25 agosto 2007
who co-founded Virago 34 years ago, has always relished a battle. Responses to
her latest book, about Vichy France, have forced her into the
ring once more
Saturday August 25, 2007
Of all the unexpected
things to have come out of Bad Faith, Carmen Callil's book about Vichy France, the most unexpected perhaps has been the
flurry of boycotts. Callil is boycotting L'Oréal, the French beauty giant, for
employing collaborators during the Nazi occupation; she is herself being
boycotted by Jewish groups in the US, for a line in the book that criticises Israel. And when, earlier this year, an invitation to
attend the Orange prize dropped through her door with the words
"champagne by Tattinger" across it, Callil was off. "I said,
well I'm not going! Pierre Tattinger was a MONSTER. As long as I'm alive, I'll
discourage people from drinking it."
It is 34 years since Callil founded Virago, the feminist publishing
house, and over a decade since her relationship with it ended, but her
reputation still derives from that era: outspoken, pushy - strident, in the
pejorative of the day - and inexorably linked with her Australian background. "I
really loved being Australian and not British," she says teasingly,
"because I felt so sorry for British people." She arrived on the boat
from Melbourne in 1960, 22 years old and depressed from a love affair with a
married man, and encountered a culture that was totally alien to her. "I
thought England was a very closed and silent place. It's got better since the
60s, but what came naturally to me was always considered outrageous and rude. You're
never allowed to lose your temper, you're never allowed to say 'shit', you're never
allowed to say you're absolutely hopeless at what you do, you're never allowed
to say anything. I came to the conclusion that I should never have come here. I
should have stayed at home. Definitely. Or lived in France."
Callil delivers this lightly, with the devilishness of one who enjoys
tossing out grand statements and daring you to disagree. She is generally
amused by what she sees before her. "If you have an adequate amount of
luck, you basically choose the life you want," she says, and that is how
it has been. She lives in a house in west London with her dogs. What saved her
during those early years in London was a therapist named Anne Darquier, whom
she saw for seven years until the day she knocked on her door and got no reply.
Darquier lay dead in the flat, having killed herself. A year later Callil
recognised her full name - Darquier de Pellepoix - on a TV documentary and
discovered that, during the second world war, her father had been a leading
light in French anti-semitism. Louis Darquier was a notorious collaborator who
became the commissioner for Jewish affairs and oversaw the first
transportations from France to Auschwitz. The book that would become Bad Faith
Through the sad story of Anne Darquier's life and the life of her rotten parents,
Callil personalises a great slice of European history. An astonishing feat of
diligence in the face of labyrinthine French bureaucracy, the book took four
years to research and a further four to write. It is shocking how the Nazis
used the apparatus of the French state to administer their crimes; there is a
scene in which French police officers in a western suburb of Paris lift French
children on to trains bound for the concentration camps. Could it have happened
in Britain? "I think we have to think it could, you know, because I don't
think human beings are different that much, one from the other. We were
When the book came out in America, however, all attention was drawn to a
single line on the final page, in which Callil stated that the lessons of
history are generally forgotten. She mentioned atrocities in Rwanda, Australia,
Ireland, Chile, East Timor, Guantánamo Bay and Israel. A pro-Israeli lobby
group launched immediate action and, under pressure, the French embassy
cancelled the launch party in New York. Emails such as "what is an
Australian Lebanese doing writing about Jews in the first place?" flooded
Callil's inbox. Given that she had just spent eight years elucidating an
under-reported aspect of the Holocaust, the idiocy of this response was
stupendous; but, for the sake of a quiet life, doesn't she regret including the
"No! I wish I'd said more. I don't see why Jews shouldn't be monsters.
Jews can be monsters; they're not sacred people. And I think Israel behaves
monstrously towards the Palestinians, I don't care what you say. Quite
truthfully, I said what I meant in the book." The episode hasn't made her
any more timid in the face of outrage. "I have a terrible problem with
Muslims and the veil," she says later, and away she goes.
At 68, Callil is battle-hardened; things at Virago got pretty lively before
she left. She was reminded of it recently when she started going through boxes
in her attic. Her Virago archive contains a box with three black crosses on it,
in which is stored the most vituperative correspondence between Callil and the
people she drily refers to as "the sisters" - her four co-directors
of the time, Ursula Owen, Harriet Spicer, Alexandra Pringle and Lennie
Goodings. "I found some of the sisters rather hard to take," she
Virago was founded in 1973 as an alternative to all the male-dominated
publishing houses and their long lists of books about war. "I think
somebody else would have done it if I hadn't," she says. "It was just
sitting there waiting for my generation to say, 'scuse me." It revived
classic titles by Vera Brittain, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Rebecca West and
Stevie Smith, among others, and became such a reliable brand that you could buy
a book on the strength of the green spine alone. What it said was "here's
a world", Callil says, and for a while it was tremendously successful.
But all wasn't well in the Virago office. "They were always
disapproving of me because I just wasn't a very good feminist," she says
airily. "My feminism was not theoretical. Certainly not. And I never
bothered with [rows about] makeup or bras or 'chairmen' or any of that stuff. I
just thought, get on with it. My feminism is very strong, but it's much more
concentrated on poltroonish men telling you what to do than the little bits and
Callil loves a good fight, none more so than with herself; she is bracing
about her own nature. "I was always scared, really. I was scared until I
grew up. I was scared when I started Virago, I was scared when I started my
book. I'm scared when I have to speak in public. I think I've just sort of
gotten used to being scared, so I ignore it."
The publishing industry is different now and veterans complain that it has
been Murdoch-ised, skewed towards trashy celebrity memoirs. Callil calls this
snobbery. "Books about footballers and giving $700m to Jordan? To talk
like that you have to despise the people who read those books and I don't think
I ever have. I've always had rather lowbrow taste. Not if it's very boring -
Barbara Cartland is terrible. But they give a lot of money to people who
entertain and who the public want to read about. And they're still providing
the other stuff."
Callil had a good education at an Australian convent - good intellectually,
but emotionally abusive. She was bullied by the nuns, cold, hard creatures,
but, surprisingly, didn't rebel. The rigours of Catholicism appealed to
something that would eventually emerge in Callil as ambition: if she was going
to be a Catholic, she was going to be a proper Catholic.
When she was nine, her father, a lawyer, died of cancer. "He had this
enormous library," she says. "I read through that. I adored Dickens.
I loved George Meredith, George Borrow, Thomas Hardy, Shaw. Lots of Shaw and
Wells. Arabia Deserta. A book about Gilbert and Sullivan. I loved everything to
do with them. I loved Georgette Heyer. Willa Cather. The Evening Post and
Reader's Digest, we got both of those. Tugboat Annie. Who else? Boswell."
Her mother wasn't what Callil describes as "a great coper".
"She wasn't very good at it. I don't think she should have had children.
She was a child herself really. Big deal. But she didn't have a theory of life
like those nuns did; she didn't say God wants you to be wretchedly unhappy and go
Her mother couldn't quite work out what she'd produced in Callil. She
despaired of her daughter's relationship with the married man, whose identity
Callil has never revealed beyond his initials; Bad Faith is dedicated to him,
PBH. Did he know how unhappy he'd made her? "Yes. And when he did, he made
up for it. He was a good man. Lovely man. Usual human flaws."
She didn't make a conscious decision not to marry; work was more important.
"I would always have rather written Bad Faith than get married, do you follow?"
She sniffs. "I wouldn't have minded getting married and I think it'd be
lovely to have someone to look after you. But then, all my married friends say
they wouldn't look after you anyway."
Next, she would like to do a book about the French beauty companies that
laundered all those Nazi sympathisers; to really go after L'Oréal. "No
one's got them, no one's pinned them down." It's an onerous boycott
because L'Oréal owns so many other companies - the Body Shop, Lancôme, and so
on . . . Callil carries a list around in her purse. "I'm basically left
with Yves St Laurent and Guy Laroche."
She wonders why Anne Darquier didn't ask her for help. But it would have
been such a breach of the therapist/ client relationship. As a child, Darquier
had romanticised her absent parents (she was raised by a nanny, in England),
imagining them to be heroes of the resistance. The truth, when she found out,
must have been horrific. "She used the word 'hate' to the very few people
she talked to about her father. One or two friends. Hate was the word."
It is a book about disillusionment, personal and cultural. Callil was
romantic about Australia
when she first came to Britain.
"Now I realise what a mistake I made. I made a really big mistake about
that, I sort of fantasised about it. Because there can be scumbags anywhere.
That's the summary of the situation."
Lilette Pony (Callil's cousin)
The Battle of Algiers
Les Enfants du Paradis
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