Thursday, December 18, 2008

Conversation with a familiar stranger

British novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard
tells Michele Hewitson why she writes of her
experience, not imagination

``I'm sick of people writing autobiographies where they turn out to be so charming and terrible things happen to them but they've got a sense of humour about it.'' Elizabeth Jane Howard

ELIZABETH JANE Howard is on the telephone from her home in Suffolk and at "85 and a half" she is a little deaf and there is a fault on the line. This makes for an odd conversation, but it was always going to be.

I have known her all her life despite never having met her. I've been in every house she's lived in; in every one of her beloved gardens. I have read everything she's ever written and what she writes about is her life.
So, how strange it is speaking to a complete stranger whose life you know so well. "Yes, I do know. I've felt like that too. So I do know exactly what you mean. I'm very
flattered that you should feel it about me."
There is so much of her in her books. "Well, there has to be. That's what you've got. You've got your own experience, your perception of other people and, I think, this very thin band of pure imagination which you can sometimes venture into. But it's like a little strip around the moon. It's very dicey."

I didn't know what she sounds like, although it would be easy enough to guess that it would always be "telephone" never "phone"; she is posh and from a generation when
that meant properly posh. But not snootily so: she is always plain Jane, never the posher Elizabeth.
Still, she has the clipped diction, the syntax as polished as pearls. Rather yellowy, smoky ones: she has been trying to give up cigarettes for decades and now "smokes very little
and I can not smoke, except when I'm writing and then I find I simply cannot write a line
You'd think she might give up giving up but she has terrible asthma (and arthritis). And, as she has spent her life observing what can be changed and what cannot, she hasn't
finished trying to change herself just yet.

"I was a very slow learner and a very slow person to mature and I started off rather unfortunately... That's why I called my memoir Slipstream. I'm always in the slipstream of my life, trying to catch up with things."

Her new book is Love All, and it is about love, and looking for love, about cats and houses and gardens - those things in life that change; what her books, and her life, are always about.

A friend of hers, the painter Sargy Mann, once said that she was always looking for the unattainable. "That's interesting. Ha. I probably was, I think. A lot of people do. Not the holy
grail, but the perfect relationship
." Which she never found? "No, I don't think so and one of the things you have to recognise when one stops being an adolescent – which by the way is not a finite time, it could be any old time, it could be 60 - one of the things you've got to recognise is that there isn't such a thing. That there are people or ideas or places as good as it gets, really. And also, things change."

There she is on the cover of Slipstream: beautiful, smouldering, sexy. It is a candid memoir. She is well-bred and of a generation that didn't tell the intimate details. She has told all. I know more about her sex life than I know about anyone else's sex life. The who and when, and whose husband and what their wives thought. She tells all but not in any way which might excite the prurient.

Her great love, from a long list? "I suspect the person I loved probably most in the world was Laurie Lee [the writer best known for Cider with Rosie]." But he was married. She would not have inserted that "but".
"I was very fond of his wife and she of me and she knew about it and we're still great friends and I'm a godmother to their only child."
Goodness. "Ha. Yes. She's a very unusual and remarkable person."

She had an affair with Cecil Day-Lewis, poet laureate, husband of her friend Jill Balcon (who recently said she was still haunted by the affair), father to the actor Daniel
Day-Lewis and the food writer, Tamasin - another goddaughter.

She was so beautiful when she was young, and she didn't know it, or seem to get much joy out of that. But perhaps she's fed up with people going on about her great beauty.
"I suppose I think in retrospect I'm very fed up with that. Because when I thought people minded about me, all they thought was that I was a nice piece of crumpet really, and
that's rather depressing

Now she lives with Ed, the "very old, very beautiful lurcher dog who is sort of cafe creme- coloured, very heraldic looking and deeply affectionate and not terribly bright... She came from a refuge home at, I think, about 16. She was called Ed when she came and I've tried Edwina and
Emily but she simply won't take any notice. So I have to call her Ed, which is frightfully unsuitable."
She has Ed and her garden and her writing.
Not a bleak ending at all.

This is but an excerpt from the splendid piece by Michele Hewitson that appeared in last Saturday’s Canvas magazine in the NZ Herald.
Sadly the Herald does not provide online links to their Canvas stories, a great pity, because this story deserves the widest possible coverage.
It is too long for me to publish in full here but I hope you enjoy the excerpt which is published with permission of the author and the NZ Herald and I am grateful to them.

Somebody should suggest to Hewitson that she gather up all her wonderful Herald interviews and get them published in book form. Along the lines of Steve Braunias’ collections from Awa Press.
By the way I have added Slipstream to my Christmas wish list as a result of reading Hewitson’s wonderful interview.

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