‘A Broken Wing’ p.3

Little did I know then, just how ‘mad’ our lives in Germany had become.

Through my child’s eyes, I saw a broken world around me: bomb sites in Hamburg , which I remember vividly; cowed people, ill-dressed and appearing silent and defeated. Obviously, I had no idea why.

But the drama in my own family was equally extreme and  intense. In the course of his work travelling across the country, my father had had a very serious car accident,   when his Ford had skidded off the autobahn near Bremen, and plummeted down a ravine.  He had been very seriously injured, and  was left in the freezing snow for hours before  he was found  and rescued by a concerned German family – named Barock.

His recovery was slow.  He had had a trepanning operation on his skull, and now suffered from severe headaches.  He was unable to work, and was granted compassionate ‘ leave of absence’ to get well again.  I recall him screaming in agony, and threatening to blow his brains with a gun that was in the house.  I saw him pick it up and lift it to his head.

No wonder my mother had finally fled.  The accident had left him with a complete personality change.  He had become disinhibited and would say and do outrageous things.

The final straw was when he went up to his commanding officer’s wife and told her that the hat she was wearing was ‘ridiculous’.

To complicate matters further – he had become emotionally attached to Sonia Barock  –  the young woman who had helped to save his life.  She saw marriage to my father as a way out of Germany. Her passport to freedom.  And, also, on the scene, was ‘D’.Obsessed with my father, and hovering in the background.

How and why had she turned up again.

He was eventually released from his employment in Germany.  It was the end of what could have become a very prestigious career in the Foreign Office.

The winters in Germany were severe then.  I remember the thick snow and icy paths. Snow that reached several feet deep – I would run through the tunnels dug by by Willi, the gardener that exposed the paths in the garden.

While the drama of my father’s agony continued, Elsa and Silly tried to make the coming Weihnachten as beautiful and magical and normal  for me, as they possibly could.

It would be my last Christmas in Germany.


‘A Broken Wing’ p.2

For the first six years of my life, from 1945- 51,  I lived in Germany.  And it was  our last home near the Wahner Heide airbase that I remember most.

My mother had long ago  left  me behind to return to her life in the UK; and my father was physically absent a lot of the time, because he was working across Germany for the Control Commission in the Transport division. I remember the day she left. I ran upstairs to her, begging her to read me a story, and her reply was:

‘Go away, and leave me alone’.

Well, I never missed this emotionally- absent woman.  I had loved her so much once, but that love was not returned.   Now there was nothing to miss.

I had only fleeting memories of her – at drunken parties and gatherings that my parents held. There she would be : chain-smoking her de Reske cigarettes, drinking and flirting.

I would sit on the stairs – in my pyjamas- watching the grown-ups at play.

Basically, my parents abandoned me to be  brought up by the  members of staff who lived and worked in our beautiful house, which had been seconded from a wealthy German industrialist and his family. All were  total strangers to me.

These kind Germans included Elsa ,our cook, and Willi ( her husband), the gardener. They were a warm-hearted, middle-aged couple, and Elsa took pity on this unloved, neglected and unwanted English kid – me- and lavished love, kisses and cuddles on me – continuously.  She called me her ‘kleine Mandylein’, and I loved her lots. To this day, I thank God for her kindness and warmth.

There was also a maid called Cecilia – a sixteen-year-old Polish girl  – working for us.  I nicknamed her ‘Silly’, which she didn’t mind at all.   How did she arrive here? What was her history? She  must’ve been a displaced person. A refugee, I suppose.  Anyway, she was a delight. Always happy and laughing, she was most affectionate to me. I adored her; and clung to her.  She was so poor. She had no stockings and wore old boots without laces, and a skimpy dress.  All the Germans around us had nothing. No food. No clothes. No belongings. They were desperate times.  But Cecilia and I  would play ‘hide and seek’ all over this  magnificent house, with its parquet flooring, ‘sweeping’ marble staircase, state-of-the art central heating, and large garden, full of tall cedars and red squirrels.

Every day I would return from the Foreign Office school I attended to the warm kitchen in the house to my little disparate  foreign ‘family’, and eat with them. The English teachers and other parents weren’t kind to me at all. But ‘back home’ I was loved and cherished.

To help them care for me were a number of ‘Gards’, as I called them :  local girls from the village who all seemed to be  named Hildegarde, Irmgard, Odgard – or so I thought.  They were a savage bunch and I got slapped a lot.  I suppose it must’ve been quite satisifying for them to wallop a defenceless English child . After all, we were conquerors living in their homeland now.

It was an  intensely surreal set-up, however,   and I was often lonely, troubled and vulnerable, with no one to protect me at all.  I remember I had an imaginary playmate called Paul, whom I spoke to a great deal – in English and German.

My father would turn up occasionally, but I didn’t like him one bit.  To me, he was a heavy,  over-emotional man, who believed that it was a good idea for me to share a bath with him.  I was deeply embarrassed by this and horrified at the sight of his willy floating in the water in front of me.

I didn’t know this, but my parents were now divorced, and, astonishingly, my father had obtained full custody of me.

It was into  this potent mix of madness that ‘D’ arrived. My tormentor-to-be.



‘A Broken Wing’.

‘My life has crept so long on a broken wing/ Thro’ cells of madness, haunts of horror and fear.  That I come to be grateful at last for a little thing’.

Tennyson  ‘The May Queen’ (1833).

I was five years old when I first saw her.  She was standing at the top of a flight of stairs, and as I looked  up into her angry, wild dark eyes, fear flooded through my small frame, and I thought ‘trouble’ has arrived.

I  saw her for the last time  lying dead in a hospital bed ,when I was sixty. And I feared then that she would wake up suddenly , for  I couldn’t believe that she had finally gone from my life.  The relief  was so  profound. This time my heart raced with joy and delight.

I was free at last!

But I never expected that from then on  I would have nightmares about her  for the rest of my life,  Recurring dreams that still wake me up in the early hours , if you will forgive the cliche, in a cold, icy sweat.  It feels like I am trapped in a life-long prison sentence that I can never be released from.  This is my story.

Wives of the Artists (p.2)

‘I’ve got an appointment at Art Curial at 8 pm – want to come?’, Vlado asked half-invitingly’ but Marisa knew that she was meant to refuse. He wanted to go alone.

‘No, thanks’, she replied. ‘Too tired’. I’ll stay here and watch the sunset. You go’.

After their meal, Vlado left for the rue Matignon with a folder of drawings.

The flat, shrouded in its white sheeting, was cocoon-like. Still. Marisa could hear the couple next door – both alcoholics – quarrelling.  The stillness of the evening was destroyed for her.  Even the cheerful light from the sunset failed to lift her spirits.

‘I must go out’, she thought, aloud.

The metro, at that hour, was quiet. Half-deserted. So many of the stations: Concorde, Etoile, Opera were brightly-painted and sunny.  Marisa’s carte orange gave her the freedom of the city. So she decided to take the train from Ecole Militaire to Concorde, where she could change trains for St.Paul-le-Marais.  The Reuilly-Diderot /Nation line would do.  This area of or Paris: Hotel de Ville, St Paul, Bastille was her favourite part.

She would walk across the Seine at the Pont Marie, on to the mysterious Ile de la Cite, past Notre Dame cathedral.  She knew that the bookshop – Shakespeare and Co. – would still be open, with its cheerful jumble of ex-pat Americans, snoozing and reading in the deep, comfortable armchairs.

When she arrived at St. Paul, it was raining.  The street market was still open, and she bought some creme fraiche and a bunch of  violets.  She wanted to buy some moules and fresh watercress to make soup, but she didn’t have enough money with her.


She turned round to face the voice.  It was Velikovic.  The artist.  Everyone in the Parisian art world knew him.  He was a friend of Vlado’s, but rich, successful and influential.

‘On your own?’, he asked.

‘Where’s Vlado?’.

‘He’s working’, she lied.  She had convinced  herself that net-working and schmoozing round art galleries was a kind of work.

‘Well, you must come and have a drink with us’, he said.

She tried to protest. It was late. She was tired. She must get home.

‘But Stella would love to meet you.  Come’.

He marched ahead of her, and she followed him obediently.  He lived in a magnificent apartment overlooking the Seine and Notre Dame, so they simply walked back over the Pont Marie again.  It wasn’t very far to walk.

When Vlado  opened the magnificent  front door of their third floor apartment ( the belle etage)  and she walked into the large, elegant  rooms, she  felt that she had never seen anywhere more exquisitely perfect in her whole life.

The walls were painted in various shades of vellum and white.  Huge abstract paintings and  mirrors were magnificently lit by spot-lights; there were massive bowls of fruit, and flowers placed on fabulous antique pieces of furniture.

Like an acolyte in a cloister, Stella, Vlado’s wife, moved from room to room, bringing in tall, fluted glasses, wine, canapes and delicate pastries.  She, too, looked immaculate, dressed in a medley of parchment-coloured cashmere.  She seemed to blend into the colour scheme around her.

As she  poured the wine out, she raised her beautifully-shaped eyebrows and asked Marisa:

‘How do you like being the wife of an artist’.

‘I don’t know yet’, replied Marisa, in all honesty.



















Wives of the Artists

The rue Duvivier in the 7th arrondisement in Paris  is a charmless street that houses the discreet, the elderly and the comfortably-off.

There never seems to be much sun in this street, but, at least, it’s within walking distance of the dusty Champ de Mars and the Eiffel Tower, and, on a stifling summer’s day, a coolness emanates from its grey stone and shuttered windows.

When the Lazars’ first arrived at Apt.3, 68, bis, Vlado moved the vast pieces of ornate furniture out of reach and draped everything with white sheets,  He then emulsioned the pale, patterned wall-paper white, so that this uncomfortable, claustrophobic flat gleamed like the shiny  inside of a shell.

Anything ugly or unaesthetic caused Vlado pain.  If he couldn’t eliminate some unpleasing object from his life and home  ( and the terms of the  contract forbade this), he would merely cover the offending object with white paint.

Marisa  had grown sensitive to this artistic compulsion of his. Living with him, she had learned how vital it was for everything to be perfect – even down to the design of his pencils ; the correct shade of colour; or the exact positioning of an ashtray.

The kitchen in the flat was galley-shaped and overlooked a small courtyard, where a group of elderly men played boules and smoked for most of the day. Marisa liked to hear the click-click sound of the petanc balls: it was peaceful and relaxing.  The men had made themselves a little camp around two old armchairs in this piece of scrap ground here in the middle of Paris; and, as she prepared their evening meal – frothy omelettes with a dash of cumin –  she watched their ponderous, measured game.

‘On mange’, Marisa called out to Vlado, she called out gently to Vlado, because she could see that he was concentrating on a drawing.

‘J’arrive’, he replied triumphantly, with a smile, relishing these new French sounds. His French was still rudimentary; and his English fractured even after having lived in London for twenty years.

Marisa lit some candles. It was dusk. Paris, outside their window, seemed, momentarily, at bay, as its bad-tempered inhabitants were now mostly  a table.



‘Francis Huxley and the ‘guiding light’ of Bach.

This piece by Bach, however, was completely new to me, and I was full of gratitude to Francis for introducing it to me.  As I wrote in 2002:

‘I was left to listen to the entire piece on my own, with a cup of espresso in front of me.

Gradually, I became still. I tried to make out bits of German in the first recitative. ‘Schmerz’ (pain) was repeated.  I felt calmer as I listened to the ‘Duet’; and was almost in tears during the famous Chorale, transfixed by its questing and spiritual agonising.

Was Francis – at a subconscious level – gently guiding me into a new place of stillness and rapture.  Was this a gift to me; to admonish me and then lead me to a higher level of trancendence.

It was late now, and time to leave. Francis helped me on with my coat, and gallantly walked me to the tube station.  We shook hands rather stiffly, and said goodnight. The evening hadn’t been a success; but he had left me with a new, delicious secret: Bach!

Within a few days, I’d bought a long -play record of two Bach cantatas: ‘Sleepers Awake ( Wachet Auf, ruft uns die Stimme!’) twinned with ‘Lobet Gott’.  It was an E.M.I. recording, on mono, with a splendid reproduction of Blake’s illustration of ‘The Wise and Foolish Virgins’, on its rather austere black and white cover. I kept it until 2010, when I moved house, and gave it away.

Certainly, Francis had awakened a life-long  love of Bach in me.  Years later I read an interview between Francis and Ben Colodzin in the Olympia Institute Quarterly about the importance of having a ‘guiding light’ in one’s life.

And I totally understood what he meant.

‘Francis Huxley and the ‘guiding light’ of Bach.

But now, I shall digress in my account.

In 2002, I wrote this piece, when my memory of this meeting was much fresher, I shall now recount what I wrote then.

‘My father was a friend of Francis, and they shared many interests. Primarily, a curiosity about how human beings try to make sense of the world; the spiritual journeys that we take; and the longing for transcendence and ‘meaning structure’. Francis saw my father as a one-off urbanite shaman.  But I was no match for Francis’ formidable intellect. He had the questions – but I was unable to provide the answers’.

In despair, Francis decided to show me round his splendid front room, patiently describing the various pieces and their provenance to me. I was engrossed and fascinated.  Francis appeared exhausted.  Later, he went off to make some coffee; and I was told to sit and ‘relax’ on the sofa.  As I was still considerably in awe of him, this was difficult’.

In a gentle, but rather schoolmasterly way, Francis then announced that he was going to ‘play me some music’, and that I must listen to it very carefully.  I noticed that in his living room he had the latest, most up-to-date state-of-the-art sound system available at the time: equipment straight out of  Hi-Fi News.

Gingerly, I lay back against the velvet upholstery, and waited. The it began: the gloriously optimistic first movement of Bach’s Cantata 140 – Wachet Auf! – with its tremendously upflifting ‘Chorus’.

It was the first time in my life of twenty-five years that I had heard such music. My very first Bach cantata. I was entranced, and totally enraptured by the ‘chorale melody’.

Francis smiled wearily at me.

To him, I must’ve appeared to be a lightweight; a mere tyro.  A twentieth-century girl more used to Bob Dylan and the Beatles, although, in fact, I had been collecting recordings of  music by,   Beethoven, Dvorak , Sibelius and other compusers since I was ten years old.




‘Diana Athill and ‘Sprout’. A Friendship.

I did write back to dear Diana, but, this time, I didn’t receive a reply.

I knew that she had moved from her flat into a marvellous ‘care’ home for elderly, literate women.  Perhaps my cards and letters didn’t reach her. I wish I had persisted, but my news at the time wasn’t very cheerful.  I was very involved then in caring for my beloved husband, who was very ill, and finally died in 2010.

I also continued to care for my mother, who died in 2017, aged ninety-nine.

I have read all the obituaries to Diana, and learned even more about her and her life.

It is a little poignant for me that she died on January 23 rd  – my mother’s birthday.

Because, in a way, Diana was my ‘writing’ mother.  I regard her as a role model, an inspiration and an example that it is never too late to have a successful writing career, and that gaps in one’s writing life are inevitable when ordinary demands, such as work, childcare and family matters take over.

Diana – for your kindness and encouragement to me over a lifetime – I salute you!



‘Diana Athill and ‘Sprout’. A Friendship.

‘Dear Sprout – How lovely to hear from you!  And how happy I feel after reading your generous appreciation of my book, for which I thank you.

What a pity you weren’t at Charleston. It was such a beautiful day, the house and garden at their best, and Katherine W and I had an almost overwhelming reception from that huge tentful of people, all of whom seemed to be beaming at us and ready to roll in the aisles laughing at our feeblest jokes.  We ended up very pleased with ourselves and each other.  Although Hay is meant to be more important, and can be v. enjoyable, I don’t think it will be better than Charleston.  I go to it the day after tomorrow – and it does have the advantage of being quite near where my sister lives, so I’ll stay with her for a few days.  Then there’ll be a gap, then Dartington – then a longer gap – the Edinburgh. And that will be that.  I shall miss the shots of adrenaline one gets from these jaunts, although they are rather exhausting.  Granta is quite pleased with the book’s sales…and I am agreeably astonished.

I wonder what form your blossoming has taken. More poetry? Or something quite different?  Do write and tell me, if you have the time.

With best wishes

Diana Athill

PS Interesting to hear that Camden’s doing well by your mother, because it can’t be too long before it has to ditto for me!!


‘Diana Athill and ‘Sprout’. A Friendship.

I was delighted to receive Diana’s comments of my poems.  I think that she much preferred fiction to poetry, so was even more happy that she had liked a few of them.

I feel Diana’s death very keenly.  She was a remarkable woman – one of the greatest editors ever, who overcame heartbreak in her youth, worked until she was 75, and then powered on – in her retirement – to write  a series of lovely, life-affirming books, such as her meisterstuck  ( in my opinion) – Somewhere Towards The End (2008), written when she was nearly ninety!.

I read it in one sitting. Un-put-downable, and again wrote to congratulate her. I also told her a little about the trials and tribulations of caring for my mother – born in 1918 – and similar in age to Diana.

This was her reply: