Amazonas, Brazil, Friday 29th April 1988 The Praça
São Sebastião. About midnight.
"Tony, I know you would like a beer." Margaret chuckled. She had a very infectious
and knowing chuckle and I'd heard it many times.
across the elegant Teatro Amazonas had just dimmed. The white metal chairs at
the small streetside bar were damp from the evening's rain. I ordered a fresh
mango juice for her while for me it was a well-chilled Antarctica. We had broken
away from a group of friends after a splendid meal in the La Barca restaurant,
my favorite and some way from the centre. The food had been marvellous. Fresh
Amazon fish with typical Brasilian side dishes. We could have chatted all night
about Manauense hospitality but we had planned this private meeting much earlier.
We were beginning our hunt for the elusive 'Moonflower' .Here in the heart of
Amazonia we were away from the pressures of Rio and I didn't have to be careful
with questions. Anyway Margaret was prepared to be open.
do you want me to begin" She said. I had just completed three months in Rio sifting
her diaries assembling an outline of her life. We had spent ten hours a day together
and still some of the details just didn't add-up. Pieces had been left out quite
deliberately. Of that I was sure. Three questions were in my mind " I'm still
unclear about Roberto. You met him in the 'fifties when you had an exhibition
in Rio and you have been great friends......? .'ever since " She caught my question
and chuckled again." We will talk about that at the end. Tony . First you must
know by now that we had much in common. Our passions in life, the probelems
for the world " Only one other person I knew said ' probelem' in quite
the same way. "Tell me more and can you now say how you managed to avoid 'problems'
with the secret police? " I moved to another chair out of the tropical rain gusting
across the pavement. Brazil had changed since my meeting with Tony Wellington.
five years I had been criss-crossing Amazonia. Great changes showed everywhere.
The military government in Brazil had transformed the country with an'economic
miracle'. The new capital Brasilia was 'up and running' so were modern airports
and roads including those around Manaus. Brazil was not just 'coffee'. Amazonia
was a focus for growth and factories were opening daily around the city.
"Roberto had good
friends " Margaret began and then hesitated. "You only have to look at his work
over the past forty years. He had some probelems too but they came with
his work." She mentioned the time from years ago when Roberto and Juscelino Kubitschek
hardly spoke, later Juscelino became president. "Then as you know he was gay.
Twenty years ago, even here in Brazil we never mentioned it openly" She added
passionately "Thank goodness all that has changed and about time too"
Margaret and Roberto
were the same age within a few months. They had been introduced in 1959 by a young
botanist Luis Emygdio. A year earlier seventy nine of her flower paintings had
been exhibited at the National Museum and Botanical Garden where Luis worked in
Rio. In those days it was Brazil's capital and a beautiful city. The artistic,
cultural life and political heartbeat of the country revolved around a tiny elite
any living in the fine houses of Laranjeiras close to the congress building in
Catete the older part of the city. Both are now out of the mainstream. Margaret
was living in Sao Paulo four hundred miles away with Greville Mee a commercial
artist from Britain. For a time I had worked in the school, it was dreadful.....
I have told you about the rows. Then as you know I found a job in the museum in
São Paulo " From then her life changed and trips into the forest and botanical
painting took months on end. As the 'fifties drew to a close she became more involved
with friends in Rio, making the twelve hour jouney by bus whenever she could afford
the fare "I didn't have much money." That much I knew already as friends in São
Paulo had confided.
Luis , Roberto and the Botanical Garden were what I wanted but I couldn't move
from São Paulo so I used the bus. In those days the road followed the coast
and in some places ran along the beach. If the tide was 'in' you had to wait."
She chuckled again as she saw I was waiting for more. Her timing was perfect.
At one time she had thought of acting as a career.
had reached a rather slow part of the journey where the road winds through forest
and we stopped. The engine was too hot or something and the driver had to get
water. I think he must have upset a local bar owner or something because before
we knew what was happening they began fighting. Six or seven men surrounded the
driver and were shouting 'Seu desclassificado' 'Sua vagabunda!' I'd better
not translate that" She said and chuckled, more of a laugh this time. Her demeanour
changed suddenly as she relived the action. Her eyes sparkled quickly and then
hardened. Her mouth tightened and her hand clenched. It was a quite extraordinary
metamorphosis and another more vital 'Margaret' appeared .Her father had been
quick to rise and her genes were the same. "I leapt from the bus and challenged
them. 'Don't be so stupid' I said to the leader who must have been six feet tall..
I believe the driver had been that way many times and was getting too friendly
with one of the local wives. They were so surprised that a mere woman should confront
them they stopped, very surlily to begin with and then backed away"
many hours combing her diaries and asking questions I was getting a 'feel' for
the real Margaret locked behind the face everyone knew. Some of the tales I could
check later and others were lost in the realm of her private world. How much was
a fantasy only time would reveal. We talked for a couple of hours and returned
to the hotel through almost deserted streets. A refuse truck on a corner flowed
with the rancid odour of a day's city waste making us hold our breath and stop
talking. The collectors with cloths across their faces were scooping up the mess
left by stray scavengeing dogs. I heard the background to her political days in
Europe, the dodgy times with the military governement and her clashes with the
multi-national companies investing in Amazonia. Much was simply an expansion of
the notes I made in Rio when editing her diaries Occasionally she said "You had
better leave that out."
party met for a simple breakfast of fruit bread and coffee. We were heading up
the Rio Negro one of the Amazon's great tributaries in search of a rare, night
flowering cactus. I still had questions but couldn't ask them and it was only
when we travelling on the boat that I found a chance. the noise from the fifty
year old diesel motor drowned our conversation "When you get back to London you
must talk to Frank, the rest of the name was lost in the engine noise. He was
a friend of mine a long time ago. Frank will help you" She promised to send the
forest ran by like a moving, fascinating and unbelievably vibrant green wallpaper
only a yard to my right. The other bank was five miles away across the river.
Our destination was another ten hours away.
Wednesday November 30th 1988 A few minutes
Yes. Tony here" The 'phone by the bed slipped to the floor as in semi slumber
I pulled the cord." Shit", I muttered and retrieved the instrument. At the other
end the caller seemed unperturbed. " You may remember me. I'm Madeleine. We met
at Margaret's London reception." Madeleine was a niece on Greville Mee's side.
She got to the point very quickly "I think you should know that Margaret died
a short while ago in the ambulance after a car accident. Greville is injured ...
Yes, He's alive".
next twenty-four hours ran non-stop. A stream of calls and faxes from around the
world deluged my desk. I had been the first person outside the family to know
and as the hub for the media launch of her book the press wanted the story 'All
those adventures along the Amazon and then a car accident in Britain. What irony'
next day the line had cooled and then at about noon came a call from John Brown,
Margaret's brother. We talked for almost an hour and as I put down the 'phone
I could see how Margaret's life had not been a simple at it appeared. When I was
editing the diaries she had answered countless questions and then during the evening
in Manaus she revised many of her answers. I was intrigued by John's call to say
the very least and made a list of people to visit. My notes were just about in
order when the 'phone interrupted. It was a call I had not expected."I'm Frank
I hear you have been trying to get in touch. I heard about Peggy on the wireless
" Few people remembered Margaret as 'Peggy' and those who did were from her distant
and rather foggy past. Frank knew more than most and as she had told me on the
Rio Negro,' he was the key' to her life.
Frank helped a lot so I decided to follow the story much as I had others. The
'Time Line' is the result and my search including converstions verbatim
will follow in many parts on these pages.
name was carried forward by the worldwide concern for the Amazon forests. An charitable
Trust founded just before her untimely death flourished and her passionate wish
to see education as the spearhead for conservation began to reap rewards. By mid
July I was back in Brazil meeting her old friends.
TO CHAPTER ONE "Memories of the Knights