Vanessa Branson, author of “One Hundred Summers”
“What’s your definition of wisdom?” asks Vanessa with her long legs crossed over the arm of the wicker chair in front of the Aga. She is a picture of gorgeousness in her silk robe, straight blond hair and a cup of tea in her hand. It’s a serious early morning inquiry. Something obviously on her mind. She caught me off guard even if I am someone who has “lived”. “Knowing how to be with what is”, I said definitively. Thinking it was great to start the day with such a provocative question, yet one I wasn’t quite prepared to answer. We both agreed that being able to see the big picture was important.
Phoebe, her spaniel wanted in and out of the big French doors where we were sitting. The conversation went on with similar yet different points of view. The kettle steamed. One American wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve and the other English, having been taught to keep things close to the breast. Yet that unfailing smile of hers telling so much about the strength of a person who has seen a lot. I had met her mother the day before. Eve, with the twinkling eyes and inimitable spirit, has done so much with her Eve Branson Foundation for girls education in Morocco. At 94, she still travels and talks about “her girls”.
Vanessa spoke at length about her father and his travel in north Africa during WW2. My father landed in Casablanca in 1943 as well, on to Sicily and then to Napoli. Her father had also landed in Anzio. We both knew the significance of the Anzio Beach Head story, and had heard it since we were both children. It was a rare coincidence to realize our fathers had similar paths and similar influences on our love for both Morocco and Italy, even though from two different countries. Apples fallen had seeded new trees. I haven’t found that with anyone else.
It was kind of Vanessa to invite me down to her country house to spend a few days. I was transitioning from India to Marrakech. Sometimes I am homeless and live three feet off the ground between countries. Italy was a “no fly zone”. I caught her at a good time with no plans, an out-breath of relax after writing her memoire, “One Hundred Summers” to be published this May. Going to the country was not only refuge from London, but also the coronavirus, but not really. Hysteria was mounting. It’s like where were you when..? Or shall we say the pandemic was sweeping the globe and destroying economies in a flash and even maybe our own. Mass hysteria is never pretty and its usually over-exaggerated. And yet, the Aga was calling no matter what, always warm, in the moment and comforting.
It’s important to stick together during these times. To cook together, share a meal or a cup of tea. One-on-one we seem to comfort each other and think things aren’t so bad and will be ok. Alone sometimes we get whipped up in ‘what if’ doomsday fears.
Vanessa and I met a few years past at Jnane Tamsna, a private guesthouse in Marrakech. We bonded over matters of the heart. A year later, we met again at the opening of MACAAL, the first Museum of African Contemporary Art on the continent. She asked me what I was up to, I told her I was going to Berber Lodge to write. She asked if she could come too, that she was working on a memoire. It was an impromptu gathering. Before we knew it, two writers sat drinking red wine in front of the fire of a mud house, writing away. The next day, Vanessa wrote under the big tree outside. By evening, she had an important chapter to read. It took my breath away as I sat listening and easily brought tears to my eyes.
She kicked my butt at yoga and crossword. I have new goals. We walked the 100 acre wood and I got a sense of Vanessa’s private life~ not the owner of El Fenn, not the founder of the Marrakech Biennale, nor the sister of Richard. I got to see the woman who cares for trees, water management, sustainable living and who would do anything for her family. She’s an incredible women who can take care and easily entertain herself, cook on an Aga and can drive in the rain. We walked the periphery of her land in a blustery wind as she does often, knowing every inch of it as she has for 20 years. Her entire house is a story, filled with color and light and copious art. It was a place for her children to live free and ride their bikes to the sea and have B B Q’s out of the shed with the blue door. And me? I felt very cared for ~ a random friend~ “ who always turns up at the right time”. I would like to think that I am that cosmically punctual.
I can’t wait to read this love story of her family. “ Taking the reader on a journey from the dying embers of Edwardian England, through the trauma of two world wars, the hedonism of London in the 1980s and ‘Cool Britannia’ in the 1990s right up to the present day,One Hundred Summers is a portrait of a century as it was experienced by one extraordinary family.”
Having heard her read it herself, I look forward to hearing her audio tape. If you pre-order a book, it helps the ratings. If you leave a review, even better. Stay tuned for a writing retreat at Eilean Shona, her island in Scotland . It’s the 100th anniversary of where J.M.Barrie wrote Peter Pan. We’ll forage, cook and write. 2021. And yes. I am inspired to write my own book.