In Montpellier after a busy week in London.
So often I come here, get taken up with seeing family that there is suddenly no time to see friends. This trip was supposed to reverse the balance.
That was before Willow came down with chickenpox, the Gillies’ childminder was sick until Thursday, and Kate was having an exceptionally hard time, with a demanding client who emailed her 45 times in one day.
So I spent a chunk of the week looking after Willow. This was a real pleasure. It is so much easier to give one grandchild undivided attention when on his or her own.
Willow was past the worst, with only the odd moan about itchy spots. And she has become an intelligent, resourceful and friendly five year old. We spent a happy time rolling marbles round the groove in a breadboard, playing dominoes, doing and redoing her princess puzzles, discussing the funny spelling of words and the figures in her complex drawings.
It’s extraordinary seeing the impact of what is not yet a year at school. She is so much more forthcoming and confident. She is not so engrossed in imaginary stories as her seven year old cousin, Ella, but she shares her fascination with words and is enjoying the gymnastics of numbers (as well as her fearless climbing of high assault courses).
My sister, Deb, recounted a bath time last week:
“She’s still in bath and has moved on to writing words wrongly in one column – wos, wot, etc – and then was, what … and then to drawing a rope and pulling herself up by it, with giggles.”
Interestingly her route to learning to read has been by writing. She has remarkably good handwriting, enjoys writing messages, and demands that you spell out words she doesn’t know – and persists till the task is correct and finished.
All of this was tough on Otto, of course, who was meanwhile at school.
I did manage to see two old friends.
I had a hasty lunch with Christine and her husband Roy. Christine and I go back through primary school, grammar school and university together. I had to rush all to soon, to be back with Willow. But I’m hoping Christine and Roy will be visiting me in France.
Then, after the two families had departed for their half term holiday in Sicily, I managed to see Sally and her husband, John. Our two families were great friends and Sally, like Christine, was at Tiffins with me. I try to see her at least once a year, and we still talk hard and at the same time, as we have done for 66 years.
We went to the Vanessa Bell exhibition at the Dulwich Art Gallery. Sally and I found it fascinating, John, I suspect, less so. Inevitably the exhibition was as much as anything a window into the life of the Bloomsbury set. But I also thoroughly enjoyed her paintings, especially her portraits of family, friends and lovers. There were a couple of deeply affectionate portraits of her sister, Virginia Woolf, that were particularly good. I also liked the less figurative more mystic ‘Studland Beach’, a study of women and children, their backs to the painter, on a beach.
We then had an excellent lunch at the Italian restaurant “Rocca” in Dulwich. Given it was Bank Holiday Sunday and the place was packed with children, a superbly professional Italian waiter found us a calm corner, turned off the music, and was discreetly attentive throughout the meal. Bravissimo.
Oxford Left Reunion
The timing of my visit had been so that I could attend a reunion of the Oxford Left of the Sixties.
A bizarre notion in many ways: how do you qualify? Is it by actions, beliefs, subsequent contribution to the though or actions of the Left? Well, actually, I think it was as much as anything, a list of friends and acquaintances of Rip Bulkeley, studying in Oxford for much of the decade.
The event was preceded by an extensive and exhausting exchange of emails, as Rip consulted on venue, menu, and invitees – and, true to form, everybody had their tuppence-worth to add.
Rip asked us to provide a biography, but giving no advice on form or content. The result was an excellently edited varied document which Rip circulated beforehand. It almost prevented me coming: the list was populated by incredibly prestigious professors (including Sally’s sister, Jane Caplan, an expert on fascism and nazism) plus people who had remained active and political all their lives. All a bit daunting, but I decided I was there to represent the foot soldiers, those who had attended and demonstrated, but not led.
There had been an interesting reflection in the emails why our generation of the Left had not gone into Parliament (with one exception), preferring academia or other forms of public service.
So, on a hot, sunny Friday I made my way, with some trepidation, to the flash Islington pub where the lunch was to take place.
I opened the wicker gate to the side section of the pub, and saw a group of INCREDIBLY OLD PEOPLE! Oh my god, it was not just me who was 50 years older. Some of the golden youths (and some less golden) of my time were now old men. I won’t mention their names. Just to note that those who had weathered better included Rip himself, Jane, Mary Kaldor (peace studies, international relations and security) and Hilary Wainwright (sociologist, peace studies, Ken Livingston adviser in GLC days, editor ‘Red Pepper’).
My second impression was what an affable crowd they were. I expected this of my two closest friends there, Jane and Bob Liebenthal. But all those erstwhile stalwarts of international Socialism?
It was appropriate that the gathering was predominantly male and over represented by IS members rather than mainstream Fabian or even further right Labour supporters. This represented the Left at Oxford in the early Sixties. As Jane and others hinted at, to represent the decade more fully there needed to be a greater focus not just on the burgeoning women’s movement (first national conference in Oxford in 1968) but also what it was like being a woman in the extraordinarily male dominated society of Oxford University and its Left in the Sixties.
Rip, as a hard working conscientious organiser did a great job. We started by remembering those who were no longer with us. An early name was Chris’s and I did a too brief account of how I met him (after his principal years as a CP and anti-race activist), how his anti-racist position was important all his life, joined by (in advance of his time) shared family duties, as well as a career damaging contempt for stupid, pompous or small minded fellow academics.
What was strange was how little I heard people talking about today’s politics. I know from the emails that there was universal distress at Brexit. Perhaps we were too emotionally exhausted to continue the rant. Instead, much reminiscing about those lost days of our youth.
Rip is thinking of an anniversary for 1968. I will be there.