Bonkers: My Life in Laughs - Jennifer Saunders (2013)
I am sitting on the steps outside the small house that I’m sharing with JoBo in Glebe Place, Chelsea.
JoBo has just gone up to the King’s Road to buy a paper, so we can do the crossword. We have nothing else to do. We don’t have jobs. The house was rented from the Church Commissioners by JoBo’s boyfriend, and we have been allowed to stay in it while he is abroad. It is shabby, to say the least, and becomes shabbier the longer we live there. The whole house is slowly collapsing due to dry rot. There are holes in the stairs where feet have gone through. Throughout the house we have to tread quite carefully in order not to find ourselves a floor below.
Where the plaster has fallen off the walls and the original rotted wattling is exposed, we pick it off and burn it on the fire to keep warm. No, this isn’t Dickens’s time: it is 1980. By the time JoBo’s boyfriend returns a year later, very little of the original house remains. We have even burned some of his old law books that we found in a cupboard, because we can’t afford coal.
We sleep in a room together on two single mattresses on the floor. There are no curtains, but there is a cupboard that we don’t use. We hang everything on something that’s standing in the middle of the room. It’s covered in so many clothes that we have no idea what it is. Turns out to be the Hoover. But we don’t hoover. In fact, we can navigate our way to our mattresses by following a path that we have made through the thick dust on the carpet with our feet.
JoBo has rented out two other rooms in the house. Maggie, a teacher, and Sarah, then a secretary, are our housemates. They actually have jobs, but don’t seem to mind the squalor. We also have a cat called Spider. As we have very little money, we often split a tin of pilchards with Spider.
This is going to sound awful. JoBo and I realize we should sign on, but cannot be bothered. The Social Security office is a long way down the Fulham Road, and that kind of energy is lacking. We are layabouts. We get up late, do nothing, talk a lot, scrounge drinks in the pub and then sit on the step.
Sometimes we’ll go up the King’s Road to see if anyone’s about. I once saw Blondie in the grocer’s.
When JoBo comes back from the shops, she will hopefully have got a copy of The Stage so that we can look for jobs. What we would really like to do is work on a cruise. Be entertainers on a cruise. Yes, you have to work, but you are on that cruise having a cruise.*
JoBo’s friend Fi Cotter Craig (who would become a TV producer, but at this moment is a secretary) often comes over in the evening. It’s an easy house to get into. There is a wire coat hanger behind the empty window box and you just slide it through the letter box and pull the latch. We don’t have keys. Fi sometimes gets us work in her office, stuffing leaflets into envelopes, for which we actually get paid. But, generally, money is tight and food scarce. Our favourite dish is frozen peas with margarine and pepper. Belinda PB pops in sometimes with leftover food packages from her directors’ lunches, which keep us going for a while.
The other day, when we were really desperate, JoBo came up with a plan. She had to drop her cousin back at her old convent school in Hertfordshire and I was to come with her. While JoBo was taking the girl in and keeping the nuns occupied, I was to get out and go round the back of the school to the vegetable garden (JoBo drew me a map) and steal vegetables. I was terrified. When JoBo was out of sight, I followed the map round to the veg garden. If spotted by a nun, I had to appear nonchalant and admiring of the garden. I was wandering around with a huge basket and some plastic bags trying to look innocent. I find that so hard. It’s a bit like when you have to use cue cards in a studio to help with lines that you keep forgetting. On ‘Action’, I make a point of not looking at the cue cards, in case it seems like I’m looking at the cue cards. Which completely defeats the point. Anyway, I got as far as the runner beans and filled a couple of bagfuls, but lost my nerve when it came to actually pulling things out of the ground. I know I don’t believe in God, but what if he was watching?
I sensed JoBo’s disappointment. We had runner beans to eat for the next two weeks.
I like sitting on the step and watching the world go by. I’m quite happy on my own and always have been.
We were given a lot of freedom growing up; the biggest punishment was not being allowed out. The worst words I could ever hear were ‘You can’t go outside today.’ Outside, I could do whatever I wanted: ride a bike, poke around with a stick, build a den, climb trees. I never had to tell my parents where I was going; I just had to be back for mealtimes. My parents never fussed. Nobody did then. You just sort of got on with it, really.
Growing up in RAF camps is comparatively safe. They are gated communities and there isn’t a lot of traffic. We spent all day outside riding bikes, roller-skating and going to the perimeter fence to watch planes taking off. I would be quite happy to spend all day watching planes taking off and landing; quite happy to have a deckchair on a roof at Heathrow and see the aircraft coming in and out.
My mother never felt the need to check up on us constantly. The final RAF quarters we lived in were in Melksham, and they were nowhere near a runway. A whole camp had been demolished, leaving only the officers’ quarters. Our address was 2OMQ (officers’ married quarters), The Old Hospital Site, Melksham. To get to the houses, you had to drive through the overgrown remains of buildings; it looked like an atom bomb had been dropped. Tiny streets named after aeroplanes were lined with rubble – Vulcan Avenue, Hastings Way, Lancaster Drive. In the middle of the site was the old parade ground, a vast expanse of tarmac where people were taken to learn to drive. We went there sometimes in the car, and my father would let us steer. I have never lost that bug. Even now, if someone else is driving, I feel the urge to ask if I can steer.
The old site may have looked like a nightmare, but to us children it was heaven and we cycled around it whenever we could. We made dens in the shells of buildings and were thrilled by the amount of rude graffiti that we found on the walls. At night, the site became quite a different place, judging by the number of used condoms that had been tossed into the hedges.
When I asked my mother if she had ever worried about us, she said, ‘Not really. I thought you were all probably quite sensible.’
Sadly, this is true. My fourteen-year-old self’s diaries make a fairly humdrum read:
Friday, 28 January 1972
Barnaby rolled in mud. Received a letter from Fiona. Had needlework, did nothing. Mrs Dodd away. Thank god. Had a French lesson. Mrs Cross let us listen to tapes and look at pictures. Gave a letter to Stephen Okell who said he did not like Gill. Mucked out stables. Barnaby rolled in mud again. Have made up a code. Ate some AYDs. Radio sounds terrible.
Saturday, 29 January 1972
Put ponies out. Snowed slightly. Going into Chester to look at a flute. Bought it.
Groomed and rode. Took him out on the road. Watched telly. Ate enormous tea.
Watched Cliff Richard and The New Seekers on Songs of Praise. Man Utd lost 2–1 to WBA. Went to bed at midnight.
Thursday, 3 February 1972
Windy rainy night. Wore my new black boots. Forgot to do my Biology. Handed my German in on wrong pile. Oversewed my straps in needlework.
Started pouring with rain. Had my flute lesson. Did Telemann. Mum picked me up. After watching The Vera Lynn Show went to bed.
Am apparently in bad mood.
As I said, the much-anticipated teenage diary written in code was also disappointing. The first line I cracked was ‘I really want a velvet hacking jacket.’ Why was this a secret?
Home, from the age of thirteen, was Acton Bridge in Cheshire. The Grange was a large, red-brick Victorian house that sat squarely on a small hill, overlooking a millpond. It was idyllic. The area itself was quite industrial, but you wouldn’t have known it when you were there. Occasionally, on a clear night, you could see the lights from Ellesmere Port and, if the wind was blowing in the wrong direction, you might get a faint whiff of burning oil. About three fields away was a big railway line, but it wasn’t close enough to bother us really; the house was in its own little bubble. It had a huge garden, which my parents filled with vegetables, shrubs and specimen trees, with paddocks beyond. They were both great doers, and it was the first garden that they could see through to fruition. To reach town you had to walk down to the end of a long lane and then get on the bus, which provided the perfect excuse not to socialize.
I was a quiet child. I was a watcher. I liked to stare. My mother said I would often wander off and be found staring at people a little bit too closely, and have to be removed.
My mother dressed me and my brothers in similar outfits when we were little. It made sense as we did the same things. We rode bikes, climbed trees, made bonfires and dens. I wanted to be a cowboy and I always wanted a tommy gun for Christmas. I would still quite like a tommy gun for Christmas.
It was great growing up with brothers. I think it gave me a competitive edge. Not the kind of competitiveness that girls have with each other. I know about that, because I have witnessed it, first hand, with my daughters. If you have an argument with your brothers, you have a proper fight and try to hurt them and then forget about it. You don’t sit and sulk and spend every mealtime giving each other ‘the evils’, and then perhaps bopping them hard on the head with a teaspoon.
We always had rusty old motorbikes lying around that my brothers had got going, and we raced them around the fields. We did timed courses and small ramp jumps. Anything they could do, I wanted to do, and generally I wanted to do it faster.
Tim went away to school but would come back home in the holidays. His room was on the top floor at the back of the house and was always neat. There were Yes posters on the wall and a bit of Salvador Dali. He listened to Pink Floyd and David Bowie, while I was still into David Cassidy but moving towards a total T. Rex obsession. When Tim was back at school I would go up to his room and see if there was any chocolate. Tim was picky and always cut the fat off his ham, and never finished his Easter egg. He would hide it, and other chocolate, in his sock drawer. Sock drawer? I mean, that was the first place I would look! If you’re looking for anything, the first place to look is in the sock or knicker drawer. Little by little, the egg would be eaten. With each nibble I thought, Oh, he won’t notice that, until there was nothing left but the wrapping.
Peter, my middle brother, was three years younger than me. He was the most daring, and the naughtiest, a tall, handsome free spirit, and always wore a huge grin. He wasn’t academic and went to the local Secondary Modern; but he was immensely practical and, when he wasn’t off being naughty, he would be tinkering with machinery and chopping down trees. He was intensely infuriating and hugely lovable.
My youngest brother, Simon, set out his stall fairly early on in life. He was always a wonderful host. He had immaculate manners and an old-fashioned demeanour. At the age of twelve, he would wear a bow tie and a jacket and greet guests at the door. I know many of my friends mistook him for a butler. He would take their bags and ply them with drinks.
When people ask, ‘Are you a close family?’ I always think, Yes, we are, but we just never talk about it. Life at home was peaceful and uncomplicated. And full of animals.
For as long as I can remember, we always had animals. Whenever we moved to a new posting, it was accompanied by rabbit hutches, aquariums, hamster cages and a tortoise in a cardboard box. We had terrapins, newts, gerbils, hamsters, mice, guinea pigs, rabbits, stick insects, pupae ready to hatch, a cat and a golden retriever. I recently asked my mother if she minded the menagerie and she said she didn’t; in retrospect, I think it was her who wanted them, really. She was a biologist, like my grandfather, and had studied at St Andrews University.
An only child, she had spent half of her young life in Scotland (her father was also in the RAF). Here, she had learned to skin rabbits, gut fish, and plough with heavy horses. She had grown up with a real passion for nature. She had, and still has, an encyclopedic knowledge, though she has always been modest about it. Flowers, leaves, insects: you name it, she can name them. We used to go on long walks, find leaves or insects that needed identifying, bring them home and get the books out. I have seen her pick up a rabbit with myxomatosis and put it out of its misery with a quick twist of her fingers.
It was she who instilled a passion for animals into all of us. When my father was posted to a staff college in Camberley, Surrey, we lived in a lovely big officers’ quarters, and at the bottom of the garden were some old tree stumps, full of holes. Our favourite game was to put our hands in the holes and see if we could pull out a toad. In the spring they would be full of stag beetles. My mother would always make us examine them and work out the differences between a stag beetle and an ordinary beetle. By the time I had left home, she had become a biology teacher at a local school, and had never been happier.
At school, I used to love the biology labs – the tanks full of locusts and fruit flies, the bulls’ hearts and eyeballs all ready for dissection, and the skulls and skeletons of various animals. I was very disappointed when I eventually discovered that the human skeletons they have in schools are actually fake! Not real dead bones at all, dear reader.
When I found myself in the first year at George Ward Comprehensive School in Melksham, I quickly learned that if I made friends with the biology teacher, I could go down the ‘Can I look after the mice?’ route at break-time, thereby avoiding the huge playground full of huge children for whom first-years were an easy target. The added bonus of being the Mouse Looker-Afterer was being allowed to take the mice home for the holidays. Lovely big white mice. It was summer, so they could live in cages in the shed with the rabbits.
Looking back, I don’t quite understand the attraction of small mammals. They are cute and you want them so badly to love you. You want to be able to cuddle them. You want them to behave like they do in films: live in your pocket and be your friend and do tricks. But really all they do is bite and scratch. Try to catch a gerbil by the tail and it will, like a ninja, turn itself in mid-air and land its tiny teeth into your flesh. A rabbit being cuddled will kick you in the chest with its hind claws and leave you looking like you’ve had a night out with Freddy Krueger.
So I had the mice. For the whole summer. In the shed. One of the mice turned out to be pregnant and gave birth to a lovely litter. I was in heaven. No one in the house was really even aware of the mice until, one day at breakfast, my father started to pour some cornflakes and a very small mouse jumped out into his bowl. ‘What the bloody hell?’
How had a mouse got into the cornflakes?
But I knew. I knew where this miniature mouse had come from. Something apocalyptic had happened in the shed and I was no longer in control of it. The baby mice had been escaping through the bars of the hamster cage and, no matter how hard I tried to keep the sexes apart, they were breeding out of control. Every day, there was another litter of tiny, peanut-sized babies, and because they were breeding so young, they were gradually getting smaller and smaller and becoming a mutant strain. Then the inevitable happened, and wild mice started coming into the shed and breeding with them, so now there was a wild mutant strain. It was the stuff of nightmares.
Eventually, my mother had to be told, and she helped me sort them all out. School mice were separated and taken back to the lab, and the rest disposed of practically but humanely. The relief was enormous, and I have never wanted to see a mouse since.
When I was eleven, I got my first pony. It was nearing the time to go to ‘big school’ and the possibility was mooted that I might go to a nearby girls’ boarding school called Stonar. A few of my friends were going there, but I didn’t want to go. I wasn’t even going to be a boarder, but I hated the idea and was no fan of Malory Towers, or The Ten Marys, or whatever it was called. And this was obviously going to cost my parents money! I told them that I didn’t really want to go and perhaps they could buy me a pony with the money that they would be saving? Happily, they agreed, and I went to the local comprehensive.
I had been riding since I was little at various riding schools and on friends’ ponies, but I was desperate to have my own. Having my own pony was a dream that became an obsession. All I did was read books about horses (My Friend Flicka, The White Stallion) and watch programmes about horses (Champion the Wonder Horse, White Horses). I had models of horses and pictures of horses. I had horses on the brain. Of course, we had nowhere to actually keep a pony, but my best friend Debbie Brown lived on a small farm not far from the school. Most nights I would go home with her and ride. So when Topaz arrived, he was kept there.
Topaz was 14.1 hands high, dapple grey and excellent at gymkhana. My poor mother must have spent her life in a car, taking me to or picking me up from Lagard Farm. Some nights I would stay over with Debbie. Everything became about ponies. Riding out after school to meet other girls with ponies and talk about their ponies, and other people’s ponies, and ponies we’d read about or seen on the TV.
When not in school uniform, I spent my life in my other uniform, which was jodhpurs and jodhpur boots. I used to love jodhpurs, and at that time there were no such things as stretchy jodhpurs; they were tight down the lower leg and baggy above. When stretchy jods came in, the whole effect was much less pleasing, and girls used to wear them so tight that nothing was left to the imagination.
Dear reader, I have not forgotten that I’m still on a step in Chelsea. JoBo isn’t back with the papers yet. I don’t mind, because the step is the perfect place to start or continue a daydream. I am a serious daydreamer, never happier than when I’m alone in my own head.
Riding your pony out on your own is one of the greatest times to daydream. Back when I was first riding Topaz, my daydreams weren’t exactly sophisticated. The main character who featured in them was my ideal man: tall, dark, good-looking and mysterious. He was a mix of James Bond and Mr Rochester, and he had an aristocratic title that he never liked to use. When I was a little older, and reading Victoria Holt novels and other bodice-rippers, I gave him a Cornish name. Lord James Petroc.
James Petroc was sometimes a spy, sometimes an Olympic rider, sometimes a racing driver, but always rich, unpretentious, carefree, funny and sensitive. No one quite understood him, but everyone fell in love with him. I think he was probably basically ‘me’, which was why he was never very successful at romance (there was no sex): he was actually just in love with himself.
By the time I was fourteen, all my daydreams starred me, and often Topaz. James was killed off. By then, I was in love with Marc Bolan anyway. Marc had replaced Donny Osmond, and Peter Tork of the Monkees. Marc was up there with George Best, whom I saw once, at Haydock Park Racecourse on Merseyside. Mrs Pritchard-Barrett, Belinda’s mum, wouldn’t let us speak to him. This was a source of great sadness because, as my fourteen-year-old self wrote in her diary, he did ‘look super in the flesh’.
When I was growing up, I was genuinely more into ponies than boys. My greatest heroine was the showjumper Marion Coakes. She had taken her childhood pony, Stroller, into adult competition and won just about every big event going, including the silver medal in the Olympics in Mexico. Stroller was 14.2 hands high and the smallest horse jumping. Marion was actually living every pony girl’s dream. Stroller was a hero and, in the minds of lots of pony girls, their pony could be that hero too …
Topaz and I have been jumping in local shows and he’s been winning. All the other competitors really wish I wasn’t there, because their ponies don’t stand a chance. And then, one day, I arrive home and my mother tells me that I had a phone call. That’s odd, because I rarely get phone calls. I ask who it was, and she tells me it was the Head of the British Showjumping Team.
I ring him back. He tells me that there has been a problem. They are due to fly out for the Olympics, and Stroller has gone lame. They need a replacement. Someone has seen me and Topaz jumping at the Cuddington Show and Gymkhana, and I am now the only one they are considering. Would I agree to become a member of the British team? They need an answer now! It would mean time off school, but I’m sure that would be OK, as it would be for Britain …
And so it was that I went to the Olympics and won gold. I don’t want you to think that this daydream was a quick moment in the head. Sometimes, daydreams could take weeks. Each scene was rewritten and improved, and jeopardy added. Once they were fully formed, it was quite nice to run through them more than once.
When I was older, my daydreams became a little more sophisticated, with more complicated relationships. Once I had my first car, the best time to daydream was when I drove it, particularly as the cassette player meant that I could add my own soundtrack. In my head, I was generally a friend of the star, Emmylou Harris or Joni Mitchell, and had – for a bit of fun – sung on one of their albums. Now they found that they couldn’t sing those tracks without me. My gap year was spent just hanging out with all these musicians, but it was never going to be a serious career …
Joni is onstage, playing to a huge crowd. I am standing at the side of the stage and she doesn’t know I’m there. After a few numbers, she announces that she’s going to sing ‘The Boho Dance’. This is one of the tracks I half-wrote and sang on for the album. She starts the song and then, just as she’s getting to the first chorus, I walk on and, at the microphone slightly to the back of the stage, I join in, singin’ my familiar harmonies. The crowd go mad, and Joni turns and smiles. She asks me to stay onstage and sing the whole album with her.
Which I do. In my car.
In all my daydreams, I am a version – an ideal version – of myself. I can do anything. I speak many languages, i.e. I have many tongues at my disposal, and I am often the perfect spy or secret agent, with a mysterious past. This person could be worked into any scenario. She was in an episode of Prime Suspect once. Not the one on the telly. The real one.
The other thing I am in my daydream is thin. Immaculately dressed in outfits that are given to me by all my designer friends, and Ralph Lauren.
If I could go back and say one thing to my younger self it would be: YOU ARE NOT FAT.
I started diets when I wasn’t fat, but diets were becoming the in thing. Calorie counting was everywhere, and my mother had caught the bug. Everywhere you looked in our house, there were tea towels and chopping boards with calorie charts on them. In the back of my schoolbooks, there were lists of what I had eaten that day, followed by their cal numbers. Black coffee, one piece of toast no butter, salad. At school we were all at it, off and on. Dieting for a week and then forgetting about it and just eating Mars bars for the next four.
There were things called Ayds that were like little toffees full of sugar and appetite suppressant, which frankly never worked and we just ate them like toffees. They were quite moreish.
My mother drank PLJ, which is a vinegary lemony cordial that she was convinced burned fat.
Luckily, I exercised, so the Mars bar binges never took a terrible toll. I knew that, if I rode for a day, I could lose three pounds. It happened. And the pathetic thing is that I still think I can. I can’t.
I still do a bit of exercise though, and that does seem to work, extraordinarily. Who’d have thought? I mean, really, who would have thought that eating a bit less and taking more exercise would be the solution?
Nowadays, I try to do a big walk every day. I don’t wear tracksuits or exercise gear any more as I find it raises people’s expectations. And mine. They seem to think I should be moving faster. I do wear trainers. I have to, because they have orthotics in them to stop my knees collapsing. I am in the early stages of crumble but pushing this body to its very limits.
In the house, we have a machine that you stand on and it vibrates until you think your teeth will fall out, and a big rubber ball that I sit on occasionally. Exercise fads and personal trainers have come and gone, and I have drawers full of weights and bits of elastic, and devices that electrocute your stomach trying to find a hidden six-pack. I am at the age when mostly what I do is stretch and take glucosamine and complain about the noise my joints make as I walk upstairs. It’s so loud I sometimes have to stop, because I think someone is following me.
It’s all a kind of hell, but it keeps the old bod in a shape that vaguely resembles a female human.
I never wore dresses as a teenager. I wasn’t a girly girl and generally went around in wide baggy jeans and my brother Tim’s old Sea Scouts jumper. It was tight-fitting because he had been in the Sea Scouts when he was about ten. It was wool, with a round neck.
I bloody loved this jumper. My going-out outfit, when I went to the local disco, was red cord jeans and the jumper. If I had worn it a lot, it started to smell BO-ey so I washed it by hand, but always at the last minute. With ten minutes to go before I had to leave to get the bus into town, I would wring it out and lay it on the boiler, willing it to dry. After ten minutes, I would pick it up, still steaming and heavily damp, and put it on. I steamed all the way on the bus and all the way through the disco. By the time I got home later, it was only moist. No one had many clothes then, and the new items were rare. Desired items were Ben Sherman shirts and a pair of platform shoes. I had one of each, and a maxi-length denim coat that I bought on a trip to London and never took off. I wore it with jewellery that was made out of horseshoe nails. Otherwise, it was basically back to jodhpurs.
My social life moved between girls I knew locally whom I would go riding with, and a Saturday disco in Northwich called Stan’s. Girls I knew at school went to Stan’s, which was conveniently near the bus station, and we would dance around to Slade and T. Rex for a few hours and then hang about near the buses, smoking. Boys from the town would come and talk to us, boys we knew were a bit dangerous.
There was one boy, nicknamed Joe 90, who was a real skinhead. He wore the uniform, and the rumour was that he was very bad and had been in prison. Other boys were afraid of Joe 90. He hung around, but always in the distance. Then, one day at school, a girl came up to me and said that Joe 90 wanted to go out with me. Huge aghast-ness from all my friends and even the girl telling me. Surely this was a joke? Why would Joe 90 want to go out with Sea Scouts jumper?
It was always a mystery to me, but it was true, and we started to meet. We would meet outside Stan’s – he was too cool to go in – and go for walks around the precinct in Northwich or into the pub. He was quiet, but terribly nice, a good kisser, and we dated for a while. He was nicer than a lot of other boys I went out with, who would just spend the whole evening trying to stick their tongues down my throat or touching my boobs. Boys who would take you to the cinema and then never want to watch the film. I had to push them off.
‘Will you stop it! I am trying to watch The Exorcist!’
When school ended, I was at home, with nothing on the horizon and nothing much to offer the world. I did attempt to get some work locally, mucking out stables, but to no avail. A lot of my friends had landed temp jobs at the local Ski yoghurt factory, which was something of an eyesore and would occasionally discharge various yoghurt flavours into the nearby waterway. Our house – a big Victorian grange – was built just above a millpond that was filled by said waterway. Sometimes we would wake up in the morning to find the whole pond was blackcurrant flavour and – on occasion – banana. Despite this, I applied for a job, but even they wouldn’t have me. I couldn’t believe it! I mean, everybody got a job there.
It was my mother who pointed out that I couldn’t just hang around at home, as lovely as that was. And it was. But something had to be done. I had to be moved on. I was obviously going to have to have a gap year, although such a thing didn’t really exist then (it was just called ‘wait-a-year-and-try-again year’). My mother discovered an agency that set up au pair jobs in Italy, and I was eventually found a job working for a family in Milan. I was fairly placid, so this didn’t seem too terrifying, despite the fact that I had never been to Italy, spoke not a word of Italian, would be gone for six or seven months and only really knew how to look after animals.
So, thanks to my mother, I found myself in Milan.
I arrived at night, armed with only a piece of paper with the address written on it – Via Cappuccio 21 – and some traveller’s cheques. A cab took me through the city and plopped me out in a narrow, deserted little street. This couldn’t be right. The family I was going to work for were supposed to be rich. They were called Zucchi and had made a fortune in linen. He was a tablecloth magnate. (That’s magnate, not magnet. He was not attractive to linen.)
The driver pointed through the gloom to a pair of double doors and I faintly made out the number 21. He drove off and I pressed the buzzer. A tiny door, set into the big doors, opened and I was admitted by a doorman, who led me into a beautiful courtyard surrounded by what appeared to be a palace. I was directed to the back door, where I was met by Signora Zucchi. As it turned out, they only owned half the palace. It was a semi! And it would be my home for the next three months.
I was given a tiny room off the kitchen, which by day was full of maids and a cook called Jana, who would talk at me incessantly. By the time I had learned enough Italian, I realized that they were just gossiping about the Zucchis’ relationship, the fact that he had other women, and that one of the two sons took drugs and had girls staying over.
The Signora was a frightened-looking woman who was obviously making herself sick with nerves. Neither of the two sons, Luca and Paolo, wanted anything to do with me at all. I didn’t push it. I did general tidying in the morning and took the Signora a breakfast tray that was prepared by the cook. I went to the baker and got the daily bread. I was expected to have lunch with the family. This was eaten in a vast room with nothing in it except the dining table – and generally eaten in silence, because the rule was that conversation at lunch had to be in English.
They struggled to find things for me to do, and the atmosphere in the house was never less than strained. I was eventually relieved of the silent lunch duty and given the job of opening and closing all the shutters in the house every day. This I loved because I was on my own and doing something practical. The rooms were the size of ballrooms and never used by the family.
Luckily, I had been signed up for Language School, and was later surprised when a diary I wrote at the time suggested an extremely complicated social life. My memory was of being fairly solitary but, as it turns out, I had a string of boyfriends and was going out with two or three at a time.
This extract sums up a typical day:
1 March 1977
Got up at 7 when the alarm rang. No school this morning, so no desperate rush. Took my nightshirt off the rack where it had been drying. Still a bit damp, but I had to wear something to wake Paolo.
Did the Signora’s breakfast as usual. She wants coffee now, instead of tea. Got dressed at 8.30. The boys’ rooms weren’t in too bad a state so they didn’t take long. Listened to Labelle, Nightbirds.
Finished the rooms about 10.30 and had a fag before tidying myself up to go to the library. My ticket arrived this morning. Caught No 1 tram to Via Manzoni, then walked to the library. Decided I must read some Ernest Hemingway, so I took down Old Man and the Sea and Farewell to Arms, which I didn’t think I would enjoy. So I sat and watched the American lady in the black dress with the awful American accent watching a video tape of Jimmy Carter. I think I looked conspicuous, so I moved across to the poetry section, selected Robert Frost, and then went into a daydream for about quarter of an hour. Got up to leave, whereupon the man sitting opposite me asked me how to spell ‘definitely’.
Decided to walk home. The sky was clear but it was slightly chilly. Arrived back at 1.00. Ate in usual silence. Didn’t want to go out in the afternoon so stayed in and read Robert Frost.
I should have met Mimo at 3 but couldn’t be bothered.
Ironed some sheets, laid the table, shut the shutters.
Signora arrived home and put herself to bed. She remained in bed the rest of the evening.
At 8 I started to get ready to go out having arranged to meet Oscar outside at 8.30. It was a beautiful night and Milan looked like a painting against the blue-black sky. The Gallerie was especially beautiful. We had a panini and cappuccino in a bar and then went upstairs to the American Bar. I had a Gin Fizz with an umbrella stuck in it.
I got quite tipsy on the Fizz and, coming back towards Via Cappuccio, started singing rather loudly, at first Led Zeppelin, then Amarillo. Got back. Signora opened the door. I did the kitchen. Went to bed.
The Signora was always suspicious of me. Where had I been? Who was I with? I was never allowed a key to the house and never allowed to bring anyone into it. It was a time when the Brigate Rosse, a Marxist paramilitary gang, were kidnapping and murdering the children of the rich, so maybe she had good cause to worry. One of my many boyfriends was actually a policeman, so I told her this and it seemed to calm her.
I did eventually escape.
A friend of mine from school, Helen Newman, had got a job working with a family in Orbetello, on the coast above Rome, and I took a few days off from shutter shutting to go and visit her.
She was working for a family called Von Rex. He was a Bavarian count in his sixties – tall and imposing. His wife, Adriana, was tall and imposing and in her forties. They were the most extraordinary couple, with two sons, and couldn’t have been more different from the Zucchis. They were eccentric and funny.
He had built the house, a large sprawling bungalow surrounded by olive groves. The main rooms of the house were filled with the remains of the contents of a Bavarian castle that had once belonged to his family. They had dogs and horses and chickens, and I loved it.
Adriana was quite wild. She had been Adriana Ivancich, daughter of a Venetian aristocrat, who in her youth had been Ernest Hemingway’s muse. He wrote Across the River and into the Trees about their relationship. ‘Then she came into the room, shining in her youth and tall, striding beauty. She had pale, almost olive-colored skin, a profile that could break your or anyone else’s heart, and her dark hair, of an alive texture, hung down over her shoulders.’ In a letter, written to her from Nairobi in 1954, Hemingway said, ‘I love you more than the moon and the sky and for as long as I live.’
Adriana never got over this. She carried the air of the Disappointed Muse about her. The rest of her life could never quite live up to that moment in her youth. I became fascinated by her; she filled her days drinking and smoking and heading up an ‘antinucleare’ campaign, which allowed her to let off steam. Her husband filled his days with his olive groves and horses. The two would row fiercely with him ranting in German and her in Italian.
They treated Helen as part of the family, and I was welcomed warmly. When I got there, I knew I never wanted to leave. I went to Milan and handed in my notice. Signora Zucchi expressed no disappointment or surprise. No emotion at all.
For the next four months, I was in a kind of heaven. We rode horses, moved irrigation pipes for trees, learned to cook pasta, shopped in local markets and made olive oil. We were taken out in yachts and had trips to Rome. We went to the beach for picnics in a horse and trap. We sat in on wild dinner parties where Adriana had invited writers and artists from Milan and she would be in her element, holding court and getting drunker and wilder.
Once, on a shopping trip to the local town, we were all squashed into her 2CV when she realized she had just passed someone driving in the opposite direction that she needed to talk to immediately. She swung the car round without warning, mounting the pavement and crossing two flower beds, and drove after them at speed, only to be stopped by the police. They eventually let her go because they couldn’t stop her talking. This was not unusual. She was erratic, and this made life interesting.
I see now that Edina in Absolutely Fabulous owes a lot to Adriana; certainly the sense that life has not lived up to her expectations, and authority is an irritant.
When I got home, my mother didn’t recognize me. I had grown up. In truth I think I had just got a tan and lost weight, but perhaps she could detect a new-found confidence. She had the UCCA forms waiting, and what followed has led me to this step.
JoBo has arrived with the papers. Before doing the crossword, we flick through the jobs section at the back of The Stage. There are no jobs going on cruises, but there is an ad wanting comedy acts for a new club. Specifically, they want female comedy acts. I think there is a possibility that Dawn and I could be a comedy act.
She is doing her probationary year teaching, but if we took the job in the club, they would only want us in the evening, so there shouldn’t be a problem. I call her that night. Please remember, young people, these are the days before mobile telephones, when you had to wait till the person was home in order to get them. Or you had to use pigeon post. I call her.
‘It’s Jennifer. Do you remember me from college?’
‘Well, the thing is …’
‘Oh, do get on, I’ve got books to mark.’
‘Well, the thing is …’
‘And lesson plans to do.’
‘Well, the thing is …’
‘Stop saying “the thing is” and get to the point.’
‘Well … blah blah blah … the thing is … Oh no, now I’ve said “the thing is”. I was trying to say “blah blah blah” instead of “the thing is”.’
‘What is it?’
‘Oh, the thing is, could we be, do you think, a comedy act?’
‘But I’ve got books to mark.’
‘Could we, do you think?’
‘But I’ve got lesson plans. I’m a teacher, Jen.’
‘Just the odd evening. Shall we audition?’
‘I don’t know. Send me something by pigeon and I’ll think about it.’