I had the great pleasure of meeting Polly Devlin this week. The Irish writer has a new book out, just published, which is a collection of her writings from throughout her life.
Writing home is a glorious serendipitous mix of material ranging from the fierce history of the Devlin clan and the treacherousness of Irish bogs to life as the features editor of Vogue in London in the Swinging Sixties. Head-hunted by the American editor Diana Vreeland to work for her in New York, Polly writes about meeting Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Barbara Streisand, John Lennon and Yoko Ono but also about the instantly relatable – the joys and frustrations of motherhood and the fulfilment of a lifelong desire to sleep outside in the open (‘I hadn’t known about dew. I thought dew was a light misting …’)
One of the impressions I get very clearly from Writing Home is that Polly remains true to herself and unaffected by power and status.
Writing home to her sister, describing the offices of Vogue in London, where she landed a job at 19 by winning a competition, she is impressed, but not overawed. ‘Think of the shapelessness of home (Ardboe, Northern Ireland) and what shines there; the sun on the lough, the reflection of a brass harness on a horse’s neck, the gleam of leaves in the chestnut tree. Here, it’s the arc lights in the studio, the shine on the pearls that nearly all the girls wear, the gleam on their faces, the sheen on a satin ball dress … I feel very atavistic somehow, as if I were wearing a shawl.’
Photographs below: Polly in the Sixties; Writing Home book cover; Polly in a recent photograph taken by Jonathan Goldberg
When she met Princess Margaret it was not a grand occasion, but a small informal dinner at her own flat. Her then boyfriend Andy (later her husband) was a close friend of Tony Armstrong-Jones. The evening was ‘an unmitigated disaster’ she says. ‘They arrived in a little Mini and the first thing was: I didn’t curtsy. I wish I could say it was because of my integrity to my republican sentiments but the truth is I didn’t know I was supposed to curtsy … so I had a black mark against me from that moment on’.
Princess Margaret. She says, was ‘a madam’. I’m sure she now knows how to behave in whatever strata of society she finds herself, in several continents, (she curtsied to the Queen when she received her OBE for Services to Literature in 1992) and she’s acquired a liking for good champagne and a fair amount of wealth along the way, but she seems unaltered by rubbing shoulders with the great and famous. She retains a very clear voice that is her own and when you meet her, comes across with a directness and honesty which is immensely refreshing.
Maybe it was the two years having weekly lunches with Diana Vreeland so Polly could channel the London youth zeitgeist which gave her confidence: ‘I had absolutely no idea; but terror … loosened my tongue, and a fair few of the items in that famous Vogue column ‘People Are Talking About …’ sprang straight from my crazed verbal inventions as I sought to unclamp my teeth from a piece of pastrami without her noticing’.
Photographs below: Polly with daughters Rose, Daisy and Bay
She’s also a fantastic writer. She manages to convey a huge amount with a few well chosen words, so that after reading her book I feel I know her intimately and like her tremendously.
She admits to vulnerability. One searing entry is about having been abused as a child. She doesn’t remember it but found out many years later that the STD infection she suffered from all her young life could only have been caused by penetration. She realized then why she had been profoundly miserable for many years, despite the gilded career. She had suffered from anorexia as a young woman and her abuser had done such terrible physical damage to her that she had to have her children by caesarean.
The chapters weren’t designed as an autobiography. Her publisher, Pimpernel Press, asked if they could publish a collection of her writings. It was her good friend Carmen Callil, founder of the Virago Press, who suggested she arrange them chronologically, so they hang together as a memoir.
Her comments on the famous people she interviewed are revealing an insightful. ‘I once watched Estee Lauder – there was a piece of work – test new aftershaves for men; there was a cross-looking Frenchman there who I think had concocted the smells. Every time La Belle Dame Sans Merci uncorked a bottle, his face contorted with anxiety. After a few sniffs she announced ‘This is the only possible one, the rest smell of soap. I want sex.’ You never saw a happier Frenchman.
She says she ‘hated’ interviewing. She actually abandoned an interview with Ursula Andress because she was so banal. Talking to her in the back of a Rolls Royce en route from Heathrow to fit in with the actress’s busy schedule, by the time they reached Chiswick, Polly had had enough. She got out at the traffic lights at Hogarth roundabout and walked off.
Some interviewees of course she admired: ‘Janis Joplin, I adored her’ … ‘John Osborne was the most wonderful talker’ … ‘Barbara Streisand was a fantastic phenomenon, she was just rude’.
At 78 she says she’s now given up writing, although she finds it ‘as easy as a cow pissing’ and still responds to desperate entreaties from long term editors with gaps to fill. Her husband, whom she loved for 50 years, died a few years ago after a dreadful illness which meant he had to have both feet amputated. She still teaches writing in America though she spends most of her time here at her beautiful home in Bedford Park, as she wants to cherish the time with her six grandchildren.
Who does she admire in journalism now? Marina Hyde and Hadley Freeman in the Guardian “I think they’re two of the wittiest writers around”.
And what does she think of living in Chiswick? “Love it. I love walking down Turnham Green Terrace, chatting to the guys in Wheelers and meeting people in the street. I love the village atmosphere and I love the new benches. Who do I admire? Karen Liebreich (who organised the new benches by the railway bridge in Turnham Green Terrace). Philanthropist, genius, she ought to be a Dame. Write that.”
Photographs below: Polly in her garden at Bedford Park and inside the house, with her dog Queenie