2 months ago

The Importance of Red Lipstick


Half-Irish and half-German, Svenja O’Donnell is an award-winning political correspondent and commentator whose work regularly features on TV and radio. In her new family memoir O’Donnell draws parallels between our present situation and her grandmother’s during World War 2, who drew strength from little rituals of self-care …

Our movements are controlled; the streets are eerily quiet. A society used to plenty is learning to live with shortage. In the few weeks since it hit the West, coronavirus has transformed our world.

Faced with an uncertain future, we seek for solutions in the past. To ensure compliance and slow the rising numbers of the dying, politicians have sought to foster a sense of unity in strife. They call this our war. World War 2, for Europe, at least, is the benchmark by which every crisis is measured. It’s a time that’s been much on my mind since I wrote the story of my grandmother’s life in wartime Germany, and never more so than now.

The comparison can feel a little uncomfortable. Today’s front line is not a field of killing, but one where lives are saved. Covid-19 is not a conflict between people. Millions aren’t being slaughtered. And yet, there’s something about the emotions of that time, as my grandmother recalled to me over our many years of conversations, that feel strangely familiar now.

The eerily quiet streets, the absence of traffic, the narrowness of our world, now we’re sheltering in place, readily bring forth impressions of cities under siege. But it’s in the unseen, in the psychology of lockdown, that I recognise its traces. That lingering fear she described of a threat unseen. The anxiety brought by not knowing when this will end. The enforced distance from family and friends.

My grandmother Inge was 15 when Germany invaded Poland, starting a war that raged for six years. As a German woman not singled out for persecution, she was one of the lucky ones, though her future was thwarted. She was forced to flee her homeland, Königsberg in East Prussia. She had to rebuild a life in displacement.

The events and the trauma my grandmother experienced remain beyond the reach of my imagination. Nothing in today’s crisis comes close to the devastation that WW2 left in its wake, 75 years ago. Rather, it’s the way she endured that much greater crisis, that inspires me now.

I think of the little rituals she drew strength from. Her wartime armour was to wear red lipstick; mine is to apply perfume. She tried to break for coffee (ersatz) every afternoon at four. I adhere, almost religiously, to a 6pm cocktail hour to mark the end of the day.

And I remind myself that, for me, things really aren’t so bad. My grandmother’s great love was thwarted by war. The worst my partner and I have to contend with are domestic spats brought on by constant proximity. For all the anxiety, the fear of financial hardship, the frustration, we are still so much better off.
But this strange time has raised profound and I hope enduring questions. An awareness of waste, of collective responsibility. A longing for freedom, that may never again be taken for granted in quite the same way as before. And it brings to mind something my grandmother once said to me, a few months before her death, in 2017: “when you’ve lived through times like these, nothing can ever quite be the same again.”

Inge’s War, by Svenja O’Donnell is published by Ebury on August 6, £14.99.


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