Curriculum Vitae of Muriel Gantry
Editor’s Note: The following text is an unpublished “curriculum vitae” by Muriel Gantry (1913–2000), which she prepared in 1995 for Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, who was then writing a biography of her friend Savitri Devi. Goodrick-Clarke also recorded an audio interview with Gantry. The cover page of this text reads “Curriculum Vitae of Muriel Gantry: All You Ever Wanted to Know and a Great Deal You Probably Didn’t,” and is dated April 19, 1995. The text has been kept as it was apart from the correction of a few minor typos and adjusting it to American spelling in keeping with the archive’s house style. Portions of the later sections of this text were previously published at the archive as “Valhalla, not Elysion: My Friendship with Savitri Devi.”
I have intended writing something like this for a long time, and am going to do so now in perhaps more than the detail at present needed; but I assure you will be able to select what you find of interest. I will try not to digress too much.
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I was born on the 24th November, 1913 — which I like to think makes me almost an Edwardian! — at Prestwich, a suburb of Manchester; in what was, and probably still is a rather dull street of respectable houses. I have excellent recall of my extreme youth — sometimes good enough to be – erroneously — disbelieved, but I remember nothing of this first home, for when I was eighteen months old we moved to Cheadle Hulme in Cheshire, which was a pleasant place then and still was when I last saw it in 1957. We lived at 85 Ladybridge Road, one of a row of attractive semidetached houses known respectfully to the nearby cottagers as The Villas — built about 1904 with all the pleasant little details of the period, probably pre-nostalgically destroyed by now.
My first clear memory is of Mother and Father hanging a picture in the dining-room, over a bookcase, with myself watching, just tall enough to see over the table. They were probably arguing, for they generally did. As pictures and books have played such a large part in my life this first memory seems appropriate.
I remember Mother reading Beatrix Potter’s Tom Kitten, Peter Rabbit, et al. as I sat on her knee, indicating the words with her finger. One day I was discovered by the next-door neighbor lying on the Manchester Guardian (as it was in those days) reading — of course aloud — and though I could scarcely have understood what I read, I could certainly make out the words; and soon achieved a wobbly but legible script. I believe I must thank the Potter books with their beautiful type-face, and Mother’s guiding finger, for the fact that I could read and print at four years old. When I was five I could read anything, and took Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of poems to bed with me because I loved it so. As for spelling, it simply came naturally. My father painted pretty well, and saw to it that I had paper to scribble on. I drew also, with rather more imagination than skill, but a lot of imagination.
I never hankered after other children’s company — I was sufficient unto myself and had no time to be a “Lonely Only.”
After my sixth birthday I went to a delightful school kept by the retired mistress of the local high school, who had found she could not exist without teaching children and opened a small school in her large flat. It really amounted to sharing a governess, for we were never more than about seven or eight, in a cozy little schoolroom where this old lady (old even in 1920, so her roots were Victorian) who looked like Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and wore a strange wig with a velvet bandeau, taught us excellently and often individually, in the mornings only. She made it all interesting, we adored her, and I am grateful to her to this day.
At eleven years old I hankered after a proper school — it was the golden age of schoolgirl fiction, and I got ideas — and was sent to the Convent of Mary Immaculate High School at Woods Moor on the outskirts of Stockport. We were not Catholics; my father had been brought up strictly Chapel and never shook it off, but did not inflict it on me save for frequent moral lectures, and I was spared Sunday School. Mother was vaguely Church of England and definitely anti-Chapel. I was convinced of the existence of Heaven, angels, Jesus, and everything, probably through my love of Victorian literature. I believe I looked on it all as I did on fairies, mermaids, and such, in all of which I unquestioningly believed. Nowadays I am agnostic, but not atheistic. Something pushes the plants up and looks after the solar system.
The Convent was, I suppose, as good as most other schools, and after a difficult start I settled down. My parents wanted me to stay till sixteen, but I did not relish the idea.
I got decently through the annual examinations, read and researched for myself what interested me, worked hard enough at the subjects I was good at, and wrote stories — no works of genius but properly spelt and punctuated. I never had a lesson in punctuation in my life; I just observed what was there.
One day, when I was perhaps twelve, I asked if I could give up algebra and geometry and learn Latin and Greek instead. A pity the idea was not encouraged.
I caught measles before my fourteenth birthday and realized in quarantine that now I had the chance to leave legally, and got my wish. I thought it was time I was learning other things. I still drew, but felt I wanted to write; perhaps become a reporter and one day, with luck, write a successful historical novel. I read all the popular period novels of the time and plenty of the old stuff as well; and I used to try to write in the style of the authors I most admired; which was extremely good for me, even if [the] results were not startling.
The sensible way to begin was to learn shorthand and typing, which I did. My parents fancied “the Civil Service,” which to me meant incarceration in some dull office; had I known, and had they known of other occupations which came under the heading of Civil Service work I would have felt differently. Father was head of the drawing office of the engineering firm of Wather and Platt, and thought I might be a “tracer” (of machinery plans, etc.), and we had some fine rows about that.
I discovered the small Gosling Publicity Service near my typing school and thought there might be possibilities there. We investigated; they took me on for a month with no pay and did their best to find a place for me; but simply had not the work, and probably could not afford me; so what might have been an early start to an interesting career came to nothing. They were nice, honest people.
I had a spell in an arts-and-crafts shop and studio (so many of them then) in Deansgate Arcade — “the best part of Manchester” and as such appealing to my parents; no pay for a year and later a possible partnership. Partnership — in what? No one ever came in the shop and the proprietress was a little eccentric, to say the least. After nine weeks of running errands and genteel dusting Mother put a stop to it, and I was grateful.
I was sixteen by now and — in 1929 — getting too old to be taken on as a beginner in many professions. I had acquired a few sensible ideas myself by now and suggested that I should learn millinery — I was good at making hats and with my hands generally, and there were jobs galore in that area — and go to evening art-school. This would have made sense but my mother — who owing to asthma had had hard work keeping any job as a girl — would have none of it. I should not work at sewing even as a step to other things.
These were the days of the Cotton Slump; my father was a designer of textile machinery: and in January 1930 he lost his job. We grew poorer and poorer as savings melted away.
I was tall, slim, and pretty good-looking, and fancied the idea of being a model — they were “mannequins” then, stately treasures far removed from present-day models. Some shops employed them as permanent staff, and they were decently paid — far from usual in those days. I took an eight-guinea course at the Delaroche Mannequin Academy (now it would probably be the Modelling Workshop); never really approved of by Mother and soon violently opposed by Father, whose always ready temper had worsened with unemployment. I found as much, or as little work as the many other girls in Manchester with the same idea; one saw their faces at every interview, and I was once picked out at first glance from forty-two applicants. A guinea a day was the supposed wage; most firms cut it to fifteen shillings, but many jobs paid that for one week. I loved the work and am glad I knew what it felt like to be “on the catwalk” even in the provinces.
My godmother took Mother for a holiday in London, and suggested I should come too and try for work there. I said I was not ready, but was persuaded. I missed a splendid chance in Hanover Square by a hairsbreadth and spent two weeks, and my seventeenth birthday, in a nightmare job in Clapham Junction with appalling employers; but I came home determined to work one day in London.
Father found a post as manager of a small Singer Sewing Machine shop in New Mills, Derbyshire. We left our pretty villa and led an ill-paid life among beautiful scenery; I worked in the shop for no pay and did bits of dressmaking, but at least learned to work a sewing machine.
Father’s temper grew worse; but the problems it caused are irrelevant here and I pass them over. His idea now was that I should be a door-to-door canvasser for Singers. The shop’s living accommodation was dreadful; Mother and I found a small, pretty cottage, and at least we had a pleasant place to live. All this time the theatre had not come into my life, though it always interested me and I loved the cinema from my earliest years,
During my late teens and early twenties I wrote my first novel, when and where I could, in what privacy I could command. It was set in my favorite Restoration period and included in its characters my favorite historical character, the Duke of Monmouth. I did not submit it to anyone, knowing it was not good enough, but I would certainly try again. I have it still; it could be worse, especially in the humorous passages, but I couldn’t write a love scene to save my life. I tried to write articles and criticisms, but not very well. I praised everything I criticized, which would never have done. I wrote a little poetry in secret; old-fashioned and often twee, but rhyming and scanning. Looking at it in recent years, I think it could be worse.
Since my earliest years I had been taken to museums and art galleries (I did not know I was being educated and simply enjoyed it all) and we had a good bookcase; yet somehow I never consciously encountered — or noticed — specifically theatrical design. I reveled in film magazines, but they were all about the stars. I adored them, but did not allow myself to think seriously about acting, though I could act, and did so in all the school plays. I only went three times to the live theatre — to pantomime — in my childhood, as Mother would only go in the “good” seats and Father would not pay for things like that. Mother thought the gallery was filled by “the lowest of the low” till she discovered otherwise, and we took to going regularly into the (shilling) gallery of the Manchester Palace Theatre.
Sometime in the mid-thirties I saw daylight in the middle of a performance of Julius Caesar. Someone, I said, “designs these sets, these clothes; why not me?” Mother actually approved of the idea. About the same time a dressmaker I sometimes worked for told me that “I would be a godsend being generally useful in a theatrical costumier’s.” Sense was being talked at last.
We had three costumiers in Manchester, which I and probably most other people regarded as suppliers of “fancy dress.” I loved their gilt crowns and jewels as a child, and once asked Father Christmas for a “stage crown.” Now I went job-hunting to them all; they were kind but had no vacancies. I got hold of what costume literature I could and did sketch after sketch; how much easier it would be today.
The modelling had more or less faded out; it was not a job one could do forever, anyway. I had modelled several times for a decent man named David Rivkin who had several rather flashy but attractive dress shops in Manchester; I implored his wife to give me a job in their factory, and in February 1936 she did. I became an “underpresser” — an ironer — and despite Mother’s appeals to give in my notice, worked there for sixteen months and was not unhappy. I was paid one pound a week, rising after a year to twenty-three shillings.
Fate struck at last, and it was time. Ivor Novello had been my favorite film star since schooldays, because of his glamorous looks. In April 1936 he came to Manchester Opera House in Clemence Dane’s adaptation of Max Beerbohm’s The Happy Hypocrite, and I saw him in real life for the first time; a beautiful person in a beautiful play. Admiration became adoration. It was romantic, idealistic, and delightful, and the first time I had been in love. I thought of him as I worked; in London, I thought also. I could see him often, perhaps get to know him; I could work, if needs be, as an underpresser there — I was a good one by now — and try still to break into stage designing. I had a real incentive now.
Mother and I had a frugal but enjoyable week in London in the autumn, and saw his new Drury Lane musical Careless Rapture. I caught him at the pit entrance, got his autograph, and shook hands with him. He was very satisfactory at close quarters.
1937 was the summer of George VI’s coronation. I wrote to my godmother in Nice, suggesting that we had the week in London together we had often planned, and I could try my luck among the costumiers there. She was delighted. We went after the Coronation “to see the decorations”; I got a week’s leave, with the promise of my job safe when I returned, and in July I was back in London. Sometime around now my Father became manager of my godmother’s family’s steel works, and we were back to a decent standard of living.
Through a conversation with the right person, I was pointed in the right direction — to Max Weldy of rue Saulnier, Paris, who made costumes for shows like the Folies Bergère and now had a branch in Savile Row. I was told that he always saw everybody who applied for work, in case he missed something special; he had discovered the famous designer Erté, who died not long ago. I got my appointment without trouble; when I saw the designs in his archives my small hopes died, but he did engage me; saying, as I afterwards learned, that anyone who took time after work to do so many sketches — whatever their quality — deserved a break. I was paid two pounds ten a week — a fortune to me then. I resigned by post from Rivkin’s, put my heart into designing as never before, and now had access to many helpful beaks I could not get at sooner. In Westminster Library I came upon John Pendlebury’s Archaeology of Crete. I soon saw that Minoan Crete could hold more than common interest, but put the idea of serious study aside till I had more leisure. It was the costume designing which mattered now.
The war clouds were darkening over Europe, but I did not realize it. Hitler was merely a noisy dictator in whom I felt little interest; I loathed militarism and never read politics. Business was bad at Weldy’s, and I knew I could be spared from the staff only too easily. I came back from Christmas with my parents expecting the sack, though I had said nothing to them. The showroom receptionist disliked her job and considered theatricals her social inferiors; now it was she who was sacked, and I was asked to undertake her work and carry on with my sketches, now much improved. I was delighted, and did whatever I was asked to — even a little sewing; and I saw all the interesting people who came in.
The Munich crisis finished us; Mr. Weldy went bankrupt before Christmas and we closed down. Mr. Weldy said I had done as much as anyone to keep things going, and if and when he reopened there would be a job for me.
I was terrified during the days before Chamberlain came home promising Peace in Our Time. Peace was all I wanted. I went home telling my people I had a month’s leave at my own expense while things were quiet. There was less discussion and argument that way.
I went back to London along roads snow-banked on either side; no motorways then. I set out next morning with my sketches — and got a job at once with M. Berman Limited (now Berman and Nathan). “I never sack anyone,” old Mr. Berman told me; going on to say he could not take me on till the next week, “as I have to sack the other fellow first.” I never felt safe the whole time I was there; Mr. Berman never let anyone do that in case they didn’t work hard enough.
Max Weldy reopened later in 1939, in Denman Street, Soho — rather more downmarket. He kept his word and asked me to come and help at the weekends with the work he had in hand. “I look ahead and I t’ink, good,” he said. “I t’ink one month, two month, we all together again for long time.” But, of course, the War broke out.
Mr. Berman bolted for America, taking with him six of my own personal sketches, for which he never paid me and I never saw them again.
I went to Maidenhead; it was probably safe, not far from London, and Ivor Novello lived there.
Since autumn 1937, when he opened in London with his third Drury Lane musical Crest of the Wave, I had seen him at least once a week from the (2/-) gallery and waited for him at the stage door every evening I could. I was not alone, but lived conveniently near, in New Row off St. Martin’s Lane, so it was easy. I was established as a fan by now and he knew my name. He was most kind and considerate to his fans and really seemed to like us. I wanted to change my surname of Cox, and after some searching elsewhere went through all the names in his plays. In Crest of the Wave he was Don Gantry, Duke of Cheviot. Muriel Gantry sounded right, and in late 1938, I wrote to him to ask permission to use it. I received a telegram: “Love and good wishes to Muriel Gantry from Cheviot.” That was the kind of nice thing he often did. With other fans I said a sad farewell to him on the last night before war was inevitable.
I was offered a job in Maidenhead within hours in the Milk Bar in the High Street. I took it as I was going to need money quickly — I had six pounds in the Post Office. Mother, of course, was horrified; now she was all for the Land Army. I was determined to keep out of the Forces and munitions; I was not only repelled but frightened. What I did want to do was to help to keep the theatre going; it had boomed during World War I and, I hoped, might do so again. As we now know, it did.
I say now that from leaving home in 1937 till my parents’ deaths in 1956 and 1970 I never asked them for financial help. Father seemed to expect — on principle — a small share at least of my Weldy’s £2.10.; but with my father now back in good employment I saw no real reason. Had things been otherwise I would have done my best. I had to save a little and I deserved some pleasure. I saw many shows (from the gallery), often merely to study the costumes and learn how to use the right colors. Because I was no genius as a designer, I had to try that much harder, and the gods know I did.
My godmother, now in America, was the wife, and sometime around now the widow, of a wealthy American businessman. (She died two years ago, two months short of her hundredth birthday, and her story is a book in itself.) Now she deduced, from my letters, that I needed a rest, and gave me £2. per week until April, “solely for resting in the country.” I left the Milk Bar and lived in a pleasant little attic in the Bath Road (9/- per week). I decided after Christmas to find another job for a time and — if all went well — have some leisure again in the spring. The expected raids had not come, but one was always a little afraid (though most of us left our gas-masks at home), and when registration for war work took shape, the dread of what might fall through the letter-box was, for some of us, always there. This may not show me in a very admirable light, but it is true.
At the Berlei Corset Factory in Slough I made overalls for the Royal Veterinary Corps; easy work, but a 7.45. a.m. start and uncongenial company. When the overalls were done we were tried out on corsets, at piece-work rates — impossible unless one had experience. When the bare branch outside the window broke into leaf, I decided enough was enough, and got out.
I used to pick jobs I knew I would not care about so as to have no regrets about leaving them, or getting the sack. While I was in Maidenhead, the excellent library advertised for a trainee “with a GLC certificate of education.” I asked the head if it was any use my applying (I felt no fear of not being up to whatever the GLC lot could come up with). He said that if it rested with him, I could have the job that moment — “You already know the way around; you’re never out of here; all you would need is to learn the index” — but his superiors would insist on what they stipulated. I might have spent my life as a librarian in that pleasant country town; nowadays the idea has great appeal.
Ivor was the first to take out a show in wartime; a light comedy with a small cast. I went to see it open in Southport and stayed a week, seeing every performance, Ivor found out — through his valet — how much my trip had cost, and on the last night sent me an envelope containing my exact expenses: three pounds. Exactly like him — kind, but sensible and thrifty. Now in late summer, 1940, he was at his lovely house in Littlewick Green. He planned a short tour of his Thirties play I Lived with You and a long one of his musical whose run at “The Lane” had been ended by the war: The Dancing Years.
One should never work, at least in a minor capacity, for a person with whom one is emotionally involved. It is too dreadful if things go wrong. Many people say this and I was one of them. I had no nonsense in my head about having an “affair” with Ivor; I had never troubled about such things, and as a girl “boys” meant nothing to me. I wanted an affectionate friendship and to be able to talk to him intelligently, at decent length. I loved him indeed, in my own way; and had a clearer idea of the real Ivor than many of his fans. Now, when The Love bellows from every rooftop, it is odd to remember how innocent we were. Most fans saw Ivor as they wished to see him; I knew what he was, and unfortunately he knew that I knew, as eventually I realized. Those concerned have an instinct about such things. It would all go into the best work of my life — but not yet.
One evening when I walked, as often, on Littlewick Green he showed me round Red Roofs and its garden. We had some real talk and he asked me about my work. I said I wished I could come on tour and help in some way; he said he was “just thinking about it.” I admit that a personal, and I still think very justifiable jealousy, which I do not propose to enlarge on here, played a great part in my change of view.
He could not fit me into I Lived with You’s seven-week tour; so I became one of the first twelve Thames Valley “lady bus conductors.” It could have been worse. Ivor then engaged me as assistant wardrobe mistress of The Dancing Years — at four pounds a week, more than I had hoped for. I told him over the telephone, “You don’t need to give me all that, Mr. Novello!” and I remember how he laughed. But I still got my four pounds, Ivor being the person he was,
He wanted me also to dress one of the leading ladies and — impossibly — to do “walk-ons” in the show – “if there was time.” There could not possibly be. I had even to give up the dressing.
The “get-out” was from His Majesty’s Theatre in London; the Blitz was just beginning as we worked. Owing to my deferring to Ivor, who thought it “only courteous” for me to give the ‘buses a week’s notice (I could have left at once) I joined the show on Friday the 13th. Triskaidekaphobia had never worried me, but since then I have wondered . . .
The head wardrobe mistress, Mrs. W. was a neat thirty-something; the rest of them then were elderly and dowdy. I was pleased. She received me coolly, said little, asked me no questions about experience. I did as I was told.
I had seen the show several times a week from March ’39 till the War closed it. I knew every dress and prop and the timing too. Next day it emerged that I was the only one who knew it, and I was asked by the other two workers, “Why didn’t you come sooner? Mrs. W., you’re in luck; she knows the show and has seen it (I forget how many) times.” Mrs. W. said nothing but “Indeed?” She said nothing all the way from London to Manchester in the train; next morning as we awaited the pantechnicon she asked questions at last, and did not like the answers. I knew the leading man; I had not worked backstage before. . . . She had to be civil as we unpacked, but her hostility was evident. Not having worked backstage did not trouble me, as I knew so much about the theatre that it all came easily.
Through all the ten months’ tour she maintained her attitude, save once when I spoke up for her, to save her being blamed unfairly, and she was quite kind for some days. She and her husband were ardent Trade Unionists, like so many backstage staff; they did not think how helpful they could be in such difficult days, but of what they were entitled to refuse and when they could Walk Out. She was convinced I was after her job, which was untrue. I dislike being “in charge.”
Ivor did not really understand, although he did send word at first to tell me not to worry. Mrs. W. set herself to “get rid of me,” as I heard her say to a Mrs. T. who came to help us at Newcastle; one of the hardest people I ever met; I think she was incapable of sympathy. I overheard them planning and Mrs. W. promising Mrs. T. my job. I said nothing, as it would have precipitated the inevitable. She complained about me incessantly, and Ivor began to think I was a difficult person. I was certainly becoming bewildered and very apprehensive.
Tom Arnold, the producer, was an incredibly mean man and decided that on the next tour we should not travel a wardrobe assistant, but engage locals as and when needed — to save a rail fare. I went over the stage director’s head and spoke to Ivor; what he did, if anything, I do not know. The S.D. was furious and gave me pure hell in his office for three days, till I blacked out and collapsed and his wife made him stop. He had taken me into Ivor’s room, where Ivor lost his temper and called me “ungrateful.” I had grown tactless with fright and had been getting under his feet, but by now I was past clear thinking.
I got my notice, and Mrs. W. got what she wanted. We returned to London on the 13th July 1941. As I left the train at Maidenhead the entire company leaned out of the windows, waving and wishing me luck. I shall never forget it. Some of them had wanted to speak for me and ask for me to stay, but I had told them it was useless. I wish now I had let them do it.
I found “digs” and cried for weeks, and a great patch of my hair went grey. But I did go to the exhibition of work by the local Art School, and through commenting on the fat elderly model to someone who turned out to be the headmaster, I found myself posing for the Life Class in Maidenhead and High Wycombe. Two-and-six an hour: what do they pay now, I wonder? I was nine stone three and had no weight problems then. I needed to earn more money; someone told me of evening work at the All Services Club near the river. I had never worked in a club and never thought I would be lucky. I became a barmaid in the “dispense bar” — I who never cared about drink and knew little about it. I could fit in my weakly modelling.
The first night there was the first time my heartache eased a little. It was an attractive place, respectable but fun; Colonel Tickler of Tickler’s Jams had opened it to give Service people and/or civilians a chance of a good evening for only five shillings, though they could spend more and did. The manager and his wife were dears, everyone was pleasant, and I was almost happy there. Mother, of course, was outraged, and I never to her last day told her what I actually did.
Mrs. W. had gone on strike at the last moment before The Dancing Years’ second tour, and infiltrated Mrs. T. as her assistant. Seven weeks later Mrs. T. denounced her to the stage director for falsifying the wardrobe accounts, got her sacked, and took over her job. Months later, two days before the end of the last week of the tour, Mrs. W. died in the wardrobe of the Opera House, Blackpool, killed by the fumes of (forbidden) benzine.
I heard all this news from my friends in the show. I had some good ones, and several friendships lasted till death.
I had seen Ivor once at Windsor, between the tours; he was grave but kind, certainly not angry as the stage director had represented him to be.
In my bedsitting-room in Furze Platt, and in quiet moments at the Club, I began my second novel. I still found love scenes difficult, and did not feel like trying to describe the raw unhappiness I now felt. I wanted to escape it. I began to write a school story like those I had enjoyed years ago. The basic idea was not exactly original: a poor girl, just old enough to work in “t’mill,” taken out of it by a rich relative and sent to a good boarding school, but I felt as I wrote that I had come a good way since the earlier Restoration-period effort. I still have The Schoolgirl from the Mills. After 50 years it might be turned into a fair period-piece. It was to take me till 1947 to finish, when other matters took over. Its later development surprised and rather pleased me; the theatre got into it.
I stayed seven months at the Club, during which time I decided to find an unfurnished room and make myself a home. An elegant, genteel lady who frequented the same cafe as myself lived on the top floor of a large house nearby and had attics above which she wanted to let. The largest seemed ideal when I saw it, at £1 per week. I moved in, with a chair, a table, a few books, and the base of a divan.
One used to see advertisements in certain magazines: “Gentlewoman offers inexpensive room to refined lady willing to assist with light household duties.” There was no verbal or other commitment to anything like that, but somehow I found myself involved. I had been promised reductions in my rent in return for renovating Mrs. B’s soft furnishings, but after spending two weeks over them I was told it was “merely friendly help” and I had to pay the two pounds. Mrs. B.’s husband had recently left her (for a C and A shop-girl); I thought I could understand why.
The Club was taken over by new people; the staff were told they could remain but must sign on “for the duration.” The sensible manager thought I should get back to the theatre while I could, and I agreed with him. There were plenty of shows running, and a great fashion for reviving old ones. As I sat in a cafe near the Adelphi Theatre, where The Dancing Years was playing, two of my chorus-boy friends rushed in, hoping to find me, told me there was a job going at the Stoll Theatre, and literally propelled me in the direction of Kingsway. I became a dresser in Rose Marie as the half-hour was being called.
I decided to return to London and chance the bombs; things were quiet enough. An agent in Bow Street handed me the keys of two rooms in Drury Lane.
180 Drury Lane is still there; its six two-room gas-lit tenements are now three expensive flats, but the old shoe-repairer shop, S. Krantz and Son, Est. 1904 is still on the ground floor. I remember the faded old letters in its window, praising and re-ordering hand-made footwear which often seemed to see service in exotic places. In 1948 old Mr. Krantz still sat in his old-style shop, hammering away. The house above was dingy and dusty; the rooms, empty for three years, were dusty too: a large sitting-room, adequate kitchen, big windows, and the “amenities” on the landing — for 9/3 per week. I moved in in August 1942 and was to stay 36 years. I had the minimum of furniture for some time, but the place was mine, and no “friendly help” was expected. 180 stands between the street where Nell Gwyn was (reputedly) born and the one where she had her first job (in Mother Rose’s brothel). Mother never quite believed I had not chosen the location purposely.
The actress I dressed in Rose Marie was friendly, and later, sympathetic; Victor the wardrobe master was a middle-aged drag artist and we agreed well. We ran for three months at the Stoll; I went on tour with the show as dresser and assistant wardrobe mistress, and all went well. We played the same No. 1 dates as The Dancing Years, and I heard stories of Mrs. W.’s dishonesty; at Edinburgh a landlady with whom I had hoped to stay came to me asking if I knew the whereabouts of herself and her husband; they had slipped away owing her the rent, having previously warned her “not to have me in the house” with some libelous additions. Mrs. McC’s imitation of pseudo-genteel Mrs. W. was perfect, and it was all obviously true.
The tour ended; I took a break to improve my new home and then looked for work again. Victor said the head of Tom Arnold’s wardrobe department was in need of helpers, and I went to see her.
Some rearrangement of the premises was going on; she asked me to come back in a few days, but it all seemed favorable. When I returned she seemed ready and willing to engage me, but asked me again to come back. I went again and was engaged without delay. A great heap of hate from the Dick Whittington pantomime awaited restoration or renewal; work I liked and could do well. I had the room to myself, Mrs. St. D. was most friendly, and all seemed set fair, save for the wages. £2.10. was no longer a small fortune in 1942.
On pay-day she said she was worried about me. This is it, I thought. “I’m not paying you enough,” she said in her broad Scots voice, “but I’m only allowed so much for each employee.” She promised to put some overtime in my way if I would stay; she was most pleased with me. I spoke to her frankly; as I thought, the stage director, really my enemy now, had tried to prevent her engaging me. But she decided that whom she employed was her own business, used her own judgment, and took me on. I finished the hats, took out their pantomime as wardrobe mistress, was made a part of the permanent wardrobe staff, and stayed three years.
The V2 which fell in Shelton Street broke every window in 180 Drury Lane, and brought down some of my kitchen ceiling, but we survived. It had been eighteen months after the official date for registration before I signed; we had three posts a day then, and I dreaded each time what might come through the door; but nothing ever did. I cannot tell why, but I was simply never called up. I walked among the VE-Day crowds feeling my own private kind of thankfulness.
Whenever Ivor and myself were in town together I still waited at the stage door each evening I could. He wished me good-night and occasionally I had a word or two, but there was still a barrier there. Once I accidentally overheard, in the black-out, a brief kindly reference to myself, and once someone from the Arnold office let slip something which, if true, showed that he had a definite concern for me. His new musical, Perchance to Dream, had opened at the Hippodrome and from the first there was a difference in his manner. A sympathizer said “I had struck the right note at last.” Whatever the reason, I was thankful.
The two rooms on the other side of my landing had stayed empty since I came; sometimes I thought of taking them also, but the 15/- rent deterred me. Now, suddenly [in 1945 or, more likely, 1946], I had a new neighbour; the vanguard of Savitri Devi Mukherji, Veronica Vassar.
When I opened my door to her knock the interior voice — which has spoken to me often — said, “You are going to be very nice — or very nasty.” She was austerely passable in looks, and her clothes were unremarkable. Her manner was pleasant, though when she said, “I’ve been ill — and I must be quiet,” I saw for the first time the glint in her eye I was to come to know so well.
But our first conversation was most amiable; she told me afterwards that she saw the bookcase in my room and happily anticipated future borrowings. She had been a sergeant in the ATS [Auxiliary Territorial Service], discharged with arrested TB and a 100% disability pension; the Army authorities probably took one look at her and put her in charge of something. I would find out that she had a marvellous sense of humour and a tongue like a lash — “my viper’s tongue,” she once called it proudly. She had complacent self-confidence: “I don’t need to keep up with the Jones’s,” she told a friend of mine years later. “I am Jones.”
She was also a lesbian. I had assumed that very quickly, but soon she confirmed it herself. But, she said, she had finished with affairs; there would be no more of “that sort of thing” in her life. My interior voice spoke again, and I repeated what it said: “Nevertheless, one day you’ll come to me saying, ‘I’ve met the most wonderful person’ — and it will start again.” She had not lived there long when, one afternoon, she came beaming to my door. “Oh, I must tell you; I’ve met the most wonderful person . . .”
She had met her in the cafe not far from the British Museum. She was Greek, but dressed in a sari; she wore gold bangles all along both forearms, and other gold Indian jewellery. She was charming, and such an interesting talker — “Have you ever heard of Akhnaton?”
Tutankhamen’s tomb had been discovered two days before my ninth birthday; I liked Ancient Egyptian things, and I was thrilled. I read all about it — we took the right newspapers — and over the years of excavation and restoration I grew well informed, not only about “Tut” but about his interesting relations.
“Why, yes,” I said. “The Heretic Pharaoh; the father-in-law of Tutankhamen.”
She had never heard of him before and was self-dramatizingly ecstatic. I told her about Akhnaton, Nefertiti, and the Aton cult, which she had already been hearing from Savitri, who she first knew by her real name of Maximiani Portaz. I was extremely interested.
She invited her a few days later, and for the first time, in September 1946, I met this little woman in a white sari, tinkling with gold ornaments, and in those days with blonde hair, quite fluffily and prettily arranged; the schoolmarm bun came later. She had good features, expressive eyes behind spectacles, a long, graceful neck, and a friendly manner.
Of course, we soon began talking about Akhnaton. I made haste to revise and re-read all I could find about it all; Veka brought back books from the London Library (which I could not afford to join myself), among them some I had long wished to read. I shared all my knowledge with her readily, pleased that I knew so much more than she did. I rose high in her estimation; I did not yet know how easily her fancies could change. I found many references to Crete, and recalled the interest I had, as it were, postponed before. There seemed no reason, now, to forgo the pleasure.
Veka declared herself to be in love with Savitri, and soon afterwards she moved in — sleeping on a camp bed — in Veka’s kitchen. She lectured on Akhnaton at the Egyptian Hall, impressive in all her jewellery and nicely made-up. Her devotion was evident, and she spoke very well.
I cannot recall just when she went to Iceland to lecture, but it would be around this time. I had been promised a possible improvement in my wardrobe job, entailing a good deal of sketching (I had kept it up all this time), but when the idea came to nothing I took a colleague’s advice and became self-employed. I had enough money to last a few weeks. I left, amicably, at Easter 1947, and it proved a good idea.
Briefly, Savitri sold rather nice scent, toy windmills, and other things in one of the street markets; I have no idea how this came about. She was working on her book A Son of God. A play about Akhnaton (by the late Leonard Cottrell) was produced on radio and we three listened together, Savitri burning incense and weeping enjoyably.
She was rather trying as a houseguest; untidy, impractical, and often unconsciously inconsiderate.
She loved animals fanatically, and especially cats; any cat walking alone and minding its own business was liable to be deemed a “stray” and taken into her care. She was forever imagining she heard the crying of some feline in distress.
During this time of first acquaintance I never once heard her speak of Hitler; and — presumably — neither did Veka, who was aware of politics and world affairs in a way I never was. She seemed wholly devoted to Akhnaton and his (apparently) basically sensible Sun cult. She had a kind of spiritual love-affair with him, as she had had as a girl with Alexander the Great. I do remember saying once that it had been an enormous relief to think Hitler was dead; she never batted an eyelid.
Veka decided she would write a novel set in the period, with Savitri personified as the heroine Heliodora; a name suggested by Savitri herself, who later gave it to the “Two-Legged Goddess” of her cat story Long-Whiskers.
“Make your heroine a Cretan,” I suggested. “They were so interesting, and they wore lovely clothes.”
Veka got as far as inventing a beautiful girl in a chariot; she imagined writing a best-seller and giving all the profits to Savitri — “There you are, darling — build your temple.” But, like so many of her enthusiasms, it faded away. She often said she was incurably lazy; I think she was probably not a natural historical novelist, though she wrote very competently about modern life. Now, knowing what was to come, I am more than thankful that she did lose interest.
She had brought from the London Library the first volume of Evans’ Palace of Minos which I had wanted to read and fell upon eagerly. Savitri thought the Minoans “decadent” but was interested and helpful. I now read the Pendlebury book and all else I could find; Veka, to her credit, brought me all the four heavy volumes of Evans, and I read the lot, drains and all. Now I wanted to write a story about it all.
On principle I finished the last pages of The Schoolgirl from the Mills, put it away, and thought hard about the new novel. An idea was slow to come, but I persisted. It must have been about this time that the revelation about Savitri occurred.
I spoke of Savitri to Veka; her reaction and glinting eye were unexpected; “Oh God,” I thought. “She’s changed her mind again.”
She was having second thoughts about continuing the friendship; she had been taken to visit a friend of Savitri’s (this may have been the Mrs. Saint Ruth I sometimes heard of but never met); this friend, thinking Veka shared their mutual views, spoke freely, and the truth came out. Savitri was an ardent Nazi.
I don’t recall exactly what I said, or thought, but I did not want to drop this rewarding friendship because of a difference in ideologies. I never troubled about ideologies anyway. “You wouldn’t understand,” said Veka contemptuously. However, she soon decided that her feelings for Savitri were strong enough to stand the shock; possibly the slightly sinister overtones now suggested gave the matter an added interest. What passed between them I do not know.
Savitri seemed to imply that when she spoke of Akhnaton and her devotion to him he was acting as a kind of stand-in for Hitler. (She herself would never have used that phrase, but I think it fits.) I have never appreciated the supposed similarities, but I have never had time for Glorious Leaders and their causes. I swallowed the pill to come at the jam. Now I was to hear plenty of Der Führer; I said “Yes, yes,” or its equivalent and did not argue and did my best to avoid any talk of The Jews.
In Iceland she had met Sven Hedin, who it seems had told her Hitler was still alive (what Glorious Leader has not been reported as being so?). I knew nothing of Sven Hedin at all.
The Indian dancer Ram Gopal was about to present a season in London. I admired him and was pleased to find that Savitri knew him. He opened at the Prince (now the Shaftesbury) Theatre nearby, and on March 25th, 1948 (Greek Independence Day among other things) Veka and I were going to see the show. Savitri was acting as his dresser and doing what amounted to wardrobe jobs.
On the evening of March 24th my book came alive. The plot and the chief characters slid into place, while I watched with the third eye of creativity and heard in my mind what Kipling’s Daemon would put into my pen. Next day, before we went to the theatre, I told it all to Veka, who was in a receptive mood, declared it good, and apparently meant it. As first conceived The Distance Never Changes was sadder and shorter: both hero and heroine were to die, but the plot and characters were the same.
I had not seen or spoken to Savitri that day till we met backstage in Ram Gopal’s dressing-room; the first time I had met him. He was lively and charming; he was eating sweets and put one into my mouth at once. Almost his first words were:
“You were in Greece . . . seven hundred years ago . . . You were in Crete — ”
“Crete!” Veka was giving a performance, as so often, but her surprise was genuine. “She is very interested in Crete,” said Savitri, who had as yet no idea what was happening.
Sri Ram went on: “You were killed there; you were a sacrifice. You were killed on a high place, near the sea; you did not die under a roof.” My heroine was to die in the Minoan bull-game. “You know what I mean?”
“Yes,” I said. “But it was longer than seven hundred years ago.”
“Maybe; I am not good with dates. You ran from that thing — but it got you in the end. Later you came back and killed the man who made you do that.”
Sri Ram, of course, was what is called “psychic,” and of course believed in reincarnation; about which, as an agnostic, I have an open mind. I believe now that what happened was a quite remarkable piece of telepathy; he read my mind, which bad been occupied with the story since the night before. We had a great talk about it at home, and I soon began writing in the intervals of my costume work; I was getting enough of that and it was pleasant to work at home. Veka, who typed manuscripts, began to do the same soon after I did, so we saw a lot of each other. When Chapter Five was reached I knew that this book would not be consigned to some cupboard. I soon realized I could not bear to kill off either hero or heroine, and that they were good for another book. They were, they are, but so far it has only been written in my mind. The Distance eventually became reality, and I think it the best work I have ever done.
Veka had to have a slight operation and asked me to keep an eye on Savitri while she was away. She brought her sewing into my room, and we had a happy fortnight talking about Egypt, Crete, and the rest. I learned so much from her; she was a mine of historical knowledge.
“Being friends with someone and working for them are two very different things,” she said once to me. I knew exactly what she meant. I recall seeing her backstage once crying over some problem and wailing “I want the whole worrrld to be atom-bombed — !” When the show finished at the Prince’s, I helped her pack the dresses.
I cannot recall when she went to Germany, but it must have been some time now. My copy of Defiance is at present in other hands, so I cannot check. The whole story of her German adventure has been told by herself therein in any case. I remember Veka joining me in some theatre audience whispering, “I’ve heard from Savitri. She’s inside.”
While she was in Werl in 1949 Veka and I had a tremendous row, which had threatened for some time, and has no bearing on this account. It was very needless, silly, and mismanaged by both of us. After a silence of months, another of Veka’s affairs went awry, and she came to me weeping, with a conciliatory quarter of (rationed) tea in her hand. We had both written Savitri long letters, which despite her own problems she replied to sympathetically, and it all provided her with extra manuscript paper in Werl.
On her release she went to France, where later Veka visited her, and in autumn 1950 I did myself; my first trip abroad, I had £50 to cover the whole trip, stayed a month, and had a splendid if frugal time, and lost a stone. Her mother was somewhere around ninety and had worked for the French Resistance. So she and Savitri had a kind of ongoing feud which Madame Julia took very philosophically. Savitri was trying to get a new passport and wanted to resume her Greek nationality, which she had lost when she married in India in 1938. She went to Rome in connection with this; I went with her as far as Nice, saw Monte Carlo, Cannes, and had my first sight of the Mediterranean.
Ivor Novello’s last musical, King’s Rhapsody, was established at the Palace Theatre. He had been entirely different to me from its first opening: easy, talkative, giving me the little privileges so beloved of “fans,” and I was told he had said “he had been mistaken in me; I was really a very nice girl.”
On Saturday night, March 3rd, 1951, there was, unusually, not a soul at the stage-door. He came out alone and we had the longest conversation I had ever had with him – mainly about my work – I was making showgirls’ headdresses for the London Casino, representing various operas (not my own designs). “You’re a very hard-working girl, Muriel,” he said. “But I don’t seem to get very far, do I?” I replied. “You will, dear — you will,” he said, and went smiling away. I went home quietly happy in the way I had always wanted to be — a real friendship seemed coming.
On Monday night he came out through the usual small crowd, spoke to me, and I to him, so trivially that I cannot recall what was said. I went home to work all night on the last headdress.
At 8:15 AM on March 6th, 1951, he died of a coronary thrombosis. I was a short distance away, working on Orpheus in the Underworld.
By the beginning of 1953 Savitri had her Greek passport, though the Greek authorities would not recognize her Hindu marriage and she had to be Maximiani Portaz. In February 1953, I went with her to Greece “deck passage” on the S.S. Ionia. We caught the boat with seconds to spare, owing to a delay with the consigne at Marseilles where we had temporarily deposited our luggage. I can still hear the gangway going up behind us as we stepped on deck.
Deck-passage on the Ionia was on deck, for’ard, made of canvas bunks and screens and full in the teeth of the night-wind. Savitri, who had travelled all her life, had acquired none of the usual tourists’ comforts; no rug or warm coat, no little stove to heat water for a hot-bottle or drink. On this, my first trip of its kind, I thought of it all — I can still see her face when I brought her a hot-water bottle. She was prepared to lie shaking with cold for the three nights of the voyage; as for food, she proclaimed she would be fasting for part of the time, in honour of something or someone. She so often was. I had brought bread, olives, goats’ cheese, and butter (from a food-parcel sent by my godmother), and we did quite well. It was all worthwhile when we came through the Corinth canal and headed for Piraeus, with the “crown on the world’s head lying” shining through the mist beyond.
In her suitcase Savitri had a sizeable portrait of Hitler painted by herself. She proposed to put this on top of everything else, as it was “an insult” to put other things on top. (She was horrified when I put shoes on top of my writing.) I prevailed on her to put him in the bottom. I was thankful when we were through the Piraeus customs with no rummaging, and so was she; she was shaking with relief in the car as we were driven to the home of her old friend Marika Veloudiou, a large plain-spoken Greek lady with (I gathered) German blood, well-known in Athens as guide, lecturer, and something of a character. She died several years ago, aged — I think — 97; she would have bad much to tell of Savitri. She was most kind to me, giving me hospitality all the time I was in Athens. I had, once again, £50 to cover the whole trip, and I stayed seven weeks (we of course bought our own food). Her house, on the lower slopes of Lykabettos, was exactly in the spot where I had imagined some of my characters in The Distance to live. I went to Crete for several days. I slept on the floor of the Girls’ School in Heraklion for two nights and was then befriended by a charming English couple with whom I remained friends till their deaths. On the second anniversary of Ivor’s death [March 6th, 1953] I visited Knossos for the first time.
1953 was Coronation Year. I had lots of work and made several new connections. Everything was very Royal. I once made the whole Regalia in gilded buckram, gilt braid, and glass jewels. I worked on The Book as much as possible. It was getting far too long, but that was all experience. I never had the confidence to charge large prices, but I did make a living.
In 1956 Mother died, and a little later Father developed the first signs of senile dementia. He came to live in Richmond, but inflicted himself on me and made work of any kind virtually impossible. The senile dementia of the intelligent and educated is, I think, worse than that of the lesser-informed; Father’s sort have more to give them ideas. At the worst of it [in 1956] Mary Renault’s The King Must Die was published, and I thought it had prematurely killed anything I might produce. I went through hell and learned more about jealousy than I had ever known — which was to serve me well as I went on writing but had to be coped with at the time. I will draw a veil, as they say. I was more determined than ever to finish mine.
Father had a minor accident in Richmond Park before Christmas (1958) and was taken to hospital and into excellent care, which was a great blessing for all concerned. He stayed in care — with occasional hiccups — till his peaceful death in 1970.
About 1957 I began to grow very tired of working so immensely hard — I was working all night about twice a week in the height of the summer-show and pantomime seasons — and the old longing to work in a nice quiet bookshop — a good second-hand one for preference — came back many times. Had anybody offered me such a post I would, I think, have fallen on their neck. In 1959 my godmother decided that she would do what she planned for me while she was still alive and made me participant in the Trust Fund she had set up for her family. So from May 1960 I had a small but assured income, and it was all had imagined it would be.
I finished the book in 1961 and a kindly Hungarian Jew costumier with whom I often worked introduced me to his literary agent friend John Smith of Christy and Moore. John and I got on at first sight, and he liked the book immensely. It had grown to over 1,000 pages, and I knew it needed cutting, so we did not argue about that.
Savitri, who was teaching in France at this time, came to England and asked me to go to Greece again with her, and in the summer of 1961 we did. This time I went from Paris to Athens by the Orient Express, then running as an ordinary train. The third-class carriage journey across Europe was great fun, especially when we crossed the frontier into Greece. Savitri made her own way from France, where she was teaching, and we met a day or so later at Marika’s. Lovely to breakfast, when I arrived, on the balcony of Marika’s new house, looking across at the Acropolis.
Tourism was making its first inroads, and things were already changing, but Greece was still Greece. I was sad to see the marring of the loneliness of Sounion, as I remembered it from 1955.
Savitri was planning to cover the route taken by her admired Spartans when they besieged the Messenians at Eira. I did not share her enthusiasm for the Spartans, but I was willing to walk in their steps. Savitri had the idea of a book about the lame singer Tyrtaeus whose songs had inspired them; she worked on it for some time, but in the end, it came to nothing.
We went by train, bus, but mostly afoot over the mountain roads and tracks, guided by a well-met and helpful headman from the village of Kakaletri. I was not as slim as I bad been, but I still walked well. We saw the beautiful Bassae temple, whose guardians had resisted the inroads of “tourist attractions.” I hope they do so still. In the museum at Sparta I speculated about those who underwent the endurance test of being flogged before Artemis Orthia; how many might have actually enjoyed it, and who most; the floggers or the floggees. Savitri had never thought of that.
We always carried extra bread and goats’ cheese for the many lean, hungry feral cats we met on the way. The Greeks are generally as hospitable and kindly as report describes them, but their attitude to animals can sometimes leave much to be desired.
Through all this quite considerable journey Savitri carried a briefcase ponderously stuffed with manuscripts, a split-nib school pen and — to the peril of her manuscripts — a bottle of ink. She had also a wide-meshed string bag, which hooked itself frequently on the Peloponnesian cacti. She hoped to catch up with an archaeologist friend of Marika’s — who had the same name as the hero (or anti-hero) of The Distance — but he was always ahead of us and we never saw him. It was a most interesting and rewarding trip, and I enjoyed every moment of it, except for my dislike of the encroaching disfigurements of tourism. I wish now I had tried to ignore them and gone again while I could.
Savitri left Athens some days before me; she was going to Germany. We planned to visit Stonehenge when she next came to England. I went to Crete, met my English friends again, and revisited Knossos. I stayed not quite seven weeks this time and spent about £70; I allowed myself a few treats.
At home John Smith was doing his best for The Distance. I had thought Hutchinsons the best bet among the publishers, but John tried several others first. All had nice things to say, but we did not quite bring it off. John was very confident of eventual success.
It must have been in the spring of 1962 that I received a message one afternoon asking me to call at nearby Bow Street Police Station. (“What has she done now?” I thought.) It was a telephone call (I had no telephone in London) from the Immigration Department at Newhaven; they had my friend Maximiani Portas there; she had only £9 in money and had come from India with very odd luggage, and they were not disposed to allow her in.
They put her on the line (in near hysterics), and I calmed her down. She had two jobs to go to in France in three weeks and was hoping to spend the time with me and go to Stonehenge. There was no problem about how she would live as she would be my guest as I had explained. She now made things worse by saying that a friend would like her to give his son extra French tuition for the time she was there; this brought up the question of a work permit, though it was merely a friendly suggestion. I said I would come to Newhaven in the morning. I gave her the £3 I had put by for the Stonehenge trip, and saw what the officer had meant about her luggage. I think he was very amused indeed. She bad a smallish old suitcase, several smaller bags and parcels (some exuding insect-powder); she was not very well-dressed herself, and her dreary little headscarf did not help matters; but I think they might have let her in. She went back on the midday Channel ferry, took up one of her two teaching jobs, and all went well; she was a splendid teacher. The other friend was Peter Greenslade (of the luminous swastika notion); I had to go and find him that evening in I forget which endless suburb, far from train or bus, and explain it all. I had advised Savitri to get herself decent luggage, and she did; which, in view of the circumstances of her next appearance was a good thing.
She arrived on the 26th July, 1962. The British Nazis were to set up a camp in “Dead and Bury Hollow” in Gloucestershire, to which, of course, she planned to go. She had brought a large swastika flag which she unfurled over my sitting-room; I flew to draw the curtains. On the 31st of July we went to Stonehenge. She was much concerned, on the bus from Avesbury, to see a small boy in a cowboy hat with a sheriff’s star on its front, with a rabbit in a hutch on his knees. “That boy . . . he is wearing the Star of David on his hat. . . and what is he doing with that rabbit?” I think she visualized some proposed form of non-Aryan torture. “Why should an English boy want to dress up as an American sheriff?”
She found Stonehenge smaller than she bad expected; she had imagined dimensions more resembling Karnak. She had the swastika flag with her concealed in a discreet brown paper carrier; she laid it down on the Altar Stone and silently invoked the blessing of the ancient gods, while I contemplated the trilithons.
On August 8th the flag was set up in the already rain-soaked field; when the Gloucestershire locals would have no more of such doings someone let go with both barrels of his gun and blew out its middle.
The story of the camp and the ringleaders’ trial at Bow Street has been told elsewhere; there is no need to repeat it here. I was certainly not there myself, and Savitri only very briefly. The whole affair was more ludicrous than otherwise, made more so by the mud in which the Nazis and the locals fought it out. It all coincided with my first interview with Hutchinsons, so I had much more to concern me. Things looked very favourable. But there was the question of necessary cutting to resolve. My editor and John Smith thought that the heroine’s adventures in Athens should be almost entirely taken out; I have never agreed with this and neither have others who have read it. (“Why didn’t you tell us what happened in Athens?’) But I did get my way over another suggested cut, and it was afterwards admitted I was right. In the end, in 1964, I knew I had made it.
It must have been in 1964 that Savitri came again. I remember showing her my sketches for suggested jacket covers.
All this time Veka had lived next door; she had worked in the BBC foreign section for some time now and changed her rather frumpy image for one of some elegance. She had had a couple of emotional and transient love affairs, the second culminating in a bungled suicide attempt (on Christmas night, as she hated all to do with it and other Christian festivals and always worked through them if she could). I played fairly with her, told no one the truth till it no longer mattered.
It gathered from certain evidence that she was contemplating a move, and I was determined to get her rooms (and the landing to myself) if she did. She told the other people in the house she was going soon, and asked them not to tell me, which of course they did. She told Savitri when she came but it was no news to me. I went to the agents’ and said that if ever the rooms became vacant, I wanted the first refusal; the owner was a solicitor who knew my solicitor, so I got hold of him as well. The agents’ office thought it very funny, as indeed it was. In the end Veka told me and professed surprise when I said I wanted the rooms. She promised faithfully not to tell anyone — she who had let it out months before. She thought she had what she called “A Hold on Me.” In 1967 she really did move to Brighton, and we parted amicably. I skipped round the empty rooms, and all went well. I put in electric light (she still had gas, in 1967, as I had till 1957), did six months’ good D.I.Y. and made things rather exciting. She was honest enough to admit her surprise when she came to see me. She could be so damned nice that it was a pity she so often felt the urge to be so damned nasty; but she had to fuel that sense of power. Like “Alinda” in The Distance — in whom she was delighted to see herself — she preferred to be respected.
The Sixties were swinging, and they certainly swung for me. The Distance was published at last in May 1965, after a postponement from the previous October — Hutchinsons wanted to make it stand out and did not want it swamped by the flood of Christmas books. So on May 10th, 1965, I had the day of my life. A party was given for me in the Cheshire Cheese; I made myself a glamorous outfit, and it was Havelock Ellis’ “story . . . told in bed” come true for me. I had certainly told it to myself in bed many times. I was on Anglia TV (no space for me on London). We had sold enough copies to feel confident. I had had several interviews — and later at least twenty-seven reviews — including the T.L.S. [Times Literary Supplement] in a double box with Philip Lindsay; and Mary Renault, to whom a copy had been sent without my knowledge, did me very proud indeed in the South African Sunday Times. A pity the projected trilogy has mostly stayed in my head,
The hippies were flourishing in this new world of new ideas, and in the Lane next door but one to 180, the “Arts Lab” opened. I got on well with the more sensible elements, acted in some of their plays and films, and had a little taste of it all before it was — inevitably — spoiled by those who never knew where to stop.
The improvers had got their claws, ready to seize Covent Garden, and we founded a Community Association to try to frustrate them. We had a really good time doing it and succeeded in a lot we hoped to achieve. I think it is partly due to my own efforts that 180 still stands, though in the end we who had lived there so long had to move. My (controlled) rent was still, when I left in 1978, £3.63p — in the heart of London, a few minutes from my beloved British Museum. It was enjoyable to march into Trafalgar Square with our protest banners.
I was not going to let Them put me into a tower block or Council property with restrictions on pets and decorating. I had always imagined myself returning to the country when I retired, and I went seriously cottage-hunting in 1971, when rents and prices were still reasonable — incredibly cheap they seem now. There was a lot of good property in East Anglia. On March 25th, 1972 (again The Day) I had a letter from an agent in Braintree offering me this house, which was to become Moira Cottage, I begged them to give me time to get to Braintree before selling it, and they promised. After a dash to Halstead for the keys I was driven to this small red-brick cottage (really timber-framed but bricked over) with a good garden and, as I saw when I got indoors, possibilities.
I have spoken of the “interior voice”; never has it spoken to me more clearly than it did, in this sitting-room where I now write. “This is it — settle for this — you’ll be all right here. This is the one.” “But it’s so small,” I answered in my mind. “Never mind — take it.” So I did. I paid my deposit in the Halstead office as the telephone rang with the other offer I had been told about — but I was there.
I have had the happiest years of my life here; a lovely view, with a Norman castle included, accessibility from London, the house in good condition, and the best neighbours I could have had anywhere. I planned to call wherever I found myself Moira something — Moira Cottage, Villa, House, or whatever; the Greek name for Fate. It is far too small, and in late years the lack of space has become a problem, but no one can take from me the 23 happy, happy years I have had. I kept on my London flat till 1978, when I had to leave; but it was beginning to be needless to have two places. In 1978 I began to have arthritis in my hip and had a replacement in 1981, entirely successfully. Three months later I sat in the Strand all night, with my old Drury Lane neighbors, to have a good view of the Royal Wedding. My knees are a problem now and it inhibits me from doing many things, but till a few years ago I could manage almost anything.
Veka died in Brighton in 1972, just after I had told her that I had got my country cottage (she probably thought I never would). Savitri went to India — I think she was too old now to teach in France; and sometime in the early seventies her husband died.
It is difficult, sometimes, to think of Savitri as a married person. I think her marriage was successful in its way; during the years I knew her, she and her husband spent very little time together, though he was with her during his last illness. She always spoke kindly of him and followed the usual Hindu customs: serving him first at meals and, upon his death, cutting her hair and discarding her jewellery.
We wrote often to each other, but sometime in the seventies she asked to be excused from writing so often, as her sight was so bad she needed to conserve it for her work. She told me, “I have the threat of blindness hanging over me like the sword of Damocles.” I told her to write when she could, but about herself, her cats, India and so on, and leave the Jews out of it. (When I saw statistics and rows of noughts, I generally knew what they signified and skipped them.)
Later she had a stroke; I believe she was cooking for her cats when it happened. She now had partial paralysis, but could still write, though her old-style schoolmistress’ writing was sadly changed.
In 1982 I had several letters from friends of hers, saying she was going to America and wanted to visit me on the way. I was surprised to learn she had friends in her loathed America; I did not then know of the group of her “comrades” established there.
About three a.m. on Sunday, October 17th the police knocked on my door to tell me she had arrived in England and would be looked after till I could contact her later. Near midday a car drove up, and a voice hailed me, after all these years, as if we had scarcely been parted: “Allo, Muriel darling! Will you give the driver £10 — I have not enough money . . .”
One on either side, the Bengali driver and I helped her up my drive, and through my doors. “So many thresholds,” she sighed. She wore a thin white sari with very little beneath it, and on top the ruins of a black Fifties Dior coat, obviously once belonging to her friend Françoise Dior, sometimes known as “Nazi Nell.” She had a small metal chair on wheels which had supported her on her journey, a (good) suitcase and carrier bag, and a small yellow plastic bucket. I wonder what the rest of Townsend Thoresen’s ferry passengers made of her.
She sat in my chair and began to talk as if we had only parted last week. My bed was downstairs in the sitting-room; I had a garden lounge there for her to sleep on. She wanted her head to the east — another of her fancies — but it was not convenient in my small room. She would quite happily have obstructed all movement and inconvenienced everyone. I doubt she would have thought of it. She ended in my big armchair. I was expecting to have her for three weeks till her flight left.
Next day she wrote letters while I was concerned with the new window being put into my kitchen. On Tuesday we had a really pleasant day talking over old times and congenial topics. She had ideas about seeing Japan on this trip, so her spirit was still unextinguished. She looked rather nice with her new short hair. I made her take off her olive oil-stained sari so that I could wash it; she would not trouble to put on a new one but sat in her petticoat and come inadequate upper covering; it was as well that I kept good fires. She was always cold, but never took the pains to achieve acceptable comfort. She did not want her food put into my refrigerator. She ate like a bird, but for all that she could gorge on something she liked. She loved Brussels sprouts, so on Wednesday we had them for our evening meal. She flooded hers with olive oil, and the result, at three a.m., can only be described as disastrous.
Someone had lent her a servant in Delhi, and she had obviously got into the habit of shouting at him and others in the way familiar to those of me who enjoy Indian films. I had to tell her plainly that I was willing to help her, but I was not the dhobi-wallah. She was enormously apologetic. On Wednesday, a friend of hers, now dead, had called and said he would take her to Heathrow when the time came.
At noon on Thursday she asked me if it was still dark outside. “I do hope I die before I go completely blind,” she said. She did not feel well and lay on my bed (with a plastic bin-bag under her) and a warm cover. I went shopping to the village; when I came back, she asked for a thermometer, which I did not possess. She had “a fever,” she said; she was hot and cold by turns. I insisted on calling the doctor; she did not want him, but I said I could not be responsible if she was really ill. I telephoned him, and he came very quickly. He thought it was mainly the changes in food and water as she went through the various countries to get here, but saw my problems and said privately that if she was not better next day, he would see about getting her to hospital. I would frankly have been very relieved. I am no nurse, but I did my best. She would have been a real problem in hospital.
Needless to say, she abhorred TV (“I would ban it altogether save for half an hour a day propaganda”). That evening I put mine on for the first time. “Turn it off! Turn it off! You do not know what it does to me . . .” I had to have a break and went upstairs to my little writing room to deal with a letter. I could hear if she needed me from there. I left her warmly covered, with a hot-water bottle, on my bed, with a big fire burning. I shall always be glad that I made her so comfortable at the end.
Upstairs, I simply fell asleep at the typewriter, having written my letter. I awoke about 12:15 a.m. and came down and heard her, as I supposed, snoring. I did not disturb her. My cat asked for her food; I got it from where it was ready in the kitchen, set it down, and came back to Savitri. She was snoring no longer and lay quiet with closed eyes; she was very still indeed. I spoke to her and had no reaction. Her hands were laid lightly on her breast; I lifted them and let them fall; lifted her feet and did the same. I put my hands behind her shoulders, raised her from the pillow, said, “Savitri, can you hear me?” There was no reply. She fell back as I took my hands away. It was 12:25 a.m. on the morning of Friday, the 22nd of October.
I went to telephone (my neighbours were still up) and called the doctor. “She’s either dead or in a coma,” I said. He came at once. “I’m afraid the poor dear lady’s dead,” he said. What I had taken for snoring had been the death-rattle.
Anyone who has had a foreign visitor die on them will know what that entails. I am only thankful, for many reasons, that Savitri did not die on the Channel ferry. I could not be sorry that she had died before blindness overtook her. She looked dignified, rather handsome, and entirely at peace. I said my farewells, thanked her for all her friendship had given me, covered her over and never looked at her again. Soon the first policeman came and — over a cup of tea — I let all her cats out of the bag. It was easier than expected; he said there were a lot of National Socialists about. After he had gone, I went upstairs and got what rest I could in a chair. In the later morning, the mortuary van arrived, and there was concern because it was necessary to up-end the coffin to get it through my door. I said she had more sense than to mind if she knew anything about it. “That isn’t my friend.” I said, “It’s her discarded dress.”
Later, especially in the evening, I went through her possessions — fortunately few as she had disposed of most things before leaving Delhi. A few clothes — very few; some German books; a good many letters, of most of which it seemed wisest to dispose; not only her Greek passport, but a British one, which surprised me. It did not seem to trouble the police at all. I have no notion how she came to have it. I also found what seemed to be the address of her Indian in-laws, her only relations, and the money she would have needed to get into America. This eventually paid for her funeral. I also, after some delay, got back the price of her ticket from British Airways and returned it to the friend (Frau Lotte Asmus) who had given it.
I arranged her cremation, but the police stopped it, saying they had to find her relations, if any. They did not commit themselves about the address I had found. Weeks after all was over, they admitted they had found someone who knew her, but did not want anything to do with it. It had to be the address I gave them.
She lay in the mortuary at Braintree from the 22nd of October till permission was given for cremation at Colchester on the 7th of December.
I arranged what I thought would please her. Colin Jordan sent a young man to see me, who came with two friends to the simple ceremony, all three dramatically dressed in black. I was the only one to follow her coffin through England’s green fields to Colchester. A small battery of Press cameras awaited me some distance away. I set out some photographs of her as I had been asked to do, and spoke a tribute to her I had written, which has seemed to please everyone and certainly could offend nobody. I saw the last of a very special friend with arms outstretched towards her coffin as it glided away. I think she would have liked what was done.
I made it clear to one reporter that I was most certainly not what might be thought, and did my best to be discreet about Savitri. I did not check if there was any report in the Colchester papers as I felt I did not want to know. Now I wish I had, and I would welcome information.
I have written in some detail of my life, and more minutely of a long and rewarding friendship which changed it for the better and was the cause of my achieving the best and most satisfying work I ever did. Savitri said to me once, in Greece, “I should hate you because you are so damned Minoan, but I don’t. I love you. I believe she did — though I could have killed that love at a stroke by expressing my true opinion about certain things, about which I did not care enough to stir up trouble — and I suppose I loved her also — as a good friend and congenial companion. I think I liked her the more because I so often wanted to laugh at her, and I think also that I helped to awake in her a sense of humour, though that always took a little work to achieve. Now, with my eighty-second birthday drawing ever nearer, I wonder if I would have as much patience with her — idiosyncrasies? — as I did in my middle-age; perhaps not. But I have many happy memories of her as I knew her then, and it may well that we shall meet again in another life and continue those conversations which taught me so much. I can only wait and see. I will not say “Rest in peace, Savitri,” for I think she would not want to be too peaceful; she once said she would be bored by Elysion. She would be happier in Valhalla.
 Savitri embarked from Hull, England on November 9, 1946 and arrived in Reykjavik, Iceland on November 14. She embarked from Reykjavik back to England on July 8, 1947.
 An unpublished novel.
 Savitri met Sven Hedin on June 6, 1948, in Stockholm.
 A. K. Mukherji died on March 21, 1977 at Savitri’s apartment in New Delhi.
 Joe Jones.
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