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.

A few of my favourite quotes

Victor Borge once said: “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” Don’t you just love that quote? Where would we be without humour? I don’t know how I would get through life without being able to laugh at myself and see the funny side of a story or situation. When I left a job in publishing back in the 90s, my colleagues were sad to see me go as they were losing the office clown, the one who brought a bit of levity to the never-ending meetings and impossible-to-achieve deadlines.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Oscar Wilde is the most quotable figure in the history of the English language. With 92 entries, Wilde beats other favourites such as George Bernard Shaw, Noël Coward, Mark Twain, Dorothy Parker and Woody Allen. The latest edition of the dictionary was published in late October to coincide with Oscar’s 159th birthday. According to editor Gyles Brandreth the litmus test for inclusion in the dictionary is that quotes makes us laugh, are memorable and stand the test of time. Sifting through the 5000-odd quotes must have been great fun for the one-time Member of Parliament whose favourite one-liner is from Boris Johnston, the Mayor of London: “My policy on cake is still pro having it and pro eating it.” Only BJ – I had the pleasure of listening to him open the Melbourne Writers’ Festival earlier this year – would come up with such a cheeky, schoolboy-type utterance! See: https://thisquirkylife.com/2013/08/30/boriss-blockbuster/

What are your favourite humorous quotes? Some of my personal favourites are:

“That woman speaks eighteen languages, and she can’t say ‘No’ in any of them.” Dorothy Parker
This applies to anyone who has ever had a problem with maintaining personal boundaries and being over nice and accommodating. I speak from experience…

“Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination.” Oscar Wilde
A brilliant quote for the idealistic freelancer…

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“There ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.” Mark Twain
Who hasn’t got a disastrous falling-out-with-friends travel story? I have several!

Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” Winston Churchill
A much more elegant take on the idea that there’s ‘no failure only feedback’, and a good mantra to live by.

“The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.” Lily Tomlin
Rats really do race! In 2003 when I was helping out on a volunteer conservation project on the Balearic island of Majorca, I went into the kitchen one morning and opened the food cupboard. Two black rats shot out and raced down the stairs. I don’t know who was more frightened, me or them!

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” George Bernard Shaw was in tune with his inner child, way before it became trendy and new-agey to do so.

I’ll close with a dog quote: “I don’t really understand that process called reincarnation but if there is such a thing I’d like to come back as my daughter’s dog.” Leonard Cohen.