Nicky Haslam: my two absolutely fabulous girlfriends

Brigid Keenan and Lyndall Hobbs were both funny and famous in Swinging London — and their delightful memoirs of the Sixties reflect this

4 June 2016

9:00 AM

4 June 2016

9:00 AM

Full Marks for Trying: An Unlikely Journey from the Raj to the Rag Trade Brigid Keenan

Bloomsbury, pp.208, £16.99, ISBN: 9781408852279

A Girl from Oz Lyndall Hobbs

Hardie Grant Books, pp.336, £20, ISBN: 9781742708669

Many years ago, working on a project in Tel Aviv, I had a meeting-free weekend. I know, I thought, I’ll call my friend Brigid Keenan — at that time en poste to Syria with her ambassadorial husband — and nip up to Damascus — so close, only that smidgen of Lebanon in the way. I dialled Brigid’s number.

There were many odd whirrs and pings and beeps, and then, ‘Don’t ever call me’. Slam! It was an unexpected reaction from a voice I’m accustomed to hear burble merrily on about how last night their diplomatic reception was brouhaha’d because the dog puked on the First Lady of Baku’s shoes, or the joy of discovering a pink sandstone temple half buried in some hidden Kazakhstan valley, or tracking down Marmite in Outer Mongolia. Brigid is rarely at a loss for an anecdote, and never, bar this silenced telephone, for an audience.

I had to wait until we next met for her to explain that the international lines, particularly those from Israel, were, even in those far-off and palmier-seeming days, routinely bugged: but, had I managed to make it to Damascus, I would have been treated to a torrent of the highly comic and wildly improbable situations this most practical of diplomats has defused and delighted in, over her long career — many of which she has described in other enchanting books. This, her latest, looks further back: to her childhood, and to becoming, when barely in her twenties, the first star of fashion journalism at the very start of its sudden shoot into youthquake. It was a rollercoaster ride with minimal coasting.

Born in India to parents who had long held important positions in the army hierarchy, Brigid grew up in aya- and syce-staffed residencies during the last rays of that sullied sunset, though kept unaware of her father’s letters from the Northern Front. These provide, even now, blood-curdling witness to an empire’s death throes. Uprooted by partition, the Keenans were summarily dismissed from India back to bleak England, with four children, no pension, no home and penniless. Aged relations took them in, in parochial Fleet: her father found work mucking out on a distant farm, her mother mucking in with meagre rations of the food, which to them was ‘foreign’, a far cry from luscious mangoes and saffron rice.

Somehow, without hint of grumble, and the sheer pluck and humour their daughter has inherited in spades, they turned their life around. Her mother started a kindergarten and the children excelled at school and sat in the gods at theatres. Like some twilight emblem of a past world, Mrs Keenan arranged for Brigid to be presented at the last-ever debutante court. But if parental eyes were looking in the Gotha, their daughter’s were gazing longingly at the press — the Daily Express, to be exact.

That paper, Fleet Street’s most avant-garde of its era, was in advance of the still-sluggish changes in postwar attitudes to reporting, realising that youth and young fashion was a seller. Each day, spreads of models in affordably chic dresses appeared, taken by John French, or rather by his stable of assistants —Terry Donovan, Brian Duffy and particularly David Bailey, whose rise coincided with Brigid’s innate savviness. Grander newspapers took note, and she was whisked to the Sunday Times, quickly becoming the most influential fashion editor of the decade, largely because her pages had an intellectual and humorous approach. Her ability to put voice and image on paper served her then as surely as it does in this book; the wacky trips, the encounters with the famous and infamous, the frights, the disasters, the fun, and all the merry burbling rest — and the rest is her story.

Barely a decade later, Swinging London was to have its boats rocked by another fashion firebrand. Lyndall Hobbs came from even further afield than Brigid, from Melbourne, which, thanks partly to her enchanting looks but more to sheer chutzpah, she had shaken by the scruff of its provincial neck by writing in, and appearing on, her own page in its just-established Newsday. She soon followed with a television programme, aged only 17.

On a whim and a windfall of £2,000 (yes, still pounds there, then) Lyndall took flight, arriving in London broke-ish but breathtaking. Soon her nous for the newest news made her the youngest female fashion force of the decade. She was ground-breaking (instrumental in getting Dame Edna on stage); rule-breaking (the first person we knew to take a camera to every inner sanctum, including Sandringham) and brow-beating — barging into a Murdoch editor’s office. And while too sweet-natured to be a heartbreaker, she certainly stole them away. Michael White, the impresario about to launch the Rocky Horror Show on an unsuspecting audience, was her steady throughout these London years. A love-affair with Al Pacino took her to Hollywood, where she still lives, cementing her career as an independent film-maker, as well as being life and breath for Los Angelinos. Her story bubbles with the funny and the famous (and hers are the truly famous), but also reveals less happy periods: her conquering of serious cancer, her long (eventually fulfilled) desire for children, her frequent dashes, half a world away, to care for the father she admired.

As well she might. A trained Spitfire pilot, he was captured by the Japanese almost the day war started. His letters from the south-east Asian front were upbeat: ‘Plenty of tennis and fresh air… we’re being very well treated’ — his family need not despair. Only on his return did he describe the brutal months in Changi prison and the years of slave labour on the Burma railway. In old age, he told Lyndall that not having actually fought was forever on his conscience. That guilt should be assuaged by the courage, vigour and honesty with which his daughter writes this unabashedly artless autobiography.

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