The two rooms on the other side of my landing had stayed empty since I came; sometimes I thought of taking them also, but the 15/- rent deterred me. Now, suddenly [in 1945 or, more likely, 1946], I had a new neighbour; the vanguard of Savitri Devi Mukherji, Veronica Vassar.
When I opened my door to her knock the interior voice — which has spoken to me often — said, “You are going to be very nice — or very nasty.” She was austerely passable in looks, and her clothes were unremarkable. Her manner was pleasant, though when she said, “I’ve been ill — and I must be quiet,” I saw for the first time the glint in her eye I was to come to know so well.
But our first conversation was most amiable; she told me afterwards that she saw the bookcase in my room and happily anticipated future borrowings. She had been a sergeant in the ATS [Auxiliary Territorial Service], discharged with arrested TB and a 100% disability pension; the Army authorities probably took one look at her and put her in charge of something. I would find out that she had a marvellous sense of humour and a tongue like a lash — “my viper’s tongue,” she once called it proudly. She had complacent self-confidence: “I don’t need to keep up with the Jones’s,” she told a friend of mine years later. “I am Jones.”
She was also a lesbian. I had assumed that very quickly, but soon she confirmed it herself. But, she said, she had finished with affairs; there would be no more of “that sort of thing” in her life. My interior voice spoke again, and I repeated what it said: “Nevertheless, one day you’ll come to me saying, ‘I’ve met the most wonderful person’ — and it will start again.” She had not lived there long when, one afternoon, she came beaming to my door. “Oh, I must tell you; I’ve met the most wonderful person . . .”
She had met her in the cafe not far from the British Museum. She was Greek, but dressed in a sari; she wore gold bangles all along both forearms, and other gold Indian jewellery. She was charming, and such an interesting talker — “Have you ever heard of Akhnaton?”
Tutankhamen’s tomb had been discovered two days before my ninth birthday; I liked Ancient Egyptian things, and I was thrilled. I read all about it — we took the right newspapers — and over the years of excavation and restoration I grew well informed, not only about “Tut” but about his interesting relations.
“Why, yes,” I said. “The Heretic Pharaoh; the father-in-law of Tutankhamen.”
She had never heard of him before and was self-dramatizingly ecstatic. I told her about Akhnaton, Nefertiti, and the Aton cult, which she had already been hearing from Savitri, who she first knew by her real name of Maximiani Portaz. I was extremely interested.
She invited her a few days later, and for the first time, in September 1946, I met this little woman in a white sari, tinkling with gold ornaments, and in those days with blonde hair, quite fluffily and prettily arranged; the schoolmarm bun came later. She had good features, expressive eyes behind spectacles, a long, graceful neck, and a friendly manner.
Of course, we soon began talking about Akhnaton. I made haste to revise and re-read all I could find about it all; Veka brought back books from the London Library (which I could not afford to join myself), among them some I had long wished to read. I shared all my knowledge with her readily, pleased that I knew so much more than she did. I rose high in her estimation; I did not yet know how easily her fancies could change. I found many references to Crete, and recalled the interest I had, as it were, postponed before. There seemed no reason, now, to forgo the pleasure.
Veka declared herself to be in love with Savitri, and soon afterwards she moved in — sleeping on a camp bed — in Veka’s kitchen. She lectured on Akhnaton at the Egyptian Hall, impressive in all her jewellery and nicely made-up. Her devotion was evident, and she spoke very well.
I cannot recall just when she went to Iceland to lecture, but it would be around this time. I had been promised a possible improvement in my wardrobe job, entailing a good deal of sketching (I had kept it up all this time), but when the idea came to nothing I took a colleague’s advice and became self-employed. I had enough money to last a few weeks. I left, amicably, at Easter 1947, and it proved a good idea.
Briefly, Savitri sold rather nice scent, toy windmills, and other things in one of the street markets; I have no idea how this came about. She was working on her book A Son of God. A play about Akhnaton (by the late Leonard Cottrell) was produced on radio and we three listened together, Savitri burning incense and weeping enjoyably.
She was rather trying as a houseguest; untidy, impractical, and often unconsciously inconsiderate.
She loved animals fanatically, and especially cats; any cat walking alone and minding its own business was liable to be deemed a “stray” and taken into her care. She was forever imagining she heard the crying of some feline in distress.
During this time of first acquaintance I never once heard her speak of Hitler; and — presumably — neither did Veka, who was aware of politics and world affairs in a way I never was. She seemed wholly devoted to Akhnaton and his (apparently) basically sensible Sun cult. She had a kind of spiritual love-affair with him, as she had had as a girl with Alexander the Great. I do remember saying once that it had been an enormous relief to think Hitler was dead; she never batted an eyelid.
Veka decided she would write a novel set in the period, with Savitri personified as the heroine Heliodora; a name suggested by Savitri herself, who later gave it to the “Two-Legged Goddess” of her cat story Long-Whiskers.
“Make your heroine a Cretan,” I suggested. “They were so interesting, and they wore lovely clothes.”
Veka got as far as inventing a beautiful girl in a chariot; she imagined writing a best-seller and giving all the profits to Savitri — “There you are, darling — build your temple.” But, like so many of her enthusiasms, it faded away. She often said she was incurably lazy; I think she was probably not a natural historical novelist, though she wrote very competently about modern life. Now, knowing what was to come, I am more than thankful that she did lose interest.
She had brought from the London Library the first volume of Evans’ Palace of Minos which I had wanted to read and fell upon eagerly. Savitri thought the Minoans “decadent” but was interested and helpful. I now read the Pendlebury book and all else I could find; Veka, to her credit, brought me all the four heavy volumes of Evans, and I read the lot, drains and all. Now I wanted to write a story about it all.
On principle I finished the last pages of The Schoolgirl from the Mills, put it away, and thought hard about the new novel. An idea was slow to come, but I persisted. It must have been about this time that the revelation about Savitri occurred.
I spoke of Savitri to Veka; her reaction and glinting eye were unexpected; “Oh God,” I thought. “She’s changed her mind again.”
She was having second thoughts about continuing the friendship; she had been taken to visit a friend of Savitri’s (this may have been the Mrs. Saint Ruth I sometimes heard of but never met); this friend, thinking Veka shared their mutual views, spoke freely, and the truth came out. Savitri was an ardent Nazi.
I don’t recall exactly what I said, or thought, but I did not want to drop this rewarding friendship because of a difference in ideologies. I never troubled about ideologies anyway. “You wouldn’t understand,” said Veka contemptuously. However, she soon decided that her feelings for Savitri were strong enough to stand the shock; possibly the slightly sinister overtones now suggested gave the matter an added interest. What passed between them I do not know.
Savitri seemed to imply that when she spoke of Akhnaton and her devotion to him he was acting as a kind of stand-in for Hitler. (She herself would never have used that phrase, but I think it fits.) I have never appreciated the supposed similarities, but I have never had time for Glorious Leaders and their causes. I swallowed the pill to come at the jam. Now I was to hear plenty of Der Führer; I said “Yes, yes,” or its equivalent and did not argue and did my best to avoid any talk of The Jews.
In Iceland she had met Sven Hedin, who it seems had told her Hitler was still alive (what Glorious Leader has not been reported as being so?). I knew nothing of Sven Hedin at all.
The Indian dancer Ram Gopal was about to present a season in London. I admired him and was pleased to find that Savitri knew him. He opened at the Prince (now the Shaftesbury) Theatre nearby, and on March 25th, 1948 (Greek Independence Day among other things) Veka and I were going to see the show. Savitri was acting as his dresser and doing what amounted to wardrobe jobs.
On the evening of March 24th my book came alive. The plot and the chief characters slid into place, while I watched with the third eye of creativity and heard in my mind what Kipling’s Daemon would put into my pen. Next day, before we went to the theatre, I told it all to Veka, who was in a receptive mood, declared it good, and apparently meant it. As first conceived The Distance Never Changes was sadder and shorter: both hero and heroine were to die, but the plot and characters were the same.
I had not seen or spoken to Savitri that day till we met backstage in Ram Gopal’s dressing-room; the first time I had met him. He was lively and charming; he was eating sweets and put one into my mouth at once. Almost his first words were:
“You were in Greece . . . seven hundred years ago . . . You were in Crete — ”
“Crete!” Veka was giving a performance, as so often, but her surprise was genuine. “She is very interested in Crete,” said Savitri, who had as yet no idea what was happening.
Sri Ram went on: “You were killed there; you were a sacrifice. You were killed on a high place, near the sea; you did not die under a roof.” My heroine was to die in the Minoan bull-game. “You know what I mean?”
“Yes,” I said. “But it was longer than seven hundred years ago.”
“Maybe; I am not good with dates. You ran from that thing — but it got you in the end. Later you came back and killed the man who made you do that.”
Sri Ram, of course, was what is called “psychic,” and of course believed in reincarnation; about which, as an agnostic, I have an open mind. I believe now that what happened was a quite remarkable piece of telepathy; he read my mind, which bad been occupied with the story since the night before. We had a great talk about it at home, and I soon began writing in the intervals of my costume work; I was getting enough of that and it was pleasant to work at home. Veka, who typed manuscripts, began to do the same soon after I did, so we saw a lot of each other. When Chapter Five was reached I knew that this book would not be consigned to some cupboard. I soon realized I could not bear to kill off either hero or heroine, and that they were good for another book. They were, they are, but so far it has only been written in my mind. The Distance eventually became reality, and I think it the best work I have ever done.
Veka had to have a slight operation and asked me to keep an eye on Savitri while she was away. She brought her sewing into my room, and we had a happy fortnight talking about Egypt, Crete, and the rest. I learned so much from her; she was a mine of historical knowledge.
“Being friends with someone and working for them are two very different things,” she said once to me. I knew exactly what she meant. I recall seeing her backstage once crying over some problem and wailing “I want the whole worrrld to be atom-bombed — !” When the show finished at the Prince’s, I helped her pack the dresses.
I cannot recall when she went to Germany, but it must have been some time now. My copy of Defiance is at present in other hands, so I cannot check. The whole story of her German adventure has been told by herself therein in any case. I remember Veka joining me in some theatre audience whispering, “I’ve heard from Savitri. She’s inside.”
While she was in Werl in 1949 Veka and I had a tremendous row, which had threatened for some time, and has no bearing on this account. It was very needless, silly, and mismanaged by both of us. After a silence of months, another of Veka’s affairs went awry, and she came to me weeping, with a conciliatory quarter of (rationed) tea in her hand. We had both written Savitri long letters, which despite her own problems she replied to sympathetically, and it all provided her with extra manuscript paper in Werl.
On her release she went to France, where later Veka visited her, and in autumn 1950 I did myself; my first trip abroad, I had £50 to cover the whole trip, stayed a month, and had a splendid if frugal time, and lost a stone. Her mother was somewhere around ninety and had worked for the French Resistance. So she and Savitri had a kind of ongoing feud which Madame Julia took very philosophically. Savitri was trying to get a new passport and wanted to resume her Greek nationality, which she had lost when she married in India in 1938. She went to Rome in connection with this; I went with her as far as Nice, saw Monte Carlo, Cannes, and had my first sight of the Mediterranean.
Ivor Novello’s last musical, King’s Rhapsody, was established at the Palace Theatre. He had been entirely different to me from its first opening: easy, talkative, giving me the little privileges so beloved of “fans,” and I was told he had said “he had been mistaken in me; I was really a very nice girl.”
On Saturday night, March 3rd, 1951, there was, unusually, not a soul at the stage-door. He came out alone and we had the longest conversation I had ever had with him – mainly about my work – I was making showgirls’ headdresses for the London Casino, representing various operas (not my own designs). “You’re a very hard-working girl, Muriel,” he said. “But I don’t seem to get very far, do I?” I replied. “You will, dear — you will,” he said, and went smiling away. I went home quietly happy in the way I had always wanted to be — a real friendship seemed coming.
On Monday night he came out through the usual small crowd, spoke to me, and I to him, so trivially that I cannot recall what was said. I went home to work all night on the last headdress.
At 8:15 AM on March 6th, 1951, he died of a coronary thrombosis. I was a short distance away, working on Orpheus in the Underworld.
By the beginning of 1953 Savitri had her Greek passport, though the Greek authorities would not recognize her Hindu marriage and she had to be Maximiani Portaz. In February 1953, I went with her to Greece “deck passage” on the S.S. Ionia. We caught the boat with seconds to spare, owing to a delay with the consigne at Marseilles where we had temporarily deposited our luggage. I can still hear the gangway going up behind us as we stepped on deck.
Deck-passage on the Ionia was on deck, for’ard, made of canvas bunks and screens and full in the teeth of the night-wind. Savitri, who had travelled all her life, had acquired none of the usual tourists’ comforts; no rug or warm coat, no little stove to heat water for a hot-bottle or drink. On this, my first trip of its kind, I thought of it all — I can still see her face when I brought her a hot-water bottle. She was prepared to lie shaking with cold for the three nights of the voyage; as for food, she proclaimed she would be fasting for part of the time, in honour of something or someone. She so often was. I had brought bread, olives, goats’ cheese, and butter (from a food-parcel sent by my godmother), and we did quite well. It was all worthwhile when we came through the Corinth canal and headed for Piraeus, with the “crown on the world’s head lying” shining through the mist beyond.
In her suitcase Savitri had a sizeable portrait of Hitler painted by herself. She proposed to put this on top of everything else, as it was “an insult” to put other things on top. (She was horrified when I put shoes on top of my writing.) I prevailed on her to put him in the bottom. I was thankful when we were through the Piraeus customs with no rummaging, and so was she; she was shaking with relief in the car as we were driven to the home of her old friend Marika Veloudiou, a large plain-spoken Greek lady with (I gathered) German blood, well-known in Athens as guide, lecturer, and something of a character. She died several years ago, aged — I think — 97; she would have bad much to tell of Savitri. She was most kind to me, giving me hospitality all the time I was in Athens. I had, once again, £50 to cover the whole trip, and I stayed seven weeks (we of course bought our own food). Her house, on the lower slopes of Lykabettos, was exactly in the spot where I had imagined some of my characters in The Distance to live. I went to Crete for several days. I slept on the floor of the Girls’ School in Heraklion for two nights and was then befriended by a charming English couple with whom I remained friends till their deaths. On the second anniversary of Ivor’s death [March 6th, 1953] I visited Knossos for the first time.
1953 was Coronation Year. I had lots of work and made several new connections. Everything was very Royal. I once made the whole Regalia in gilded buckram, gilt braid, and glass jewels. I worked on The Book as much as possible. It was getting far too long, but that was all experience. I never had the confidence to charge large prices, but I did make a living.
In 1956 Mother died, and a little later Father developed the first signs of senile dementia. He came to live in Richmond, but inflicted himself on me and made work of any kind virtually impossible. The senile dementia of the intelligent and educated is, I think, worse than that of the lesser-informed; Father’s sort have more to give them ideas. At the worst of it [in 1956] Mary Renault’s The King Must Die was published, and I thought it had prematurely killed anything I might produce. I went through hell and learned more about jealousy than I had ever known — which was to serve me well as I went on writing but had to be coped with at the time. I will draw a veil, as they say. I was more determined than ever to finish mine.
Father had a minor accident in Richmond Park before Christmas (1958) and was taken to hospital and into excellent care, which was a great blessing for all concerned. He stayed in care — with occasional hiccups — till his peaceful death in 1970.
About 1957 I began to grow very tired of working so immensely hard — I was working all night about twice a week in the height of the summer-show and pantomime seasons — and the old longing to work in a nice quiet bookshop — a good second-hand one for preference — came back many times. Had anybody offered me such a post I would, I think, have fallen on their neck. In 1959 my godmother decided that she would do what she planned for me while she was still alive and made me participant in the Trust Fund she had set up for her family. So from May 1960 I had a small but assured income, and it was all had imagined it would be.
I finished the book in 1961 and a kindly Hungarian Jew costumier with whom I often worked introduced me to his literary agent friend John Smith of Christy and Moore. John and I got on at first sight, and he liked the book immensely. It had grown to over 1,000 pages, and I knew it needed cutting, so we did not argue about that.
Savitri, who was teaching in France at this time, came to England and asked me to go to Greece again with her, and in the summer of 1961 we did. This time I went from Paris to Athens by the Orient Express, then running as an ordinary train. The third-class carriage journey across Europe was great fun, especially when we crossed the frontier into Greece. Savitri made her own way from France, where she was teaching, and we met a day or so later at Marika’s. Lovely to breakfast, when I arrived, on the balcony of Marika’s new house, looking across at the Acropolis.
Tourism was making its first inroads, and things were already changing, but Greece was still Greece. I was sad to see the marring of the loneliness of Sounion, as I remembered it from 1955.
Savitri was planning to cover the route taken by her admired Spartans when they besieged the Messenians at Eira. I did not share her enthusiasm for the Spartans, but I was willing to walk in their steps. Savitri had the idea of a book about the lame singer Tyrtaeus whose songs had inspired them; she worked on it for some time, but in the end, it came to nothing.
We went by train, bus, but mostly afoot over the mountain roads and tracks, guided by a well-met and helpful headman from the village of Kakaletri. I was not as slim as I bad been, but I still walked well. We saw the beautiful Bassae temple, whose guardians had resisted the inroads of “tourist attractions.” I hope they do so still. In the museum at Sparta I speculated about those who underwent the endurance test of being flogged before Artemis Orthia; how many might have actually enjoyed it, and who most; the floggers or the floggees. Savitri had never thought of that.
We always carried extra bread and goats’ cheese for the many lean, hungry feral cats we met on the way. The Greeks are generally as hospitable and kindly as report describes them, but their attitude to animals can sometimes leave much to be desired.
Through all this quite considerable journey Savitri carried a briefcase ponderously stuffed with manuscripts, a split-nib school pen and — to the peril of her manuscripts — a bottle of ink. She had also a wide-meshed string bag, which hooked itself frequently on the Peloponnesian cacti. She hoped to catch up with an archaeologist friend of Marika’s — who had the same name as the hero (or anti-hero) of The Distance — but he was always ahead of us and we never saw him. It was a most interesting and rewarding trip, and I enjoyed every moment of it, except for my dislike of the encroaching disfigurements of tourism. I wish now I had tried to ignore them and gone again while I could.
Savitri left Athens some days before me; she was going to Germany. We planned to visit Stonehenge when she next came to England. I went to Crete, met my English friends again, and revisited Knossos. I stayed not quite seven weeks this time and spent about £70; I allowed myself a few treats.
At home John Smith was doing his best for The Distance. I had thought Hutchinsons the best bet among the publishers, but John tried several others first. All had nice things to say, but we did not quite bring it off. John was very confident of eventual success.
* * *
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 Savitri embarked from Hull, England on November 9, 1946 and arrived in Reykjavik, Iceland on November 14. She embarked from Reykjavik back to England on July 8, 1947.
 An unpublished novel.
 Savitri met Sven Hedin on June 6, 1948, in Stockholm.
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