that was all there was to it. Served with small cracker biscuits – I used rice crackers, they filled a need.
Food for thought
The Highest Thought is always that thought which contains joy. The Clearest Words are those words which contain truth. The Grandest Feeling is that feeling you call love.
Joy, truth, love.
These three are interchangeable, and one always leads to the other. It matters not in which order they are placed.
Neale Donald Walsche. Conversations with God Book I