Page last updated at 17:37 GMT, Friday, 26 February 2010

When my mother was also painted gold...

Goldfinger, with Sean Connery and Shirley Eaton
Head-to-toe gold paint doesn't, in fact, kill


A trip to the cinema to see Goldfinger prompted a memory of also wearing little more than gold paint. A tale often retold, but why didn't my mother write down her stories before it was too late, writes Lisa Jardine.

My mother Rita trained as an artist, and was a sculptor (in wood and stone) at the time I was born. By the standards of the 1950s and 60s when I was growing up, she was flamboyant, unconventional, and bohemian.

As young adults, my three sisters and I would beg to be entertained by her stories about what life was like when she was young.

One of our favourites was the story of how, in the early 1930s, she was the crowning glory on top of a float at the Chelsea Arts Club ball, held in the Albert Hall.

Chelsea Arts Parade
Fleeting memories of the Chelsea Arts Club are a mother's legacy

She was a student at St Martin's School of Art, to which she had gone on a scholarship at the age of 14 - skipping any further conventional schooling, which her intellectually aspiring Jewish immigrant family would have preferred.

The first time she told us this story, as I recall, was in 1964, when we had just seen the James Bond movie, Goldfinger.

In it, an unfortunate minor love interest of Bond's is discovered by the film's villain to have been sleeping with the enemy. She is murdered by the bizarre expedient of painting her naked body head to toe with gold paint - thereby supposedly asphyxiating her.

"Nonsense," snorted my mother. "I was naked except for a g-string and painted from head to toe in gold paint, and did not suffer any adverse consequences at all.

Lisa Jardine
A Point of View, with Lisa Jardine, is on Fridays on Radio 4 at 2050 GMT and repeated Sundays, 0850 GMT
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"Just as well," she went on. "I had no idea that once the parade of floats had circled the hall, the ball-goers would set upon them and tear them to pieces. As our float disintegrated beneath me, I had to leap from the top of it into the arms of a fellow student, to avoid crashing to the floor."

Stories like this one shaped my own confidence in myself as I grew up. They encouraged me to be bold. They reassured me that you did not have to be entirely conventional to succeed in life. They challenged my teenaged views of what was appropriate for a studious, ambitious, headstrong girl to attempt.

My mother never wrote down her beguiling tales, and neither did we.

Terrible trick

My mother is now a frail 92. I am spending this week with her in Los Angeles, where she lives with one of my sisters. She is in good health - as good as one can expect at such a great age - and still able to get around, although she is unsteady on her feet and prefers a wheelchair now when we go out.

A consummate raconteur who could hold listeners spellbound at any party, time has played a terrible trick on my mother - it has deprived her of any memory much beyond the interval between meals

She enjoys the warmth of the California sun, watching the waves breaking lazily on the Pacific shore, or instructing me which dead flower heads to cut off in the garden where she loves to spend time.

But these days she lives entirely in the present. A consummate raconteur who could hold listeners spellbound at any party, time has played a terrible trick on her.

It has deprived her of any memory much beyond the interval between one meal and another. Names entirely elude her.

The situation is particularly poignant for me because I have recently embarked on the research for a memoir about my father, Jacob Bronowski.

I was prompted to do so by discovering last year in a cupboard - while moving my mother from her home of almost 40 years in southern California - a box containing the diaries my father kept from the 1930s until his death, and a bundle of letters written by him to my mother at the end of World War II.

He had been sent to Japan, in the aftermath of the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as a lead member of a team of British and American scientists and statisticians.

Strategic Bombing Survey picture of Hiroshima in 1945
A photo of Hiroshima taken for the US Strategic Bombing Survey

It was a military mission - the continuation of work he had done during the war on strategic bombing with the Operational Research unit in the British Ministry of Home Security and the Joint Target Group in Washington.

His team's task was to assess the damage to buildings - especially Western-style buildings - caused by the two atomic bombs dropped by the Allies six months earlier.

Communication was difficult. In the entire three months he was away, only three letters from my mother reached my father - none at all while he was actually in Japan. Nevertheless, he wrote almost daily.

These letters give me a tantalising glimpse of my father's feelings faced with the two devastated cities, and the difficulties in executing the task he had been set.

They also allow me to listen to him sharing those experiences with his young and much-loved wife, left to cope on her own back home, with a toddler and a babe-in-arms - myself and my sister Judith.

He already, he wrote, found the eerily empty wasteland caused by saturation bomb-damage to Tokyo disturbing.

Tokyo in 1945
His papers recall a ruined Tokyo

"Tokyo itself is simply a ruin; the devastation goes on for mile after mile, all burnt down flat with no horizon but a few concrete houses & factories. The impression is quite different than, say, Hull, because there is no rubble to speak of; what is burnt has left no trace but the corrugated roof sheeting, which has often been knocked together to make a new little home - if you can call it that."

Still, that did not prepare him for Nagasaki. A day after his arrival there, he described his first impressions.

"The ruin is beyond description; I have seen nothing so terrible before; even the little mounds of bones where they have burnt the bodies found in the rubble are not an index of it. It is not worse than Tokyo in appearance, of course (except for the tangled buildings pushed askew), but in one's awareness that all this happened within seconds, not hours."

His diary for the same period tells me he "visited Omura hospital and casualties". He did not mention these to my mother.

As an antidote for such horrors, he described to my artist mother the beauty of the landscape surrounding the devastated cities.

"I still feel that Kyushu, the southern island on which Nagasaki stands, is most beautiful because of its mountain wildness gashed with blue bays; but I was surprised to find Hiroshima, which I knew to be flat, in fact surrounded by high and lovely hills, like all Japanese hills wooded thickly to the very crown."

Pen and paper
Letters and diaries tell stories no longer remembered

I learned too from his diary that he was reading War and Peace when off duty. He finished it on the return journey to Washington.

My father wrote only a little about that trip - apart from the classified documents he filed shortly after his return. He never mentioned it to us children at all, as far as I can recall.

How I wish, then, that I could talk to my mother about those days: what it felt like to receive those spare, intense communications, with their dark hints at what he was witnessing; how much she already knew about the bombings; what else he told her once he got home.

"We have seen so much of the squalor, we find pity rather indifferent," he writes in one letter, towards the end of his assignment.

I am too late. After more than 30 years preserving my father's memory, she no longer recalls that she had a husband, or at least cannot recall clearly who he was.

Nothing could bring home to me more sharply the importance of memory for history. Nothing more strongly reminds me of the responsibility those of a historical temperament have to document and record events in the present as they unfold, lest future generations forget.

Holding hands
Still here, but not fully present

When my mother was in her 80s and visiting my family in London, I took her one evening to the Chelsea Arts Club, where photos of those flamboyant and bohemian balls in the 1920s and 30s still hang on the walls.

Together, over dinner, we entertained a group of friends with the story of her starring role dressed only in gold paint, all those decades earlier. She chipped in constantly to correct me, or to add a further wonderful and funny detail, her eyes sparkling with delight at the recollection.

How much better that story of hers with which I started was for her lively interventions. In fact, in the telling of it here, I have probably left out the very best bits. But alas, although she is still here with me, she is no longer able to fill in the gaps.

Below is a selection of your comments.

What a wonderful, poignant story. I watched Lisa Jardine's father's Ascent of Man programme as a teenager and have admired him greatly ever since. I didn't realise what else lay behind that passionate appeal of his to reconsider our inhumanity. Who could be surprised that behind this great man was a marvellous woman.
Paul Joseph, London, UK

My mother has kept a diary on me since I was born, and I find it fascinating reading (I'm now 25). However, she has never written down her family history - landed gentry in Ukraine at the turn of the century, everything taken away during WWI and the men serving in the Imperial Army in Vienna; family reduced to village farmers, then my grandad being taken to a labour camp in Germany during WWII; after liberation turning up on the wrong day, missing the boat and ending up in the UK instead of the US; making munitions for the Korean War in the factories in West Yorkshire...
I keep encouraging her to write it down, especially since both her parents have now passed away and sooner or later, she too will forget.
Catherine, Switzerland

Reliving grand experiences off the cuff appears to be a much more satisfying pass time for people in their twilight years. Formally sitting down to undertake some methodical process to comprehensively record the details inevitably raises numerous questions regarding the exact circumstances. But many of these peripheral details will no longer be clear, which then leads to uncertainty and frustration. A trillion exotic and fascinating memories have now been forever lost in time.
Andy M, Monaco

The painted in gold story is interesting but more poignant are the references of her husband's findings in Japan. We hear much about the holocaust in Europe and the loss of life and suffering thereafter. But it is a pity that these and other recollections are not aired more for this and future generations to understand the consequences of nuclear warfare. When doing my National Service in the 50s we were shown films to demonstrate the areas from the epicentre, and how they would be affected. Today's generation merely reads about various countries gaining this technology but has no real understanding of the devastating effects that, in the wrong hands, could be unleashed. It could be a beneficial reminder to all if we were reminded now and again as to what could unfold given certain circumstances. Finally I feel much compassion for Lisa in seeing her mother, Rita, unable to remember the past but hope she is at least happy. She sounds like a great character and I am sure her children have benefitted enormously in their upbringing.
John McClelland, Worcester Park, England

As an amateur genealogist, I too am thwarted by the older generation losing its most precious possessions, their memories. I'm finding a treasure trove of photos and films, but with no names, dates or details and no-one to assist me labelling them. I empathize and sympathize with Lisa Jardine. Please, write down or record all your memories and label all your photos. Memories are too precious to lose.
Juliejohn W Knott, Burke, VA

Is Lisa Jardine aware of the spread of the hobby of scrapbooking? Tens of thousands of us up and down the UK ( and abroad) are busy documenting both the everyday and the significant events through the wonderful, creative means of scrapbooking.
Margo, Glasgow

My late grandmother on my father's side married a man who was an official under the last White Rajah in Sarawak. I remember listening enthralled to her stories and was thrilled when she gave me some of her precious photographs of the time she spent there in the 1930s, all with notes on the back. My siblings were never interested in her stories and I often think how much they missed. Only yesterday, I was going through some old papers and I found a story she had written of the time she had first arrived in Sarawak. It took me right back to sitting in her living room listening to her tell me of a life so different from my own. We should all encourage our parents and grandparents to tell us their stories and write them down. They might not all be as exotic or glamorous as my grandmother's stories, but they are all interesting and help to tell us who we are and where we come from.
Christina, Parkstone

Many old people find that they can still recall distant events while not remembering the day-to-day things. My late mother-in-law, who was a distinguished scientist in her day, would often regale the family with tales of her time in India before, during and after the war, but would have frustrating lapses of memory about the ordinary things of life. I have already followed Lisa Jardine's advice to write everything down for my children, and have recently had a book published on my wife's and my experiences of living in several interesting parts of the world. It may prove not to be of much general interest, but at least our children and grandchildren will know what we were fortunate enough to experience.
Melvin Hurst, Kuwait

Both of my parents were Nisei - second generation US citizens of Japanese ancestry. When the US finally entered WWII, they and their families were given a week to dispose of their farms (my mother's in Southern California, my father's in Washington state), equipment, livestock, pets and all personal possessions that could not be crammed into a suitcase. They were sent away from the Pacific coast to concentration camps in desolate and inhospitable parts of the interior of the country solely because they looked like the enemy. Like many of that generation, my parents didn't speak much about hardships. Add to that the Japanese culture of reticence and the lingering shame of victims, and we just knew that "camp" was a topic to avoid. My father died in 1992 at 68 of cancer. I heard him mention to his doctor that he had always had a fear of cancer. It wasn't till years later that I discovered a possible reason. In going through my father's things, I came upon something inexplicable. I knew that he had come from behind the barbed wire and machine gun towers of Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming to join the army of the very government that had imprisoned him. He went to the Pacific Theater. Under a tattered silk Japanese flag, wrapped in a small piece of tissue paper and crammed into a plastic sandwich bag, I found a Bronze Star. The "V" on the ribbon stands for valour, which makes it a combat award, but he never mentioned anything about receiving the third highest military medal. Further inquiry failed because a fire at the National Personnel Records Center destroyed records for WWII GIs. Piecing together what I can, there is strong evidence that my father was in the Luzon Campaign in the Philippines and, following Japan's surrender, was stationed in Nagoya with the 25th Infantry Division. I believe he was one of the "Atomic Veterans" - so-called because of their unprotected exposure to lingering radiation. This is why I believe my father had a lifelong concern about cancer. I wish I knew. I wish I had refused to be an obedient son and instead asked more questions and demanded more answers.
I truly understand your anguish regarding your mother and I wish you will be able to find your peace. I know for myself that my answer has been to document what I know, record what I suspect and take the time to talk to everyone. As I am doing right here.
David Kumagai, Long Beach, California US

What a wake-up call to all of us to listen and record what we can of our parents past. My wife and I both had the forethought to record one of our parents on video several years ago. There are still times when I think of a question to ask of my mother, and feel the frustration of not having asked it earlier. Entering my 70s, I'm determined not to leave my children and grand-children uninformed.
Peter Bradford, Maryland, US

I too regret not listening to my late father who was always "rambling on" about his 25 years in the army. I only 20 when he had his big stroke that took away his mobility, determination and pride. His father was a cobbler from Malta I believe, his mother a local lady from Luton. He joined the army in 1930 at the age of 15 by lying about his age; took part in the second day of the Normandy landings; prisoner of war captured by the Germans; seen action in Malta & Palestine & mapped for the army in Malaysia. All that's left are two exercise books he tried to write after his stroke and which are very hard to read but not impossible. How I wished I had been a good listener then, as I am now, helping to look after my husbands' parents both who have vascular dementia. My mother is still moderately young, born in 1940. Her grandfather had owned a big ice factory in Malaysia and many houses, but most was lost during 20+ years of family wrangling. Hopefully one day before it's too late, I will get to hear all her wonderful stories.
Genevieve Vickery, Bristol, England

Experience shows we should take time to ask parents and grandparents about their past before it's too late. Behind just a few anecdotes my father told almost too often, I discovered a story of bomb disposal in the extreme conditions of Malta in World War II which became a published book.
Sam Hudson, Herne Bay England

I have spent much of the last two years trying to research, record and preserve my family history. My search started with a story handed down through several generations, a story which ultimately turned out to be largely exaggerated, if not entirely false. I quite understand Ms Jardine's frustration at the loss of knowledge and experience which inevitably occurs with the loss of a person and their memories. How much easier my own research would have been had all my ancestors recorded everything in diaries. We live in a privileged age, where recordings of all sorts - CDs, DVDs and books - abound. But for all that, I wonder if we haven't lost the skill of listening and appreciating the moment. Rita Coblentz did, after all, give her daughter and others her stories and they are remembered. The answer to the question, "Why didn't she write them down?" is almost certainly "Because she didn't want to." We are not entitled to the memories and experiences of others. They are gifts and it is our responsibility to pay attention when they are given.
Leslie Knoop, Woking, Surrey

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