A Year in My Life

For a Christmas 2008 feature The Times commissioned various writers to look back at a year which had changed their life. I chose 1967.

Can I have really made so many decisions in one year? Looking back, it seems almost impossible. In April I left my job and life in New York and returned to England. In the summer, I started to write my first ever novel – not counting the one about the black stallion when I was fourteen. In December, just before Christmas, I got married.

I don’t think I’ve made any serious decisions since. It all started, as things tend to do, the year before. I was working for ABC television as a researcher in their documentary department. My subjects inclined to the gloomy, unless you count interviewing Timothy Leary (Tune in Turn on, Drop out) in his upstate New York mansion as fun. Actually, it was rather amazing to meet this icon of drugs on home ground. He appeared Deus ex Machina at the top of a sweeping stairway , dressed all in white and escorted by lovely maidens.

My more usual contacts were semi-toothless (too much sugar among other things) heroin addicts who didn’t have long for this world. Drugs were a big part of my life, not because I took them – alcohol has always been my addiction of choice – but because I was working on a TV programme on the subject. I was also doing research for some English TV companies who wanted to get a US perspective. Oh if only the mice hadn’t gnawed my beautiful posters of the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane.

Back to fun for a moment, I mustn’t over look Fire Island and the Hamptons and apartments on Sutton Place South and my own smelly walk-up railroad apartment and my best friend, Eden, who took me up every high place in Manhattan – the Twin Towers had neither come nor gone back then. I loved New York. It was where I grew up and learnt ‘alternative’ could have a second meaning and thought about the reality of war. It was the time when Vietnam was the first word anyone said and ‘protest’ was the second.

But I think I was turning my heart towards England even before the man who I was to marry turned up on the scene. He was making a documentary film about Madison Avenue (think the reality behind the series Mad Ave) and there was thick snow on the ground. Our first date took place in Bellevue Hospital, the oldest public hospital in the US, where I was visiting a dying addict. Then we went to nightclubs like the fabulous Cheetah which he hated and I took him up the high places Eden had shown me which he much preferred. To be honest, so did I.

On April Fool’s Day the following year I threw up my rather good job and said goodbye to my loving and whizzy friends, (also the mixed up and miserable ones) and headed for home. Except I had no home of my own and nobody seemed to want to employ me – unless I wanted to monitor BBC Overseas Services which I knew was beyond my capabilities.

My future husband meanwhile was busy making his first feature film, Interlude, a romantic love story. Personally, I didn’t then and don’t now find hanging round film sets at all stimulating. ‘You need to work,’ Kevin pointed out, although we were not then engaged. Before I pointed out I knew that too, he added, ’What can you do?’ or was it, ‘There must be something you can do?’ He said it with faith and love, at least I like to think it was not just to get me out of his hair.

‘I’ve always thought I could write,’ I replied, disguising a passion with careful modesty. I expected, perhaps, derision. Despite my worldly experiences, I did not have much confidence.

‘Write then,’ he said, or something similarly straightforward.

If I was Philip Roth, I could now add ‘And the rest is history’. But if it isn’t history in a general sense, it is my history. I’ve now written eighteen novels and nine books for children and each blank page waiting to be filled is more exciting than the last. In case that sounds nauseatingly complacent, ‘exciting’ means difficult, terrifying, ridiculous, thrilling and on occasions very depressing. But it’s what I do. And it started in that one year when everything got on track.

The strange thing is that I thought at the time that I was quite old and almost world weary, quite old enough to settle down. But I was actually in my early twenties, well, exactly middle by the time I got married.
The marriage concept seemed to appear after a holiday in Turkey. Kevin had not expected to get married ever and was quite surprised to find himself in the position. This was definitely helpful as it meant I made all the plans which mainly consisted of getting the theatrical costumier, Monty Berman to turn me into a Russian heroine in white frogged coat laden with white fox fur trimmings – fox was not off the agenda then – and turn my little nieces into silver and white Christmas angels. Then, since my father was leader of the House of Lords at the time, we arranged a jolly drinks party with Christmas pudding instead of wedding cake. Weddings were simpler then, although the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, and Cardinal Heenan spoke – neither as well as my brilliant barrister brother, Paddy, however.

Our honeymoon took place in my sister’s house in Scotland – honeymoons were simpler then too. We went up by sleeper and after a week or so, a huge amount of snow fell and we were snowed-up right through New Year. This was good news because it meant that I could carry on writing my novel which was all about an English girl in New York who divides her time between reporting on drug use and enjoying the high life at parties where ‘the great Impressionists hang unregarded on the walls’. I always felt mean about this comment since my hosts and hostesses were without exception highly cultured.

Thereafter I stuck to works of the imagination which, in my probably unfashionable view, is the way the best novels are written. As for New York, I shall be there when you are reading this, still learning. That’s true about marriage too. And books. But it all got started in that one year.