Una Flett: An appreciation by Julie Davidson

EVERY Christmas a card has arrived from Spain, printed from an original watercolour, inspired by the natural world: almond blossom, perhaps, or a nascent waterfall in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, where Una Leonie Flett spent the happiest years of her adult life.

But not last Christmas. Una died in mid-December, 2021, her only daughter Rowan and her only grandchild Julian by her side, aware that there are limits to a rich tally of 89 active years, and at peace with the thought. Her fine mind remained vigorous. She swapped Spanish for English as she talked to the staff in the Motril hospital, and shared conversations about Balkan literature with Rowan and British imperialism with Julian.

India – she was born in 1932 in Bihar, where her father was Adviser to the provincial Governor in the dying days of the Raj – was embedded in Una’s soul.

It was not only her birthplace, but belonged to the history of both parents, and informed their culture and attitudes – “ an openness to the languages, artforms and beliefs of others,” as Rowan puts it. For me, from the moment we met in the early 1970s, after six hours of non-stop conversation and two bottles of wine, the breadth of her creative interests and the drama of her life seemed dazzling.

What surfaced during that evening was not only India but a formidable intellect and an appetite for sensory experience, much of it primed by the colourful years of her childhood.

“She was born an aesthete,” says her daughter. Una was an able pianist, a choral singer, and an accomplished sculptor – a “side-line” acquired through evening classes at Edinburgh College of Art while, as a mature student, she studied social anthropology at Edinburgh University.

Painting and tapestry weaving came later as she responded to the vibrant colours of Spain, and when we met she had also begun to write, contributing regular reviews of ballet and other art forms, as well as travel articles on India, Sweden and Spain to The Scotsman and The Herald.

By then she was a widow, and the mother of two teenage children. Behind her were not only India but three years as a dancer with the Ballet des Champs Elysées in Paris, and two events which changed the direction of her life.

Dancing had taken Una Russell from Edinburgh to London to Paris at the age of 17, but by the time she was 20, exhausted by the unforgiving disciplines of dance, the rigours of touring as far as Egypt, and suffering from injury, she came back to Edinburgh and an impulsive marriage to a GP, Hugh Flett.

“I’d also become aware that I didn’t have the talent to take my career much further,” she told me. Nor could she settle for the exclusion of the other creative stimulants she craved, although she didn’t find them as wife and mother 60 years ago in the north-west Highlands, where a sudden tragedy left her homeless with two young children. Her husband, along with three others, was drowned on a late-night fishing excursion off Gairloch.

With the support of her parents and late sister, Jill, she returned to Edinburgh to re-build her life.

Later, her lost identity as ballet dancer and her years as a “combat nymph,” as she once described herself , were vividly chronicled in her first book, Falling from Grace, published by Canongate in 1981. There followed her only novel, Revisiting Empty Houses (Canongate, 1988).

Una’s emotional life, never risk-averse, brought her the joy and pain of some key love affairs, but she never remarried.

Perhaps from the off she was too determined to live her life on her own terms to make the inevitable compromises, and in the late 80s, never at ease with Edinburgh’s grey complexion and stony elegance, she rejected opportunities for academic or civil service careers and moved to rural Andalusia.

Already fluent in French, she swiftly mastered Spanish to the point where she contributed to the Spanish press, as well as British newspapers. Productive years followed with new contentment in her white village home in the Alpujarra: more fiction, short stories and two radio plays for the BBC, and a prize-winning play, Zozienka.

Her last book, completed and self-published only two years ago, was a labour of love. This Other Father is a final salute to the places and times which most profoundly shaped her – India in the 1930s and Edinburgh in the 1950s – and a family memoir which reconnects both to the adventure of her life.

It is, supremely, a tender tribute to the father she lost for seven wartime years to the colonial civil service; Sir Robert Russell later had a distinguished post-war career in town planning, and Una’s memoir draws upon the cache of moving letters preserved by her mother, as well as some original research.

As I re-read it I can hear her voice: always eloquent, often introspective, sometimes challenging and sharp (you did not confide in Una unless you were prepared for a candid response) but invariably charged with insights, opinions and affection.

She is survived by her daughter, her son Martin, her grandson Julian and his partner Marianne, and their daughter, Arya; not to mention an enduring circle of family and friends in Scotland and Spain for whom her vital spirit will survive as long as we do.