Fascinated by the Lives of Others

A few weeks ago I went to hear award-winning, London-based biographer Claire Tomalin talk at The Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. It was such a treat to share her world for an hour and discover how she goes about her craft.

Her first biography was of Mary Wollstonecraft, an 18th century English writer, philosopher and advocate of women’s rights. There’s a strong feminist streak to Tomalin’s writing and, with Mary Woolstonecraft, she set out to find the historical truth behind women’s lives.

Her most recent biographies have been of Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy but she has also written a book about Dickens’ mistress Nelly Ternan, The Invisible Woman, which was made into a film starring Ralph Fiennes. She described a process of falling in love with her subjects and inhabiting their worlds as she researched them. As she spoke of threading lives together, I had the image of a patchwork quilt – what a skill to be able to order all those squares into a fluent narrative.

Other people’s lives are endlessly fascinating – truth is indeed often stranger than fiction. Last week I read an obituary of Ann Barr (born 1929) who was features editor of Harpers & Queen from 1970 to 1984. She coined the term ‘Sloane Ranger’ and launched The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook and, later, The Official Sloane Ranger Diary. For those who don’t know what a Sloane Ranger is (or was) let me share the definition from the article in The Telegraph: “the country loving, upper-middle-class, well-connected tribe of posh, but not particularly rich or grand Henrys and Carolines (the men were noted for their mustard cords) who seemed to be everywhere 40 years ago.” Princess Diana was a Sloane Ranger – think Green Wellies, floral Laura Ashley skirts and blouses with frilly collars turned up.

I was captivated by this account of a self-effacing woman who was never afraid of off-beat ideas, had a pale face and red hair as a child, spent some of her childhood in Canada and then at a girls’ boarding school in Shropshire. Barr was clearly eccentric and unafraid of bucking convention. At the peak of her career she apparently dyed her hair a “startling version of its original colour and wore quirkily patterned tights and knickerbockers.” She lived in a top-floor flat near Notting Hill Gate and never married but had several romances. For the past 30 years she took up with a parrot called Turkey who accompanied her to parties. He survives her as do a host of devoted god-children.

What a life! How wonderful to have lived such a rich and creative life without needing to conform. As Oscar Wilde was quoted as saying: Be Yourself as Everyone Else is Taken. Hear, hear, I say!

This last weekend I heard broadcaster and writer Ramona Koval speaking about her memoir, Bloodhound, the story of searching for her father. Her parents were Holocaust survivors who ended up settling in Melbourne. Her mother escaped the death camps by changing identity and passing her 14-year-old self off as a 21-year-old Catholic girl, speaking Polish rather than the more familiar Yiddish – an extraordinary story in itself.

Koval always suspected that the man who raised her was not her biological father. She took 15 years to write the story of her quest which took her to rural Poland, to a nursing home in Melbourne and to a horse whisperer in Queensland. A turning point in her search came when she and her sister did a DNA test, both scraping away at the inside of their cheek for an answer! They discovered that they were half sisters and so clearly Ramona was on to something. By all accounts the book is as gripping as a thriller as the clues come together. Luckily, there were no ‘spoilers’ in the audience – I can’t wait to read it and find out what happened and if she got a definitive answer. I’ll let you know.

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