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The Summer of 1976

The Sunday Express recently asked me to write about what I remember of the hot summer of 1976…

I was eleven in the summer of 1976. Oh, the glamour! That was the summer we spent with my father’s elderly aunt in Merthyr Tydfil.

We set off on holiday, as always, at about five o’clock in the morning. Our suitcases were strapped to the top of the new family Hillman Imp. As we progressed the plastic sheeting covering the cases would gradually detach and flap wildly and noisily against the windows.

The car had butterscotch-coloured plastic seats stitched in ridges. In hot weather – and that summer in particular – these got agonisingly hot and bare skin would stick to them. Emerging from the car would be a wincingly painful business, like peeling off a giant plaster from the whole of the back of your legs. But getting back into it was worse. The air inside was as hot as a sauna, although of course no-one but the very glamorous or Swedes knew what a sauna was in 1976. Perhaps that car – and that summer – is why I’ve never particularly sought them out at health clubs.

We were hot and we were in shorts. What the summer of 76 was like for Auntie Annie can only be imagined. She was in the Salvation Army and seemed always to be in their thick dark woollen uniform, although this can’t really have been the case. Uncle Rich was a Salvationist too. They were kind and we were very grateful for their hospitality; owing to straitened family circumstances Merthyr Tydfil was our first ever holiday. But no-one could have called it sybaritic. The heat was Carribbean, but nothing else was.

I remember a searingly-hot outing to Bristol Zoo, or rather the cages and pens of Bristol Zoo. There was hardly a beast to be seen; all were lurking at the back to find shade. Otherwise we hung out in Merthyr. My father grew a moustache out of sheer boredom, which could hardly have helped with the heat.

My parents, like most people in those days, didn’t tan as such, they burned. Throughout that summer Mum had a permanent crimson V on her chest from her open-necked Simon shirt and Dad’s nose scorched to a bright red after which it blistered and flaked. Neither my brother or I wore suncream, although we may have had hats.

And of course, this being the Seventies, we had plenty of synthetic fabrics to make us even hotter. Photos from the time show me standing with my brother Michael in Auntie Annie’s garden. I’m wearing a nylon trouser suit that I recall was red and accessorised with a wide white plastic belt. It’s topped with a fringed poncho with pom-pom ties that Auntie Annie kindly made for me from polyester wool. I was absolutely boiling. The summer of 1976 was (literally) a baptism of fire, fashionwise. I realised one must suffer to be elegant.

The holiday had a dramatic ending. Upstairs, snooping about in Auntie Annie’s bedroom I spilled a bottle of perfume on her dressing table. Annie and Rich were justifiably cross and I experienced in addition the full formidable force of my outraged parents’ displeasure. Driving away in the Hillman Imp however, my mother leant over to my father. “Just what,” she whispered, “was a Salvationist doing with perfume anyway?”

That I take my own children to Venice and Antibes and, when young myself, holidayed in Welsh pit villages with members of paramilitary religious organisations sums up everything that’s different about their childhood and mine. If you’re lucky I’ll tell you about our next family holiday sometime – Inverness with the Boys’ Brigade.

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A Modest Proposal

This is a piece I recently did for the Daily Telegraph about why women should ask men to marry them!

2012 is a leap year and February 29th is traditionally the opportunity for women to ask men to marry them. Any ladies out there who think they have found The One should grab the opportunity with both hands. Humiliating to ask a man? Are you joking? These days it’s far more humiliating to wait for him to ask you.

As the trend is for men to make ‘grand gestures’ when proposing, leaving it to your bloke means risking public shame. Naff question-poppings are on the rise. Using the big screen at a sports stadium is currently popular with the US male, while his British counterpart spares even fewer blushes. I personally witnessed, last Christmas, some unsuspecting woman innocently watching the pantomime at Chesterfield. Only to suddenly find herself in the spotlight with her boyfriend on one knee and, up on the stage, Widow Twankey waving a ring.

And it’s not just us lower orders. The higher up the socialebrity scale you go the more toecurling it gets. Take Holly Branson, daughter of Richard. Her recent marriage filled two entire episodes of Hello! with its Necker Island party complete with the Princesses York and Natalie Imbruglia. All the glorious consequence of the very special, private moment when Holly’s husband Freddie subtly popped the question using an enormous bespoke firework spelling out the proposal message. He let it off, of all places, in suburban Oxford. One can only imagine what the neighbours thought. Ring Inspector Morse!

Perhaps it’s a Holly thing, but another celebrity Holly, Valance this time, endured a similar proposal in letters of fire courtesy of boyfriend Nick Candy. As the words ‘Will You Marry Me’ raged away against the Maldives night sky, the joint developer of London’s controversial Number One Hyde Park dropped to one knee before the former Strictly contestant. Romancewise, it’s got it all, really.

There are all sorts of reasons for this. Neo-conservatism – after a brief flash of liberalism, the patriarchy is back. Neo-solipsism – everyone’s in their own movie these days. Perhaps just old-fashioned exhibitionism. Personally, I blame Prince William. Going to an elaborately inaccessible Kenyan lodge with a famous sapphire in his rucksack to propose to a woman who would have said yes in a chip shop kick-started the whole toecurling trend. What happened to restraint? The walk in the wood, the discreet dinner? You, him and the sunset?

Ladies, you may think asking the question yourself is a big step, and in some ways you’d be right. Leap Year or no Leap Year, the weight of historic expectation is against women proposing. Cultural convention dictates otherwise. Literature is full of dire warnings about what happens when girls make the first move, one of the direst being Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Country teen Tatiana comes over all unnecessary when city slicker Eugene breezes into town. She breathlessly writes to him accordingly. He repels her advances in the most patronising terms, causing anguish and heartbreak. In Twelfth Night, Malvolio goes off the rails because he thinks Olivia has sent him a love letter and something similar happens in Far From The Madding Crowd. The message – to audience and readers anyway – is clear.

On the other hand, proposing for girls is not a difficult thing to do. I did it myself. We’d been together eight years before it suddenly struck me that marriage might be nice. I proposed to my boyfriend in the gloriously romantic setting of behind the fridge door in our rented King’s Cross flat and was, thankfully, accepted. Easy peasy, and no explosions, pyromania or private planes necessary.

One word of warning however. As the system is not designed for women to pop the question, there are some tiny little downsides you need to think about. You don’t get an engagement ring (unless you buy it yourself. Or buy him one, but that might be one girlpower step too far). Also, the fact that I had proposed meant my boyfriend didn’t ask my father for my hand. This caused J B Priestley-style Victorian chaos amongst my family of Yorkshire Methodists which very possibly they are still getting over, 18 years later.

On the other hand, by proposing as a woman you avoid embarrassment. Real embarrassment. The risk of being turned down by your man is nothing besides the risk of an open-top bus with Frankie Cacozzi and a PA system. And the chances are you will be accepted. After all, a woman with the balls to ask a man to marry her very likely has the balls to do a lot else. Among the women who’ve question-popped are some serious big hitters, to name but two, Queen Victoria (yes, really) and the Queen of Radio 4, Jenni Murray. Who wouldn’t want to be in their gang?

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Why I Hate Cooking, Funny old world

Woman’s Weekly, September 2011

Some mothers pass on their love of cooking to their daughters. My mother passed on her loathing. She wasn’t a bad cook at all, she just hated doing it. No mealtime passed without a reference to how annoying it was.

Hardly surprising then that I’m not exactly Delia Smith myself. I’ve grown up thinking the kitchen a chamber of horrors almost as bad as the gym. Who needs to cook anyway? I passed my years at university happily existing on cereal and when I moved to London afterwards I soon got the hang of boiling the kettle for Pot Noodles. Besides, in those days, people gave a lot of dinner parties and so I was well supplied (on Friday and Saturday nights, anyway) with the best of Eighties and early Nineties haute cuisine. Pasta with sausage sauce and sticky toffee pudding were all the rage. While I couldn’t imagine why anyone would bother spending hours making them, I was grateful that they did. In retrospect, it probably kept me alive.

The only problem was that every now and then I’d have to organise a return match. It would be out with the cookbooks, many of which breezily advised going to the market and getting the best of what was in season. I was ideally placed; at the time I worked just round the corner from Leather Lane market in central London. One day, with a dinner party pending, I bought an entire box of avocadoes without the faintest idea what I might do with them.

In the end I made soup, but not as you’d know it. It wasn’t a success, but it was better than the time I tried to make my own crispy duck and pancakes. The strange red-smeared bird I placed before my friends accompanied by inch-thick ‘pancakes’ cracking at the edges does not rank among my finest creations. But even that was better than the chocolate cake I tried to make in the microwave.

I’ve come a long way since then, baby. These days my speciality dish is an impeccable toast and marmalade, although under pressure I can rustle up a decent spaghetti bolognaise. I’d try harder except my children, who’ve inherited every iota of my culinary curiosity, seem exclusively interested in spaghetti with tomato sauce or fish fingers. They are terrified of vegetables and believe salad to be lethal.

In recent years the dread spectre of camping has reared its ugly head in our family. And while I’m not wild about the sleepless nights with every stone on the ground sticking into my spine, the food’s right up my street. You can buy little silver packets of things from camping shops and just add hot water. We’ve enjoyed spotted dick and stew and dumplings this way, and while it might look like something the dog’s sicked up, it tastes absolutely fine.

Fortunately I am married to a domestic god. He cooks John Dory both on and off the bone and gets excited about saffron. Our holidays and weekends are culinary blow-outs where tender lamb is roasted, ratatouille is made, and scallops seared with chorizo. For him, cooking is relaxation. So I’d be mean to spoil his fun by trying anything fancy myself. Wouldn’t I?

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FIRST DAY AT UNI

Sunday Express Magazine, September 2011

On my first day at university I was walking with my parents along Sidney Street in Cambridge. Suddenly there was a screech of brakes, an exclamation and a young man hurled himself at my feet. It’s not as romantic as it sounds; his Sainsbury’s bag had got caught in his bicycle spokes and he was pitched headfirst over the handlebars. He had rather prominent teeth, I remember, and his mouth was all bloody from the accident. I pushed his bike for him as he limped back to his college, which was just round the corner. It wasn’t the most glamorous of introductions to university.

My own college, Girton, was Cambridge’s first women’s college. It was several miles up the road out of town; the men wouldn’t allow it any nearer. My room was right at the back, miles from the porters’ lodge at the front entrance. I was probably nearer to Peterborough than I was to Cambridge.

Roomwise, I’d been expecting something a bit like the vast suites that Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews had as Oxford students in Brideshead Revisited. So to open the door and see the tiny shoebox within was a disappointment. I also realised, looking above the doors where our names were painted, that I lacked the requisite number of initials. Most other people had at least three. As most of the other students seemed terrifically upmarket, I concluded that the posher you were, the more names you were allowed to have.

An avid social climber, I had been desperate to come to Cambridge to mingle with my betters. I was therefore anxious for my very Northern parents to clear off so I could makes friends with the various aristocrats and other glamorous types I imagined I was being educated with. I introduced myself to the girl in the big room next door and was excited to find she wore pearls and a stand-up collar like Princess Diana. She also smoked, which I thought very daring. I can’t imagine what she must have thought of me, with my broad accent, awful make-up and pink boiler suit (this was 1983), but that never occurred to me at the time. I was thrilled to be there and full of confidence.

Later in the day my ‘college mother’ came round. She was the second year student whose job it was to show me the ropes. She had long black hair and told me she was depressed. I thought all this tremendously exciting.

The first intimation that social success might be harder than I imagined came with my visit to the Fresher’s Fair. All the university’s clubs had gathered together in a vast sports hall in the local leisure centre. They were supposed to be recruiting from among the newcomers but I was surprised to find that the Footlights, which I’d imagined waltzing into, didn’t seem particularly interested in me. But not as surprised as I was to come across the Trinity Foot Beagles, an outfit which apparently dressed up in hunting gear and ran about after small dogs.

I can’t remember what clubs I joined, if any. But it was apparent from that moment that ascending in society was a matter of cracking various codes, none of which I had a clue about. A quarter of a century later, with jobs on various upmarket magazines behind me, I have a much better idea. I’ve put the fruits of my observations into my latest novel, Marrying Up. My heroine is humbly born but hell-bent on bagging herself a title, tiara and ancestral towers. As, once upon a time, I was myself.

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My Week

Country Life July 2011

Whereas once it was a park or library (both now closed), these days the civic ‘must-have’ is a literary festival. Formerly confined to places like Hay-on-Wye and Edinburgh, book bashes have proliferated county to county. No hamlet or village is safe. There’s one near you – or will be soon.

This volume of book festivals is a godsend to the army of desperate authors jostling to promote their work in the face of increased competition and a shrinking market. I hadn’t appeared at one since ten years ago in Cornwall when I found myself laughing hysterically at my own prose as I read it to a stony audience including my parents-in-law. But when Harrogate recently asked me, I said yes. I’m a proud Yorkshirewoman; one, moreover, with a book to flog.

Litfests are not for the faint-hearted. There’s all the preparation, then the call the week before about ticket sales not being quite what was hoped for, but they’re having the same trouble with Alastair Campbell. There’s the endless journey on hot trains and that reek of burgers. Then the event itself; if you’re appearing with another author, they always seem more eloquent and their reading seems to go on longer and get more laughs. Then there’s the audience, the old lady with the fearsomely disapproving expression who is right in your eyeline and who never smiles once. Then, afterwards, the signings; you sit at your baize-covered table beaming behind your pile of books while the audience streams past to the exit doors. "I don’t know why I bothered bringing a pen," sighed one fellow author despairingly.

But sometimes there’s a moment which makes it all worthwhile. "You like funny stories, don’t you?" demanded a terrifyingly-looking matron, barging up to my signing table. "Well listen to this one," she continued, boot-faced. "I’ve started embroidering a map of Yorkshire." It wasn’t the most promising of starts, but there was more. It turned out that the map had just reached the south portion of God’s Own County, specifically the Penistone area near Sheffield. Tiring of her task, my interlocutor had shoved in her needle and gone to bed. Next morning she was red-faced with horror to pick up her work and see where she had left off, five letters in.

And then there was the story about someone reading The Exorcist on the train to Brighton. Becoming, en route, increasingly disturbed by this famously creepy novel, he decided at journey’s end that he’d had enough. He went on to the pier and hurled it into the deep. Soon afterwards a friend, hearing of the incident, bought a copy of The Exorcist, ran it under a tap and placed it in his friend’s bedside drawer…

I’ve recently become an enthusiastic amateur botanist. It was my son’s piano lessons which sparked my interest. The teacher’s house is by a farm track and during the half hour lesson I would wander up and down it with my small daughter, wondering vaguely what the various wild flowers at the side were. In this same vague spirit I picked up a second-hand flower manual and a moment of revelation ensued. The names! Some pure poetry like sainfoin, lady’s smock and eyebright. Others hilarious; policeman’s helmet, weasel’s snout, corky-fruited water dropwort. How, I now wonder, could I have lived for forty six years without knowing – without even wanting to know – which is speedwell and which meadow cranesbill? With being unable to distinguish between birds’ foot trefoil and tormentil? Identifying is addictive; I now carry about three different manuals with me most of the time and spend hours staring at hedgerows. My daughter, meanwhile, counts the slugs setting off across the road. Twenty nine is the record so far.

My other new interest is the piano itself. I’ve just started lessons. I decided I may as well; I spend enough time cattle-prodding my son through his practice. Also, my father was a wonderful pianist, although he only played because his mother forced him. I never learnt because he didn’t want to impose this misery on me. But this only deferred the misery a generation before I inflicted it on my own child.

And so, recently, I finally unleashed my inner Lang Lang. It was nerveracking. While my teacher insists that she’s never met anyone who couldn’t play, I was worried that I’d be the first. It’s going alright though. While I’m unlikely ever to open the Proms, I love the way worries just melt away as I practise my little pieces. I love all the talk about time signatures, semibreves, crotchets and bar signs and have started to show off wildly, timing my C major and A minor chord practice with the arrival of the postman or windowcleaner.

My son, who’s streets ahead, mocks my efforts, but I comfort myself with the shining example I’m setting of never being too old to learn. But then, as I play something ten times and still can’t work out what the notes are, I wonder if that’s true, really.

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My Life as A Posh Au Pair

Observer Magazine, July 2011

I was seventeen when I went to be an au pair in a French spa town. It was the summer of 1983, the last summer before I went to university. I was desperate to earn money and desperate to travel. The au pair job offered both, plus a bonus trip to the South of France. The family I was to work for were taking me to Cannes with them on holiday.

I was wildly excited about seeing this fabled playground of the rich. Amongst whom, I supposed, my new employers must number. After all, they lived in a town where people actually paid for bottles of water. At home, it came free out of taps.

The family were certainly wealthy, I was excited to discover on arrival. The children - eight-year-old boy twins - were dressed from head to foot in Petit Bateau. They lived in a palace of white furniture with animal-skin rugs. As I was shown around, my hopes of a summer of luxury rose. They dipped slightly when I saw my own quarters – a boxroom with bars on the windows. Whilst all the family bedrooms had ensuites, my ensuite was a shower in the garage. Before leaving I’d been assured I’d be treated as an equal. I didn’t realise they meant equal to the dogs - a large and slavering Doberman and a yappy, bitey poodle.

Still, there was Cannes to look forward to.

It had been agreed before I left that for twenty five quid a week I would teach the twins English every morning. But now Madame told me I had to do all the housework every afternoon as well. This included ironing in a hot, windowless basement and hours of pushing around a heavy hoover that had flashing lights and a mind of its own. I didn’t argue. I kept thinking of that holiday to Cannes later in the summer.

Madame was a model; the kitchen fridge was always full of lipstick and eye pencils. She told me that the cold kept them firm and pointed. Most of my boxroom was taken up by the large mirrored wardrobe in which she kept her Sonia Rykiel. At night, for want of something better to do, I’d force my size 14 frame into these flimsy bits of beige nylon and stare despairingly at my reflection. Not being versed in fashion I couldn’t imagine what they were supposed to look like even on a thin person.

Monsieur was a private dentist and clearly saw himself as hot stuff. He wore flared suits of tan suede and open shirts with enormous collars (this was the early Eighties, remember). With a medallion nestling in his chest hair he looked as different as it was possible to imagine from the only other dentist I knew, the stooping, near-sighted octogenarian who provided NHS services at the top of our road.

Monsieur drove a shiny black sports car, smoked Kool menthol cigarettes and clearly wasn’t the most faithful of husbands. I understood advances to be the lot of the au pair, and was ready to repel them at any time. The time never came; Monsieur, with his close-clipped beard and powerful aftershave, had no interest whatsoever in a plump teenager with bad hair, worse make-up and clothes of epic awfulness (my previous holiday job had been at a Leeds hippy shop which had supplied most of my wardrobe). He was, however, very interested in an English girl I was friends with, which left me a strange mixture of offended and relieved.

The days went by. I applied myself conscientiously to my tasks, with mixed success. The boys, who were brattish and peevish, couldn’t have been less interested in my attempts to teach English. And, try as I might, I couldn’t get the hang of ironing underpants on a special padded prong. But I rather enjoyed setting the lunch table in the ultra-formal manner required and spending afternoons plumping gold cushions and polishing the eyes of tiger-skin rugs. I’d also chat to the cook, by far the friendliest of the family, despite her habit of slapping my hips and telling me I was fat.

Before coming to France I had never bothered about my weight. But Madame’s occupation meant a household obsessed with size. There were occasional fashion-world visitors from Paris and there was much discussion about one expected guest who was apparently dreadfully fat. So endlessly debated were poor Maryse’s colossal proportions and her tragic inability to lose weight that when poor Maryse finally arrived I was expecting someone about twenty four stone who’d have to be winched out of the taxi. Imagine my surprise when Maryse turned out to be size fourteen at the most. About the same as me, in fact.

Possibly this had a bearing on why the promised Cannes trip failed, in the end, to materialise. I had noticed that discussion about it seemed suddenly to have stopped, but thought nothing of it. Then, one day, Madame summoned me into the kitchen to be told the bad news. I was not to go after all. Monsieur’s father was ill and there was no room for me in his house.

It made no sense to me why an ill man wanted an entire spoilt family to stay with him without someone like me to help. I guessed Madame was lying and the real reason was that the model and the medallioned dentist, not to mention the designer kids, had no intention of being seen on the Croisette with someone as badly groomed as myself. It was a horrible blow, a ghastly disappointment. My visions of palm trees, golden beaches, yachts and palatial villas vanished overnight.

The family took off to the Cote d’Azur. I was left behind with the Doberman, the poodle and the Portuguese gardener, a Benny Hill-like figure with a rubbery face, square glasses and evident conviction that he was in with a chance. Whenever I was sunbathing in the garden there he would be in my eyeline, hose raised suggestively.

I lay reading and contemplating the conundrum of my appearance. Looking a mess with bad make-up had never mattered before. Now I realised for the first time that, especially in a country as looks-conscious as France, there were penalties for failing to make the sartorial grade. You could miss out on a lot of fun. I thought that perhaps the cook was right. From now on I had only one tartine at breakfast, and skipped her clafoutis and strawberry tart altogether.

The importance of being well turned out was a French lesson I’ve never forgotten. Few of the other things I learnt there were quite so essential. Putting forks tines down on napkins and scattering small glass pebbles for decorative effect has had limited use in my subsequent life. Although I am better these days at salade Nicoise. I was asked one day to make it for Monsieur; no-one, however, mentioned I should cook the egg first. To this day I can see Monsieur’s look of bearded disgust as he lifted salad leaves soggy with egg-white.

There were other eye-openers. I remember my excited shock when I worked out that some other Paris visitors, the wrinkly old designer and the handsome, tanned young man, were more than just good friends. I’d never met anyone gay before. Almost as astounding was the realisation, thanks to the family, that money and style didn’t equal happiness.

As for the Cote d'Azur, I never lost my fascination for the place. Being denied the chance so long ago fostered what has become a lifelong love of the Riviera. When, as a student, I met my husband, he was doing a degree in Russian and French. For his teaching year abroad he had the choice between Vladivostock and Cannes. Can you guess which one he went for? We have returned every year since. Perfectly groomed, naturally.

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MY HONEYMOON

Last week I heard about a wedding where the bride made her vows in a flower-filled glade on horseback. There was a marquee dedicated entirely to puddings and at night the glade, which had somehow been electrified, glowed with a thousand twinkling lights. The month-long honeymoon included stays in an ice hotel and a maharajah’s palace, as well as a serious US road trip in a luxury Winnebago.

My own honeymoon in 1993 could not have been more different. We paid for the wedding ourselves; the costs had escalated as the event, originally visualised as a small, chic party in London, moved north to my home county of Yorkshire and morphed into something out of J B Priestley. Guests were invited, possibly unforgettably, to the Forte Crest Hotel, Brighouse to be confronted with top table, receiving line, my father’s crazed cousin Jeff doing the disco and guest apartheid in terms of different people attending wedding breakfast and evening ‘do’.

The wedding, with its Edwardian intricacies, had been so exhausting and expensive that we had barely spared a thought for what happened afterwards; we certainly had spared no money. After the rigid pattern of the nuptials, it rather appealed to take pot luck, just point the bonnet of the car north and set off into the beautiful Yorkshire Dales. If we’d imagined anything, we’d pictured romantic country pubs with roaring fires, roses round the door and atmospheric, oak-furnitured bedrooms upstairs with deep-set, lattice-paned windows

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We had certainly not pictured the pub in the village near Skipton where we paused for the first proper – i.e. sober - night of married life. The landlord was just leaving and the night we chose to stay coincided with the night of the farewell party. Exhausted from our wedding, me in particular still feeling horribly hungover, we lay in bed while the earsplitting roars of what sounded like hundreds of drunken farmers, accompanied by thudding music, welled up through the floorboards. At one point, frustrated beyond endurance, my husband got out of bed and jumped bodily up and down on the floor. Far from providing the spur needed to get them to turn the noise down, this elicited only a mocking cheer.

The next morning, eating a fried breakfast in the sticky-carpeted bar with its burgundy plush seating and overwhelming smell of fags, we wondered about complaining. The landlord was big and frightening, however, and bearing in mind we were miles from anywhere, we decided just to leave and forget about it. As I have, obviously. Every last detail.

We headed to the coast and the picturesque seaside town of Whitby where we thought an ancient hostelry on the quayside looked promising. Luxurious the pub was not, but it was a rainy Monday and Whitby was almost deserted. After being hungover on the wedding night, and awake all night in the farmer’s pub, we would, we calculated, get some peace and quiet at least.

We calculated wrong. It turned out that the pub was a favourite mustering spot for fishermen wanting a pint and to let off some steam after an all-night session on the North Sea. The noise started at about four in the morning and was still raging at breakfast time. By then we could barely see for exhaustion. We headed off back inland and after some hours found ourselves in the Lake District. Here, finally, we struck lucky at a country house hotel on the shores of Lake Thirlmere, one of the lesser-known of the famous waters. It had oak furniture – a four poster with lacy curtains, in fact – and a decent restaurant. Although by then we would have been fine with beans on toast and could probably have slept on the pavement.

Everything picked up subsequently; the sunny weather showing God’s Own County at its best and making for some unforgettable days in places like Reeth, Grinton and beautiful Arkengarthdale. We explored castles and cathedrals to our heart’s content. We went to the lovely Angel Inn at Hetton and had our first experience of a gastropub. Other details are vague now, but we might have been to York and I definitely recall drinking a half-bottle of champagne in a triangular bath that seemed surprisingly racy for its location, a hotel in William Hague’s constituency. There was a Jacuzzi somewhere else – I forget where, only that, as I switched it on, the bath became full of milky whiteness. Unfussy as I was then, I climbed in anyway and found out the next morning at reception that the bathroom had been finished mere moments before our arrival and the white stuff was plumber’s mate. Things, as they say, could only get better after all that; as indeed they did. We have been happily married for 18 years this May.

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COUNTRY LIFE DIARY Oct 2010

Auctioneers are incorrigible punsters. That was one thing I learnt this week, besides the fact that Mick Jagger thinks nothing of taking a helicopter up to Derbyshire in order to wander round a tent stuffed with, among other items, Victorian policemen’s truncheons. I’m talking, of course, about the star-studded, multi-million-making Attic Sale at Chatsworth, which is just over the hill from where I live.

The punning was at its worst as the taxidermy came up and a female deer in a glass case shot (as it were) way over its estimate. “£800 – a lot of doe,” the auctioneer quipped after bringing the hammer down.

This set me off something rotten. I was there myself to catch a huge and rather mournful pike suspended in reeds in the middle of a vast glass box. The estimate was up to £150, but the bids soon went over the thousand mark and were heading towards two when the hammer finally came down. Stuffed pike prices, I remarked to my husband, had gone off the scale. As the Georgian night commodes came up, I was simply longing for one of the many brogue-shod, mustard-cords-wearing antiques dealers to mutter to one another that the bottom had fallen out of the market.

Bidding is like gambling, there’s that pounding of the heart as your lot number comes up, the crazed adrenalin rush in whose grip you feel a grand for a large stuffed fish is perfectly reasonable, and then the appalling emptiness when you fail to get what you want. Beside the One That Got Away, I missed out on a painting of Newstead Abbey, Nottinghamshire, one-time home of Lord Byron. There was a large hole near the bottom, but, being a bit of a Byronista (he's so much funnier than people imagine) I still wanted it. But someone else, alas, wanted it more. Never mind, living where I do, the actual place is only 40 mins away. So we took the family there on Sunday and bought engravings of the same view from the gift shop instead (thus helping the West Front restoration into the bargain).

As Newstead Abbey’s so Byronic anyway with its Gothic ruins and shady halls, it's almost too much that the man himself actually lived there. He shared what was basically a complete ruin at the time with his pet bear, wolf, various dogs, some tortoises and a hedgehog. The bear even went with him to Cambridge (as did his sumptuous four-poster bed). One of Newstead's highlights is the grave of Boatswain, the poet’s favourite dog. This takes the form of a large, urn-topped monument upon which is engraved 'Here lies one who possessed Beauty without Vanity, Strength without Insolence, Courage without Ferocity and all the Virtues of Man without his Vices'. Mad bad and dangerous to know Byron may have been, but not if you were one of his pets.

It rains a lot in Derbyshire, a matter of some amazement to the Sotheby’s people. One remarked to me that the number of people turning up in the downpour on the viewing days was extraordinary; in London no-one would have bothered. I explained that, given local climactic conditions, if you were put off by rain you would never go out and that Derbyshire people are, as a result, amphibious. But after the rain comes the sun, and when that comes out round here there is nowhere to match it. The greenest hills you ever saw fading to a sea of blue and purple in the distance. And none of it up for auction.

I became a school governor within months of my children starting formal education; most weeks now involve meetings connected with this high office.

We hear a lot about the Big Society, but what about the small? Our little church primary represents all that's best about the small rural community which it serves. But even pre-cuts, we live on a funding knife edge. Small is beautiful – parents volunteer to support the excellent teaching staff with Latin (yes!), art and creative writing lessons – and that’s before you count those like me being governors or PTA. With all the policy focus being on metropolitan fixations like free schools, we pleaded in a recent meeting with our first-rate MP, Chief Whip Patrick McLoughlin, for the seemingly urban-centric coalition to be mindful that indiscriminate cuts could force some rural schools out of existence. He took the point.

At yet another school meeting I sat, as I often do, next to the vicar and asked him about the inordinate number of cars parked outside his church that evening. “Oh, it’s the bridge club,” he groaned, adding, without any irony whatsoever, “honestly, it’s like a religion with them.” The Methodist minister is also very wry; this time of year, he told me, is very demanding for men of the cloth. Apparently the same large vegetables make several appearances on Harvest Festival altars; there is, as I write, an enormous and suggestive-looking marrow doing the rounds of chapels throughout the Derbyshire Dales.

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I Love Art, But My Children Hate It!

published Daily Express, August 2010

How do you make your children like art? Many parents, these school holidays, will take the most obvious route. They will lovingly transport their offspring to museums and galleries and dutifully park them before famous works. They will then feel miffed and resentful as said offspring yawns, wriggles and exhibits interest in only one aspect of the institution – the shop.

It can seem sometimes as if an anti-cultural firewall exists between children and their senior relatives' efforts to educate. And yet we parents persevere, driven by the knowledge – perhaps the dread – that a working familiarity with art, both contemporary and classical, is essential for anyone educated.

Especially these days. Never has art been so huge. Visitor numbers are up on all the major galleries, auction prices regularly go through the roof and contemporary artists constantly hit the headlines for reasons both personal and professional. And yet, for all the hoo ha, despite the obviously enormous public interest in and appetite for art amongst grown-ups, it can be difficult to light the blue touchpaper when it comes to small children.

Not for lack of trying among the galleries themselves, most of whom, these days, have children's corners, quizzes and craft tables in an attempt to draw in, as it were, young art lovers. But sometimes these praiseworthy efforts seem merely a distraction while the adults apply themselves to the real business of the place.

Recently, I had this problem in spades; I had endless galleries to visit for professional reasons. My latest novel, Gallery Girl, is a comedy about the lust, loot and lunacy of the art world. The research took well over a year, encompassing many school holidays, and so the children (6 and 7) had to come with me, whether they liked it or not.

At first, they didn't. But I'm happy to report that by the end the initial horror that struck whenever a picture frame was spotted had settled down into something definitely approaching enjoyment. My son, the seven-year-old, now actually wants to be an artist.

How was this miracle achieved? Quite simply, death and gore. Children love nothing better than staring at highly-coloured scenes of terrifying violence and presenting them with a couple of martyrdoms in action is so much more intellectually satisfying than something on the X Box. During a trip round Venice's flagship art collection at the city's Accademia galleries, my children gasped at St Sebastian full of arrows (but always with salon-fresh hair), St Mark bound and dragged in chains through mocking crowds and St Laurence bound for the grill. The agonising variations on the Crucifixion, meanwhile, were endless and thrilling. All painted hundreds of years ago to instill fear into the faithful – the faithless, even more - and having much the same effect now.

But you don't have to go to Venice to do this. Most British settlements of any size have a large nineteenth-century art gallery whose collection (literally) groans with visceral scenes from history and myth. Most have free admission. In London's National Gallery, to start with the obvious, you can see, among much else, the blinded St Lucy with her eyes on a plate, while the mediaeval galleries of the British Museum have some stomach-churning predictions of what awaits the godless in Hell. Birmingham's wonderful art gallery, one of the nearest to where I live, has a truly spine-chilling series of Perseus in jet-black armour rescuing the terrified Andromeda from the rock to which she is chained, and subsequently fighting the huge and ghastly sea monster.

Of course, making all this come alive depends on the parent knowing the story behind it. And boning up on, say, Greek myth may seem burdensome to mums and dads already faced with six solid weeks (four now!) of entertaining their children. Which is where contemporary art comes in. People often ask what the point of all these unmade beds, pools of wax and knickers nailed to chopping boards really is; ladies and gentlemen, it's to entertain the kiddies. Seriously, however rubbish you think it is, however it might annoy you, children think it's truly hilarious. They love it. Recently, on a trip to the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco, I was muttering darkly about the pickled menagerie by Damien Hirst on display in the upstairs rooms; my son, however, told me to lighten up. 'Oh, come on Mum," he said, walking between two halves of a sheep, 'it's funny, isn't it?" I'm still not so sure how funny, but I'm prepared to cut Hirst a bit of slack now.

And if you walk away from a contemporary art exhibition thinking that you could do it just as well (or badly), well, why don't you? I recently whiled away a number of happy weekends creating an entire spoof art show with the children's help. The anti-hero of my novel Gallery Girl is a bighead bad-boy artist called Zeb Spaw, and I thought it would be fun to pretend to be him and create some actual works in his style. I called the exhibition angry_with_britain; it features, among many others, 'Flash In the Pan', a meditation on celebrity culture in the shape of a gold-sprayed loo. 'Pants' is another thought-provoking piece, a contemplation of the human condition through the means of a large white pair of Y-fronts. You can see it all on my website, www.wendyholden.net.

The other thing about children and art is that they love making it. They adore drawing. The other day I bought mine some coloured chalks and they didn't come inside the house for hours – the outside, mind you, looks like an accident in an ice-cream factory. It's not very far from this to showing them a Howard Hodgkin, although it helps to have the reference books to hand. To this end, I've recently bought quite a useful manual called '1000 Paintings To See Before You Die', although my small daughter, who thought the title a little doomy, has corrected it (in wobbly metallic pen handwriting) to '1000 Paintings To See Becorse They Are Nice'.

It is possible for parents to get small children interested in art. But it does have consequences. Once they know about Tracey Emin, it's downhill all the way on the getting-them-to-make-their-bed front.

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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.

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Why does retail want my details?

Daily Telegraph, July 2010

It was on a sunny Friday morning in Majestic Wine Warehouse that my problems began. I’d popped in to replenish our stocks of Cotes de Provence rose. When I handed over my debit card at the till, the assistant asked for all my details – address, phone number, email, mobile phone - to put on computer. When I asked why, as I didn’t need credit or to have the stuff delivered, he said it was so I could receive information about Majestic events, plus a copy of the magazine.

Luckily, my social life is full enough not to require recourse to things run by wine retailers and I buy more magazines than I ever get through, even if the Majestic one has Catherine Zeta Jones on the cover. So I politely turned him down. His evident amazement was less surprising than the implication that my act was unprecedented in the history of the store.

But why? Why should retail outlets casually expect us to divulge personal information; even more amazingly, why do we go along with it? We have, as a nation, fought for personal freedom and the rule of law in two world wars, we have fiercely resisted the onset of ID cards, we see our homes as our castles and we fanatically shred every last supermarket receipt.

And yet in the shops we’re expected to hand over our e mails, addresses and phone numbers like sheep. It even happens in John Lewis! Yes! That national treasure of a store, byword for all that is best and British and decent! But the other day I couldn’t even buy an ironing board there without relinquishing name, rank and serial number. "It’s a customer requirement," said the assistant. But as I was taking the board with me, why? Is there something innately suspicious about people who iron?

What’s fine in the doctor’s surgery or passport application office is not fine in the high street if you’re not asking for credit or not arranging delivery. Yet, for refuseniks like myself, shopping is becoming a Stalinist nightmare. And while I doubt any genuinely nefarious use of details thus garnered, I may have spotted a link between giving info willy nilly and those tidal waves of junk mail and Nigerian banks in one’s inbox. Why should we hand over our privacy for others to profit?

It all came to a head, as it were, in a hair salon in Cornwall last week. Having a rare hour by myself (husband and children having gone off to see Toy Story 3), I decided to get my hoary locks trimmed. Scene as follows:

Me (entering salon) Could you trim my hair please?
Spiky-haired middle-youth on reception desk: Yeah, sure, no problem. I’ll just take a few details down on the computer (fingers poised over keyboard) Name, address?
Me: Do you mind if I don't? I just want a haircut.
Him (clearly stunned): But we always take people's details. We need them to keep in touch with our customers.
Me: I'd rather not. All I want is a haircut.

By now the whole salon was staring at me and it was tempting to turn on my flipflopped heel. However, I felt my position was reasonable and I wanted my hair cut. Whereupon the following conversation took place:

Haircutter (called Don, snip-snipping with his scissors): Look, about that computer thing, we only take personal details to keep in touch with our customers, okay? Build up a relationship. Keep them informed.
Me: Yes. But I just didn't want to, that was all.
Don (still agitated): We're not going to do anything with it. This information you don’t want to give us. Nothing funny or anything.
(I don't reply)
Don: So, you on holiday?
Me (relieved he has changed subject): Yes
Don (sarcastically): Incognito, eh?
Me: Look, Don, I think you should just get over me not wanting to give you all my details. It isn't necessary.
Don (aggressively): OK, OK, I am over it, OK. I am. Over it. Look, I'll just cut in complete silence, shall I? Happy with that?

As Don’s sharp scissors were millimetres from my neck, I actually wasn’t that happy. I didn’t want to be the first martyr to the cause of the right of the individual to shop without full disclosure. The cut was finished in sulky silence. I paid (in cash) and left.

I will go on with my campaign against this invasive lunacy, however. And I invite you all to join me. Just say no. Shopping is a thing of beauty, a joy for ever. It should not provoke an identity crisis.

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My Country Life Diary

Barometer anxiety is not a widely-recognised medical condition. But I've been under pressure in more than one sense this week thanks to a malfunctioning antique weather-glass. In a rush of blood to the head I bought one as a birthday present for my husband, and the dealer from whom I bought it came and fixed it on the wall. After which the needle stayed resolutely put. 'Much Rain' it insisted, even as the sun blazed outside. The dealer came back and moved it to 'Fair'; scarcely had he rolled away in his Mercedes than the rain started drumming on the roof. The needle did not move. The dealer's due back – 'your threads are probably twisted' – he told me on the phone. Which is no doubt true, but what about the barometer? This, and the fact that I'm looking for yet another piano teacher for my children means I'm becoming a repository ofanxieties stemming entirely from my own aspiration. "I'm a character from one of my own novels," I wailed to a friend. "I'm a middle-class cliché."

She replied: "I can top that. This morning I've had a Polish builder, the Ocado man and a gay gardener."

Adding to my concerns was my daughter's birthday party. She wanted a worm party; every invitee was to be presented on arrival with a flower-pot and spoon and sent down to the vegetable patch to dig up wrigglers. But I couldn't see the mums going for it somehow. So what else? It's a jungle out there in the world of infant entertainment solutions – literally. A 'petting zoo' party I once took the children to, expecting bunnies and hamsters, turned out to be snakes and scorpions.One of the fathers got bitten by a tarantula. And everyone's seen the local clown before (the bit when he makes sausage dogs out of balloons always seemed more adult-oriented anyway). In the end we had a very successful party in the garden with games.

I was confident of sun; the barometer was at that point still riveted to 'Much Rain'. I review popular fiction for various organs and have recently noticed the rise of what I think of as 'tax lit'. This is a school of writing in which characters seem to be indulging in the author's own sybaritic tastes; possibly so she/he can claim them as research expenses. I may be imagining it: anyway, there's nothing new, or wrong, in setting stories in exotic locations amongst luxury-lovers. It's just that, increasingly, descriptions of their indulgences seem unnecessarily long and detailed. You can almost see the receipts attached. I daren't give examples in case I get sued, but next time you come across someone doing something expensive which doesn't contribute to the plot, ask yourself if I'm being cynical.

As a reviewer I also get sent many examples of another rising phenomenon, the Fascinating Author. Time was, press releases featured a synopsis of the novel and the barest details about its writer; 'X has two children and lives in Devon'. But these days, X is nowhere if she hasn't got half a side of thrilling personal titbits. In the last two weeks alone I've had releases about authors who also collect phrenologists' heads, are 'hugely knowledgeable about gypsy folklore' and use their psychic forces to assist the police.Makes me feel inadequate in comparison – 'daughter likes worm parties…owns failing barometer…'

And so, for my latest novel, Gallery Girl, I've become a high-concept contemporary artist alongside the day job. Gallery Girl is a comedy about contemporary art, inspired by the fact that most contemporary art is, well, hilarious.

To launch GG I, together with my husband, have hired a glamorous Cork Street gallery. Hiding behind the persona of Zeb Spaw, the bigheaded bad-boy artist who is the villain of the novel, we have produced a series of spoof cutting-edge contemporary artworks. 'Fifteen Metres Of Fame' is Zeb's hommage to Warhol, a fifteen-metre rope hung with pictures of celebrities mounted on cardboard (mostly All Bran boxes). 'Tripetych' is three panels featuring blown-up images of offal. We are quite proud of 'Hunter-Gatherer', shopping lists found abandoned in baskets in the local Waitrose and framed in rows of four. Will I win the Turner Prize? Who cares, it'll be a great launch party.

Our exhibition, angry_with_britain, will be ceremonially conveyed from our Derbyshire studio to Cork Street in our long-wheelbase Defender, a majestic beast we recently bought and christened The Red Baron because of its deep burgundy colour. We crowned the Baron with a roof rack, meaning that we are forever barred from the occasional car park (height limit 2m). But what of that, when the Defender's height means you can see over walls into gardens you never knew existed and look down on anyone who drives a Range Rover? There's also the roar of the engine (you can't hear the children squabbling), that gearstick, those air vents, that subtle lift of the palm from passing Defender drivers. This summer we plan to cram the Baron to its nine-person capacity and drive to north-west Scotland. It will be interesting to see who's still got fillings come Lochcarron.

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Playtime!

For years, author Wendy Holden dreamed of learning the piano.
So what was holding her back?

'I couldn't read or play a single note'

As a child, I sat in the organ loft next to my father as he accompanied the hymns in church. As an adult, I sit by my son, Andrew, who's 8, as he tinkles his way to Grade One. Yet, until recently, the piano was most definitely not my forte – I couldn't read or play a single note.

Why had I never learnt? Possibly because Dad, a gifted keyboard player, only played because his mother forced him. and he chose not to impose the same misery on me. Ironically, this only deferred it a generation. Then I inflicted it on my own child.

Just shy of my 46th birthday, I finally unleashed my inner Mozart. It couldn't, I reasoned, be less effort than forcing rebellious children through their practice.

One advantage of my son's serial progression through four piano tutors in two years is that I knew where to go. Sally Royds, who lives near me in Derbyshire, has been teaching Andrew for a year and he's making wonderful progress. So, I signed up with her too.

But approaching her house for my first lesson, my nerves had reached a crescendo. What if I didn't make the grade? But Sally insists that she's never met anyone who couldn't play. "Each person has a unique piano journey," she said encouragingly, adding that everyone has potential that simply needs unlocking. Learning to 'let go' as you play is central to her unique method, which she calls Piano Freeway. Letting your arms drop, your wrists relax and your fingers fall on the keys are the first stages; more difficult than you'd imagine, especially when you're trying to follow the music as well. "It's all about releasing tension in the body in order to play," Sally explains. "And once you're immersed you don't think of anything else."

What better for a harassed middle-aged mum like myself? And it's true. You really can't think of anything else. Work niggles, lost and unsigned school forms, missing swimming goggles and cubs' subs float away as I let my hands drop on notes from the wrist or run up and down octaves with two thumbs. It's absorbing because there's so much to consider. Sally advises clapping out the rhythm of a piece before playing it, which might sound easy enough. But combining instructions like forte (loud) or piano (soft) with a changing pattern of beats per bar is a real challenge. The good news, though, is that you can practise anywhere – and I do, annoyingly – on tables, desks, work surfaces, anything where I can tap out a tune.

I thought that playing with two hands would be impossible, but as the weeks have progressed I've found I can almost manage it. Perhaps it's all those years at the computer keyboard. What's hard is fingering – having the right digits on the correct keys. The thumb plays Middle C, the forefinger D on the right hand and B on the left hand etc. Mine are never where they should be. Still, I'm working on it, much to the amusement of my eight-year-old son. "Mummy, you're so sad. I've done what you're doing years ago," he boasts.

But so what? I'm doing it now, and simultaneously demonstrating that you're never too old to learn. Taking up an instrument, I discovered, is instant membership to the club. Thrilling talk about time signatures, semibreves, crotchets and bar signs starts straight away. It's so exciting discovering that a dot next to a minim means three beats. for someone who's used words professionally throughout my career, this is a whole new and wonderful language.

And that nagging voice urging me to learn is now silent. It's been replaced by another reminding me to practise – if only to keep up with my son who's streets ahead of me and very pleased about it. Sally claims it's never too late to learn and as I can finally say, I did it Steinway!

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