Sometimes I think I have wasted my life. The feeling doesn’t last long because whatever I have done, personally or professionally, it’s been 120 per cent, full tilt boogie. But I look at the accomplishments of others, or listen to their learning or try to grasp what they have survived, and catch my breath. It took me a long time to understand that in any society, we have different gifts one from another and the society would be the poorer without the range. I’ve not had many heroes and what makes excites my admiration wouldn’t necessarily follow for somebody else. I am very aware of the difference between how things seem to be and how they are, how things are shaped and coloured. And this week I lost two people I admired, who couldn’t be more different.
I met Ruth on a bus. I saw a smooth olivine hand and the cuff of a buff cotton cardigan, striped white, black and a strong mediterranean blue and said aloud “No English person wears those colours.” An amused voice said “Well, I was born here and went to school here.” Pause. “But my mother came from Israel.” And we began to talk. By the time we got off the bus, she had mentioned dance several times and I asked if this was her profession ? By then I knew she had had a full scholarship to the Ballet Rambert and they don’t give those away. “Do you remember Pan’s People ?” she asked. Of course I did, I came up in the seventies. Hello, Ruth Pearson. We subsequently discovered that the first ballerina I ever saw on stage was Lucette Aldous, who taught Ruth.
We didn’t know each other well. We made room for each other. We fell out of our seats laughing at “Hail, Caesar !” and emerged from the cinema silenced by the intensity of “Son of Saul.” We had lunch after she’d been to the hairdresser, or glasses of wine outside in the cold so she could smoke. She developed pancreatic cancer and was too unwell to come with me to see the Royal Ballet’s tribute to Sir Frederic Ashton. She died on Tuesday. Ruth took an ordinary life full of disappointments and made it into something rich with friendship and grace. Her friend and executor Caroline rang to tell me and to beg my pardon for not ringing till Thursday – “I can only do so many of these calls a night.” I bet.
And then on Friday, Simone Veil died, a woman I have never met and only know from what I have read about her, formidably intelligent with dark red hair, whom I first heard speak at the 2005 anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps of which she was a survivor. I had known about her for years and I can remember hoping fiercely that she would have a good voice. And she did. She was the driving force behind the acceptance of legal abortion in France who, accused of wanting to kill children, took off her jacket and rolled up her sleeve, to show her concentration camp number. I admired her for ever more.
It was the contrast between the weight of her regret and her drive to do the best she could in whatever she was working on that caught my imagination. She was esteemed by all sorts of people across the political spectrum, especially in France, as an honest woman.
Oh how we long for honesty in our public figures. How much better to tell the truth and be esteemed for that, even if it isn’t what most people want to hear.
After Ruth had sent me to see the ballet, I wrote to her about it, and her, and her generosity, ending “I like my world much better with you in it.” Had I known Madame Veil, I’d have said the same thing.
There is so much bad news at the moment, here and elsewhere, that I would love to be able to write a light hearted sunny piece but it is not given to me. All I can offer is my appreciation, acknowledgement of what these two taught me and my respect at their passing. It comes to us all.