Someone once said that gardening was a child-rearing replacement activity. Must have been a sociologist or a Guardian writer. Nobody really talks like that. What they probably said was: Have you noticed that even when a woman’s children have left home, her maternal instinct is still left behind? And she is apt to go out into a garden and rear flowers instead? Like all half-baked theories, it attracted me immediately and if I now don’t believe in it, it’s only because I have reluctantly noticed over the years that there are far more exceptions to the rule than otherwise. In other words, that it may be a bit true, but not true enough to be useful.
My own wife, for example, should, by this theory, be out in the garden most days by now. Our eighteen-year-old son is in his last year at school and will soon be going off to the university of Gap Year, leaving me as the only person dependent on her care. But although we have a fair old garden, I don’t see her pottering around in it at all. Most days she is upstairs working on her third novel.
Ah! Is this another kind of child-rearing replacement activity? Is she perhaps giving birth to books instead of children? (You can see that I myself am trying to bring forth another half-baked theory . . )
Well, it may be so. Yet all her life Caroline has been engaged in creative ventures. The theatre was her first love, and her main activity for much of her life, too, as director, teacher and writer. When I first met her she was beginning to realise that theatre could demand too many sacrifices, and had just taken a degree course in film and television at Bristol and was starting to work for the BBC there. Unfortunately John Birt also started to work for the BBC not very long afterwards, and by the time Caroline had developed into a good TV director, making some rather individual and quirky documentaries, John Birt was creating a stifling climate in which anything quirky or individual would be miles too risky to be encouraged, so Caroline finally left the BBC at Bristol, without much regret.
Indeed, John Birt also left the BBC at about the same time, and although he has been lolling around on a sofa at 10 Downing Street ever since, trying and failing to find something useful to do, Caroline has been much more purposeful. First of all she started a theatre company. She wound that up just before we went bankrupt. Then she told me that she was going to try writing a novel.
“Will it be your first novel?” I asked her.
“Yes, it will be my first novel,” she said.
“What will it be about?”
“Country folk,” she said.
“What kind of country folk?” I said.
“Mind your own business,” she said. “Go and practise your interviewing on someone else.”
At BBC Bristol she had got to make more countryside-based programmes than she would have done in TV Centre, Wood Lane, and she had learnt more about farming life than most intending novelists do. She made one programme, for instance, about successful farms run by women.
“Very often a male farmer seems to be trapped inside traditional ways of doing things,” she told me at the time, “ and can’t think his way out of them. But I keep coming across farmers’ wives who have the necessary vision and energy to do a bit of lateral thinking and get things going again. . . “
This must have been the germ of her first novel, the story of a woman married to a young farmer who dies suddenly in a shooting accident. Not of farming stock herself, she is faced with the awful dilemma of whether to carry on the farm or sell up and go back to her native London. And when she decides to stick with the farm and do her best to make it work, she comes across a family secret which suggests that her husband’s death might not have been quite such an accident after all. . .
That’s what she told me. I can’t tell you much more about it than that, because it remained at the first draft stage, and she must have thought it was rather dark-toned, because she suddenly announced she was going to start another novel, in much lighter mood. I questioned her closely about it.
“Is this going to be your first real novel?”
“Yes, it is.”
“What’s it going to be about?”
“I thought you had covered country folk last time?”
“Different country folk this time.”
“Different in what way?”
“Lighter. Bit of a reaction to the last effort.”
“Well, much quirkier and offbeat. Sort of H.E.Bates meets The Archers, maybe?”
“What does that mean?”
“Wait and see. Incidentally, have you done many interviews since you last talked to me about writing?”
She allowed me to read chapters of this novel from time to time, leaving me always dying to know what happened next, which was pretty unsophisticated of me, I admit it, but gives you an idea how good the story was. What happened next was that she finished it, sent it off to an agent she didn’t know, had the agent ring up and say she would like to try it on several publishers, and had one of the publishers ring up the same week and say they really liked it. Anyone who has had anything to do with publishing will know that for all that to happen in less than a fortnight is impossible. Yet it did happen, and I looked at my wife with a new respect and envy, and the position we are now in, as of February 2006, is that my wife is having a first novel called “A Tangled Summer” published by Orion next July.
That same person who has had anything to do with publishing will know that that will not have been the original title. Caroline wanted to convey the bitter-sweet, up-and-down quality of it by calling it “Silage and Strawberries”, but this only puzzled the publishers. (Caroline thinks to this day that nobody in London actually knows what silage is.) So the novel went through a thousand titles which nobody could agree on, until it became “A Tangled Summer”.
(I had had the same trouble with my mock-autobiography which was published last year. I had called it “Been There, Done That, Written This”. They hated that. I submitted a thousand more titles, including my next favourite, “Over My Dead Leg”. They shook their heads a thousand times. Finally my wife suggested that I should call it simply “Someone Like Me”. They loved that. “Great title, Miles!” they said. “We knew you’d think of one eventually.” It is amazing how hard it is to say the simple words, “Actually my wife thought of it”.)
And now she is hard at work on her second novel, because Orion signed her up to a two-book deal. I asked her the other day what it is about.
“So, I gather you are working on your second novel? This is your first second novel, isn’t it?”
“Care to tell me what it’s about?”
“I think I’d rather wait till a proper interviewer comes along.”
It’s not every husband who can say he has been replaced by Richard and Judy.
Fri Feb 4 06