The Earl Russell, O.M., F.R.S., Plas Penrhyn Penrhyndeudraeth Merioneth 30th December, 1964 Dear Miss McConomy, Thank you for your letter of 28th December. I am quite willing to be interviewed for one of your ‘profiles’. Almost any afternoon at four o’clock would suit me, but perhaps you will telephone me to fix a time. Yours sincerely, Russell
It was 1964 and Bertrand Russell, philosopher, mathematician, anti-war activist and Nobel Laureate was 92. I was 23, gauche and newly hatched from the news room when I was sent by the Western Mail (the national newspaper of Wales) to interview him.
The ‘profiles’ Lord Russell referred to in his letter were interviews with the eminent or famous, run under the wince-making title of Feminine Focus. If there was a sexist edge to this, I didn’t care. As far as I was concerned, to be asked to write the profiles was a gift.
This was my second year of a three-year indenture scheme. The Western Mail was one of Lord Thomson’s many papers and I’d got there via a secretarial job on the Sunday Times. I spent a year as a cub reporter in the Swansea district office. Swansea was a town I fell in love with, its streets as up and down as the Welsh valley voice, its beautiful Gower beaches, its Dylan Thomas hauntings. The office was small. The staff consisted of a rather handsome chief reporter, a lively young photographer, an ex-miner who could hardly breathe for pneumoconiosis, an elderly, very courteous man who’d been there forever and who reported on council and court affairs, and an affable, warm-hearted Welshman who worked for the Press Association and who taught me to sing the Welsh national anthem in Welsh. I was happy.
And then I was called up to head office in Cardiff, allotted a desk in the features department (among the high-flying graduates who had the unenviable task of writing the daily leader column) and handed the gift of the profiles.
My reasons for wanting to become a journalist were probably all the wrong ones. I wanted to write. I wanted a cure for shyness. I’d left school at 16. Now I was a naive 23, full of conflict and curiosity, wanting a path in life. What became a year of interviews was akin to a personal university course. Hardly surprising then, that when I was given a say in the choice of interviewees, I managed to pick a philosopher, a poet, a painter and a comedian. Four life coaches, so to speak!
Yet looking through my old cuttings book, I see that the roll call of the good, the wise and the glamorous was amazing. Apart from Bertrand Russell, it included Sir Basil Spence, Harry Secombe, Stevie Smith, Brigid Brophy, Joyce Grenfell, Shirley Bassey, L. S. Lowry, Marlene Dietrich and Dora Bryan — plus a harpist, a parachutist, a headmistress and Alice Bacon, a Minister of State in the Home Office. Of all of these, it is Russell, Stevie Smith and L. S. Lowry whom my memory holds dear.
It was late January 1965 when I met Bertrand Russell at his home in the small Merioneth village overlooked by Snowdonia. Ushered in, I found him sitting in a wing-backed armchair, his hair as snowy as the mountains outside. My first impression was so shocking I couldn’t admit it to myself at the time. Surely a
23-year-old woman such as myself couldn’t be physically attracted to a man of 92, could she? Well, with his lean and aquiline features, that head that looked as if it could go on a stamp, that flyaway snowy hair, Russell was distinctly handsome!
Russell wants to talk about and promote his Peace Foundation, founded in 1963 (and still going). I want to talk about his book of popular philosophy, The Conquest of Happiness. We don’t talk of conventional happiness. We talk of Russell’s desire to learn more physics so he could ‘decry nuclear warfare’. We talk of age, atheism and equality, with Russell saying that it will probably only be after a century of formal equality that women will have real equality. ‘You know there have been times when women ruled the roost,’ he says, ‘…that can happen again’. (Is there a twinkle in his eye?) What Russell most wants is ‘equality of colour’, predicting that it will be ‘a long time – a bloody time – I mean ‘bloody’ in the correct sense – before we get that.’
‘Philosopher and rebel extraordinary’ is the heading the sub-editor gave to my interview with Russell; it’s a heading that could have been given to my interview with the poet Stevie Smith. What was surprising about Stevie Smith was the contrast between her small, seemingly insignificant personage and the provocative surprise of her poems, so many of which challenge Christian belief. She did so then, over lunch at Brown’s Hotel in London (the place seemed full of vicars) saying, ‘I think it better to have no God than a God of virtue. Man’s greatest power,’ she continued, ‘is the power to take his own life. Of course I wouldn’t advocate suicide for any young person but I think old people ought to be able to make their own decision… I would think of it myself. They’ve taken the poison out of gas now, haven’t they?’ This last question tossed at me almost like a dare. I’m so agog, I’ve no memory of eating anything.
Stevie talks about her life with Aunt in their home at Palmer’s Green. She began writing, she says, when she was 23, ‘out of pain and suffering and the inevitable unhappy love affair’. (My age; I’m thinking — forget happiness, cultivate unhappiness). She says her most recent poem, ‘November’, took 55 drafts. (55 drafts! Should I give up poetry?) I make a lot of notes – I have reasonably good shorthand – and type them up when I’m back in Cardiff. A week or so later she writes to the editor complaining that I got the colour of her eyes wrong.
Of all my interviewees, it is L. S. Lowry who most moves and charms me. He’s so self-deprecating, and so funny and honest about being miserable. I meet him at his home, The Elms, a small stone house crammed with paintings and fourteen clocks each telling a different time. Currently, he’s given up on industrial scenes and has turned to ‘down-and-outs’. ‘There are acres of them you know. Of course, when it’s cold they don’t come out, but on a nice day they come and sit in the park.’
They’re happier than he is, he claims. ‘I’m miserable most of the time…I get lonely. I think what if I fell downstairs and broke my neck. Nobody would care. And why should they?’ About life itself, he sounds continuously astonished. ‘I can’t understand it at all…What’s the point of coming if you’ve got to go? It’s absurd.’
That he started to paint at all, was, he says, entirely due to chance. ‘My mother and father looked at me with contempt. And then my Auntie Mary came along and all three looked at me with contempt. Then my Auntie Mary, bless her, said ‘What about the art college? He used to paint quite nice ships when he was eight.’
Lowry eats all his meals out, so together we take a bus into town (I can’t believe this is happening. I’m on a bus with a famous artist!) and have tea at…was it Lyons Corner House Café, or the Kardomah? What I do remember is Lowry’s concern for the waitress. ‘She looks tired,’ he says. ‘She’s thinking about her pension.’
What I’m slowly discovering I suppose, is that talent – genius even – doesn’t bring happiness.
So what of the others? Novelist Brigid Brophy who doesn’t believe in heaven but does believe in Parnassus and would ‘really like to know if Dickens is there’; Shirley Bassey who is at her best ‘when slightly unhappy’; Harry Secombe, ‘once a goon always a goon’; Sir Basil Spence, ‘I don’t want to be greedy but I’m not satisfied with what I’ve done.’
And then there’s the so-called scoop of an interview with Marlene Dietrich. September ’65 and we meet at Liverpool’s Royal Court Theatre. Dietrich stands posed on stage. Slinky gown, off-shoulder fur. She doesn’t move. I’m kept looking up at her from down in the orchestra pit, asking questions she doesn’t answer. I write a snooty piece. ‘How long can a legend that has no story survive?’ I ask, having quite failed to get any kind of story out of her. As if by way of an answer the newspaper includes a glamorous photo.
Perhaps the message to hold on to from my ‘personal university course’ is the one that comes from Joyce Grenfell – actress, singer, comedienne, writer and
raconteur all in one – a woman who says she finds life fun ‘because it’s such a serious business.’ Fifty years on — I agree!