Drawing on Age
DIANA FIRTH: FROM SARK TO LOUGHBOROUGH and the places in between
Compiled and written by Jacqui Gallon Foreword by Kev Ryan
Drawing on Age
DIANA FIRTH: FROM SARK TO LOUGHBOROUGH and the places in between
Front cover: Diana about to embark on her trip to China (circa 1992)
With thanks to Diana Firth for participating so fully and graciously in the Drawing on Age project.
DIANA FIRTH: FROM SARK TO LOUGHBOROUGH and the places in between
Published in June 2020 by Charnwood Arts Compiled and written by Jacqui Gallon Foreword by Kevin Ryan, Director of Charnwood Arts Layout design: Natalie Chabaud (Charnwood Arts) All texts, drawings and present day photographs of Diana Â© Copyright 2020 Jacqui Gallon Archive photographs: courtesy of Diana Firth All other images sourced through internet research
In Loving Memory of Kev Ryan 1957 - 2020
Kevin Ryan, CEO of Charnwood Arts since 1991, sadly passed away just before the publication of this book. All involved feel great sadness that Kev will not see this particular study, which is part of a project originally conceived twenty years ago, come to fruition. Kev wrote the foreword to this book shortly before his death and we are so grateful that he was able to do so. His death is a great loss to community arts not only here in Loughborough but in terms of national and international projects in which he was involved and so dedicated to. Thank you Kev, for conceiving and realising the â€˜Drawing on Ageâ€™ project. A further study has now been undertaken and hopefully the project will be one which continues into the future. Recording the lived experiences of the elderly is so important and this project was very close to your unlimited heart. We hope that You would be proud of what we are achieving.
“If you travel with an open heart, it is beautiful.” Diana Firth
CONTENTS Foreword by Kev Ryan Prologue Introduction Diana’s Early Years: Sark, Forever Home War and Peace: Life under German Occupation 1945-1958: Transitional Years 1958: In Search of the Midnight Sun The Munich Years: A Glimpse into the Time of the Cold War Diana: Travel Courier Diana’s Spiritual Journey Postscript
7 9 11 15 21 29 35 43 47 55 59
Dianaâ€™s travels took her all over Europe (image courtesy Mabel Amber, Pixabay).
Foreword The idea for ‘Drawing on Age’ originated from a project proposal in the early 1990s that planned to draw down stories from elderly residents of Loughborough on their memories of entertainment, hobbies and pastimes. That project never took place but was the seed for pilot work undertaken as part of the Charnwood Arts groundbreaking millennium programme ‘People Making Places’. This new approach, undertaken by local artists Val Singh and Tony Zajciw, was based around the simple idea of ‘conversational portraiture’. The process of drawing out and recording memories through dialogue, as the artists built a relationship with the sitter, was designed to contribute to the on-line galleries and stories of People Making Places. Now, nearly twenty years later and with a further iteration of People Making Places, through live projects and on-line, Drawing on Age has come of age again. With a generous grant through Marks and Spencer’s Charity of the Year scheme, artist Jacqui Gallon has worked with us to complete this first book working with Diana Firth to share some of her remarkable life. Who knows what other remarkable and untold stories exist within the living memories of other elderly local residents? Already Jacqui is working with us on a second project focused on the lives of three former workers on the Paget Estate. As we creatively enlarge the ways in which we can embrace the idea of ‘portraiture’ we hope to capture many more stories that share the lives and learning of local people. Kevin Ryan CEO - Charnwood Arts
Diana with the many diaries and journals detailing her adventures and observations over more than 50 years. 8
Prologue Drawing on Age “A human being would certainly not grow to be seventy or eighty years old if this longevity had no meaning for the human species... The afternoon of human life must have a significance of its own and cannot be merely a pitiful appendage to life’s morning.” (Carl Jung)
Immersing myself in the world of Diana Firth has been akin to discovering a treasure trove of riches. I have ‘drawn’ on age in the very literal sense of the word - as an artist, I have been able to spend time drawing Diana, a rewarding activity in itself, but the experience has been enriched because Diana has also shared her life story with me. I have ‘drawn on’ a life which has been so full and rich, learning about subjects which are new to me. Through her compelling storytelling, Diana has brought alive eras in history which I would never have found out about otherwise, and I have learnt about places which I have never visited. I have also been inspired by her inner wisdom, sense of adventure, her positivity, determination and her commitment to her very particular spiritual path. My experience with Diana has affirmed what an important contribution the elderly can make to our knowledge of the past and to our outlook on life. Behind so many doors in our neighbourhoods lie the untold stories of the lived experiences of elderly people. I feel indebted to Diana on so many different levels. I believe that Diana herself has also gained immensely from the process. Life experiences form and shape our individual identities, and we are able to know who we are as people by recalling our experiences through remembering. Through having long conversations, using maps to share her journeys and looking at dozens of photographs together, Diana has shared her memories, gifting me her life story. I feel very privileged indeed to be the recipient of this gift and to be able to share some of her memories in this book.
Introduction I first met Diana Firth in July 2018. It was a hot summer’s day and she was already in her garden awaiting Kev Ryan and myself. As Director of Charnwood Arts, Kev was to introduce me to Diana and also explain to her the ‘Drawing on Age’ project and what it would entail. Her snowy white hair, piercing blue eyes and colourful clothes immediately drew me to her. She struck me as a strong vivid personality, an indomitable sparkling will in a wiry, tough little body. There was an energy which belied her 90 years. She was immediately eager to begin telling us her life story, and I could tell from the beginning that listening to her sharing her experiences was going to be a rich and interesting journey for me. Diana settled in Loughborough after retiring about thirty years ago. She came because her younger sister, Minota, had previously come to live in the town with her husband. Unfortunately, Minota died not long after Diana arrived, a loss which she still feels deeply. Despite this blow, Diana stayed in Loughborough, forging a very independent life for herself. Now 91, Diana is still an active and vibrant member of the community and has become a well-recognised character in the town. Her whole working life was spent travelling and Diana is still fluent in five languages. She loves nothing better than meeting people from other countries and always looks forward to Monday mornings when she visits the local leisure centre to chat with the Bangladeshi ladies who meet there. Diana has an amazing, enquiring mind. She believes fervently in looking after the planet, for example, and subscribes to monthly ecological journals to keep her up-to-date on current debates. She is a member of The Friends of Queen’s Park and attends the bi-monthly meetings with a real sense of commitment. At the beginning of this project I set out to find out as much about Diana as I could in order to find out how this marvellous and intriguing person had come about. I have spent many hours talking with Diana, listening to her memories as she has shared them with me. One short book cannot do Diana’s life justice but I have tried to select certain times and events which feel like markers, rites of passage or simply precious memories in her life. Diana’s telling of certain stories also resonated with me at a personal and emotional level. Diana was so animated in her storytelling that I felt as though I was in the past with her. 11
Diana in Sun Hat
- Pastel and charcoal drawing. 12
My time with Diana has been about journeys, in both the metaphorical and literal sense. This is a recurring theme within the book. The one profound journey which applies to us all – that of childhood to old age – can only be told by a person who has reached the latter stages of his or her life. I have found Diana’s account of her journey fascinating and inspiring. This book will describe some of the threads of Diana’s life from her birth and childhood on the small island of Sark, and what it was like living under German occupation, to her later travels to other countries (a major accomplishment for a woman of her times). Diana’s spiritual journey, so integral to her life, will also be explored. These are all the threads which make up Diana’s life and which have formed her identity. The book will conclude with what I have taken from my own journey with Diana, new things which I have learnt and what I have discovered about her as a person through her memories of the past.
Note on my drawings of Diana Through each of the drawings I have tried to show a different aspect of Diana’s personality or demeanour as I have experienced her - sometimes thoughtful and serious, sometimes funny, witty, even mischievous, sometimes frail and sometimes bathing in light next to a window, sometimes all of these things. I hope overall that I show Diana as a character always complete and at one with herself.
Diana: A Steady Gaze, Charcoal
Diana’s Early Years: Sark, Forever Home “There is much more to home than shelter, home is our centre of gravity.” (Jeanette Winterson).
Diana was born on the island of Sark on 15th August 1928 in a house called ‘La Hêche’. Her only sibling, Minota, was born four years later. Sark is the smallest of the four main Channel Islands, located about 80 miles south of the English coast. According to Diana, at the time of her birth, there were just three hundred people living on the island. Sark itself is barely three miles long by half that at its widest point, a pocket-sized world that can be explored in a day or two, a factor which I am sure contributed to Diana’s lust for travel. The island, which boasts some of the most picturesque coastlines anywhere in the world, comprises two rugged fragments of land known as Big Sark and Little Sark, connected by La Coupée, a narrow isthmus, and a road that balances precariously on top of it, with 260ft drops on either side. As testament to the island’s beauty, many writers and artists have found inspiration on Sark. The poet Swinburne said of the island: “On the whole the loveliest and wonderfullest thing I ever saw.” Mervyn Peake wrote part of the epic novel Gormenghast whilst on the island, and many commentators suggest that he drew inspiration from the magical and dramatic scenery around him. This is the backdrop against which Diana spent her formative years. Diana’s wealthy parents were strict and she wasn’t allowed to play with the other children on the island lest she picked up the patois dialect spoken by most islanders. Diana was mainly looked after by a nurse who she forever called ‘Nan’. It seemed that her first years were relatively happy despite not having small friends on the island. From an early age Diana climbed down the cliffs in the warm weather with her mother to go swimming in the crystal clear water. Diana has a strong memory of her father throwing her out into the deeper water. This particular memory seems to have resonated with her very deeply and, after having spent a lot of time with Diana, the incident seemed to me like a metaphor for preparation for the very independent life which she was to lead.
Sarah Louisa Kilpack (1839- 1909), La Coupée, Sark. Oil on canvas
“The whole of Sark is three miles by one-and-a-half miles. You need to be a good climber to enjoy it.“
Diana was only five when she was sent to board at the Froebel school on the nearby island of Guernsey. Friedrich Froebel was a German educator who invented the kindergarten. He believed play to be ‘the highest expression of human development in childhood for it alone is the free expression of what is in the child’s soul.’ Diana doesn’t recall the teaching methodology in great detail but I can’t help but think that this schooling may have contributed just a little to the free-spirited Diana! Diana recalls being put on the small ferry boat by her father and making the one-hour crossing alone to Guernsey to go to the Froebel school. In the winter months, the waves could get very high but the five-year old Diana was never frightened. She had to be more or less forced from her space on top of the boat by the captain. I recall with a smile and fondness the time Diana was recounting this story to me. All of a sudden she leapt from her chair in order to enact how difficult it is walking along a small boat on rough seas. She was wearing an old ski suit at the time so the effect was even more comedic. Reaching for my camera quickly, I managed to get some very entertaining video footage! A tiny Diana in the grounds of La Hêche. Once the boat arrived at the harbour in Guernsey, Diana would be collected by her father’s chauffeur. It seems unbelievable nowadays that a small child would make such a trip alone, and I always felt deeply affected whenever Diana told me this story. On the subject of boarding schools, Diana doesn’t think they are a good idea as they deny the child of family life, but she said her experience definitely made her stand on her own two feet.
Diana was shaped by her young life as an islander. Being an islander - even an island – has comes over very powerfully to me during our time together. Living on an island, says Diana, the boats and water were all encompassing. Everything came by boat - both people and provisions - and the people of Sark would go down to the harbour whenever a boat was due in. Diana recalled meeting her first Boeing 747 as part of her job as a tour guide - having to pick ‘her’ people out of all the passengers and how this evoked meeting the boats coming into Sark’s harbour as a small child. 17
C.T. Fay. Les Autelets, Sark. Oil on Board 1934
Diana’s memories of life on Sark are vivid. On one occasion, whilst we were looking through a book about the island’s history, we came to a black and white photograph depicting Sarnian women churning butter. Diana immediately recalled her father giving her a bottle in which to shake the creamy Channel Island milk. Diana also recalled gathering Ormers - succulent shell fish found around the channel islands - removing them from the rocks in the low spring tide with the help of a long knife. Diana’s memories of her father have an added poignancy. He developed TB when she was very young and went off to Switzerland for cure. She never saw him again as he died from his illness, leaving the family penniless. Diana has often told me that Sark will always be home. She has been back many times over the course of her life but hasn’t visited for many years now. She would love to see the sea, the rocks and the boats once again, to just sit on the beach and gently look back at her early life with her sister and her parents.
Engraving, Cassell’s Family Magazine, 1878 19
Charcoal and gouache 20
War and Peace – Life under German Occupation “Right human relations is the only true peace.” (Alice A. Bailey)
The Channel Islands - comprising Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark and Herm - were the only part of Britain ever to fall under Nazi rule after Winston Churchill thought them impossible to defend. They were declared an ‘open town’ on the 15th June 1940 but no one was informed of this as the British Government did not want to invite the Germans to take the islands. The islands were demilitarised – they were essentially abandoned. The islanders were left defenceless in the face of the advancing Third Reich and feared for their lives. Almost the entire population of Alderney fled to mainland Britain. Similarly, half the people of Guernsey conducted a hurried exodus, as did one fifth of Jersey. Those who couldn’t leave or had nowhere to go braced themselves to await the enemy. Thirty-four people were killed and thirty-three were injured when three German planes bombed St Peter Port Harbour on 28th June. Within two days the German army had taken over the island. When war broke out , Diana (aged twelve) and her sister Minota were living with a former Sark couple on Guernsey (their mother, Doris, had secured a job as housekeeper in a house not far away called Grey Tower, but was not allowed to have the girls with her). On 19th June 1940, the Guernsey local paper published announcements that plans were well in hand to evacuate all the children from the island. Diana has described this traumatic time for the islanders to me in much detail. Day after day schools were being called to go to the port. The children had winter clothes on (despite it being June) with labels confirming their name, school and other details. As most parents did not go with them, the children would not see their parents again for five years. It was late one afternoon when Diana and her sister were told that their school would travel the next day. The two girls walked back to the house where they were staying but it was locked, nobody was there. Diana took the hand of her sister and together they walked the mile to Grey Tower and to their mother. As they arrived at the end of the long drive, their mother could see them. Young Diana called out: “Mum, we have nowhere to live, the house is closed and we must be back at the school by 7 am tomorrow”. Running to the two girls and hugging them, their mother said: “You are not going again, we will live and die together”. Even now, almost seventy years later, this moment resonates really powerfully with Diana. 21
Grey Tower, wartime home for Diana, her sister and their mother.
The following five years were to prove very challenging for the islanders. Curfews were imposed, identity cards were issued and food shortages threatened the islanders with starvation. Radios were forbidden so islanders were utterly isolated, only hearing about the progress of the war as it was filtered through Nazi propaganda. Other items were confiscated – weapons, boats, motor vehicles, fuel, furniture and many houses were commandeered for soldiers and officers. There were many restrictions and the islanders were forced to accept new laws. In 1942 all English nationals were sent to camps in Bavaria. The English owner of Grey Tower was included in these deportations but Diana, her mother and sister were able to stay on in the house along with the various staff who helped maintain it despite the house being commandeered on an occasional basis as a retreat for German officers. There were major events and milestones during the occupation, but between these life continued as best as it could given the circumstances. For most, it became a matter of survival awaiting liberation. Diana maintains that, despite all the difficulties, this was one of the best times of her life because she, her sister and mother were all together. Small things which had been taken for granted affected Diana’s daily activities. She had been used to swimming in the nearby bay but could no longer do this. Guernsey had become the most mined place in Europe. ‘Special’, Diana said, with bombs that hung from the cliffs. All the children though received a pint of good Guernsey milk every day.
Diana’s identity card. 23
John Nettles, in his book ‘Jewels And Jackboots: Hitler’s British Channel Islands’, says it is almost impossible to write about the occupation without upsetting someone as there are different viewpoints on the ways in which civilians responded to Nazi rule (given the atrocities that Hitler was committing at the time). I have learnt through my research what a highly complex subject this is and not at all black and white. I have sought to document Diana’s memories of this time in the context of how she recalls them and how the occupation affected her life and attitude. Diana is very adamant that we need to be reconciliatory, to get on with people and see the best in everyone if possible, and that was her attitude as a young teenager living under the German occupation. She has always been clear that she would want to be known as someone who didn’t feel any animosity towards the German occupiers. As within all human groups, she would argue, there were good ones, bad ones and those inbetween and ultimately, she argues, “we are all human beings”. There is indeed evidence to suggest that some German officers (General Schmettow centre). German officers, whilst having to obey orders from Germany, would try to mediate between the military authorities and the islands’ civilian governments and people. The Channel Islands attracted a disproportionate number of Germany’s uniformed aristocrats. For Diana (and again validated by Islanders’ comments and testaments), three men stood out - Baron Hans Max zu und von Aufsess, Prince Oettingen and Major-General Graf von Schmettow. 24
Von Aufsess was a nobleman who had been raised in the mountains of Bavaria in a magnificent castle on an estate with hundreds of hectares of forest and farmland. His university training had earned him a degree in law, in which he had practised before the war. A creative artist and talented photographer, he was the ultimate diplomat and negotiator. He had not been in the army previously but was sent to the Channel Islands with the rank of Major. The German officersâ€™ minds, according to Diana, were often overshadowed by fear of Hitler. Von Aufsess, for example, had nightmares about the fate of his wife (she was, in fact, arrested by the Gestapo, suspected of lending some form of support to those who attempted to assassinate Hitler). Diana and her mother became very friendly with him (Diana in fact learned German in order to speak to the officers). For the rest of his life, he kept in regular touch with Dianaâ€™s mother and Diana visited him in later years at his castle in Bavaria. There is evidence too that Prince Oettingen was so outspoken in his opposition to the deportations of islanders Diana (aged about 14). who were British that he was eventually removed from his Photograph taken by Major von Aufsess post. Diana is fond of telling me the story of how, when she was living in Munich much later, the prince would bring her a large pot plant each Christmas, climbing four flights of stairs to get to her humble one-room flat. General Graf von Schmettow was also held in high regard amongst the islanders. They acknowledged that Schmettow did the best he could to ease suffering in the circumstances. Diana visited him and his wife two decades later in the 1950s. During the years of occupation, rations were small but at least kept people alive. Buying clothes or shoes was not possible however and Diana describes wearing shoes which had been cut open even in the winter because her feet had grown and her shoes were too small. Her aunt once crept into a house where soldiers were living and took two blankets out of which she made items of clothing for Diana and herself. 25
General Schmettow photographed during an interview which was published in Jersey Topic Magazine, 1966
Islanders gathered along the seafront in St Peter Port to welcome the much needed supplies.
â€?I like to know the end of stories so that I know what happens to people.â€?
When the Germans occupied France, they got their food from there but with the advent of the Allied thrust through Europe, very little food got through. Gas and electricity had been cut off. This made life very hard for everyone including the German troops. That year remains firm and fresh in Diana’s memory and she describes surviving on just tiny spoonfuls of food or liquid and how she herself nearly died from starvation. She recalls the constant hunger as “a pain in your stomach day and night”. The islanders made tea from brambles, and coffee was made with acorns with water boiled over a twig fire. It was an experience, says Diana, which resulted in her ‘crooked bones’. Christmas lunch for Channel Islanders in 1944 was a meagre affair and only the arrival of the Red Cross ship the SS Vega a few days later kept thousands alive. The Channel Islands were eventually liberated on 9th May 1945 following the general German surrender. The German troops were sent to prisoner of war camps in England Diana’s recollection of this episode in her life has affected me deeply and has prompted further research of this era in British history about which I previously only had very scant knowledge. To be effectively imprisoned on a small island for five years, cut off from the rest of the world, is something which we, in Britain now, might find hard to imagine. To experience true starvation is also far from the experience of most of us. Yet Diana would say that she emerged from this time enriched. In order to communicate with the soldiers who used Grey Tower, as a retreat, she had to learn German and this would become so important to her future life. Diana says that she became a ‘European citizen’ as a result of the experience of wartime occupation. Additionally, she was able to see the good in people. Whilst acknowledging that this was a brutal and horrific time for many humans, for Diana the German soldiers occupying the Channel Islands were never regarded as the enemy but as fellow human beings, a belief which can be attributed to her Christian Science foundations. The complexity of our past and our relationship with it has been highlighted to me through Diana sharing her story.
If readers are interested in reading more on the situation in Guernsey at this time, the following links are interesting: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-guernsey-30399377 https://guernseyoccupation.wordpress.com/17-the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly/ 27
Sharing More Memories, Pencil
1945-1958: Transitional Years By the end of the war, Diana felt she had been shut away and as a result longed to travel. Diana’s future life was to be impacted enormously by the German occupation. Her competence in speaking German would later enable her to secure jobs which involved travelling throughout Europe and she would eventually meet some of the German officers again in a civilian context, as friends. Diana now wanted nothing more than to meet people in different countries, to learn about their customs. Immediately after the war, however, the question of money had to be addressed. Diana was still only seventeen, her sister Minota much younger, and her Mother was now without employment. The family left Sark for England. Her mother found work but Diana could not live with her and instead went to live with her aunt in Birmingham where they both attended a typing and shorthand school. Diana was still not earning money and she had very little in the way of clothing so decided to move to the south of England to take up a job in a department store Diana in Grenoble, 1946. called ‘Bobby’s’. She then found a job where she could live in and then First trip to Europe shortly after she moved to another nanny’s job in London. From here she returned to Birmingham where she worked in a factory office as a bookkeeper. It was an unsettling time, away from her true home and having to move around to find employment. In 1946, Diana’s aunt decided that she was going to visit an old friend in Grenoble in south-east France and Diana accompanied her. Here Diana realised that her French needed improvement – if she was to learn about different people then she would have to learn to speak their language. Diana could translate Shakespeare text in to French as a result of her early schooling but had little grasp of everyday language like asking for a cup of tea. She wrote to the Christian Science Church in Paris to enquire if they knew of any suitable positions. Diana received a letter back from the Princess de Broglie* who needed someone to look after her daughter. Here she stayed for about nine months in total (going back to England every three months to get her passport stamped (as was the law just after the war). *From the House of Broglie – a very old French Aristocratic family.
Rosanne Guille, Grand Greve Beach, Sark. Watercolour The venue for Dianaâ€™s 21st birthday party, 1949.
From Paris, Diana went back to Sark to stay with ‘Nan’ for a short time before going to London. She had secured a temporary job in the city documenting fossils for a petroleum company. Diana’s office colleagues were all much older than her - “I was dealing with fossils sitting at desks with fossils”, thought the young Diana. She decided that she must learn something cultural during this time so spent three months going out in the evenings to classical music concerts and ballet performances. In 1949, Diana returned to Sark. In the summer of that year she celebrated her 21st birthday on Grand Greve beach. Diana cherishes the memory of that night. People brought beer and food and as darkness fell, all the young revellers went skinny dipping in the sea. “It was good that I had my 21st birthday on Sark”, said Diana.
After running a hotel in Jersey for three years (which she had been able to rent courtesy of a small inheritance) Diana returned to London in 1952. She had been offered an administrative job within the Turkish Embassy. This was an interesting and lively time for Diana. She fell in love with a Turkish consul, an affair which lasted for the six years she worked at the consulate. Whilst there, Diana attended many cocktail parties and met important people such as Anthony Eden. Diana said the press often tried to take photographs of her as she arrived at such events thinking she was the wife of someone important. They were very disappointed when she informed them that she just worked in an office, said Diana! She told me the amusing story of how the Turkish embassador and his entourage (including Diana) were at Portsmouth about to board a Turkish ship at the same time as the Queen was reviewing her fleet. Apparently, the Turkish sailors all knelt with their arms outstretched as Diana approached. They thought she was the queen. Poor Diana – it wasn’t her fault but the Turkish Ambassador was furious and wanted her fired for causing disruption... Fortunately she managed to hold on to her job.
In London, circa late 1940s/early 1950s (Diana right)
Diana enjoys a lunch break, circa late 1940s/early 1950s
A fancy dress party, New Yearâ€™s Eve, Jersey, circa 1949 (Diana left)
Somewhere on the South coast, circa 1954
Norway Hudson Bay Labrador Sea Canada
Portugal United States
North Atlantic Ocean
In 1959 Diana travelled nearly 1600 miles from Munich to the Arctic Circle, making her way there by hitch-hiking.
1959: In Search of the Midnight Sun “The philosophy of life is this: Life is not a struggle, not a tension... Life is bliss. It is eternal wisdom, eternal existence. Problems will disappear as darkness disappears with the onset of light.” (Maharishi)
In 1958, Diana decided to leave the Turkish Consulate in London, where she had been working, in order to hitch-hike around Europe for a year. I bought a large map so that I could plot Diana’s journey on it as she related it to me. Part of the trip was through Norway and her description of the trip to the Arctic Circle gave me my first real insight into Diana’s steely determination. She travelled first to Switzerland where she stayed for a week or so before arriving in Munich in February 1959. Here she stayed for a few months, taking odd jobs to pay her way. After leaving Munich in May, Diana planned to tour Scandinavia. Hitch-hiking alone, she made her way to Bonn, then Hamburg and then she made her way slowly through Denmark, visiting Svendborg on the island of Funen. Diana thought the view from there over the islands was very beautiful. From Denmark, Diana proceeded to Norway and the moment she set foot in the country she began “to live in the land of dreams”. On her first night, in a room in a hostel, she could not sleep because of excitement. She felt the call of the north, the call to search for the midnight sun, although at the time she saw no possibility in going that far. Diana began making her way North, hitching various lifts and staying at youth hostels along the way. From Hamar, she hitched a lift which took her the 120 mile long journey along the edge of Lake Mjøso which is the largest lake in Norway.
Diana: Rucksack at the Ready! Pencil
According to Diana, it was a beautiful journey but the best was still to come. She travelled towards Sjoa, a route which followed the River Lågen which sometimes dashed down over rocky boulders. Not speaking Norwegian, a lot of communication with the various drivers was in broken English or sign language - “it is surprising what one can understand when one has to”, says Diana. From Vinstra, after a meal of eggs, coffee and cakes, Diana hitched a lift to Lom, a journey involving an ascent up the mountains to 2700 feet. Apparently, the road was so bad it was like being on a very rough sea but it was a wonderful drive, Diana said. The scenery got wilder and occasionally they stopped to drink the icy cold water from one of the many streams which was wonderfully refreshing. The north was pulling Diana ‘like a magnet’. From Trondheim onwards , no-one seemed to be going very far but each lift brought Diana nearer to her goal. At one point though, after having made it to the small village of Trones, it seemed that no-one was going further north. Diana’s spirits began to sink. She thought ‘she was beaten… like a mountain climber who failed to reach the summit’. Deciding to leave things in the hands of fate, Diana just waited. Eventually a timber merchant, with no English, stopped – he was on his way home to Mosjøen, one of the large timber towns of the north. Diana recalls the silent three-hour journey and the landscape which needed no words to explain its beauty. In spite of the rain, Diana held her breath at the wonders of this northern land. Grieg’s music, she feels, describes the magnitude of nature in this fascinating country. Having been dropped off in the port town of Mosjøen (not so beautiful, commented Diana), she was on her own once more. Five miles beyond the town, who should turn up but the Salvation Army - two Swedes and a Norwegian in a Volkswagen on their way to Mo i Rana with all their musical instruments. Mo is the gateway to the spruce forests, caves and glaciers of the Arctic Circle region. In spite of their full vehicle, the group found room for Diana and her bulging rucksack. When they arrived at Mo, they invited Diana to a very nice flat where she had a lovely tea of Norwegian and Icelandic cakes.
Diana: Steely and Determined Pencil
Despite it being 6.30 pm, Diana felt she was so near to the Arctic Circle and just had to have a shot at crossing it. She borrowed a bicycle, balancing her rucksack on the carrier. A lorry came along and leaving the bicycle behind, he took her 10 miles in the direction of Bødo. She then hitched a lift with an army captain travelling to Fauske with his batman. The car was an old crock, an old German model from the 1930s, with no side windows. After a couple of hours, the road began to climb and the Captain told Diana they would soon be crossing the Arctic circle. It was 9 pm and no sign of it getting dark. They continued to climb up and above the tree line ‘until all the world was white except for a few odd patches of lichen’. The road was a narrow passage cut through 5 feet of snow. In spite of the cold, Diana was so excited and she will never forget the scene which they drove through in that desolate stretch of country. The loneliness, said Diana, makes one stand in awe of nature. One feels so small, she comments, when faced with such a forbidding landscape but the midnight sun smiled a welcome to one who had travelled so far in search of it. Diana had hitch-hiked nearly 1600 miles in total, no mean feat. Diana is a person full of trust and with no sense of fear. She says she always travelled with an open heart and really does believe that she has a guiding angel which has kept her safe all these years.
Diana on the now Croatian island of Mali LoĹĄinj (Yugoslavian at the time), circa 1960s. 40
Diana visits Ausfess Castle, Bavaria, 1960s.
Diana, Bavaria, 1960s. 42
The Munich Years: A Glimpse into the Time of the Cold War Diana’s life has often been full of intrigues interspersed with beautiful moments, stories within stories. She recalled many memories of this time in Munich but space allows me only to share a few here. In 1959 Diana arrived once more in Munich, this time to settle and work. The 1960s was of course the period of the cold war and a very chaotic time especially as escapees from countries behind the Iron Curtain were now arriving in Western Germany. Diana, working for the Berlitz Language School at this time, was sent to teach English at Radio Free Europe in Munich. Her ‘pupils’ were intelligentsia who had escaped out of the communist East European countries. Often these refugees had arrived in Munich via long circuitous, dangerous routes during which they risked discovery or worst as they were crossing borders manned by armed patrol guards. Diana listened to all their stories, finding out about their hazardous journeys and their lives in the countries which they had left. Although nearly 50 years ago, Diana could recall the people and her meetings and outings with them – a night out in a casino on one of the lakes with a film director, discussing Nietzsche with a philosopher, and so on. Diana told me that her time at the radio station was as much an education for her, not just the people she taught. She was kept on her toes, having to keep up with the subjects they were interested in so that her teaching was relevant. It was the role of Diana’s pupils to translate communist broadcasts. They then produced a ‘programme of truth’ as far as they knew it which was beamed from Munich to Portugal and from there into different countries on long wave which the Russians were unable to listen in to. It was forbidden for the people in the Eastern Block to listen to Radio Free Europe. But of course they did, said Diana, and they passed it on to their special friends.
Diana in the Englischer Garten, Munich, early 1960s. 44
Employees at Radio Free Europe had to be kept on their toes in all sorts of other ways. One day Diana arrived at work to be told she could not eat in the canteen because someone had put poison in the salt cellars. It later transpired that the communists had sent a man from Czechoslovakia. Diana recalled another terrible incident, describing how the head of the Polish desk was shot with a silencer gun as he was entering his flat. It all sounds like something out of a John Le Carré novel but frighteningly real. On a lighter note, Diana was invited to go to the opera one evening. Wearing her most fashionable dress, her companion for the evening escorted her up the marble staircase to the royal box. During the interval, they walked around with champagne in their hands. “We were there to see and be seen” Diana recalled. Diana had a wonderful time in Munich. After settling in Loughborough many years later, she really missed the pure beautiful winters there. Diana found the snow so beautiful – it was like living in a fairy tale.
Diana in Paris, 1960s. 46
Diana: Travel Courier Diana feels very proud that she has travelled so much in her life and it is so evident when I speak with her that this is a huge part of her identity. Diana wanted to travel to meet different people and find out about their customs and she chose jobs which would enable her to travel. Working as a travel courier for Thomas Cook and later for American Express meant that she travelled to many countries in Europe. Travel couriers are responsible for making sure that travel arrangements for parties of holiday-makers run smoothly, on time and that everyone is looked after. Diana took the work very seriously. Every tour was different, Diana says, and you needed to know the language, history and culture of every country which was visited. By the end of her career, Diana could speak five different languages (French, German, Spanish, Greek, Italian). In 1965 Diana was staying in London, visiting her sister. She decided to go into the Thomas Cook office in London and ‘request’ an interview. The manager told Diana that she would have to write in like anyone else and then Thomas Cook would write to her (or not!). Diana said that she was going back to Munich and couldn’t do that. On the way to the door, over her shoulder, she called out a list of all the languages which she spoke. The strategy worked – the manager shouted at her to come back immediately!
Diana Wearing Wooly Hat From Bavaria Charcoal
Diana’s first ‘posting’ with Cook’s was in Barcelona. She told me about the festival of Sant Joan and the ‘Nit del Foc’ (Night of Fire) which celebrates the start of the summer but which, one particular year, had unfortunate consequences for one of her holidaymakers. The festival celebrates the longest day of the year (what we know as the Summer Solstice). It is one of the most important feast days for Catalans and is celebrated throughout the city. The idea is that on the night of Sant Joan the sun reaches its highest point, before beginning to drop. The sun is seen as a symbol of fertility and wealth and so it must be given strength. The strength is provided by setting off hundreds of fireworks and lighting bonfires on which the Barcelonians burn old wooden furniture, old clothes and other objects. The Spanish people celebrate the ‘Nit del Foc’ with eating, drinking and dancing. Unfortunately, one of Diana’s tour party got very very drunk during the festivities. In the man’s confusion, he went in to the wrong room in his hotel, went out of the window expecting a balcony and fell through the roof of the room below. Diana visited him in hospital every day for two weeks and arranged his return back to London. Diana did such a good job of looking after the poor gentleman that when she filed her report back to Cook’s, they considered her their best rep! Diana returned to Spain several times during her years with Thomas Cook as well as taking holiday makers to Austria and Switzerland. She became known to friends and colleagues as ‘Cookie’.
Diana (left) celebrating with a colleague at party hosted by American Express, late 1960s 50
Diana aspired to work for American Express. In the 1960s, the company was regarded as the top tour operator and each year she went into the American Express headquarters to enquire about the tours which were to run the following year. This way she was really able to study and acquire the necessary knowledge. Diana eventually got her job with American Express and found herself in demand by both American Express and Thomas Cook as she was ‘such a good rep’. Very significantly, she broke through a big barrier in terms of female equality. Up until the early 1970s, American Express said women couldn’t run travel tours giving the reason that they ‘weren’t up to the job’. Diana was one of the first four women to do this. She described a large conference meeting in Switzerland where there were four women and one hundred men. Near the end of her time as a travel courier, Diana went to Moscow. This had been previously unheard of for a woman working in the tour operator industry. Everything was so secretive that Diana’s American Express contact was referred to by American Express executives as ‘our man in Moscow’! Diana recalls how tourists would often be frightened as they crossed borders through Eastern Block countries. She worked on strategies to relieve stress, having quickly worked out that the party seemed to get through borders more quickly when everyone was calm and cheerful. The oil crisis in 1973, which impacted greatly on tourism, meant that this tour through Russia was her last trip. American Express said they didn’t need her the next year and Diana eventually came back to England, settling in Chichester. Diana told me that working for American Express was one of the best jobs she ever had because it gave her the opportunity to see so many different places. The following year or two turned out to be a difficult period for Diana. She was constantly told (even though only in her early forties) that she was too old. Eventually she secured a receptionist position with a genetic engineering company in Heidelberg which turned out to be a fascinating experience for her.
Diana wearing traditional dirndl costume, Bavaria, 1960s. 52
Diana Seated Next To Window Charcoal
Diana, Picadilly, 1950s. 54
Diana’s Spiritual Journey “ I was alive, I was me, I was led.” (Diana Firth)
I think Diana can definitely be described as a ‘mystic’. For her, the world is expansive and magical yet also intricately and undoubtedly connected. She has a vast library of books covering a range of esoteric subjects and teachings. Healing and thinking positively are recurring themes in our conversations. My time with Diana has given me new insight into different mystical practices such as healing and transcendental meditation. As a person often resistant to such ideas, my mind has opened through our conversations. I have been prompted to research those teachings which may well provide guidance in my own life. Diana’s spiritual journey began when, as a small child, her mother would take her to Christian Science meetings at private houses in Guernsey. Here they would read the teachings of the founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy. In Christian Science, God is understood to be infinite love, and so invariably good that a clear glimpse of this through prayer has power to heal, redeem and restore anyone. The Christian Science emphasis on spiritual healing has been a major influence on Diana’s life and from these teachings as a tiny child, Diana has always believed in the power of the mind to change things. Positivity is definitely embedded within her. As a small child, she was told by the Christian Scientists in Guernsey that whatever you believed in would come to you, but most importantly, she believes that you get what you need rather than what you want.
Diana again with her books and memories. On this particular morning we were looking through an old book on the history of Sark which reminded Diana of some wonderful past experiences. 56
Meditation and Mystic Healing One year, whilst still working as a travel courier, Diana took a break from working. She needed to destress from all the pressure involved in running tours. Back in Munich, she saw the big advertisements for Maharishism and went to classes in order to learn how to meditate – twenty minutes in the morning and twenty minutes in the evening. Much later, when working as a receptionist for a genetic engineering company in Heidelberg, she went to many Maharishi meetings and meditated with a group of people every day after she had finished work. Over the years, Diana has added a lot of layers to her meditation practice so that it is now longer in duration. She has learnt different techniques and mantras in order to elevate her practice to a different level. Now, if Diana is going to meditate, she will do so for a couple of hours- ‘life begins to flow’, she says of meditation, ‘You go past thought – we don’t want thoughts, let go of thoughts’. Diana is a believer in Mystic Healing and has practised it throughout her life. She explains this type of healing as the channelling and transmission of a spiritual force. Through contact with this powerful spiritual energy, healers believe that recipients of the energy go through an expansion and elevation of consciousness, where a person can obtain direct experience of inner self. After settling in Loughborough, Diana heard of a group of healers going to Peru and decided to join them. The trip was to Machu Picchu, the site of an Incan Citadel. Here Diana took part in Shamanic healing rituals, communing with the moon and sun through prayer and dancing. She walked in the forest and swam in the Amazon tributaries with the river dolphins. She is such a wonderful storyteller that I felt I was right next to her in the water. When Diana was 72 she heard, through her healing group, that a meditation centre near the Jung Frau in Switzerland needed help with the visiting groups. Diana applied for the position, signing herself ‘Miss Firth’ as usual. She was offered the job and Diana thought she was going to help teach meditation. From the airport a taxi took her part of the way but there had been an avalanche and she had to walk the rest of the way. They were very surprised to see an older lady but Diana did work at the centre for a month (cooking and cleaning every day) and she watched all the spring flowers coming through the snow. The snow was so beautiful – most of her working life, she had seen the pure Bavarian snow in the winter. 57
Diana: â€?We come to this planet, have to do something and then we leave it.
We may come back to do some more. Life is eternal.â€?
Postscript I have learnt so much from the time which I have spent with Diana. The richness of her life in terms of experiences, and the pride and enjoyment she has derived from it, have been palpable to me. She has very definitely taken ownership of her own destiny in terms of her choices but at the same time has allowed serendipitous moments to lead her along certain paths. It is easy to forget that Diana’s travel adventures and work experiences were unusual in an era when the expectations of women were very different. Diana forged her own path at a time when only women with means travelled in order to explore and learn. Ordinary women’s lives were more often than not driven by expectations of marriage and having children. Diana forged her own path as a single woman, having to provide for herself materially and always motivated to travel by her desire to learn about different people and cultures. She was (and still is) a real role model for what women can achieve. I have learnt about episodes in history about which I had no prior knowledge, particularly the German occupation of the Channel Islands and I have learnt about the geography, people and customs of different countries through Diana’s stories. I have always thoroughly enjoyed my time with her and this time has certainly never been dull! I have also benefited from experiencing Diana’s character and observing her underlying philosophy on life. Diana believes that a person should only do what feels true. I found her faith in humans to change things, even through the most adverse experiences, through the power of positivity very inspiring. I observed real evidence in Diana of how childhood really shapes us and how the child is ever present within us. To have the opportunity to view another’s life as a whole and to take away with me what constitutes an example of a life both well lived and lived through is something which I can pass on to others. From the beginning, it was clear to me that Diana is a person metaphorically ‘bathed in light’. She seems to find the light in everything and the light seems to find her. The idea of light certainly encompasses many of her experiences. I will always remember Diana as a source of light and positivity.
Published in June 2020 by Charnwood Arts All texts, drawings and present day photographs of Diana ÂŠ Copyright 2020 Jacqui Gallon Layout design: Natalie Chabaud (Charnwood Arts)
Charnwood Arts is a private company limited by guarantee, registered in England and Wales ~ Company No: 07477378 ~ Registered Charity No: 1143163 ~ Registered Office: Fearon Hall, Rectory Road, Loughborough, Leics LE11 1PL Charnwood Arts acknowledges core funding from Arts Council England and Charnwood Borough Council All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any other information storage and retrieval system, without the prior written permission from the publisher.
The compilation of this book, based on the memories of Diana Firth, was commissioned as part of the ‘Drawing on Age’ project conceived by Charnwood Arts, Loughborough. The project is itself a strand in the much broader Charnwood Arts’ initiative: People Making Places
The compilation of this book, based on the memories of Diana Firth, was commissioned as part of the ‘Drawing on Age’ project conceived by Ke...
Published on Aug 24, 2020
The compilation of this book, based on the memories of Diana Firth, was commissioned as part of the ‘Drawing on Age’ project conceived by Ke...