Tag Archives: memoir

Lady in Waiting – a review

The stiff upper lip is as much a part of the British stereotype as our tendency to drink tea and talk about the weather. With the 87-year-old Lady Glenconner’s ‘keep calm and carry on’ attitude, her hit memoir is not such a bad book pick during a pandemic.

Her father was an earl – higher than a baron but lower than a duke. The Coke (pronounced Cook in a quirk typical of the British aristocracy) family have bowed and scraped to royalty for centuries.

Growing up near Sandringham, she was playmates with Princess Margaret, whom she would later serve as lady-in-waiting for thirty years. She recalls a childhood of stately homes, parents away on long voyages, WWII, wicked governesses, boarding school.

Things take a gaudier turn with her formal entrée to the marriage market, where she nabbed the very rich socialite Colin Tennant, 3rd Baron Glenconner, and was crowned ‘Debutante of the Year’ by society bible Tatler. Her father was a bit sniffy about the match – believing the Tennants to be miles below the Cokes.

Described by Princess Margaret as ‘a fairly decadent fellow’, Tennant was the life and soul. His party tricks included wearing paper underwear, then reaching down his trousers and ripping them off and eating them. Meanwhile, his tantrums earned him a lifetime ban from British Airways.

But Tennant – who died aged 83 in 2010 – is best remembered for buying and transforming the barren island of Mustique into a celebrity paradise. Photos show the couple at spectacular parties, surrounded by the biggest stars of the day.

Despite his rages and affairs, they made a good team, Glenconner writes, probably through gritted teeth. Yup, never a dull moment. Besides, one doesn’t dwell, even when one’s husband leaves his millions to a manservant.

Halfway through, we arrive at her three-decade stint as lady-in-waiting for Princess Margaret, whom Glenconner (understandably) wishes to defend from peasant biographers.

Being by Margaret’s side offered an escape from both her psycho husband, and tragedy; Glenconner has endured the deaths of two adult sons, while a third, Christopher, was left brain-damaged in a motorbike accident.

Princess Margaret was a supportive, compassionate friend, and most unfussy. She’d come to stay at the Tennant’s Scottish family estate with a kettle to brew her own tea in the morning. (She couldn’t actually operate a kettle, but it’s the thought that counts.)

She always forgave Margaret’s ‘royal moments’. Behind the monarch, after all, she was at the top of Britain’s rigid class system. As for her rep for rudeness – her icy put-downs to commoners were usually well-deserved. Woe betide anyone who didn’t know their place.

Glenconner has worn many different hats – debutante, travelling saleswoman, maid of honour at the coronation of Elizabeth II – and been brought to life on Netflix’s The Crown. After a life well-lived by the Queen’s mantra: ‘Never complain, never explain’, her memoir is an interesting contribution to social and royal history. Her first crime novel – entitled Murder on Mustique – is out later this year. 

girl with princess diarist book

The Princess Diarist – opus to Harrison Ford

Carrie Fisher once gave a cow tongue wrapped in a Tiffany box to a film producer who allegedly attacked her friend. My first thought was “poor cow”, and my second was “yep, that sounds like Fisher.”

It’s a tale that surfaced in October 2017, as #MeToo was going viral. Fisher was already gone, dying from sleep apnea and “other factors” in 2016 while promoting her memoir about life as teenage space royalty and the affair known as Carrison.

Having previously written about her addiction and Bipolar disorder, this memoir is based around the journals – which are really an opus to Harrison Ford – that Fisher kept while filming the original Star Wars (“the only girl in an all-boys fantasy“). She rediscovered them while renovating her Hollywood Hills home.

She starts pre-Leia, ambivalent about following her mother, Singin’ in the Rain’s Debbie Reynolds, into showbusiness. Reflecting this, the shy and retiring Carrie:

  • dropped out of school to be a chorus girl in one of her mother’s Broadway shows
  • visited the set of Shampoo! when she knew there might be a role in it for her
  • auditioned for and attended the Central School of Speech and Drama
  • left drama school after landing her first big professional gig – Star Wars!

She admits she might have been kidding herself. For all the hardships actresses face, their daughters seem drawn to the limelight (including Fisher’s child Billie Lourd).

Carrie herself was born during Reynolds’ marriage to 50’s singer Eddie Fisher, who left his family for Liz Taylor – which, in Carrie’s words was “one of the great midcentury tabloid feeding frenzies.”

Although Fisher writes with her trademark wit, she was traumatized by her mother’s love life and her father’s abandonment, and undermined by self-loathing.

After successfully auditioning for George Lucas, she was ordered to lose ten pounds – then worried she’d be fired when she didn’t. She quips that although just 110 pounds, she “carried about half of them in my face”.

Insecurity makes girls easy prey. At a party the crew plan a “joke” abduction – before Harrison Ford intervenes. Soon they’re having “sleepovers” at her flat, with Fisher falling obsessively in love with the married Ford. Some rescue.

A selection of diary entries and poems from her journals take up the book’s mid-section. They’re not her best work, but are disturbing in their intensity. Fisher poured her heart out on paper because she couldn’t talk to Harrison – who to be fair, doesn’t have a rep for easygoing chattiness.

Fisher explains that she presented a false appearance, a “kind of ironic, amused, disenchanted creature.”

She must have just seemed like a hip, rising young actress from a famous family, living in a fancy London flat. With the Harrison affair, she was good at “hiding in plain sight, mocking the suggestion that there was anything going on” – a bluffing technique she says she’d use throughout her life.

Well-matched onscreen and hooking up off of it, Fisher still thought Ford was out of her league, destined for greater stardom. Was she bitter? “…not so you’d notice“.

Of course she could never have foreseen the phenomenon Star Wars would become, or her own enduring fame. It rankled to the end that, aged just 19, she had signed away all merchandising rights relating to her image for the “little space movie”.

In the final third of the book, Fisher laments “celebrity lap dances” AKA signing photos for money at fan conventions AKA “has-been roundups”. She discerns a lack of empathy among some of the fans – something Jake Lloyd and Ahmed Best might recognize.

But Carrie still had compassion for the “sweet and mystifying” fans who’d wait in line for hours, including the poor kid named Leia Carrie and the man who thanks Fisher for his childhood and walks off. She knows he didn’t mean his whole childhood, “just the good bits. The parts he escaped to”.

It must have felt like listening to the prayers of the galaxy.

Carrie Fisher is often remembered as a tough rebel leader. Online tributes call her a feminist icon and a “bad ass” role model, skimming over her profound problems – essentially confusing her with a fictional character! In this surprisingly raw book, Fisher’s wit and wisdom fail to disguise her lifelong pain, revealing a side to a woman who was deeply damaged, but charming to the last. 

***

Lion book with earth

BOOK REVIEW: Lion (A Long Way Home: A Memoir) by Saroo Brierley with Larry Buttrose

In 1980s India, five-year-old Saroo, like many small children in poor communities, looks after a younger sibling; he has special responsibility for his baby sister Shekila. He washes and feeds her, and plays games of peekaboo. Saroo’s streetwise big brothers, Guddu and Kallu, take care of each other and little Saroo.

With no father at home, their mother works on construction sites, carrying rocks on her head in the baking heat. Despite this hardship, Saroo is lucky – his family are poor, but they are, Saroo will recall, “reasonably happy”.

Saroo’s mother is warm and kindhearted, and neighbours in the dry, dusty central Indian town seem to watch out for each other. The little boy loves flying kites, chasing butterflies and tagging behind his brothers as they hustle for food and money.

One time with his eldest brother Guddu, an exhausted Saroo is left to nod off on a bench on a railway platform. When he wakes up, it is dark, and Guddu has vanished. Saroo stumbles onto a waiting train and goes back to sleep.

Childhood memory can be unreliable, but suffice to say Saroo finds himself alone and trapped on a moving train, carrying him 1,500km east (he will later learn) to the megacity of Kolkata.

There, people mainly speak Bengali. Saroo speaks Hindi, and is unable to pronounce the name of his town or his last name. (It later turns out he was mispronouncing even his first name – his name is actually Sheru, or ‘Lion’ in Hindi.)

He spends three weeks on the streets until a stranger takes him to a police station. When attempts to establish his identity fail, he passes through a frightening juvenile home into the care of a adoption agency, ISSA, before being flown to his adoptive parents in Tasmania – Sue and  John Brierley.

From the impoverished child with broken teeth and a heart murmour, Saroo grows into a healthy and amiable adult, a “proud Tassie”. Yet he never forgets India or fully moves on. Against all odds, he’s eventually reunited with his long-lost family after tracing his hometown on Google Earth – a feat that made global headlines. 

It is reported that 80,000 children go missing in India each year, and despite the pitiless indifference and some sinister near-misses he encountered on the streets, Saroo has been left with a sincere belief in the goodness of people, and the importance of seizing opportunities.

A Long Way Home is as broadly appealing and crowd-pleasing as Lion – the new Oscar-nominated adaptation starring Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman. It offers more information about both his birth and adoptive families, and on the page, is even more awe-inspiring and courageous. 

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