Obituary: Jasmine Rose-Innes

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The Independent Culture
"THIS VERY beautiful book," wrote James Cameron, "gives a picture of an extraordinary girlhood - anxious and eager, lonely and obsessed, full of emotional riches . . ." The book was Jasmine Rose-Innes's Writing in the Dust, which appeared 30 years ago.

The "extraordinary girlhood" had been enjoyed and endured in Africa. Jasmine had budded and flowered during the Twenties and Thirties in white man's Rhodesia and in the Cape, but at the same time had undergone real poverty, hardship and cultural claustrophobia, while nursing dazzling dreams of escape.

She was to achieve personal and professional independence and success in wartime Britain - the subject of another autobiography, Dog Star, still to be published - and then return to Africa to marry and have children: but to continue thinking, talking, working, develping her various talents, and always deepening her involvement with her family: "one to one" as she put it. Finally it was England again - writing, drawing, painting and, in her last few years, etching.

No one who reads Writing in the Dust can fail to notice the writer's youthful capacity for intense compassion and indignation, or the vividness of her experience of beauty and disgust, of anxiety and serenity. As a grown woman, Rose-Innes spent her life not just responding to life but distributing the riches she had received to those around her. The riches of Africa were after all not only emotional riches: they were physical, sensuous, aesthetic and generously bestowed.

She was born Jasmine Gordon-Forbes in Somerset in 1915, and brought up in Rhodesia. Her father had been a tea planter in Sumatra who on his retirement bought a farm in Southern Rhodesia. After attending Rhodes University College in Grahamstown, Cape Province, where she read Fine Arts, Jasmine came to England in 1938. She worked as an art editor and typographical designer, at the Geographic Magazine and for the Ministry of Information.

In 1947 she returned to South Africa and married a scientist, Reg Rose- Innes, who had also studied at Grahamstown. Rose-Innes was involved in the Black Sash movement - the women's Anti-Apartheid group. When her son, Crispin was born, their great friend Bishop Trevor Huddleston christened him in a black township, as an act of defiance.

At the same time as Jasmine's pregnancy in South Africa, her father was in desperation: the rains hadn't come and the crops had failed. She describes what happened at the end of Writing in the Dust:

. . . in Rhodesia he was also waiting, watching, but paralysed with disaster. He went over to the Wilsons on New Year's Eve and sat rigid on their stoep, staring at nothing, like a being without a mind. They were going in to Gwelo. "Come Percy, come, old dear, it's a party - New Year, you know. 1949 - there is always a new beginning."

He didn't go with them. He must get back to his farm he said. And so they climbed into their Landrover and left him there, sitting on the stoep, staring into the darkness of the inimical bush.

When they came back in the early hours of 1949 he was still there, but he no longer stared into the bush. It wasn't really possible to look at him because the part of him that mattered had gone, only his mutilated body was there, and the shotgun where it had fallen from his hand.

Her Christmas present to him was returned.

The parcel of socks came back unopened. It had reached Hunter's Road on the 2nd of January. Three weeks later the baby was born. It was a little boy.

A few years later Jasmine and Greg Rose-Innes decided to move to Ghana, feeling that a multi-racial society would be a healthier place in which to live. The family spent nine years at the University of Ghana, where Greg worked as a lecturer, specialising in grasslands. On her return to England in 1962 Jasmine completed a refresher teacher-training course at Goldsmiths' College, and went on to teach art at the North London Collegiate School for Girls with Peggy Angus, who was head of the art department. She also taught typography and photography at the London College of Printing and started to write about her childhood.

When in 1968 Andre Deutsch published Writing in the Dust, it was awarded the Heinemann Prize; the following year Rose-Innes was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She held numerous exhibitions of paintings and later prints in Sussex and London, accepting commissions right up to the end. In the 1990s she took up etching, and one of her etchings is in the current Royal Academy Summer Show.

I first met her in 1942 when I was 16 and she was 26. We were both Communists, and we met in Denmark Street, off Charing Cross Road, where I was addressing an open-air meeting called for the lifting of the ban on the Daily Worker. She was then Art Editor of the Geographic Magazine and I had not long before run away from home and was working as a packer in the Party Bookshop off Red Lion Square, waiting to begin active service in the RAF Volunteer Reserve - an under-age volunteer for both organisations.

Jasmine Rose-Innes befriended me when I most needed it. She taught me many things about living alone and introduced me to a whole new collection of friends. She made me read modern poetry - Auden and Eliot - and told me about designing. Particularly I remember her skill at lettering (before Letraset was discovered), and her beautifully sure and fine Italian handwriting, on which I began to model my own. She also yanked me out of various depressions and a tendency to over-seriousness, and said that I "must enjoy everything much more". She showed me Box Hill: I'd been there before but not seen it properly.

She began her letters "Oliver dear" which I thought overwhelmingly kind compared with "Dear Oliver". She would never go down to the basement shelter in Russell Court during the air-raids, but preferred to sit up on the eighth floor and talk, rather fast and excitedly about anything and everything. She refused to be bored.

In 1944 I went to Canada for flying training. By that time she was working for the Foreign Office designing material to be dropped into occupied countries. We lost touch. But at some time in 1953 or 1954 I saw a photograph of her on the front page of the Daily Mirror. She'd been arrested as a member of the Black Sash Movement in South Africa. She looked very dramatic, brightly angry. I saw that she was now (very respectably) married, which made her protest all the stronger. I was very pleased and proud.

When we next met she was teaching at the London College of Printing. She had a son and a daughter and a house in Godstone in Surrey which I thought exactly like Howard's End.

I'd always thought of her more like Helen than like Margaret Schlegel. I don't mean that she was scatty or rude: she was though, extremely generous - one of the most generous creatures I've ever known. That's what made her such a good teacher and such a good friend. She was swift and impatient and brilliant.

Most of all she was a positive and loving person. The phrase I most closely associate with her is one she must have uttered 20 times a week - whether about the sky or the slope of a down, a leaf or a tree, the behaviour of a child or a bird, or the feel of ink on a brush. "I love it, I love it, I love it!"

Oliver Bernard

Iona Jasmine Gordon-Forbes, designer, painter, photographer, writer, teacher: born Winscombe, Somerset 26 November 1915; FRSL 1969; married 1947 Reg Rose-Innes (one son, one daughter); died Beddingham, Sussex 15 June 1998.