Monthly Archives: August 2016

BRIAN SEWELL – THE ART COLLECTOR

Brian Sewell’s death last year at the age of 84, although not unexpected, due to terminal cancer during the last six months of his life was nevertheless a sad event for most of his admirers and particularly to his few friends who knew him well and had the privilege of seeing his sentimental side at close quarters.

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Having interviewed him in 2000 for my book Dialogues I grew very fond of Brian and of course was a regular reader of his weekly art critique in the Evening Standard, which I found totally absorbing despite those acerbic assessments which made him a great deal of enemies, particularly in the art world.

He garnered his tremendous knowledge from studying at the Courtauld but was apparently frustrated in his ambitions to become a painter. In the ’50s and ’60s he worked at Christies where his own art collection, valued at 2 million pounds, will be sold. His former colleague Noel Annesley, now the auction house’s honorary chairman, said the range of works would surprise people who assumed Sewell, famous for his scathing opinions of modern art, had rather narrow tastes.

‘Brian could be quite brutal in his assessment but he also had a kindly and appreciative side that would be expressed in his collecting patterns as well,’ said Mr Annesley. ‘I was certainly surprised by the sheer volume of the collection. Perhaps the emphasis on modern British or twentieth century British art is heavier than expected, but on the other hand Brian himself tried quite hard to be a painter and never quite gave up on it and you can see he would be fascinated by what his contemporaries and immediate predecessors were up to.’

Mr Annesley worked with Sewell during his stint at Christies between 1958 to 1967. He said he could recognise his colleague’s personality in the collection which offers ‘a demonstration of his special gifts as a collector as well as a critic.’ He continued: ‘What you get from this is a man of utmost insatiable curiosity, that’s what I would say. He really was incredibly interested in art and in the process of it, he understood what lay behind drawings and paintings. The dates go from 1520 up to more or less the year 2000, so it is 500 years of art.’

The sale, called Brian Sewell: Critic and Collector, is being held next month and includes three works by 17th century Dutch painter Matthias Stomer, valued at about £1 million all together. Sewell’s twentieth century collection includes a nude by the Bloomsbury Group’s Duncan Grant, valued between 20 and 30 thousand pounds, and a 1946 portrait of Lucian Freud by his friend John Craxton worth £30,000.

Experts preparing the sale have managed to identify some of the artists behind the works for the first time, confirming the eye for art that made Sewell such an authority. One work, previously identified as being a follower of Michelangelo, has been attributed to the 16th century Italian painter Daniele da Volterra, valued at £150,000. Mr Annesley said: ‘People will be fascinated by the chance of owning something Brian liked, because people read what he said.’

For the last five years of his life Quartet became the proud publisher of his books which I list below:

Outsider: Always Almost: Never Quite
Outsider II
The White Umbrella
Sleeping with Dogs: A Peripheral Autobiography
Naked Emperors: Criticisms of English Contemporary Art
The Man who Built the Best Car in the World

For those who missed buying any of the titles, it is perhaps time to acquaint themselves with the great man whose talent was equally prodigious as a writer of great elegance. Everything Brian wrote is worth preserving for posterity.

 

‘UNCLE WOLF’

Adolf Hitler, the notorious dictator, responsible for the deaths of millions of people, is seen in rare footage discovered in Germany, dining with friends and playing with children. Two rolls of 16mm silent film in rusty cans were found in the attic of the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, which had become a place of pilgrimage for the opera-obsessed Fuhrer during his 12 years as ruler of the Third Reich. The films, one of them 4 minutes long, the other, little less than 11 minutes, were shot in 1936 by a 16 year-old Wolfgang Wagner, a grandson of Richard Wagner. They show Hitler in a series of informal settings with the Wagner family.

The footage has excited researchers who say that it adds another dimension to Hitler, one that seems to humanise the monster, responsible for the Holocaust and perhaps the world’s most destructive war. Sylvia Krauss, director of the Bavarian State Archive and supervisor of the estate of Wolfgang Wagner, who died in 2010, discovered the films in December. ‘One views the scenes with a certain anxiety,’ she said. ‘You can see Hitler in completely unknown poses. Not the statesman Hitler we know but one where he comes across in a very friendly way.’

Hitler was obsessed with Wagner’s music and befriended the Wagner family early in his political career. The Wagner children would come to call him ‘Uncle Wolf’, Wolf being a nickname allowed only to the closest of the Nazi inner circle. The films were shot three years after Hitler assumed power. He was childless throughout his life and the Wagner children were surrogates for him. He can be seen playing and joking with them at the Villa Wahnfried, the family residence in Bayreuth, The footage also shows Hitler sketching Weiland Wagner, Wolfgang’s brother, who died in 1966.

‘That these children were surrogates, we have known for a long time but these films bring that to life,’ Miss Krauss said. ‘Winifried Wagner, Wolfgang’s mother is seen in conversation with Hitler. She holds Hitler’s hand, she is beaming. Other friends of the Wagner family featured includes the conductors Heinz Tiedjen and Wilhelm Furtwangler. Hitler’s favourite architect Albert Speer is captured with the clan enjoying a dinner after a festival performance.’

Katharina Wagner, Wolfgang’s daughter and director of the Bayreuth Festival, donated the family archive in 2013, but because Verena Wagner Lafferentz, 96, Wolfgang’s younger sister, is on the film, and still alive, it cannot be broadcast publicly to protect her rights under German law. Digital copies will be made to enable academic study. ‘The selection of people who will see them will be very strict,’ Miss Krause said.

It’s worthy of note that Furtwangler was the subject of a book published by Quartet. Yehudi Menuhin, who I interviewed, had this to say about Furtwangler:

He was a great conductor and an absolutely clean man no question of doubt. He stood up for Hindemith; he protected many Jews, helped many out of Germany and himself had to escape towards the end of the war. He happened to conduct the orchestra when some of the leaders were there but we can’t expect everyone to behave in the same way. Sometimes it takes more courage to remain in your country than to leave it. Those who stayed suffered a pretty bad fate and those who came out after all, escaped yet there was this feeling of superiority amongst those whom escaped thinking they showed great determination in leaving it behind. I would say Jew or gentile, you cannot blame those who stayed, and you can’t blame those who escaped. It’s just the way things went but Furtwangler himself was a man of integrity.’

Yehudi himself, who I got to know rather well, was a great humanitarian and one of the most interesting people I have ever encountered.
It’s also worth mentioning that Quartet published in 2010 an unusual and engrossing account of Hitler’s rise to power, written in novel form by one of Germany’s leading television directors: Young Hitler by Claus Hant. 150 pages of intriguing appendices substantiate the novel’s provenance amongst the ashes of a demoralised and bankrupt Germany, Young Hitler also provides a unique perspective, but unlike the film archive, is available from Quartet Book’s website directly.

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DOWN MEMORY LANE FOUR

More memories, extracted from my volume of autobiography, Fulfilment & Betrayal, describing a time long ago – the early 1980s.

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Another recruit at this period was Caroline Mockett. Her mother, Ann Foxell, who was then head of the press office at Harpers & Queen, introduced her to the Namara Group. Eventually Caroline became a notable addition to the Quartet girls. In the following contribution, penned by herself in her own distinctive style, she reveals some aspects of the goings-on at Quartet that sadly had escaped my notice. I can well imagine the wicked glint in her eye as she set out to recall the somewhat nonconformist atmosphere in the Goodge Street offices at the time.

Learning the Ropes
by Caroline Mockett

‘Dalleeng. You’re pretty. You’ll do.’ With these words – welcome and verbal contract in five words – I began my tenuous career in publishing.

My introduction to Naim Attallah had been arranged by my mother, exasperated by her daughter’s consistent ‘failure to launch’. By the age of twenty, I had managed to fail a secretarial course, get chucked off a cooking course and then get sacked from my first five jobs.

I returned home one evening to find mother chatting up a Middle Eastern man. This might not have been anything unusual, except that I noticed that the topic of conversation kept returning to me: my mother’s laughter and energetic chat suddenly turning to sighs and sad tales of, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do with her.’ It took about ten gin and tonics for the charismatic visitor, Anwar Bati, finally to crumble before the twin onslaught of flirtation and sorrow. He agreed to find me a job. ‘I know someone,’ he said mysteriously, before swaying slightly out of the house.

Wheels turned and I was summoned to Namara House for my brief interview with Naim. Having received the seal of approval, I was whisked away to another address – Wellington Court – where I was shown into a small but pleasant office and told to sit behind a desk. Across the room was an accountant – the accountant – a breed I had never before encountered in my years of deb parties and balls. He was nonplussed by me and I was mystified and unimpressed with him. And so it was for the next three months. I had nothing to do (the accountant seemed to have guessed that I was mostly useless) except occasionally answer the phone – and then pass the call over to the accountant, make coffee (the accountant only drank a cup a day) and read the paper. As Beckett might have said in my position (hard to imagine): ‘Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful!’

My dwindling will to live was given a boost by a change of duties. I was summoned to help with the launch of Bella Pollen’s new collection (I thought I had joined a publishing company). I spent a few giddy days helping to hang her fashionable floral skirts and jumpers (it was the 1980s).

For these first three months of working for Naim, I caught only occasional glimpses of him. He seemed to be locked away in his ivory tower at Namara House, only to appear at parties with a retinue of pretty young women about him, all vying for his attention and favour. Seemingly shut away far from his attention, I began to give up hope of ever escaping the accountant’s office and getting involved in the heart of the matter – the great endeavour of publishing. Then, just as I was beginning to work out the best way to get sacked without too many repercussions, I received a summons to Namara House.

‘Dalleeng! I need a secretary. Come, sit there.’ With that, I took up position at a desk in Naim’s office. From the frozen wastes of Wellington Court, I was suddenly bathing in the continual sunshine of Namara House and the launching of the Literary Review. My initial panic about actually having to do something and so being discovered to be entirely incapable of doing anything was soon allayed: there was even less to do than there had been at Wellington Court. I sat, looked pretty, chatted to Naim and tidied my desk. A lot. Which seemed to be exactly what my job description required.

After this period of close examination, Naim arranged for me to be given a proper job in Quartet. Not for me the giddy heights of editorial; I was bundled off to sales and marketing. And here my real education began. Naim had found me a slot as post girl and general supplier for David Elliott (who called me either ‘the postie’ or ‘the failed deb’) and Penny Grant. Within the friendly chaos of the sales and marketing office, I quickly learnt the essential skills needed for success in publishing. First and foremost was the golden rule: get your work done in the morning because you never know how long lunch is going to last.

I managed to make myself useful by taking David’s shaggy dog Tramp for walks and buying toasted bacon and tomato sandwiches for David and myself, a cure for a thumping hangover. And I actually did the post. The post scales I was in command of came in handy when I added to my list of job titles that of ‘supplier of soft drugs to the publishing industry’. Marijuana was carefully weighed out and priced alongside letters and stamps, before being delivered – with the mail – around the office.

Occasionally I was sent out on to the front line of publishing to flog books to retailers. This operation involved the donning of an indecently short skirt, plenty of make-up and an innocent smile before targeting Harrods, Smiths and – my favourite – Mole Jazz. I would pile books into the back of my Morris Minor and splutter off to spread the word of Quartet. I soon discovered I was good at the business of flirtation – reps were putty in my hands and I rarely returned with an unsold copy.

Of course it helped that I was selling one of the most controversial lists in British publishing at the time. A mini-skirt and a car-boot load of The Joy of Sex was enough to get even the most jaded rep excited. Back at the office, Quartet ran an impressive after-sales service – I would take calls from keen and interested readers who wanted to discuss details of the positions pictured in More Joy of Sex. I happily chatted away, describing various obscene acts to male strangers. Anything to sell a book, I thought, not realizing that I had started probably the first and only free sex-chat line in the world. In the lunch break I sold books to transvestites and other colourful Soho characters. Flexibilty and an open mind was an essential part of the sales technique.

The success of The Joy of Sex didn’t go down well with The Women’s Press, whose presence within Naim’s harem of publishing was probably due to a mutual misunderstanding of each other’s intentions. Naim must have thought, ‘How nice, more women.’ The Women’s Press probably thought, ‘He publishes Dennis Potter – how bad can it be?’ The Women’s Press had a fearsome reputation; enough to put the fear of woman into David Elliott– his dog Tramp and I would be called upon as escorts when David had to venture into their territory to obtain sales figures. Little was I aware that The Women’s Press was making publishing history by releasing classics such as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, as well as pioneering texts such as the Lesbian Mother’s Handbook.

Looking back, I can now appreciate the innovative and risk-taking books Quartet published: Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven, Jonathan Dimbleby and Don McCullin’s The Palestinians, Julian Barnes’s Metroland, as well as publications by Bob Carlos Clarke and Derek Jarman. My time at Quartet was an education in many ways, a formative experience that taught me the value of originality and of thinking in brave new directions. It all helped in my later career working with artists and other creative types. For all of this, and in particular to Naim, I am thankful.

A SIREN OF OLD

Zara Holland is an English actress who now lives in London. She rose to prominence as Miss Great Britain in 2015. She has also appeared in Emmerdale and Coronation Street as well as taking part in the reality show Love Island on ITV2.

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Following her antics on Love Island in June 2016 she was stripped of her Miss Great Britain title over the onscreen romp with scaffolder Alex Bowen, 24. She now acknowledges that her misbehaviour was the worst thing that has ever happened to her. But the model from Hull is on the up again and is now launching her own fashion venture with online style hub Miiaan. The 20-year-old model posed in red lingerie then went nude in racy snaps that gave credence to her hot sexuality and her
inclination to embrace temptation when it comes her way.

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The poor girl must be forgiven for her lapse in self-control which hopefully will not be repeated. But with a body like hers who can blame her. We are certainly not complaining…

 

 

DOWN MEMORY LANE SEVEN

All the recent publicity surrounding Anna Pasternak’s latest book, Lara, which tells of the love affair that was the real inspiration for her great uncle’s epic novel Doctor Zhivago, reminds me of the time when she worked as publicity manager at Quartet Books. Coincidentally, I had the privilege then to recruit another Anna, who was reputed to cause ripples in the world of the Arts.

At the end of December 1989, I purchased Algy Cluff’s half-interest in Apollo magazine. This was to give me as sole owner, the opportunity to make every conceivable effort to bring it to a wider audience and promote it in every way I could. One feature, however, that was not going to change was the magazine’s most glamorous and charismatic editor, Anna Somers Cocks, whose editorial never failed to cause some trepidation among the buffs of the art world. She had established a reputation for forthright thinking and seemed to have become more formidable as the months went by. She told the New York Times a few weeks later, in January 1990, that the art world ‘is a microcosm of the world. It has economics, commercialism, politics, religion, gossip, scandal, all aspects.’ During her three years as editor, she transformed the once starchy publication, declared the newspaper, into a thoughtful but lively look at all art’s facets. Since she took over, the circulation had risen to nine thousand copies, a respectable figure for a glossy art magazine of that calibre. The choice of Anna as editor had been a most shrewd and enlightened appointment.

Anna Pasternak did a tremendous job publicizing our list. One of her best events was the launch of Elena: A life in Soho, written by Elena Salvoni, with the help of Sandy Fawkes. Elena only passed on this March, aged 95, but her memoirs started almost a century before when she was born in Clerkenwell to Italian parents, arriving as a waitress at the Café Bleu in wartime London and moving on to Bianchi’s where she stayed for over 30 years, before becoming the presiding génie at L’Escargot. She had memories of Dylan Thomas and Brendan Behan drinking together; of Maria Callas refusing to be parted from her mink coat before being seated; of Donald Maclean dining ‘in all innocence’ two days before he defected to Russia. Her account was both personal and a slice of Soho’s history.

A LATIN BEAT

I’m glad to read in a Sunday newspaper that Latin passion is due to come to the Proms on Wednesday. Marin Alsop. the American conductor, shattered more than 100 years of inequality when she became the first woman to lead proceedings at the Last Night of the Proms in 2013. This week, she returns triumphantly to the Royal Albert Hall with the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra and fully intends to bust another stereotype – that Europeans are superior to everyone else when it comes to creating and performing classical music.

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‘Last time we came to the Proms people were surprised by the world-class musicians of this orchestra,’ she smiles. ‘I think they’ll be even more amazed this year.’ Alsop has been music director of the orchestra since 2012 and like a benign and proud mother she refers to them in glowing terms about the unique qualities which they will bring on Wednesday night to one of the most important musical venues in the world. ‘They’re very devoted to the work, yet still maintain their identity in terms of bringing that Latin sense of passion and emotionality to the table.’

With a programme showcasing some of Brazil’s finest composers, from Villa–Lobos to the contemporary Marlos Nobre, their summer tour in Europe (the orchestra have just played at Edinburgh’s International Festival and travel to Lucerne after their Proms appearance) is ‘an enormous opportunity for us to connect with the broader world.’

Growing up in New York City, Alsop, 59, did not see any women on orchestral podiums. However, she remembers being taken by her musical parents to a young people’s concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein and becoming ‘obsessed’. She was nine years old. ‘It was a religious calling. I never even questioned it.’

In those days, female maestri were as rare as hen’s teeth, but Alsop says ‘I did not think about the gender issues. Bernstein was my idol and my hero and then he became my teacher and I had parents who were incredible role models, particularly my mother, who believed that you can do anything you want to in life.’

Her exceptional career does seem to be forged on such principles. When New York’s Juilliard School rejected her for their post-graduate conducting programme, she founded her own orchestra, Concordia, and honed her craft with them. When the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony rebelled at her historic appointment as their Music Director, she simply put her head down and got on with the job. Ten years on, Baltimore is considered one of the most impressive symphony orchestras in the world and has renewed Alsop’s contract not once, but twice, and she will be there until at least 2021.

When asked if she ever felt a victim of prejudice, she carefully replies: ‘I don’t think in terms like that. Everyone’s probably a victim of prejudice to one degree or another and there are certainly many people who are more mistreated for the wrong reasons than I am. So I feel mostly privileged.’

She’s excited about showing off the Sao Paula orchestra this week. ‘Brazil has a very rich musical heritage and their composers have a wonderful way of blending the popular idiom into their classical works. Some classical conductors would be horrified at the prospect of bringing anything “popular” to the classical concert hall. Well, I think when we let down those barriers there can be an incredible hybrid that can connect people to our art-form in a much deeper and more relevant way.’ She counters: ‘I like the idea of not so many barriers and boundaries between things.’

What a foresighted conductor she has proved to be! The fact that she was tutored by Bernstein, her hero and idol, speaks volumes about a lady who has become remarkable in her own way. Bernstein happens to be my hero also. Having met him on one occasion, at a launch party of Quartet’s book Hashish, in September 1984, we seemed to have clicked congenially and the memory of that encounter remains with me to this day.

UNHAPPY IN ITS OWN WAY…

Being a cinema buff, especially where French films are concerned, I admire most of all their simplicity and realism in their portrayal of daily life without recourse to the Hollywood formulae of incredulity to boost box-office returns.

In the latest hits of this summer, Retour Chez Ma Mère, Stephanie, played by Alexandra Lamy, is the main character. An elegant 40 year-old architect has to put up with living in a house where the furniture dates from the 1970s, the jar of instant coffee is almost as old and the garage is full of junk. The breakdown of a relationship and unemployment mean that she has to return to live with her mother. At a time of year when cinemas are usually empty, more than two million people have gone to see a comedy that has struck a chord in a society in crisis.

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With an unemployment rate of almost 10 per cent and marital breakdown escalating, the plot of the film is all too familiar to the French. A recent study found that 7 per cent of those aged 30-49 had returned to live with their parents after having left home a decade or more earlier. About a third of this group go back after separating from their partners, and a quarter after losing their jobs. Serge Guèrin, a sociologist, hailed the trend as an indirect benefit of France’s economic crisis: ‘At the end of the day, the generations understand each other better,’ he said.

However, Eric Lavaine, the film’s director, described the emergence of a ‘boomerang generation’ – those who return to live with their parents – as a symptom of social disarray. He said that adults felt failures when they were forced to ‘squat mum and dad’s home’ and often ‘faced hostility from their brothers and sisters… We love our parents, but it would be a nightmare to live with them 24 hours a day,’ he said.

In his film, Stephanie can barely contain her exasperation as she tries to explain the Internet to her mother, played by Josiane Balasko, who thinks that Gmail is an illness and that .com is written ‘dotcomme’. The daughter is forced to listen to old variety songs, to state when she will be home at night, to sleep in a bed with her mother’s flea-ridden cat. Whenever she turns the heating down, her mother turns it up again. Her sister, played by Mathilde Seigner, is furious with her for returning to her mother’s house. ‘The film should have been called “Family, Family, I Hate You!” or “Family Crisis.”’ Mr Lavaine said.

Michel Billé, a sociologist, said that parents were often happy to take their adult children back. ‘It helps them construct a positive image of themselves.’ But he added, ‘You don’t have the same rhythm at 40 as you did at 60 or the same relationship to time, money or new technology. These differences can give rise to marvellous moments of exchange or violent conflict. If the brothers and sisters get involved and become jealous, the cohabitation can become hell.’

France is by no means the only European country that has experienced a rise in the number of people living with their parents since the economic crisis struck. In Spain and Italy, however, most never left home in the first place. In France many have established families of their own and have been obliged to return. One reason is a combination of long-tern unemployment and relationship instability, with about 250,000 cohabiting or married couples separating every year.

It all goes to prove that the world is going topsy-turvy in every sense of the word. We enjoy watching the comic side of things, but the reality of the situation is truly disturbing. Hallelujah!

DOWN MEMORY LANE FIVE

Another problem for every publisher is when a book one really likes and thinks special is not appreciated by the literary establishment. Of course, disappointment is power for the course but one always remembers those books which didn’t quite make it. One such problematic book I published had its origin in a meeting that took place early in 1988 with a young author called Elisabeth Barillé, after I had been introduced to her by the French cosmetic journalist Elizabeth Arkus. Elisabeth Barillé’s novel Corps de jeune fille was just then the latest literary sensation in Paris. She was Parisian born in 1960 and had gained degrees in English and Russian before becoming a freelance journalist contributing to Paris-Match, Depêche Mode, Femme and Geo.
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She was then literary editor of L’Eventail. I was entranced by her at our meeting. She had that kind of sexuality which disturbs the senses. I bought a copy of the book and started reading it on the plane back to London. It was a book I could not put down. Its appeal was more attuned to the avant-garde French reading public, but her use of language and the depth of insight into the human condition were impressive. I was determined that Quartet would publish an English version, even though certain expressions she used were going to be hard to translate into English without losing their nuances.

It told the story of twenty-three-year-old Elisa, audacious and sensual, who is accosted by a middle-aged writer in the Jardin du Luxembourg. She is intrigued and troubled by him after he seduces her and says he wants her to be the heroine of his next book. As he interrogates her on her childhood and aspects of her sexual awakening, the tone of the narrative darkens and they begin to play a game in which it is no longer clear who is preying on whom.

The French press had given the book some very positive reviews: ‘A revelation . . . unpretentious and direct . . . truly liberated,’ said Marie-Claire; ‘Gay, tender, biting, playful . . . written with enthusiasm and zest,’ said FranceSoir; ‘Vigorous, direct and lucid, sparing nothing and nobody,’ said Le Figaro Littéraire. The English literary establishment was more ambivalent in its reception of the translated version under the title Body of a Girl. It came as no surprise, however, for I had always been aware that its appeal here would be limited. It belonged to a genre that had that intrinsically cerebral quality more consonant with European culture. Clarence de Roch in Tatler chose to focus on the book’s erotic side. His opening paragraph set the mood of his piece: ‘There’s a brilliantly funny scene in Elisabeth Barillé’s first novel, in which Elisa, the heroine, brings her suitor’s amorous élan to an abrupt halt by staring at his exposed penis and describing it witheringly (literally so as it turns out) as looking “just like Cyrano’s nose!”’
Janet Barron, for the Literary Review, found a degree of merit in the book, though she confessed that the use of some words made her blush: ‘I wouldn’t recommend reading some of this in public; try convincing the chap who’s peering over your shoulder that ‘fanny’ is a symbol of women’s liberation…’ Typically of that newspaper, Rebecca O’Rourke’s reaction in the Guardian was especially damning: ‘… Britain often looks to France, impressed by the latter’s sexual freedoms and sophistication. Colette, Violette Leduc and Simone de Beauvoir made enormous contributions to women’s writing by pioneering sensual, erotic and sexual themes. On the evidence of Body of a Girl, this pre-eminence is now receding.’

In late 1990, Quartet published Elisabeth Barillé’s second novel, Marie Ensnared. This time the author’s obsession with prostitution manifested itself even more clearly. The story had the same resonance as Body of a Girl, but in this one the heroine began to lead a double life. To summarize the plot, Marie and her husband Luc, a charming and talented architect, apparently make the perfect bourgeois couple. While he provides her with a life of comfort and security, she is his perfect companion and hostess to the cosy, if complacent, dinner parties that are the cornerstone of his success. Then Luc accepts a commission to build a vast palace in the Moroccan desert for a rich megalomaniac Aloui, whose escort is Nalège, a malicious manipulative call-girl. Marie becomes fascinated by Nalège’s lifestyle, seeing it as an emancipation from the trap of comfort that is her life with Luc. She becomes her understudy, but when Nalège sends her the obese, alcoholic Aloui, the arrangement ends in a disastrous surfacing of guilt and self-loathing, with Marie now the victim of male cruelty and her own emotional confusion.

When I read Marie Ensnared I strongly suspected that the book had an autobiographical basis and that Barillé’s fictional account was a clever way of expressing her own dark secrets. Barillé’s own explanation for her theme was that, ‘Eroticism interests me more than sex. It’s the staging of our sexual impulses.’ But in the view of Jane O’Grady in the Observer, ‘chic, pretty Marie’ was both ‘directing and starring in the film of her life, and Barillé’s slim novelette resembles a soft-porn movie minus eroticism’. Neither Body of a Girl nor Marie Ensnared made the impact I personally had anticipated.

Somehow they failed to catch the mood of the literary public in Britain. La différance was once again manifesting itself.

IMMORTAL AND GROUNDED

Having read the various brilliant reviews about Cecilia Bartoli’s Norma at the Edinburgh Festival, I recall the day in 1998 when our feminist imprint, The Womens Press published her biography The Passion of Song by Kim Shernin & Renate Stendhal, to an equally riveting critical commendation.

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Hugh Canning reviewing her Edinburgh performance in the Sunday Times ends his piece by saying:

Bartoli is emphatically not Callas; indeed, her Norma could justly be described as the anti-Callas version. Her voice now lies most comfortably in the mezzo-soprano register with which she began her career thirty years ago as Rossini’s Rosina and La Cenerentola. The plush juicy tone is long gone, and it sounds distinctly less well-oiled than on her justly admired early recordings. By rights, she shouldn’t be able to get away with such a formidable role, which Callas modelled in her own image and made into an operatic legend. Bartoli can project Norma’s dilemma as the unmarried mother of Pollione’s child with fierce and devastating intensity. She’s one of the few Norma’s I have seen who might plausibly kill her children out of revenge. She gets Bellini’s notes across the footlights by sheer effort of will, and you see the emotional cost of dispatching them. I have rarely, if ever, been as moved by this opera. Bartoli is literally incandescent here, as she joins her faithless Pollione, the excellent John Osborne, as on a blazing pyre, indoor fireworks and a personal triumph.’

Quoting from the biography we published, here is a passage that for me clearly defines Bartoli’s engaging personality and her common touch:

There is a photograph of Cecilia Bartoli in Salzburg during an interview in 1993, scampering along next to the river in a summer dress, her sneakers dangling over her shoulders. A year later, in downtown Pasadena, on a small patch of ground she again whisks off her shoes and begins to run around. ‘Excuse me,’ she says to the interviewer,’ but it’s very important for me to feel the ground under my feet.’ When Bartoli showed up for her interview with Newsweek in 1993, she wore no shoes and no make-up. A year earlier, when she was in Los Angeles with her manager, Jack Mastroianni, they came to a hotel where ‘there was a whole grassy field.’ Immediately Cecilia threw off her shoes and ran. She said, “Excuse me for doing this, but when I was a little child one of the things that gave me the greatest pleasure was to go to the park across the street and have my feet feel the earth and the blades of grass.”

If Bartoli is a diva, she’s determined to remain a barefoot diva – grounded, steady, good-natured, an enthusiastic participant in ensemble work, ferocious only where the question of musical integrity is concerned. Cynics (as some music reviewers) wonder how long before she acquires the temperament, the wilfulness, the indifference to others, the headstrong self-regard of the stock diva? When her third Berkeley concert sold out within days, I too began to ask myself how long? It was her health and stamina that concerned me. I had begun to worry that the world would exhaust Bartoli before she had the chance to show the world what was in her. She was generous, spontaneous, warm-hearted, enthusiastic, and she loved to sing. When I thought about Hans Christian Anderson’s Red Shoe dancer, who could not stop dancing I was happy that Bartoli kicked off her shoes at every opportunity.

Such a book reaffirms my conviction that a great artist can enthral her public whilst remaining a dedicated human being, without the pomp and splendour of the roles she portrays in the theatre. I have always regarded opera as the most addictive art medium one can ever encounter and it is all thanks to the great artists who lighten our lives and elevate our spirits where very few mortals can..

FASTEN YOUR SEATBELT

I’m not surprised that sterling has had a bad week. The Bank of England could not have properly measured the possible reaction of the market in the wake of their decision to take steps last week to bolster the economy while the current uncertainty remains. One of the reasons why sterling tumbled to a three-year low against the Euro on Friday was after official figures revealed that Britain’s construction sector has slipped back into recession for the first time in four years. The weak economic data led to expectations that the Bank of England will have to ease monetary policy again, causing the pound to slide further. Economists belief this could also be an early sign that the wider economy could enter a mild recession later this year,

Overall, the construction sector shrank by 0.07% in the three months to the end of June, following on from the 1.1% fall in the first quarter of the year. Output fell 1.4% compared with the same period of 2015. The figures from the Office for National Statistics looked at the period before the Brexit referendum on 23 June. Since that vote, economic confidence has taken a knock and house prices have shown some sign of easing. As a result economists believe the construction sector’s recession is likely to get worse.

‘The downturn looks set to deepen,’ said Samuel Tombs from Pantheon Economists, pointing to private sector surveys which show a fall in orders placed with construction companies. ‘Brexit negotiations will be protracted, so business will hold off committing to major capital expenditure for a long time to come. In addition, the public investment plans won’t be reviewed until the Autumn Statement at the end of the year and few construction projects are genuinely “shovel ready,”’ he said. ‘Accordingly, we think that a slump in construction activity will play a key role in pushing the overall economy into recession over the coming quarters.’

New work on building houses fell 1.1% on the quarter while new work on infrastructure dived 3.7%. Even work maintaining existing buildings fell by 0.5% in the quarter. The biggest fall in output over the past year came in government-backed housing construction, which crashed 6.5% compared with the second quarter of 2015. Private housing slid 0.2% while infrastructure fell 3.7% on the year.

One area of growth, however, was private industrial construction which grew by 7.3% on the year. One Public Sector construction firm, Scape, argued that the downturn meant the government should press ahead with big building projects. ‘The government must not lose sight of its commitment to the Northern Power House or the wider devolution agenda and ensure investment in vital projects there continues, as this will not only provide the area with the boost it needs, but also have a positive impact on the UK economy at a time when uncertainty continues to linger,’ said Scape’s chief executive, Mark Robinson.

Well, the future is not as rosy as some would make us believe – at least until we sort ourselves and restructure the fallout from Brexit. In the meantime, we must keep our seatbelts fastened for the bad economic weather is likely to batter us for a while and we must all be prepared for it.