|Pauline Boty made a big an impression on Margaret Drabble in Rome in the late 50s: 'Like a golden meteor she had flashed through life and escaped and soared onwards into space.' Photograph: Tony Evans/Getty Images|
The one that got away: Margaret Drabble
Saturday 23 August 2014
t was August, in the late 1950s, and we had reached Rome. We were students on vacation, on the road, hitchhiking, exploring, sleeping in hostels and convents, eating plates of pasta, drinking cheap red wine. This was the Rome of Fellini and Antonioni, it was the dawn of La Dolce Vita, it was L'Avventura, and Italy spread itself out like a sunlit dream. We were players in a romantic movie, we were footsore, dirty and dishevelled, but we thought we were glamorous.
The most glamorous of all was Pauline Boty. She embodied the coming age. We met her in a youth hostel. She wasn't one of our group, but she was our age, and she was blonde and strikingly beautiful. She introduced herself to me in the primitive shower room by admiring my nightwear, which consisted of a man's shirt: "I know I'll like a person who wears a shirt like that!" And I knew I would like her. How could one not? Friendly, glowing, bronzed, curious, eager, impulsive: the world was all before her, and she knew it. I can't recall in detail the adventures we had in Rome – they have merged into dim memories of ancient ruins and trattoria and bars – but they involved pasta and wine and wild talk about the future. She was studying at the Royal College of Art: most of us were hoping to go into the theatre. We were all full of expectation and desire.
I've no idea how much time we spent together: probably not more than a day or two. I moved on, to the mosquito-coast of the Adriatic, and she went I know not where. But once seen, never forgotten. I had thought we would have plenty of time to pursue a friendship, but this was not to be. In 1960, I graduated, married, had three children and started publishing novels, all in quick succession. She, I knew, had become a pop artist and an actor. I noted her name whenever it surfaced, but made no effort to contact her. I was busy, and there would, I thought, be time hereafter.
We moved in circles that were adjacent but not overlapping, and I waited, not at all anxiously, to bump into her again one day. Then, to my grief and horror, I read that she had died at the age of 28, in 1966, of cancer, not long after giving birth to a daughter. I remember the sense of shock that somebody so young and so charged with life could have vanished so suddenly and completely.
She vanished for years. Her work was almost forgotten, her reputation eclipsed by the lasting successes of her male friends and contemporaries – David Hockney, Derek Boshier, Allen Jones. Like a golden meteor she had flashed through life and escaped and soared onwards into space. The sorrow she left behind, to those who knew her well, must have been unendurable. To me, who met her so briefly, her death seemed portentous and terrible.
Decades later, in 2004, deep in the Hades of the London underground, I saw a huge poster of one of her paintings, then being exhibited at Tate Britain, in a show called Art & The 60s: This Was Tomorrow. So she hadn't been a dream. There was her well-remembered name. I stood and stared.
I never went to the exhibition. It was far, far too late.