Thursday, 29 December 2011

Early days

We know now how a child can be affected in the womb by the
emotional state of the mother.  My mother knew she could never return to her home
country.  She wrote to my father, who replied asking her not tell anybody, as it
would ruin his career!  Was I affected by all the stress my mother must have gone
through at this time?  My mother told me I was a happy baby, always laughing and

        My earliest memories are of light:  of sunlight on tall white buildings;  of light
glinting on the sea, winking and beckoning to me;  of white breakers rolling onto
the shore.  There was a feeling of spaciousness:  wide streets, squares, many trees,
and always the sea as my mother wheeled me in my pram along the Promenade des
Anglais.  I have always revelled in sunlight, and still do.

       I remember lying in bed with my mother.  Early morning sunlight fills the
room.  We are playing a game with pistachio nuts.  We crack open the nuts, and the
first one to find a double nut cries ‘Pistache’.  I win the game, of course, and my
mother buys me a tiny, celluloid doll from the Prisunic.  We are staying in a small

       A little later on we moved to a “pension”, a boarding house, in the suburbs of
Nice.  The house was large and ivy covered, with green shutters on the windows.
Our room was on the ground floor;  it had large French windows through which I
could walk right out into the garden.  Every morning the shaggy old sheepdog,
Toto, would scratch at the door.  I would run and let him in, open the French
windows and he would race out onto the lawn, where the elderly English ladies
took their afternoon tea.  One of these ladies, a Miss Crawford, was always very
kind to me.  I must have been about two years old.

       The “pension” was owned by an Englishwoman.  Her husband was in a mental
asylum and she had a lover, a White Russian colonel called Dimitri.  After the
Russian Revolution in 1917 many refugees fled to France.  The intelligentsia went
to Paris and others found their way down to Nice.  Some were obscure and
penniless, some belonged to the nobility who could no longer live in Russia under
the Communist regime.  They all had to make a living, and many of them found jobs as
waiters and taxi drivers.

       Harriet Welch, our landlady, welcomed the Russian émigrés to the house.
She was a plump woman, warm and friendly.  They would visit the house and
congregate in her back room, where they would sit and chat, drink tea and play
cards.  Many of them were without their families, and so I was spoilt and petted by

       Two of them gave a party for me in their flat on the 6th December, which is
celebrated in Russia as the feast of St Nicolas.  I remember the Christmas tree,
sparkling with baubles and little candles on the branches.  There was a big star on
the top, and presents underneath, small boxes of candies and other delights.

       My mother had made me a pretty smocked dress and curled my hair
with little rags.  I was the only child there.  The men pulled me up onto their shoulders
and the women bent down to kiss me.  I could smell their perfume, sweet and musky.
I received a beautiful china doll.  She had dark, curly hair and china blue eyes with dark
lashes which opened and shut, but she had no clothes.

       By the end of the evening I was fast asleep and my mother carried me home.

       One morning I saw one of the Russians I liked best sitting on the stairs in the
'pension':  he was a big man with thick, black hair and a walrus moustache. He
was sobbing, and tears were running down his face.  I snuggled up to him.  I felt his
moustache tickling my face.  I started crying with him in sympathy.

       My mother gently led me away.  “He’s had bad news from home.”

       I have one more memory from the 'pension'.  There was an old Greek lady
living on the top floor.  She was blind and one of my little jobs was to take her to
the lavatory.  In these days of 'health and safety' this may seem unlikely, but
remember we are in France, and living with a number of eccentric people.
Unfortunately, I would then run off and leave her there, and my mother
would scold me.   Some time later she told me that this old lady had a direct
connection to the poet Byron, her uncle having been the doctor in whose arms
Byron had died.

       Dimitri, Harriet’s lover, had a very erect bearing and he had a habit of clicking
his heels on almost every occasion.  One evening - intent on visiting her - he opened
Miss Crawford’s door by mistake.  He had nothing on.  Miss Crawford, on seeing
him started to scream.  Clicking his heels smartly, he bowed his way out backwards.
She left the following day.

       We also moved shortly afterwards.  One of my mother’s acquaintances had told her
about a very cheap ‘pension’, run by Catholic nuns, in a tiny fishing village in
northern Brittany, St Jacut-de-la-Mer.  I was about 3 years old at the time.  I
remember little of the move.  It was to be the first of many.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Poetry Interlude

When I was at School and in my late teens, I used to write a lot of poetry. Julia suggested I might like to publish this one.
It was written when I was about 18. It shows the vaulting ambition that one has at that age! Never mind, here goes:


My aim is to
Sing a song of beauty,
To gather loveliness
Out of the wind's caress.
To bring pain
Into the heart of youth,
To draw out passion
From the budding rose
And make it live again
In some throbbing breast.
To pierce the bud of jessamine
And bring forth scents and sounds
Excelling all those ever smelt or heard on earth before.

That is my aim.

I continued writing poetry when I was at University and into my early twenties. Then I stopped.

However, when I was de-cluttering the other day, I found this poem. It seemed to pop out at me, saying "I want to be
heard." I remembered that about 10 years ago I went to a Druid's weekend workshop, which I loved and felt I was a Druid.
At the end we were asked to write a poem. Here it is:

Night is beauty,
Beauty is the night.
Darkness cloaks the land,
Stars prick the blue-black sky,
An infinite variety.
The moon rides high,
Casting her ghostly beams
On hills and valleys,
Streams and glistening seas.
The earth stirs and dreams in her sleep
And we dream too, and rest and are refreshed,
Whilst our souls travel on some nocturnal errand,
And angels touch us lightly as they pass.
O deep, mysterious night!
I stand in wonder at your vast infinity.
Darkness and light together,
Waiting for the coming of the dawn.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011


“…till I end my song”

A Love Story (in two parts)



          “But I’m alive, I exist!”

     I am full of conflicting emotions:  anger, confusion, frustration, despair. So much has brought me to this point - Paris - the city of my dreams. And it seems that all my hopes are now going to be dashed to the ground.

     The man sitting at the desk in front of me, thin, grey haired, the epitome of officialdom, looks at me with an inscrutable face.

     I am surprised by my outburst.  I am normally quiet, self effacing and never reveal my true feelings.  But now I am revolting against this anonymity.  Something from deep inside of me is welling up and taking a stand.

     The year is 1959 and I am thirty one years old.  I am standing in the office of Monsieur Deprez, the Deputy Head of Staff at the NATO Headquarters in Paris. He makes a non committal reply and I leave the office with a feeling of hopelessness.

     But evidently my words must have had some effect, for the powers that be in NATO got together and decided that something must be done about the fact of my “existence.”

                                                        *  *  *  *

     I had applied to NATO for a job as a Secretary, and in my letter of application I had explained to the Personnel Officer that I did not have a passport as I had no nationality, and only had a document called an Aliens Certificate.  Nonetheless, I was engaged by NATO, but on arrival in Paris I was told that I would have to obtain an ID card in order to live in France.  The French authorities told me I could not have an ID card without a passport.  I was at an impasse.  What was I to do?   I had given up my flat in London, and moved all my belongings, including my mother, to Paris where I expected to be living.

     I decided to go and see Madame Dreyfus, the Social Welfare Officer for NATO.  Madame Dreyfus was a formidable lady, small and dark, with flashing eyes.  She was Jewish and the direct descendant of the famous Dreyfus, a young Jewish army officer who was falsely accused of treason in the year 1894 and sent to prison. The affair caused a great scandal in France and split public opinion in two. He was finally exonerated in 1906.  

     Fortunately for me, she was on my side. 

          "We have engaged you”, she said, “and it is our responsibility to look after you now."

    She called my French boss, Monsieur Woirin, and said to him:

           “We must help this poor girl”. 

      Monsieur Woirin agreed with her that they must do all they could to see that I acquired a legitimate nationality.

     It was at this point that I was asked to go and see M. Deprez.

Chapter 1

                                                            IN THE BEGINNING

        My story begins on the 14th July, 1928 in Nice, where I was born.  It was 8 o’clock in the morning at the English Clinic in the hills behind Nice when I first saw the light of day.

“A beautiful mother and a beautiful baby,” said the French doctor.  My mother did not think to register my birth at the time, and later, when she did, he told her that she would receive a large fine for not having done so before.  So she did nothing.

 This was to cause us immense problems later on.  She did, however, have me baptized at the American Church of the Holy Spirit on 5th April, 1929.  My father is named as Herbert Stansfield.  So I never had a Birth Certificate, though I do have a certificate of Baptism.

          My arrival was a surprise.  My mother, Florence Nora, was Canadian.  She had arrived in Paris earlier that year to study art at the Sorbonne.  She had come to Paris in order to get away from my father, who was a married man.  He was a Professor of Art at the Toronto Academy of Art, and she had met him whilst studying there.

         When my mother realized she was pregnant, she travelled down to Nice in order to have the birth more discreetly.  She was 39 years old and she was single.

         Up until that time my mother had lived a comfortable life with her parents in a small town named Barrie, on Lake Simcoe in Ontario, Canada.   She was a beautiful woman, very talented and artistic.  She designed and made her own clothes and she designed wedding dresses for her friends.  Although she had had many suitors, she had not married, the reason probably being that she had been very much in love with a married man.  They had nearly eloped together, but in the end felt they could not go through with it.

Both her parents had died in 1921 within a few months of each other, when she was 31. After her parents’ death my mother decided to study theatre design in New York.  She loved her work, she made friends and was living in Greenwich Village, the artists' quarter.  Late one evening, having been out with friends, she was standing on a corner when she was struck down by a taxi which then fled into the night.  She was taken to hospital with a broken hip.  The considerable hospital fees meant that she could no longer afford to stay on in New York and study.  She returned to Barrie and decided to continue studying art in Toronto.

Which was how she met my father.

As I write these words now, many years after my mother’s death, I wonder what went through her mind when she found she was pregnant, She could have had me aborted, there were ways and means, even then. Did she think of it? She was alone and far from home, she was in a strange land, and to be an unmarried mother at that time was to court disgrace.  She would be ostracized from the society she lived in.

Somehow, I think not.  My mother was strong, resourceful and she had an adventurous spirit.  She was also a woman of independent means, so could afford to have and raise a child.  And living in France was very cheap in those days before the war.

She gave me life, and I am grateful to her for that.  However difficult my life may have been, I would rather be alive than have been aborted in my mother’s womb.  That was my mother’s great gift to me.