Obituary: Yvonne Kapp

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The Independent Culture
"IF YOU live a long life, you have a lot of stories to tell," Yvonne Kapp confessed at the age of 93. The stories she did tell about herself, modest and dismissive, belied the remarkable life she had led, which included spells as a journalist, novelist, translator, biographer, and, after joining the Communist Party in 1936, a devotion to politics.

Born into a respectable Jewish family in 1903, Yvonne's first major rebellion, she recalled, was when she registered at King's College, London, to study journalism. This, and her atheism, led to a rift with her parents, which was not healed by her decision in August 1922 to marry the artist Edmond Kapp.

The marriage was never easy and never dull. Newspapers announced the Kapps' departure on a walking honeymoon from Paris to Italy after an all- night dance at Victoria. They hiked across Europe, busking to earn a crust and securing pourboires by engaging in literary conversation with patrons. They stayed with friends, rested at Edmond's studio in Antibes and later in a rented apartment off the Haymarket in London. The capital was a ferment of ideas, literary and political: this was the heyday of the artistic "circle". Amongst the Kapps' friends and acquaintances were C.K. Ogden, Iris Barry, John Collier, Edward Wolfe and "Sage" Bernal.

Yvonne scratched out a living by writing articles, "anything that came into one's head" she admitted. In 1927 a recommendation from Rebecca West led to a job at Paris Vogue and financial security at a time when her marriage was dissolving. By now, her husband's artistic independence meant that Kapp was effectively a single mother, having given birth to a daughter, Janna, in 1924.

In addition to a number of works of non-fiction, she published four novels under the name of Yvonne Cloud. If her choice of name is significant, it is that the silver lining she offered became more tarnished with each publication. The novels all had a satirical streak, but outrage swells in successive books. By The Houses In Between (1938) Kapp was ostensibly a "political" writer.

Her first novel, Nobody Asked You, was self-published in 1932 after its contents had caused the projected publisher consternation. One reviewer observed: "she shows remorselessly, as life does, that to have no purpose, no standards, no altruism, no idealism, is to be damned to a hell below ordinary pain". Kapp lacked none of these qualities in the varied career that was to follow her literary apprenticeship.

In 1936 she visited the Soviet Union. The sights she saw there, and a long conversation on the voyage home with Harry Pollitt, secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain, led to her joining the Communist Party. From this time on, her life was to be politically active. It began with her offering accommodation to political refugees at her home in London. In 1937 she worked with the largest influx of refugees in British history: the Basque children, who were given shelter at a camp in North Stoneham outside Southampton. The most visible sign of her involvement was a fund- raising event at the Royal Albert Hall that she organised in the same year. Paul Robeson sang, Picasso offered one of his Guernica sketches for auction, and thousands of pounds were raised.

She continued her work at the Jewish Refugees Committee at Woburn House in London. This was followed by her appointment in 1938 to the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, as Assistant to the Director. The political climate, however, meant that Kapp was dismissed from her post by the Home Office in 1940. With her friend Margaret Mynatt, who had also lost her job on the committee because of her affiliations, she wrote the expose British Policy and the Refugees (completed 1941, published 1968). A new edition was published in 1997.

Over the next decade, Kapp was engaged in industrial research. After a period of voluntary work for the Labour Research Department, she became Research Officer for the Amalgamated Engineering Union. In this role she penned speeches for the president Jack Tanner and investigated working conditions for the so-called "Production Enquiries." She was also instrumental in the introduction of women into the union. In 1947, employment by the Medical Research Council led to extensive field work in the factories and docks of the East End of London.

Between 1953 and 1957, Kapp worked as editor and translator for the publishing house Lawrence and Wishart. Her translations include works by Ilya Ehrenburg, the French writer Paul Lechat, and several works by Bertolt Brecht. It was while Kapp was working on correspondence between Engels and Lafargue that she was alerted to the existence of Eleanor Marx, Karl Marx's youngest daughter. Her two-volume biography Eleanor Marx (1972 and 1976) was over 10 years in the making. It was rapturously received and is still a model of its kind. "It is a work of scholarship but also a work of art," announced Michael Foot in a review.

Kapp was both searcher and researcher, a recorder of events and situations who also took steps to change things for the better. She was a formidable woman, her conversation full of wisdom and mischief. She had a love of literature, music, cuisine and gardening. In later years she was not as mobile as she would have liked, but friends and associates would pay court to her at her house in Highgate, which she shared for 23 years with her great friend Betty Lewis.

She continued to write and publish into her nineties: "a reason", she once told me, "not to shuffle off too soon." On another occasion we sipped tea and talked about obituaries; "I do think the dead should speak up for themselves," she chuckled. Yvonne Kapp spent her life speaking up and speaking out, telling her beliefs. There are many stories left to tell: future biographers have a fascinating journey ahead of them.

Yvonne Mayer, writer and activist: born London 17 April 1903; married 1922 Edmond Kapp (died 1978; one daughter; marriage dissolved); died London 22 June 1999.

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