Shirley Read-Jahn: Life, Writing, Illustrating, Dancing & Parkinson’s Disease

Shirley Read-Jahn is an old friend or, more accurately, an old friend of my mother’s who I’ve also come to know and love over the years. If you’ve read my third novel The Secret Life of Alfred Nightingale, you’ll remember that my protagonist Jim hitchhikes to Matala in Crete where he spends some time living in some ancient Roman burial caves, just like my mother and Shirley. The below picture was taken in 1969 in Kifissia, Athens. Shirley is seated with her dog and my mother is standing above her.

Shirley was born during World War II and educated in England before embracing the hippie counter-culture. She went on to take up many different colourful careers, including swimwear model, interpreter, landscape gardener, paralegal and events organiser. She also co-founded the highly-successful San Francisco Jazz Festival (SFJAZZ) as well as running her own landscape business in the United States. Shirley has belly-danced since her thirties, still plays table-tennis, and now lives in Australia. In retirement, she has finally found time to devote to her passion for writing and the books swirling around in her head.

A very warm welcome to you Shirley!

Cover picture for Shirley’s first memoir, Dancing Through Life. Taken, age 22, whilst modelling in Richmond Park.

How long have you been writing?

Only since 2019. I have published eleven books since then. I’m told I’m prolific! That is, 3 adult books and 8 children’s books (that I write and illustrate). Ant Press is currently formatting my children’s book number 9, called Cranky the Cat. My latest adult book called The Vanishing Book is currently in the hands of a beta reader. I have now started on the first of a series of travel books. The first draft is written. The series will be about my travels throughout Australia to date. The first one is about our nearly 4-month camper van trip up to Queensland. I have written throughout my life but not books. I always kept a journal and notes about trips I’ve taken, and information about all the famous gardens in England that I’ve visited—to use in my landscape business I ran for years in San Francisco (called “The Queen’s Garden, Gardens with an English Accent”). I’ve also been considered the “go to” person throughout my life for people wanting to locate old friends in that I’ve always corresponded by letter with friends all over the world, so nearly always could be relied upon to give other friends the addresses of people they wanted to get in touch with again. Some people nicknamed me “Ms. Post Office”!

Can you remember the first thing you ever wrote?

I was at St. Mary’s Hall boarding school for girls in Brighton from the age of 9 till 16 (1954-1961), when I left to go to college in London. Every Sunday we had to write a letter home to our parents which was “censored” by the strict teachers. I remember always saying how unhappy I was and asking to go home. The teachers were always angry at me for “being ungrateful”.

Do you have a favourite book or two of all time? What do you love about these books?

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I love the reverence for life throughout, both human and plants. The excitement of getting into a secret place; I loved that as a child and young woman. Since then, I’ve always enjoyed discovering old, often locked-up places, and seeing if I could get in. I’ve managed to accomplish that in many an old ruin over the years!

I’ve loved many a book at different phases of my life, for example, The Science of Being and the Art of Living by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. That was my “bible” in the years I practised Transcendental Meditation.

I also often return to Charles Dickens’ works. In fact, my latest book (soon to be published) called The Vanishing Book, has a lot about Dickens in it because it covers my maternal genealogy from 1202 onwards. Charles Dickens happened to be an intimate friend of my great great grandfather, Thomas Sutton, who, in turn, was the father of my great grandfather, Charles William Sutton, Chief Librarian for fifty years of England’s first Free Library, located in Manchester. I have an amusing memory to share here. When I was twelve, I won a prize—not for mathematics or anything clever like that, but for being the best basket weaver in my boarding school. The Queen’s auntie, The Princess Royal, was the prizegiver at The Royal Pavilion, known to us as The Dome, in Brighton in 1956. I have a photo of my young self, slightly scowling at the camera, as HRH handed me my prize of The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens. I was thinking, Didn’t anybody tell her I already have this book?! Picture below.

When were you diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease? How does having PD affect your writing and drawing?

I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease on February 1, 2018, but I know I had had it since July 25, 2016. On that date I was performing a solo belly dance and discovered my left hand wouldn’t “flutter” properly. I was dancing with Egyptian Isis dancing wings that are approximately 5 ft. tall. My right hand could flutter them properly but not my left. For two years doctors wondered whether I’d had a stroke but finally figured out that it was PD.

By writing and drawing, and painting, I have to focus. One of the side effects for me of PD is almost constant nausea. When I’m working on my books I am distracted from the nausea. Doctors have tried changing my medications, but I continue to have nausea. The drawing and painting are great for hand-eye coordination, all helpful in keeping my brain from deteriorating further. Another hand-eye exercise I do is table tennis. I was asked to put a collage together of the original paintings of the first children’s book I did. This was hung for six weeks in our local town’s art gallery as part of its “mental illness” exhibition of artwork. Mine had a sign underneath it that explained how the work helped my PD from worsening.

Shirley’s first children’s book. Click here for more information

What is the proudest moment of your life?

Having my one and only child, Sam. I had been told I couldn’t bear children, but 10 days before my 40th birthday, along came Sam, the pride and joy of my life.

What work has been most meaningful to you?

Co-founding San Francisco JAZZ with Randall Kline, my son’s father, in 1983. This gives me pride, too. Randall, our sound & light man, Clinton Gilbert, and I started the festival as Jazz in the City. It eventually became known as the San Francisco Jazz Festival and now, simply as SFJAZZ. We built the SFJAZZ Center in 2013. The blurb on Wikipedia describes it as ‘the first free-standing building in America built for jazz performance and education…The SFJAZZ season, in addition to the SFJAZZ-produced San Francisco Jazz Festival and Summer Sessions, includes over 400 performances annually in the San Francisco Bay Area.’

Where is your favourite place in the world?

Matala, Crete. I went there in 1967 with my sister and lived in a cave. It was one of the most extraordinary and special experiences on many fronts in my life. I helped organise the “hippie reunion” in 2011, when the Mayor of Festos was so happy with the many thousands of people from all over Europe who were drawn to the music festival on the beach that we’d organised, that she said she was making us honorary Greek citizens because we’d helped the economy of Crete so much. I took my husband there in 2014 to see where my sister and I had lived in a cave. There are a number of documentaries (and a book) that we “old hippies” are in, the best documentary being ERT’s Hippie! Hippie! Matala! Matala! Click here to watch the trailer. My sister, Pam, speaks first, followed by me (in sunglasses and a pink top).

The caves inhabited by the hippies throughout the sixties and seventies
From right to left: my mother, Shirley, Shirley’s sister Pam & their friend Betsy. This picture was taken in 2011 at the first ‘hippie reunion’ she helped organise.
The Matala festival is now a yearly event
The view of the empty beach and surrounding area in the sixties
Reminiscing

What advice would you give to others with PD who want to write?

Because of the focus entailed, it is a very useful way to stall the inevitable progression of PD, which is a degenerative condition of the central nervous system. Nerve cell damage in the brain causes dopamine levels to drop, leading to the symptoms of PD. Some patients suffer tremors. Others, like me, suffer slow movement and stiffness. My balance remains good because of the belly dancing I have done all my adult life. Writing in general requires focus and using the neurological pathways in the brain; all very good indeed to stall the disease. That, and intense exercise, are the best idea, along with medications.

Which book that you’ve written is closest to your heart and why?

Hidden in Plain Sight, a British Military Agent’s Story. This is the story of my father’s life as a spy for MI-19 in the Second World War. I always wanted to know what he’d been up to, but he couldn’t talk about it, having signed the Official Secrets Act. 75 years later I was able to find out a lot more than what I’d already picked up from access to his letters and diary. He was a fascinating man. I’d always wanted to follow in his footsteps, taking the same boats and trains he’d taken on his 4-month voyage to reach Moscow in 1940, where he was to work as a spy, but my working life got in the way. He later returned to England to continue his MI-19 work, then became a diplomat after the War. Writing his story brought me much closer to the father I had barely known while sent off to boarding school and then leaving England to live and work in various countries overseas.

How would you describe yourself in three words?

Throughout my life, people have told me I have great “joie de vivre” so those would have to be my three words.

Thank you so much Shirley for coming on the blog and chatting with me. You certainly are prolific and a real inspiration to me.

Click here to discover more of Shirley’s wonderful books – her children’s books would make fantastic presents for the younger people in your lives and her adult’s books chronicle a fascinating life.

Thank you for reading this post. Compliment it with reading about another writer – Sara Alexi’s – love affair with Greece and how she didn’t let severe dyslexia stop her from becoming a best-selling author.

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