“Simplex munditiis” is one of those phrases that, like others in Horace, a schoolboy may long be able to recall. Anyway, this one does: its translation, “artless in her elegance” came to mind as I listened to Joanna Trollope on the theme of “Real Life: Real Stories” yesterday evening.
With her immaculate appearance, commanding presence, bejewelled sentences and warm involvement of an all-too-small audience, she charmed us in her discussion with Edward Gillespie. And in the second part of the evening, she displayed a deft touch, turning the tables on her interviewer. “How do you stay a fresh-minded nuisance?” she asked Edward, as he contemplated life after Cheltenham Racecourse. (I rather wish he had done so more succinctly: listening to him was less interesting.)
Alongside such as David Attenbrough, Judi Dench and Imogen Cooper, Joanna Trollope is surely now close to attaining the status of National Treasure. On the strength of her performance – it was in aid of the Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum’s appeal – she certainly counts as one of Gloucestershire’s treasures. Born near Minchinhampton Common (“an offered up upland,” as she described it), she clearly acknowledges both her roots in our county, and that our causes are also hers – encouraging philanthropy amongst Gloucestershire’s super rich, opposing threatened library closures, not to mention “Building a New Future”, the title of the Art Gallery appeal. On the screen behind her, the first image projected was Piero della Francesca’s “country” Christ Risen: she told us how she had been to see it this Summer in Borgo San Sepolcro (lucky her).
By way of contrast, Joanna’s second image was a Gwen John interior, reflecting the fact that a decade ago she left Gloucestershire for self-imposed exile in London, from where she does not now contemplate a return. After all, she maintains – rather controversially so far as our household is concerned – “men are more romantic about landscape than women.” And, as a writer, “you do get terribly sick of the inside of your own head.” (Her solution? To go and sit anonymously in Caffè Nero in the King’s Road.)
For someone so outwardly conventional, even middle-brow – Joanna listens to Korngold, looks fondly upon black Labradors, and has a way of speaking that might best be described as retro – she espouses some surprisingly radical ideas. Feminism, naturally. (“Now that we have the vote, we are in quite a hurry.”) But more than that, she possesses a brave candour. The cuttings don’t let us forget the furore that blew up when she compared the plight of the villagers of Aston Magna with those in Moss Side, Manchester. As she said last night at the Parabola Arts Centre, “We all have equal human validity… It won’t do to live in a bubble.” “What gets my goat? Injustice.”
Inside the rather stoical velvet glove, there is an iron hand.
Yet her cheek is still soft: this I can tell from the nice double kiss she gave me during the interval yesterday. Not so long ago I looked through the nearly-50-year-old bundle of thank you letters my mother had received from those who came to my 21st birthday party. (What a pity no such archive will exist for this generation of 21-year-olds! Even if – unlikely – they get round to writing to say thank you, they will at best do so by email.) Anyway, in the bundle I found one signed “Joanna”. A reminder that we had known each other at Oxford.