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7 December 2022

An A to Z of Carmen Callil

Her friend recalls the “fiery and bewitching” founder of Virago Press.

By Julian Barnes

Carmen Callil was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1938 and moved to London in 1960. Having worked for several publishers, she founded Virago Press in 1973 to “publish books which celebrated women and women’s lives, and which would, by so doing, spread the message of women’s liberation to the whole population”. She died on 17 October 2022, aged 84. Julian Barnes first met Carmen Callil in the early 1980s; this is his address at her funeral, which took place on 16 November at St Martin-in-the-Fields in London.

A of course is for Australia, and for the loose band of individualists who arrived in England in the Sixties and Seventies. They brought a noisy, dauntless, open-minded and contrarian spirit to many areas of a culture that beneath much surface effervescence was still rather conservative and quiet. They introduced an additional zest to feminism, underground magazines, poetry, art criticism, television, humour, and, in Carmen’s case, publishing.

B is for Bizet, after whose operatic heroine Carmen was named. She was, like the original, fiery and bewitching, though happily, as far as I know, never met a toreador.

C is for Caunes, the Minervois village which she loved, and also for Coutts Bank. It came as a surprise to some that she banked where the Queen did; further, that she was a Dame of the British Empire, an entity which hardly met with her full approval. I remember being in a taxi from Heathrow when Carmen got into a deep rage with her bank and rang them up. I tactfully looked out of the window as she was passed from the receptionist to the undercashier to the cashier to the overcashier, while repeating, with ever-increasing force, “This is Dame Carmen Callil.” I never heard her use the phrase again.

D is for Dog-Lover and E is for Effie, the last dog to share her bed and her life. There ought to be a word for dog-grief, but I don’t think there is.

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F is for France and Francophilia and Friendship and Fury and Fun. But F is also for Foul. In her last illness, Carmen would send brief bulletins. One read: “I am foul.” Not feel but am. This felt portentous.

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G is for Green, the famous colour of the Virago Modern Classics, her greatest legacy. Her friend Helen Simpson told me recently that whenever she passes a charity shop, she goes in and buys up all the greenbacks they have and gives them away to a younger generation, so that, though some titles may be out of print, they remain in circulation. This sounds an excellent plan.

H is for Here. A memory of a dinner in the upstairs room at the Quality Chop House. Everyone else had already arrived and we were waiting for her. There came a thumping on the stairs, a certain amount of wheezing, and then, as yet unseen, she stood on the fourth or fifth step from the top and announced, “Carmen’s here.” And we knew what she meant: the fun could begin.

I is for intimacy and the gift for it. Carmen, it seems to me, never had distant friends, or social friends. She only had real friends, true friends, friends of the heart. Everyone meant something to her, a something which was returned. This strikes me as very unusual.

J is for Junk and Junking, her favourite pastime. In France she could spot a small sign saying Antiquités or Brocante at about 300 paces. I was stuck on K until Hermione Lee suggested that in Carmen’s case it stood for two things: Kindness and a Killer tongue-and-eye.

L is for Lord’s – not the House of Lords, but the Home of Cricket, as it calls itself, and of the MCC, of which Carmen was a proud member. She loved cricket, and always supported England when they played against Australia.

M is for Marriage. In 2014 I was staying with her on holiday in France. I remember asking her one evening how many men had proposed to her. “None,” she replied. And did you ever ask anyone? “No.” She said that she had never considered herself beautiful because of “my two worst features, my frizzy hair and my thunder thighs”. The next day I was driving her somewhere and she said, musingly, “I did think that one of the advantages of marriage was that you had someone to drive you.” I replied, “Is that a proposal, Carmen?” “No, darling, I don’t think we’re very well matched – though we do have a lot in common.” Fair enough, I thought.

N is for Newsnight on a famous occasion when the Australian cricket team were over – I think it was Shane Warne’s last tour – and Carmen as an Australian and a cricket lover was invited on the programme. At one point she was asked whether she thought the Australian team were as fit and muscular as hitherto. “No,” she replied magisterially, “I think they look like a bunch of poofters.” Whenever she was subsequently teased about this – as she was, remorselessly – she would reply plaintively, “But the word doesn’t mean quite the same thing in Australia.” Maybe, but even so I don’t think it’s a compliment.

O is for Outrage, mine, not hers. On the day I learnt that Carmen had died, I went to bed imagining the front page of the next morning’s Guardian, with a large photo of her smiling face. In fact, the paper carried the news of her death on the bottom half of page 15. When my outrage calmed down, I remembered that Carmen had given up the Guardian many years previously, and would often denounce it for piety and smugness. Then, being Carmen, she subsequently took to reading it again.

P is for Pretty. When she was in her seventies and then eighties, everyone, women as often as men, remarked on how pretty Carmen looked, indeed prettier by the year. Here is what Candia McWilliam wrote to me shortly after her death: “She had a finely drawn amused mouth – Lautrecian for some reason in my imagination, and of all things, prettiness of several nationalities and kinds.” Lautrecian is brilliant.

Q is for quarrelsome, which she was, though in a very Carmen way. She quarrelled once with a mutual friend over something professional, a matter of rights in a selection of poetry. My wife, Pat Kavanagh, was chosen as peacemaker, and firmly pointed out to Carmen that she was entirely in the wrong. But this didn’t prevent her one-sided froideur continuing until, some years later, the two antagonists found themselves side by side in the ladies at a book event, whereupon Carmen began a conversation just as if the years of silence hadn’t existed. After a bit my friend said, “I’m so glad we’re speaking again,” to which Carmen replied, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

R is for Republicanism and Revolution, and also for Remorse, which Carmen frequently expressed in later years for having been such a fearsome boss.

S is for Self-Pity, and Carmen’s entire lack of it; also related, S is for Stoicism.

T is for Thatcher, and the moment on Question Time when, merely in passing, Carmen remarked that Mrs Thatcher was a fascist. Cue major booing, to which she calmly replied, “Well, it’s what I think.” I don’t believe she was ever invited back on – or to Newsnight either, for that matter.

U is for Unreality, the unreality of Carmen being dead. It seems against nature somehow. It is also unacceptable and unbearable.

V of course is for Virago. Among the many authors she reintroduced to readers were Antonia White, Christina Stead, Willa Cather, Rosamond Lehmann, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Dorothy Richardson, Rebecca West, Grace Paley, Stevie Smith, Henry Handel Richardson, Eudora Welty and Edith Olivier.

W is for Wombat, her childhood and family nickname.

X is for the lines of X’s with which she signed off her emails, anything between four or five to about 15. I used to wonder if she had a repeat key, but preferred to imagine they were all singly typed, and each one meant something.

There will be no Z, because this might imply that Carmen could be fully depicted in an alphabet, so I shall end with Y, which stands for Year, as in New Year’s Eve. For many years, Carmen and I and our mutual friend Sarah Jones would go up to Sally Beauman and Alan Howard’s house in Highgate for New Year’s Eve. Carmen habitually drove over from west London. And back, later. And Carmen’s driving was not improved by wine.

One year she offered me a lift for the mile or so to my home. We buckled ourselves in. She was wearing a big fluffy white coat. As we set off, she turned to me cheerfully and asked, “What’s it like, Jules, being driven by a polar bear?” After a few hundred wonky yards, I found myself reflecting that being driven by an actual polar bear might have been safer. Rather than submit her to a difficult right turn and a narrow street, I suggested she could drop me on the main road we were on. “Here?” she asked, simultaneously doing the sort of emergency stop which might have set off the airbags. I opened my door and saw that I could just about hitch-hike to the kerb from where we were. I said to her firmly, “Let me know when you’re home safely.”

I often said this to her at the end of an evening, and there would always be a phone or text message or an email. She got home safely that night. She always got home safely, always got home safely. Until now.

Julian Barnes’s most recent novel is “Elizabeth Finch” (Jonathan Cape)

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special