The name Geras (Russian, not French, with a hard G and an S), linked to Adèle, conjures up a cosmopolitan background, which is the right conclusion for the wrong reasons: it is her husband’s. On the other hand, her voice has the ringing clear enunciation of an English actress and singer, if not quite a true Roedean gel, which is the wrong conclusion for the right reasons: her father, the Hon Mr Justice Weston, was a lifelong servant of Queen and Empire, and she once seemed destined for the theatre. In fact, she married a left-wing university lecturer and became a writer.
Her background is certainly cosmopolitan. She was the sixth generation of her mother’s family to be born in Jerusalem, where she still has relatives whom she visits. Her paternal grandfather was an Englishman who married a Moroccan, moved to Jerusalem, and produced a lawyer son who returned straight from Oxford to the Attorney General’s Office in Palestine. He met her mother, and Adèle, an only child, was born in 1944.
‘Later my father had to decide – should he throw in his lot with the State of Israel or with the King? He joined the British Colonial Service. Yes, possibly it distressed my mother’s family, but my grandmother had had these hundreds of children and they had all disappeared all over the world.’
So, too, did her parents, to Borneo, Gambia, Tanganyika… ‘My mother never owned a stick of furniture. My father used to say, not entirely joking, “I could never live in England, the policemen don’t salute me!” He simply kept going till he died, having had a heart attack boarding the Victoria boat train on his way to Bechuanaland.’ And Adèle travelled the world with them until boarding school at eleven: ‘It was a sorrow to my father that I couldn’t go to Eton or Harrow, so I was sent to Roedean.
‘From then until I married at 23, I worried when people said, Where do you live? I never had an answer – I lived in my trunk! But now I say proudly, Oh, I come from Manchester – and actually feel I do. I’ve been here 25 years; Sophie (21) and Jenny (15) were born in the next street and have grown up in this one, and Sophie is at the university here.’
A gregarious soul with ‘tons of cousins’ she loved boarding school, ‘though I’d hate to send my own children away.’ She wrote poetry and was ‘forever putting on little plays’, but it was the performing that gripped her, not the writing.
‘I was going to be a fully-fledged star, a Barbra Streisand! Oh yes, I’m basically a singer – this’ (a sweeping gesture indicating her entire present life) ‘is all a big fraud. My mother still half-feels I’ve wasted my life…’ Her self-mockery is not entirely a joke. ‘I definitely thought by the stage of Oxford and after that I was IN. Only marriage intervened.’
Yesterday, written for Walker’s series of teenage memoirs, recalls that period with zest and humour, with emotional ups and downs and tantalising first names – Lynn (Barber) of the never-ending legs, Diana (Quick), Maria (Aitken), Marina (Warner), Terry (Jones), Michael (Palin) and, above all perhaps, the multi-talented Woody (David Wood). A scholar in French and Spanish at St Hilda’s, she initially managed to fail Prelims through her immersion in Oxford’s theatrical life. Within a few days of arriving she had become one of a group creating Hang Down Your Head and Die, a savagely comic piece of musical propaganda against hanging, so successful it went from Oxford’s Playhouse to Stratford’s Royal Shakespeare and on to the West End’s Comedy Theatre. ‘Judge’s Daughter in Anti-hanging Play’: rave notices in the national press, Radio Three discussions, television’s Late Night Line-Up.
Studying for finals paralleled rehearsing in a foursome for a musical revue called Four Degrees Over (geddit?), again with David Wood and again a success – the Mermaid, then Guildford, Worcester and the Edinburgh Festival, climaxing in London’s Fortune Theatre and a George Martin LP. In between there had been Shakespeare, revues and solo cabaret – and she ended up with a good Second.
‘If I’d stuck at it I’m sure I would have been fine. After Four Degrees Over I was having a bit of a hard time, going to public auditions where everyone was suddenly terribly wonderful. I did a lovely show for an American Week in Newcastle, with a six-minute aria by a young composer called Carl Davis, setting to music a girl’s loving fan-letter from Elvis magazine – something might have come of that. Then I married and came up here.’
Her Rhodesian husband was a post-graduate at Nuffield when she met him. A radical from Rhodesia? ‘His dad was of the generation of Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer and all those lefties just after the war.’ With interviews for two academic posts, Manchester and Canterbury, he had liked Manchester – and, now a Reader in that same Government department, still does.
They live in a pleasingly ordinary house at the quiet end of a leafy cul-de-sac in Didsbury, the walls of Norm’s study lined with thousands of books that turn out to be solely on cricket, while other rooms are bright with originals and off-prints of the illustrations and jackets from Adèle’s books, and touching sepia family photographs, from Jerusalem (little girls in a velvet frame) and Bulawayo long ago.
For a short time she taught French in a girls’ grammar school. ‘As an exhibitionist, I enjoyed every lesson like a show, but it is enormous work, and I was glad to get out of all the marking, exams and paperwork. That was 20 years ago – now it’s much worse.’
With Sophie came her introduction to children’s books. ‘I believe fanatically that if you read to children every minute of the day from the moment they’re born, chances are they’ll become readers. And if you read enough books, you realise that 80% are pretty manky and, like every single adult from the Duchess of York down, you think “I could do better than that!” But I had no intention of trying until 1973.
‘Sophie was two when I saw a £50 competition for a children’s story in The Times – I’m still a sucker for competitions, and am always convinced I’ll win. I wrote a brilliant, ace story about an old lady and a patchwork quilt where every square has a story. It didn’t win. But I’d forgotten writing was such fun, such a liberation to make up stuff after years of academic theory and exams!’
She insists she is very lazy, that, seeing Sophie’s books with a couple of lines per page, she’d thought, Wow, I could do one of those in half an hour. She wrote six little books, and for two years they kept coming back. ‘At no point did I think there was something wrong with them – I was so stupid I decided they must need pictures for people to realise how beautiful they would be.’ Down to the Poly, where Tony Ross, head of the art department, introduced her to one of his mature students, Doreen Caldwell (‘a stunningly beautiful woman’), and together they went to London and walked their socks off. Everyone was very nice, and everyone said no.
‘But at Hamish Hamilton, Linda Jennings, bless her, pointed out that pictures are frightfully expensive to produce and so are entirely the wrong way for unknowns to start. I noticed their Gazelles on display: nice and short – do you have to be famous to do one of those? No, anyone can have a go. So I studied Gazelles from the library, wrote one, Linda took it, Doreen illustrated it – we had started! That was Tea at Mrs Manderby’s. ‘The first thing I did was expand the story that hadn’t won into an Antelope, Apricots at Midnight, with Doreen again – you see, I am lazy. There’s energy and commitment, but also deep laziness!
‘Now I discovered that good editors are like good teachers: they see, before you can, what you’re capable of tackling. I wrote The Girls in the Velvet Frame as an Antelope of 7,000 words. Linda summoned me to lunch (I was dead chuffed!) but it was to tell me that although she liked it, it was not an Antelope – it was a Novel. I refused to believe it, but she told me to read it on the train home, ask myself what happens to this or that person, and think about it. And of course she was right.’ It was as a novelist who demands stamina and emotional maturity from her teenage readers that Adèle Geras was to become admired and respected.
Her writing draws on the background-threads of her life if not her direct experiences: Jerusalem (repeatedly), Jewish voyagers to the New World, and Israel’s War of Independence (Beyond the Cross Stitch Mountains); Roedean mirrored in The Tower Room; theatrical dreams and cabaret in Happy Endings or Pictures of the Night; a childhood event in Borneo (Coronation Picnic). Teachers and old friends tend to reappear, and even the wonderful dream cushion (‘It works!’) for the Fantora family derives from her devotion to Fassett and all kinds of handiwork.
Her ‘fairy tale’ trilogy (The Tower Room, Watching the Roses and Pictures of the Night) developed, bizarrely, from her daughter’s prompting her to write a ‘Fat Shiny’, the sort that brings retirement to the Bahamas. Fine: all Fat Shinies are about three women, a nymphomaniac, a shy one and a rich awkward one. The women she knew were mums and teachers, not the right stuff at all. What did she know about? Theatre? Done that. School? Certainly – getting less Fat Shiny by the minute. Scholar in an ivory tower? Remember the Hockney print with Rapunzel’s plait, Angela Carter’s stunning The Bloody Chamber – fairy stories! Terrific! Roedean had a three-room tower at the top of the house… it’s getting steadily younger. Make it the year she did A-levels – no need to research.
She anxiously dodged the rape scene for a long time. In the end she solved how to avoid sensationalising it without reducing the agony, by her usual method of ‘Improvise as if you were talking, and fiddle with it after. An acting job in Alice’s persona.’ She assumes the books’ audience to be young teens, because the 17-to-18s themselves are too grown up, but doesn’t aim at any age. ‘I’d love to be a banned writer, dangerous and bad, but I’m amazingly mild and wholesome – not out of censorship, but because one can only write the kind of books one can write.
‘I have no missionary zeal at all, but perhaps it’s a matter of sharing with the young, rather than pointing: don’t you think this is marvellous? don’t you think this is awful?
‘It’s like the story of the Jewish guy smuggling a suitcase of cut diamonds through Customs. “What’s this?” “Birdseed.” “Birdseed? You’ve got to be kidding – these are cut diamonds!” The old Jew says, “Well look, you know, I give them to my birds. They eat, they eat; they don’t eat, they don’t eat.”
‘I feel the same way about my books.’
Photographs by Peter Walsh.
Some Adèle Geras titles:
The Tower Room, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 12956 7, £8.50; HarperCollins, 0 00 673910 5, £3.50 pbk
Watching the Roses, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 13109 X, £8.99; HarperCollins, 0 00 674383 8, £3.50 pbk
Pictures of the Night, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 132517, £8.99
Coronation Picnic, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 12554 5, £4.99
Voyage, HarperCollins, 0 00 672409 4, £3.50 pbk
The Fantora Family Files, HarperCollins, 0 00 673348 4, £3.50 pbk
My Grandmother’s Stories, Heinemann, 0 434 94063 1, £ 10.99
Magic Birthday, ill. Adriano Gon, Simon & Schuster Young Books, 0 7500 1177 7, £7.99
Yesterday, Walker, 0 7445 2105 X, £8.99 (the cover of which is on the front of BfK this month).