On love, death and a red dress
Will there be war in Europe? Will I catch Covid just before my book launch? And why didn’t I bother to lose my pandemic pounds?
These are some of the thoughts washing around my head as I wriggle around in bed at night and pray for sleep. But I can’t! I can’t because I’ve got so much to do and because this is the most important week of my life.
That’s overstating it, of course. There have been phone calls that have rocked the foundations of my world and left me wondering - really, truly wondering - if I can keep going, if I can actually stay alive.
There have been phone calls, and meetings with doctors, that have made me aware - viscerally, electrically aware - that I might not have the choice.
There was the phone call and the meeting, if you can call a shouting match a meeting, with a man who looked like a baby, that ended my career. Or at least my career with a regular column and a steady income and a boss. That was the good bit. Losing the boss. The rest of it? Well, let’s just say I remember telling a friend that I felt as if I’d been murdered.
All of these events were unplanned. They were things that hit out of a clear, blue sky and left me feeling as if I was hanging on to a cliff edge with my fingernails. I got through them. I often thought I wouldn’t, but I did. And thank God I did. Because this week I am doing something I have wanted to do all my life.
I can’t remember when I first decided I wanted to tell the story of my family. It was long before I thought I could be a writer, long before I knew what a memoir was, long before it became fashionable as a literary genre. It started off, if I’m really honest, with a sense of shame. Why was my sister so difficult? Why couldn’t I be in a normal family like everyone else? Why did there always have to be what my mother called “a scene”?
One day, on the school playing field, a classmate who’s still a friend said: “you talk about your brother all the time, but you never mention your sister”. It was the first time I realised. The silence built up and built up and built up and it started to find ways of bursting out. Now I have tried, in as calm a way as I can manage, to tell the story of my sister’s illness and what it did to our family.
My sister, Caroline, was much, much more than an illness. She was a sweet, talented, passionate girl who loved costume dramas on TV, gulped down books and then gulped them down again and loved the last Tsar of Russia and his family so much that she actually became friends with the son of the tutor to his only son. She did not expect, at fourteen, to come back from a trip to an island in Norway thinking she had planted IRA bombs. But that’s what happened and it took its toll on all of us.
I did not expect, when I was fourteen, to go to a youth club in search of boys and find God. But that’s what happened and it took its toll on me. Among other things, I learnt that you couldn’t touch the boys unless it was God’s will and how on earth were you meant to work that out? When, at 26, I told God to fuck off (and I’m sorry about the language, but that’s literally what happened) I had absolutely no idea how to find or keep a boyfriend. I was also unemployed, crippled with pain and trying to come to terms with the news that I had an autoimmune disease that I had been told couldn’t be cured.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that when The Sunday Times picked extracts from the book to run last weekend, they ignored most of the darker stuff and chose to focus on my failed love life and its supposed fairy-tale ending. The first time I read it, after they sent a draft through, and the paragraphs about the crush I had on someone at work (who never knew, or at least I think he never knew) I literally started pouring with sweat and had to go and have a shower.
That’s probably how my partner felt when he opened the Sunday Times magazine. When he first sent me a message through the Times Encounters dating website, six and a half years ago, I don’t think he thought he would end up in a double-page spread in the paper. Still, perhaps that word “journalist” on my profile might have offered a tiny clue.
My brief run as the country’s most famous ex-spinster continued on Monday with a spread in the Daily Mail. It was a Valentine’s spread. I was holding a heart-shaped balloon. Yes, I really was holding a heart-shaped balloon. I was quite surprised, when I went out to buy a copy of the paper, to see I had made the Mail masthead, over “FRANTIC 48 HOURS TO SAVE EUROPE FROM WAR”. Several readers wrote in to ask me where I’d got the dress.
Laydeez, you do the frocks. Let the guys do the war.
Anyway, it has been fun. And nerve-wracking. And surreal. And I’m still obsessed with our political situation, which is more depressing than ever.
In my podcast last week, I asked Gabriella Braun for some tips on how to cope with political despair. Gabriella uses psychoanalytic and systemic thinking to help leaders and teams understand the hidden truths of their behaviour at work. She was fascinating on the dynamics in Downing Street. She has also just published a very good book called All That You Are. “I've been enormously helped by writing the book,” she told me, “and having a real focus and deadlines. There's a temptation in the despair to lose all sense of agency. So it's something about keeping hold of our own agency and doing what we can do.”
I thought that was very good advice. Yes, we have a corrupt, lying charlatan in Downing Street. Yes, we have a mass murderer in the Kremlin running rings around the West. All of this is very depressing. But I can’t change that and nor can you. What we can do is get on with what matters to us and what we think will make life a bit better for other people, too.
I hope my book does. I have poured my heart and soul into it. If you’re free tomorrow night (Thursday 17th), then do please come and celebrate with me at Waterstones, Piccadilly at 7pm. I’ll be talking to Daisy Buchanan, bestselling author of Insatiable, about life, death, love, illness and the whole caboodle. I have waited for this moment all my life and I’m going to savour every second.
PS If you do decide to buy and read my book, I would be really grateful if you would put a short review on Amazon. Ideally only if you like, obvs, but I do understand that’s a terrible thing for a critic to ask…
Good luck with the book launch Christina - It will be FABULOUS!
All the very best with the book tour, Christina, time to pop down (or is it up?) to Australia, it'd be wonderful to see you at writer's week in Adelaide. Really enjoy reading your work.