It is wonderful to celebrate the amazing achievements of extraordinary women on International Women’s Day. I’m very pleased to have heard so many female composers featured on radio 3 this morning, for example. And the newspapers are full of impressive profiles of women who have defied the odds, challenged misogyny or battled against fearsome prejudice. I am fascinated to read those stories. They are inspiring and valuable. They can also be a little intimidating and seem far removed from ordinary life.
I’d like to celebrate women who achieve extraordinary things every ordinary day. I was going to name some who I have found particularly inspiring, but I decided that might be either embarrassing to those I named or hurtful to those I leave out. So, I won’t. I’m going to start with carers, as I have quite a bit of first-hand experience at present of those who work in this field. There is so much criticism in the press about the care sector, but these women, and they are often women in my experience, are among the kindest and least complaining people you could meet. They cater for people’s most basic needs with professional kindness so that the person being helped can maintain as much dignity as possible given the circumstances. Emptying commodes, dressing wounds, showering frail bodies and administering food or medicine is hardly glamorous work but it is vital and I admire their dedication. They make people’s lives better even if they cannot cure the ills. If I have a plea, it is to recognise this vital work that will never cease to be needed.
There are women in every walk of life who achieve little miracles daily – nurses, police officers, firewomen, teachers, classroom assistants. Then there are those who volunteer, running everything and anything, from sports clubs to food banks. The Women’s Institute, born in the second summer of the First World War, is one enormous body of talent and generosity whose work I found so inspiring I wrote a book about their work in the Second World War. The spirit that helped over a quarter of a million members to keep the countryside ticking in those difficult years embodies everything I admire about women of that time. To hell with red-tape and wartime bureaucracy, they got on with making jam, collecting herbs for medicine, knitting millions of items for the Home Guard, the Merchant Marine and evacuees. And they sang and smiled their way through it.
Archivists and librarians are people I admire enormously. They are often women who work behind the scenes safe-guarding history and thus the national memory. I have worked in archives all over the world and often the incredible collections they protect are underappreciated by the people whose histories are being preserved. Those of you who read my biography of Audrey Withers will know that she destroyed the entire Vogue archive in February 1942. Why did she do it? It was an act of fervent patriotism, urged on by her star photographer, Cecil Beaton, for paper salvage to help the war effort. What a loss, though, to future generations. She believed she was doing the right thing at that moment in history, and one cannot criticise her motives, but it does point to the value of original archive material to the memory of the nation. Material, I might add, that celebrated women far more than men.
My current project, a biography of British Vogue, is full of stories about inspirational women from every decade of the 20th and 21st centuries, as well as some men. The magazine may be about fashion on one level but it is a celebration of the achievements of women on so many others. Over the last 105 years Vogue has covered every topic of interest to women of any given era. I find it life-affirming and hugely impressive to think about the achievements of women from every walk of life.
Much has been made recently of the value of friendship. It is something that is now understood to help to encourage healthier living and even a longer life. Studies in Australia established that women who have close female friendships are less likely to suffer from multiple serious conditions in later life. 7,700 women were tracked over twenty years to see whether they went on to contract diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke, cancer, depression and half a dozen other serious conditions. ‘Researchers found that women who reported the lowest level of satisfaction with their social relationships had double the risk of developing multiple conditions compared with those who reported the highest levels of satisfaction.’ I raise a toast to the women I row with four or five mornings a week in Oxford. We were out today despite the snow and we loved it. If it helps us to stay healthier longer, well that’s just a wonderful side effect.
So yes to celebrating International Women’s Day on 8 March but I want to celebrate women every day of the year.
Today is Friday 8 May 2020, the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe. Seventy-five years ago today the costliest war in history was finally drawing to a close, though its end would not come until 15 August 1945 when the Japanese Imperial Army surrendered unconditionally. Costliest in terms of lives – historians estimate 60 million men, women and children, military and civilian, lost their lives. A generation of children had grown up knowing nothing but war as the backdrop to their lives. In Britain, those children at least had more or less enough to eat. In Nazi-occupied Europe whole families were starving while further afield the famine in Bengal cost the lives of 3 million people. Costliest in terms of economic damage – Britain was almost bankrupt as a result of the war. And costliest in terms of its impact on society. Hitler had boasted the German Reich would last for 1,000 years. It went on for 12 long, destructive years but the impact of it has lasted for eight decades and it will go on for many more.
Today we have been celebrating and commemorating those brave
men and women who fought for Britain abroad and on the Home Front. We have heard
extraordinary stories from veterans, like the Jamaican, Alan Wilmot who flew
with air-sea rescue, saving up to 17,000 lives, or Donald Hunter who sailed
with the Merchant Navy from the age of 16. There have been tributes from people
who were children at the end of the war. Everyone spoke with warmth of their
memories of that special day, but few mentioned what had happened after VE Day
The morning of 9th May 1945 was another bank
holiday. Britain woke up with a national hangover and probably a few sore heads
too. Barbara Cartland, then 44 years of age, summed up the feelings of many of
‘We were glad, but still our hearts refused to sing, the shadow of war still lay over us in a restriction of freedom, in controls and coupons. We had only to look at our empty larders, empty store cupboards and half empty coal cellars to know war had not receded very far from our daily lives. To practically everyone in Great Britain the war had brought the loss of someone they loved – either man, woman or child – and for many there were crippled bodies or blinded eyes as a legacy from the nights of terror and fire.’
Barbara Cartland The Years of Opportunity 1939-1945
Twelve years ago I wrote a book called Stranger in the
House that looked at the impact of returning servicemen and women on life
at home. It was at times a heart-breaking book to research and I wrote several
of the stories weeping onto my keyboard. I know that it affects readers too: my
friend John wrote to me only this week to say that he has never cried so many
times over a book as over that one. Am I sorry? No, not really. These are human
stories that needed to be told. We have to understand the cost of war. It is
not possible to gloss over the inconvenient truths, the ugly aspect of readjusting
to life after war and to imagine that all the veterans are great heroes who
shrugged off the impact of what they did and saw. They did not. They could not.
Some will never be able to stop the memories coming back. And that applies to
young men and women who in the more recent past have taken up arms on behalf of
Britain in conflicts all over the world. They cannot be unaffected by what they
At the moment I am writing a book for the Royal British Legion’s centenary in 2021. Once again, I am reminded of the enormous cost of war and the extraordinary efforts that people go to in order to try and alleviate the pain and distress returning service personnel and their families suffer. The story of the Legion is the story of our country’s twentieth and now twenty-first century wars and the impact they have had on our society. The Legion helped to shape Remembrance, it is a peaceful, peace loving organisation and it has a most generous welfare programme. It has fought for pensions, disability rights and widows’ allowances for 99 years and it is not going to be giving up any time soon.
As I work through the research I am reminded, daily, of the terrible situations faced by men coming home from the First World War. 2,300,000 ex-service personnel returned injured or disabled to a Britain that was suffering from an economic decline, that did not have the jobs, housing or welfare for them. The Legion had an enormous job on its hands to help those affected by the war, including hundreds of thousands of widows, orphaned children, the sick, disabled and unemployed. But it set about the task with impressive energy and focus. The Legion changed many things over the first twenty years of its existence and one of those was the way returning men were treated. By 1945 there was a better, more humane system in place. But even they cannot make the nightmares, the feelings of dislocation and the difficulties of settling down as a family go away. That has, eventually, to come from the individuals and their families.
In my most recent book, Dressed for War, the emphasis
was on Audrey Withers’ life and on her energy and courage during the darkest
days of the 1940s. Yet even in that book there is a major casualty of war. Her
star photojournalist, the brilliant, brave and tireless Lee Miller, suffered
from post-traumatic stress disorder in the post-war era. She never really
recovered her equilibrium. She was one of thousands who suffered, many silently,
from the impact of their wartime experiences.
So, without wanting to throw a bucket of cold water on the celebrations
around VE 75, I just think it is worth remembering that war has a far-reaching
impact on everyone involved.
Several people have asked me what Audrey Withers’ reaction to the current crisis would have been. I have thought about it a lot and it occurred to me that it might be interesting to compare 1940 and 2020.
At the beginning of the Second World War the government closed down the country. It banned all public gatherings, sporting events and race meetings. Theatres and cinemas were ordered to close and no group meetings of more than 100 people were permitted anywhere except at church. Does this sound familiar? The introduction of petrol rationing from midnight on the day war was declared and the blackout altered people’s lives even more directly. The shutdown lasted for just twelve days but it had the effect of changing people’s behaviour, the way they thought about being at war – even though the war proper did not affect them until the spring of the following year – and it changed the way people moved around.
Now, in 2020, we are in equally uncertain times but on this occasion we are not terrified of air raid or gas attacks but of an invisible virus. The government is not only protecting its citizens but our wonderful, precious but horribly overstretched NHS.
So what would Audrey have done? The answer depends of course on what period of her life we are going to imagine in this hypothetical situation. Let’s place her in London at the beginning of the Blitz, days after she has been named as editor of Vogue, when nightly air raids and daily warnings disrupted life in so many ways. Audrey wrote an article about living under those conditions for American Vogue. She described how every night she and her editorial and art staff packed up a large laundry basket with all their ‘treasures’ and every morning the basket was unpacked and work began again. ‘If the siren goes work goes on until the alarm warns that planes are overhead or that guns are firing with the result that we now take shelter less frequently but more rapidly.’
I find in here a hint of how in the very early days of the Blitz there had been a touch of panic but by early October, when she wrote this article, she had got used to the bombing.
We grab work and paraphernalia, descend six flights of stone stairs to the basement. We look as if we are going on a peculiar picnic: coats slung around our shoulders; attaché- cases with proofs, photographs, layouts, copy, mixed up with gas- masks, sandwiches and knitting. The Art Department men carry under one arm a stack of drawings and layouts; and under the other, a stirrup pump, a pick axe or a shovel. It’s a peculiar picnic all right.
She described how they greeted each other every morning with ‘what kind of night did you have?’ and how gallows humour soon emerged and kept them sane even when the news was grim. ‘A feeble joke makes us laugh, and we’re glad of the chance to laugh at anything; and on the other hand, you get oddly insensitive and callous, and are amused by incidents that normally you would have found macabre.’ She concluded the article by saying that they lived day by day, not looking too far ahead but always trying to be organised and practical.
It would be wrong to paint Audrey as instinctively brave. She was not courageous like her fearless photo-journalist, Lee Miller, but she became brave through sheer hard work and a determination to keep going under any circumstances and she was organised. Another aspect of her personality was her deep and furious dislike of cheating of any sort. She railed against people who bribed shopkeepers to give them a little bit extra over the ration and she despaired about Vogue readers who cheated with their clothing coupons. I suspect she would have had something to say about panic buying and, worse still, the scalpers who clean out supermarket shelves and then offer the products for sale at a higher cost. Spivs are what those people were called during the war and Audrey despised them.
She was a caring person and I am sure that she would have worried about people being lonely and cut off. There was no compulsory self-isolation during the war but petrol rationing had more or less the same effect for people living in the countryside. Her parents, both in their seventies, had been socially active in the nineteen twenties and thirties. By 1940 they were living on the edge of a small village outside Banbury seeing almost nobody week in, week out. They were lonely and depressed by her father’s ill health. Audrey and her sister, Monica, tried to ensure they had visits or letters as often as circumstances permitted.
As we are today, so Audrey was overwhelmed by government advice. During the war it was called propaganda and it was sometimes issued three or four times a day. The Board of Trade published nearly 200 notices in one year on the subject of women’s underwear alone. The ministries of food, agriculture, health and so on were equally busy bombarding editors with information. Audrey had to decide what to publish in Vogue, a monthly magazine, and what could be ignored as it had already been dealt with by the daily press.
By the end of 1940, when London had been bombed for 56 nights consecutively, Audrey could be proud that she had managed to get the October, November and December editions of her magazine out almost on time. November had been two days late and December just one. One of her staff, Audrey Stanley, wrote to Condé Nast describing how they had coped during those difficult months:
We went through such a transitional stage and we did not know exactly what to strive for as everything was so precarious and atmosphere and feeling was as fickle as the wind, but now I really think a comprehensive pattern has come out of it all. Audrey Withers is a remarkable person. She has such balance and tact and we all admire her enormously as being editor just now must be a difficult job.
As the war went on, Audrey became more confident in her role as editor and more impressive in the way she coped with the pressure. In 1944 the President of the Board of Trade, Hugh Dalton, described her as the most powerful woman in London.
If we can take a message from Audrey’s strategy for coping in difficult circumstances I suggest it would be to keep calm and play fair. And, if you fancy, wear a hat.
Now that Audrey is launched in Dressed for War she is public property. People have begun to contact me to tell me things about her which of course I wished I had known when I was writing the book. That always happens, though, so I have given up getting paranoid about missing out on every last gem. However, people have also been talking to me about how relevant they find Audrey’s attitude towards clothes rationing and how it rings a bell for today’s concerns about excess consumption and waste.
Last week I was thrilled to find a copy of the September 1943 edition of British Vogue with its stand-out beautiful cover and fascinating articles by Cecil Beaton, Lesley Blanch and Lee Miller. Audrey’s editorial for that edition was entitled Miniature Wardrobe. ‘Wardrobes are shrinking fast,’ she wrote, ‘and the smaller they get the more perfect they have to be.’ That autumn she would tell the New York editor of Vogue that she had in her personal wardrobe three suits, which she varied with blouses and accessories, one cashmere dress for dining out and two pairs of ‘slacks’ which she wore with baggy jumpers at weekends. She concluded her editorial: ‘In a miniature wardrobe – as in a small circle of friends – versatility is to be prized and bores not admitted.’ Coming a year after the introduction of Utility clothing and Austerity design it is clear to me that Audrey and her fashion editors were trying to encourage an upbeat message in straitened circumstances.
For Audrey Withers and her generation, recycling, making-do and mending, refashioning clothes and eking out the last few months of an old suit was part of their every day after clothes rationing was introduced in June 1941. In fact, before that date there had been a ban on the sale of silk stockings and all sorts of clothing was in short supply as a result of the bombing of factories. In comparison to a human life, clothing must have seemed unimportant. Yet it was not dispensable. At the most basic level, people had to keep warm. Children needed clothes and shoes to go to school. Men and women had to be dressed to go to work, whether in factories, in secretarial offices or indeed in the editor’s office of the most prestigious fashion magazine. The government understood that clothing was also important for morale. That is one of the reasons why they allowed the women’s magazines to continue to publish, albeit with a reduced quantity of paper.
Today, in Britain at least, we are not in the position of having to limit our wardrobes because of clothes rationing. We live in an altogether different time. A time of plenty which is running into an era of excess. Perhaps we can learn lessons from Audrey Withers. Barbara Guarducci and Saskia Terzani certainly seemed to think so when I met them via Skype in the autumn of 2019. They founded Mending for Good ‘to provide ethical solutions for fashion waste.’ When I met Barbara in London in November, she and I quickly found that we had the same anxiety about the vast excess that fashion creates. My concern came from having spent six years writing about wartime clothing, hers from a lifetime’s experience of the fashion industry but we met at the same point: we have to declare war on overproduction and waste. We are living beyond our means in terms of our impact on the environment and we have to change the culture that permits over-consumption.
Barbara, Saskia and I decided to team up to help launch Mending for Good at the same time as we launched Audrey in Dressed for War. The themes seemed to align so well. Then came the suggestion to produce a series of embroideries of Audrey’s phrases that she used in Vogue to exhort readers to think about their clothes. Taken on their face value they seem to have as much relevance today as they did eighty years ago: Wage War Against Waste, Quality Rather than Quantity, but also the more reassuring: You Cannot Ration Style or Relax and Mend.
Mending for Good works with the London College of Fashion’s vocational training and ethical manufacturing initiative. That sounds a bit of a mouthful but it is a wonderful undertaking that gives employment opportunities women in socially frail and challenging circumstances. We commissioned a group of women in HMP/YOI Downview Prison to create 100 embroideries with eight different messages. We gave them away to guests at the book launch and they proved so popular that I have only the original eight examples left.
I know Audrey would have approved of this initiative on so many levels. After the war she strove hard to make people – young women in particular – think about the fashion industry as a career that could help to make a difference. She ran a competition in Vogue from 1945 to get this message across. Today the London College of Fashion’s Making for Change initiative and my friends at Mending for Good are both trying to help change the way people think about fashion production. That is a wonderful thing.
I believe Audrey’s wartime campaign to encourage women to think responsibly but creatively about fashion can find echoes in today’s world.
There is a moment in a book’s life when it is no longer the personal, much-loved friend it was during research, writing and editing. This is when it goes to print and the powerful machine of publicity grinds into action. It might seem strange to express a book’s publication thus but it is something I and other writers have experienced. As the novelist, Diane Setterfield, said recently: ‘You care about your book. You love it deeply but it does not love you back. It would eat you alive if it needed to.’ I know exactly what she means. A book develops a life of its own. It goes out into the world as a published hardcover: Dressed for War will have an existence far beyond my desk – in bookshops, on shelves in libraries and private homes, as a second-hand ex-review copy on Amazon. It might be well reviewed. It might get a hostile reception – I have had experience of both – but it is out of my hands.
When I started writing Audrey Withers’ autobiography on 7 January 2019 I was still in that blissful state of privacy and intimacy with my subject. For three months it was just me and the material in my little office at the top of my home in Oxford. I watched the garden wake up from its winter slumbers as I wrote about Lee Miller and Cecil Beaton. I heard the first cuckoo of the year as I was describing the heart-breaking moment when Audrey’s beloved father, Percy, died. And I had my first glass of wine in the greenhouse the day I wrote the last sentence of the first draft. Eleven and a half months later I sent off the final proofs and the lovely picture section for the last time, having read the book sixteen times in draft and proof form.
I shared all the writing stages in my quarterly blogs and as each one was finished, I experienced a different emotional reaction: relief at first, panic when the deadline was brought forward by six weeks, grief when the third proofs went off and now anxiety. At the end of this coming week the printers will run off the first copies. Of course I am excited about it but I am also nervous and there is so much still to do. As an author I have to work flat out with publicists and marketing people to make sure the book is noticed. And believe me, it really does matter.
I have my own publicist, Richard Leon, who works alongside the excellent team at Simon & Schuster led by Becky and Rich. Together they have cooked up a publicity and marketing plan that involves every possible media platform you can name and some that I cannot. I have been booked to speak at a dozen literary festivals already and there are bound to be more to come. I hope we might get some radio coverage and perhaps even a little bit of TV. This all sounds glamorous but it is hard work. We have been planning and talking about how to ensure Dressed for War gets a good start since October 2018, which is three months before I typed the first sentence of the first draft.
The book that I have always referred to as Audrey will be published on 6 February 2020 with a party at Somerville College in Oxford and an interview with Diane Setterfield, which I am very much looking forward to. Two days before that we will launch the book in London at a joint event with a small team from Italy who run a project called Mending for Good. Today there is a growing appreciation of the impact of fashion’s carbon footprint on the environment and I feel certain that Audrey would have been behind any project that challenged waste and encouraged good practice. After all, she presided over the most dramatic movement in wartime fashion, the Utility and Austerity scheme. This dictated skirt and shirt lengths; it limited the number of pockets on jackets and the width of the gusset in women’s knickers. It feels fitting to focus on the future as well as on the past as we celebrate setting Audrey free.
As Dressed for War leaves me bobbing in its wake, I will try to be sanguine about the reaction of the reviewers who will express their opinions, whether good or bad. It is a fact that writers, as other performers, tend to remember the bad reviews. But what I really long for, and what I think every writer longs for, is the moment when we come face to face with a reader who has got something personal to say about the book we have just published. It does not always happen but when it does it is as important as any review. And that won’t happen unless we get the publicity right, which is why Richard, Becky and I are working so hard behind the scenes to make it work.
It is a very strange feeling when you hand over a proof of a book for the final time. This precious document that you have shared with an editor, a copy editor, a proof-reader and an indexer, is suddenly ready to be shared with others. There is a momentary feeling of loss that, for me at least, is comparable to a bereavement. Well, a bereavement over the loss of an animal, say, not a relative – let’s not be over-dramatic.
But when I pressed the final send button to launch Audrey back through the ether towards London I felt a terrible, almost physical sadness. She was no longer my private, treasured friend with whom I have spent the most intensive nine months of my life since I laid down my research papers and clicked out the first words of draft one on 7 January 2019. It seems a lifetime ago, as it always does, but it also seems to have gone far too quickly. In a strange way it is a lifetime. I have come to know Audrey over the course of most of her long and varied life, that is with the exception of the years of her retirement. I have found her fascinating, lovely, loving, amusing, passionate and ambitious but also private, infuriatingly self-deprecating and mischievous when it came to covering her tracks.
Now she is almost ready to be launched on the world in her final form. The book, with 416 pages including twelve pages of index and eight pages of photographic plates, will be available from 6 February 2020. Rather wonderfully that is my grandmother’s birthday, though she is no longer with us. She knew Audrey well as my grandfather and Audrey were cousins, born two years apart. My grandparents used to visit her on business trips to London and she and Victor stayed with them on the Wirral more than once.
The title for my book, which we have pushed back and forth for months, has been decided upon by the publisher: Dressed for War. The cover image took even longer to negotiate but what a stunning one it is. Undoubtedly the most beautiful cover I have ever had but then Audrey deserves nothing less. It was an American design used by Audrey for the September 1943 issue of Voguewith a list of contents on the left-hand side that included renovations, coupons and repairs. A stark juxtaposition but somehow a beautiful summing up of Audrey’s editorship during the second half of the war: beauty and excellence balanced with practical, no-nonsense advice.
For now Audrey is still under wraps at the publishers. I will get to see her one more time before she goes off to the printers to check the layouts and see the final version with plates, index, updated acknowledgements and footnotes. My job is to ensure this wonderful woman reaches as wide a public as possible. Audrey’s extraordinary life, her exceptional leadership and her championing of women’s causes in the middle of the twentieth century deserve to be better known, especially at a time when women’s rights are under threat as at no other time in our recent history. I want to celebrate her editing skills, her ability to attract, handle and maintain relationships with some of the most brilliant but tricky artists and writers of her time. And I want readers to understand that history has created a black and white portrait of a woman so colourful that it needs to be corrected.
You can pre-order Dressed for War at your local independent bookshop, at all other major bookshops in Britain, and online. The book will also be available as an e-book and an audio book.
I was going to post this blog on 4 August after I had handed in the finished draft of my biography of Audrey Withers to my editor, Iain MacGregor, on 31 July, as per contract. However, on 25 April Iain asked whether I could bring the deadline forward by six weeks and deliver by mid-June. It is the kind of question that focuses an author’s mind in a way almost no other can. I agreed to have a go. My feelings on the way back from London that afternoon ranged from blind panic to the thrill of the challenge. Over the last six weeks I have gone from one to the other on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. But I met my deadline and delivered the book last Friday, a week before Iain was expecting it. That surprised even me.
The main reason it was possible to do what seemed almost unthinkable on the morning after my meeting with Iain was because I was able to clear the decks and my diary thanks to the support of my incredibly kind and understanding husband, Chris. He retired last year and was able to act as gatekeeper and cook so that all I had to do was to work. Sometimes that work involved thinking and puzzling over some knotty little problem or other so I did that while working in the garden or walking on the riverbank with the dogs or on my cycle ride to the library. But in the main I sat in my office, staring at a screen, thumbing through my notebooks with an exasperated ‘where the hell did I make a note of that?’ or looking out of the window at the sun-kissed garden wondering when it would rain.
This morning we did a cross comparison of the difference between draft one of Audrey and the final version which is at least draft seven. Here it is.
As you will see from the amount of red on the screen, not much of the brilliant first plan survived contact with the editing enemy. I was astonished, to be honest. I had not realised just how much I had changed in the last two months (I had started editing before my critical meeting with Iain).
When I finished the first draft, I had the weekend off, then sat down on Monday morning and read the whole book through from cover to cover and tried to get a feeling for the overall story. That took three days and by the end I realized I had got a book that could work and although it was in need of a great deal of editing, it was at least a narrative. The next time I read it was for facts. Had I got everything in that I wanted to include, such as the vital memos or the story of her first marriage or her relationship with Lee Miller? That took two weeks and involved me using both my screens, one for the draft and the other to double check my electronic files. That is when a lot of changes took place and I needed a couple of visits to Vogue House to check issues of Vogue from the nineteen fifties.
The third read-through was for cadence. It seems a funny word to use but it is the best one I can come up with. Every chapter has to have a certain type of pace. Audrey once described how the readers of Vogue had to be led through the magazine page by page and there should be no ugly juxtaposition of stories. She was once very critical of a piece in American Vogue shortly after the war which featured luxurious clothes in Rome opposite a photograph of a starving child. For a book it is sometimes helpful to be able to change the pace and go from a piece of high action or drama of, say, war reporting, to a completely different type of event, such as a family funeral. For it to work it has to be deliberately but carefully done. I want my readers to feel some emotion. I once got ticked off by a WI lady who accused me of making her cry several times when she was reading Stranger in the House and she was rather put out when I said I was sorry but very pleased too. It is a sad book, telling some terrible stories about the impact on women of men returning from the war. Good that she was moved, good that she cried. I cried when I was writing some of those stories. War is a terrible thing and it has a long, long tail. A psychologist from Germany once said to me: ‘Hitler wanted the Third Reich to last for a thousand years. He didn’t succeed but the fallout from his experiment will last for generations.’
By the time draft three was completed I had had my meeting with Iain and the pressure was on. It was fortunate that I had got to where I was in the editing process because I could see how it would be possible to accelerate the next iterations. I think Audrey has benefitted from very close and energetic attention because I was forced to keep up a cracking pace and it meant that any research I still needed to do had to justify the time spent on it. I had one fantastic day in May reading the diaries of Harry Yoxall, Condé Nast’s managing director in the UK. He wrote about 250 pages a year and had the pages stapled and bound in slip cases with the year on the spine.
I had read the Second World War years at his great-grandson’s house in Surrey but the rest of the diaries were with his grandson in Suffolk. I needed to read the years Audrey was at Vogue, so 1931 to 1938 and 1946 to 1960. Twenty-two years or 5,500 pages or, even more scarily, 1,375,000 words. How the hell was I going to manage that in ten hours? In the end I worked out a way to scan his handwriting for Audrey’s name. He had quite a distinctive way of writing A and it made it relatively easy to find mentions of her. Less easy when the diaries were in French, which half of them were! Sometimes he typed letters to his wife and then used them as diary pages. They were a joy, especially the one from March 1953 when he attended an investiture at Buckingham Palace the day Audrey was given her OBE by a very young and nervous Queen Elizabeth. He was worried that the knighting sword was so heavy she might chop off the head of one of her subjects. That was a great discovery, as was the moment when I found out for sure that Audrey had left Vogue of her own volition and had not been gently asked to leave, which is what I and others had assumed. She told him over lunch in June 1957 that she intended to retire at the end of the decade. The trip was more than worth the day and a half it took to get there and back.
There have been other finds too, in the bowels of the Law Library in Oxford and in the microfiche copies of the Daily Sketch at the British Library but this blog is already too long…
So that has been the process and I plodded, raced, panicked, wept, laughed my way through the next weeks as I beat and bashed my writing into some sort of shape which I hope Iain will be able to work with. The next months are crucial as Audrey will be edited, copy-edited, proof-read, fact-checked and finally sent to the indexers prior to printing in the autumn. I have no idea how many more changes will be made but I expect quite a few. I am both excited and exhausted, but most of all relieved that I made it.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
My friend Emma recently gave me a book about authors’ gardens. It is a beautiful publication that celebrates the gardens of great writers including Agatha Christie, John Ruskin, Beatrix Potter, Virginia Woolf and Rupert Brooke. She joked in her note to me that perhaps one day my garden would make it into such a book. Um, no. At least, not anytime soon. But it did get me thinking about my garden and the role it plays in my life.
I have always enjoyed the garden but for the first dozen years we lived in Oxford it was simply an additional space to the house for the boys to play in. As they grew older and the call for sandpits, tree houses, go-kart tracks and slippy slides receded, we began to look at doing something more structural with our outside space. First came a pond. After all, who can resist a water feature? Then a second pond, higher up the rockery, and a stream to link them. There is something timeless and beautiful about running water – always calming and refreshing. The pond has been a source of endless delight and fascination. It is populated by newts, frogs, beetles, snails and endless flights of damsel and dragon flies as well as the occasional Border terrier who splashes about to cool down on a hot summer’s day.
We became more ambitious and by 2016 a major project to refurbish the bottom half of the garden was underway. Chris stood in the middle of the lawn with a glass of Prosecco and waved his arms around: ‘I want a big round lawn, a wall, raised vegetable beds and colour all summer.’ He announced. His dream was realised by a brilliant Venezuelan garden creator called Aristides Escallonia. What a name and what a talented young man. I have spent the last two seasons learning the hard way how to grow vegetables, fruit and salad while Chris worked out how to mow a round lawn with a lawn mower that wants only to go in a straight line.
Why am I telling you about this when I usually talk about writing? Well, it occurred to me this last week, as we were preparing to open the garden for the National Gardens Scheme (an organisation that raises nearly £1 million a year for charity), that my garden is a lot like one of my books. It has structure, chapters, anecdotes and detail. In fact, as I start my next book, I am thinking about it in the way I am planning the next development in our garden: creatively but within the scope of what is factual, or in the case of the garden, possible.
A book needs some hard landscaping to work. An overall structure is vital otherwise the reader will just wander aimlessly around wondering what this is all about. The same applies to the garden. There is something magical about moving from one space to another or from one chapter to the next. From the outset of any book I have a clear idea of the scope and its shape but the detail develops as I go along. In most cases my books are limited by the war years but this new book is larger in timescale because it is a biography. The focus will be the years 1940 to 1960 but it will dip into the late nineteenth century at one end and refer to the early twenty-first century at the other.
Now that I have the structure in my head – I never commit it to paper for some odd reason – I can work on the contents. If I think of the historical dates as solid forms like trees then the events that occur in the book and which affect my characters are the shrubs and roses. Oh yes, I have to mention roses. They are my absolute favourite flower and I have dozens in the garden: climbers, ramblers, shrub and tea-roses. They are white, pink, red, orange and yellow. Each is a beauty and has a special place in my heart. I know who gave it to me or where I bought it, when I planted it, how often I have pruned it and how many times it flowers in a season. My characters develop like roses to some extent and I like to think that I come to love or at least admire them, as much as I do my roses, when I write about them. Would it be too far-fetched to imagine Cecil Beaton as a splendid Danse du Feu? or Audrey Withers as Zephirine Drouhin? Who knows? And does it matter? It is my metaphor after all.
Perennials are minor characters but they are essential in any narrative or good border. I have a strong affection for dahlias, lupins and hydrangeas – not the bosomy type but the panticulata varieties. Peonies also feature in luxuriant shades of white, pink and deep red-purple in my borders and these will also appear in the book. They are the surprise players who add greatly to the narrative but need propping up by the structure of the story. In Our Uninvited Guests one of my best surprises was the French agent Pierre Delaye. He occupies just two pages in the chapter about the Free French but he was a stand-out fascinating man and I enormously enjoyed weaving his story into the main narrative.
And finally there are the annuals. It is always tempting, especially before open gardens, to sprinkle pretty annuals around the borders to add a flash of colour. Resist, I always say to myself. Having too many characters in a book is equally to be resisted. It causes confusion and runs the risk of just becoming a list of names in the index. Over the past couple of months people have asked me why I did not include this house or that person in Our Uninvited Guests and my reply is very much the same as when someone asks me why I don’t plant azaleas or camellias – they don’t work in the context. In the case of the plants it is because we don’t have acid soil. In the case of the book it is usually because Bletchley Park (the most requested) has been done to death and in fact no one actually lived in Bletchley Park, they just worked in the huts, or that the person in question left no records. There is always a case for leaving things out, as there is in a garden and I have come to realise that it is essential to have the courage to do that.
My passion for my garden and for writing is almost equal. Hard to say which would win in a head to head contest. Luckily I do not have to decide but if I’m honest, the garden feeds my writing but not vice versa. When I’m deep into writing a book I am wholly in the present (and the past) and my garden is then just a delicious respite from the atmosphere of my writing room. But when I am in the planning phase, as I am now, hours in the garden give me much needed mental space and band-width to let ideas pop into my head and begin to form. It is an organic process planning a book and what better place to do it than in the middle of a shrub border with mud under my finger nails, burrs in my hair and plants all around me.