HOW WE MET; MAYA ANGELOU AND MAVIS NICHOLSON
Sunday 17 May 1998
MAYA ANGELOU: I first saw Mavis on TV, interviewing John Cleese. He's a particular favourite of mine: he's very funny, very bright and maybe a little difficult. And she asked him all the questions I'd wanted answers to - without bugging him, probing without being uncomfortable or painful. Some years later she interviewed me while I was doing promotion for a new book. I came in and sat down and we started talking. Within about 15 minutes I thought: "That's the same woman that interviewed John Cleese." I never thought I would ever meet her, and I was so pleased she was going to interview me.
We talked, then she told her people: "I'll stay and have a night-cap with Miss Angelou." They left, and she told me: "I had a wonderful friend, married with two children. He was my `brother' friend." And one day she went home - they all lived in the same block - and he had gone left his wife and two children. She said his name was Paul du Feu, who was my ex- husband. And I knew at once what a `brother' friend can mean to a strong woman. You might be able to find lovers or even husbands anywhere, at bus stops or train stations, but to find a `brother' friend is really rare ... So I sympathised with her without even thinking about what I had lost in a failed marriage. I recognised myself in her. That was the key which opened the door for me to see our oneness, our similarities; that we're born continents, oceans and races apart, means very little. She's short, I'm tall. She's white, I'm black. She's Welsh, I'm American ... But we have so much. We simply, immediately almost, knew the other.
I like her a lot because she doesn't laugh at other people: she laughs at herself. I like that she's tough, tough as an old walnut - a black walnut. And she's tender as a grape. That's how I want to be. She can't bear pretension, she would laugh it out of existence if she could.
If we lived near each other we would have dinner at least once a month, but not being around each other has not lessened our love and sense of community with each other. We talk about everything that comes up. We sit and talk until the wee hours, and I will drink Scotch and she'll drink a little. Generally, she will tell me about her family, and I will tell her about mine. She will hold my hand and kiss it, and then I will hold hers and kiss hers, if there's been tragedy in the family. She's proud of her family, and I'm also family-proud.
We talk about every aspect of life that we want the other to know about: the grandchildren, the new achievements, the new disappointments, the new physical assaults on the family, the deaths ... She says, "OK, so what happened to ... ?" and "Where is
It's a love affair without sex and that's the hardest affair to have, because at least if you have sex between you, you can make up when you get angry with each other. With a friendship you've got to work your way through it.
But we didn't meet early enough to fall out. Had we met in our twenties and thirties, we might have fallen out. But now we don't have time. Maybe when I'm about 80 I might have a little battle of wills with her. But not yet.
Mavis's greatest quality is to be herself, but she represents human beings. Some people are still themselves, but they only represent their class, their age group, their particular level of education. But she represents something very human, something that does not deny anybody entrance, and I think that's her greatest achievement.
She's a sweet friend. A friend is a person to whom you would trust your life. That's not just the breathing in and breathing out, but the secrets and the codes, particular keys to the vaults of your life. And she's trustworthy. I wouldn't hesitate to tell her anything, and I don't think she'd hesitate to tell me anything: she would know it's safe with me.
MAVIS NICHOLSON: We met when Virago brought out Maya's first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in 1984, and I interviewed her for TV. I'd read the book and I was utterly stunned by it. And I thought what a privilege it was going to be to meet this woman, to be given half an hour of air time with her. I was alarmed by her talent, but there was something about her writing and her feelings that I felt I shared, so I felt we would get on. I remember, very vividly, feeling somewhere along the line that she was a sister.
She was sitting waiting for me, in her hotel. I think she was wearing quite a simple wool dress, high to the neck and maybe blue. That's the dress she wore on the telly, too. Although she is tall, and I'm extremely short, she had such a lovely gentle smile.
When I met her she said, to my absolute amazement and delight, "Good lord, woman, you're the one I saw once interviewing John Cleese. I was in my hotel, waiting to go to France, I turned the telly on, and I thought: `I want to be interviewed by that woman one day'."
And I don't think we've ever looked back. We had this very quick, close contact of smiling brown eyes, both of us. I felt almost as if I'd known her all my life.
Now we are very familiar with each other without having seen each other all that many times. I'm always impressed that I know her. I kind of nudge myself a bit and think "There is this mega-star", especially since she did that Presidential poem.
We usually have our private, snatched conversation even in a crowd, a little "nuzzle-in" quietly together. We both seem to eat heartily together. And we like drinking wine. I'm aware of her being much much larger than life. Goodness knows why I don't feel more dwarfed; she does alarm me.
I was terribly flattered and touched when Maya asked me to go and stay the night in her house in North Carolina. I was going to New York to interview Quentin Crisp, and then to Baltimore to interview Stewart Granger, and Maya said why didn't I drop in and see her on the way. Her house was so beautiful. The area was quite posh, but her house was simpler, and on stilts. I felt as if I was on a boat. Her curtains looked like sails and they were silk: white, cream and yellow, and there was this deep white carpet everywhere which you just sank into.
I'd been held up by a strike, and she was held up on another plane coming from Boston. And so I was waiting with her driver, the tallest black man I've ever met, called Mr Brown. Maya tumbled off the plane, terribly tired having been lecturing, and we got to her house about one in the morning. Her housekeeper had left this wonderful chicken dish, a speciality of Maya's. It was softly spiced, utterly delicious. We stayed up a long time talking, and she showed me a love poem she'd written to Paul. That chat tied the knot of our friendship.
We always seem to have a good conversation rather than a chitchat. We've talked about memory, how we remember things - and issues. I don't think we're ever earnest, though. We once had a fairly fierce encounter where she accused me of regarding her as the token black in my life. She said: "You don't know any other black people." And I said: "You only know famous whites." She laughed, and we sort of dropped it.
I've always felt an affinity with black people, despite what Maya accused me of. I've known them through my children, and through work. Maybe it's because I've always thought that the Welsh were slightly enslaved by the English, so that with all the people who've suffered under the hands of a stronger power, there's at humour that's similar. Maya is a great laugher.
She's a brilliant teacher, preacher: conveying this message that everybody's got a chance to shine, everybody's got poetry in them. She's colourful, passionate, vivid about things. And she can hold people in the palm of her hand with such gentleness.
I've always been moved by people who make a lot of themselves, from very humble beginnings. They strike me as tragic - I'm not sorry for them, but there's some sadness there, so they therefore understand a lot about human life. And that's why I always want to meet Maya, because she'll give me another "lead" about life, another moment that I'll treasure.
! `Even the Stars Look Lonesome', a collection of autobiographical essays by Maya Angelou (Virago, pounds 12.99) is out now.
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