London in the stinging Sixties
Published at the age of 78, Kirsteen Stewart’s debut book even took her by surprise. It was a case of art reflecting life, says Jane Clinton
20 August, 2020 — By Jane Clinton
Camden Town author Kirsteen Stewart
WHEN Kirsteen Stewart finished writing her debut novel it was only then that it dawned on her just what the story was really about.
Break These Chains, which takes place in the 1960s, follows the life of Lydia, who is trying to come to terms with her troubled family history. Her father is not on the scene and her mother’s wild ways leave no room for a child.
She abandons Lydia to be looked after by her grandmother.
Grown up and living in the capital, Lydia meets a glamorous set and tries to enjoy the trappings of Sixties London with the fashion and the new energy of an emboldened youth.
But it is not all swinging.
Lydia is conflicted. She is trying to navigate two other different worlds: that of her disapproving grandmother, and the life she is leading as a young woman working in the civil service in London.
But there is a deeper uncertainty within her. She is still grappling to find out who she really is: is she like her mother or her father?
A similar uncertainty affected Kirsteen, but for very different reasons.
Born in London in 1941, she lived in the Bahamas from the ages of two to five, where her father, Duncan Stewart, was an assistant to the then Governor, the Duke of Windsor.
Tragedy struck in 1949 however, when Lydia’s father, the new Governor of Sarawak (Malaysia) was assassinated.
Lydia was only eight years old.
The family moved to a grace and favour apartment at Hampton Court and life carried on.
But Kirsteen admits despite gaining a first in History from Oxford and entering the civil service (parts of which inspired the novel), unresolved issues regarding her father’s death had left their mark.
“I have been back over it on and off all my life,” she says from her home in Camden Town.
“I have had psychotherapy. I got a little bit more information about my father from my mother but it was difficult for her. I was not allowed to talk about my father’s death. That is how it was then.
Kirsteen’s father, Duncan Stewart
“We had only seen my father on leave over the last few years because he was working in Palestine and it wasn’t safe for families.
“The irony is that Sarawak was supposed to be safe and we were about to join him when he was assassinated.
“I suppose I realised that when I was writing this novel I was writing about my being bruised by childhood. This did make it difficult to navigate my way through the glittering opportunities and choices available when things opened up in the 60s.”
It was when Kirsteen was 45, the same age as her father when he was murdered, that she made a poignant journey – to his grave.
Building works were to take place at the cemetery where he was buried in Singapore and the family were offered the chance to have his remains cremated or reburied elsewhere.
They decided to bring him back to Scotland, where he would be reburied.
And that is why Kirsteen found herself by her father’s graveside as he was being exhumed.
“It was an extraordinary experience watching them dig up his remains – it was like something from Shakespeare – but that did help me a lot,” she says. “The other thing that has helped is time.”
The passage of time is very much on Kirsteen’s mind as she embarks on life now as a novelist.
Break These Chains is an intoxicating mix of the heady glamour of the 60s set against social change and a personal family drama. It was published in May when Kirsteen was 78. She is now working on her second, which she describes as a psychological drama set in Scotland – a “croft noir” as she calls it.
Fiction writing came to her later in life – after she retired from paid work.
Previously she travelled the world as a diplomat’s wife and had children.
After getting divorced in 1990, she moved back to London and worked on projects that combined research and social innovation, including at the Institute of Community Studies in the East End with Michael Young.
Then in 2009 she became founder trustee and first Chair of Most Mira (Bridge of Peace) set up by a Bosnian concentration camp survivor to bring children together through arts and theatres.
Happily remarried, she did the Faber “Writing Your Novel” course and says it made her “determined to be a writer”.
She is now keen to get moving with this next phase in her life.
She adds: “With the best will in the world, I am in my late 70s and I do not have time to wait.”
- Break These Chains. By Kirsteen Stewart, whitefox, £9.99