Design: Me and my ring of confidence

Life improved enormously when she inherited Lord Byron's signet ring.
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The Independent Culture
One thing - perhaps the only thing - that Robert Graves and I turned out to have in common when I was writing about him was a mad faith in rings and jewels as talismans. Almost my favourite moment in his life was the night when he was giving the wildest of his Oxford poetry lectures, on the black goddess. As far as the audience knew, only Graves was on the platform. He knew better. Clocks had been synchronised. His pal Omar Shah was standing somewhere in the Hindu Khush, kitted out in turban and pantaloons and holding a sacred Afghan sword; in New York, the muse of the moment was in telepathic communication through the emerald engraved with Athena's owl which Graves had given her. A glass shattered of its own accord at the party after the lecture; Graves was thrilled. The talisman had worked.

One of the many rings which I invested with magical powers was a pinched- sized row of Mexican turquoises on a silver band. I was 23 and living in a house in Regent's Park with my first husband. The ring was a relic of his previous marriage, to a girl I'd never met but who, so everybody told me, was astonishing. It was quite hard not to hate an ex-wife who was, they told me, brilliant, beautiful and French. I'd seen photographs. It was all true. She was slim as a pencil with big brown eyes and tawny brown hair down to her waist.

There was nothing she hadn't done. She'd written sophisticated novels and swapped ideas with Parisian intellectuals. She'd been in Cuba as Fidel Castro's guest, just too late to meet Che Guevara. She'd hung out with glamorous revolutionaries and travelled the world. And, to make matters worse, her name was so like mine that I resigned myself to spending whole evenings being addressed by absent-minded strangers as Marianne. I couldn't compete.

But wearing the ring, her ring, made me feel almost up to it. Twisting it on my finger, I could feel I had stolen a bit of her glamour. When Gregory Peck, or Harold Pinter, or William Golding came to dinner, I put on the ring and sashayed down the stairs to greet them with - not confidence - but faith that the ring was going to see me through, somehow. And, most of the time, it did. I started writing books and, slowly, slowly, the famous, slightly terrifying guests stopped calling me by my predecessor's name. I wore the ring night and day until a sleepy Greek bee landed on my finger, stung it and swelled it up so thoroughly that the ring had to be snipped off with a pair of pliers. It rolled away down a cobbled lane. I never found it.

My faith in rings started long before then. I spent my childhood in a rambling house in Nottinghamshire, not far from Newstead Abbey, the mecca of Byron devotees. My father's great-great aunt Lucy had married a Lord Byron when she ruled over the house in Victorian times. The connection to the past was pretty distant by the time I came along, but it had brought us our very own equivalent of the Boscombe shrine. (Boscombe, on the outskirts of Bournemouth, was the house where Shelley's adoring daughter-in-law created a tastefully lit relic-room where enthusiasts could gaze at the infant poet's rattle and the ashes of his heart.) Our shrine was a bit more low-key, a glass-topped table stuffed with mementoes of Byron. There was a lock of his hair, a square of the red hangings from the bed in which he spent his wedding-night, a piece of pink silk from the flag his last mistress bestowed on his yacht - and, the star piece of the collection, his signet ring.

It wasn't too much to look at, just a small circle of gold with a green square set with his crest, a mermaid, and the motto: Crede Byron. Byron's seductive history as the arch- romantic was what made it special. Taught how to show parties round the house from an early age, my brother and I knew the contents of the glass table off by heart. We knew, too, that nothing interested people so much as this simple little ring. Just to let someone touch it gave a visible thrill. The discovery that I had been named after a Forties film starring Glynis Johns as Miranda the Mermaid made it clear that Byron's ring, with its pretty mermaid seal, was meant for me.

We led quite an isolated life as children, growing up under the supervision of a nanny and even a nursemaid up at the top of the house and coming downstairs for tea and long, delicious readings from The Pickwick Papers by the fire in the library. Going to a local day-school was a bit of a shock. I had no idea how to make friends, and I could see that turning up in a chauffeur-driven car wasn't any kind of an asset. The Byron ring offered a solution.

I'm not sure now that any of my designated friends had a clue who Byron was, but they could see from the look on my face that he was important. The trade was simple; they got to wear the ring for the day; I got the comfort of having a girlfriend I could walk around with holding hands in the approved manner. All went well until I formed a crush on a small white-faced girl with dark hair and remoteness in her eyes. Unavailable, she seemed the most desirable of them all. Recklessly, I told her that she could have the ring as a present if she would promise to be my friend for a whole term.

The promise was given. Intoxicated by my success, I asked Sarah to come home for tea the next day, the first such invitation I had ever dared to issue.

The tea was not a success. Sarah, eyeing the wall-mounted assembly of stags' heads which were supervising the intake of cucumber sandwiches with their usual predatory stare, seemed ill-at-ease. Her mother, handbag planted firmly on her knees, declined the cake and, rather obtrusively, we all thought, wiped the edge of her teacup before taking a sip of Earl Grey. Conversation languished. Half an hour after arriving, they were ready to leave.

That was the moment when the handbag was opened. "I believe this belongs to you," the mother said and I saw, to my horror, that she was holding out the Byron ring. "I don't think you should encourage your daughter to go handing family possessions out at school." She paused. "It's just that I wouldn't care to have anyone saying my Sarah was a thief."

We all knew who the thief was. My former friend left without a backward glance. I don't think we ever spoke to each other again. Explaining to my parents why I had given a piece of their precious heritage to a girl I scarcely knew was no fun at all.

My next memory of the Byron ring belongs to the Sixties, when an Extremely Famous Actor came to Nottingham to perform in a one-man play about Byron. It was my father's idea, with the kindest of intentions, that we should invite him over and offer to let him wear the Byron ring for his performances. The EFA said he would be delighted.

He came, not alone as we had hoped, but with a wife and a giant tribe of children. He looked a bit less glamorous off-stage, and not in the least like Byron. Still, the offer had been made and he seemed almost embarrassingly excited by the prospect of wearing he ring. It would, he said, add SO MUCH to his feeling for the poet! What a marvellous, MARVELLOUS gesture! My father, who had been sulking about the tribe and the astonishing amount of noise they were making, began to brighten up again.

"Well", he said, gracefully waving a hand towards the staircase. "Time to go and get the ring out?"

The glass table was unlocked, the ring withdrawn and ceremoniously proffered. The EFA, still murmuring inexpressible gratitude, took it, admired it and extended his fingers. There was a long silence.

"I'm afraid it doesn't fit", he said. And looking, we could all see that he was quite right. It didn't even go over the first knuckle. "Oh but look!" my father said. And, snatching the ring back, he slipped it on and held out his hand for us to admire. The EFA did not stay for drinks, although we pressed him. In his letter of thanks, he said that he had so enjoyed seeing the ring worn, if not by him. My parents thought his tone a little cold.

We still have the ring. And, whenever my writing hits a sticky patch, I put it on, shut my eyes and think of Byron dashing off Don Juan through the hot Italian nights. Like the best talismans, a bit of belief is all it takes.

Miranda Seymour's new novel is "The Telling" (John Murray, pounds 15.99). She is writing a life of Mary Shelley

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