Venus: An Aphrodisiac of Refinement

Venus, by Grace Vane Percy, is receiving the kind of acclaim that photographic books hardly ever collect.

The reason, if I were to make a wild guess, is due to her clear and defined skills in presenting the nude female form in a perspective where elegance enhances its impact and the surrounding environment gives her photographs an artistic edge that propels them into a class of their own.

Shot in black and white, in country homes noted for their fine art treasures, Venus becomes a dreamlike compendium of a coterie of beautiful young maidens whose innocence and sensuality shine through as if the angels have willed it.

The author, endowed with a lanky frame, infuses what one may call a prototype of her own art. She combines femininity with a visual dimension that inspires the very fabric of her work.

Venus is a book that will remain an outstanding objet d’art and will certainly outlast the vagaries of fashion.

As Christmas is the festive season, why not celebrate with a gift of substance at a price you can afford? £50 in today’s money is a bargain for what you are getting. Hurry and don’t leave matters hanging in the air. Time is not on your side now that the bells of Christmas are about to toll merrily.

So be bold! Defy the misers who think otherwise with a gift that may even give a boost to your love life…

The Pig that Nearly Flew

Pigs are animals that are rarely pampered, looked upon as dirty and with a pungent smell most people consider revoltingly off-putting.

Yet curiously enough some adopt them as pets despite their stink and seem not to mind the strong smell that their close proximity ravages on the human nose.

Passengers were mortified over a pig that was allowed on to their plane recently. An American woman was eventually forced to disembark after bringing a seventy-pound pot-bellied pig on board for ‘emotional support’, a term often used for the wrong reasons.

She carried the swine on board – which is apparently legal in the US – and sat down, cradling the creature. So far, so good…

However, it was not long before the pig, which was on a leash, went out of control pacing around the cabin in a disruptive manner that other passengers objected to. In addition, it was also making the cabin smell.

Jonathan Skolnik, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, who was sitting next to the unnamed woman and her pig, said he initially thought the farmyard animal was a large duffle bag. ‘It turns out it wasn’t a duffle bag. We could smell it and it was a pig on a leash,’ Professor Skolnik recalled. ‘She tethered it to the armrest next to me and started to deal with her stuff, but the pig was walking back and forth. I was terrified because I was thinking, “I’m gonna be on the plane with the pig,”‘ he told ABC News.

US Airways confirmed that the woman and her pig were then asked to get off the plane before it took off from Connecticut. She was allowed through security and on to the plane at the discretion of airline staff because the animal was classified as an ‘emotional support animal’.

Can you imagine the world going bonkers with psychological mania? They now claim emotional support for the weirdest of things. Could it be rats next?

Monkeys, cats and miniature horses can all reportedly qualify as ‘emotional support animals’ under 2012 Federal Law. Pigs are a popular choice in such cases for people allergic to cats and dogs because they are tuned into their owners.

Pigs may fly; but they are very unlikely birds.

Cara at the Peak of Everest

On the face of it Cara Delevingne’s sexual capacity knows no limitation if our imagination were to run wild in line with her public manifestation of a serial bigamist, having had a string of high-profile ‘wifeys’.

She appears to play the field and although the novelty of every relationship she has so far is self-consuming in a honeymoon context she nevertheless succumbs to the eternal sin when a new temptress rears her beautiful head and bids her a passionate embrace.

Cara has certainly made her dramatic impact on the glamorous world of fashion, and is now trying to conquer new grounds in acting and singing. The girl has a multitude of talents with a personality that veers from the comic to the sublime, with her eyes constantly focused on the next challenge to come her way.

She has developed a sense of pinpointing the next opportunity that keeps her firmly in the public arena, and has with very little practice mastered the art of keeping herself in the headlines.

Her latest escapade, or we might call it her new love, is the model Kendall Jenner, the young sister of Kim Kardashian – who is noted among other things as the girl with the great protruding behind, the object of desire to many a frustrated male hunk who fancies a fleshy overblown carnal bomb-like object.

Cara’s roving eye has this time hit the jackpot. It is now reported that she and Kendall will share a love nest where they can freely pour out a torrent of passionate sexual embracing that will eclipse any past or future relationship.

Cara and Kendall have been seen cavorting at parties together for a few months but recently they took their photogenic union public with a high-profile double spot at Chanel, and the leaking of a new joint LOVE magazine cover – ‘Kendall on Cara’ – conceived by the magazine editor-in-chief Katie Grand.


The new meaning of togetherness

The issue of LOVE with its sensational cover is due on 9th February next year and the signs are that its raunchy cover and the photo shoot inside will propel the pair to a drone-like explosion that in its wake the media will have a lightning bonanza to keep its readers mesmerised for more.

Well done, Cara. No one can say that you haven’t made it big. Keep going, girl – for the world is your oyster and sin is your energising body supplement.

Torture is Never the Answer

Tony Blair never fails to hit the headlines.

His long tenure at 10 Downing Street and his warmongering have become a talking point which still remains the subject of controversy to haunt him for the rest of his days.

Whether it be his disastrous war in Iraq, his warming up to Gaddafi, his subordinate role to George W. Bush, his scandalous connections with tin-pot dictators all around the globe, his money-making greed or his refusal to admit his participation in many of the political ills he left behind, all these things prove an absence of dignity and a bad spirit.

A man who seems unrepentant for his misdeeds and claims to be a God-fearing convert to Catholicism, is anything beyond that which words can describe.

Nothing to him is sacred and his brash approach to humanitarian issues is often punctuated by sheer hypocrisy, for his actions invariably prove the contrary.

Take the death toll in Iraq of innocent people during the invasion and the subsequent butchery that followed, and is now worse than ever before.

The latest barbaric scandal about CIA torture has left the world in a frenzy of shock and is unlikely to go away until questions are asked and honest replies are given.

Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, has said: ‘Tony Blair should give a full account of what he knew about the CIA’s torture and rendition programme during his time in Downing Street.’

In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, Mr Fallon intensified the pressure on Mr Blair and Jack Straw – the then foreign secretary – over their knowledge or otherwise of the US policy.

In a further swipe at Mr Blair and his support for President Bush, Mr Fallon called for the urgent publication of the findings of the Chilcot Inquiry into the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The Sunday Telegraph‘s own investigation can disclose the following: how a highly critical parliamentary report expressing concern that MPs were apparently misled over the UK’s role in torture was suppressed by the Labour government – that the secret report also alleged MI5 withheld information suggesting the intelligence services knew about the torture of Binyam Mohamed, a British resident, and that Britain had its own interrogation teams working in at least three US detention centres, where torture by US agents took place – a disclosure that raises questions over British claims they did not know about the US torture programme.

Tony Blair’s government was known for its double standards and its evasive answers when caught bending the rules and telling lies to justify its actions.

I hate to think what the future will reveal. It is certainly murky, but the extent of its betrayal of the principles of a free democracy and its disregard for Parliament has never been properly dissected – merely glossed over, perhaps, to avoid a serious crisis of trust, the very foundation of our political ethos.

The US is at least brave enough to concede their joining the ranks of barbarians. Maybe the horror of their practice will persuade them to return to civilisation and make amends.

My Own Legs are Not for Dancing

Dancefloor anxiety has long been associated with the troubles of adolescence but the tendency to be a ‘wallflower’ emerges at the age of four, a study suggests.

Researchers claim a child’s fourth birthday marks a turning point when he or she senses that peers may view their dance technique with a critical eye.

While more than half of children aged three and under eagerly take to the dancefloor, their enthusiasm apparently wanes after their fourth birthday.

By the age of twelve, just twelve per cent are willing to dance in front of strangers.

‘This unwillingness to perform likely perpetuates beyond school dances, affecting the willingness of adults to engage in such playful behaviour as well,’ say the researchers at Harvard and Illinois Universities, where the study appears in the journal Child Development.

They have identified a point at which a child begins to interpret human behaviour and understands social norms.

One side-effect is increasing sensitivity to criticism and a realisation that one’s own behaviour – such as dancing and singing – could be viewed critically.

To prove the validity of their research, children were asked to choose two activities to carry out in front of researchers from a list of four, involving colouring, writing, singing or dancing.

Results showed fifty per cent of three-year-olds chose to dance, down to thirteen per cent at eleven and twelve per cent at twelve. Not one child aged eleven or twelve chose both singing and dancing.

‘Our results may explain why adults aren’t willing to dance. And some may secretly like to dance but may not be willing to move and groove in front of others because they know their moves will be viewed critically by others,’ says Dr Lan Nguyen Chaplin, who led the study.

I can well understand the reason behind embarking on such a study, but since I’m an avid viewer of the BBC television programme Strictly Come Dancing, where a number of participants are selected because of their lack of dancing abilities and put through a rigorous regime of dance tutoring by professionals, I have come to the conclusion that some adults unbeknown to them, once put to the test, can discover a latent talent that was bursting to reveal itself – and what a pleasant surprise when it does.

Would I by any chance include myself in this category, where revelation can manifest itself when called on by circumstances? Not on your nelly, is my short answer.

Hamid & Zahra: A Love Story out of Arabia’s pre-Spring Innocence

This book has been a long time coming: a risqué love story and Bildungsroman, interwoven into the complicated political, social and religious fabric of an Arab Gulf kingdom.

It is a tale which reveals the fragility, innocence and tenderness of its chief protagonist, Hamid, a privileged young Gulf Arab in search of love and a sense of his life’s purpose.

For anyone who has ever lived and worked for any significant length of time in the Gulf, for those who developed friendships with its oft misunderstood and misrepresented people, who are distinct from the region’s governing regimes, this story has an unmistakable ring of credibility and uncomplicated honesty about it.

The truth is often very simple, and it is precisely that simplicity which makes this novel hard to believe, but also makes it a compelling read for anyone looking to learn more about this complex region and its people.

Hamid is a composite of many characters, I suspect. He is a young man, a member of the Qatari ruling family, privileged, loved by the Emir and his family, unsettled, eager to learn about his country’s past and discover its place in the world as well as his own.

‘Privilege and power are given [by the Almighty] for a purpose.’

With these words from Hamid’s internal dialogue in the novel, the reader is invited to engage with the developing, often radical ideas that increasingly seize Hamid’s imagination.

Following a tragic episode in his life, he begins to think deeply on matters, explore his country’s past, dare to plan its future, question and inquire, all in an environment that implicitly encourages unquestioning acceptance.

Hamid is representative of a whole generation of Qatari youth, and indeed, one could argue, of Gulf youth in general, all newly empowered, unlike their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, with a wider knowledge of the world and a lightning fast communication system that helps shorten geographical and ideological distances.

But still, Hamid’s generation, like all generations that preceded it, share one common aspect of youth, a desire to rebel with radical ideas, thoughts that are deemed almost taboo, to explore possibilities that the established orthodoxy, both political and religious, frowns upon and rejects as subversive.

Indeed, it is Hamid’s wealth and position that may even have served to embolden him to embrace ideas deemed so seditious in his country, as he courts the attentions of the ‘wicked infidels’ as this involvement serves to further educate Hamid about the often-misunderstood, one-dimensional Westerner.

Hamid’s awakening coincided with great changes in his country, great opportunities realised and hope for better and greater things to come for the country.

Qatar wins the bid to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022 with Hamid a front-row witness to that euphoric moment, being among the first to congratulate the Emir.

His awakening also coincided with the first embers of disaffection emerging in the wider Arab world that seemed to portend the devastating upheavals to come.

The doting Emir, sending him to meet with the Syrian Head of State, passing on messages and friendly warnings from the Emir, thrusts Hamid into the crucible of Arab politics. A big mission, no doubt, albeit the trip was intended to give the young man much needed experience in such matters.

For Hamid, it is also a time of emotional growth, as he pursues a romance with a beautiful, passionate, intelligent, courageous and outspoken young woman who captures his heart: Zahra, a Shiite Muslim from Saudi Arabia’s eastern region.

Zahra soon consumes his every waking moment as well as his dreams. It is in those dreams that his aspirations for his country, his image of himself as a pivotal character in his country’s progress, and his wish for marital bliss with Zahra merge and emerge in his mind.

We are transported from a moonlit night atop the Barzan Towers in Qatar to a weekend meal at the Presidential Palace in Syria, to the Trevi Fountain in Rome, and from the banks of the Nile to Istanbul’s magical Bosporus. The opulent surroundings that often reflect the privileged and detached life that is Hamid’s lot and that of so many of his class, belies the multiple crises and conflicts that are tearing apart the fabric of his world.

The novel’s final tragic twist, the courage and unflagging hope and vision of its central characters in the face of the storm, is cathartic. Although the Arab Spring was yet to take place in the period of time depicted in the novel, a spring of sorts, the novel seems to suggest, has already taken place in the hearts and minds of Hamid’s generation.

One can only hope that this personal awakening of a generation can serve to create a better world for the next.

In the present political upheavals in the Middle East, this gripping story of love and morality will give the reader a much wider, telescopic view of the real dangers that encounter the whole region.

Buy this book and make your own judgement. Whatever this may turn out to be, you will certainly be the wiser.

Mary Ellis

Mary Ellis was born in New York in 1900.

In 1918 she made her debut opposite Caruso at the Metropolitan Opera House where she remained for four years. She was the original Rose Marie in the musical by Hammerstein (1924). She starred in a number of theatrical roles on Broadway and in 1926 appeared in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment with the English actor Basil Sydney, who became her third husband. In 1929 they travelled to England and she made her London stage debut in 1930. She remained in London and starred in The Dancing Years and Glamorous Night which Ivor Novello wrote especially for her.

After the war she resumed her stage career and made many appearances at Drury Lane, the Old Vic, Stratford-upon-Avon and the Lyceum, Edinburgh. Her autobiography, Those Dancing Years, was published in 1982.  A further autobiography Moments of Truth followed in 1986.

She died in London on 30th January 2003 aged 105. My interview took place in early 1993.

I have the impression from your autobiography that your mother was a kind but rather remote, even unhelpful presence in your life. Yet presumably it was her interest in music which sowed the seeds of your own career. 

She was a very talented musician who had given everything up to marry my father, and when she saw I had talent she put all her unfinished ambition into me. Usually Americans are overflowing with affection and warmth, whether it’s honest or not, but she wasn’t demonstrative at all. I can’t remember any cosiness or anything maternal, and I had no real childhood. I am more of a child now than I was then in the sense that I have reactions now which I should have had when I was ten or eleven.

You say you learned the rudiments of morality, optimism and compassion from your nurse, and yet she was despatched from your life when you were only six, leaving you desolate. Can you still recall that feeling of being abandoned, what you call your ‘great dark grief’? 

Yes. It is moderated in my mature life but I have a theory that everybody has a typical experience; no matter how people try to change their reactions and what happens to them, somehow it becomes a recurring leitmotif. I have had a continual feeling of abandonment in my personal life, and even though I am ninety-three I still fear it. Maybe I expect too much of people, but I know it’s going to end badly.

Did this feeling of being abandoned have repercussions in later life, do you think? 

I was brought up in the Edwardian way of thinking; everything had to be terribly contained, there was none of this permissive feeling at the time, and if you thought you were in love with somebody you had to marry, even though mature thinking would have dictated otherwise. Consequently I had a very unsuccessful and unhappy first marriage. I don’t blame fate of life because it has been wonderful to me in other respects. There’s just something in me that has always invited emotional distress or disaster.

Were you close to your father? 

I absolutely worshipped him, and to displease him was the most awful thing in the world to me. It was he who helped out in all my unhappiness, and he who nursed me when I was ill. He also taught me my first music and I remember sitting on his knee and he’d sing all the Viennese waltzes with the result that I always moved in three-quarters time. He died in 1937 and I missed him dreadfully.

Your mother was quite indulgent towards you in the sense that ‘she condoned too much without understanding enough’, as you put it. Do you think you would have benefited from stricter guidelines? 

Indeed, yes, but my parents were so Edwardian that it was taken for granted that girls didn’t do certain things. There’s a sense of safety in obeying authority, whether it’s parents or teachers, and that sense is absent nowadays in young people who would consider our way of life to have been very austere, but in fact it built a wonderful foundation.

You wrote in your book: ‘Never once, even in the emotional crises of my life when I needed her help, did she explain anything to me.’ Did you ever manage to come to terms with this feeling of disappointment in your mother? 

As I grew up it became more amusement than disappointment. I was an afterthought in my parents’ lives – I came ten years after my sister. My mother was a most amazing woman, very talented, suppressed, flirtatious and beautiful – full of contradiction. I imagine she must have been very passionate, because my father never looked at another woman all his life. In the eighteenth century she might have been a marvellous courtesan.

You fell in love at a very tender age, but the boy you loved was killed in the Battle of the Somme. Did that early shock, that linking of love and death, make its mark on the rest of your life, do you think? 

Emphatically, yes. First love is the greatest experience one can have, and it wasn’t a silly, baby love, because we had been more or less brought up together. But when I look back on my life, I was very lucky, because if, poor boy, he hadn’t been killed, I think I would have ended up in Manchester, without a career, the mother of a great many children.

Looking back on your youth, you say that in terms of maturity, you were really the same as today’s young people, only more self-conscious and less sex-conscious. Do you think that being less sex-conscious made it an easier or more difficult time for you? 

Oh heavens, sex didn’t enter into it. I confess that I suffered from innocence, and I can say absolutely truthfully that I still do. Although I know everything with my brain, I cannot see how people behave as they do. Innocence is a quality, not a physical thing, so that someone can have been through the mill, indeed several mills, and still retain a quality of innocence that has nothing to do with what’s happened. I don’t envy today’s youth at all; they have mistaken sex for love. I have never in my life slept with a man I didn’t love.

You have managed to retain your innocence? 

Yes, though that has been unfortunate in some ways. I would have behaved quite differently if I had had a sophisticated approach to life. I would certainly have been more sensible. I’m a hopeless romantic, and romantics have the worst time of it because they persist in translating the happenings of life into miracles and fairytales.

You describe singing with Caruso in L’Elisir d’Amore as the pinnacle for you. Did it also seem so at the time, or did it become imbued with such significance only later? 

I hardly ever realized anything important was happening to me at the time. The most astonishing things musically and professionally took place, yet I never knew. My dream of living a life over again would be to know the value of things as they take place. In my late years I have been more able to appreciate moments of happiness when they happen, but when you’re young the peaks pass you by.

Before you were twenty-five you had already sung with Caruso and Chaliapin, and you describe the thrill of Chaliapin ‘dying’ in your arms in Boris Godunov. Did you become aware of Caruso’s legendary status only afterwards? 

No, that was something I knew then. I remember almost fainting during the first rehearsal. It was a physical thing, really. I was small and slender, and I had to kneel on the floor and hold this great heavy hulk, and when he started to sing and it was like embracing a church bell – the vibrations and sound filled all one’s cavities and senses. But all this was so long ago and such a small part of my life that I’ve practically forgotten it; I don’t live with it at all, and can only remember the effect of it.

You don’t live in the past? 

No. I remember the past like a marvellous book I’ve read. Life is the most important thing, it’s the only thing we have, so we have to make something of every minute, even if it’s tragic.

You write mockingly of Caruso’s last performance and his subsequent death. You describe the shock you felt when the manager at the Met said, ‘Persona e indispensabile’, which made you realize ‘how every moment of living in an instant becomes the past’. Has that been a recurrent shock throughout your life, or is it something you have come to accept as one of life’s truths? 

I shall never accept it, but it happens all the time. Every word that you and I utter now is consigned to memory in a second.

Your first marriage was unhappy and shortlived, ending in divorce after a year. In those days divorce must have been a comparatively rare phenomenon…was that a very difficult time? 

No, it wasn’t at all. My father just took me by the nape of the neck and we boarded a train for California. I stood before a judge for three minutes while my father told the story, and I was divorced.

Was there any stigma attached to divorcees in those days? 

Oh no, there never has been in America. Money is the only thing that counts over there.

Your second marriage to Edwin Knopf seems to have been motivated by a mixture of guilt and pity, and you say you have always felt sorry and ashamed of the way you behaved. What were your feelings after that marriage broke up? 

Guilt. Guilt, for my letting it happen, not for what I did. I can’t explain it any better than that. I had refused to marry him in the first place, whereupon he went to Europe to get over it in the way young men did in those days. He had a terrible accident in which his left arm was blasted off by some kind of a snow bomb, and his parents came to me and begged me to help by giving him some hope when he got back. Like a fool I sent him a very emotional and encouraging cable. He came home full of joy, and I had to marry him. I helped him a lot and taught him to use his right hand for everything, but he knew I didn’t love him in the complete sense. The next bit sounds like a terrible Barbra Cartland novel: I knew that my best friend from school had always been in love with him, and so, taking strength from that, I let things happen that broke the marriage. She married him, and they lived happily ever after.

In 1925 after starring in Rose Marie, you gave up singing to concentrate on acting, which was an unpopular decision with the public. The fact that you had to sign an agreement with Hammerstein meant that you never sang in the US again. Would you still have signed if you had known that would be the consequence? 

No, although I was absolutely passionate about the theatre and had no regrets. But to this day I miss the physical exhilaration of singing. I don’t miss the operettas or the opera, rather the actual experience of singing, the thinking of a note, hearing it come out, sending it into the auditorium and knowing they’ve got it.

What about the thrill of the audience standing to applaud you? 

I suppose I never thought I had done anything as well as I should, so the acknowledgement was always shaded for me by a lack of belief in myself.

At one point in the book you say: ‘All through my life I’ve missed opportunities because of human relationships, and I’ve tried very hard not to regret anything.’ Have you succeeded in being philosophical about missed opportunities? 

Yes. If I hadn’t I’d be a dire mess.

Your marriage to Basil Sidney was one which he dominated completely, although you loved him deeply. Was his betrayal perhaps the most difficult thing you have had to bear in your life? 

It was the most surprising thing certainly, I’m not sure I can say it was the most difficult. I lost my voice for ten days through nervous shock; I just didn’t believe it. Of course, I was a fool. I should have known, but I didn’t.

I was struck by your words, ‘I have never been able to unlove someone I have loved.’ Has that been an added cross to bear in life? 

No, it’s been something delightful. In any case, how can you unlove someone you’ve loved? It would imply a total lack of self-respect. If you’ve loved someone intensely, there must be something in that person you found worth loving. If that person does something terribly disappointing and hurtful, well that’s that. I’m extremely philosophical in these matters; I never would try to keep anyone who didn’t want to be with me. I’m much too vain for that.

In 1935 you went off to Hollywood for a couple of years to star in three films. One imagines it must have been a very glamorous place at a very romantic time, but it struck you as being rather sad. Why was that? 

Because it was so artificial. People had no lives of their own outside the pictures. I imagine it’s changed now because so many people I admire managed to go back and enjoy it, and even made second homes there, but at that time there was only work, there was no real living.

You met many famous people during that time, and struck up a warm friendship with Fritz Lang who had fled from Germany. Did that develop into a special friendship? 

Well, isn’t every friendship special?

I mean, were you romantically involved? 

No. We went on Sunday motor trips together, and I’m pleased to feel that I helped him over a terribly hard time. He was an amazing and wonderful man, inspiring and very clever. It was so awful to see him crushed. I was also friendly with Charles Boyer, a charming man. He gave a marvellous party for me when I first went over there. Mrs Patrick Campbell was an honoured guest and she sat at the head of his staircase in a chair, greeting the guests before he did. Marlene Dietrich arrived, looking absolutely wonderful in black tulle, with diamonds tinkling, and she made a deep curtsey in front of her, whereupon Mrs Patrick Campbell said, ‘Oh you are so pretty. Are you in pictures too, dear?’ I thought Marlene would fall down the stairs backwards.

Did you know Marlene well? 

Yes, she had the dressing room opposite mine. She used to knock at my door while I was being made up, and would come in without any make-up, freckles on her nose, pale eyelashes and a towel around her head, looking much prettier than when she was all made up. And she’d say, ‘Sing me a little German folk song’, so I’d sing some little thing I sang on my father’s knee, and she’d go away quite happy.

After America you returned to England to work with Ivor Novello, with whom you were very close until his death. Were you ever in love with him? 

No. He was very romantic man, but I don’t think he thought about marriage or anything like that. His musicals meant nothing to me intellectually or emotionally, but I know if I hadn’t done them I wouldn’t have had the thrill of singing at Drury Lane which looks bigger from the stage than the Metropolitan Opera House. To feel that you are filling the auditorium even with a whisper or a soft note, that is an amazing experience.

You write in your autobiography: ‘The working relationship with Ivor developed into a very good kind of loving. To my mother it was incomprehensible that it did not entail a romantic ending.’ Was it also a sadness for you? 

No. He was a delightful and intelligent man, a wonderful musician and an enchanting companion, but he was totally of the theatre and had no life apart from that. He was a wonderful friend, and for all the years afterwards until he died, he came to everything I did and offered me sound advice. He had his own entourage, the faithful, but I was very unsophisticated, and believe it or not, until I came to London when I was thirty-one years old, I didn’t know about any of those intricacies of life at all, although I soon learned to live with them.

Apropos your close friend, Tim Brook, you write: ‘The men I’ve known who had loving natures, but who could not love women completely, I have found comforting friends. My unhappy experiences with the total male made such relationships a relief.’ Were you ever made happy in a complete sense with any man? 

Oh yes, but of course, I wouldn’t be a complete woman if I hadn’t. But people are people to me; I don’t question their religion, their politics or their emotional habits. If they are fine people, intelligent or artistic, or they give something to their friends and the world, it’s all right by me. I have no set prejudices at all. In classical times it didn’t matter so much; I don’t see why it should matter now.

After your third marriage ended in divorce, there seemed to follow a period of despair during which love seemed to be beyond your reach. How did you manage to come to terms with this feeling? 

I don’t know exactly. I think I worked very hard. Although I’ve been disappointed, I’m not the kind of person to allow desperation to enter into my consciousness. I know when I’ve done wrong, and I’m very sorry for it, but I try my best either to fix it or to live with it. One has to be a realist without losing one’s dreams, if that’s possible.

During this time when love seemed beyond your reach, you even sought comfort in Catholicism, but that was not to prove to be the answer. Do you consider yourself to be religious now? 

I certainly believe in God, something greater than self, and I’ve said my prayers since I was a child. There is something which in our wildest moments either pulls us back or pushes us forward. We think we are free to do as we like, but I’m sure that the whole cosmos of being is arranged by something far greater than anything we know.

But do you believe in heaven or hell? 

Not pictorially, not as a place where the angels fly, or the devils have horns, but I feel very seriously that this can’t be the end. All you have to do is to look at nature: a tree dies every autumn, but it flowers again the next year.

Do you find that you have that serenity which is supposed to come with old age? 

Yes, but I hate to call it serenity. The compensation for growing old is that there seems now to be a reason for everything. And it’s completely untrue that the senses become dimmed as you grow older; as your physicality slips away, your senses get sharper and more intense.

Just before the war, you met your next husband, Jock Roberts, in Edinburgh, the day after you had news of your father’s death. Do you think the two events were in any way connected…did you fall in love partly because it was an emotionally vulnerable time for you? 

I didn’t fall in love with him when I first met him. But it was the strangest thing, just as though a male element had been sent into my life at precisely the time I had lost the one I respected most. It was also unexpected because by then I had become philosophical about life and imagined it was going to be just my own work and friends from then on.

Your husband had fallen in love with you on the stage, and was determined to keep you behind the footlights. Did this not strike you as an uncertain basis for marriage? 

I made the great mistake that I made all my life in personal relationships, and I blame myself for it. I tried to become what the person who cared for me wanted me to be instead of being myself and letting him see all my faults. For example, I had never climbed mountains, I had never skied, but I gave up the theatre for several years to be a companion to Jock doing these things, and it almost killed me. I hated it, every minute of it, but I was determined to be that companion. Of course that wasn’t what he had fallen in love with, but I wasn’t sensible enough even to see that.

Your husband’s view of lovemaking was the rather Victorian one that ‘nice’ women should not enjoy it – an attitude you persuaded him to overcome. Do you think that was an unusual achievement for the 1930s. 

The whole thing was very unusual for the 1930s. It never occurred to me that a grown-up male could be that way. But of course all British men had been told from childhood that they mustn’t show their emotions, and in Victorian days, young gentlemen were sent away to Paris for three weeks to learn all about it when they came out of university, but they weren’t allowed to practise it in Britain, and certainly not with the lovely creatures they married. Well, you see, having been born a free soul, this was absolutely amazing to me.

During the war you chose not to remain in the theatre but ‘to fight the war the hardest way I could find’, as you put it. What kind of feelings impelled you to do this? 

There were many people in the theatre who bravely entertained the troops, but that to me wasn’t doing enough. Men were having to leave the things they loved, and so I felt that like them I had to do something opposite from what I enjoyed – something far away from the theatre, the make-believe and the glamour; that way I could really feel part of the war. I wouldn’t have given up that experience for anything. I worked in emergency hospitals, I looked after children who had been bombed in Glasgow, and later I learned to do occupational therapy which taught me something for life. I experienced an entirely different kind of consciousness and it’s lived with me ever since. I can never think of people just as what they seem to be; I always look for their wounds, because everybody has wounds inside them that haven’t quite healed, or that ache occasionally.

The war years placed a great strain on your relationship, and your husband seemed to have been changed by war. Do you think that was inevitable? 

It was quite inevitable that it should have happened to him. He was so enclosed in that Scottish world of habits and beliefs that he didn’t know about the other world. He hadn’t realized that other people had to live a different way. However, it didn’t change my love for him at all. I got very interested in what was happening to him and thought he’d come out of it, and if he hadn’t been killed, I expect he would have come out of it.

His politics changed during the war period… 

Yes, because he had contact with something he’d never seen or heard before, and lived with me who changed his mind about all sorts of things. I don’t blame him in a way. Before the war he had never seen the black side of life, or never chosen to see it. Everything he had done and stood for before the war had vanished when he came back. He had become very interested in the Communist movement, though I never knew whether he signed any papers or not. He gave up a lucrative position in his father’s business, and came to London and took a job for six pounds a week at Camberwell Art School. He broke his father’s heart. He didn’t succeed in breaking mine because I tried to look at it romantically, and until he was killed I kept leaping ahead in years, believing he would change back. But even if he hadn’t, I suppose I would have accepted it. I loved him enough. Still do.

Everything seemed to have a heightened significance during the war. You write in your memoirs: ‘The war was salting life through with partings and reunions, but when I was able to be with my husband nothing else mattered.’ Had you by then found the love you had been searching for? 

I thought so, I thought so. But since all that has happened, I know it wasn’t. I wasn’t truthfully myself.

Your time with Jock was cut tragically short when he was killed in a climbing accident, something you describe as a new low in your life. It must have seemed as if the world had collapsed… 

Yes, but doesn’t it to everyone? I just made myself work harder, and the theatre became everything to me till the 1970s.

Did you ever manage to love again in the way you loved Jock? 

Nobody ever loves again in the same way. Every love is new.

But did you come to love someone else? 

Not as I loved Jock, no. I have loved lots of people, and I feel I know now what love should mean, but I’m too old. Heavens, at ninety somebody doesn’t come into your life, and even if someone did one would be too old…The point about growing old is that one sees everything one should do, one would know exactly how to behave, but one is too old to put it to the practice.

That’s the tragedy you mean? 

There’s no tragedy. It’s very amusing.

You never had any children. Have you felt that as a loss? 

I had one very bad miscarriage and then I couldn’t have children. I carried a child to seven months, so I had the experience of that wonderful foretaste. I also had two stepdaughters, Jock’s children, and that was very satisfactory.

After all these years in England, do you feel thoroughly English yourself, or is there part of you which longs to be in the land of your birth? 

I have never longed for the land of my birth. I visited Britain from the time I was four years old and all my relations and friends seemed to be here, so I always felt thoroughly at home here. I also know France very well, and I must say I miss the atmosphere of France and the way they care for their older people. What appals me about this country more than anything else is the way old people are treated. In France they would think it absolutely disgraceful if Grandmère didn’t live at home with her son or her daughter, and the same applies in almost every other European country.

You have had a fascinating life which spans the whole of the century to date. You watched Sarah Bernhardt perform, you saw Pavlova dance, you sang with Caruso – you are linked with so many magical figures from the past. Does the present now seem very tame to you by comparison? 

No. All those people you mentioned are in the distant past, whereas I tend to think of myself from 1932 onwards, when my life was the theatre, the Old Vic and the season at Stratford – all that seems more important and much closer to me. I don’t want to be put into a box labelled The Past, I don’t like that at all. I know I may pop off at any minute, but for the moment I’m still here.

If you were to live your life over again would you do it differently? 

I wouldn’t live my life differently, but I’d behave differently. I would be braver, kinder, because sometimes we think we have done the kind thing, and we haven’t. I missed out on life on account of carelessness, on account of being afraid of being unloved, and those things I would change.

Do you fear death? 

I’m as full of curiosity about death as I am about life, so I cannot be uncheerful. It’s going to be something new, another adventure.