Clearing the First Hurdle

My very messy desk and one patient dog, Tiggy, who sits in her wine box behind the desk day in, day out, while I’m writing

Well, as promised in my last blog, here I am on 4 April 2019 with the first draft of Audrey under my belt. I kept a note of the daily word count to prove to myself that I was making progress so I thought I would be brave and publish it here. It shows, to me at least, the days when I struggled to get into the writing mode and other days when things went fluently. That is the nature of writing non-fiction in my experience: I get onto a roll and power through a segment, as I did on 19 February or get stuck up a blind alley as shown by the dismal figures on 4 March.

Do these figures actually tell me anything about my writing? To some extent they do. On 19 February I wrote the last half of chapter seven which covers the breathtakingly exciting period in Audrey’s editorship when Lee Miller was covering the battle of St Malo and the liberation of Paris. My diary entry from that day reads: ‘After gym spent all day writing 5384 words on Lee in France. All good stuff but utterly exhausting. Off to plan skiing clothes.’ Not very informative but the truth is that writing is exciting in my head but boring for the rest of my family. When I am locked up in my office for eight hours, I am hors combat to all and when I emerge my brain is so fried that I am not very good company. For what it is worth, I had returned from skiing on the first weekend in March so the reason for a small word count on the first Monday was not that I was stuck but that I had to spend the morning doing admin.

What next? I have 102,821 words in a draft and now the process of editing begins. For me this is the most exciting and creative part of writing non-fiction. I get to read the book for the first time as I almost never re-read anything while I’m completing the first draft. It is also a time of truth. The raw writing is full of repetition, facts that need cross-checking and an unhealthy number of adverbs. I could probably cut 1,000 words just by removing those unnecessary fillers which I know I put in to emphasise emotion or action but which add little to the work. So those will come out in the first edit, as will padding which inevitably creeps in when I am not entirely sure of myself, especially when dealing with family emotion. How do I know, for example, how Audrey felt at her father’s funeral? I do not know but I have to make an educated guess based on her relationship with him shown through her letters and her thoughts in her autobiography

Ah, the autobiography. Now there is a book I have had trouble with. Audrey published her autobiography in 1994 at the age of eighty-nine. She devoted less than half of it to her years at Vogue and a portion of the later chapters deal with her father’s correspondents and his art collection. In fact, that book is more interesting for what she leaves out than for what she includes. It is a prime example of her desire to cover the traces of her personal life. There is, for instance, no mention of any of her friends by name. Not a single one. But I know from her letters that she had many friends and was popular with her own age group and people of her father’s generation as well. The dramatis personae in her version of her life are her immediate family, her two husbands and about eight colleagues at Vogue.

My favourite example of Audrey taking control of her own story are the couple of sentences that she devotes to her first wedding. ‘Our friends had assumed that Jock and I would marry, and one day we did. From my parents’ point of view it must have been an unsatisfactory affair, to a man they had never taken to, and not in church but at a registry office.’ Hm. Not a very promising start to married life a reader might conclude. But Audrey was writing with hindsight and a divorce behind her. Through Percy Withers’ letters at Somerville College and Harry Yoxall’s diaries it is possible to build a richer and clearer picture of her nuptials. Far from disapproving of Jock, her parents accepted him readily and Percy wrote to one of his friends to say how pleased he was that Audrey was marrying at last. There was a huge party the night before the wedding, which took place on 2 September 1933 (thank you Somerville College archives), and a reception at the Savile Club in London which was attended by about 100 guests. It is true they got married in a registry office but that would not have bothered Percy Withers as he was an atheist. Mary Withers did have a religious bent but she bowed to her husband’s persuasion, as she did on so many other things… but that is another story. So, you see how I’ve had to read between the lines and take Audrey’s own record of her life with a large pinch of salt. A whole bucket load, in fact.

I interviewed Pam Makin who worked for Audrey from 1949 to 1952 and who spoke to me about her energy, passion and sense of humour.

One of the myths that has grown up around her is that of the intelligent but austere blue-stocking. A headmistress-type with little emotion but great strength of character. It is true that she was intelligent, formidably so according to some colleagues, and it is true that she could be headmistress-like at work, but what that hides is her true personality. She was kind and generous, giving every member of staff at the office a personal and carefully chosen Christmas present every year. She was ‘one of the quietest listeners now living’ according to her friend, the artist Paul Nash, while Maur Griggs, an older friend, wrote of the gleams of friendly fun in her eyes. Later in her life she showed her passion when she described her happiness in the early months of her second marriage. Those letters to Edna Woolman Chase (editor-in-chief of Vogue), carefully preserved in the magical archives of Condé Nast in New York, were a revelation in their honesty, sheer delight and surprise at finding herself so happy. Audrey was not austere but passionate, fun, adventurous, impetuous at times. She adored foreign travel and wild swimming, she wrote poetry and went to concerts and the theatre as often as her work would allow. And she loved cats. She described herself once as being like a soda stream, fizzing with pleasure. That is the Audrey who is beginning to appear in my work.

My next three months will be taken up with beating the book into shape, teasing out the development of Audrey’s personality over the decades and planting her firmly, enthusiasm and all, in her life’s work as editor of Vogue. Appropriately, as Audrey loved America, I will be posting my next update on 4 July, the day before I fly to Boston for my son’s wedding. How about that for a neat circle?

 

Desperately Seeking Someone

Researching non-fiction is a bit like being a police detective, I imagine. Sniffing out clues and piecing together a story that brings the facts to the fore in a convincing way. I also imagine it must be near impossible to put a perfect case together as life is not neat and linear. It is chaotic, veering off in this or that direction and leaving traces which sometimes lead to vital clues and at other times a dead end. I will stop with the police analogy as I am out of my depth, basing my knowledge on Agatha Christie or PD James’s crime fiction.

The trunk in the attic © Julie Summers

However, I am in the right part of the stream when talking about sniffing out clues about people’s lives for my non-fiction books. I am known as the ferret by my irreverent god-father. Others might describe me as a nosey-parker but whichever sobriquet you choose, the truth is that I am persistent in my pursuit of facts. In 2000 I found a trunk in the attic which no one in the family believed still existed. In this now famous trunk I found a blue foolscap folder, tied with a blue ribbon, and the title ACI Everest 1924 which gave me eleven letters written by Sandy Irvine to his mother, father and sister from the Mount Everest expedition. Also in the file were photographs, drawings, invoices for clothing and notes on his work on the truculent oxygen sets for the climb: all unseen for over seventy-five years. It was the archive find of my writing career to date and brought the book to life in a way that I had not anticipated. Suddenly I had this young man’s voice and it was thrilling.

When I was writing the biography of my grand-father, Philip Toosey, who was the colonel who built the bridge on the river Kwai, I had more material than I could possibly have wished for. There are collections all over the world charting the Death Railway from all sides of the story. Military histories focussing on the fall of Singapore are outnumbered by autobiographies from Prisoners of War in the Far East by about ten to one. And my grandfather had added to this mass by recording thirty hours of conversation with Professor Peter Davies on reel-to-reel tapes in the early 1970s. Having an embarrassment of riches can be almost as off-putting as having too little material. You have to work very hard to find the individual personal voice among so many.

Toosey in his study at Heathcote c. 1974. This is here he and Peter Davies did the bulk of the tape recordings © Toosey Family

Eventually I did but in the most peculiar way. Every time Peter Davies went to interview Toosey, as he was universally known, he would start with ‘Well, Brigadier, today we will talk about …’ and then he would give a topic such as Baring’s Bank, Dunkirk or the Allied bombings of POW camps. One day I happened to be chopping carrots for my children’s lunch when Toosey himself announced the topic of the day: ‘Well Peter,’ he said, clearing his throat and bracing himself for what came next: ‘Today I would like to tell you about my experiences with women.’ ‘Oh heck,’ I thought, ‘what do I do now?’ Should I turn off the tape or fast forward it in order to preserve my grandfather’s privacy or should I listen, like a diligent historian? I listened, of course. And the listening was rewarded with the following: ‘Like most Englishmen, I could write the story of my sex-life on a postage stamp.’ I got off light there, I thought with relief.

Alex Toosey 1949 © Toosey Family

He then did go on to talk a bit about brief encounters in Piccadilly and Peru but his focus was on my grandmother, who he met in 1930 and married the following year. He described her as ‘formidable’. She was known as the regimental sergeant major and ‘we all love and respect her.’Over the course of the next two years I got to know this man who was in awe of his wife. I had known him as a child, of course. He died when I was fifteen. But that does not give you the kind of knowledge you need as a biographer. The tapes helped me to understand him in a way that no books ever could. Sometimes he would laugh when telling a story, at other times his voice would break, particularly when he was speaking of the men’s suffering in the prison camps. However, most impressive of all was his energy, his love of life and his determination not to be beaten down, however ghastly the circumstances. At the end of the war he was on a panel screening prison guards for war crimes. Some he had to condemn and it was not something he took any pleasure in. Revenge was not in his character.

Saito at Toosey’s grave, Landican Cemetery, 1984 © Toosey Family

A Japanese guard who had given him a serious beating for allowing some prisoners to escape in 1942 came up in front of him. Toosey insisted he should be set free without punishment. He knew that this man, Sargeant-major Saito, had had to punish him because he had flagrantly disobeyed Japanese orders. He also knew that Saito had saved him from a far worse fate: cross examination by the Kempi Tai (the Japanese secret police). Saito finally came to Britain in 1984 to pay his respects to Toosey. He visited his grave and wrote to Patrick, Toosey’s son, after the visit: ‘I feel very fine because I finish my own strong duty.  One thing I regret, I could not visit Mr Philip Toosey when he was alive.  He showed me what human being should be.  He changed the philosophy of my life.’ By the time I finished the book I believe I had my man.

Now I am embarked upon a third biography, separated in time by fifteen years and eleven books, and yet the task is the hardest to date. Audrey Withers was Vogue’s editor from 1940 to 1960. She was married twice and worked in later life as a volunteer for the Liberal Democrats. She received an OBE in 1954 and the Bi-centenary medal from the Royal Society of Arts in 1961. Yet despite being a public figure and publishing an autobiography, she has succeeded in remaining almost completely in the shadows. So reticent was she about personal matters that she filleted her father’s archive before she gave it to Somerville College, Oxford, removing all copies of personal letters referring to her. It is tantalizing to say the very least.

So I am have to piece together the jigsaw puzzle that will, I hope, paint a portrait of this remarkable woman by reading biographies and autobiographies of all the people she worked with. The relationship she enjoyed with the American photographer, Lee Miller, was the closest one she had during the war. Lee became Vogue’s war correspondent and I discovered recently that it was Audrey who worked hard to get her press accreditation so that she could go to France in 1944. Artemis Cooper’s biography of Elizabeth David gave me clues about Audrey’s interest in fresh and home-grown ingredients, while Hugo Vickers revealed that Audrey had been instrumental in persuading Vogue to reinstate Cecil Beaton as a photographer on the magazine after he had fallen foul of Condé Nast in 1938. Audrey’s own autobiography is more revealing for what it leaves out rather than what it includes and I am only now realizing that this is useful as it gives me clues about what mattered to her.

Valuable resources, which she could not destroy, are letters in the Condé Nast archives in London and New York. She was a prolific correspondent, as was Edna Woolman-Chase, the editor-in-chief of Vogue. Edna once complained that Audrey wrote too many memos and they were too long. That might be so but they are invaluable to me. These are full of detail of everyday life in London in the 1940s and 1950s. They give glimpses of personalities and offer reminders that famous photographers or writers, such as Cecil Beaton, Norman Parkinson and Elizabeth David, were real human beings with feelings, foibles and fury. I have a rich palette for the Vogue years and I am fortunate to have access to this material.

Of her private life, however, there is precious little. Here she did indeed succeed in hiding a great deal. Husband number one is a shadowy figure ‘who was never without a girlfriend’ and who has eluded my most determined efforts to track him down. There is minimal material from the 1911 census and an announcement of his second marriage in 1964. I know where and when he was born and died but apart from that there is almost nothing. When I say almost nothing, I do know one or two things that are revealed by the official records. I know, for example, that he did not volunteer for service at the outbreak of the war, unlike Audrey who was a driver for the Auxiliary Fire Service. That is recorded on the National Register from September 1939. He was working as a salesman for a bookshop in London, which would not have been a reserved occupation and he was only thirty-two. That strikes me as strange and I hope eventually to find out why.

Jock Stewart, c. 1948, in London © Julie Summers

There is one fuzzy photograph of Jock, taken at a wedding just after the war. He is about six feet tall which I worked out from comparing the height of the taxi behind him, the woman to his left and taking into account perspective and the height of a London pavement. He is quite good looking and well-dressed but his shoes are not shiny, so that tells me that he had not been in the military. He has thinning fair hair, large ears and full lips. The way he carries his hat and umbrella tells me he is a man with confidence. I would so love to find another picture of him, though. A younger Jock. But none appears to exist.

I also know that he described himself as ‘head’ of the household at 31 Blomfield Road in the 1939 register. The other occupants of the house, which was divided into three flats, were his wife, Elizabeth Stewart, his parents and a spinster who lived on the top floor. I realized that Audrey compartmentalized her life to such an extent that she had two names. At home she was Elizabeth Stewart while at work she was Audrey Withers. She recorded her occupation as ‘journalist’ while her mother-in-law is ‘unpaid domestic help.’ It was then I understood her mother-in-law kept house, did the shopping, cooking, washing and ironing while Audrey worked long hours at Vogue, often not returning until 10pm, something she had mentioned more than once in letters. Slowly a picture of the domestic life in Blomfield Road began to emerge. I even managed to work out which floor Audrey lived on from a chance remark about moving downstairs to sleep in her parents-in-law’s sitting room during the Blitz.

This is the work that will occupy me for the rest of this year and I confess that I love it. I shall find my subject, as I did with my other two biographies, and it will all come together in the end. In the meantime, where are the passenger lists for Southampton-New York for April 1938?