The Last Days of Savitri Devi
by Muriel Gantry
A Selection from her Correspondence
Edited by R.G. Fowler
Below are recollections of Savitri Devi drawn from Muriel Gantry’s letters to Beryl Cheetham. These letters are, for the most part, very sad reading, since they focus on Savitri’s last days: her infirmities, her final illness, her death, and the aftermath. The letters do, however, also contain a number of interesting and amusing anecdotes about Savitri and her friends in happier times.
Ellipses in brackets indicate deletions. I deleted material that did not directly deal with Savitri Devi, although I frequently succumbed to the temptation to leave in extraneous bits (and a long account of Muriel's visit to Egypt) that are amusing and colorful. I broke up Muriel's long paragraphs for greater readability and inserted explanatory notes in square brackets. The title, of course, is my own invention.
Special thanks to Beryl Cheetham for preserving these letters, presenting them to the archive, and permitting us to publish them here.
— R.G. Fowler
26 October 1982
Dear Miss Cheetham:
[. . .]
I have very sad news for you. Savitri did arrive here—I will tell you about it in a moment—but she died in the early moments of Friday last, about twelve-thirty a.m. She is now in Braintree Mortuary awaiting a post-mortem. I have written at length to Joseph Jones and now do so to you.
I always thought that it was inadvisable for her to attempt all this travelling, but she was obviously so determined to do it, and it would have been too cruel to say flatly that she could not come, even if for her own possible good.
She wrote to me telling me when she would arrive, but posted it far too late, and I only got it on the Tuesday when she had been here for two days
On Sunday the 17th of October I was awakened by the police at quarter to three a.m. to tell me that she was at Victoria Coach Station, London, and was expecting me to come and fetch her. This at that time on Sunday morning, when it is impossible to get there from here unless one has a car or taxi. I said—having ascertained that she was all right in herself—that she would have to wait till I could do something about it, and thought to call Joseph Jones when I was able to. I thought she would probably manage to contact him herself, and waited till the neighbours [who had a phone] had come back from church before I called him. Just as I was about to do so she arrived in a mini-cab, which cost £50 from London on a Sunday (double fares, I believe).
The driver (who was by coincidence an Indian, so they had talked Hindustani on the way) and myself helped her up my drive, with the great difficulty you can imagine; she was dressed in a shabby loose coat and only her skimpy sari and top under it with a light cardigan—in October in England! She was of course delighted to see me, and I to see her save for the pity of seeing her in such a state. But as you know she had such pluck. She seemed as if she was determined not to be comfortable—“Do not bother, I am all right,” to every suggestion for her comfort. (Forgive me, I am very tired and trying to get all these letters done.)
We settled in pretty well and began to go over old times. She said she had come in without question and with no problems, and I was very glad. She would not try the folding bed I had intended for her but said she would sleep in my big chair, with her feet on that dratted chair with wheels—so high and uncomfortable looking, but I let her have her way. It would have been impossible for her to climb my stairs, and I would have been afraid for her upstairs on her own, so we had to be both in my sitting room where I sleep on a divan. I said long ago that it would present problems, but I tried to do my best for her.
Well, she did not have much sleep, but she was up and down all the time trying to pee, as she said; you know it always took her ages. I had to help her to stand as she did it, and it was very awkward. But we got by somehow and she wrote letters all day next day in the intervals of talking and seemed pretty well. Next night I tried her on a garden lounge as she wanted her feet high, but it was no good and she still would not bother about the bed, so went again on the chair. It was a big Parker-Knoll, and I have myself slept in it for hours many times, but she had such problems in moving at all, as you know. It was really awful to see her at times, but I did try to make her easier. She would not bother to undress or put on a nightdress, and I thought till I had to search her bags after she died that she did not have one and tried to give her one of mine. This awful Spartan martyrdom business made it so hard to help her.
On Tuesday things were very pleasant indeed! The builder came to put in my new kitchen window, and between him and her I had a busy time for a while. Then when I could relax a bit she became astonishingly jolly—you know she was not really a natural laugher, as she was so damned intense and obsessed by all her ideas, but I could always make her laugh, and I think it was good for her. She told me a story about her first arrival at Piraeus and what happened, and we were really hysterical with laughter. I told stories of my own about Greece and then she wanted to hear my own novel I have been so long in writing and made me feel it was better than I thought. It was like old times save for her problems, and I thought that if she continued this way she would indeed be all right to make the trip to America on the 6th of November.
We went to bed, and she had embarked on one of her almost intoxicated tirades about all this NS business; I thought, “Well, it’s her turn now,” and let her go on. She got on to the Nuremberg trials, and it was like a runaway train. I did not know half she was talking about nor whom she was speaking of, and took refuge in crossword puzzle and said “Yes, yes.” Then I said I did want to read for a little, and she said “It is two o’clock a.m.,” so I put out my bedlight (she did not like the light on at all really) and went to sleep as she did in the chairs with her feet this time on a “camel-stool”; much better if she had let me get her into a more easy position, but she would not.
At quarter to four I awoke and found she was ill, vomiting and diarrhea and really a dreadful mess. From then on I had no rest at all till Friday afternoon save when I went out for a while, to get her eye drops and post a letter (to Myriam Hirn) she had written at great length. I was cleaning up and holding her up while she tried—or managed —to have a motion or to “pee” and she was retching dreadfully all the time. I dressed and simply gave myself up to trying to clean up messes and hold the bucket for her and all the rest; I was out in the garden at six a.m. in the dark hanging out her sari and trying to clean her filthy skirt, poor creature; how did it I don’t know. I am no nurse as I said before, but I did my best. She lay down on my bed after a time—I covered it with towels and a plastic sack and hoped for the best, and it went on and on.
I said that I could not take responsibility for her in this state, and I was going to get the doctor as soon as it was time to call him, and I did. He came about midday—just after Joseph Jones, who should have come the day before, but he could not find me, despite my drawing a map and giving him full instructions. They could not say much, of course. The doctor said it was gastro-enteritis—travellers’ tummy—and she would probably be all right in 24 hours, but she must starve on boiled water. As you know she could starve any time. It took me ages to make her take a sip. So she stayed on my bed with a warm woolen cover over her and warm old sheets and a hot bottle to her feet, and I just tried to rest a moment on the chair and just went on and on. In the morning I called the doctor again and the receptionist said to let her have some fruit juice and dry toast or crispbread (she said she felt a little better). I got a little stewed apple down her but nothing else.
Then in the afternoon I had to go to the village, and left her warm and with a big fire while I did so. When I came back she had managed to use her bucket and was on the bed again, and said she “had more fever” and had I a thermometer? This of course, after I had just been to the chemists. She never could be practical. I had not got one—I am not a taker of my own temperature or a pill-swallower and she knew it. I did not care for the look of her and said I was going to get the doctor again. I did; he was another one as Thursday was an emergency-only day. He said she had a viral infection and possibly some ’flu; to go back to boiled water only and see how things went. She was exhausted with wretching, and I begged her to get some water down her, but she would scarcely have a sip. She said over and over she wanted to die, but I said no one ever died of a bilious attack and I was going to get her better.
But I was so weary—I had scarcely slept since the awaking on Sunday, and now it was Thursday evening. I had an important letter to write and also had promised to let J. Jones know how she was, and she could not bear the light on, and as for TV for a little while the day before, oh dear. “Aieeeee Aieeeee, turn that off, you do not know what it does to me . . .” How glad I am that I don’t notice transistors and so on; they are the voice of today, and one has to get used to them, though I never have the radio on myself. But I do like TV in reason, selectively, not on and on. So I had to flounder round in fire-light or semi-gloom and could see to do nothing. I said I was going upstairs to do letters, and she could have the darkness, and I would listen and come and see how she was. She seemed glad, and I did so.
I did my urgent letter and then came down to see her; she was peacefully asleep, and I was glad. I went back to write to Jones but fell asleep myself for a short time, about twenty to twelve p.m. I went at once when I woke to see how she was—I planned to go to bed anyway—and found her as I thought snoring. I made sure she was not choking with vomit, and the cat asked for her food, so I went to the kitchen to get it for her. I hoped Savitri would move of her own accord and so stop snoring.
I was only out of the room a few seconds, and when I came through the passage I could not hear the snoring. I found her lying in the same attitude but silent. I spoke to her, lifted her hands which fell straight down, felt for her pulse as well as I could, her heart, lifted her feet which also fell down like stones, and then spoke firmly to her and raised her head and shoulders; they too fell back. I was pretty sure she was dead—she probably died as I came back to the room; but I went and awoke the neighbours over the way and called the doctor and told him. He came at once and said “Oh, yes—the poor dear lady’s gone.” I was so relieved that she was not just unconscious, and so nobody could start anything about life-support machines or resuscitation; she would have hated it so. I think her sight was going fast, and she wanted to die first as we all know, and she did, bless her.
So I had to give her names and so on and await the police as is the custom on these occasions. I had to make a statement all about who she was and where and when she was married and all that had happened since she arrived, every detail. That did not trouble me at all and I gave it all clearly and satisfactorily. Don’t worry, I did NOT say anything to get anyone into trouble. I think now it is a blessing she died on me and not, say, in the ’plane. I have had to go through her things and she had brought sheaves of letters with her, and god knows what would have been made of some of them. I have to do all this to discover her relatives; I think she has a few in-laws, of which more anon. I read French fairly well, but I only know a little German; but I can see what things are about, and I think, as have said to Jones, that as soon as I have got matters clear the best thing I can do is to burn the lot.
I am, thanks be, not a denouncer nor an informer; I don’t tell tales and get people into trouble. If they are nice with me, I am to them. I cannot bear sneaks. I cannot understand the attraction of all this business you all love so much, but chacun a son goût. In all these years I have never given Savitri away, but she did take risks. So I do hope no one will get worried about my telling tales. I don’t know the half you are all driving at anyway. I have very different interests. Savitri and I became friends when she was lecturing on Akhnaton, and for ages I knew nothing about her other self so to speak. When I did I said I don’t drop friends. She was a very unusual person and could be very kind and a good friend; she was so to me, but this business did make for problems, god knows.
I gather from the letters that you covet that lovely Aton brooch she gave to Mme. R—, whom I have not encountered. I too always loved it, as it was part of everything I liked when I first met her, and I would have loved to possess it. I was glad the rickshaw thieves did not get it, as they could not have known its significance, and it would have made the theft worse still.
She had almost nothing save a few shabby clothes, not worth sending to anyone unless they insisted, and were willing to pay duty and postage on them; a fair lot of heavy books which I will have to find out what to do with. They are of no interest to me save her two volumes of Leconte de Lisle, which I have taken as a remembrance. She used to read him to me when we first met, and I tried out my French on them, and they have sentimental recollections associated with them. She would not mind. I know.
After I had done the statement and waited for the undertaker to remove her, and cleaned up and stripped the bed, I managed at last to have a rest, and I have just after a meal I slept till nine at night, and did so almost all weekend. I have just about recovered now, and I have had to read through all those letters in French, at least to skim them, in case there was something which needed seeing to.
At last I found a very battered, ill-written envelope in her first struggling hand after she was paralysed, with the stamp torn away, but the name legible as Amrit Krishna—Mukherji I suppose, as I also found among her many receipts for registered letters one to Krishna Mukherji. This was her husband’s name, I know, so I expect the Amrit Krishna is his brother who fired the pyre? [Actually, Mr. Mukherji was cremated in New Dehli, and one of his nephews presided at the cremation.] The letter inside is in Indian script, all but the name Miss Crystal Rogers, who I believe is a cat and animal worker. So she would know if they are her relatives. Krishna Mukherji, I know, is a very common name in India. I hope you or Myriam Hirn will know. I will write to M.H. who wrote to me some time ago.
My neighbour with the telephone advises me to tell her relatives not to bother about having her things sent unless they are very anxious to have them, as the duty will be dreadful. He has had experience of it, and we know the postage will be fearsome. No use to write till I am certain who they are, and do they understand English? I know Asit Mukherji did, but he was a well-educated man. I would have liked to meet him. I decipher the address as Shivpur, Howrah, West Bengal [address omitted].
Now it is after midnight and I must go to bed—I have to go to Braintree tomorrow—nothing to do with the post-mortem, though; I suppose that will be settled any day now. I shall probably have to see to her funeral, I suppose; she would want cremation, I am sure, and no Christian service of course. It will work out, I expect. How odd; she was when I met her a part of my fate—my moira as the Greeks called it; this cottage was called Moira Cottage because it was my fate to live here, and Savitri came to Moira Cottage to die. Well, so be it. She is safe now from blindness and free of that awful disability. I want to die before anything like that happens to me. Animals are allowed to die with dignity, and so should humans. I am glad she did not suffer too long.
I am sorry to have to write such a sad letter.
17 November 1982
Dear Miss Cheetham:
Many thanks for your enlightening letter dated November 4th, which I received some days ago, but am only now answering. [. . .]
I have had two letters from Colin Jordan—I thought he would surface. I met him twice in the early sixties when all the uproar was on—I witnessed the famous scene in Trafalgar Square, as perhaps you did. He does not lack courage. Actually he has been a great help. He sent a friend from Colchester, named Bill Knight, who is a great fan of Savitri’s—he is quite young, in his thirties I would say—and I was able to say a few things I thought were better not put in a letter.
I have been careful of what I said to you in case you were having any kind of trouble; I hope not. Now will tell you plainly that I burnt a lot of the—apparently—most obvious letters I found in Savitri’s luggage, and would most likely have got shut of the lot had the Coroner’s Officer not come, after which I could do no more. It was, as I said, a great strain to go through all those screeds in French and German, and the latter I don’t read at all really, unless it is something very simple. But I judged from the important words, so to speak. I told the Officer—and his deputy who called while he was away—that I had burnt a lot of newspapers and some things such as shopping lists, which was strictly true; but no more. I do so detest duplicity, but I tried to be discreet. I am simply not a liar.
The Deputy told me I could go ahead with the funeral arrangements, and so I did. When some days after I had a message that it could not go on, and then the Chief Officer came back from Majorca—when I was expecting the undertaker—and told me rather crossly that I had had no right to go ahead with it all after he had told me not too. I said I had had permission from his deputy, and he said he ought not to have given it. Now the undertaker I had arranged with has also been messed about and has wasted his time. The Officer was also not very pleased about my having arranged with another undertaker than the one who took away the body. Bill Knight thinks—I am sure correctly—that the police have an understanding with the first one to their mutual advantage. However, all I want is for the poor dear to get out of that fridge in the mortuary, where she is still—a grisly thought. She should have been cremated yesterday if my arrangement had gone as intended.
I had the good idea—at least I thought so—of asking Myriam Hirn, who has been writing to me and seems a sensible (and interesting) person, if she would accept her ashes and see them strewn in the Jumna. I am still awaiting her reply; I have had a letter from her which has crossed with my own, and there ought to be another any day.
BUT now Colin Jordan tells me that the Americans are going to have a shrine in Arlington, which will, when possible, contain the ashes of fighters for their cause, and they would like to have hers for this. Now whatever I may think, or not bother about, myself, this seems to me to be so eminently fitting, and so much that she would wish for herself, that I do think it ought to be done if possible. It cannot hurt anyone and is far more apt than having them strewn in a Garden of Remembrance she did not know or care about, at Colchester or wherever. I shall reply to him and say so, and also tell Mlle. Hirn, who I should think would be all for it, as she is full of reincarnation and mystical ideas, of a kind I quite like myself, though I keep my feet firmly on the ground nowadays.
It is quite simply right for Savitri. I have been re-reading Defiance, which is really very interesting—it had all just happened when I first went with her to France in 1950—and she speaks there—as she has done to me and others—of how she would love to be an “honorary citizen of the Reich.” Disposing of her ashes as suggested almost makes her one, and who is harmed by the act? She earned a bit of what she wanted after all that output of energy. Solar Energy, indeed; she was aptly re-named.
The Officer was very eager to know if I had had any more letters, and indeed asked me twice; letters to her, he meant. I said No, and that thought the grape-vine had got around, and so it appears. I did not speak of letters addressed to myself, for those are my business. But I had been pretty much afraid for about 24 hours that I might be myself called in for questioning, and in that time I received two for her, one from a Frau Ederer you mention but whom I do not know, in German, and also a very noticeable one from her friends in Arlington, very flashy paper and the kind of envelope a postman might remember. I simply had no idea that it was all so “out in the open” in America—I am astonished, after all they say about un-American activities and so on. I pictured Savitri talking to a handful of people in some discreet room or cellar, or some such scenes and thought that at least it would please her and be the last thing—most probably—she would be able to do for her all-important Cause, which was really all she cared about except cats.
I was anxious at all costs to stem the tide of letters so that I need tell no lies, and threw away the anti-Jewish leaflets—which I don’t like—and put the letter, practically unread, into another ordinary envelope and enclosed a very short note saying that she had died on the 22nd of a coronary thrombosis, that I was not and never had been and never would be a member of her Party, that I did not like making trouble for anyone, so please, no further communications to my address. I also put exactly the same thing in Frau Ederer’s letter which also I returned and posted them at once without any after thoughts.
What really bothered me was the bit I did read of the letter from Matt Koehl (of whom I never beard before in my life); he was asking her to postpone her visit for some months—well, you do understand, as I see from your last letters what a situation I was in even with those few days, and the thought of what it would have been for months— frankly I just had had enough, and that is why I acted in a way I later realised was quite needlessly rude. I am not in the habit of doing that kind of things and I now understand that the Americans were prepared to finance her and obviously think a great deal about her.
As for Frau Ederer, if you know her, perhaps you will explain why I wrote so abruptly and tell her I am sorry to have given such news so bluntly. She may not read English so it would be a waste of time to write again myself.
However, nobody seems to blame me for anything, but the police are waiting for the French to release the body and that is why the funeral cannot go ahead. What a load of red tape—at least I trust that is all it is. I am very tired of it all and quite bewildered with all the letters I have written. There is a dossier here fit for James Bond.
I told Bill Knight about the note to M.K. [Matt Koehl] and also Colin Jordan, and I suppose I ought to write to him myself and explain briefly what it was all about. My name must be all over Europe, and I have never participated in all this business in my life. I told Bill Knight that was so ignorant of it all when I first met Savitri that I thought Horst Wessel was not a person, but a sausage—and a propos of Savitri’s sense of humour or her lack of it, when she got over the shook of hearing that—I did not tell her till 1950—I can still hear her laughing aboard the Ionia on our way to Greece. “A sausage! That glorious young hero—Oh, I should be so-o ANGRY with you but I cannot—it is too funny! A sausage—a sausage!” She got used to it over the years, and we were laughing about it before she died. I think I thought a Horst was a sort of Wurst, and after all, there are songs about beer and steins and so on, so why not about a sausage? I was entirely satisfied in my mind that I was right, as far as I thought about it at all, which was very little.
I am glad to say that there have been no more letters, and I should not think there will be. I have been most grateful for yours, and I will be very pleased to meet you when you come to England. It will be good to talk about Savitri with someone who has had experience of her. She was pretty weird really, but everyone liked her—as Defiance shows. I suppose she had charisma, or something—?
Muriel Gantry at Moira Cottage
Now to reply to what you say about her. I can see that you have a down-to-earth attitude to all her quirks, as I have. She told me about Frau Asmus—who wrote a very nice note to me ending “Have a good time with our venerated friend!”—little did we know what was coming—and her ideas about foods, and I got a bit of the fried potato business myself. I go to the village every week and on that day have what I call my Bit of Naughty; I have to watch my weight and before my hip replacement eighteen months back weighed fifty pounds more than I do now—I am now just over 13 stone and was 16½, and I am determined not to let that happen again, but I have a huge appetite and a cast-iron digestion, and the energy of a woman of thirty. (I am in my later sixties, which annoys me very much.) My Bit of Naughty is a big plate of fish and chips which I look forward to.
I told her about it and she said “Fried Potatoes?” in great excitement, and wanted me to make some. I have never done so as I am afraid of them getting on fire, and why do that when they can be bought, and anyway she would eat about six and all that fuss would be all for that. She was such a one for a tiny bit of something very perfectly cooked with all the oil and sauce and whatever; I suppose because she was French in that way. I cut out all the extras like sauces and so on and concentrate on having a LOT of anything low-calorie, and try to leave calories for extra bread which I adore—unlike many English people, who never eat it save to mess it about on a side-plate.
I told her I would bring her some chips from the village; but by then she was too ill for that. She was also on about Welsh rarebit (which surprised me), and I expect we would have had that eventually. What she did go to town on were “choux de Bruxelles”—Brussels Sprouts, and she ate two good helpings of them, flooded of course with olive oil, which fortunately I had by me. She went through a bottle in two meals, and I got two bottles more but took them back after she died as I never touch the stuff in England. Olives, yes, as many as you like, but oil, no.
She got it all down her sari, and I said she looked as if somebody had blown their nose on her and for god’s sake take it off and I would wash it. I did not know what other washing was in store for me. She took it off, but would not bother to put her other one on, and there she was, almost naked, in her skimpy petticoat turned wrong way round with the placket full-frontal, and a light cardigan, and nothing else whatever. I wanted to give her some warm vests I had saved for her, but she said she did not want any extra weight in her bags because of the plane; so I let it go for the moment.
She was perfectly warm in my sitting room as I keep good fires, and she was in a big wing chair. The sprouts and oil did not help the diarrhea, as you can imagine, but the doctor said I had not done any harm. I told him all she had had. I cannot think just now what else she had, but we had the same things more or less. You are so right about her under-nourishment, I am certain, but she was always the same about food, and forever fast, fast in honour of someone or something, and what use is that? The times she has told me, “I do not know what it EES to be hungry; I am never hungry.”
We went to Stonehenge once, and she could not understand my wanting to sit down and picnic when we got there—she said she would fast, rather; and the same when I used to save my best eats to enjoy on the Acropolis, or at Knossos, or some such goal attained. As a child she would not eat anything save one or two things and must have driven her mother daft. I cannot imagine being like that; I gloried in eating whatever was put before me, except cream, which I loathe to this day.
Yet when we used to go sometimes in London to Indian restaurants she would have quite a tuck-in. I think Indian food suited her. I can well imagine the bowl of gruel, whatever it was. And I have seen her eat a fair amount in Greece.
But she was prepared to go all the way to Piraeus from Marseilles on a cup of coffee and a “miche” in 1953—nearly four days deck passage, rough but enjoyable. But I was well prepared as far as I could afford in those days, and we had plenty of bread and cheese at least. I also managed to arrange hot water bottles, and when I brought her one she was overjoyed. She was shivering in her canvas bunk and never even thinking of improving matters. She asked me in London once not to tell Colin Jordan that she had a hot bottle. As if I would. Can you imagine me doing so?
I certainly do not think that the Spartan nonsense is anything to do with your belief; as I was going to say to her but did not have time, if Hitler had wanted everyone to be so uncomfortable, would he have built himself a beautiful place like Eagle’s Nest? I was reading only yesterday how the top Nazis had their homes in the best part of Austria.
No: it was practice for possible martyrdom mostly, and the rest of it was often just sheer inefficiency in all practical matters.
After all her trips in the world, all her staying in different places and different hotels and rooms, she did not know how to find the electric light in a new room, but fumbled and swore in Greek and fell about. I tried to impress on her that when in a new room, always feel or look on the wall next to the door, where it almost always is. Of course, the next place we stayed, in Greece, it proved to be the other side of the room. But my idea is usually right.
As for her get up and general arrangements during her trip across Europe, words fail me. She arrived wearing that skimpy sari, the cardi, a tiny little cotton bodice with her midriff bare, that enormous and once very smart coat, far too big for her, falling off her in folds, and a huge pair of mens’ corduroy semi-boots, with her small swollen feet rattling about in them and them falling off at every step, as if she walked in two buckets, and that extraordinary CHAIR, the most ugly piece of furniture I have seen in years, as if it had come out of some hospital, and very dangerous, sticking on every projection, while she went “Aieeee, Aieeee, Sto’ Diavolo, I cannot move it—!” The taxi man and I got her up my path by inches, and I fairly groaned inside for all was glad to see her and would have been very much so under different circumstances. If she had been cared for in some proper place I would have gone to see her and done all could to help her get comforts. She looked like a poor little wet pigeon mixed up in a bit of old black material and a creased handkerchief.
I am afraid I got rather cross on the Wednesday evening when after that tiring day, I put the TV on for a short time to watch my usual soap-operas. But had to stop it as she got so upset. I said that if Hitler had decreed that all good Nazis should watch TV she would have had a 19” colour set and been glued to it all day! I watched with the ear-piece on for awhile and then gave up. She said years ago that she would ban all radio and TV save for half an hour a day of propaganda. What an awful thought.
When she first went to Europe I thought she was going to have treatment for her eyes in Germany and was all for it. I am surprised she got back there after being told to leave the first time. I cannot understand how she got through Europe in that get-up under those circumstances; everyone must have noticed her. She was indeed a case for intensive care, but the gods forbid that I should ever end that way. I saw enough of old ladies in hospital, though I did have a private room. (I could not have endured it otherwise, with the silly chatter of the average woman in hospital—they enjoy it!) May I never lie like an old mummy, being lifted up and fed and lying on my own bedsores, thanking God, as so many of them do—for WHAT? I am very glad poor old Arthur Askey has died at last, after being carved up needlessly since last June. That was just plain wicked; a poor old frail man of over 80 to go through that, instead of being gently eased into whatever might await him. He was a dreadful comic, but from all accounts a very nice man.
Among Savitri’s papers were some sheets of what seems to me to be a very cranky diet, and I should not wonder if it was to do with Frau Asmus. I do agree really that we ought to be vegetarians, but I am just too hungry and not strong-willed enough. I cannot go in for all these movements which commit one to eating only certain things and wearing bedclothes.
I said to Savitri that it was a pity she did not take up with the Krishna people who are pretty uncomfortable one way and another, but nobody minds them. Their temple is near where I lived in London and I found them pleasant people enough, and, went to their Jaganath Festival and enjoyed it, but just for the fun of it.
The police say they have not been able to find anyone related to Savitri, but I really did think that address in Bengal might be something. I had the Srimati Kamala Sharma among the possibles, which I gave to the officer. She is not a He, by the way; Srimati is the equivalent of Mrs. or Madame—I used to address Savitri’s letters to Srimati S.D. Mukherji; and Kamala is a very popular Indian female name. A man’s title is Sri.
I found the papers relating to her giving Myriam Hirn permission to reprint her books and have sent them to her. When I go to London I will send her Savitri’s proof-sheets, which I have safe here. [Muriel is refering not to proof sheets per se, but to photocopies of Long-Whiskers, Impeachment of Man, and perhaps Joy of the Sun made by Beryl Cheetham for Savitri, who wished to have copies of the books for possible reprinting in the United States. The copy of Long-Whiskers contained handwritted corrections by Savitri where the ends of lines were cut off, which made it look like a set of page proofs.] I think it best to send them from there as a parcel to India will be conspicuous in the small sub-post-office here, and one never knows. I want to go to London as soon as I can get all this off my chest; I have wanted to go for weeks. So those are all right. Fortunately Savitri had time to tell me about that. [. . . ] I expect to hear from her any day now.
I have had Bill Knight again here tonight, which has held up this letter. People do drop in!
I too come from the North, and was born in Prestwich, near Manchester, but when I was 18 months old came to Cheadle Hulme in Cheshire, which you probably know, and when I was about seventeen we moved to New Mills in Derbyshire, and then to Melior two miles away, from where I went to London in 1937. I wanted to do theatrical designing, and it was useless to try in Manchester. I worked in the theatre till I gradually retired about ten years ago, mostly making headdresses and hats. So I am a real Northerner, and rather proud of it. In London I lived in Covent Garden, in Drury Lane, and I loved it. I had to get out of my nice cheap place when they got going on the new Covent Garden, though I did manage to hang on for six years. I like it here but I do wish I could get to London more quickly.
I won’t fight you about the brooch, unless you are much younger than I and will have a long time to wear it. It is probably very expensive anyway. I do have a few things of hers which I will always keep.
I will let you know the moment I know anything about the cremation. I am absolutely tired of the delay and fidget and hope it will soon be over.
I have now received a letter from Frau Asmus to whom I wrote briefly telling of the death. I will reply to her. She is in Italy as you may know [address omitted].
14 December 1982
Dear Miss Cheetham:
I was glad to receive your letter this morning, as I was about to write to you. [. . .]
I am sorry you had trouble—as I feared you might. I did get rid of a great deal of Savitri’s correspondence, but I did so at night—it would have looked odd had anyone come in while I was burning all that paper; and got so weary that I could do no more, and before I could resume and have a second weed-out—and, if I could, perhaps destroy the lot save for things to help with the discovery of her relations, or perhaps a will—I did find the paper for Myriam Hirn, which was the only thing resembling such a thing, and I might have missed that—before I could do more, as I say, the Coroner’s Officer arrived and took charge of her stuff. I most certainly did get shut of much which was best away and also grab her MSS at once, and it is now on its way to New Delhi. [The manuscripts Muriel refers to are the photocopies she described as proof-sheets in the previous letter.] I posted it from London last Friday registered.
It was so wearying to go through all that stuff nearly all in French or German, and if I had not kept carbons of all I have written in these last weeks I could not recall what I have said. Truth whenever possible, but I did try to be discreet.
Well she was really cremated at last on the 7th of December—at Colchester at two p.m. or 14.00, if you like to call it that. I asked Bill K. [Knight] to be discreet about any tribute—no a Chrysanthemum swastikas or whatever!—and suggested something involving the Aton symbol, which upsets nobody. Then when I was writing to Jordan I thought about the Irmisul, which ditto, ditto and would make a fairly attractive showing in flowers—if one likes those wired-up things; I detest them and always send a spray, as un-funereal and bright as possible—and I never wear mourning. Fancy having a special dress to be sorry in. (Savitri appears to have rushed to the photographers as soon as she looked like a Hindu widow—which was just like her.) I know all about those nudes and hoped to find them in her stuff. She was quite good-looking when she was young, but one had to search for it under that exterior of the archetypal schoolmarm. She liked to look learned in the old-style way; as a child she liked wearing specs because no other child in her class did!)
Jordan liked the Irminsul idea, but what turned up was a wreath of off-white chrysanthemums with a red ribbon affair in the middle like this [see illustration]. I would have taken it for the CND at glance, and perhaps that was best. I had a red and yellow spray of chrysanthemums and carnations and a bit of greenery, with “With affection and gratitude—and the memory of days in Greece. Nuairsto kai kalos efkharisto,” which I trust is correct for “Greetings and many thanks.” The last in Greek letters.
Nobody came to my house, though I thought J. Jones might; nor did he appear at the crematorium. Just Bill Knight and three men friends whose names I did not ask. I had a very posh car to myself all the way—I had her brought to the house so that I could follow her, and she would not resent that picture of a lonely coffin going through the country to a place where nobody ever dreamed she might end—though Colchester is nice and has lots of historical associations, mostly Boudicca and twitching Claudius of TV fame.
I thought as we went along of the last time we had a long walk through country—in the Peloponnesus. She got far ahead of me with the man who was guiding us—we were following the route of the Spartans—wouldn’t you know it?—when they besieged the Messenians at Eira. OK by me as it was a lovely trip anyway; but I was fatter than I am now and very out of breath, and I got rather cross because she would not, or did not think to, hang back to give me a chance to catch up. She did not mind the heat, but I was almost expiring.
All went well and the ceremony, if it can be called such, was over in about fifteen minutes. I read a short tribute I had written—our friendship from my point of view and no funny stuff. I brought some pictures of her with me and put them on the front pew so that the men could see what she looked like—1946, 1951, 1977—and when they had seen them we went out. THEN what happened really annoyed and vexed me.
As I met Bill K. he drew my attention to some people with cameras on the other side of the entrance, but I thought they were other friends of his and did not bother. I was too absorbed in finding out what exactly was to happen, since it was not the usual Christian ceremony with a vicar and the rest. As I say, it all went off very quickly; I wish it could have been more impressive, but most people lack any theatrical sense, and anyway it was best kept quiet. Speaking theatrically, I wished she could have disappeared to a well-timed salute from the men, while I stood by having done my thing! Nobody would have known as we were in the chapel alone—unless there were watchers unseen.
[Crossed out:] I asked about when the ashes would be ready and got into the car—then a re [breaks off].
Sorry—I have resumed after an interruption. As we emerged there was a burst of camera-flashing from over the way, and it was the Press, not just private people. Then as I got into the car a reporter surfaced and spoke to me. Well, I am pretty used to that kind of thing and have no camera, TV, or press-interview nerves at all, and generally love it, but I could have done without it then. I felt awful and have done so on and off ever since. He said he understood the lady who had just been cremated was a National Socialist. I am a bad liar but usually a fair actress, but I was taken very much by surprise indeed. I asked haughtily, “Who gave you that information?” (Of course it would be the police; reporters go around to the police and hospitals and undertakers and so on as a matter of course. Had I been one, as I once thought I might be, I would do the same.)
I felt like a rabbit in a snare and simply said very clearly that I had no connection whatever with the National Socialist party and was merely the old friend in whose house she died. I saw him switch his mind to a different story and seized on it, eagerly that I had known her since 1946 and had not seen her for twenty years, that she had been a very good friend to me in the past and that we met when she was lecturing on Egypt and the Pharaoh Akhnaton, in whom I too was interested, and in the contemporary civilisation of Crete, and through my friendship with her I wrote what was a pretty successful novel, and I was very grateful to her for her encouragement. All this went well as he apparently writes also for archaeological magazines and papers, and he asked if he could come and talk to me about antiquity sometime. I said Gladly; I would be delighted to talk to him any time about that sort of thing. I tried by talking about myself to draw him off Savitri.
But then he said that he understood that her ashes were to go to America; I said as airily as I could that her friends there wanted to make a little place to her memory. “You know what Americans are about funerals, what a fuss they make,” I said. “Did I know where?” Well, I could feel the men having kittens outside, I was having them myself, and my voice saying very shaky and unrecognisably “V . . . Virginia . . . .” and then I stopped myself.
It was as if I was hypnotised for a moment, but I cannot think quickly without preparing as I have never been in any sort of trouble, thanks be, and never wish to be. No ideology is worth constant worry, and I am not a person to go in for such things.
However, I recovered and said in reply to his question that I did not know who the American friends were and did not know till now that she knew anyone in America (true again for she always seemed to hate the place so, as being the home of what she thought was jazz—all modern music was jazz to her as it is to so many oldies). It all passed off, and I expect he will turn up one day when he is stuck for a copy and talk about antiquity, which is all he will get, now I am prepared for him. I know I could have said “No Comment!” but I was so anxious not to be tarred by any brush. These things come up at awkward times later and spoil one’s chances. I think I did not do badly but for that one slip. Maybe it won’t matter.
I was miserable all the way home and next day my neighbour asked me if I was tired because I looked so awful. I seem to have carried the mark ever since. I drove away without any word to the men, who sort of crept away. What troubles me is what is in the Colchester papers with a picture of me? I said the first time you wrote to me that Savitri could well die here and what a business that would be and how right I was.
This information came from the police, I suppose. After the coroner’s officer had been the second time, about which I told you, I heard nothing more. The cremation I had arranged with the undertaker was stopped, and I just went on with no information. So I bearded the Officer in his Braintree den, and got out of him that the French would not release the body till they had assured themselves that she had no relations in France (since then Myriam Hirn tells me that they were rooting about in Greece also. As she had a Greek passport as well. I told the police at once ages ago that she had not!).
It seems they found her Indian in-laws at the address I mentioned to you, and they said they knew her but did not want anything to do with it (so they have done themselves out of the residue of her estate, if you can call it that. She had money to take to America, and that has gone for the cremation.)
The police did not have the courtesy to keep me informed, though they were kind enough at first. They could have sent word by the panda car which passes every day. However, the officer said that the French had now said they saw no reason why the cremation should not take place, and the police fixed it themselves for the 7th—he checked it on the telephone while I was there. But it was with their own approved undertaker—I suppose they have an “understanding”—the same who took her body away. Not that I care who it was.
The French said that the money she had would pay for it but they would not pay for anything to be done with the ashes (this is when I thought that they might go to Delhi). I said that all that was sorted out, and her friends she was to go to were having them. He seemed delighted and agreed that it was nothing to do with anyone any more. I had already said that I could not abide to have them in my house, for I think it is creepy and morbid. I have my cats cremated and put in the animal cemetery in Woodbridge some miles away.
All right, I could have said less—but I am not James Bond or some double agent and I have had all this on my back for about six weeks, and it has upset all my plans for before Christmas, and I now have a dreadful task to catch up with cards and so on. So please forgive me for any omissions or mishandling of things here and there.
I did not leave it to Bill Knight to possibly garble what happened to Jordan on the telephone, but wrote to Jordan and told him exactly what had happened. I know that very few people can give good evidence, or give it well. They invent where they don’t know. I tell the truth whenever possible. If I were more clever about all this deceit I could probably have told a tale which showed me in a better light, but I think I have done well on the whole.
I was always expecting this kind of thing in the Sixties in London, what with the police around every time Savitri had been with me, and I thought it was all over. She did drop people into things! You know what she was like in Pilgrimage, and when you read Defiance you will see it again. Always walking the tightrope for love of danger and the hope of martyrdom. She really was slightly crazy, certainly at the end.
However, I shall be very pleased to see you on the 29th and here again is how to find me and to get here. [. . .] It is quite possible you might get a driver who knows me; they used to call me “the lady with the cat” when I used to come up and down from London with my cat in a basket on a shopping trolley like a child in a pushchair. [. . .] Try to come fairly early so as to arrive around midday and then we can relax and talk about it all. I could do with somebody with a sense of humour! I certainly have, and I can tell you some funny things about our old times together.
I am now realising what a state she was in. Myriam Hirn has told me a lot which has surprised me, and how Savitri got away with it all recently is a mystery. As you say—that CHAIR—I gave it to the café proprietor in the village as the coroner’s officer did not want it—I cannot say why I could not have had some other things back, but no, they wouldn’t. The café man thought a friend of his would like it, but it is now in his own house and he is welcome to it—it was hideous, and I could not abide it here. As for the huge coal-boat shoes which effectively stopped her from walking at all, they came in nicely for a man down the road who has trouble with his feet, and his wife’s feet are as big as his, so they probably share.
One really cannot help laughing despite the nuisance it has been. Poor dear, she was so nice and meant so well—and what a genius she was in her way. She ought to have had a chair (!) in some university and a comfortable existence, but that would never have satisfied her. She would have filled the chambers with undoctored cats anyway. Nobody loves animals more than I do, but I keep things in proportion. I have a beautiful cat which I adore, but once she had had the kittens she came to me with she was spayed, and is much safer for it and much less trouble.
I must stop. I am really hypnotised with all the writing and feel I have to go on and on.
[. . .]
See you soon. I trust. Have a good Christmas, or Winter Solstice or whatever.
9 March 1983
I received your excellent photographs some days ago, but as you will understand, I am now trying hard to catch up with all the things I have had to leave undone since the adventure with Savitri. [. . .]
[. . .]
Now I can say at last that Savitri got to Arlington quite safely in all my careful packing (never have I had the task of handing an old friend over the P.O. counter as a parcel before, and it was weird), and I have had a very appreciative letter from M.K. [Matt Koehl] thanking me. They had a service for her on February 20th, and he says “she would have been ecstatic.” I am sure she would be. I hope she did know about it, for it is just what she might have dreamed of and really such a fitting end for a life which was like a novel. I hope to hear more details. I had hoped somebody might have taken her over personally, but in the end it had to devolve on me, and I am so damned glad she got there safely. I also took photographs of the urn (in my garden) and when I have finished the film I will send one if they came out all right.
Savitri's New Order Memorial Service, 20 February 1983
I also found excuse (a personal query) to beard the French Embassy in its den (February 16th last) and ask about her things and if I could have them. I said I wished for one thing to return the things she had borrowed. The lady who had handled her affairs was, of course, away, but I left a note with all explanation. I received no reply for almost two weeks, and wrote again enclosing a s.a.e. It crossed with a reply saying that the things would be kept for five years, in case any heirs turned up to claim them (!) and after that they would be sold if of value and if not destroyed. Any profit will go to the usual place, the French authorities. It was a very cool letter, with “Put that in your pipe and smoke it” all over it. (I wonder how that sounds in French; I must work it out. “Fumez-vous ça dans votre pipe,” or something like that.)
They did not appear to know anything about her, but they must if they have been ferreting around to discover her relations and so on. I told everybody repeatedly ages ago that she hasn’t any, as you know. I suppose it is red tape and bloodymindedness. As if those poor rags of hers could matter to anybody; but the books must have spoken all.
I thought it over, and it seemed so unfair that they should keep what belonged to others and which many people would value, as if there is a question of who, if anyone, received the Death Grant it provided an excuse to make inquiries. It looks to me as is nobody got it. So I am afraid I can do no more about her things.
Myriam Hirn said that they ought to return the things, and as Frau Asmus, who seems to have really adored Savitri, keeps asking questions (she has a genius for thinking them up!) and she lent two or three of the books and is very sorry to lose them, I thought I would try to get them back. But I will have to make her see that it is impossible. This is the law when a person dies intestate and with no relatives, and that is that. I cannot help imagining some distant cousin turning up and asking, “But where are her knickers?”
I am glad you enjoyed your short visit; sorry also not the have had more space for visitors, but this is such a small house as you saw. It was very interesting to listen to somebody who knew Savitri and had been in contact with her during the years since I last saw her. And so good to talk to someone with a sense of humour. Poor dear, she was daft as a brush sometimes, but so nice with it.
[. . .]
Poor old Arthur Askey; as you know he lost both legs before he died, and I read that he begged for euthanasia before the second operation, and they would not give it to him. That law should be changed as soon as possible; it is appalling that people cannot die with dignity when they wish. I am more and more thankful that Savitri got her wish and died before she went blind. I was so relieved when I realised she was gone. I do so pray to die quickly when my time comes, if possible fully dressed and in a chair, or in the garden as happened to somebody here not long ago. He just keeled over when he was mowing, and that was that,
Keep in touch. I will let you know any other details of interest.
Muriel (& Fetfet!) [Fetfet was Muriel Gantry's cat.]
11 May 1983
[. . .]
The garden looks beautiful now [. . .] I have never had such lovely flowers for ages as this year. Savitri would have adored them. [. . .]
Rejoice, rejoice—the parcel of Savitri’s MSS turned up at long last. I had a letter from Myriam some days ago telling me so. All was well; think it was only the inefficiency of the Indian P.O. again; but if I had not put a rocket under them with a very firm letter god knows if they would have bothered. One tries to be practical and then it doesn’t work, and one has to take all that extra trouble. Some years ago Savitri and I could not get letters to each other safely unless they were registered, and my letters could not be of interest to anybody! But that passed off unexplained.
[. . .]
I am glad you got a copy of the Service and—presumably—a copy of the report in their newsletter. I think they did it very well indeed and in excellent taste, and it was a fitting last scene in a life which was like a play or a novel anyway. She was a bit unbelievable when one thinks about her. It cannot hurt anyone and she would as we say, have been delighted, I do hope she knew something about it. I haven’t got the photograph they used—I wish I had; but I saw it years ago.
I will put in a copy of the tribute. Did I give you a photostat of the 1931 photograph her friend (and mine) Marika sent me from Athens? [See illustration.] I got it re-photostatted and sent one or two around—to C.J. [Colin Jordan], M.K. [Matt Koehl] and so on; but I am not sure if you had one, and I haven’t time to rummage through all this folder of letters just now. Will get some more done when I go to Halstead; I thought the copier I was using was a bit dingy and want to try in the printers’ office, which is better; but the Library one is more private. Just the photograph is nothing to attract notice. It is very good; I also have one of her taken in 1939 which I want to get copied so I can have a negative. The photos you took are really good, and I want to get copies of them now I can find a bit more time. I have almost finished the spool with the urn picture in and I hope it turns out well. Oh, that was an odd business; when saw the picture of it I thought—goodness, but for me that might not have been there.
(Resumed Friday, the menacing 13th)
[. . .]
I have to get something off my chest which I am glad to have got settled—at least I hope so. You ask about Savitri’s money; to recap, she had 900 dollars which of course I had to hand over. The French paid for the cremation out of it but pinched the residue and told me very flatly that was what happened in these cases, as of course I knew. It happens here. The Death Grant goes to whoever pays for a funeral, and I am rather pleased that the French did not seem to know about it and did not pinch that. I will go to the Social Service place when I get to Braintree (I have not had time as yet) and ascertain just what the situation is; I might still get it, but it does not really matter.
The Americans paid me over and above what I paid out for the postage of poor old Savitri, and I have thanked them. They have treated me very well, but I did take trouble.
What I did do and till now said nothing about was to take her Air Ticket when I went through her things and hang on to it—with the idea at the time that it would go with anything else to any in-laws she might have, whom I quite expected to grab, as people do. I also thought: what if I mention it, and several different people wrote to say they had paid for it, and I could not ascertain who, if anyone, was speaking the truth! You know that one cannot trust people where money is concerned, and when a person dies intestate there is always a sordid argument about something.
Till now I was communicating with people about whom I knew nothing or next to nothing, though one can usually form a good idea of what they are like after a while. I took the ticket to the agency in Braintree at once and explained the situation. The manager there said they could not give it to me without authorization, and it was most unlikely that British Airways would give back any money; he could not see them parting with any! He obviously thought, of course, that I was after it for myself and I had to be very firm. So I waited and did not mention it to the police, and thanks be they did not think of it.
That was a day or so after Savitri died, and nothing was heard for ages; then not long ago I had a letter saying that they had decided to refund it to me, but I must sign a promise to repay it to anybody who claimed it during the next six months. This I did, of course, and after several weeks more I received it: £220.
I had decided to speak of it to you and to Myriam Hirn once I actually got it—all this time no one who was writing to me said a word about it. I half expected that it would come out that the Americans had paid it, but they have not said anything. You will understand that I was in a rather odd position, and it is usually best to keep quiet and wait and see. I thought best to wait the whole six months and see what did happen. But just before I had the news Frau Asmus wrote me one of her long and emotional letters, and at the very end asked me had I claimed her Air Ticket, and if not I should do so—a M. Yves Jeanne has reminded her.
Now I know nothing about M. Yves Jeanne at all save that he is a friend of Savitri’s and that she stayed with him when she was wandering around. It appears he is a great friend of Frau A. She said that “if anybody had the money it should be me,” but it would be kind of me if I could spare something at least for M. Jeanne, about whom Savitri would have told me, about how poor he is and what a beautiful family he has, etc.—she did not, but might well have done had she had time. This was in a second letter. I told her that it repaid and would bear what she said in mind. I did not know what to say really, and wanted to stall a little.
Frankly I was rather amused when I had another long letter from her, in her fine spiky writing—thanks be she knows English well and is obviously a very well educated lady, and oh so devoted to Savitri whom she called her “spiritual mother.” I had asked Myriam, with whom I get on very well, if she knew her, and it seems she does, and says she is nice, “but a bit narrow minded, especially about food”—this of course we know from Savitri, and I do now from what she wrote to me.
Anyway, this was after she had had mine saying I actually had recovered the money—and now it was if anybody has a claim to the money it is SHE, with a lot about how she could prove everything she said, and telling me what I did not know, that she not only paid Savitri’s air fare from India to Munich but also was giving her a monthly allowance for some time—she told me how much she had laid out in DM, but I don’t know the currency, and anyway, I believe her as she says she can furnish all these proofs. I also think that if she has done all that she jolly well deserves to be repaid. I was amused also by her last page, saying that “In a word” she does claim it and goes on for a whole page more!
She says she does not want it for herself but only or friends like Jeanne and to help to publish the books. Well, as Myriam is going to do something about that and knows her, that is fine. I wrote at once and said that I quite agreed, and there was no reason to contact British Airways as I would send her the money at once, and she could do what she wished about it. If anybody mentioned it I would put them straight in touch with her, and they must sort it out together; I was glad to have it out of my hands, which is very much the truth; it was embarrassing.
I thought that if nobody wanted it I would add it to a bequest I have in my will to an animal welfare lady, and just leave it in the bank till I died. This, of course after the six months had gone by. But I am so bloody glad to have it off my hands. I never thought of it as belonging to me. I wrote to Colin Jordan and told him the whole thing; he knows everybody (but not Frau Asmus, it appears) and also has good knowledge of the law and by now something more about me; he is a catalyst in this matter by reason of knowing so many people. He assured me that nobody will think anything amiss of me.
So if anybody, yourself or anybody, feels that they have any claim on it (now £217 after the bank deduction) they must write to Frau Asmus and she can do the worrying. I thought that if anybody produced any difficulty it might be she, for she is obviously a fusser, though I am sure well-intentioned and most intensely devoted to Savitri. She was very anxious to hear what the story was which Savitri told me before she died, which made us laugh so much (she is amazed that Savitri could laugh—as you were, and one or two others as well; I see now why Savitri was so fond of me—I was good for her, though she might not have realised it, because I gave he a window on another world now and then!)
I think I told it to you—about the Arab ship emptying its chamber-pot into the Greek tender at Piraeus, and the man in charge of the tender—after the row subsided—turning the cushions over so that the shit was underneath, and nobody could know what they sat in; this happened when Savitri and her mother were coming into Piraeus on her first visit to Greece. What amused me was the picture I had of the Greek row which would follow, and we recalled other Greek rows we had heard. I told Frau A. that it was vulgar and scatological but here it was anyway, and wrote it, and I shall be interested to see when she replies to me, which she presumably will any moment, what she thinks of it! She was anxious to know if Savitri said “anything significant” before she died. She certainly told that story very well and I wish had a recording of her telling it, and us laughing.
[. . .]
—You ask why I have a sticker inside my last envelope with my old address on it. It is just that I save and recycle good old envelopes as it is not easy here to get big ones, and anyway they are so dear now that I don’t see why I should waste usable ones. This is a trick I learned from Savitri’s mother—who used to do the job so well that it was indistinguishable from new till one looked inside—and an old friend of theirs in Lyons who used also to do it. It is one of those frugal French ways—and nuns also do it, or used to, in their tradition of “holy poverty.” I get lots of mail-order bumph and make use of their enclosures this way too.
My goodness, the DIARIES [referring to the forged Hitler diaries]. What a sensation, and what a business with the Sunday Times and Stern and so on. The cartoonists have had a field day, of course, and in one of the Times offices somebody put flying Hitlers on the wall like plaster ducks! What has absolutely amazed me lately is the way it is all out in the open—souvenir shops with memorabilia in Germany and all the rest of it, all suddenly assimilated into history. But when one is my age forty years ago seems like yesterday. When I realise that I was almost an Edwardian it is weird, for even to me the early years of’ the century seem far in the past. I remember two ladies in Cheadle Hulme where I grew up, who used to dress in the style of the early 1900’s—they looked so odd (circa 1920) and seemed to me like ghosts from what I thought of as olden days, having seen their likes in books and magazines which were then really only a few years old.
What I was interested in seeing reproduced was what was supposed to be among the finds with the diaries—the pictures AH submitted to try to get into art-school; but it would still be interesting to see what a faker made of them. There was a small reproduction in the Sunday Times of one of his paintings—of a very attractive church, in his usual sombre colouring, but to my mind a pretty good picture—and he did know perspective. One of these days there will probably be a huge expensive coffee-table book of them all.
One of my memories of Savitri is of her on the floor in France, drawing and painting dozens of replicas of the cover of Defiance, with endless patience. She could draw her own back-view, which takes some doing.
Defiance book cover, hand-painted by Savitri for Muriel Gantry
Another one is of her on the ferry across the Gulf of Itea, going to Delphi—at about six a.m. on a sunny midsummer Greek morning, with the light dancing on blue water and the lovely world of Greece all around—and she had borrowed a paper from somebody and was immersed in it with that enormous concentration of hers—and she suddenly remarked on some bomb she was reading about, and how many megatons went to it. Good god, I said, here we are going to Delphi on a lovely Mediterranean morning, with the glory all around us, and you read about bombs!
But we both had a grand time in Delphi, save that she wanted to leave the nice little place we found to stay in, because the landlady said she hated cats and beat them when they came around. I don’t agree with beating animals either, but I said that we were very comfortable there and tired, and we could just feed the cats while we were there and do our bit towards making them happier, which we did. Wherever one goes in Greece there are poor sad pussies, afraid of everybody.
The other day I came across her Paul de Tarse which I haven’t seen for ages, and slogged through the French. I was amused with her remark about his vision on the Damascus road, which I had forgotten: as he hadn’t ever seen Jesus, how was he so sure that the vision was of him?
[. . .] I want Mrs. Thatcher to get in again; I am not political, as you know, but I don’t want Labour in. I always remember that they wanted, some years ago, to phase out amenity beds in hospitals and make us all alike in that way too, and had I not had an amenity bed I could have been driven daft two years ago—two weeks with those chattering biddies in the main ward, never free of them night or day, and in the morning, “Neurse, Neurse, the Bed-Pan, Ow, Neurse . . .” I think general wards are an indignity, and yet so many prefer them. [. . .]
Anyway, I don’t want Labour in for other reasons; we are too much dominated by the unions as it is, strikes and strikes and grabbing; and I like being ruled by women!
If you like a laugh: here is a joke which has been around lately which I love. Two people talking: “Have you seen Gandhi?” “Yes.” “Have you seen ET?” “Yes.” (Sotto voce) “Same bloke.”
I am putting in two copies of the tribute as you will know someone who will like to have one. I must get some more done.
[. . .]
Well, I now have three problems solved, I trust; the ashes, the MSS, and the air ticket. Always glad to hear from you.
All the best from,
Monday—I have had a long and very nice letter from Frau A.—she has the money safely. Gott sei dank!
This poem came to me while I was working in the garden some days ago; I rather like it and wonder if my agent can flog it to some magazine. There is not much market for poetry, nor do I write it often—though I used to do lots of parodies. One has only to misquote this one for it to have a very different meaning and sound like Patience Strong's Quiet Corner, if you remember that from the women's mags. That I do NOT intend. Muriel Gantry's Noisy Nook is more like!
Now, when the glass can please no more,
And working days at long last end,
What years are left beyond threescore
Find me with blessed time to spend;
My castles built from more than air,
I pass my hours in chosen ways—
Strange trick of fate, to make most fair
This transient ending of my days.
3 June 1983
[. . .]
I too have never heard of this Yates person, but I have heard about these cassettes and would quite like to hear one. I had the idea of recording her while she was with me, but it was out of the question, of course. Thank you for not landing me with him on top of all the other people!—but I expect the things he wants to know would not be the kind I am qualified to answer.
I am writing to Myriam and will tell her to expect your letter. She is a very discreet person and as you know works at the French Embassy; she is interested in the sort of things I am, and about which I used to talk to Savitri (mythology, ancient religion, reincarnation and so on; she sent me some lovely pictures of Indian gods, and I want to comment on them), and she is devoted to cats. Otherwise I use my own sense and don’t ask questions. She knows Frau Asmus quite well and of course you know she wants to re-publish the books, so I hope they will be able to arrange something mutually satisfactory with that money—which I was so glad to get off my mind. I had a very nice letter from Frau A. thanking me for the money and the cassettes. She told me about Myriam (whom she calls by her other name of Viviane) visiting her and how they went to the Obersalzburg together—and so on! [. . .]
She has told me some horrifying things about how poor Savitri was living in the most awful squalor and cat dirt and smell—very much as I thought but rather worse.
[. . .]
Savitri had a friend called Peter Greenslade who was the most pleasant and courteous young man to meet one could imagine, but so weird: he had a thing about Nimrod (the Mighty Hunter)—god knows why; we used to refer to him as Nimrod when we spoke of him. I think I told you about him daubing on the walls near where I lived—as if that did anything to anybody for any cause, for god’s sake, only make a mess. And to tell me he did it!
[. . .]
All we get just now is Election, Election. I shall vote before I go away on Thursday, and I hope Maggie gets in again.
The photographs of the urn came out well and I am getting copied of them so you shall have one next time. I am also getting copies of a nice picture of Savitri taken I should think about 1940, and you can have one of those also. I have had several copies made of the ones you took of me they are very good. A pity Fetfet wriggled in the big one; her face would have looked lovely.
[. . .]
All the best from,
14 September 1983
[. . .]
Who should come to England and to visit me some weeks ago but Frau Asmus!—she was quite different from what I imagined her. I pictured a plump elderly Hausfrau, but she is slim and elegant and tall. She is a nice person and we spent a very interesting afternoon. She brought me a bottle of Liebfraumilch (it will be useful at Christmas) some nice marzipan chocs and a book about her island of Sylt; which looks a beautiful place indeed. She too agrees that Savitri became very dominating in her last days! I think we all had rather a dose of it one way and another, but I am glad I could help her at the end. Frau A. translated my tribute into German; the first time I have had anything of mine done into another language.
[. . .]
I will also deal with the interesting Mr. Yates when I return and tell him a few things such as they all like to hear. My god, she had a fan-club all right.
[. . .] We have a new series on The Winds of War. [. . .] Not a very good Hitler impersonation this time. I think there have been so many that there could be an exhibition! It is the Duke of Bedford who has the pictures, I think. Odd that he did not get accepted for art school; and odd to think that if he had history would have been written differently. Very Probably.
Mind you, I saw some years ago a reproduction of a flower painting of his about which the less said the better—but it looked like a juvenile effort and probably was, so it does not really count. The architectural ones are pretty good to my mind.
[. . .]
I will write again in fuller style.
All the best from,
11 October 1983
[. . .]
I will attend to the photographs and so on the first moment I can. I found two small (Photomaton) ones of Savitri I had forgotten about. [See illustration.] I should say circa 1928-30 and have sent them to have negatives done, so you can have one. She is doing her Earnest Student thing in them, very serious and in one intensely frowning, with the hair scraped back in the approved fashion for intellectuals—as Father wanted me to wear mine, but no thanks, not with my fat face. Frau Asmus was a bit taken aback by the blonde-haired one with the jewellery—she said she “seemed like an actress in some of her pictures.” I wish I had the nude one.
Frau Asmus claimed the air ticket money as I believe I told you. [. . .] I have all he letters from this year of happenings in one big tidy basket and am going to sort them out and classify them with all my carbon copies of my own. Then it will be easy to check what I have written. It is all most interesting really, but I am glad the hard work is over. Quite an adventure, and I am glad could do it for her at the last, after the help she was to me years ago. The Americans were very courteous and appreciative and if they did pay the ticket never said, but I have asked someone to make sure they don’t think I have got it. I took it to save it from being pinched by the Authorities, who have enough of hers anyway. I thought her relatives would have it eventually. They missed something, maybe, with not being interested.
[. . .]
All the best from,
I find I have just one 1939 photograph left. [. . .] I have a negative.
19 February 1984
I have just made the discovery that I seem not to have replied to your last and very interesting letter [. . .], dated 11th December. [. . .]
I loved the article about Tiddles of Paddington; he has been in the papers before, and I wonder how long he will last with that weight to carry round, poor sweet. Savitri would have adored him. [Tiddles was a famously fat cat (32 pounds) who lived in the ladies’ bathroom at Paddington Station, London.]
I have found a quite nice photograph of her sitting on the ground writing, and when I find the negative I will get some done, and you can all have one. I cannot recall what she was writing or where it was, but when I find the negs I may have it noted there. —As usual, oblivious of discomfort!
I had a very pretty card from the Arlington people and a nice letter. They seem to have a project of republishing Gold in the Furnace in English; I should quite like to have a copy as it is one of hers I don’t have, and it would be interesting to re-read it after so many years. I don’t recall a word of it. Frau Asmus borrowed my copy of Pilgrimage but swears she will return it; I think she will do so all right, as she did return my book, with a most interesting letter I also must reply to properly. She loved it; I thought she might be horrified by my “decadent” anti-hero, but if so she does not say so. Savitri thought he was awful for years, and in the end had to like him, for he is such a dear little man! She has done Gold in German (with the photographs) and I must say I should like to see it if I cannot really read it.
[. . .] I really know nothing about [a recent political event]! Any more than I ever did about the Spanish War when I was young and people used to march about London shouting “Arms for Spain mean Arms for Peace”—in rather shabby coats for the most part; the drabber you looked, then the more intellectual you were supposed to be, and thanks be that has died the death more or less.
[ . . .]
Always glad to hear from you. I did make a few interesting new friends with the Savitri business. Fetfet is fine.
[. . .]
[. . .]
How does Boy George go down in Germany? He seems a nice person, but I wish he would dress attractively in drag, not all that muddle.
All the best for now. Always glad to hear from you [. . .]
[. . .]
Thanks for your letter—yes, I have been very remiss in matters of correspondence lately, but you will understand when I say that I have been on a trip to Egypt, to my own surprise really, for I seldom decide on things so quickly.
I had planned a nice summer doing all the jobs round here that have been neglected so long, and enjoying the lovely weather; but then I saw in our little local free paper that the travel firm with whom I have enjoyed several good holidays were doing a ten days trip to Egypt with a Nile cruise of four days included, and I said from force of habit, “I always meant to go to Egypt before I died,” and then realised that there was nothing whatever to stop me, and I had better do it before it got too late! So I was about six weeks getting ready—I had no new summer things that had not been seen last trip, and nothing much fits me ready made (and as you know I won’t wear old ladies’ outsizes)—I made about six new dresses and bought three of the Greek crinkle cotton ones which do fit me and which don’t look old because they aren’t meant to, and an Egyptian headdress and collar to adapt my old Greek chiton to, as there was to be a fancy dress party on the cruise, and I know that no hired stuff ever fits me!
I had to get a new passport as I have not had one for years, and a visa, and have vaccinations (not compulsory, but I wanted to be safe) so that all took time.
We set off on September 4th. It was also my first time flying, for I used to be afraid to do so; but I realised that everybody I know flies and never worries, so I thought—here goes. It was absolutely delightful (once one gets aboard, as you know, and all the hanging about is done with); I was ecstatic, and when one takes off it is like the feeling one has when one is writing and the story takes over. As for flying above the clouds, in another world, it is so lovely that I could not take my eyes from the window. And as Savitri always said, one sees the map spread out below one—weird.
It was so hot in Cairo, and hotter still in Luxor, but it was all worthwhile. I saw so much, but also missed so much, as I realise more and more now I am home and re-reading all my books. They hurried us round so, but it could not be helped, and we were called at half past five a.m. and times like that, to avoid the worst of the heat—it caught up with us anyway!
We went into the tomb of King Unas, which is covered with texts instead of pictures, save for his actual tomb chamber, which is painted with hanging mats. Here among all the lines of hieroglyphs must be the phrase I adapted for Savitri’s tribute—about “the arm of the sunbeam.” I wished I could read it.
I got up the first ramp inside the Great Pyramid, but did not attempt the second, which looked rather dizzying. But I have been IN. I forgot about the museum with the boat in on the south side, nor did the guide mention it—King Khufu’s funeral boat, discovered some years ago. A pity. But one is so hemmed in by camels and touts that it is a job to cope. We had a very pleasant friendly party, nice people, and I got on well because as I do know a bit about it all I was rather respected (really!), and I liked it. We had a very good guide on the cruise, and I got on well with him; a pity we could not have time to talk more.
We went to Philae, Edfu, Kom Ombo, Karnak, the temple of Hatshepsut, Esna (where I did not go as I wanted a rest and an afternoon on the ship’s sundeck, looking at the lovely Nile in peace) and of course to the Valley of the Kings. One could spend a holiday there, seeing all the wonders, but we only saw Tut and his next door neighbour Rameses the Sixth, who has a beautiful tomb in which I should like to spend about a week, taking it all in like a great strip-cartoon. Never did I expect to meet Tutankhamen at seven-thirty in the morning. Well may you lie there, I thought. Move over.
But I have seen him and lots of things I always meant to, and I should love to go again and see more. I wish I had some friend there to base myself on and have a trip alone, going to things in my own time. But it is very difficult for a woman alone there, and I cannot see how one could have a holiday quite alone and go about as I did in the old days in Greece. It seemed so safe there, and the Greeks are so friendly and kind—and I can read the letters and get on the right bus—usually!
The party was marvelous, and my dress was a great success, and we did a play invented by our guide, as all the groups did, and we got the second prize. Because of my dress I made I had a part written in for me—or rather worked in as it was just mime—as the girlfriend of the Mayor of Aswan—we were supposed to be visions of the past appearing to American tourists on a coach, or personifications of the various places they were seeing. But you try to act with an amateur who can’t! and ad-libbing at that. But I did my best, and all went off well, and we had beautiful prizes. The man who had to act the Unfinished Obelisk of Aswan Quarries was a scream.
Coming home I sat on the wrong side of the plane and so missed Crete, alas. There was a film on, of all things, as we crossed the Mediterranean, and as most people were watching it, I could not get up and go over, and our people were saying “Where’s Muriel—she ought to see this.” That was a great disappointment. But seeing the French Alps from the air was so wonderful it made me cry. The most beautiful sight, unreal and magnificent. I should like to be able to tell Savitri all, about it and hear her opinions. Two years on the 22nd since she died, as you will know)
Then soon we dived into a dirty duvet of cloud lying on the sky ahead, and underneath was England, green and clean and lovely, and so tidy after the sprawl of Cairo and Egypt generally. We are very fortunate in our pretty English village.
I had planned to be on deck as we drew near Luxor, and see the temples coming towards me—that was the very moment when masses of water began to come out of the lavatory pan in my cabin! So I had to wait in frustration while two men took the whole pan out and eventually go down to dinner and see what I could as I went. When was a child the very name of Luxor was an excitement, as I read about the Tutankhamun discoveries—I was just nine, the right age to appreciate it all. Luxor is actually a rather pleasant place generally, and the museum is beautiful and well-arranged, which is more than can be said for the Cairo Museum.
That has not been redecorated or tidied up or modernised since I don’t know when; the Tut things are so drably displayed, on what looks like the original linings to the very dingy glass cases, with what I am sure are the original 1923-33 labels, faded and in some cases missing. All right for me, who knows what it all is, but unfair on those who don’t. It seems so wrong; there is a mass of wonderful things, all that huge building full of miracles, and all so badly displayed, compared to our British Museum and others, and even the Luxor one, which is magnificent.
But I managed a whole day there, save for the inevitable long break at midday, and found a lot or what I wanted to see, including the coffin which when Savitri wrote A Son of God was thought by most people to be that of Akhnaton, but which is now considered more likely to be Smenkhkara’s. “Smenkh,” as Savitri used to call him for ease, was the young man (probably Tut’s brother) with whom Akhnaton appears to have set up a homosexual relationship after he had a row with Nefertiti: he gave him Nefertiti’s other name of Neferneferuatan, set him beside him as co-ruler (it appears) and the body in the coffin was mummified in the position generally used for a woman, but it is certainly a young man. So what? All very odd. But all about the Amarna family is weird.
[. . .]
But it was all worth the tiredness and heat and backache, and I would like to go again in cooler weather, with more time.
[. . .]
Frau Asmus sent me a lovely postcard of the Externsteine last June and I owe her a letter too, also Myriam who wrote to me the other day. I can only plead that my life got suddenly full. How fast the years go by; summertime ends this weekend and it only seems a few weeks since the clocks went forward.
The cat cuttings are very nice; thank you. The Egyptians were indeed fond of cats in antiquity, and when the Romans were fighting them once they carried cats before them so that the Egyptians dared not fire on them for fear of killing the pussies. But HOW did they get the cats to stay put? I can see the clawing and struggling and the yowling.
It is a pity that the modern inhabitants do not take a leaf from the ancient books. The poor cats are starved, and I saw only three the whole ten days, two terrified, and one at the airport (Luxor) who was friendly, but so thin it was heartbreaking. If I lived there I would take food out as Savitri did—she and I used to do so in Grecce, and give it to the cats we met. And the poor dogs round the Pyramids at Sakkara and in the Valley of the Kings, with beautiful faces like Anubis, thin and starved but so ready to be friends to get some food. Dear little things, lying in the sun in what holes they can find in the sand.
I don’t often take much notice of children, but I never saw such beautiful ones as the Egyptian kids. Lovely doe-eyes and golden skins, and such nice manners even where they are begging But Moslem kids are very polite—they are too strictly treated to be otherwise, I think. It is the same over here now.
—Talking about Moslems over here—in Oxford Street I saw, a few weeks ago a Moslem woman sitting on the pavement with her baby on her lap and a box near her for a begging bowl, openly begging from the crowd. I wonder how long that lasted before she was seen and run in or told to move on.
I have not beard any news about any of the people you are interested in. If and when I do I will, tell you. There is supposed to be an English translation [sic: edition] of Gold in the Furnace one of these days.
When I watched all the lovely places from above as we flew I thought—ye gods, there are those who would destroy our beautiful Planet Earth for their ideologies—so many different ones, and so many people who reckon they would be willing to see the end of the world as we know it so as to rebuild it their way. I am afraid that I am quite content to keep the beauty and let everybody think as they like. The world is a very wonderful thing seen from a distance like that.
[. . .]
It is 1:30 a.m. so good-bye for now.
This must be short as I am trying hard to get all my cards and letters done before the last moment. [. . .]
I often wonder what became of Savitri’s other friend Peter Greenslade who we nicknamed Nimrod as he always said he was “interested in Nimrod” and it was difficult to tell just why. He was the one who told me he would like to have an electric fire made with the element in the shape of a swastika, so that he could sit in the dark with it and put himself into trance! Mind you, it would be rather a nice-looking fire and one could adapt the idea, to other interesting shapes. I would quite like one like a double Axe of Crete, or the Egyptian ankh, or anyone who wished to have a Christian cross could do that also. I do have a small electric bulb for a nightlight with a cross in it—a Catholic thing I acquired years ago—and it looks rather pretty—though I don’t use it. But Greenslade was weird, though a most polite and charming young man to meet.
I remember plodding through dark and fine rain one night to contact him for Savitri—that was when she came to Newhaven with nine untidy packages, some of them shedding bug-powder, and they would not let her land—oh, the hysterics over the telephone, and the arguments—I think I told you all about it. And she had to go back to France after all—she had come from India then with this awful luggage. I was genuinely fond of her, but really, she could be a trial, and I doubt I could cope as well nowadays. I am laughing as I write to recall those bundles on the landing stage at Newhaven. The idea was that if she gave Greenslade Junior lessons she would be allowed to stay in England till her French job came up, and it only made things more muddled. They could quite well have let her in as she was going to stay with me. But no. The job materialised and she had it for years—the French one.
However, this must be all for now. Just a funny story I read in the Sunday Express which you might enjoy:
Lord George-Brown was attending a grand function in South America., and asked a resplendent figure in purple robes to dance with him. “No, I will not dance with you,” was the reply, “First, because you are drunk. Secondly, because this music is the National Anthem. Thirdly, because I am the Papal Nuncio.”
[. . .]
I don’t know whether I agree with Lord George-Brown’s ideas as I can’t remember ever reading them, but the idea of him whirling round with the Papal Nuncio is marvellous.
Fetfet is fine. Have a good Christmas.
[. . .]
I have an invitation to Athens from an old friend [Marika]—the one who sent the lovely photograph of Savitri. I thought she was far too old to endure visitors now—at 91!—so later I must try to do something about it. [. . .]
I had a beautiful card in the summer from Frau Asmus, with a picture of the Externsteine and a long German poem underneath I was hoping she might translate for me one day; one does not have to follow any ideology to find the Externsteine fascinating, and I should love to read some account of it by a totally unprejudiced archeologist. I am always hoping it might come up on TV on some programme.
As you know, I became completely involved in getting ready for Egypt, and I realised later that I had not replied to her, and thought she must have take offense about it. I wrote a nice letter at Christmas—now I re-read it, it is a very nice one indeed, all about the things in Egypt which recalled Savitri to me, and even if she was vexed I should think that would explain things. (You know how these old schoolmistresses can get—well, uppity about that they think a breach of good manners.) And after all, I DID do an awful lot some time ago which not everybody would have troubled about, and that good cover of Gold in the Furnace is due to my efforts in a great deal!
[. . .]
[. . .]
Frau A. [Asmus] and Marika in Athens met this autumn and they would have lots to talk about!
I enclose the photographs of Savitri I have been looking for for ages. I can’t remember where this is, but it’s almost certainly France—it must be, as it was taken with my old box camera in 1950. Just like her, scribble, scribble in complete obliviousness of all discomfort!
Thanks for your letter and photo and very pretty card. [. . .]
As you will know it was 5 years on October 22 since Savitri died. I wrote (as promised) to the French Consulate in London to see if they would release her things to me as the 5-year wait was over; they wrote saying they would give the matter their attention and let me know, or words to that effect; I have heard nothing as yet and don’t propose to make a fuss as I might make them curious. There is nothing of any value save Frau Asmus’ books which I said I would try to get back for her. Actually it will save a lot of bother, going to town to have the suitcase back, etc., if they refuse, but I shall keep my word and do my best. I have written to Frau Asmus and told her.
[. . .]
[There is no record of the French Embassy’s answer or the ultimate fate of Savitri’s personal possessions.]