Long ago, a woman called Rosie Swale-Pope wrote a book which became famous briefly in the 70s. I, along with every other woman of my generation read it eagerly. Rosie had sailed around the world with her husband, given birth to her son on board – it was the epitome of the opportunities available to fearless women in the 60s.
I was amazed to find, buried nonchalantly in the book, a description of a precise and very specific incident which had occurred in an equally specific part of Spain, centered on a very exact translation of words with a man of a very exact occupation. I read it and re-read it. Was it humanly possible that the same thing had happened to this ‘Rosie’ as had happened to me, right down to the ‘punch-line’? I had never knowingly met her; perhaps she knew someone who knew me and had repeated the story? I will never know, but remained convinced that a small part of my life had been ‘borrowed’ for literary convenience.
Fast forward another decade or so, and Jenny Diski published a book, ‘Skating to Antarctica’. In it she revealed what she said was her ‘past’. A difficult Mother; a spell in a psychiatric hospital, running away from the self-same boarding school that I had attended, (eh?), being taken in by an academic family in Hampstead who had tried to set her back on the road to ‘normality’ – oh, come on, this was too close for comfort, this was my life being used in someone else’s book yet again. A little research taught me that Jenny had indeed been at St Christopher’s, as Jenny Simmonds, precisely at the same time I was there. She had to have heard of what had happened to me!
Ah, the pomposity of thinking you are unique! A pomposity that drove me to write to one of the finest writers of our age and accuse her of plagiarism. *Cringes*.
Jenny was a lot more gracious than I; she wrote back and invited me to her home in Hampstead to discuss the matter. We talked for hours and discovered that, yes, it was true on both sides, we did have near identical backgrounds, we had both run away from St Christopher’s in the same year, had both spent time in those obscene mental hospitals of the 60s, and had indeed ended up living with ‘academics’ a few streets away from each other in Hampstead! She had a wicked sense of humour and we howled with laughter over some of our more ridiculous exploits.
Perhaps Rosie Swale-Pope had been telling the truth too?
Jenny had ended up living with Doris Lessing, the mother of my classmate Peter Lessing. (Jenny was a year older than me). Obviously her close family and colleagues knew this, but it wasn’t common knowledge at the time, and she asked me to keep it to myself, something I had done assiduously ever since. We stayed in touch sporadically from then on – sporadically meaning every five years or so; this being before the advent of social media.
I say I have no regrets, but I have known the pang of regret. Once when I proudly walked away with a double first in Law, and realised that had I been able to do that 30 years earlier, my world could have been very, very different. It was the first time in my life that I realised that I wasn’t actually inferior to all those people with normal backgrounds, normal lives; I could have competed with them successfully had I been able to. It didn’t last long! I’ve enjoyed my life. Reading Law taught me something else – that I enjoyed writing. I’d never done it before; I loved the idea of delving into a subject I had no knowledge of and trying to reduce it to a thousand words or so that made some sort of sense.
Leaving aside that I can’t spell for toffee, and have no grammatical knowledge whatsoever, splitting infinitives with gay abandon; it dawned on me that given the training and the opportunity, I could have made a life from writing. I firmly believe that you can always be good at something you enjoy doing! The enjoyment alone will ensure that you put in the hours to gain practice. So that was my second mild pang of regret – watching Jenny’s trajectory career from afar.
When Jenny revealed that she had cancer – so had I too, we were still stamping in each other’s footsteps, but I was in France. Coming back to England last year, I found she was living in Cambridge, just down the road from me. Tardily, I delayed writing to her, too tied up in my own adventures. When I did finally did get round to writing, I received a reply from her partner, Ian; Jenny was only semi-conscious; if she roused before the day when I was coming to Cambridge, he would let me know. She didn’t. When I returned from my exotic day in Cambridge, it was to an e-mail letting me know that she had died in the early hours.
A couple of weeks ago, I received another e-mail from her partner, inviting me to a ‘memorial party’ for Jenny, in London. My last scan having given me the go ahead to live a normal life for the time being, I set off for what I assumed was Jenny’s house in London. Two trains, and three buses.
Which is how I found myself sitting next to Edith on the number 390 bus snaking across London. Edith was a very well preserved 76, you wouldn’t have put her at a day over 50. More than I could say for myself; I had left Norfolk that morning in a bright yellow top and jeans, and thrown on at the last moment a fluorescent purple wind-cheater in case it rained. Channeling UKIP, rather than Chanel, you could say. Edith was made of sterner stuff. Immaculately dressed in a beautifully fitted white suit, with a ‘serious’ handbag, and more gold rings than you could shake a Chelsea antique dealer at.
We bonded over a shared wry glance at a heavily, nay totally, tattooed woman with five, or was it six, noisy kids who struggled aboard with push chairs and bags galore. ‘Tattoos obviously didn’t put someone off’ muttered Edith under her breath. Her accent was a surprise. Pure Archway. It didn’t match the appearance. She apologised for smelling of booze, which she did, profoundly; ‘lunch with the girls’ apparently. ‘You a visitor?’ she asked. ‘I suppose I am, country bumkin these days, just up for the day for a friend’s funeral ‘do’. We chatted of this and that; she told of how her husband had died and her new ‘partner’ was a plumber. ‘My toy boy’; he was 58, but out of work, London was full of Polish plumbers now, nobody used the old established plumbing firms any longer. She had a good pension. She used to work in a dress shop. ‘Hymie, Gilda’s husband, was an accountant see, made me take out a pension years ago’.
Something twigged in my brain, and I asked – ‘you don’t mean ‘Gilda’s in Oxford Street’. It was a chance in a million shot – but bang on; she did indeed mean the infamous Gilda’s in Oxford Street. ‘Front of house Gilda’s’ I quipped. ‘Lordie that takes me back’ she said. Back then, even a humble nightclub in Streatham required a full length dress to enter. Only once had I ventured innocently into Gilda’s. Gilda sat at a desk in the window, and squawked ‘front of house’ to the bevy of young girls that sat out of sight behind a curtain – she made Mrs Slocombe look like a pussy cat. Edith had been one of those young girls. Stayed there all her working life. Their job was to practically strip you on the spot, so that you had no choice other than to try on one of the sequinned confections – once on they would flutter round you with tape and pins, securing the dress to your underwear so that you couldn’t escape the full force of Gilda’s high pressure sales technique. That dress could be ‘any price you liked’, for never in its history had it looked so good on anyone else – why Gilda had refused to sell it to two other people, who just didn’t know how to wear it like you did. Gilda was something else! I was lucky to escape ‘unsold’.
As the babble of foreign tongues continued round us, Edith told me of how she had arrived in England as a young girl, speaking only German, not understanding a single word of English; of how her Father had made a rule that outside of the house, if they couldn’t say what they wanted in English, then they couldn’t speak at all. ‘We were so glad to be here, we wanted to fit in, to be English; this lot’ – she gestured around the crowded bus – ‘they want to turn England into what they want’. Then she lowered her voice and shot me the sly glance of someone who is about to confess to having cooked and eaten their first born; ‘I voted “leave” you know’. So did I, Edith, so did I. Salt of the earth is a much bandied phrase, Edith, but you are, you really are. A slice of old London.
An hour and a bit later, and we were at Archway. Home for Edith. One more bus to go, and ‘nearly there’ for I. Emerging in Highgate, I realised that I was not equipped for the expedition. No A-Z. Clutching a piece of paper with Jenny’s address on it, I approached several people asking which way to go. No one knew. A couple of people tried ‘googling’ the street name on their phones, to no avail. It didn’t exist apparently. Eventually someone tried the post-code – it was in a maze of no-through roads. Trying to memorise the ‘x’ marks the spot directions, I plodded up steep side streets, through alleyways, down narrow passage, until, thoroughly out of breath, I discovered a gated ‘private’ road. Blimey Jenny! Not just the heart of salubrious Highgate, but a private road to boot. The literary life has served you well.
Finally I arrived outside a magnificent turn of the century red brick mansion. An arts and crafts masterpiece – with balloons hanging outside. Hidden behind trees and shrubs, with an expansive driveway. Several million pounds worth. The front door was open, and the only sign of life was a bearded ‘hipster’ standing in a doorway. He turned on his heel and walked into a crowded room, I could have been anyone!
The room was a sea of crumpled linen. Asymmetrical hems, with an oversized pocket or a missing sleeve for the women, shapeless jackets for the men, but all in a variety of ‘dyed in the sludge of the Ganges’ muddy hues. Those faded vegetable dyed numbers that can only be bought from ‘dear little shops’ on the Amalfi coast – or perhaps Highgate High Street – for a small fortune. There were strange asymmetrical haircuts to match the asymmetrical hems that could have been fashioned by the landscape gardener, with flashes of colour that God had never intended to burden the human race with. Several of the women, as if to emphasis their emancipated credentials, had bound their feet Roman slave style. Deconstructed post-modern irony perhaps – but Gilda would never have let them go out looking like that.
Ms Raccoon, still cheerfully flashing UKIP yellow and purple, and wheezing like a Welsh pit pony from her arduous climb to these dizzy heights, stuck out like a Belisha beacon, but no one took a blind bit of notice. All eyes and ears were glued to the front of this immense ‘salon’; lined with vast modern works of art that inspire the sort of prose that ends up in Pseuds Corner in Private Eye; listening to the eulogies from the great and the famous, the glitterati literati – but without the bling – speaking of ‘their Jenny’.
She was, they said, a great writer – so true – who had never lost sight of her humble beginnings. Why, one said, she had once written a marvellous piece about an ‘ordinary woman’ swinging her ‘salad spinner’. She might as well have said the ordinary woman with an olive stoner, or a salmon bath. You would need a Portuguese maid to swing your salad spinner for you to believe that the height of ordinariness is to swing your own salad spinner. I tried mentally to calculate how many ‘Leave’ voters I imagined might own a salad spinner…
The speeches over, there was an unseemly rush for the table groaning with wine bottles. ‘There’s food in the kitchen’ someone shouted. I button-holed the nearest person and asked them to point out Jenny’s partner to me – we’ve never met, so he could have been any one of the crumpled suits. ‘I think that’s the man from Del Monte over there’, he said, pointing to a slightly less Ganges dyed suit. He was. I introduced myself. ‘Yes, yes’, he said, as he disengaged himself from the very elderly couple who had in turn button-holed him, ‘this is Mrs Blank’, and with that he was gone, never seen again.
Mrs Blank (not her real name!) turned out to be an 86 year bundle of subversive fun. Who could stagger to and fro the table to take a glass or two of wine herself. ‘I’m a Shiksa myself, but my man here is Orthodox’ she said. Quite some opening statement. None too sure how to reply to that, I tried ‘I’m a Quaker myself’. ‘Really, how interesting’, she said, ‘did you know that Jenny went to a Quaker school’. ‘I did, I was at school with her and Peter’. ‘Then, my dear, you have known her longer than any of these people. Even Chloe’. (Chloe, Jenny’s daughter was somewhere in the melee, I never did catch sight of her).
She sent me off to the kitchen to gather food for her. That was an eye-opener. A kitchen the size of the footprint of my house was groaning with perhaps 30 huge silver platters of every variety of Lebanese food delivered by caterers. Some 30 people sat round the room with laden plates, holding their glasses out for refills whenever a bottle passed. Another 30 or so had taken root in the expansive gardens at the rear of the house. A shrieked snatch of conversation floated over the hubbub – ‘Oh my God, I turned round and Blair was sat right next to me’ – all said in the outraged tone of voice you might adopt on finding a turd sat on the gilded chair to your right.
I dutifully filled a platter for my ‘shiksa’ friend and returned to repeat this nugget to her. ‘Ah’, she said, ‘this is Corbyn Central crossed with North London Jewry’. What a bizarre combination! ‘Tariq and Susan’, she said gesturing across the room, ‘Susan edits the New Left Review, she wrote THE book on Doris, and the London Review of Books was very good to Jenny, because of Doris. Most of these people here are from one or the other’.
I was beginning to understand just what I had stumbled into. The networking that was going on – I’m sure in some quiet corner there were people reminiscing about Jenny, but their voices were too soft to carry. The piercing tones that overshadowed them were of Corbyn and the Referendum, Greville Janner even more bizarrely, though I couldn’t grab the context of that one; and of Greece, where apparently Tariq Ali was at this very moment…
Tariq Ali, iconic poster boy of the far left, Marxist, quasi-communist, Corbyn supporter? Did I hear that right? Indeed I did. This luxurious mansion, these expensively art clad walls, the lush garden, the superb carpets – wasn’t Jenny’s house at all – it had been loaned for the occasion, a get together of her ‘London Friends’ by Tariq Ali and his partner, Susan.
Blimey O’Reilly! If you want to get on in the world, amass a fortune, live in the lap of luxury – preach Communism and Marxism to the huddled dispossessed of the world, the Ediths – and retire to a private road in Highgate. My jaw hit the ground.
No wonder these people were in such shock when the referendum result came in. They live in another world. Ordinary is spinning your own salad.
Just for the record, and to prove that I don’t really bite the hand that feeds me, my Shiksa friend kindly asked Susan to arrange a mini-cab to take me back to my hotel where I could wheeze in peace, which she most charmingly did. The far left aren’t all hideous ogres – just some of them.
Ms Raccoon is now back in the real world where hems are level and hairdressers cut your hair straight.
Regrets? That my life didn’t shadow Jenny’s completely? You are joking aren’t you?