Links and Interviews

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IN MEMORY OF A FRIEND

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friendships are sometimes the result of chance as much as they are of kindred spirits coming together. And, whilst ‘Truth is stranger than fiction’ and ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story’ were two of Mark Twain’s sayings that Elizabeth liked to adapt from time to time, it was as a result of the ephemeral nature of social media that Elizabeth made a number of significant friendships with kindred spirits. Elizabeth wrote that she ‘…met several people through Facebook with whom I became very good friends, and I have never met in the flesh, and perhaps never will. Some I have of course’. I count myself as one of those very close friends that she would never meet.

 

Since Elizabeth’s sudden death on the 5th October I have spent time re-reading the reams of correspondence between us and talking to some of her friends, and many of those friends were people who only knew her, like myself, through social media. Now, we are continually warned of the fiction of social media — so I needed to do something of a reality-check. One mutual acquaintance was perplexed that Elizabeth spent so much time on Facebook and writing lengthily through Messenger, so this seems like a valid question. I think part of the answer lies in the fact that social media suited her and since her favourite fictional character was Cassandra, who saw everything, but was heard by no one, Elizabeth could feel comfortable engaging with her often quite distant friends there.

 

Elizabeth was born in Casablanca in 1949. There were 45 years between her French father and herself, and the same number of years between he and his father. She explained to one Messenger friend that her father had said that ‘…in his days, no one needed a passport to travel except Russians. And no one needed a work permit or bothered to change their nationality.’ In another recent message, she went further, ‘I owe my life to the 1942 British/American landing in North Africa. My father was in jail in Casablanca, awaiting execution for spying (to help prepare Operation Torch).  They landed on November 8, just in time.’ This message was accompanied by a photograph of a gorgeous spy called Cynthia who had famously stripped off only to her pearls to distract the guards in the Washington embassy whilst secrets were stolen from the locked safes which were to facilitate the landing. Feminine beauty and bravery were of abiding interest to Elizabeth. 

 

Elizabeth was an only child and had a strict and difficult upbringing. Her father was a lawyer and she remembered that a Daumier poster hung on his office wall. Having attended an elite Lycée in Paris, she received a short spell of schooling on the east coast of the United States and then topped it off with a degree in English Literature. at Warwick in England. In 1971 Warwick was then a new university, a ‘red brick’, and at this time, most of the best lecturers were to be found at the ‘red bricks’. It was also a radical and exciting time; and whilst upcoming feminist Germaine Greer lectured there, James Drummond Bone lectured her on Byron. Elizabeth remembers how James Drummond Bone 

‘…was also selling his father's work to fund his lifestyle. He liked racing cars and getting blotto and was incredibly glam in an academic way (those tweed jackets with leather patches at the elbows) and he acted as if he were a reincarnation of Lord Byron, specially around glam, dark ladies. And his Edinburgh burr lilted to a high soprano and down to a baritone in a way that would make Jessye Norman envious.’

Later she remembered how her husband Ted had fallen into the rose bushes in the garden of the Master of Balliol College, Oxford and how Drummond Bone had run off with Ted’s first wife. Thirty years later Drummond Bone was to become the Master of Balliol.  Dolores, Ted’s first wife, was to become a life-long friend. They belonged, and we didn’t, is how Elizabeth summed up the escapade. 

 

After graduating Elizabeth worked as a secretary in a machine tool factory, translating the brochures into any one of the five major European languages which she spoke perfectly. She would sometimes question why an office worker should earn more than the person who worked on the factory floor. This is an early indication that the socially conscientious Facebook would-be ‘politician’ might have been wise not categorise Elizabeth. Later she would secretly enable youngsters to emigrate from poor and disadvantaged situations to countries where their potential could be, and was, fully realised. In Elizabeth’s life, the notion of borders recurs frequently and went back much further than the recent European debates. Perhaps in Elizabeth’s mind it all began with her grandmother and great uncle emigrating on the last ship out of Northern Europe bound for Morrocco before the outbreak of WW2. As so often in her Messenger conversations she would recount an anecdote that she hoped would be enlightening, though sometimes, bearing Twain’s dictum that you should ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story’ her facts might go slightly awry. But the point was significant nevertheless. Setting aside that Sir Geoffrey Howe was in opposition at the time and was never Home Secretary, Elizabeth wrote as follows:

     ‘For the record, I happened to be sitting next to Geoffrey Howe at a dinner at Ditchley when he was Home Secretary (only time that kind of thing ever happened in my normally low-life activities, all thanks to my uncle giving a lecture there at the time). The date must have been between 1976 and 1978. I told him I was living in England, working, paying taxes etc but had never bothered to register with the Home Office and had no idea whether I needed to do so. His reply was: “Just keep things as they are. If you register with the Home Office, “some civil servant is going to have to rule on your status”. Implying he wasn’t certain they could be trusted. I swear this is a true story.’ 

Further to this when Ted died twenty years ago she gave a not insubstantial sum of money to the Omagh Legal Fund in his name. Not because she was Irish, but because she wanted to help the bereaved individuals find justice. 

 

At roughly about this time the first shoots of a real interest in Fine Art took root. She did a Christie’s course and remembered a lecture given by a rather stern Anthony Blunt on Poussin just before he was unmasked as a former Soviet spy. She also started writing the occasional art review. In 1985 Artscribe Magazine published an article on Christo’s wrapping of the Pont Neuf. It was accompanied by her own photographs which to Elizabeth’s annoyance the editor failed to return. Over 30 years later the loss of precious photographs of her beloved home in Spain, which she described as like living in a James Turrell, cost her a significant friendship. With sad prescience she messaged that she would never speak to him again. But circumstances conspired to cut short a career in art. Finally, when she returned to it, a passion rekindled by an art group on Facebook, art journalism, criticism and theory had moved on so far that catching up would be impossible. Nevertheless, she had continued to buy paintings and drawings throughout, not as an investment, because that would have required a close understanding of the art market and its politics, but in order to support the work of painters she liked and could afford. 

 

The first painting she bought was actually by her English Litt teacher Drummond Bone’s great uncle, Muirhead Bone. With the encouragement of Sylvia Stevenson, she put a Scottish gallerist, Bill Hardie in touch with Drummond Bone’s father’s work, and an exhibition in Edinburgh ensued. Her taste in art was bourgeois, she admitted it. In Elizabeth’s words, her god daughter’s ‘grandmother was a gallerist with a PhD in aesthetics that she got under Heidegger at Freiburg in the early 30s (in both senses of the word, she’d been his mistress). She had a small gallery specialising in monochrome paintings. She had a stand at Basel Art Fair, one of the smaller, cheaper ones at the back near the loos and the stairs). Sometimes I'd show her something I liked and she’d tell me: “You have bourgeois taste!!”. But it would only make me smile. She was probably right, but I don't care. I certainly have bourgeois values, so why not taste!” That said Elizabeth tended to blame this bourgeois taste on the Lycée in Paris, calling it the ‘French bourgeois horror’.

 

The intersection of art and politics was a particularly fertile area for Elizabeth. But it was fraught with problems; most of her artistic friends were well and truly on the other side of the political spectrum. She had a generous nature and she was true to that. She didn’t expect much in return — she wanted people to be true to themselves. But there was an irreverent side to Elizabeth, and if she had a hunch someone was grandstanding she would put on an extra skin and drop a contradictory name in her comments. She claimed it was humour and she couldn’t understand why sometimes it earned her a number of rather mean unfriendings. We have a typically witty remark by Elizabeth concerning the celebrated Monet historian and Courtauld professor, the late John House:

‘You should see what John…wrote me when I innocently sent him an article by 

Roger Scruton about preserving the countryside. He said I was taunting him and he wasn't going to rise to the bait. BAIT?????????? If I were fishing and he bit, I'd throw him right back in. Well, he realized he'd gone a bit far, I have to say but lord love a duck, there's a typical example of an unintelligent man who is well educated.’ 

Generally speaking, she was always drawn to well-educated men and women. But Elizabeth could give as good as she got. In another Messenger conversation relating more to borders and politics than to art she said:

“…not a single European understands Brexit. I've given up trying to explain it to them when they query it. And they're convinced the U.K. will break apart and Scotland will vote for independence. That's how much they know and understand. I had a German friend (not close) who called me a xenophobic racist for defending Brexit. She's very touchy about racism, her father was a Nazi officer. The other thing she is is extremely wealthy and a resident of Malta for tax purposes (good on her, I  say) who also keeps repeating how very left-wing she is. So the Brexit thing gave me a reason to cut her off. Then she sent me an email saying she missed me and she was happy to resume our friendship IF I CHANGED MY VIEWS. Some people are born

comedians.”

 

Elizabeth turned to social media more often as walking became more difficult. Her ‘little family’ in Basel loved to trek, but Elizabeth found it hard to keep up. Nevertheless, for a clever woman like Elizabeth with an easy grasp of syntax, messaging and social media presented tantalising opportunities. There were men to be met…There was the American scientist who liked to change his name and charm the ladies. Mistake. Hadn’t he realised that it would be a cinch for a woman like Elizabeth to do fact-checking with her female peers. But it didn’t matter, she was intrigued, he wasn’t dangerous and besides, never let the truth get in the way of a good story unfolding. He seems to have vanished from her Facebook friends these days, perhaps his name changed yet again.

 

Ostensibly Elizabeth was a translator/editor, but what were her real achievements; was there something more enduring? We hear stories of her buying FC Basle and PSG football shirts for her numerous and delighted god children and paying Armani prices for them. We hear stories of her import/export handling skills as she carted cheeses, bottles of triple sec and books from one continent to the next — just to please people, for she found it easy to please people that way. But what was her occupation as such? As the mist swirls around, the temperature drops a little, there is a transcendental moment. One may have felt sure in one’s direction with Elizabeth a few steps behind. But the truth is, all along, she was holding your hand, showing you the way. Elizabeth was the best type of teacher. 

 

Here she is writing from Marrakech:

‘Am at this splendidly quiet place in Marrakech listening to wagtails chirp. Sunset is nearing. What can they be saying to each other? ‘Fancy a drink later?’ The gardens are all fake but the birds make them real. One wagtail is sitting on the top right-hand back of a wooden deck chair around the pool preening itself. Perhaps a lady wag hoping to be taken out by that singing Lothario.  Still at it, he is. Twit twit toohoo…Whit whit toohoo… And in the background, someone is answering. Whit whoo towhit tohoo… They're both in the same olive tree now, things are heating up. Now they flew off

together to a delicious evening, one hopes…’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With thanks to Stephen Conrad and others for so kindly sharing their thoughts and conversations

Nov. 2021 

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