Moving from New Zealand to London when I was 15 changed my life. It was a cultural shift as well as a personal one – from a very tranquil, rural, milk-and-honey land at one end of the world, to a war-torn, hungry, dejected nation at the other. It was 1946, a year of austerity, strict rationing, power cuts and a spectacularly hard winter – we had to stay in bed all day just to keep warm – but also of optimism, a sense of new beginnings. Bombed to bits Britain might be, but we would put ourselves together again as a better, fresher nation. As for me, I’d been an outsider – an English child, ‘a homey’, in New Zealand – and now I was ‘a crude colonial’ in England. To be an outsider is to belong nowhere: nowhere feels like home. But that’s no bad thing for a writer – you take nothing for granted.
I’ve been married three times. The idea of living my life alone never appealed – I’m a sociable person. The first lasted two years and was a matter of necessity, not choice, but the next lasted 31 years, and the third is still going strong after 26 years, so I’m no marital flibbertigibbet. But then, I was brought up in an era when to be married was a girl’s greatest desire and wish; it was certainly mine as a girl. To be a spinster suggested failure and disgrace; the wedding ring was the sign that you had made it. And yes, a different ring makes for a different life.
I like going to church on Sunday, but only if it’s The Book of Common Prayer and The King James Bible. It’s a ritual, a way of marking the passage of time, the change from one season to another: when the same reading comes around and a year has passed. It slows things up a bit. Especially as you get older and time seems to go more quickly, it’s a very valuable thing to do. The marking of things. It seems important to have some sort of ceremony in one’s life. And then I like singing hymns. Always did.
You’re only ever as good as your last novel. Writing is difficult, but the career is not. And I was brought up before women had ‘careers’. Success is in the eye of the beholder, not the practitioner. I just found myself using fiction to explain people’s behaviour to themselves. I first used TV and stage, then the novel, having discovered in advertising the power words had. I teach Creative Writing at Bath Spa University now, helping graduates to hone their writing skills, as once mine were honed. You can’t teach people what to say – that must come from them.
Since my very first novel, published in 1967, I’ve been under contract to deliver a new novel practically every year. That can only be why I’ve ended up as what they call ‘prolific’ – never quite realising that I could, and probably should, ask for more time. But you write the book you want to write, which is actually the one you feel you need to write – a commentary on the times you’re living in. So I daresay the novels end up as a kind of annual social record.
Is age slowing me up at 85? Not noticeably. My next book,Death of a She Devil, is coming out on April, a sequel to The Life and Loves of a She Devil, which came out in 1983. It’s taken me some time to get around to it, but time has had to pass and the feminist revolution to come and go and change society for good, before it could be done. Others of ambiguous gender now occupy the She Devil’s High Tower, but the past still haunts it, and wind and wave still eat away at the foundations. It was a novel in a great many voices, so technically it was quite difficult to write, but it was great fun. I laughed a lot. And now I must get back to the coalface and start writing my next book, called After the War, a sequel to my Before the War, about how conflict between nations is reflected by conflict within families.
I’ve lived in Dorset for 15 years, and before an interlude in London, for 15 years in Somerset. You find a far wider range of acquaintances in the country than in London, and a greater assortment of views and attitudes. In London, like talks to like. For a writer, country is better. Although I remember being rather startled when I first moved down here to read headlines in the local paper like ‘Vicar nearly run down on pedestrian crossing’.
In 1949, when I went up to university at St Andrews, my mother moved to St Ives. She lived in what was more a hut in a field than a house – in Boswednack, near Zennor – and wove willow baskets. She’d walk into Penzance market once a week to sell them. I, more practical, worked as a waitress at the Copper Kettle in St Ives (now The Rum & Crab Shack) all through the wakes weeks, when the factories in the North closed and everyone came south for their annual holiday. Lunch was two shillings and ninepence: a shocking price, I thought then, for a set meal of tomato soup, ham, peas and chips, with ice cream. Then she got a job in the woodworker Robin Nance’s gallery. St Ives was an exciting place in those days – an artistic hub, with artists like Barbara Hepworth, Patrick Heron, Graham Sutherland and Bernard Leach working there.
Home at last? One way and another, I now think of myself as a permanent denizen of this part of the world. It certainly feels like home. Maybe the West Country has finally taken the edge off my outsider’s blues.