They set an example that wasn’t confined by the rules of what women were supposed to do back then, many of which still hang over us today. I’m thankful for that, and to the bonkers legacy I will strive to live up to.
Growing up, I was acutely aware that there was something unusual about my family. Sure, other people had the odd “mad aunt” or kooky uncle, but their eccentric behaviour wasn't making the headlines like my relations were.
Great-uncle Jack, a war hero and baronet, had taken up raving and spent his 85th birthday “dancing to the boom boom music” in Space club in Ibiza. The local news crews couldn't get enough of his antics and he became somewhat of a celebrity in Ireland and even had a night club named “Sir Jack’s" in his honour.
Then there was great-uncle Desmond, a prominent ufologist whose book, The Flying Saucers Have Landed, became a bestseller and was translated into 50 languages. And don't let's forget great-uncle Lionel, who gained fame in various documentaries for his ambitious attempts to catch the Loch Ness Monster.
Then, in the middle of this mad bunch of men, was my grandmother, Anita Leslie.
Anita was the only daughter of an Irish aristocrat, so convention of the time dictated that she should attend finishing school and then head to London to find a husband. But, being a Leslie, this didn't quite go to plan. After being shipped off to Paris to be “finished”, she ran off to live in a cafe, earning a living sitting for artists by day and dancing by night. She wasn't going to let the men of the family be the only ones to do what they liked.
The day Anita died, a murmuration of rooks swooped over the lake at Castle Leslie, a sight that had delighted her in her life, as she mentioned them many times in her letters. I was very young then, but as everyone said I looked so like her I began searching for clues to her character at an early age. And, thanks to her being a prolific writer, there was a treasure trove of books and letters to explore. One of the first things I remember reading about her was her burial instructions. Requesting “to be buried in accordance with the beliefs of my Red Indian ancestors” – this ancestry being news to me – “without a coffin – just tied to a board ... the grave to be UNMARKED”.
The “Indian” blood she referred to turned out to come from another inspiring woman in the Leslie legacy – Clarissa Jerome, Winston Churchill’s grandmother, and my great-great-great-grandmother. Clarissa was half Iroquois Indian and, despite the racism against Americans of colour at the time, she set her sights on a rich businessman, married him and obtained the nickname “Sitting Bull” within the family for her stubborn determination.
My great-grandmother, Marjorie (Anita's mother), spent a wild and carefree youth gallivanting around the Pacific Islands and wrote a book of her exploits travelling unchaperoned (cue sharp intake of breath) from one side of the Pacific to the other, encountering pirates and typhoons along the way. Marjorie accompanied Alice Roosevelt, President Roosevelt’s daughter, on a diplomatic mission to China, where they met the Dowager Empress who not only gave them jade bracelets, but some tips on keeping princes happy, which she later shared with her friend, Wallis Simpson...
So, who was this woman whose blood flowed through my veins? As I delved deeper through her letters to everyone, from Winston Churchill to her cousin Clare Sheridan, who was living in the Kremlin as Trotsky's lover, I came across Train To Nowhere.
When the Second World War started, eager for a new adventure, Anita wasted no time in joining the Mechanized Transport Corps as a fully trained mechanic and driver. Posted to North Africa, she witnessed hard fighting close up. When the MTC was disbanded, she went on to work with on newly formed English-language paper for the troops, the Eastern Times, based in Damascus, which she said “was so beautiful that I felt a slice of my heart must be cut out and left ther”. She craved being part of the action, so joined the Red Cross, caring for injured troops from the fighting in Italy. Finally, tiring of the British Army’s refusal to let women serve at the front, she wangled her way into the Free French Forces, who let female ambulance drivers serve on the front line.
It was in the Free French Forces that she was part of the liberating army in France, eventually going on to invade Germany, ending up participating in the Berlin Victory Parade. Reading her letter home on Hitler’s notepaper that she’d nabbed from the rubble of the Reich Chancellery really brought home how in the thick of it she was. In France, she shivered through the Battle of Colmar Pocket, sleeping in her ambulance while shells whistled by. She saw soldiers killed in “sprays of crimson snow” and had close friends and fellow ambulance drivers murdered. One minute eating her share of beans cooked in a cauldron over a fire pit in a leaky barn full of moaning casualties, the next dining in style at Potsdam with her cousin Winston Churchill.
A grandmother like Anita not only inspires you to explore the world and all it has to offer, she also sets a wonderfully high bar for shocking your family
Anita and Betty seeing Africa
I don't know if she really knew the term “feminist”, but it's clear from her writing that Anita was one, venting her frustrations that her senior officers were keeping “first-rate women subordinate to second-rate men”. I wonder what she would have thought of the announcement that women are finally allowed to apply for close combat roles in the RAF. I’d imagine with a roll of her eyes and a remark about it being past time.
Post-war, her contempt for convention was undiminished and, after unexpectedly finding herself pregnant, she set about setting up a family home in a derelict Norman castle with 10ft-thick walls and arrow-slit windows. Given the shortage of supplies at the time, she arranged for it to be roofed with road tarmac. This was where my father grew up, living off organic vegetables and fielding the odd mad business plan that his mother came up with, like the time Anita decided she would make her millions breeding greyhounds with the local bookie, “Ginger Murphy”. Alas, Ginger was busted dyeing dogs different colours and the plan fell apart.
A grandmother like Anita not only inspires you to explore the world and all it has to offer, she also sets a wonderfully high bar for shocking your family. When I set off travelling around India, aged 18, my dad didn't blink an eyelid when I wrote home telling him I had fallen in love with a boy from the Naga tribe and was contemplating moving to the jungle, or that I'd been struck by lightning while hiking in the Alps, or that I was crossing Europe’s largest ice sheet to film an erupting volcano, or off to Mali to film a ritual sacrifice with the Dogon tribe, or abseiling down the white cliffs of Dover, or diving with great white sharks. He put it all down to my genetics and took it as normal.
Growing up with such extraordinary women to look up to, I always took it for granted that I could just get on with whatever it was I wanted to do. Looking back on my life choices now, this freed me to have the courage to chase whatever needed doing for my film-making, despite the risks involved. They set an example that wasn’t confined by the rules of what women were supposed to do back then, many of which still hang over us today. I’m thankful for that and for the bonkers legacy I will strive to live up to.