Shillelagh Woman

December 1944, Bernard Bennett photographer, 27 Oxford Street, London W1

Wicklow-born, a writer of strongly poetic temperament who reached print rarely but found anonymous voice largely through my father's books, my mother ended her days in publishing, firstly with Secker & Warburg, then as editor with W H Allen off the Strand. I never doubted her literary or emotional passions – Pushkin, Rilke, the mystic Irish, Charles Stewart Parnell, Saladin of Mesopotamia. What her musical sympathies were, however, I never really found out. She’d relate tales of her father, who’d lost an arm in the French fields of the First World War but during the 20s and 30s had a piano that would play rolls reproducing the classics he’d learnt or heard as a young man. In London some time in her twenties, surviving the Blitz, she’d worked for ENSA, set up by Basil Dean and Leslie Henson in 1939 to provide entertainment for the troops. She’d come with me to concerts at the ‘new’ Royal Festival Hall, yet always seemed more drawn to the surroundings, the social glamour. The languorous gaze with which Arthur Rubinstein once fixed her for an hour charmed more than anything he played. He had a soft spot for pretty women. Mother was pretty. No, I’ve no idea what she liked. I knew what she didn’t, though. English music. Benjamin Britten. Seemingly Johann Strauss. I went along. Almost. Strauss was my Achilles’ heel.

31 December 2021