Love songs in age: Fabulous Fashionistas

Old age doesn't have to be a case of moving into a care home and "sitting in a circle with one's mouth open."

I can’t remember the last time I saw a documentary as inspiring as Fabulous Fashionistas (17 September, 10pm). Agreed, it had an awful and misleading title. It was also incredibly uneven and disjointed. Its director, Sue Bourne, seemed not to know exactly what to do with her wonderful interviewees and there were about a thousand questions she should have asked but didn’t. In the end, none of this mattered. Her subjects, whose average age was 80, made the film for her: funny, clever, deliciously stubborn and startling to look at, they have given me a blueprint for the future, of which I intend to make full and proper use when the time comes.

In essence, Fabulous Fashionistas – eew, I can hardly bear to write it! – set out to demonstrate that old age doesn’t have to be, as Bridget Sojourner put it, a case of moving into a care home and “sitting in a circle with one’s mouth open”. Sojourner was one of six women in the film and, at the age of 75, she looked extraordinary: straight-backed and flat of stomach and with a style that seemed to be channelling (as the fashion people have it) Mary Portas and Diana Vreeland. You could no more imagine her in a pair of zip-up sheepskin booties than playing crown green bowls.

However, as Sojourner’s main source of income is her state pension, her magnificent appearance owes nothing to Bond Street and everything to Oxfam. Socking great cocktail rings, crimson turbans, Grecian-style T-shirt dresses: all of these things had come to her courtesy of charity shops.

Sojourner kept company with Daphne Selfe, an 85-year-old model with cheekbones like geometry and eyes like Parma violets whose face I recognised from the fashion pages of the Guardian; Sue Kreitzman, a 73- year-old cookery writer-turned-artist with a passion for colour, kitsch and Crocs; Gillian Lynne, the ballerina and choreographer who, at the age of 87, has a devoted husband more than 25 years her junior and is still working all over the world; Jean Woods, a 75-year-old fashion boutique assistant with a Sylvia Townsend Warner haircut and a fine collection of sequinned high tops; and the 91-yearold Baroness Trumpington, the working peer extraordinaire and mail-order addict. (“Is this minister aware that I not only knew Lloyd George but I was also his land girl?” she once said in the Lords. Cue much rumbling laughter on the cross benches.)

Everything these women said and everything they did moved and cheered me, whether it was Gillian performing her morning stretches, legs akimbo, or Sue informing us, “Beige is the colour of death,” or Jean explaining how, on being widowed, she walked into Gap and asked for a sales job (she was given one).

Oh, the splendid sight of Trumpers excitedly ripping open her latest parcel, inside which was hidden a mustard-coloured handbag. Bourne asked when she might use it. “Every day!” replied Trumpers, her fingers working, not even bothering to look up. Daphne the fashion star was interviewed in a fluffy Afghan waistcoat with diamanté bits on its shoulders. It suited her and she knew it, which made me smile. How brilliant to be listening to someone talking about the prospect of illness and death – it would all be rather a bore, she thought – and at the same time to be envying their innate style. In front of my computer, I began to feel quite dowdy.

As I watched, I made notes, which is what I usually do when I am reviewing a programme. This time, it was with extra purpose. I found myself writing a list of all that these remarkable women had in common, the better to work out how one might – luck allowing – not just endure old age but enjoy it, too.

First of all, they had been loved, and even though some were now widowed their long marriages were still in the background, a kind of larder of happiness, to be visited in lonely moments. Second, they were all slim and fit and put some effort into staying that way. Jean still goes running. Third – and most important – they had a sense of purpose: work or a hobby that got them out of bed however much their bones ached.

“It has filled my life,” said Sue of her art. As she told us this, her face flushed. Enthusiasm can make a woman seem positively girlish, whatever her age.

Old age needn't be miserable. Image: Getty

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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The Jewish lawyers who reinvented justice

Two new books explore the trials of Nazis – and asks how they changed our conception of justice.

In August 1942, Hans Frank, Hitler’s lawyer and governor general of occupied Poland, arrived in Lvov. “We knew that his visit did not bode well,” a Jewish resident later recalled. That month, writes Philippe Sands, Frank gave a lecture in a university building “in which he announced the extermination of the city’s Jews”.

Frank and other leading Nazis were tried at Nuremberg after the war. It was, writes Sands, “the first time in human history that the leaders of a state were put on trial before an international court for crimes against
humanity and genocide, two new crimes”.

For Sands, this is the story of some of the great humanitarian ideas of the 20th century. A T Williams, however, is more sceptical. For him, the search for justice after 1945 was a wasted opportunity. “It began,” he writes, “as a romantic gesture. And like any romance and like any gesture, the gloss of virtue soon fell away to reveal a hard, pragmatic undercoat.” Did the trials of 1945 and beyond provide any justice to the victims? How many more deaths and tortures were ignored and how many perpetrators escaped?

Together these books ask important questions. Were the trials and the new legal ideas – international human rights, war crimes, genocide – among the crowning achievements of our time, the foundations of how we think about justice today? Or were they, as Williams concludes, “an impersonal and imperfect reaction to human cruelty and human suffering”?

Williams won the Orwell Prize for political writing in 2013 for A Very British Killing: the Death of Baha Mousa. His new book reads as if it were several works in one. Each chapter begins with the author visiting the remains of a different Nazi concentration camp – intriguing travelogues that might have made a fascinating book in their own right. He then looks at what happened in these camps (some familiar, such as Buchenwald and Dachau; others barely known, such as Neuengamme and Neustadt). The single reference to Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: a History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, published last year, suggests that it came out too late for Williams to use.

A Passing Fury starts with an atrocity at Neuengamme, near Hamburg, where, in the last days of the war, the concentration camp’s inmates were put to sea by Nazis in the knowledge that they would almost certainly be killed by Allied bombers. Williams buys a pamphlet at the visitors’ centre on the site of the camp. It informs him: “Almost 7,000 prisoners were either killed in the flames, drowned or were shot trying to save their lives.” His interest in the subsequent trial leads him to look at other Nazi trials after the war. His central argument is that these were not a victory for rational and civilised behaviour – the widespread assumption that they were, he writes, is simply a myth.

Williams has plenty of insights and is especially good on the Allies’ lack of manpower and resources in 1945. There was also enormous pressure on the prosecutors to gather information and go to trial within a few months. The obstacles they faced were huge. How to find witnesses and make sure that they stayed for the trials, months later, when they were desperate to be reunited with their families or to find safety in Palestine or the US?

The lawyers also felt that they were “operating in a legal void”. These crimes were unprecedented. What should the SS men and women be charged with? “They needed new terms,” writes Williams, “a completely fresh language to express the enormity of all that they were hearing.” This is exactly what the Jewish lawyers Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, who play major roles in Sands’s book, were providing – but they are almost completely absent here.

Williams is also troubled by what he sees as flaws in the British legal system. Defence lawyers focused ruthlessly on the inconsistencies of witnesses, forcing them to recall the most terrible ordeals. One particularly devastating account of a cross-examination raises questions about the humanity of the process. The disturbing statements of British lawyers make one wonder about their assumptions about Jews and other camp inmates. “The type of internee who came to these concentration camps was a very low type,” said Major Thomas Winwood, defending the accused in the Bergen-Belsen trial. “I would go so far as to say that by the time we got to Auschwitz and Belsen, the vast majority of the inhabitants of the concentration camps were the dregs of the ghettoes of middle Europe.”

Williams has put together an original polemic against our assumptions about these trials, including those at Nuremberg. Sands, a leading lawyer in the field of war crimes and crimes against humanity, presents a completely different view of Nuremberg and the revolution in justice it introduced. His is a story of heroes and loss.

Lvov is at the heart of Sands’s book. Now in Ukraine, the city changed hands (and names) eight times between 1914 and 1945 – it is known today as Lviv. This is where his grandfather Leon Buchholz was born in 1904. Leon had over 70 relatives. He was the only one to survive the Holocaust.

In 1915, Hersch Lauterpacht came to Lvov to study law. He became one of the great figures in international law, “a father of the modern human rights movement”. Six years later, in 1921, Raphael Lemkin also began his law studies in Lvov; in 1944, he coined the term “genocide” in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.

Both Lauterpacht and Lemkin, like Leon, lost members of their family during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Sands interweaves the stories of these three Jews and how their lives and their ideas were affected by what happened in Lvov. This is an important question. We forget how many of the greatest films, works and ideas of the postwar period were profoundly affected by displacement and loss.

East West Street is an outstanding book. It is a moving history of Sands’s family and especially his grandparents but, at times, it reads like a detective story, as the author tries to find out what happened to his relatives, tracking down figures such as “Miss Tilney of Norwich”, “the Man in a Bow Tie” and “the Child Who Stands Alone” – all involved in some way in a mystery surrounding the author’s mother and her escape from pre-war Vienna. But Sands’s greatest achievement is the way he moves between this family story and the lives of Lauterpacht and Lemkin and how he brings their complex work to life.

There is a crucial fourth figure: Hans Frank, the Nazi lawyer who was responsible for the murder of millions. Sands uses his story to focus his account of Nazi war crimes. Frank was brought to justice at Nuremberg, where Lauterpacht and Lemkin were creating a revolution in international law. Lauterpacht’s emphasis was on individual rights, Lemkin’s on crimes against the group.

This is the best kind of intellectual history. Sands puts the ideas of Lemkin and Lauterpacht in context and shows how they still resonate today, influencing Tony Blair, David Cameron and Barack Obama. When we think of the atrocities committed by Slobodan Milosevic or Bashar al-Assad, it is the ideas of these two Jewish refugees we turn to. Sands shows us in a clear, astonishing story where they came from. 

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster