Writer and campaigner
Tuesday 24 January 2006
Elma Tryphosa Birkett, journalist, writer and campaigner: born Liverpool 11 October 1907; OBE 1960, CBE 2002; Secretary, then Director, Byron Society 1971-2006; married 1926 Edward Dangerfield (died 1941; one daughter); died London 22 January 2006.
Elma Dangerfield was an energetic participant in London political, literary, and business life for more than 60 years. Until housebound by declining health, she attended a social occasion almost every weekday evening. Many of these events she had devised and organised herself, in one of her several guises, as co-founder of the European-Atlantic Group, perhaps, or re-founder of the Byron Society: lectures in hotels in central London, dinners in the Houses of Parliament, lunches in the City.
She knew everyone who mattered - and had often known their fathers and mothers too - but few who encountered her in recent decades appreciated quite how remarkable her earlier life had been. She disliked talking about the past, partly to conceal her great age, and it was for the same reason, I suspect, that her name did not appear in reference books although she was appointed OBE 46 years ago. Until the end, she was full of new ideas and ambitious projects for the future.
Born in Wavertree, Liverpool, in 1907, Elma Birkett spent her earliest years in the Philippines and Hong Kong, where her father was a banker. In a fragment of unpublished autobiography, she recalled the luxury and loneliness of colonial life, the endless exchanges of social visits, polo, golf, and cards, the omnipresent servants, the lavish presents - she was given a pony by an admirer of her mother who later became her stepfather. She wrote too of finding her own private refuge in the dream worlds of the English Romantic poets. When the Armistice was declared on 11 November 1918 Elma was crossing the Pacific on an ocean liner on her way to boarding school at Cheltenham Ladies' College.
At the age of 19 she married Edward Dangerfield of the Royal Navy, the Flag Lieutenant to the then Duke of Kent on the China Station, and the couple lived wherever the Navy sent him - Singapore (where she was presented to the future King Edward VIII on his Empire tour), the Admiralty in London, and staff college in Greenwich.
Her husband, described as eternally boyish and enthusiastic, with a taste for theatre and ballet, had served throughout the First World War - his ship was torpedoed in 1914 when he was 14. In 1939, when the Second World War began, he was the youngest captain in the Navy, destined, it was assumed, soon to be a great admiral and have his bust in Trafalgar Square, alongside those of Jellicoe and Beatty. However, in January 1941, when about to take command of a new ship, Captain Dangerfield died after a short illness, leaving Elma a widow with a 12-year-old daughter.
For a time she worked in the Admiralty and in MI9, a branch of the intelligence services. But soon, like many well-connected ladies, she was mobilised into the war effort, writing on current affairs within the censoring constraints of the Ministry of Information. At that time, she was already the published author of a play, "Mad Shelley": a dramatic life in five acts (1936), and Ian Dalrymple had based a film on a story by her, Radio Lover (1936). She was assigned to keep in touch with the Polish community in exile, connections she maintained for the rest of her life.
In 1943, Elma Dangerfield was the named author of a series of chilling articles in the liberal monthly The Nineteenth Century and After, reporting in extraordinary detail on the extermination of the gypsies and the Jews, and giving a full account of the rising in the Warsaw ghetto. Based on dossiers of reports from inside the country, these articles are still relevant to the historical question of how much the Allied governments knew, and why they did not divert air power from the bombing of cities.
As the Second World War ended, Dangerfield recounted another series of atrocities, the deportation of innumerable Poles by the Russians, a subject that the Western allies were then reluctant to see discussed. Her excellent book on the gulags, Beyond the Urals, with a preface by Rebecca West, was published in 1946 by the British League for European Freedom.
The history of that organisation, in which Dangerfield was closely associated with Kitty, Duchess of Atholl and members of Parliament of both houses, has been told by Douglas MacLeod in his book Morningside Mata Haris (2005). Although Dangerfield stood for Parliament unsuccessfully as a Liberal candidate more than once, she had discovered her unique talent, the organising of cross-party, broadly liberal, extra-parliamentary campaigns, aimed at shaping opinion.
Anyone who thinks that British politics is Westminster, Whitehall and the media can never have met Elma Dangerfield. The European-Atlantic Group, of which she was a co-founder in 1954 and which remains active, helped to shift opinion from the narrowly nationalistic ethos of the post-war years and campaigned for closer British involvement with Europe.
The Byron Society, which Dangerfield re-founded in 1975 with her partner, the late Dennis Walwyn Jones MC (it had had a previous life from 1876, but had died in the 1930s), has never been just literary, boasting such chairmen as Lord Gilmour of Craigmillar and deputy chairmen as Michael Foot. The society publishes The Byron Journal, and Dangerfield herself made her own contribution to Byron studies in Byron and the Romantics in Switzerland, 1816 (1978).
Tiny, thin, dainty in her manners, Elma Dangerfield in her chosen milieu resembled some exotic tropical bird darting around the crowded room. Always in command, she kept to the sidelines, seldom speaking until others had had their say. Although she must have been present at more formal meals than anyone alive, she was seldom seen to eat. Byron had opined that a lady should never be seen eating unless it were lobster and champagne: for Dangerfield a few sips of Dubonnet when the evening had proved a success provided her with more energy in her eighties than most people have ever had.
Dangerfield's determination to get her way was extraordinary, and so was her persistence. When the Wilson government was making the first soundings about Britain joining the European Common Market, I was sharing a room with the colleague who drafted the Foreign Secretary's speeches. Dangerfield, whom I did not meet till years later, telephoned him so often that he dreaded picking up the receiver - sometimes, to let him get some work done, I took the calls and heaped his desk with notes asking him to ring back MOST URGENTLY.
Everyone had their stories, some affectionate, some exasperated, but all were evidence of her extraordinary power within her empires. A Labour peer remembers rushing down from the ski slopes when the hotel sent up word that he was wanted urgently on the telephone - would he be able, Dangerfield asked, to take the chair at a meeting in May? Sheikh Yamani, the Saudi oil minister, who in the mid-1970s was one of the most powerful men in the world, was persuaded to postpone the funeral of a close relative, something almost unheard of in Muslim society, in order to give a talk in London.
I remember, when the Byron Society, on a tour of Italy, arrived at the convent where Byron had sent his daughter, the Mother Superior was reluctant to let us in. "This is the Lady of the Queen of England," Dangerfield announced in schoolgirl Italian, dragging forward the widow of an Astronomer Royal who lived in a grace-and-favour flat in Buckingham Palace Mews. The convent gate duly opened, although most members of the society had slunk away in embarrassment.
This apparent shamelessness was made possible by an absence of any sense of the comical. When Dangerfield declared she was the reincarnation of Claire Clairmont, who had seduced a reluctant Byron, she was not joking. Irony was one aspect of her hero to which she was largely deaf. What she did share with Byron was a lofty disdain, but Dangerfield's snobbery was neither Debrett nor Hello!.
Men, to whom she was unfailingly respectful, courteous, and charming as she wheedled them, were the lords of creation. Women, even those with titles, ranked well below in the order of things. Those who thought that their PhDs allowed them to participate were shooed away like pigeons. The numerous RESERVED placards that Dangerfield laid on the seats in the front rows impeded fraternisation across her imposed hierarchies, even on a bus.
A few years ago Elma Dangerfield gave a lecture to a delighted international audience on the life, works, and loves of Madame de Staël. She drew a picture of aristocratic drawing rooms, of intelligent men and stylish women, a world of unchallenged social differences, where politics, literature and art mixed, and influential behind-the-scenes women were gallantly courted by ambitious male admirers.
Dangerfield's enthusiasm for the occasions that she tirelessly devised for over half a century derived from some such fantasy of how great nations should be governed.
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