In Memoriam Shusha Guppy
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 28th March, 2008
The Persian writer, singer and composer Shamsi ‘Shusha’ Guppy, who has died of cancer, was a remarkable creature in many ways. The daughter of a Grand Ayatollah in Tehran – and possibly directly descended from the Prophet Mohammed himself — she was urbane, open-minded and often wily. When one of her sons, Darius (one of Boris Johnson’s loucher chums) was sent to prison for fraud, she defended him like a lioness with her cubs, though she did not excuse his misdemeanour. Shusha was as small as the Queen, and just as determined, and at times could indeed be quite regal. At others, she was modesty itself — just one of her many contradictions.
Precociously brilliant, she discovered Paris´ Left Bank in its post-War heyday, later moving on to London, ending up perfectly trilingual. She made a mark as a singer of both Persian and Western songs, though I for one valued her books above all: personal, idiosyncratic and insightful. She had been a figure on the British literary scene for many years before our paths crossed directly, as members of English PEN´s Writers in Prison Committee. Last autumn, the two of us were sent by PEN to Cairo, not just to attend a seminar on writers in Egypt (at the British Council), but also to find out more about the situation regarding freedom of expression there and the particular case of the imprisoned blogger, Abdel Kareem Nabil Suleiman. She alarmed me before we set off by informing me that she intended to be my ‘little sister’ in Egypt, who would follow me around. In the event, it wasn’t quite as bad as that, as she was rather good in discussions at gatherings of people, though she had done no homework in preparation. Her lack of drive at the time surprised me, but the reason became all too evident soon after she returned (ahead of me) to England, and cancer was diagnosed.
One memory still makes me smile. She had a habit of asking men such as myself who had no obvious woman in tow whether they were married. In my case, after I replied ‘no’, she then asked me how old I was. I told her (57) and cheekily added, ‘how about you?’ As I expected, the first response I got was that it was not gallant for a man to ask a woman such a question. But a couple of hours later, she came up to me and said, ‘Well, you mustn’t tell anyone, but I’ll soon be 62.’ At the time, I thought it takes style to knock five years off one’s age — but real chutzpah to knock off ten, which is what I suspected, and what indeed proved to be the case, when her excellent and affectionate obituary by Roger Scruton appeared earlier this week in the Guardian.