How We Met: Brian Masters and Natalia Makarova

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Brian Masters, 54, who was brought up in the East End, has written 20 non-fiction books on subjects ranging from French literature to duchesses to murder. His study of the serial-killer Dennis Nilsen, Killing for Company, won the Gold Dagger Award in 1985. He lives in Brook Green, West London. Natalia (Natasha) Makarova, 52, born in Leningrad, was a leading light of the Kirov Ballet. She defected, and pursued a freelance career until 1989, when she danced publicly for the last time, in Leningrad. She has since taken up acting. She is married and has a son.

BRIAN MASTERS: I met Natasha soon after she defected in 1973. I was backstage at Covent Garden, after a performance by Doreen Wells I think, waiting outside the dressing room. And suddenly there was this exotic, beautiful, astonishing woman and it was all nudge-nudge and you-know- who-that-is-don't-you? She was shy and unlikely to begin a conversation, but I wasn't, so I started talking to her.

I discovered that she lived in the same part of London as me, and she said that her English was so bad she'd love to be able to practise it with someone. So I started going over there to talk. We'd spend evenings with at least two bottles of very good red wine - we both like good claret - discussing art, the artistic impulse, philosophy, life. She's a very profound lady and only the language lets her down. Artistically, she demands the best from herself and I think she demands it from other people, too. She won't put up with small talk. She hates gossip and silly chatter - she'd rather go and find somebody else to talk to.

It's always seemed odd to me that we should be friends - this incredibly spiritual woman and this man who writes about serial murders. But the reason we clicked - and it sounds awfully trite - is because of trust. I think intuitively she felt that I was not going to be someone who would let her down by being too casual an acquaintance, by not taking friendship seriously enough. She herself is very, very loyal. She also realised, I suppose, that I wasn't going to just run around telling the world about it all. In her life, she's naturally had to fend off people who were simply enjoying what the Germans call geltungs- bedurfnis - having so little self-worth that you absorb glamour from others. There have been a lot of people around her like that. Thank God, I'm not one, but I suppose there was always that danger.

She lives mainly in San Francisco now, though her husband has also built her an estate in the Napa Valley. I stay with her there or we meet in New York, but mainly we see each other in London; she's here four or five times a year. I take her to the Garrick Club or she takes me to Harry's Bar or we'll just have chicken and a bottle of wine at home. Sometimes there are other people around, but mostly it's just the two of us. Even though we spend a lot of time together, I'm always nervous for the first half-hour. She's very fragile, very birdlike, very easily hurt and I would hate to be the instrument of that. And, on a personal level, she is astonishingly beautiful, quite the most feminine woman I have ever met. She makes a man realise he is a man. In pure theory, she would have been the most wonderful wife, but we were never in love and anyway she's very happily married to someone else.

She's a wonderful actress - I would love to see her act Ranyevskaia in The Cherry Orchard. But I've always found ballet the most pure expression of thought and she is the most extreme example of it. You see her dance on stage and it's not a body dancing, it's something ethereal, unearthly, something beyond the obvious. Once, I took her up to Wynyard when Lord Londonderry, who was married to Doreen Wells, was putting on a special private performance. The ballroom was being converted - they were building a stage - and on the Sunday I said to Natasha, 'You really ought to see where you're dancing.' So we went along where the carpenters were still building and the electricians were still hanging lights and there was a lot of noise and banging. And then Natasha, who was just in T- shirt and jeans, got up on the stage and started dancing Saint-Saens's Dying Swan, and I swear I've never forgotten it. The banging stopped - I mean, they'd never been to the ballet before, but they saw what was obvious to them and which we have to explain and analyse, that that was not a woman on stage, but a dying creature. And they were awestruck.

I have lots of friends, but Natasha is separate - I suppose because we've always talked about things that matter. She forces me to recognise that rationality isn't everything, that there is spirituality in every human contact, and I make her realise that explaining things can be a route to understanding. She was very angry with me when I wrote Killing for Company, the book about Nilsen; she almost broke with me. She said, 'You are writing about something that is despicable; you should be writing about something higher, more spiritually enriching.' We argued about it and we didn't fall out, but I think that was because I was patient. She can be stubborn.

In many ways, Natasha brings me down to earth. At the same time, she makes me recognise the existence of - the word that comes into my head is 'holiness', only I'm not a religious man and it's a word I'm uncomfortable with. She is religious - she's a member of the Russian Orthodox church. Recently, she had a private chapel built on her estate and on the day it was consecrated, two weeks ago, I went into the local church on Brook Green and lit a candle.

NATALIA MAKAROVA: My dear Brian, when did I meet him? I have no recollection of the first time. It seems like I've known him all my life. Perhaps at first he would come to me in Gloucester Road to practise my English, but we would always find a theme to talk about - psychology, philosophy, many interesting things. With the two of us, it's always talk, talk, talk.

Because my profession is the body, it is a relaxation for me to get out of physicality and concentrate on more mental things. Brian is one of the intellectuals. It really stimulates my mind to talk to him. He knows so many languages - English, French, Italian, Russian - and he is very knowledgeable, very analytical. I am more spontaneous, but it's too much if two people are spontaneous so we complement each other. I just feel so comfortable in his company. I am just myself totally.

I don't find Brian very English at all. He has the English sense of humour, which I like, and the tie and the suit maybe, but that is superficial. Inside, he is almost like a Russian. He has an openness; in front of me he can't hide anything. Maybe that's why he likes to be with me because I am not like the others that he knows. He can forget about English formalities; I provoke him to be simple, to be direct.

It's a good thing he's good at taking criticism. Usually English personalities are difficult, they don't take criticism easily. But somehow Brian takes it, so my directness doesn't hurt him. It doesn't happen often, but I was very, very angry with him when he wrote the book about the murderer. I didn't know why he was interested in that subject. I wanted to figure out his mentality. Later on I understood. He has compassion to misery in other people, which makes him do that. And he was looking at it analytically. So I was mistaken. I misjudged.

I didn't read the book, but I read Gary, about the son he took in and adopted from the streets, and he is a fantastic writer. When I have to write something and I need help or some more information about some subject, it's always Brian, Brian, Brian. 'Brian will know' I say, and he does. I trust his aesthetic judgement, too. We go to the theatre very often together and he can always see through, while for me sometimes things disappear because of my English.

He takes me to the Garrick Club and I love it, a very attractive club, very grand. The problem is there you can't smoke before 9pm, so we come for dinner just before 9pm. Now everybody gives up smoking, I feel like a criminal, but Brian and I are devoted, we are loyal to our habits. Also when he takes me to the Garrick, I wear my hair in a scarf because I know he thinks I'm glamorous like that. Always he is so proud, it is almost like he wants to show me. I know the next day he will call and say, 'Oh, everybody is saying how beautiful you are, how lucky Brian is.' I say, 'Fine, if it gives you pleasure, I will always let you show me off at the Garrick.' But it doesn't matter the place; just the company - and the good wine, of course.

Brian is vulnerable somehow. It's interesting, I never know people of that age can so easily blush, but I can make him blush instantly. How I do it is my secret. He is a shy person, whereas I am bold, provocative. I'm sure he will have mentioned my Dying Swan. He always does: it's his favourite story.

I have many pictures of Brian in my house. There are photographs here, there. Even my husband sometimes says, 'There is too much of Brian.' -