Last Friday, the eve of Valentine’s Day, red roses spontaneously appeared in the windows of many of the shops lining the Chiswick High Street. The roses marked the passing of a local vagrant, 77-year-old Anne Naysmith, who notably lived for over two decades in a clapped-out black Ford Consul.

What marked Naysmith out from a common-or-garden vagrant were, more than her gender, two elements from her past: her training as a concert pianist and her refusal to accept any form of support after being evicted—wrongly, she felt—from her villa in Prebend Gardens in the 1970s. Naysmith was well spoken, informed and unfailingly polite. She sang at Evensong. She had a keen interest in cricket. Tributes poured in for this remarkable lady from the locals who saw her often. Articles appeared in the national press. Suddenly Anne Naysmith was the concert pianist that everybody knew—yet no one had ever heard play.

Wigmore Hall

But the plaudits for Naysmith’s principled stand somehow ring hollow. This sense of something awry behind the scenes is reinforced by the varying accounts in the press. In every article we learn of her training at the Royal Academy of Music. Yet not all mention that her father, an Army officer, walked out on the family. Her career as a pianist seems to have peaked with an appearance at Wigmore Hall. Naysmith had top billing. She was praised by the Times for the “rich warmth” of her playing. Not every article mentions that her mother, a Russian émigré, paid for the hall. Naysmith’s career suddenly takes on a vaguely Swiss cheese quality. (Sorry, I don’t know any Russian cheeses with the texture of Emmental.)

The obfuscations don’t stop there. One article mentions that Naysmith’s career ‘faltered’. From Wigmore Hall to a Ford Consul is some falter. The word was no doubt chosen kindly, but it has a clouding effect. We learn that, for no given reason, Naysmith gave up teaching music to focus on her concert appearances. It seems like a strange decision, given Naysmith’s own admission that she “just wanted to practise for enjoyment and not for a concert,” and that teaching represented her most realistic source of income.

Here at last we glimpse the psychological processes that led from Wigmore Hall via Prebend Gardens to vagrancy: a mental inflexibility, an ability to rationalise a bad decision as a principled move. Her actual name was Anne Smith; she added the ‘Nay’ in later life. Changing one’s name is not a minor matter; it represents a significant repudiation of one’s past and of one’s self. (I only know one person who has changed their name: a brilliant but bloody-minded musician whose life, like Anne Naysmith’s, is littered with burnt bridges.) The further one delves into her life, the more the rationalised non-sequiturs pile up.

The 6’5” choral singer

There is brief mention of a failed relationship with a “6’5” choral singer.” Why the singer’s height is relevant is a mystery. It stands out as a sparklingly clear but useless detail among the fog of Naysmith’s life.

Then came the catastrophe: money woes and eviction. Exactly why Naysmith felt she had been treated unfairly is, like many aspects of her life, never clarified. But Naysmith felt sufficiently aggrieved that she decided to live rough until the issue was resolved in her favour. It never was. The world moved on but she didn’t. It’s a fine line between being principled and being pedantic. Anne Naysmith crossed that line and never came back.

The press lauded Naysmith’s principles, her ‘choice’ to spend twenty years living in a Ford Consul. Was it really a choice? Or was it an inability to handle setbacks? By regarding her eviction as temporary, Naysmith indefinitely postponed having to accept that her career had failed, painful psychological readjustments were avoided. The overwhelming sense of failure—and with it shame—can be staved off. The eviction notice will be reversed. It’s only been, what, twenty years now? No help required. How’s the first innings going?

Needing an out

Shame is the keyword here. It seeps through every pore of Naysmith’s life: the failures of the male figures in her life and the pressure for perfection demanded of a concert pianist compounded into a constant sense of not being good enough. A love of music allied to a fear of the responsibility—rationalised as a dislike—of playing actual concerts. Naysmith needed an out; she found one in a Ford Consul. None of this is said to discredit Naysmith, who endured lifelong hardship with great dignity. (There are parallels between her childhood and those of both my parents, and I know how much their later lives were adversely affected.)

But as long as we, too, look for ‘outs’—such as casting Naysmith in the role of the rag lady heroine—we fail to see the underlying emotional mechanics and, as a result, never tool up to repair them

An Asperger’s diagnosis has been suggested for Naysmith. It’s probably close to the mark. There’s too little concrete information, particularly on her early years, to be certain. No childhood friends have crawled out of the woodwork to relate telling anecdotes. That in itself is telling. But underneath the hood of Anne Naysmith’s life, the stench of burnt wiring and overwhelming shame hangs in the late winter Chiswick air.