Speaking Volumes

Sue Gaisford

Filed under: Fiction

Sue Gaisford drinks rose tea with the RSL’s new President Marina Warner.

Every inch of Marina Warner’s house is filled with books and paintings.

There are three storeys in Marina Warner’s pretty London house, but there’s not a lot of room. It’s not that it’s small, nor is there too much furniture. It’s not that the ‘ground-floor back’ – which might once have been a kitchen or sitting room – now offers a soothing view of the sunny garden from a deep and generous roll-top bath. No, it is simply that all other potential space seems to be occupied by pictures and books.

She has assembled, over 35 years in this house, a gloriously eclectic, moving, thought-provoking and touching art collection, much of it created by her friends – friends such as Paula Rego, Leonora Carrington and the late lamented medallist Felicity Powell. There is a print of Mark Wallinger’s unicorned Whistlejacket, a photograph of her startlingly beautiful Italian mother and an ever-changing video installation, created by her son, Conrad. And touching is the mot juste for this display, in every sense. Now and again a sliver of yellow paint peeps shyly between the frames, but mostly pictures fill the walls, and even the backs of doors, everywhere. ‘I sometimes think,’ muses their owner, ‘that I’d like some double doors like they have in the Soane Museum, opening out to reveal even more pictures behind.’ It could be a good idea.

As for the horizontal surfaces in the house, as you might imagine there are a lot of books, on every floor, table and shelf. All bibliophiles know that sinking feeling when, from a distant corridor and with a groan as from a calving iceberg, a stack of books spontaneously collapses. It would be surprising if the sound were unfamiliar to Marina Warner. The innumerable volumes, in many languages and on widely differing subjects, appear at first sight to be randomly placed, as if dropped wherever she paused in reading them, but of course she’s pretty sure where everything is, and has probably read, possibly memorised them all. The problem, if problem it is (and it probably isn’t), is simply to do with quantity.

In the middle of it all, she is the embodiment of serenity. She, too, is beautiful, with quizzical eyebrows and an elegant, if slightly challenging presence. But she is also decidedly warm and welcoming. She brews a pot of rose tea, and pours it into pretty porcelain cups, whose decoration, by chance, exactly matches the tea. This, to her slight embarrassment, is almost too perfect to be doing with: ‘It tastes of boiled wine gums,’ she warns, bathetically. It is surprisingly delicious.

Her conversation is beyond exhilarating. Like one of those very expensive all-in-one fireworks, every idea ignites another, which in turn demands attention, until the next takes over. It is the Ganges delta, or a Zygolex puzzle, or the Almanach de Gotha (without the aristos). Wherever you think she’s taking you, you are diverted and distracted. At every turn a new prospect opens, tempting, irresistible. She leads you on, pressing ever deeper into byways of ideas, books, art, music, languages, politics, wisdom. You follow, of course you do, entranced, if occasionally bewildered. There is no real end, and there probably never will be. It is, almost literally, mesmerising…

With a mental snap of the fingers, it really is time at least to try to talk about the RSL. Marina was surprised, and very pleased, to be offered the presidency, though she is no stranger to honours. She remembers with some pride being a runner-up in the W.H. Smith Children’s Poetry Prize in 1964, since when she has won too many awards to list, and is the holder of eleven honorary degrees. She had felt very ambivalent about accepting her cbe some years ago, but having thought it through, she decided that the arts and literature are usually poorly represented, and that it might be a boost to people in her world who work tirelessly, for little reward, to see their profession given this status. Subsequently, she received many letters endorsing this view, which made it easier to accept becoming a Dame. ‘Besides,’ she adds, ‘the ceremony itself is very moving.’ Prince William performed it, and she was impressed with his patience, though ‘of course I babbled helplessly’ (that didn’t seem likely, but there we are).

This leads to mention of another honour conferred by a royal prince, the highly prestigious and valuable Holberg Prize that she won in 2015 and which has been described as the Nobel for the arts and humanities. The very handsome Crown Prince Haakon gave her that one…

And another enticing tributary is opening up, leading to further royal encounters. ‘My mother taught Princess Diana Italian, you know, and she was totally charmed by her,’ she remarks, before adding, ‘She didn’t find her very easy to teach.’ Then on to her paternal grandfather, after whom a stand at Lord’s is named. Knighted for his services to cricket in 1937, he was Pelham Warner, known as Plum, like P.G. Wodehouse. But we eschew any further Woosterish musings in favour of the fact that Plum was born in Trinidad, and that his family had been there since the seventeenth century. And this leads to a discussion of Derek Walcott’s poem Omeros (‘an extraordinary, massive epic of our time’) and thus to colonialism, which she has frequently criticised. But time is rolling on and, once again, we really must return to the mainstream of this mighty river of consciousness, the RSL.

She is not at present sure how long her presidency will last; ‘I think it’s a lifetime thing, but I won’t do it for a lifetime, because I know how annoying it is when people cling on. On the whole, I think a term of three years, renewable, is a good sort of structure.’ She’s impressed with the way things are going at the moment. ‘It’s very lively and there are many plans, and a very full calendar of events. We are taking on more younger Fellows now, and I very much approve of that, especially as 84 per cent at the moment are over 60, which is too much, surely.’

She is also impressed with current developments towards different ways of delivering literature – digitally, via graphic novels etc. ‘A huge amount of literature is consumed not within the pages of a book, but interwoven into many of the most influential parts of society. Television, for example, relies very heavily on literature. And radio. I would rather like the RSL to influence the ways that presenters of the Today programme actually frame their questions. They are using language, and they should use it with more exactitude, more sensitivity.’ She allows herself a short laugh, imagining how this criticism might be received. As for her own role, she has agreed to give the lecture that will launch the new programme Literature Matters, and she hopes to be prepared to speak up, whenever required, on the media. And she smiles to think that perhaps she should buy a new wardrobe. Well, yes, of course, if she needs an excuse, but really – has anyone ever seen her anything other than immaculately turned out?

The question of language and literature is interesting. Though the two are separate school subjects, the latter is of course composed of the former and in Marina’s eyes they are inseparable. She is very concerned with the power of words, and considers it important that there is now a law against hate speech. And she also wants to promote ‘fair’, as opposed to ‘foul’, speech. ‘A lot of my work is about the interaction of cultural expressions. The very ordinary way in which we greet each other, ask after each other’s health etc., can create benessere, a sense of well-being, and that is really important.’ One of her major concerns at the moment is her work on the ‘Stories in Transit’ project, which she set up in Sicily to help refugees to tell their own stories. Briefly, she hopes to offer them, too, a chance to learn the power of language, via theatre and the arts, especially puppetry. It is tremendously admirable, valuable work.

Identified, primarily, as a cultural historian and novelist, and of course mythographer, Marina has a store of knowledge and experience offering so many other avenues to explore, had we but time enough, and space. She speaks warmly of the lasting influence of her Catholic upbringing, ‘my feminism is entirely sparked by Catholicism’; passionately about politics, ‘I sometimes wonder whether some of her supporters see Theresa May, with her kitten heels, her leather trousers and her stern insistence on the word “hard”, as some kind of dominatrix’; furiously about the disgraceful scandals around university finances. ‘The current system is exploiting the students. It’s a bonne affaire, as my mother would say, a racket.’ And she is, of course, immensely knowledgeable about the lasting power of fables, myths and fairy stories.

When asked whether, as a little girl, she had entertained ideas of becoming a fairy herself, she smiles, and produces her earliest memory: ‘When I was three, I had a fairy doll that I loved. Coming back from a walk with my nanny I realised that I had lost her wand. It had a star on the end. We looked for it, but we never found it.’ From such tiny, almost forgotten heartaches do mighty heroines grow.

Sue Gaisford is a freelance journalist and former Literary Editor of ‘The Tablet’.

Related RSL Fellows

Dame Marina Warner 1984