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Moira Shearer was made my godmother in 1951, having married my uncle Ludovic Kennedy, writes Richard Calvocoressi.
The Independent, 2nd February 2006
I am not a ballet historian and I am too young ever to have seen her dance, so short was her career. But I was brought up on stories of her grace and intelligence as a dancer, as well as of her beauty and mesmerising stage presence. I watched The Red Shoes on television and last year I saw Peeping Tom for the first time in the Michael Powell retrospective at the Edinburgh Film Festival. Moira told me she did not really care for Powell, though it is an extraordinary film, way ahead of its time. I also witnessed her stage comeback in Edinburgh in the late 1970s, when she and Ludovic were living in a Georgian terraced house overlooking the Water of Leith, and was moved by her performance in The Aspern Papers in Glasgow 12 years ago.
When playing Sally Bowles in I Am a Camera in the Fifties, she said she dreaded every night having to mix and swallow in full view of the audience a "prairie oyster" - a concoction of raw egg and Worcester sauce - with which Sally tries to cure her hangover. She never completely shed her dancer's training; whether acting or in ordinary life she always stood and moved like a ballerina, even on the tennis court.
Moira was an imaginative and generous godparent, remembering my birthday long after custom dictated. For my 21st she gave me a complete set of Proust. She loved French culture. She would have been blissful living in a farmhouse in the Provençal sun but had to make do with holidays in the Highlands instead. When I was a child our two families would combine to rent a remote house in Invernessshire belonging to the historian John Grigg, where Ludovic could indulge his love of fishing and shooting and teach these sports to his children and nephews.
It wasn't exactly Moira's cup of tea, but she entered into it with enthusiasm and her customary good-humour and sense of the absurd. She had an attractive, deep voice and an infectious laugh, and was a good mimic. She also held strong views on politics and other subjects and I can remember some heated discussions between the grown-ups at dinner. I think she enjoyed teasing people - she had a mischievous side. In some respects she was more radical in her opinions than Ludovic, although she did not subscribe to his atheism and his criticisms of the Christian Church, leaving open, in a conversation I clearly recall, the possibility that there might be something in religion.
She occasionally confided that she hadn't really wanted to be a dancer, that the discipline and commitment ruled out any other kind of life, and that she had been pushed into it by her mother. I often wondered whether her passion for literature, music and the visual arts, which she largely developed after her ballet career ended - and which had a big influence on me - wasn't in some way making up for lost time and her lack of higher education.
At home, she listened to classical music all day long and at one point trained with the BBC to become a Radio 3 announcer. But she gave up because she could not manage the split-second timing and occasional requirement to "fill in". She was a perfectionist in whatever she did, but not in a frigid sense: everything, even producing a meal, was done effortlessly with a supreme lightness of touch. She had a great sense of style without ever being a slave to fashion. In fact, there was something timeless about her dress: skirt or slacks, wide belt encircling minuscule waist, and full blouse - the New Look might have been designed specially for her. She kept her legendary pile of golden red hair well into old age.
Her mother's family, the Shearers, must have been quite artistic. It's not widely known that Moira's uncle James Shearer was a distinguished architect, partner in the firm of Shearer and Annan, responsible for some stylish public buildings, monuments and interiors in and around Dunfermline as well as various dams and power stations in the Highlands. Moira's own innate artistic sense was inherited by all three of her daughters, two of whom studied at art college and became practising artists, while the third founded her own design business.
Moira definitely had star quality. There was something alluring and mysterious about her morning ritual of black coffee and a cigarette in her dressing-gown before she could start the day - and starting the day meant spending a considerable length of time in her bedroom carefully preparing face and hair. She would emerge, prancing and radiating energy, ready to turn heads wherever she went.
But she was modest and self-effacing about her own achievements. She once tried to write her memoirs but dropped the idea after about a fortnight, complaining of boredom. She didn't like looking back and couldn't imagine that anyone would want to read about her life. Her performances were what counted and those could not be recreated. One of her daughters recently told me that when she and Ludovic moved house for the last time she threw away a couple of sacks of photographs and other memorabilia, claiming they were of no interest to anyone.
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