The Queenager : Eleanor's Letter (September 5th 2022)
What meeting Gorbachev taught me; and that back to school feeling!
Welcome to September – back to school with a vengeance! I am writing this on a rammed flight from Athens back to London. My daughter is stressing about the homework due in which she hasn’t done; I feel the adult version – the looming inbox avoided for some welcome sunny respite and that drumbeat of a crammed week ahead. I usually sleep well but last night my mind raced with autumn plans: the pilot of a new Queenager podcast was recorded justbefore my holiday – watch this space – and a book is also in the works. Monday I hit the ground running: I am interviewing the amazing Sharon Blackie live on our @uponnoon Instagram at 6.30pm (today Sept 5th) about her wonderful new book: Hagitude – Reimagining the second part of life. Blackie is steeped in the Celtic myths of western Ireland and the Western Highlands, she wants our culture to remember and celebrate the old tales of older female wisdom; the goddesses who give their names to hills and caves, and wield the power of birth and death. Through her scholarship she has unearthed the stories that articulate the power and purpose of the later stages of women’s lives. It is shocking how Christianity eroded them and the memory of the goddesses and tried to eradicate female power. We’ll be discussing all of this and Blackie’s own life and experiences of becoming an elder. I loved her earlier book If Women Rose Rooted – if you haven’t read her, she is well worth checking out!
From female power to the extraordinary power of a very dominant male leader. Last week while I was sunning and swimming, Mikhail Gorbachev died. I was lucky enough to meet and interview him for the Sunday Times in March 1999. For those of you who are new to this newsletter, in my former life I was a hack; in my late twenties I was the newspaper’s main interviewer for the News Review section and would trot off every week to meet a major figure, accompanied by a magnificent Queenager, the distinguished photographer Sally Soames. (She was a legend, one of the rare female portrait photographers who was then in her sixties and had taken incredible pictures of writers, politicians and leaders including Ted Heath and Margaret Thatcher. I’m sad to say she died a few years ago).
Sally took her portraits in natural light, no studios or teams of assistants for me, I would be her only helpmeet. On the day we did Gorbachev we met him at Claridges and her iconic portrait – she gave me this signed copy– was snapped in front of a window in a tiny room. The black background behind that famous birthmark is my coat. I held it up as a backdrop. He chattered all the way through her pictures but she never failed to catch the essence of her subject – and she loved Gorby – and this is one of my favourites of all of her portraits.
I am often asked who out of the welter of distinguished people I was lucky enough to meet and question I found most impressive. The answer is always Mikhail Gorbachev. He was quite simply the most charismatic person I ever met. I interviewed him through an interpreter in a tiny stuffy room filled with aides – so rammed in fact I conducted quite a lot of our chat sitting on the carpet at his feet. He told me about growing up and his family experience of living on a collective farm and how he and his father had won a prize for the most effective collection of the harvest. This prize for service to the Soviet state and his prodigious intelligence won him a place at university where he got a top degree and entered the hallowed ranks of the Communist Party. His youth and charm saw him rise speedily through the ranks against the odds and ultimately he became the legendary leader whose belief in freedom of speech and liberalising the economy eventually brought down the Berlin Wall and-ended the Soviet Union. Many in his own country still haven’t forgiven him – indeed the war in Ukraine is proof that the empire he allowed to break up is still a fervent dream for Putin and the current political class. Reading the obituaries last week and marvelling at how much change Gorbachev brought about it is natural to wonder how…. how did one man achieve so much change, so fast? Well I might have a tiny answer to that.
The hour I spent in his company showed me that this was a man of phenomenal powers of persuasion. After 60 minutes in his company I would have willingly followed wherever he led. Not something I have ever felt before or since. Sally felt the same. We stumbled out into the light, feeling like we’d been hit by a spell – both blinking, going: ‘what was that?’
Despite all the powerful, famous people I have interviewed no-one was like that. It was a unique experience in my life to meet someone so compelling. He just emanated a sense of mission but also mischief, twinkly-ness, warmth and gravitas. Even speaking through an interpreter. Sally and I were both smitten! It wasn’t that he was particularly handsome or sexually charismatic. He just had ‘it’, a rare, special X factor. That level of charisma is like a super-power. Margaret Thatcher obviously felt it from him too – legend has it that Gorby and she were so rapt in political argument in one of their early conversations that she ran out of time to change into her evening gown and went to dinner in her civilians. She felt the spell…
It wasn’t particularly what he said though I remember him expressing a great blast of conviction in why telling people the truth and letting them make up their own minds was the most important thing: and also waxing lyrical about the power of freedom and how he had set the world on a more peaceful path after decades of Cold War. (Let’s not forget that pre Gorbachev Ronald Reagan had never met a Soviet leader; Ronnie said that they were all so old and decrepit they kept dying on him before he got the chance.) Gorbachev by contrast was a spritely fifty-something when he got power and used it to create huge change – initially to the economics of agriculture and later to the entire Soviet system. He is very much a walking exemplar of the contingent theory of history; that individuals at certain points really matter, that it is not just about slow systemic change, that we can have individual agency.
It is funny but 20 or so years on from our encounter I don’t so much remember the specifics of the conversation but the feeling of being in the room with him. He left me with a strange sense I have never had before or since of being prepared to do anything for this man I had just met. Maybe that is what it takes to change the world!
The only other leader I’ve met who came close was the Dalai Lama – again it wasn’t what he said, but the energy he emitted. How he made me FEEL. I remember us laughing together and a terrific heady feeling of joy, of the true lightness of being, that that really was what it was all about.
I was lucky enough to meet Bill Clinton too – he was sparkly, when you chatted to him his attention was totally on you, like he SAW you. And he did that to everyone – from the Editor to the waiter serving the drinks. But Gorbachev was different, there was a magnetism. Truly. A sense that this man could move mountains.
Not all political leaders have it, believe me! – I interviewed David Cameron and Theresa May, I worked with Boris Johnson – who is great fun but not like that. And I also met both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. None of them had an iota of Gorby’s radiance. In my experience he was a real one-off. And the fact that Putin so markedly refused to go to his funeral perhaps means that he felt and recognised Gorbachev’s unique power, even in death.
I write about this today because I think there is a lesson here for all of us; we all need to think about how we make people feel. We certainly never forget or forgive those who make us feel small or humiliated or uncomfortable. We can’t all be Gorbachev but maybe we can all spread a bit of Gorby magic by making those around us feel good – seen, loved, special, appreciated. Perhaps that’s how all of us can change the world.
As we go back into autumn’s busy business let’s hold on to that!
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