So it's still last Saturday I think, and having nipped across to the Five Dials stage on the other side of the Walled Garden at 3.30pm to do an interview with Helen Walsh and Eleanor Birne, by now it's almost 5pm and there can be no slacking in the concentration department because I have to prepare for the arrival of Gillian Slovo.
I have a page of notes and some questions in the trusty notebook and if I'd had time to be nervous I might have been, because I have this image of Gillian Slovo, and based on nothing definite beyond my assumptions about her childhood lived in the shadow and fear of anti-apartheid activism, and perhaps what you take from this into adulthood and ...well perhaps she'll be a bit severe and robust in her arguments and certainly won't suffer fools gladly.
In fact Gillian was warm and friendly and talked engagingly about her life and her writing to a fascinated and engrossed audience who asked plenty of insightful and interesting questions, and several shared their own experiences of growing up in South Africa ...so the conversation happened with ease and candour.
We talked about her life as the daughter of Joe Slovo and Ruth First, fiesty parents who kept a great deal of their anti-apartheid activities secret from their children. There was a moment recounted by Gillian when she had eavesdropped on a conversation and discovered the identity of the get-away driver in a jail break, the burden of that knowledge for her perhaps a vindication of her parents' decision to keep those secrets from their children. Interestingly we talked about the current practice to be completely honest and up front with children and to tell them the truth, but it was not ever thus and certainly in the 1950's era of children being 'seen and not heard' perhaps that secrecy not as unusual as it may now seem. That said it is clear Joe Slovo and Ruth First were protecting their children in the best way they knew how, what the children didn't know they couldn't disclose to anyone.
We moved onto Every Secret Thing, Gillian's memoir and having been brought up not to ask questions, writing this book gave Gillian the chance to do just that, having been given the best advice by a colleague to go everywhere, search into every corner and do that asking, and then write what you like.
I asked Gillian whether there had a been a 'right' moment to write the book and we had an interesting discussion about the fact that history was at the right moment for it to be written. The world had been changed and it was a time for people to sit and reflect. The reality too is that to write about a moment in time also solidifies it, history frozen ...then after a time you can challenge it, talk about it more and Gillian agreed she would perhaps write it completely differently now given the chance. Time alters perceptions.
Moving onto Gillian's fiction I gathered up a thread and a common theme that I felt had been woven through our talks through the day, that of assimilation. Don't ask where that came from after so many hours of talking but it did suddenly dawn on me that from Justine talking about Coco Chanel's need to fit in, to Daisy Goodwin's American heiresses trying to blend into the English aristocracy, and then Edmund de Waal's themes of Jewish persecution and his family's assimilation into the UK we had ourselves a common denominator. That led seamlessly (I hoped) into a discussion about Gillian's most recent novel Black Orchids. The wealthy mixed race couple Emil and Evelyn who find themselves struggling to integrate into 1950's Britain.
The novel led us into some wonderful discussion on writing about place and geographical location, about using 'word pictures' to take a reader where you want them to go, about what makes a place home and the moment when Gillian Slovo knew that her home was here in England ... actually a wet day up on Hampstead Heath, a shaft of sunlight 'then I was gone'. South Africa is now the foreign country to her, the place where she meets a part of herself that doesn't exist now.
We talked about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission too, the amnesty given to the South African policemen who had murdered Gillian's mother, how it felt to be on the receiving end of that much hatred and how it feels to be part of a family who had to give up their right to legal justice on behalf of the victims. Interestingly a process that haunted Gillian with terrible nightmares for about six months afterwards until one day she realised that, though it may sound like a cliche, the truth had finally set her free.
Gillian ended with a little anecdote about the 1988 film A World Apart, written by Gillian's sister Shawn in tribute to their parents and in which Barbara Hershey plays Diana Roth the character modelled on Ruth First. On first encounter Gillian was strangely relieved to find that Barbara looked nothing like her mother. Fast forward ten years and Gillian spots a movie poster on the escalator on the underground and does a double take...
'There's my mother.'
It wasn't of course, it was an actor but the impact was profound as Gillian shared with us her sense that her parents were human, had normal failings but she believed and knew that they had done something magnificent, and of that she and her sisters are immensely proud.
Asked about her next book we all had our appeties whetted for the publication of An Honourable Man in January 2012 and when asked for her book recommendations Gillian praised War and Peace but revealed that she had read Anna Karenina in every decade of her life and commended it to us along with..
I hope you can tell from this account that this was an incredibly moving and thought-provoking conversation with which to end our second day, and I think we all felt incredibly privileged to have been part of it all, so my very sincere thanks to Gillian Slovo for visiting the dovegreyreader tent and to all those who came to listen and chat.