By the age of eight Vaira Vike-Freiberga had learnt that life was both ‘very strange and very unfair’. Her baby sister had died from pneumonia the previous year because of the harsh conditions of life in a refugee camp in Germany (this was late 1944 and her family had fled their native Latvia for fear of the communists). Her mother soon had another child but when Vaira went to see her new brother in hospital she observed the young woman in the next-door bed turning her face to the wall against her wailing baby, product of a gang-rape by Russian soldiers.
The nurses had given this unwanted baby girl the same name as Vaira’s much-mourned sister. Vaira was struck by the paradox, she tells Lyse Doucet in the first of a new series of interviews with women who have achieved remarkable things, Her Story Made History, on Radio 4 (produced by Ben Carter). One baby dead but much-loved; the other unloved but very much alive.
After a working life as an academic psychologist spent in Canada, where her parents took her after years of exile in Germany and later Casablanca (and where she ended up studying psychology because she didn’t know how to pronounce ‘philosophy’), Vike-Freiberga was invited to go back to Latvia to establish a Latvian Institute. Eight months later she was president, the first female head of a former Soviet bloc state, voted in on a wave of popular enthusiasm for an independent candidate.
‘Do women lead differently from men?’ Doucet asks.
‘Being a woman was an advantage,’ declares Vike-Freiberga, who at 81 still sounds formidable. She had no feminist qualms about using old-fashioned chivalry to achieve her goals. At a Nato summit in Istanbul, she recalls, she allowed president George W. Bush to take her arm as she walked across a gravel path in high heels to reach the terrace where cocktails were being served. She saw it as an opportunity to have a proper conversation with him à deux, without advisers. She always took diplomacy very seriously and in her two terms of office secured Latvia’s admission to Nato and in the same year to the EU.
Another remarkable woman could be heard on Radio 4 the day before when the former UN election organiser Fran De’ath recalled her years in Afghanistan and East Timor. She was talking to Rosa Eaton, one of the winners of this year’s Charles Parker prizes for the best radio features made by students. In Beyond the Ballot, Eaton took us to meet De’ath on her houseboat in Bristol, where she now lives. ‘All people see is an old person,’ says De’ath. ‘You think they’ve never had a life.’
In fact, De’ath, who gleefully recalls that she left school at 14, helped to write Afghanistan’s new electoral laws. Looking back she’s not sure that the work she did there with the UN was right. But, ‘I know the stuff I did in East Timor was good.’ She was in the region to help supervise the independence referendum and then stayed on when civil war broke out. She thought her role with the UN would protect her, but very soon the UN compound in Dili was under siege and she and her colleagues had to escape in mini-buses, only to arrive at the airport and ‘safety’ to find it closed.
What she did then was not brave, she now considers. ‘Doing something you don’t want to do’ is her definition of bravery.
Another woman’s life was celebrated by Bruce Guthrie in his unusual prize-winning student feature, The Flapper, which celebrates his mother’s life through a treasured household object. A single bell tolls as he and his family try to describe the flapper, a trowel-like utensil, part fish slice, part spatula, aider and abetter of those homely comforts, treacle tart, chocolate fudge cake, Danish layer cake, upside-down pudding, banana fritters. ‘I do hope they get Radio 4 in heaven,’ says Guthrie in this nostalgia-heavy, yet touching feature. How better to remember your mother than through the desserts she loved and a stream of Home Service hits.
Other prizewinning features in the Radio 4 series, New Storytellers, took us to Port Talbot where Sian Medford’s mother grew up, daughter of a Windrush immigrant (‘No blacks’ was a common sign then), and Kensington, where three former residents of Grenfell Tower recalled the night of the fire in June 2017. Charles Parker, the centenary of whose birth is being marked this year, was the innovative producer who made programmes back in the 1960s and 1970s that gave voice to ordinary people — Irish labourers, fishermen, miners, Asian teenagers, blind people, travellers. Each of the 15-minute student features echoed his intention to tell stories and make real the lives of others. They will not easily be forgotten. Like Alison who was told after escaping the fire that a room had been reserved for her in the Premier Inn at Earl’s Court. All she had was the dressing-gown she was wearing and the keys to her now-burnt-out flat. ‘I know who I am,’ she says. ‘But I cannot prove I am who I am… I’ve never felt like a nobody before.’