If you ask me where I’m from I’ll say the English Lake District, which is only partly true. Born in Devon to Cumbrian parents, I spent my early childhood in Cheshire and Malaysia and came aged ten to Lakeland where we eventually settled, living first in a rented house high above Ambleside. Its overgrown garden contained a deep pool once heated by gas for rearing baby alligators, a sunken fernery and a ruined tower of friendship inscribed with the names of family friends such as Harriet Martineau and several Wordsworths. (You may have seen the garden’s restoration in the Channel 4 series, Lost Gardens.)
We bought a house on the other side of Ambleside up the Gale, close to the terrace where the German émigré artist, Kurt Schwitters, had lived after the war. For several years I shuttled between my single-sex boarding school in Windermere and post-colonial Malaysia, where my father worked in local government, later moving to Jordan and finally Indonesia, by which time I had left home and succumbed to my own compulsion to travel.
While my imagination was shaped by the places I knew as a child, opting to study French rather than English at Bristol University undoubtedly influenced the kind of writer I became. My literary stars included the poet Rimbaud (a strong favourite to this day), surrealists of all descriptions, and French ‘new novelists’ such as Alain Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras, whose works were still appearing as we studied. Paris – where I spent a wild six months between school and university – was then the place to be. My experiences there and as a student went into my third novel, After Breathless, inspired by the films of Jean-Luc Godard. Like Jean Seberg in À bout de souffle, I had sold newspapers on the streets of Paris and lived on the edge of danger.
After Bristol I travelled the world with a friend, heading westwards to the States, across the Pacific to Japan and Okinawa, sailing down the coast of South-East Asia to Singapore on a Communist Chinese cargo ship, the Hoi Wong, then travelling by train up through peninsular Malaysia to Thailand and the uplands of Chiang Mai, where I ran out of steam.
London seemed the obvious place to go. Although I never intended to settle, I’m still here and can’t imagine living anywhere else. My first proper job was collating the small ads for Private Eye and doing odd bits of research for Paul Foot, followed by spells working for the consumer magazine Which? and its investigative offshoot; for the late Nicholas Saunders on Alternative London and Alternative England and Wales; Time Out, on its consumer column, which flared briefly into a magazine of its own; then three years as a Senior Research Officer at the National Consumer Council, specialising in transport, the environment and public services. We felt we were fighting for a cause and I am grateful for the habits of meticulous research, which our investigations demanded.
Lured by the prospect of writing a first novel, I gave up my job, left my home and my city to house-sit for friends back in Bristol. The novel (and its successor) remain rightfully unpublished but I had discovered what I wanted to do with life and have stuck with writing ever since. That I have managed to support myself by writing remains a source of pride; like most of my writer friends I have turned my hand to journalism, reviews, speechwriting, ghostwriting (excellent training for anyone who wants to speak through the voice of others), corporate writing, editing, and now mentoring other writers and academic researchers.
Of my books, fiction came first with three novels set variously in Martinique (The Taking of Agnès), the Yemen (The Long Lost Journey) and France (After Breathless). All three were edited by the legendary Liz Calder, first at Jonathan Cape and then at Bloomsbury. Calder also published my fourth novel (The Angel Cantata) after a break of nearly two decades, by which time she had set up Full Circle Editions with Louis Baum, John and Genevieve Christie, publishers of beautifully illustrated books with an East Anglian connection. For The Angel Cantata (their first novel) they commissioned artwork from Ffiona Lewis, whose black-and-white images capture the novel’s unquiet spirit.
After the first three novels came out I needed a change of direction. An inspirational course on the conservation of historic parks, landscapes and gardens at London’s Architectural Association turned me into a garden historian and fed directly into my next two books: Secret Gardens for Conran Octopus, heavily influenced by my AA thesis on ‘Capturing the Spirit of Place’, and Lost Gardens for Channel 4 Books, written to accompany the television series on which I worked as Associate Producer and Series Consultant. While garden historians challenged the programmes’ approach to makeover restoration, I stand by the rigorous research that brought the gardens and their human stories back to life.
Atlantic Books have published all my subsequent non-fiction, starting with the biographical Strange Blooms: The Curious Lives and Adventures of the John Tradescants, which was longlisted for the Duff Cooper Award in 2007. The elder John Tradescant remains a hero of mine: an early seventeenth-century plantsman, gardener, collector of curiosities and self-made man who rose from humble beginnings to garden for King Charles I and Henrietta Maria at one of their minor palaces. The book’s epigraph comes from Sir Thomas Browne who shared the elder Tradescant’s curiosity about the natural world: ‘We carry within us the wonders we seek without us.’
Next came two cultural histories of flowers: The Rose, A True History and Seven Flowers. I especially enjoyed researching and writing the rose book, which took me from the White House rose garden in the dying days of the Bush administration to the deserts and mountains of Iran a month or so before the presidential elections of June 2009 cast the country into turmoil. Like Secret Gardens, The Rose was shortlisted for the Garden Media Guild’s inspirational book of the year. I could have carried on writing about flowers but wanted a change of scene and so I turned to Virginia and The Jamestown Brides.
When Covid first struck in early spring 2020, I felt unable to continue with fiction, and so I put aside the novel I was writing and began a new book. Called Looking for Mr Schwitters, it tracks my lifelong obsession with Kurt Schwitters – painter, sculptor, collagist, poet, performer, buffoon, maestro of junk and disorder – whose work I first encountered as a schoolgirl at an art gallery in Kendal, where he died the year before I was born. Part memoir, part celebration of Schwitters’ life and art, part exploration of a landscape I love more than any other, the book untangles the connections that bind people and places together, and make us who we are.