My favourite time of day to write is in the early morning, as the mist lifts from the valley, the sun bursts through the clouds and the sound of birdsong fills the air. Well, sort of. I write during the hours when my children are at school, which seems to be for about half an hour, it goes so quickly. But the secret of writing is doing it every day, rather than for long periods every now and then, so it suits me in a way.
My favourite place to write is in the hut in my garden. It’s a small, green-painted wooden summer house with a pink phone and no heating apart from an ancient plug-in radiator. There's no internet connection either. But I love it, even if, in winter, I arrive to find the water in my Evian bottle has frozen! It has a chaise longue, a sofa, a bead-fringed lampshade and fairy lights all round the walls.
There’s a turntable and lots of LPs and the wooden walls are crammed with prints and paintings. I’ve even managed to squeeze a desk and computer in there as well. The French windows open on to a deck, where I drink cocktails with my husband in the summer (after work, obviously). We stand on the deck looking out across the valley below, or back at the summer house with its pretty lights. It's the perfect place to write, not to mention drink.
My bottom drawer isn’t so much full of unpublished novels as half-published ones. I’m a bit of a literary tomb-raider and am constantly stripping the corpses of works I once thought dead and buried for jewelled and glittering bits of detail such as interiors, conversations and sometimes whole characters to embellish whatever book I am working on at the moment.
On Being a Literary Tomb-Raider
Iy bottom drawer isn’t so much full of unpublished novels as half-published ones. I’m a bit of a literary tomb-raider and am constantly stripping the corpses of works I once thought dead and buried for jewelled and glittering bits of detail such as interiors, conversations and sometimes whole characters to embellish whatever book I am working on at the moment. Filthy Rich, is a prime example of this.
Now a full-blown, thick-spined comedy of mud, lust and money it began as a tiny novella, called The Allotment, about some villager allotment holders under the kosh of an eco-ideologue who forbids pesticides and makes them plough with a horse. But then they discover gold on their plots after which all hell breaks loose! I became obsessed with this story and as the novel became bigger I wanted more characters; there’s a brash and shameless WAG, for instance, who began as a character in a novel I’d abandoned about a year ago. There’s also a rich Kensington weekender in the village, an American banker’s wife whose allotment boasts a shiny mini tractor and a hut with Cath Kidston curtains and a cappuccino machine. Her house in London, which is very minimal, beige and black with glass stairs, began as the house of a rich but miserable millionaire's wife in a book I pulled the plug on ages ago, and which was to have been called The New Year Club. I stopped writing that in the end because it was about three woman fed up with their husbands and was supposed to be a sexy comedy, but it was getting too miserable.
It’s odd; I have no memory for everyday things at all, but I work on my books so obsessively that entire sequences I wrote years ago stay lodged in my brain. So I know where to look for them when I want to grave-rob. My bottom drawer is one of my most important sources of material!
An Early Inspiration
I had many favourite books as a child, but the one I pored over obsessively and returned to most often was one no-one else I have ever met has read. It was ‘My Life' by Enid Blyton, an 1950s autobiography by the staggeringly prolific children's author. It was a large flat book, aimed at her child fans, about an inch thick, in red cloth covers and with shiny pages full of black and white photographs of Enid in action.
She was a tall, thin, pinched-faced woman with black frizzy hair and a nice line in shirtwaister dresses with knife pleats. There she would be with her typewriter on a swing seat in the garden, or playing with her dogs, or else sitting with her daughters Gillian and Imogen who I imagined were the luckiest girls in the world. To live in such surroundings (there was a tennis court, for goodness' sake, and Enid's dashing tanned surgeon husband bounding around it in his shorts) seemed to me absolute heaven.
Enid has been castigated for decades now as being the epitome of snobbery, political incorrectness, ludicrous out-of-touchness and the rest of it. I have no time for any of this; I adored her books and would now view their idiosyncracies as historical, as one would Jane Eyre. But there is one thing I would pull her up on. In ‘My Life' Enid said that writing was dead simple, merely a matter of shutting her eyes. Her characters then obligingly appeared as if on a cinema screen and she just wrote down what happened. Now, with nine books behind me (a mere bagatelle compared to Mrs B) I have to say that that is a tad unrealistic.
A Later Inspiration
My Weekly Magazine recently asked me to write about My Inspirational Woman; here she is.
Giving a child a telly for their bedroom is now viewed as an unwise move, giving said child free rein to watch all manner of rubbish. In my case, in 1980, being given a tiny black and white TV for my room meant that my parents could watch the rubbish downstairs and I, a painfully pretentious teenager, was free to watch the lofty programmes they were not interested in. One of these was Testament of Youth, the dramatised autobiography of the feminist and writer Vera Brittain.
It had a seismic effect on me. When the series ended, I bought the book and read it till its pages fell out. Vera, an upper-middle-class teenager in Edwardian Buxton, loathed the nice-girl shackles her parents had put on her. She didn't want to marry some cabbage-headed son of a local manufacturer. Vera wanted to go to Oxford.
But girls in pre First World War England did not go to Oxford; well, not nice ones. Nice girls did not have brains. They did not want to have interesting jobs or change the world. There were a couple of women's colleges, but only the dreaded bluestockings went there.
Vera wanted to join them, even though here was no-one in Buxton who could help her. So she decided to teach herself all the difficult Latin and Greek stuff you needed to know in those days to get through the Oxford entrance exams.
Nearly seventy years later, in West Yorkshire, I felt myself in a similar position. I wanted to go to Cambridge but there seemed little chance of this from my comprehensive and background generally. No-one in my family had even been to university. Reading about Vera determinedly teaching herself Greek Responsions (whatever they were) over in Buxton stiffened my resolve, however and I determined not to give up. Eventually, like Vera, I got there.
But it wasn’t just a place at a prestigious university I attained because of her. It was a lifelong belief in learning for its own sake, and particularly the learning of literature. Vera's love of literature and her belief in its importance as a civilising force has stayed with me throughout my life. Testament of Youth has remained one of my favourite books; it is of course a feminist touchstone. But it's also a hell of a read, full of passion, drama, tragedy and fire. She's inspired me in that way as well. One day, I'd like to write a book like that too.