Magazine article The Spectator

Homage to Naomi

Magazine article The Spectator

Homage to Naomi

Article excerpt


by Jenni Calder

Virago, f20, pp. 340

It was on the train between Livingstone and Lusaka, in far away Zambia, that I first met Naomi Mitchison, probably in 1965. Most recently, but as long ago as 1987, I was delighted to accept an invitation to a London party in honour of her 90th birthday. She was wearing a long evening dress of a strikingly emerald green and an even more strikingly low cut. In between the first and most recent intersections of our orbits, I more than once lent her my rondavel at Shasi River School in Botswana to occupy during a stop-over on her way south through the country to the important village of Mochudi, the chiefly camp of the Bagkatla tribe. Naomi had been recognised some years before by Chief Linchwe II as both his own and the tribe's `official mother'. Quite rightly she still refers to this honour in her entry in Who's Who, though she has sadly not been strong enough to visit Mochudi since 1991. The honour is also reflected in the opening lines of a poem addressed to Chief Linchwe - `Warning to a Chief- and published along with some others at the end of an autobiographical account of her early visits to Botswana, Return to Fairy Hill:

We Royals must fear nothing, must face all, Must swim the Zambesi when the waters race to the fall.

When Naomi first met Linchwe he was still just - or anyway almost - a schoolboy. In Return to Fairy Hill she allowed herself to fancy him becoming a philosopher king, and lent him a copy of Karl Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies.

I shall come back to Botswana again, mainly at the end. But there is much else which must also be dealt with: Naomi's writing, for a start, but also her political activity, the astonishing Haldane family into which she was born, and her work in Scotland's Highlands and Islands. And that is by no means all, even if I leave out, as I shall have to for reasons of space, her contributions to the cause of feminism in general and birth control, as a founder member in the 1920s of the pioneering Birth Control Research Committee in particular.

Naomi Mitchison, as she has wished to go on being called, notwithstanding the peerage conferred on her late husband Dick, is already well into her 100th year. She will celebrate her 100th birthday on 1 November.

More prodigious than the number of her years is that of her publications. The jacket of The Nine Lives tells us that its heroine has written `over 70 books'. Her biographer offers the precise figure of 73, albeit having slightly extended the relevant category to cover pamphlets as well. There is a mass of journalism and unpublished material without counting letters. She evidently started writing for a public at an early age. Her first poems were written while she was still at preparatory school and before the death of Edward VII.

Her poetic contemporaries from those early days are thus people like Rupert Brooke, Edith Sitwell and Robert Nichols. Equally notable is the identity of the preparatory school at which her writing career started. She overlapped for a couple of years with her elder brother, Jack, at the celebrated Dragon School in Oxford. To her great regret she was not allowed to follow Jack to Eton. Her spell as a `pretend boy' ended with puberty. Jack went on to become the hugely distinguished biologist, Fellow of the Royal Society, and for many years Communist party member, J.B.S. Haldane.

Unfashionable as it may be elsewhere, I hope it is acceptable to Spectator readers to devote some space to the unusually gifted Haldane family. After graduating in medicine at Edinburgh, Naomi's father, John Scott Haldane, became Britain's leader in the study of mining gases. He even made what the 1955 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica calls a `fundamental discovery', though I wouldn't trust myself to give a clear as well as accurate account of it. But for me the prince of Haldanes is Naomi's uncle Richard, war minister and subsequently lord chancellor in successive Liberal governments after the CampbellBannerman landslide of 1905. …

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