I deeply mourn the passing of my dear friend, Juliette, who left us just after Christmas.
Some years ago, when I was in the midst of self-doubt, loneliness and misery, I would thrash about a bit on the now nearly ubiquitous Twitter, sometimes playfully, as a form of antithesis to my bleak mood, and sometimes railing at my perceived unhappy circumstances. And by some glad chance I established a conversation or two with the formidable, creative and esoteric mind that was known to the Twitter-sphere and, as I was to discover, to the literary community as @VenusDeMileage.
I may not have the finest mind of my generation, but I am not without some insight, I hope. From my working class background in a run down northern town I was awarded a scholarship (in history, as it happens) to particularly intellectually stringent Cambridge College. There are indeed degrees of rigour within that institution, which, as such, does not really exist: it is a merely a collection of colleges. I mention that not out of hubris, but as a sort of indication that I can walk and talk at the same time. In fact, a rather better reference would be that our founding editor, Anna Raccoon, gave me liberty to write for her, and our new landlord Petunia the same. That is, let me tell you, one hell of a compliment. I am, by nature, a truth sayer. I find the selfish lies and half-truths and “spin” of politicians and the like vapid, pathetic, and weak. I am by my nature a harsh critic, intolerant of fools, and some would say cold.
So when I say “formidable”, I mean it. I rarely use that word.
Her talent for prose and extraordinary mind were way beyond my own understanding: wild, eccentric, dangerous and sharp. I admired her greatly. Can you express greatness of mind in 140 characters? Yes, you can.
One Sunday evening when I was I despair “Venus” (as I knew her then) picked up on my mood and offered to call me. I was nervous and in awe, but I agreed. So I gave her my number, and we talked. It was soon apparent that she was one of the kindest, most generous and gifted souls that have ever walked this Sceptered Isle. I have never forgotten that evening.
Later that year, I travelled from my Northern eyrie to London, to meet Venus/Juliette in person. On a Friday afternoon I rolled down the motorway in my monk mobile, a sedate Volvo estate. She had asked me to meet her, for reasons I never enquired about, at her mother’s house in a leafy Chingford suburb. I booked a room at a local B & B, and walked to the due address. Do you know, I have a poor memory for most things in life? Most of it is too dull, and too predictable. But I have a very strong memory of that evening, including the awful London traffic. I remember the details of the B & B. I remember getting lost on the walk to her mother’s house, and meeting Juliette for the first time. She was indeed, as dramatic as her Twitter Avatar suggested; a Gothic, extraordinary presence. I am sure I provided a less impressive presence, a somewhat battered soul.
I still treasure the memories of that weekend. It was psychological nourishment at a time of psychological and emotional famine. Juliette was exceptionally kind, and so was her mother, the very lovely Jill. Nothing was too much trouble. They put up with my boorish ways.
Wine was taken, and I felt human again.
Fish and chips were delivered, and I felt human again.
Fun and wine were had in the beautiful back garden, and I felt human again.
There are many memories of that weekend, before I trundled back up the motorway to my northern fastness. One or two are these. First, it turned out Juliette’s mother Jill had been a “Windmill Girl” in the sixties. If you don’t know what that means, you will have to Google it, but it means she was (and, as far as I am concerned, is) the business. Knock-your-socks-off gorgeous, and still is.
Second, Juliette’s family have a well researched family “bible” which their ancestry back into Medieval France, and a particular châteaux, now owned by a rather secretive “charity”. The book was hugely impressive and thorough, more than 500 pages long. We spent an evening looking through this, and as a historian, I found it fascinating. There are photographs of a crypt, for example, which show a strange cutting in the floor, with others leading off it. A mysterious photograph, but I developed a theory about it, and I think it is correct. Someone had deposited a sarcophagus there, with poles ready to pick it up and move it at speed, if need be. Now, what was all that about?
There are more memories, but that is enough.
I was never to see my friend again. I went back north, feeling I had been a dullard and disappointed her. But my good opinion is not given lightly, and does not depend on anyone else’s opinion.
In the past couple of years, life had been quite tough for Juliette. She produced astonishing books which I did not fully understand, but I could see the incredible power and force of her words.
Her latest was a collaboration with her mother, a history of the Windmill Theatre
But she got sick with some sort of arthritic illness, and that caused her great problems. I have seen a picture of Juliette in her youth, and I have to say: Gina Lollobrigida has a double!
Let me put it simply, in a few words
I have no time for most people in this world, apart from Raccoonistas! Can a person whom you have met for a weekend affect your life? Yes. Just a minute in their company can. The beautiful, brilliant, troublesome and very, very good person who was Venus was proof of that.
I am told by her mother that she had some premonition of leaving us. I can believe that. I will only add this. Before she left, I had the chance to repay her kindness. I am glad I did.
I miss you, Juliette Shapiro.
Gildas the Monk