From an early age I wanted to be a writer and Yorkshire, where I was born, was a great inspiration in this respect. A few miles away from where we lived was Haworth Parsonage, home of the Bronte sisters (and their naughty brother).
I visited it often to wonder at the fact that the sisters managed to derive such inspiration from those bleak and misty moors. I was also awed by Charlotte's tiny waist as demonstrated by the dresses on display in the Parsonage. How she could write so much while being so tightly trussed? At school I had the enormous good fortune to stumble into the hands of one of those legendary beings, The Life-Changing Teacher. Mrs Symons, English teacher, arrived in a flurry of high-necked white blouses, silver lockets, high heels and a chocolate obsession. Up until that point my favourite subject had been history and I had vague visions of dusting off manuscripts in National Trust basements for a living.
I went up to read English at Cambridge in 1983. Here I met my husband Jon; he was studying French and Russian at King's but mostly being in a student rock band whose high point was supporting New Order. This was big stuff in the early Eighties, let me tell you! When I left to go and live in London, he went off to Cannes to do his teaching year (he had the choice between the Riviera and Vladivostock; a tough one, as you can imagine). Nice airport in the mid Eighties was nothing like the vast concrete sprawl it is today; we still go every year but now we go by train (for some reason there's always an SNCF buffet strike on our day of travel).
My first job was on the art magazine Apollo; after this I went to work on a mag for foreign diplomats in London. The perks included visits to the palatial homes of various ambassadors; stuffed with servants, paintings and long shining dining tables that regularly hosted fabulous dinners for fifty, some of which I was even asked to. There were parties almost every night; the gins and tonics were staggeringly strong. A couple of jobs later saw me as deputy editor of the Sunday Times Style section, where I wrote on a weekly basis (and with her help) the column ostensibly penned by Tara Palmer-Tomkinson.
Our partnership became the inspiration for my first novel, Simply Divine, in which a lowly hack writes the column for a celebrity socialite. It was published in 1999, and at the same time I moved from my job as deputy editor of society glossy Tatler to the Mail on Sunday's YOU magazine, after which I became a writer full-time. I got married (in 1993) and had two children, Andrew (born 2002) and Isabella (born 2004). Around the time of Andrew's first birthday I gave up the struggle to commute from London to the country every weekend and moved full-time to Derbyshire, where we live in a former Victorian gardener’s lodge built in the shape of a tiny castle. I work in a small green summerhouse in the garden where in winter the water freezes in my Evian bottle, but where I get wonderful views over the valley all year long.
My first day at secondary school
The Sunday Express Magazine asked me to write this piece, it was published in September 2010
WHITCLIFFE Mount Grammar School, Cleckheaton, was established in 1910. It had only recently become a comprehensive when I arrived, aged 13, in 1978. The theatricals of academia were very much on show: the deputy headmaster, Mr Phelps, wore a thrilling black gown and rumours abounded that he had worked in the wartime intelligence services. There was a magnificent Edwardian library, The Mowat, endowed by the rich folks of our small West Yorkshire mill town. It contained a no less splendid librarian, Miss Holt, whose auburn hair was high, mighty and had a touch of Marie Antoinette about it.
Physically, the school spanned two worlds, the past and the future. The old school building, the 1910 original, was Jacobean in style, of blackened stone; a palace of learning spread out above the park. Its corridors were narrow, dark, tiled in glazed green to halfway up and painted above that in cream institutional paint. Here, the worn floors were wooden and herringbone and the iron-framed windows were opened with a hook. The new part, added on to this, was all light and space; glass walls and shining lino, with varnished wood everywhere, trendy exposed brickwork, grey padded chairs and carpets in the ‘social area' for the amazingly, unbelievably grown-up (to us) Sixth Form. Attached to this was the new sports centre, whose sports halls had, we would later find, a sinister dual purpose as examination rooms. But that was years away in September 1978.
The first day, like all first days, was spent with the exciting business of new books, new timetables – a very grown-up development from primary school – and most of all, new teachers. Our form teacher was called Miss Cadzow; she was thin with large glasses and short dark curly hair.
She was friendly, but spent a lot of time shouting at us to be quiet. "OC! OCeeeeee!" We learnt we were to have French with the marvellously-named Mr Ormondroyd, English with the raffish, bearded Mr Wagner, Art with the raffish, bearded Mr Holt (no relation to the librarian) and German with the bearded, but unraffish, Mr Butterworth. They were probably all in their twenties; thirties at most, but they seemed ancient to us. The headmaster, Mr Hattersley, was a distant and frightening figure in tweeds. My favourite teacher by a country mile was the wonderful Mr Perrin who was to teach us history. He had a silver fringe, an exotic Southern accent and was so friendly and funny he could make even the Corn Laws interesting.
I don’t recall ever being unhappy at this new school, not even by the vast size of it (there were 1500-plus pupils). On the contrary, it seemed that things were opening up. It was exciting; the beginning of a new life.
My two fathers
About ten years ago, on the eve of my debut of a novelist, my father had a massive stroke. As a result I've observed first-hand the effects of this dreadful but little-understood calamity and the charity I support is The Stroke Association. I wrote this for YOU magazine, The Mail on Sunday, in August 2010; my fee went to the Stroke Association.
It’s more than ten years now since that phone call in the middle of the night, when I stumbled down the stairs of our Derbyshire cottage to find my brother on the other end. Dad was in hospital in Dewsbury. He had had a massive stroke.
Strokes are cruel things. They come out of the blue. They are brain attacks caused by the cutting-off of the blood supply to the brain. Their effects range from so light the person makes a full recovery, to death. They strike at any age. Dad was 59.
It was 1999 and my literary career was on the launch pad. My first book, Simply Divine, about a celebrity socialite, had just been published amid much interest and speculation that my then-recent job as ghost-writer of a column by Tara Palmer-Tomlinson could have supplied some of the material.
The book had entered the Top Ten and the rights had been snapped up by Warner Bros. The day after my brother's phone call Simply Divine was to be launched at the Ritz on a tidal wave of champagne and celebrity guests.
My father had been wildly excited and proud about all of this. Despite the catastrophe, my mother insisted that the party went ahead. But you could say that some of the fizz went out of things.
Most of all it went out of Dad. The stroke severely affected his speech and memory. He can no longer read, write or drive; one of his arms doesn't work and he is increasingly dependent on a wheelchair. A decade later, it's hard to remember things being any other way. But they were.
At my wedding, Dad made a wonderful speech in which he made my husband an honorary Yorkshireman. Out of a bag were produced a flat cap, a black pudding and a passport to God's Own County. But the stroke affected the side of Dad's brain controlling speech and now the simplest exchange takes ages. He gets very confused; the other day, on my birthday, he wished me Happy Christmas.
He has had to find other, ingenious ways of getting his message across. Once, Mum came home from walking the dog to find Dad in an excitable state. She gathered immediately that someone had phoned.
"Who was it?"
The right words and names often evade Dad. Identifying a caller and a message can take my mother hours. But today it was crystal clear. Dad crossed his arms over his breast, jerked his head back, closed his eyes hard and exclaimed "MARGARET!"
A friend, who had been ill for some months had died.
I have never heard Dad utter a single word of complaint about what has happened to him. He bears his condition stoically, perhaps aware that he is not the only person it has affected. My mother was knocked for six. At the time of the stroke she was in her late fifties and looking forward to a retirement full of travel and adventure. Instead, she is my father's full-time carer.
Fortunately my brother is close by and a great comfort to both of them. I am a couple of hours to the south, but have recently converted a flat near my home for them to come and stay in when they need a change of scene. It has yet to be a success; Dad's worries run silent and deep and unfamiliar places frighten him. But we can only try.
There are positives. It may sound strange to say that, since his stroke, my relationship with him is the best it has ever been. But it's true. He is always happy to see me, he seems to have forgotten how difficult I was whilst growing up. The stroke wiped that disk clean; no bad thing.
I was by all accounts the most appalling child and must have been the most infuriating and perplexing teenager. Ostentatiously bookish, my sights set on Oxbridge, I would barricade myself with T S Eliot in my bedroom while my father, downstairs, played the West Coast rock he loved at shattering volume. I can see him now in enormous mustard-coloured earphones, thumping his foot on the sitting room Axminster, the great wheels of the reel-to-reel tape recorder revolving in his rear. Now it's as if this, and all the other clashes, never happened. Dad loves to hear about my literary doings and is excited and proud about my achievements.
For me, there are two fathers. The smiling, shuffling Dad of today and the showman of my childhood. The Dad who acted in pantomimes, directed the chapel musical events, was the life and soul of any party.
He was a big smoker (a fact not unconnected with his illness) and the sight of the ash about to fall off the end between a pair of yellow-tipped fingers was as much a part of life at home as the sight of his teeth soaking in the plastic cup in the bathroom. Dad was a war baby and lacked calcium; like many of his generation he had none of his own teeth even as a teenager.
Thanks to World War II he didn't have a father either, not until he was six and it had ended. But what Dad did have was a very forceful mother. My grandmother had been sent to the mill at 13 and had no intention of her only son sharing her uneducated fate.
She called him Anthony – never, ever did she abbreviate it to Tony – and when Anthony failed to get into the local grammar school she actually went there, bearded the headmaster and forced him to let Anthony in, eleven plus or no eleven plus. She also cattle-prodded Anthony through piano lessons, which he turned out to be enormously good at.
He won many prizes on the keyboards. He could play the organ beautifully too; there are tales of him pulling out the stops with such violence that the plaster on the chapel ceiling fell off (fortunately the place was empty; he was practising). Another time as he practised late at night, his friends hid in the pews and pretended to be ghosts.
I mention all this because it's only since the stroke that it has come into focus. Children change everything and in particular your relationship with your parents. My son and my daughter were born after Dad's stroke and so they can never remember anything other than a disabled grandfather in an armchair (this is repeating history; my own grandfather was ill and seatbound throughout my childhood).
But now I am a parent, my grandmother's efforts are not just Hyacinth Bucket turns, they seem admirable. The music, too, is a source of fascination. I was never interested as a child in playing anything. But now, as I sit beside my small son during his piano practice, getting my crotchets and minims in a hopeless tizz, I think how strangely oblivious I was to Dad's being so good at something so hard.
In a way, it feels I've missed him. Everything was a rush before, my parents working in Yorkshire, me preoccupied with a London career. But now we both have time to talk about things, we can't.
There are other, wider effects of my father's stroke. Because of the timing with my book launch, I now have the sense that for every piece of good luck something bad happens too. A price is extracted. Someone suffers. Now, I look for the downside.
I also know, from our longstanding family association with disability, how many other people are in the same boat. How often such things happen - every year in the UK, 150,000 people have a stroke. It has more disability impact than any other medical condition and it's estimated that 250,000 people in total are living with stroke disability in Britain.
Very flimsy, then, that ground beneath our feet that which we believe to be so firm. It's more like the skin on a drum; thin, taut and liable to split at any moment. And so now, much more than before, I prize the normal and uneventful. Getting through day after day with no accidents, no upsets, and no dramas is just the most wonderful, brilliant thing in the world.
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