I met Chatto’s MD in early October for lunch. The Groucho Club, situated in the more salubrious half of London’s Soho, was famous as the haunt of literary giants and famous journalists. Somewhat daunted by that, I felt a new outfit was in order, and searched Harrogate for something suitable. I chose a rather sober grey flannel jacket and skirt, which if not my favourite colour was at least well cut. I thought it made me look professional, even though I didn’t feel it. For confidence, I added a touch of scarlet with a silk bow at the neck of a pin-tucked shirt. But then I worried that my lipstick didn’t match.
To Leeds for the train; the luxury of a taxi from King’s Cross. In the midst of busy traffic I looked out at sights familiar from my younger days: Marylebone Road, Oxford Street, Soho Square, and suddenly there we were on Dean Street and the taxi was pulling up outside the dark front of the Groucho Club. Ah well, I thought, taking a deep breath as I paid the driver, here we go…
In the foyer, Alison Samuel was smiling as Carmen Callil stepped forward to greet me. In stature, she was smaller than I’d imagined, but every bit as powerful a personality as I’d gathered over the phone. A lively, expressive face was framed by a mass of curly dark hair; and what I’d missed on the phone, but felt as soon as we met, was Carmen’s warmth. She was a woman passionate about what she did. That she’d been a founder of the Virago press marked her immediately as a feminist; that she also had a streak of romance in her soul was evident from her enthusiasm for my book.
Louisa Elliott, Carmen said, had caught her imagination; she understood Louisa’s predicaments, and most of all admired her. It was a terrific compliment.
My first experience of a business lunch was overwhelming. There was no time for celebrity spotting, and hardly a pause in conversation with which to study the menu. Even the next day I could not have said what I ordered, or whether it was good. In fact I don’t think I ate much at all, since Carmen’s questions and comments came thick and fast, my every wit stretched to absorb it all.
We talked about my current book at length, but already Carmen was interested in the next. As promised before the meeting, I had brought Will’s little diary with me, and a transcript of the main section for Carmen and Alison to look through.
As her eyes scanned my introductory notes, it was Carmen’s turn to be quietly overwhelmed. ‘Did you know I’m Australian?’ she asked at last. As I nodded, she said, ‘It really is extraordinary. I see here that he went to Melbourne, and worked in the Dandenongs?’
I nodded again. ‘He worked on a farm there. In August 1914, he enlisted at the St Kilda Barracks…’
For a moment she was quiet, studying the notes. She asked whether I knew she was from Melbourne. I shook my head, already feeling a tingle of intuition.
‘Well, you see, Ann, I was born in St Kilda, not far from the barracks. What’s more,’ she added, ‘we had a house in the Dandenongs – I spent many summers there as a child.’
That coincidence brought forth a gasp of astonishment. We had only just met but feeling the power of that unlikely connection, Carmen and I joined hands, laughing as we did so. Alison, who had not seen those notes, and was probably unaware of Carmen’s early life, was round-eyed with amazement.
‘Well,’ I said eventually, when we’d repeated all the facts, laughed again and shaken our heads over the mystery of it all, ‘if my friend Lena were here, she’d say we shouldn’t be surprised – it’s just another link in the chain…’
For the next hour or more we talked about the deep feeling in Australia regarding the First World War – the sense that as a country, Australia had come of age with the courage displayed by a generation of fine young men. From Gallipoli to the Somme, and from Ypres to the final battles of 1918, they had fought and endured and ultimately died in the worst carnage the world has ever known. Even after seventy years, respect was deep, as was the sorrow.
That an unknown English writer – and a woman – planned to write her own homage to a young Australian emigrant, no doubt intrigued Carmen. She was certainly keen to put her support behind the project.
She asked if I had been to Australia, and I said I had been to a couple of Australia’s northern ports, but only briefly. ‘Well, obviously,’ she declared, ‘you must go to Melbourne and see the Dandenongs for yourself…’