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A woman of substance

2 February 2013

9:00 AM

2 February 2013

9:00 AM

Hermione: After to War With Whitaker Caroline Simmonds (ed)

Ranfurly Charitable Services, Great Pednor, Chesham, Bucks HP5 2SU, pp.405, £15

Hermione Ranfurly wrote two books. One was called The Ugly One. The other, the first, was called To War with Whitaker. Its success came as a surprise to her, but to none of her legion of friends. It chronicled her war. Recently married to Dan, a Northern Irish peer whose father had lost almost everything, mostly on the green baize, she determined to pursue him, his horses and his yeomanry regiment to the Middle East, no matter that the army, the War Office and official Whitehall expressly forbade such camp following.

She eventually reached Cairo and secured a job in SOE. She had already demonstrated her determination by getting there. Once in Egypt, she used her genius for diagnosing character and her infectious enthusiasm to get to know anyone who was anyone. To spend five minutes in her company was to have a good time, and her occasionally ribald sense of humour disguised a seriousness and a capacity for hard work that gave her the stamina for life. Needless to say, she excited a good deal of jealously, particularly in the gossip hothouse that was wartime Cairo.

She continued to keep a diary, sometimes intermittently, for the rest of her long life. The present book is an edited version of her postwar diaries, lovingly produced by her only child Caroline. I pounced on them as soon as they appeared because I knew Hermione well and loved her. Like all her friends, I hoped that this new book would rekindle memories of her voice, her humour, her loyalty, her sympathy for people and her capacity for gossip, some of it salacious. And I was not disappointed, although Caroline has, like her mother in To War with Whitaker, usually spared the feelings of the families of individuals about whom she could be gloriously rude.

There is a danger that diaries of this kind are of consuming interest to the friends and family of the diarist but not to the general reader. The day-to-day concerns of domestic life and the constant visits of the same circle of friends can seem banal. I first met my wife when lunching at Little Pednor with Hermione in the 1960s, so perhaps I am not the best person to judge whether the diarist and her daughterly editor have avoided that trap. I have a dog in that fight.

However, there is surely much in this book to delight and interest the general reader. Hermione performed many small acts of public service throughout her life, whether serving in Government House in Australia before the war, in SOE in Cairo or locally in Buckinghamshire, helping those who her quick sympathy told her were struggling. She also supported her husband, Dan, travelling round the far-flung business he was helping to direct in the colonial twilight. The diaries, for instance, give an account of an exhausting trip to North Borneo and Malaya which would be as alien to today’s executives as a trip to Mars. Her disapproval of the treatment of the blacks in South Africa, during another such trip, also comes across persuasively.

Hermione deserves more public recognition than she has received, however, for two extraordinary contributions to the side of the angels.

The first was her time in Government House, Nassau, when Dan, rather to general surprise, was appointed governor of the Bahamas, where he served from 1953 to 1956. Dan was a notably successful governor and not a little of his success he, rightly, attributed to the tireless efforts of his wife. Her lasting memorials there are many, but the greatest of them is the Ranfurly Home for Children. She fought for a site and raised the money in the teeth of indifference and opposition.

What shines through in the diaries for those years is her sympathy for the people of the islands. She travelled to most of them and her account of the people she met and bonded with on those trips is one of the most touching parts of the book — she wanted to help and did so.

Her second contribution really arose from her travels, particularly the Bahamian episode. Always aware of the power of books, she started libraries in the islands and, on her return to England, founded what came to be known as the Ranfurly Library. Thanks to her it has sent, and continues to send, millions of books all over the world, raising the aspirations and the literacy of countless people who, mostly, will have no idea of who Hermione was.

This book conveys a picture of an unus-ual, determined and, as Lord Carrington says in his introduction, above all generous woman. However, her friends will remember her perhaps for two other qualities. First, her puncturing of pretensions: her compendium reply to an imaginary fan letter from one of her readers quoted on page 368 starts: ‘Dear Mrs Sickmuller, I have your kind letter about my book AND your book and am grateful for your praise, and tips on food, sex and plumbing.’

Second, she had an extraordinary sympathy with and understanding of people. Those who worked for her stayed with her until she died and were among her closest friends; while the many friends she made all over the world remained welcome guests and correspondents throughout her life.

This book will above all appeal to her friends and relations. That in itself will ensure a vast sale, but even if you did not know her, do try it. The proceeds go to her Library.

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