Actors, Celebrities, Women

All by herself

THE TIMES – June 11, 2005
Ginny Dougary

Despite her frail beauty, Naomi Watts has overcome the pain of her father’s untimely death – and the label ‘Nicole Kidman’s best friend’ – to become a star in her own right.

naomi watts

Naomi Almost-Mega Watts is quite right when she says that she’s not the sort of actress who lights up a room. Admittedly it would take a Day-Glo aura to penetrate the dungeonesque gloom of the Manhattan hotel foyer we meet in, but it does take a while to register that the childlike figure approaching me – fair hair scraped back in a stubby ponytail, pale face with no make-up, jeans, flat silver pumps, baggy bleached-blue cardigan, clutching a takeaway coffee – is a Hollywood star.

Her prettiness is often commented on but what impressed me in the films I’ve seen her in is her grittiness. Even in a schlocky- horror teen movie such as The Ring, the intelligence of her acting makes the viewing more compelling. In genuinely interesting films (David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams, which won her an Oscar nomination), Watts fills the screen with her raw, almost uncomfortable portrayal of despair, anger, bitterness; a palpable willingness to mine whatever it takes from her own life to realise the truth of her character.

There’s courage, too, in the way the actress wills herself to go to places creatively that she finds horrible to visit – masturbating in front of an all-male film crew on Mulholland Drive, for instance – and her apparent indifference to being made to look quite plain sometimes, snot and tears streaming down her face, a strange little bulge forming next to her cheek usually when one of her characters is in extremis.

Certainly in her work of the past five years, all the women Watts has played are either downright edgy or battlers or on the outer margins in some way. In The Ring, she is a single mother and single-minded investigative reporter; in Mulholland Drive, she plays two different women: Betty, a nicey-nicey wannabe starlet who falls for a mysterious woman, and her mirror image of Diane, a not-very-nice love-sick lesbian and ravaged Hollywood failure; in 21 Grams, a reformed junkie who relapses after her husband and two young daughters are run over and killed; in I § Huckabees, a model who rebels against her bimbo straitjacket, trading her bikini for dungarees and a mad Amish bonnet; in We Don’t Live Here Anymore, a depressed, adulterous housewife who betrays her best friend in her desperation to remind herself what it is to be alive.

Even as the Fay Wray character in Peter (Lord of the Rings) Jackson’s forthcoming King Kong – a role which should definitively caterpault Watts into super-stardom status – one feels that she is likely to find a way, against the odds, of investing her part with something surprising and psychological. At 36, Watts is no overnight success. She has been toiling away at the Hollywood coalface for a good decade. Until relatively recently, she was simply (but surely irritatingly) known as Nicole Kidman’s best friend – accompanying her in those tricky post-Cruise months to various Academy-type functions. In photographs, the decorative but diminutive Watts is dwarfed – physically, at least – by Kidman’s towering stature.

Hey, I say, how come Nicole has so little influence in LaLa Land? I mean, surely she could have landed you a good part or two? What kind of sad sack of a mate is she? “You can’t really have that done for you,” she says, so seriously it is rather endearing. “Ultimately you’ve got to drive it yourself. I mean, now I’m lucky enough to be in this great position and some of my friends are struggling, you know, and you know, sure, I can introduce them to people and I have done that – as Nicole has done or did for me – but you can’t just call someone and say, ‘You need to hire this person.’ Ultimately, they have to get it on their own merit.”

Part of the problem was that Watts never seemed to have access to the right people: “A lot of the time I couldn’t get to meet the director; it was more like the assistant of some casting director. [She was commonly rejected for being ‘too intense and stressed-out’ or for being ‘a little too old’; on one occasion, a major Hollywood player actually fell asleep during her audition.] And when you’re up against all those things, how can you shine? How can you show anyone that you have something? You just feel like it’s too big a challenge.

“But, you know, it wasn’t their fault. I don’t blame them. I was unhireable! I’m not someone who can walk into a room and just light it up. It’s not who I am. Lighting up a screen and being good in a scene or a moment is very different to walking in and making people’s heads turn. Really, what I am is an observer.”

Los Angeles is such a soul-shrinking hologram of a place to pick for a home, where no one walks, and the bodies – pool-side – all seem to have been honed at the same gym; so many young, beautiful people chasing after the elusive mirage of one big break. Watts had her own share of rejection and depression and loneliness, weeping in cars, unable to pay her health insurance – which is a truly alarming predicament in the land where opportunity quite often fails to knock – struggling with debts and the prospect of imminent eviction. She once made the mistake of telling a reporter, “I remember driving along Mulholland Drive, thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll just go over the cliff because I can’t take it any more.’”

“That wasn’t literal. For the record, I am not a suicidal person,” she says, not at all sternly. In fact, with an easy laugh which is something she does often. “But I understand depression and I’ve lived it and I felt really badly when I read that and suddenly it’s everywhere, ‘Naomi contemplating suicide’.” It was always an option, in theory, to return to Australia where she had played a paraplegic in the soap Home and Away, and a schoolgirl in John Duigan’s film Flirting, in which she and Kidman cemented their friendship. (They had originally met at a casting for a film where they were asked to pose in swimsuits.) But, in practice, going back would have meant going backwards and that might have been as frightening as staying put and going nowhere: “Yeah, oh yeah. Because in Australia we’re very, very full of pride and, you know, it was always an option I was trying to avoid.”

In the end, it was David Lynch who rescued Watts in 2001 from her own Hollywood margins by taking a rather inspired, instinctive punt – he picked her on the basis of a snap taken by her photographer brother Ben and a half-hour meeting, never having seen her on screen. Mulholland Drive was initially a TV pilot – along the lines of Twin Peaks – but ABC balked at its dark weirdness and Lynch felt there was enough footage, with an additional story-line, to extend it to a feature-length film. The corporation’s rejection enabled Watts to show her stuff in the more challenging role of Diane.

Lynch was rewarded with best director at Cannes, and Watts, as the lead actress, soaked up the reflected limelight, but – from her point of view – she had certainly had to show more stuff than she had bargained for. We had been talking about Michael Winterbottom – an English director she admires – and the explicit sexual scenes of his most recent film, 9 Songs, when she mentions her Mulholland masturbation scene. Was that awkward? “Er. Yes. In a word. Yes.” Really? (Thinking of Winterbottom’s oral sex and full penetration and how that has shifted acceptable sexual boundaries in a mainstream film.) “I was mortified. Completely mortified.”

Is it because you’re shy? “Well, yeah. Yeah, I am. I mean, masturbation is a private matter!” A big laugh. “It really is… for goodness sake! You know, you might share it with one other person but a whole film crew who you’ve spent a good portion with, well, it’s a whole other experience.”

So did you get drunk? “Well, I have done that before with sex scenes, had a little hip flask by me to calm the nerves. But in this one I didn’t. In fact, I had terrible, terrible… my nerves were so bad that I had to keep going to the loo. The thing is that you trust David and you know when he keeps going it’s because he’s looking for something very specific. I found it so humiliating that I kept on crying and he didn’t want that… it wasn’t reaching this particular place of emotion which he was desperately chasing, trying to connect with myself and all the memories I had of this woman and it became quite violent and… vulgar.” You were crying because you couldn’t help yourself? “Yes, it just felt so awful to be sitting with my hands down my pants in front of, you know, a bunch of men. And eventually he built this sort of tent around me and the camera was just peeking through, blocking out the crew.”

Did that help? “Yes, but still I kept crying and I could hear him speaking though his little thing saying, ‘Okay-ee, Neigh-o-meee. Don’t cry-ee. Don’t cry-ee.’ And I was, like [gritted teeth], ‘You try this, you f****** arsehole,’ and then I’d say, ‘David, I can’t, I can’t’ and I was thinking, ‘OK, he’s gonna call “Cut” now because I’m hysterical, you know, I’m bombing here.’ And you’d hear him go, ‘Ok-ayeee. Okayee. That’s right.’ And he just kept rolling and rolling and rolling until eventually I guess I just got it because, I mean, I was so angry.”

The film we are supposed to be talking about is We Don’t Live Here Anymore – a sort of Ice Storm but with sunny spells – directed by Watts’s friend, John Curran, based on stories by Andre Dubus written in the Seventies, adapted by Larry Gross who garnered the top screenwriting award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival.
The New Yorker’s David Denby gave it a rave review, claiming it was “easily the best American movie so far this year”. It’s a low-budget (made in just three weeks) ensemble piece – Watts’s co-stars are Mark Ruffalo, Laura Dern and Peter (Six Feet Under) Krause – exploring marital breakdown, friendship, betrayal, boredom, infidelity, creative frustration and how do you keep it all together (or not), when you’ve lost your way. The performances are all terrific, particularly as the characters are not all that likeable, but it’s Laura Dern’s which stands out.

I wonder, slightly carefully, whether Watts feels that she was eclipsed by Dern. “Oh definitely, definitely,” she says. As it turns out, it was Watts’s decision to play the less “showy” role, knowing she would arrive on set exhausted from just having completed 21 Grams. “Initially, I wasn’t even going to read the script because I would say – even though I’ve never been married – that reading a script while you’re making another movie is like cheating on your husband. Especially if you know it’s going to be quite good, you imagine yourself doing the film and you play it out in your head and see yourself on the set, and I did end up reading it – because John is my friend and he kept on passionately pursuing it – so, yeah, I am a cheet-ah,” she says, sounding very Aussie.

What really lured her was when Curran offered her the opportunity to be creative producer – a direction Watts is increasingly interested in pursuing. At Sundance this year, she produced as well as starred in a film called Ellie Parker – which revolves around a day in the life of an actress going from one audition to another: “Making the transition in and out of character, getting dressed and changing in your car, dealing with bad news on the way, subjecting yourself to constant judgment… yeah, it’s very much about how I spent my early days in Los Angeles, but you know it’s not just my story,” she says.

Despite Watts’s clear, even gaze and straightforward manner – along with her evident staying power which suggests a degree of dogged self-belief – there are times when her confidence seems to evaporate. She says that she would love to write and even direct, although she’s not sure whether she has the confidence or discipline to do either: “That’s a long way off and I’d probably be way too stressed out. I mean, I can barely make decisions for my day-to-day activities at the moment.” Are you neurotic? “I think I probably am!”

It is her role in 21 Grams that is the most self-revelatory of her work, and one which led her to explore a hitherto – I suspect determinedly so – unexamined part of her life. Watts’s mongrel accent – Australian at the forefront, English lurking not far behind, punctuated by the odd transatlantic slur or upward beat – is a legacy of her upbringing. She was born in England and lived in different parts of the country, for a couple of years on a farm in Wales with her maternal grandparents (“while my mother – whom I wanted to be around – was trying to piece back her life”) and moved to Sydney when she was 14. Her father, Peter Watts, was Pink Floyd’s sound engineer – it is his manic laugh which can be heard at the beginning of Dark Side of the Moon. He and Watts’s mother, Myfanwy – known as Miv – divorced when Naomi was four. Three years later, he was found dead, at the age of 30, in a Notting Hill Gate house, of a suspected heroin overdose.

I was struck when I read that Naomi had always assumed that she would not be around beyond her 30th birthday, that Moby – whose father committed suicide at an even younger age – had the same morbid apprehension. I have also observed this among close friends who have had a parent die prematurely.

The back story of Christina, Watts’s character in 21 Grams, is that her mother died when she was a young girl. There is a pivotal scene, to me, in the film when Christina’s father tries to comfort her at the family gathering after the funeral of Christina’s husband and daughters. He tells her that when her mother died, he thought that his life had ended and yet you cope and you endure and you learn how to forge a new way of existing. Christina counters that she knows that she will not be able to survive this tragedy, which makes complete sense knowing her self-annihilating history.

“Oh, I’m so glad you remembered that scene because I really fought to keep it in. Alejandro was going to cut it, and I literally went down on my hands and knees and begged him to keep it in,” Watts says, burning with conviction, even at this remove. “You know, she spent so much time alone and I had been in these rooms full of people [as part of her research, she had spent days in group-therapy grief-support groups], and I had watched how these people grieve and how they hang on to things; they hang on to anger and they blame their existing family members and, you know, years have passed, decades have passed, and yet there are things that stay with them and I just… well, it was important to me. “I always thought that I would die when my father died… that would be when life finished. So I’m reading all these books about kids who have lost their parents, and as I was reading, I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, that is exactly what I always thought.’ And suddenly I felt validated and not crazy any more.”

She has very few photographs of her father but alerts me to one in which the members of Pink Floyd are standing on a beach somewhere “and being completely hippyish” and her father is there, and so is her mum, who e-mailed it to her, and she’s standing there in her bikini holding Naomi as a baby, with her brother alongside. It must be strange, I think, that your father’s laugh – on a huge, bestselling album – is what you are left with in the long years since he has gone. It gives me a little internal jolt when she replicates the laugh… “You know,” she points out. “It’s not just at the start, it comes in and out of the whole album.” And I have a vision of her listening to the record, often, at different times of her life, chasing the ghost of her father; wondering how much of her is made out of him.

She knows that some people find The Laugh haunting, or a bit frightening, but it isn’t to her. And she likes it, finds it consoling even, when it comes to her unbidden: “I was doing yoga the other day and the guy who was teaching the class just put on the track. And I thought, ‘Wow! Isn’t that bizarre?’” Does it never make her feel sad? “Well, it gets to me. Whatever I’m feeling at the time, I think, it tends to connect with me. I mean, there have been times when I’ve laughed out loud with him and got the joke – whatever that was, but I was right there. And then there have been times when it’s just been incredibly mysterious… like, who is this person? How strange. And I wonder if we would have got on. What would he think of me and what would I think of him and are we the same or are we… you know.”

Does her mother talk about him? “Oh yeah, there are times when she tells great stories about him. He was very hardworking, apparently. And she always says that both my brother and me are very, very focused – like him. Driven but not ruthless. But, you know, yeah, we like to work hard. It’s a survival instinct, I think.”

Anything else? “His sense of humour – we both have that, too; that’s what mum says.”

Watts does not talk about the circumstances in which her father died but, she says, of course: “You want to know why he didn’t stay and why he chose a certain life over us. And you have moments of anger, but then you also have moments of turning him into a hero. And that’s another thing I read about – the missing parent becomes the hero and you end up blaming the existing parent.” No, her mother – to whom Naomi is very close now – was not of the mind-set or money-bracket to suggest counselling: “I didn’t come from a family like that. My mother would hold me and let me cry but it wasn’t like: ‘Let’s get you down to the shrink’s office.’” When her mother saw 21 Grams for the first time, she was unable to speak for a good 40 minutes. Back at the hotel, she told her daughter: “I always thought you were so resilient. I had no idea you were holding so much pain. And I’m proud of you for utilising it in such a meaningful way.” At the time, Watts said: “It was a big thing for my mother to say, and there were a lot of tears.”

Growing up in such a bohemian, nomadic lifestyle, I wondered whether Naomi had reacted against her mother. Or am I making too much of Watts saying that Absolutely Fabulous is one of her favourite series? Did she have her Saffy moments? “Oh yes: ‘Mu-u-um. Please stop embarrassing me!’” she hams obligingly. And then: “I always knew that my life was filled with adventure. That my mum and all her wacky, hippy friends – despite the distinct lack of underwear – were great people and that they were stimulating not only me but everyone.” And then she adds, with distinctly Saffy-like punctiliousness: “You know, when I say that my home was an underwear-free zone, I’m just trying to illustrate the picture.” In most of her recent films, Watts has played the mother of young children and for some years now, she has been talking about her own desire to have a baby; with or without a partner. She says that she doesn’t see anything wrong at all with single parenthood: “Why would I? I’ve seen children from perfect two-parent homes and it doesn’t make them any less neurotic or damaged than… I just think the important thing is for a child to be raised with love.”

She doesn’t really see her stepfather any more – “He was a musician but I don’t think he’s doing that any more. He’s got another family now.” And she seems to like her mother’s partner, Mike Gurney, who runs a popular fish shop in Burnham Market: “All the ladies love him! He’s gorgeous.” Watts has been self-sufficient for so many years – earning her own living since the age of 17 – I wonder, with her career finally taking off, whether she would be prepared to opt out now to start a family of her own. There doesn’t appear to be a man in her life – or not one, at any rate, she is ready to discuss – but she is at pains to point out: “I am quite independent but, you know, I like intimacy, too. It’s not like I have a fort built around me.”
I notice that her eyes gleam when she mentions how much she’d like to work with Johnny Depp and there was, of course, a serious relationship with the Australian film star Heath Ledger, ten years her junior. When I say that I don’t really know much about him, she tells me what a fine actor he is and how many great movies he has coming out this year. “We’re very good friends so there’s nothing controversial,” she laughs. When Watts was subjected to numerous, inevitable questions about the couple’s age difference, she countered, “Well, he’s an old soul.” I ask her whether she would say the same of herself: “Well, yeah,” she grins, “I feel like I’ve been around the block a few times.”

After we say goodbye – Naomi is off to Africa via London to do charitable works – I wander down from Chelsea to Greenwich Village and stop off in the Magnolia Bakery. Sitting down to eat a retro cup cake – in homage to Sex and the City, that’s my excuse – I glance up and am startled to see a laddish magazine cover on the wall, depicting a younger Naomi Watts with smouldering black-shadowed eyes and glossy magenta lips, her finger placed lasciviously in her pouting mouth. It’s a pure David Lynch doppelgänger moment. Yes, I think, this is definitely a few blocks away from the scrubbed-faced woman I’ve just interviewed.

General, Women

Back on her feet

THE TIMES – February 19, 2005
Ginny Dougary

Prince Charles is a fan; so is the Queen but physiotherapist Sarah Key’s approach to backs is thoroughly down to earth.

Twang. Ke-dung . . . a sudden lurching sensation in your spine, like a lift crashing through 30 floors, accompanied by the unshakeable belief that if you try to stand up your body will snap in two, several long moments of blind panic, then days drawing into months of different and ultimately ineffective treatments.

That was my first experience of what is commonly referred to as a back problem: one which seems to have afflicted, at some point, and to differing degrees of pain, almost everyone I know regardless of how active or sedentary they are, slim or overweight, up-tight or relaxed.

My own journey round my back took place all over the country when staying with various friends my back would go and, naturally, they knew just the person I should see in Ludlow, a cranial osteopath; in Aldeburgh, where my host had taken to lying on a book before bedtime to straighten his spine, a remedial masseuse; a physio here, a physio there; and in one particularly ghastly episode where I stumbled and completely seized up in a busy street in Wales, an injection in the bottom.

The only thing that seemed to work for me in the end was a daily regime, suggested by a trainer, which combined a lively walk with a set of yoga-cum-Pilates floor exercises.

Then Sarah Key came along. A few months ago I had the opportunity to witness the Australian globetrotting physiotherapist and her legendary feet legendary, that is, in elevated back-sufferers’ circles do her stuff on a handful of patients who had booked into the Hotel Tresanton, in the Cornish village of St Mawes. Since my back was sorted, or so I thought, I was to be an observer for part of the week-long programme rather than an active participant.

Key has been the Royal Family’s physiotherapist since 1983 a detail which appears in all her literature and the Prince of Wales has written forewords to her books. In her Back Sufferers’ Bible (2001), he concludes: Visualising what is happening inside the back makes it much more logical and easy to see why Sarah Key’s exercises really do work. After all, I should know. As one of her guinea pigs over the years I can vouch for their effectiveness, if not claim some credit for honing the final product.

What with this royal imprimatur, the quietly luxurious setting at wonderful Tresanton and the £3,200 price tag for a four-and-a-half day course, I had assumed that my fellow guests would be captains of industry and the generally well-heeled. But on this count, as on several others, my expectations were to be confounded.

Despite her Harley Street credentials (she is, incidentally, a registered member of the UK Health Professionals Council) and regal connections, Key worked for years in the National Health Service and is very much an Aussie in her meritocratic approach. On the day of my arrival, for instance, I found her on her hands and knees applying herself energetically to a team of 20 to 30 staff. This was partly to prepare them for dealing with her patients but also to encourage them to address their own back problems.

Later, on a one-to-one session, she demonstates how she uses her feet which I note are impeccably smooth and clean standing with the full (but, mercifully, light) weight of her body on the manager’s bare back, delving and digging around to release what she calls the sweet pain.

Key learnt to use her feet when she went on a course in Switzerland in 1982. The fellow who taught me was a hugely fat Israeli man who got the smallest girl in the group, put her down on the floor and sort of danced along her back like Yogi Bear, she says. When he came to my back, I was stunned by how natural and earthy it felt.

But where her teachers restricted the use of their feet for patients suffering from failed back surgery syndrome, Key found that she could actually feel more with her feet than her hands and began to adjust her treatment for all her patients, although I did feel a bit outlandish at first I knew it would raise eyebrows.

A year later, after treating a succession of ladies-in-waiting, the Keeper of the Privy Purse and private secretaries from the Royal Household, Key laid her feet on the Queen for the first time. How on earth did Her Royal Highness cope? Oh, she’s quite pragmatic, Key says.

There’s no one I haven’t put my feet on with the exception of the Queen Mother. And Prince Charles has been your most abiding patient, why? Well, he alternates between extremely active phases and then an awful lot of travel which is hopeless for backs. He’s sleeping in a lot of strange beds and sits in helicopters, and he had tried a lot of things before I came along. I think he did have a breakthrough but it’s a matter of maintenance really.

Her hope is that the Sarah Key Method, as it were, will eventually be taken up by hospitals and, with this in mind, she has started giving master classes to physios who are interested in her work. The proceeds from these sessions go to the Prince of Wales’s Foundation for Integrated Health, which Prince Charles set up in 1998 to spread the word about non-mainstream medicine with predictably negative responses from conventional health workers.

Key, like the Prince, is scoffed at for not being professional enough. Her critics, she says, think it’s slightly ludicrous that I use my feet because it breaks the barriers of what’s accepted as normal.

They also criticise non-mainstream medicine for not being evidence-based. People trot that out as a reason for doing nothing, she says. The only evidence a patient is going to care about, is the evidence that his back is feeling better. The following morning, Key’s group assembles and the tears start to flow almost immediately. There are three men and two women, only one of whom fits my preconceptions: Ian, 57, a senior executive who, as he puts it, flies around the world persuading athletes to wear Nike.

Dave, a Royal Mail accountant from Derbyshire, has had a bad back since 1991 when he slipped a disc. He has had surgery and every sort of treatment, and has been off work for three months. He’s worried that he won’t be able to fly again or drive because of the pain. The pain that has been stalking you every minute like a gremlin, Key mutters sympathetically.

While Ian tells his story, a young woman to his left starts weeping silently. He may be sporty he skis, cycles and plays golf but he’s so weak that he can hardly push a door. All my life I’ve been afraid of having children because I wouldn’t be able to play with them, he says. Now he has young twins. There’s nothing more important to me than to sort this back out and enjoy the next 20 years, he says.

Andrew is 32, single, unemployed and lives at home with his mother in Kent. He used to be a car mechanic and that’s when his troubles started. He took painkillers and anti-inflammatory medicine but there was no improvement. He bought Key’s first book and did some of the exercises but was unable to gain long-term relief.

His doctor and the other practioners said there was nothing wrong with him. Did that make you feel mad, Andrew? Key asks. Pretty much so; I felt that I was wasting their time. She asks him who paid for him to come on her course. My last employer, he replies. My redundancy money. All the women are now in tears. It’s been a long, lonely vigil for you, Key says, as her own eyes begin to well and she goes off to grab a tissue, saying: Dear me, I didn’t expect this. Ian asks, Are you going to be able to fix him? Yes, Key whispers. I think so.

Nathalie, 31 from the West Midlands, works in local government and has two young children. She turns to Ian: What made me upset was when you said that you didn’t like getting down on the floor and playing with your children and I long to be able to do that, she says. Her back pain is aggravated by a pubic dysfunction which makes her feel as though she’s been kicked between the legs by a donkey. She apologises for the brutality of the description. Now she’s frightened of doing anything, to the extent that she daren’t even have her daughter sit on her lap. I feel I’ve lost my belief to get it right by instinct and self-management, she says. Only because you’ve had it humiliated out of you, Key says.

Evelyn, 47, from West Yorkshire, has had a serious back problem for 17 years. She’s tried massage, exercise, osteopathy, acupuncture, a corset with metal rods (Dickensian! Key snorts), bed rest in a specially designed bed, and sugar injections allegedly to strengthen ligaments. At one point in this saga, she didn’t sit down for a whole year. She works on a production line rather than an office job specificially so that she can stand all day. She and her partner have cashed in their savings for this course and put their house renovations on hold.

So with the exception of Mr Nike, Key’s patients are ordinary people, on quite low or no income, dealing with unbearable pain. Key told me that she gets people who are at the end of the line, who have been given up on everywhere else. Dave said that when he went to see her for the first time, she did more for him in a couple of hours than he has experienced in years of treatment.

I left Key’s back sufferers, fairly confident that at least some of them would experience a breakthrough, since the previous day I had undergone one of my own. The first time that she balanced on my back, I was rather distracted by the unfamiliar sensation and, yes, the thought that these feet had made contact with all those Royal backs. But the next day, as her toes and heels found what they were looking for, the sense of release a wooshing, almost electrifying expulsion was so powerful that it made me feel giddy with relief.
Afterwards, I found myself sitting back in a chair in a position that felt so wonderfully relaxed and right I am usually perched on the edge, poised to take flight or twisted awkwardly that it made me cry to realise how much I had been adjusting my body for so long to cheat the pain. As Key would say, I had been letting my back become like an alter-ego or a spoilt child that you let get its own way. I’ve promised her and myself that next time, I’ll take my spoilt child in hand and check it in to her Back In A Week programme, as a participant this time, not an observer.

www.sarahkey.com

Artists, Celebrities, Women

Me, Myself, I

THE TIMES – November 13, 2004
Ginny Dougary

Years of childhood misery, teenage trauma and adult excess have informed all of Tracey Emin’s work. But her masterpiece, says Ginny Dougary, is the triumph her life has become.

Can this be? Tracey Emin – legendary Bad Girl of Brit Art (who has, incidentally, been protesting she is not a girl but a woman ever since the title was first thrust on her ten years ago) – tucked up in bed by eleven, sipping cold white wine in an unhectic fashion, not falling over, not swearing, not smoking, and hardly showing off at all?

Yes, at 41, Margate’s most famous escapee is in danger of becoming – shock, horror! – sensible. In Istanbul, where we were holed up together for three days in an ancient palace of a hotel on the Bosphorus, the better to enjoy our sightseeing excursions and her show, Trace was at times alarmingly prefectorial. Watches would be checked in the foyer and the forthcoming timetable confirmed and reconfirmed – drinks at such and such an hour, followed by taxi to pre-opening rendezvous, onward to the opening, thence to dinner with British consulate, and so on.

She embraced her self-appointed role as host with enthusiasm, arranging for us to see a mesmerising display of dervishes whirling, a Turkish meal in an appealingly authentic restaurant, suggesting

various hikes incorporating tourist must-sees, and was clearly disappointed when we begged off for a bit of down-time.

Her inability to be punctual is well known and this is one of the habits she is trying to curb. Indeed, she was so very keen to fit as much as possible into the schedule that her little band of followers – Irene Bradbury, representing White Cube, old friend and curator Gregor Muir, representing the Tate, Kelly Piper, her personal assistant, the photographer Graham Wood and me – were often left scuttling in her wake as Tracey strode purposefully on ahead without a backward glance.

This, of course, could never be said of her art which is almost entirely made up of backward glances – an approach that has most definitely placed her ahead of her Brit-pack peers, who are unable to boast the sizable honour, as Emin now can, of an entire room devoted to their art, bought for the nation by the Tate.

En passant, I learnt that she is a stickler for a dress code – and has been mortified on the occasions when she has turned up in inappropriate wear (it is not unusual, these days, to see her in the social columns of magazines such as Tatler). And more arresting still, given her reputation – will she ever live down that Oliver Reed television performance the year her bed was shortlisted for the Turner Prize? – Emin now considers it bad manners and bad business to turn up pissed at her own openings, particularly since many of her existing or prospective collectors are likely to be present.

Why, La Trace has even taken to wearing sensible shoes (Gucci loafers), having done a Naomi in her platforms down some restaurant stairs in Rome, with the consequence that her summer was spent in a leg brace, convalescing in style with Ruth and Richard Rogers in Tuscany.

She has not, of course, turned into a complete goody-goody: her Pamela Anderson-ish love of her cleavage remains firmly intact – each day in Istanbul, there were visible signs of a new Agent Provocateur bra in some outlandish confectionery colour; she can be quite snappy with pushy waiters, and sometimes, seemingly out of nowhere, with me; she spoke high-handedly to an obviously doting young journalist, upbraiding her for not sending over her copy to be checked for inaccuracies which – Emin made unambiguously clear – were plentiful.

During one of our walks from here to there, Emin suspected that she had been touched up by a gang of local men and pursued them yelling a torrent of Turkish and English expletives – which may have been understandable but was hardly sensible as she later admitted: “I mean, they could have had a knife.”

On another trot around town, talking about her teeth – an unsightly snaggle below, dentures above – without any warning, she suddenly disgorged the latter, revealing an arc of bare gums. This struck me as a most complicated gesture, daring you to be disgusted or perhaps challenging you to rise above your disgust. Some years ago, an old boyfriend sold a photograph of her taken in a similar vein to a newspaper – which was said, not surprisingly, to have upset her.

It was partly an odd thing to do because Tracey is quite defiantly proud of her beauty, having only fairly recently discovered that she is not, in fact, ugly. In a newspaper questionnaire asking her to rate her looks from 1 to 10, she awarded herself the top mark. A response which recalls the sort of playful arrogance Jeanette Winterson goes in for – the writer, like the artist, is either loathed or adored – who once nominated her own novel as best book of the year.

Emin’s reading of what is happening to her is that she’s “going through some middle-aged thing, definitely”: not sure of where she belongs and wants to live – is she Mediterranean, like Enver, her Turkish-Cypriot father, or seaside-resort England, like her mother? She still wants to have a child, and knows that she needs to modify her drinking drastically before that were ever to happen.

In 1999 she gave up spirits when her then boyfriend of six years – the artist Mat Collishaw – threatened to leave her if she didn’t, which, as it happens, he did anyway. (They remain the best, if not better, of friends.) Next on the hit list last December were cigarettes, and she hasn’t had a puff since. Smoking has always been forbidden in her gracious-sounding Huguenot home – which did surprise me, since that unbohemian attitude seems a bit uptight for any artist, let alone Emin. Sex was recently offlimits, including, she makes it emphatically clear, with herself: “It’s a human thing that you crave for or need, but I don’t want to mix it up with physical affection, which I’ve done a lot in my life. That’s why I started having sex when I was so young, you know.” And, now, even the white wine might have to go.

“I’ve been thinking about it, and I’ve got a drink problem, actually,” Tracey said. “Yeah, I do. I’m not trying to find another thing that’s wrong with me, but I really have because I’m such a nice person and I have a couple of drinks and I’m really good fun and then I’m really not fun.” This was clearly on her mind, because an hour or so later, she said: “I was thinking about this last night: how can I have spent so much of my life drunk? All the mistakes I’ve ever made in my life have been when I’ve been drunk. I haven’t made hardly any mistakes sober, ever, ever. Ever, ever, ever. All the mistakes have been made when I’ve been drunk.”

There can be something touching about the way Emin expresses herself, and this statement is a case in point. It is so very naked and guileless, unprotected by what most of us would consider normal worldly artifice. She and her art – the two, in her case, being inextricable – are often accused of childishness. But I would make the distinction that Emin is sometimes childlike in her simplicity and in her inability, most unusual in an adult, particularly one with her experiences, not to be trusting.

Since I also found the artist to be in the main both thoughtful and thought-provoking, I was disappointed on my return from Istanbul to find her regurgitating the same old piss-pot exhibitionist schtick on Paul Merton’s Room 101. Oh Tracey, I groaned, why are you letting yourself down? Why do you insist on making yourself into a cartoon figure, handing out a rod to make it easier for your critics to beat you?

She was fine and funny – sensible, even – explaining why cocaine should be banned purely on the grounds that it turns people into bores, but really not fine or funny, grinning like a demented teenager, as she spouted gruesome puke stories from her drunken past. (Including the quite hideous detail that she once vomited down the sleeve of her jacket in the back of a taxi.)

The thing about Tracey, however, is that it’s not just her art that is autobiographical but her life itself, which is led with a constant

eye on its documentation; each step that she takes is instantly observed and analysed while she is taking it, and placed in a wider perspective of her known history. Seen in that light, what could be more Traceyesque than inviting us to find her erstwhile exploits disgusting, acknowledging that she wants to turn her back on such behaviour; saying to Merton that giving up the drinking would make her feel free. There’s a way in which Tracey’s growing up is a work in progress in which we, as her public, are somehow obliged to participate.
She arrived for our interview by the pool only ten minutes late. A bikini under a canary-yellow flimsy kaftan – bought in India and a gift from the man she has been referring to for some time now as “my Roman husband”; a pair of clunky gold necklaces from one of her half-brothers (her handsome father sometimes gives the impression of having lost count of the number of children he has sired), a ring from her beloved late granny, May Dodge, and one she would give her daughter were that larger gift ever to be granted; slim, long-fingered, eyes hidden behind giant shades, sulky expression. Do you speak Turkish, I ask her. “Better than you,” she replies, without a smile.

When she does smile, it is never that weird lopsided grimace caught in almost every photograph of her ever taken. It’s a sort of nervous tic – as I discovered watching her switch it on for the camera – which not only distorts her attractiveness but also in some subliminal way conveys the impression that she is haphazard and out of control. And, these days, this picture could hardly be more inaccurate.

It is quite difficult, in fact, to know which of Emin’s many achievements and projects to focus on, so we decided it was best to focus on them all: the predictable uproar around her room in the Tate; her first feature film, Top Spot, also controversial; her line of appliqué luggage and handbags for Longchamps; her show in Turkey and, my favourite of them all, Emin’s Ovals, the artist’s dream (she’s at the discussion stage with Richard Rogers and Ken Livingstone) of creating half-a-dozen beautiful lidos along the banks of the Thames.

This level of concentrated activity is increasingly the norm for Emin as her reputation continues to build internationally. In 2004 alone, for instance, apart from Istanbul, she has had two shows in Italy, one in Sydney (following her previous year’s exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales), one in Wellington, and a joint show with David Hockney coming up in Santiago, Chile. Even two years ago, she had a ten-year retrospective at the renowned Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, concertinaed between openings in London (White Cube and the Barbican), the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, as well as a show in New York.

The greater Emin’s success, of course, the louder her critics rail against her… the most bitchily clamorous of whom, it is impossible not to notice, are men. Since most art critics are male and the art establishment is still dominated by men, you could say that this helps to explain the lack of easy empathy towards Emin, whose fans tend to be women and gay men. But when I read the playground taunts that she is “very stupid” – the sheer unrestrained nastiness of the attacks – I find myself smarting on her behalf, regardless of what I think of her art. Tracey is, after all, such an easy target for those of a snobbish disposition: the absence of school qualifications (she has no O or A levels), her working-class accent, her lack of polish, her obvious enjoyment of her newfound wealth.

Back in 1999 when I saw her Turner-shortlisted work in the Tate, it wasn’t the bed or wall of drawings that flickered in my imagination but a video from 1995 called Why I Never Became A Dancer. I stood in the dark, in a tiny room packed with people, and watched Tracey in cut-off jeans dancing to Sylvester’s disco classic You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real). She was staring straight at the camera and something about it, and her expression, reminded me quite forcibly of myself as a young teenager, dancing in front of a mirror, practising my moves, full of optimism about the future.

I can’t have watched for long enough, however, because I only got half the point

of it: the suggestion of hope and buoyant innocence, but not its shattering aftermath. I missed the dedication: “This one’s for you” and the string of boys’ names “Tony, Eddie, Shane, Richard…”, and it was only later that I read the explanation of the piece.

When Tracey was in her early teens, life was pretty crap at school and at home – she was raped at 13, and abused at a far younger age – but at least she was a demon dancer (still is, and she knows it). So she entered a local dancing competition in Margate, with high hopes and a new set of teeth (her twin brother having knocked out the original top row, aided by the siblings’ lousy diet and unfamiliarity with the toothbrush). There she is twirling and swirling, feeling every inch the dancing queen, lifted by the admiring boys’ chants spurring her on to win. Until suddenly she realises that the boys are not cheering but jeering, and what they are yelling at her is: “Slag, slag, slag, slag, slag.”

It was a long time ago, but despite the partial catharsis of transforming the humiliation into a name-and-shame art work, Emin is still stung by the memory. When I make a reference to her tormentors destroying her dancing, she is swift to retort: “It wasn’t so much destroying my dancing, it was destroying me, wasn’t it?”
Tony, one of the original jeering boys, recently wrote her a letter to apologise, saying that now his daughters are the same age that Tracey was at the dancing competition and he was mortified to think of the effect his taunts must have had on a developing young girl. Would Tracey forgive him, he asked – and she does. When the Daily Mail went in for one of its regular Emin-bashing routines after her embroidered tent was destroyed in the recent Momart warehouse fire – the artist received another contrite letter, this time from the woman whom the newspaper had paid to sew a cut-price replica of Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995.

This new name-calling strikes me as displaying the same sort of cowardly tribalism as the Margate lads, but those boys at least had the excuse of being young and ignorant. Emin’s first response when I ask her what she makes of the grown-up men who call her “stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid” is measured: “I think a lot of them haven’t met me and a lot of them have just heard my accent and then they judge you from it.”

Pretty soon, however, she is rather less measured: “I think some of them w*** off about me. I think they go to bed and they see my face and they think about my tits and they toss off. And then they don’t have to shag their ugly wives and they feel really sick with themselves and they’ve got to get up and do the same thing again and again and again, and they look at someone like me and I just really get up their nose. I really wind them up.

“I’m a woman, I like my life, I’m lucky in what I do, and I’m very wealthy doing what I do. And no one gave me anything. I made this for me and that puts you in a far different situation. I’m independent, and I’ve got really lovely friends, I really love my home, I love my lifestyle, I travel around the world doing what I do, and I’m in a privileged, fantastic position which I got myself into. So I think it’s resentment,” she concludes.

The Spectator was obliged to publish an apology to Emin and pay her legal costs when, earlier this year, the writer Philip Hensher suggested that the artist was responsible for mounting a homophobic harassment campaign against him after he had abused her in print. (Hensher is gang leader of the We Hate Stupid Tracey Club.)

“The point is, apart from anything else, I’m hardly going to be accused of being homophobic,” she says. “I’m a gay icon.” You mean, you’re hardly going to bite the hand that feeds you? “It’s not even about that. I was really hurt by it and really angry. You know, ‘some of my best friends are gay’? Well, I have hardly any friends who aren’t gay. It was just so stupidly ridiculous. He hadn’t done his homework. He didn’t know about my work for the Terence Higgins Trust or seen whom I’m associating with,” she says. “But I did feel genuinely sorry for him because it’s a really horrible thing to happen to someone and it must be driving him mad, but it’s not me.”

She doesn’t want to expend the energy or time (or money, presumably), in mounting endless legal suits: “But there’s so much stuff said about me that’s not true, so now what I try to do if something is hurtful and wrong is send an e-mail or letter immediately, saying, ‘This is not true… at no time have I ever said this…’ I don’t ask for an apology because it’s only tomorrow’s fish-and-chip paper.”

As for the writers who assert that the Tate was somehow bamboozled into buying a roomful of Emins, they clearly have no clue how such things work: how long it takes to make such a decision (a minimum of three years), how many people are involved in approving that decision, and so on. As it happens, the Tate has been nominating her work for their permanent collection for some years now: “It’s happened time and time again, but the committee has always decided against it – because it said f*** in it too much, or the work was too conservative or didn’t fit within the budget; there are millions of different reasons,” Emin says. “The point is that the work can’t just be bought on whim. It is really discussed, it’s really thought about; it’s a whole committee of about 40 people that argue this out. And it has to be like that because otherwise you could end up with a load of crap for the rest of history.” Naturally, she thinks it’s “quite cool, actually” – that you can walk in to Tate Britain and say, “Can you tell me where the Tracey Emin room is?” And when the Tate Modern opened, she recalls, “My auntie’s friend said, ‘Can you tell me where Tracey Emin’s work is?’ (as opposed to, say, the Francis Bacon or John Constable room) and the attendant said, ‘If I had a penny for every time I was asked that, I wouldn’t be standing here now.’ Sweet, wasn’t it?”

The morning I asked to see the Tracey Emin room, the attendant told me that it is the question she, too, is most often asked. From her observations, people either take one look at the work and walk straight out or they stay for hours, poring over each individual piece. Of all the YBAs – Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Gavin Turk et al – the young British artists who made such an impact in the Nineties, it is Emin who has endured thus far as the real crowd-puller. Partly this is because in our celebrity-driven, confessional culture, Emin satisfies on both counts. She is far more likely to be featured in a fashionable glossy or a colour supplement, say, than in a serious art magazine – as the Tate’s own house journal has pointed out. Emin herself says, “Each week I get between 60 and 100 requests, whether it’s to appear on I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! or Celebrity Weakest Link or my favourite one, Celebrity Mastermind. That was, ‘Really, I think you may have the wrong person.’ Tracey Emin talking about herself, yeah! ‘When was your first show in a London gallery?’ The point is, they don’t ask other artists but they do ask me – which is why when I got the phrase ‘media whore’ thrown in my face last year, I thought, ‘Oh my God, if you only knew.'”

She has done Room 101, as we know, and Question Time and Have I Got News For You, which she enjoyed and will be going on again soon. She’s particularly proud of having been nominated for the Dimbleby lecture: “I mean, I’m not going to get it, but if people know what that is they realise what an absolute honour it is just to be nominated. It’s pretty nice and special because it means that there’s a board of academics that think I’ve obviously got some insight into things.”

But what of the work itself? What I notice is that it’s much easier to intellectualise what one dislikes about her pieces than what one appreciates. So although it may not be exactly “crap”, I have no time for her pink neon loping scrawl: Is anal sex legal, and its retort: Is legal sex anal. To me, it’s shallow, glib, gimmicky, as babyishly sensational – and on about the same level – as the fcuk advertising campaign. There must be better ways of addressing gay rights, if that is what prompted her to make it. That aside, I’m intrigued, moved, unsettled, disconcerted, upset, disturbed, tickled by most of the rest of the work in the room. The way it connects is visceral, reaching into parts of the psyche, to borrow from advertising myself, that other art doesn’t reach. What the art is not, which is something her detractors are always accusing it of being, is an unmediated confessional splurge. Both the horridness and the sweetness of Emin’s life are very firmly and, indeed, artfully edited to create a certain impact. She is quite capable of withholding in both her art and beyond it; she hasn’t, for instance, disclosed the identity of the boy who raped her or the man who abused her. And, on a happier note, she won’t talk about her new boyfriend, or even say that she has one – although this is a bit irritating since she does insist on introducing the subject of her “Roman husband” quite often.

On one of the walls of her room in the Tate are the handwritten pages – all 4,000-odd words – of Emin’s short story called Exploration of the Soul. It was published in the Independent on Sunday, as well as in a limited-edition book, in 1999: the same year as the Turner Prize shortlisting. It’s all there: the unhealthily intense relationship with her twin brother, the sinister male presence, a very disturbing suggestion of anal rape, and after “the police woman was talking to me – but I kept kind of sleeping… Dear God I thought – every part of me is bleeding” … “And he was rubbing his hands across my chest – my tiny little chest – my bony little ribs – I WAS ONLY TEN FOR F***’S SAKE” – the stifling fear of the dark (something that still terrifies Emin) “left alone… saturated in my own piss – too scared to breathe”, the knocked-out teeth, the teenage rape, the confusion of love and neglect, “Daddy gone”, and then his hotel – and their childhood home – boarded up…

I remember reeling when I read that in between the fashion and the food on a Sunday morning. It was such a direct assault with no leavening banality to make it more bearable. And, after my initial scepticism – oh please! so now Tracey Emin thinks she’s a writer – came the shock that she could write. And that she was able to evoke a certain sort of childhood – I did presume her own – in a way that made me feel absolutely that I was there with her under the bedsheets, in the bath, scrabbling in the strawberry patch looking in vain for our pet rabbit.

This is the way Emin’s art can work at its most effective – taking you unawares, making you catch your breath, knocking you sideways. It can happen, in a more muted way, in the most unlikely places. In the British Airways business lounge at Istanbul airport, for instance, an inspired executive has hung two Emin drawings. They have such a peculiar impact in that sterile setting; as exciting as coming across an original masterpiece, but also charming and intimate. What must go through the heads of the busy business people, tapping away on their laptops, when they look up and see: a pool of white space and a scribble of a bird on a high-up branch with another rather forlorn-looking bird below – “That’s Mat up there and that’s me,” the artist explains; a woman’s body, a pool of something nasty between her legs, various implements. Does it put them off their stride? Do any of them stop what they’re doing and get up to have a closer look?

If you think Tracey is good at what she does – as I happen to, not always but mostly – it is because she does know what she’s doing. At the age of 23, she talked herself into a place at Maidstone Art College, emerged with a First and went on to the Royal College of Art where she graduated with an MA in painting – although she describes herself as “a crappy painter” who was a bit of a misfit there. Her contemporaries were into abstract art, while she was into exploring “Byzantine frescoes and Edvard Munch”. And, rather amusingly, for those who assume she was one of the groovy Goldsmiths’ gang: “When Damien and all that lot were doing Frieze in Building One, I was in Turkey doing watercolours.”

While we are engaged in our interview by the pool – I more or less have to persuade Tracey, a fanatical swimmer, that it would be impractical to conduct it actually in the pool – the silence is broken by the muezzins’ periodic wails beckoning the faithful to prayer in Istanbul’s many mosques; it’s a great stereophonic sound, rising and filling the air all around us.

In the evening, we meet up again for drinks at the Pera Palas hotel, where Mata Hari, Winston Churchill and Agatha Christie used to stay. And, more recently, Julio Iglesias and our Tracey (not together) – although she hasn’t yet got a room named after her like the others. Emin did a performance here for the 1997 Istanbul Biennale. At that time, she recalls, you couldn’t have a Turkish man in your hotel room – and so she decided to open up her room to the public. At one point she had 80 people crammed in, listening to her stories, trying to work out what she meant by transforming the space into a love poem, looking at the photographs she had placed under the doilies on the antique furniture, touching the bedspread appliquéd with the words, International Woman. (An early forerunner of her Longchamps suitcases, she says, limited edition of 200, a rosette on each with a handsigned drawing of a place Trace has visited, cost: £2,000.)

This new exhibition – Tracey Istanbulda – is in Platform, a converted bank, right at the heart of Istanbul’s tourist centre. Emin went to a show there at last year’s Biennale – she much prefers Istanbul’s art fair to the famous one in Venice – and decided that it was just the place for her to show work, which had only been created in Turkey and Cyprus. It’s been partially sponsored by the British Council who have “always been really cool to me. They are brilliant: ‘If you have a chance,'” Tracey says, with an impeccable plummy accent, “‘meet our woman Jenny in Madrid, she’s awe-fully nice.'”

This is her fourth visit to Turkey this year, and she’s been spending some time in Cyprus, where her father lives, too. Enver has come over especially for his daughter’s show, but relations between them are apparently somewhat strained at the moment; something to do with complications over the building of a house. “The land’s really beautiful, it’s just that I can’t… what it is, it’s a bit of a macho society to say the least and it’s very difficult to get things done,” Tracey says. “When it really comes to it, you have to be hands-on, you have to be there and I don’t have time. So either I let my dad finish it – do it how he wants which is not what I want at all – or just come back to it later.” I suspect the tensions are because she chose to postpone the project.

Enver sits, in his high peaked leather hat (a present from his daughter and Mat), suit and tie, surrounded by the bright youngish things of the art world. He smiles from time to time – a beautiful sunbeam of a smile – and doesn’t say much. He’s 83, perhaps a little deaf, walks slowly with a stick, but has the smooth, caramel skin of a much younger man. Tracey calls him “Daddy” and gets cross when he’s not attentive enough to her or the wine waiter. She’s quite openly tough with him, having encouraged him to come – the whole show struck me as a kind of love letter to him and his country – but insisting he’s responsible for sorting out his own accommodation.

Everyone rushes off to Tracey’s opening, and I hang back for Enver, who hasn’t a hope of catching up. Pretty soon, the others are nowhere in sight and I’ve no idea where I am – nor, I suspect, does my new chum. Arm in arm, we walk down the main shopping street, thronging with people, looking for the gallery. He says there’s a big sign with his daughter’s name on it and suddenly, there it is – Emin – a rather small sign, actually, pointing to an alleyway. “Come on,” I say, “let’s go.” But, alas, it is only a bakery; Emin, it transpires, being the Turkish equivalent of Jones or Smith.

We retrace our steps into the night and finally, thank God, stumble on a socking great banner – TRACEY ISTANBULDA – with a crowd queueing to get in. All the video work has been shown before, there was no money for shipping larger pieces, and Tracey made two new neons: It doesn’t matter My Friend it does Not matter To Cry is Beautiful, and its Turkish translation Bosver Bosver Arkadasim Aglamak Guzel (Tracey can rattle that off, no problem), and what she calls her sexy one: I Kiss You. They’re quite pretty, but that’s about it.
The videos are another matter. Actually, I think she’s hot stuff in this department – which is certainly why Michael Winterbottom, the respected young director, suggested she make a film, Top Spot, under the auspices of his production company, Revolution. The one that most insinuates of the three on show is the gentlest and oddly elegiac: the seaside, Cyprus, 1996; her father, stronger then, in white trunks walking into the surf, turning and smiling at the camera, a man – is it him? – singing in Turkish; then Tracey in a bikini, plumper but still a perfect hour-glass figure, engulfed by the water, her words, a sort of poetic rhapsody to the enduring encirclement of life – the sea, the stars, the sun – end with “I love you Daddy.”

When Tracey and her twin were seven, their father left home. Tracey’s mother, Pam, became pregnant by Enver 40 years ago, on an alcohol-drenched night that was meant to signal the end of their affair. Pam decided not to abort and Enver – who tells me he gave up drinking on the day the twins were born and recites the date, in true AA fashion, or perhaps in the fashion of a proud parent – spent half the week in Margate with his new family, apparently with the blessing of his wife in London. Tracey remembers coming to Turkey for months at a stretch when she and her brother were tiny. Then, one day, Enver found Pam in bed with his driver and later attempted, unsuccessfully, to run them over. So that was the end of that relationship.

Tracey says that although her childhood must have had its good points, her mother has told her that she was never happy. On one of our walks, I notice that one of her feet turns slightly inwards, and

she tells me she was knock-kneed as a child and teased about it. She spent hours on her own practising how to walk properly and, for that matter, talk properly since she was also afflicted with an appalling lisp. Even now, just occasionally, certain words are accompanied by the suggestion of a clicking sound, as though her tongue is awkwardly hammering the roof of her mouth. When I ask her whether her forties are the best time of her life, she says: “Damn sight better than my thirties and nothing could be worse than my twenties, apart from my teens or my childhood. So there you go, it is getting a lot better.”

Growing up was difficult, she says, because she and her brother were left alone so much: “It wasn’t my parents’ fault – my mum had to work all the time and my dad wasn’t there. But there were no rules and I think that children actually need a certain amount of rules. They need to brush their teeth because otherwise their teeth fall out, right? It is a kind of known thing. And children need to do their homework because it’s part of their education. But saying all that,” she suddenly seems wary of how this may sound, “I am fiercely independent and I probably wouldn’t be if it wasn’t for the way in which I was brought up.”

If you did have children, you would bring them up differently? “You can say that again, yeah.” You would be very much into rules and structure? “Yeah.” When I say that I’ve never read her talking about the period when she was abused, she says: “Not in the newspapers, no. I’m going to wait until I’m really mega f****** famous and then I’ll make a big billboard.” Is it complicated; are you protecting the person? “No, I’m protecting myself.”

Top Spot is the name of a Margate nightclub where the local teenagers would go to make out; it is also, as Tracey the film’s narrator informs us, the neck of the womb which is hit by the penis during sex. It is, yes, autobiographical with all the writer-director’s childhood horror stories grafted on to the characters of six different girls – as though they would be too much for a single person to bear. One way out of the misery of Margate – which has prompted the censors’ 18 certificate, much to the film-maker’s dismay – is the suicide by the girl the boys call “slag”. Another, as the ending makes perfectly clear, is to leave and turn yourself into something splendid… Tracey, the original Margate girl, amply demonstrating the alternative route.

It is, in a way, another exploration of the soul; only this time, perhaps, more of an expiation of the soul. There’s the rape, the teeth, and the same hints of abuse. One of the girl’s lines first appeared in that story: “I’d watch him from the corner of my eye – his hands down his trousers – always fiddling with himself. Always looking at me-”

The film has its moments – the girl in her school uniform, an echo of that earlier video piece, turning and turning, the colours all darting and electric, to Shirley and Co screeching: “Shame shame shame, shame on you, if you can’t dance too”; and a certain sort of

Beryl Bainbridge hint of strange sexual games between an adult woman and the girls, the latter fantasising about burning her home down, lighting the paper that glows and leaps in a dance of its own in the dark. But, for the most part, it’s too messy and flat and amateurish to be convincing for me, and – worst of all – I’m afraid I found it boring.

I had mentioned Bainbridge to Emin because until relatively recently, the writer had drawn exclusively on her early life for her novels. Then ten years or more ago, almost as though there was nothing left in her own small past to explore, Bainbridge turned her back on herself and switched to making her fiction out of major historical characters. I wondered whether the artist, whose own collection of short stories is coming out next year, could ever imagine herself making a similar journey.

In the future, which may or may not have something to do with the “Roman husband”, Tracey said that she plans to return to painting, in the hope, presumably, that with time on her hands and experience on her side, she’ll be less “crap” at it. She’s going to buy a studio in Rome and work on a series of 20 oil paintings. Her subject? You’ve guessed it. But it will also be Emin in some sort of broader historical context than her own life. Nude? “Maybe… maybe not. But I can see them in front of my eyes and I want to spend the longest time… like just a week painting the gesso on to the canvas and I want to build up the oil paint really, really slowly… the smell of it, this massive beautiful room in Rome and these lovely windows, and just the smell of the oil painting. There’s just me – no telephone, no office – me with very little clothes on because it’s really hot, and I’ll be making these oil paintings which maybe no one will see for a long time. But that’s what I’d really like to do.”

On our last night in Istanbul, there was another party held in honour of Emin and her show. More than 800 people, we were told, had visited the gallery the previous day – and the numbers have held up, with the exhibition closing today. Everyone is dancing to disco and soon comes the unmistakable thudding beat of Sylvester. The crowd parts and Tracey is on her own, brown skin gleaming, grinning broadly and perfectly symmetrically… “make me fee-eel, mighty real, make me – ooooh, ooooohhh”, and as she cocks her ears, what she hears, this time round, is: “star, star, star, star, star.”

Women, Writers

Edge of darkness

The Sunday Times – July 05, 2003
– Ginny Dougary

P. D. James’s crime thrillers delve into the shadows of our consciousness, often shocking us with their unflinching, sometimes brutal, realism. But although the writer has personal experience of life’s psychological twists and turns, at 82, she remains an eternal optimist

She could hardly be more alert: mind as sharp as a cleaver, slicing into lardy thinking, fleet-footed, busy movements but with still, brown eyes. Baroness James of Holland Park, aka the august Faber thriller writer P. D. James, revered for the literary elegance with which she dispenses death, will be 83 next month and she is wonderfully, infectiously exuberant about the joy of being alive.

“I’m not fearful of death but I do love life very much. I love every day. And I hate the thought that it will end and I won’t see another spring,” she tells me. “I’m sure that people who live their lives very fully, who are vigorously alive, can feel the knowledge that it’s all going to end more fully. It is psychologically oppressive and you can wake up in the middle of the night and it can overwhelm you.”

There’s clearly no time to waste on small talk, so we jump straight into the big talk: love, mortality, sex and the nature of the soul. Is it better to be sensible to moral shortcomings than benignly laissez-faire? How do you define what it is that makes up the essential person? Do we become more ourselves as we grow older? Can you be said to have engaged completely in life if you have never allowed yourself to be overwhelmed by passionate love? This last question, in particular, is one which the writer tends to circle back to in different ways. The moment of truth for a character at the end of The Murder Room, James’s new book, is when she realises, like her receptive listener: “All love is dangerous, isn’t it?… [but]… you’re only half alive if you’re afraid to love.”

Many people who meet Phyllis (as she asks you to call her) for the first time find her surprising. Her writing has its moments of quiet lyricism – her abiding character, Adam Dalgliesh, is a respected poet, after all, as well as a detective. There is a melancholic, almost elegaic undertow to the books; a sense that our hero’s grief on losing his newborn baby and wife in one blow has never entirely lifted during all the decades we have known him since we were first introduced in 1962.

But there is also blood, sweat, semen, vomit, mucus: the physical gore of murderous death, and James is unflinching in her delivery of the detail. Here, for instance, is how she handles one corpse disposed of in Devices and Desires by her cross-dressing serial killer whose signature note is stuffing his victims’ pubic hair into their mouths: “The small bush of hair had been pushed under the upper lip, exposing the teeth, and giving the impression of a snarling rabbit.”

You don’t expect the creator of such brutal realism to be a cosy mother hen figure who lives in a pretty Georgian house, with William Morris wallpaper and Staffordshire figurines; the only clue to her darker sensibilities being an antique leather cosh she keeps strapped to the drawer knob of her bedside table. The particularities which previous visitors remarked upon – the chatelaine effect of carrying a large bunch of keys around her neck, the kindly ministrations to tuck into a plate of biscuits, the wearing of distorting thick-lensed spectacles – have disappeared.

But I had certainly imagined that because of all her achievements and honours – former BBC governor, sitting on this and that board, chairing this and that committee, the life peerage and so on – James would be tall, imposing and slightly stern. But physically, her stature is diminutive, and she bustles rather than paces. She is wearing a white T-shirt, button-down mid-calf skirt, poppy-red jacket, grey hair scraped off her head with a tortoiseshell hairband, a large engraved silver heart choker, and Birkenstock sandals.

She claps her hands in child-like glee and laughs, often, throwing her head back with gusto. When she is particularly amused – usually prompted by some observation on the absurd comedy of life – her eyes crinkle up and her whole face seems to shrink. My initial feeling is that I am in the company of one of those hospitable creatures in a children’s classic: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe or The Hobbit; an impression which is reinforced by her insisting she sits bent double below me on a piano stool throughout the entire interview, while I take pride of place on the sofa.

We are talking about the various writers who have been afflicted by a morbid dread of death – Samuel Johnson, Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis – and she mentions the time she interviewed Amis Snr over a bibulous lunch for the defunct London Evening News. She found it interesting, she says, that he told her how he wished he’d never broken his marriage with his first wife, Hilly, after he fell madly for the writer Elizabeth Jane Howard; this second marriage ending famously acrimoniously. James, herself a widow of some 40 years, has never felt – perhaps, she concedes, never allowed herself to feel – an all-consuming love.

“No, I’ve never felt love that has completely overcome my mind. I’ve always felt there’s some part of my mind in control. I’m not sure that’s a good thing,” she says. “I think that we can criticise wild, passionate love but probably most human beings rather want it and like it. But I was always watching what I was feeling.”

She says that from an early age, she has looked at herself go through most experiences as if she were outside herself. When life was difficult in her childhood – her parents were unhappily married; her mother suffered from mental illness and was confined to an asylum for a period – the young James’s way of coping was to pretend she was a character in a book. Her mother would accuse her of being a cynical child; the girl’s cool appraisal of her elders was deemed unseemly and unnatural. “I was born very much an observer of life,” she says. “And yet at the same time I’m very much involved in it in the sense that I love the experience of being alive and of meeting people.

“Every writer is an observer, and just because I have never been overwhelmed by emotion doesn’t mean that other writers haven’t. But afterwards, I think, when the overwhelming ceases and they recover from the hurt of it, they will use it in their work and probably very, very effectively.”

In the prologue to Time to Be in Earnest, the “fragment” of autobiography-cum- diary that James wrote at the end of the Nineties, she warned her expectant readers: “There is much that I remember but which is painful to dwell upon. I see no need to write about these things. They are over and must be accepted, made sense of and forgiven, afforded no more than their proper place in a long life in which I have always known that happiness is a gift, not a right.”

How much can be guessed here from what little is said. James, of course, is a great believer in English reserve and is allergic to displays of excessive emotionalism. Her reaction to the mass-grieving which took place after Princess Diana died was to note: “I have a feeling, uncomfortable and irrational, that something has been released into the atmosphere and it isn’t benign.”

When we were talking about her unease with the touchy-feely post-Diana New Britain, she told me a story which clearly did move her. She was being driven to Oxford by a man whose wife had died of cancer, leaving him to bring up their three young children. There’s something about her manner that has always encouraged people to unburden their secret sadnesses to James and this man was no exception: “His wife had apparently had a terrible death about a year previously and I remember him saying, ‘It sounds very odd but I go to her grave and I tell her that my eldest daughter is wonderful with the two younger ones and that I’m coping,’ and he said, ‘I’m sure people would think it’s sentimental that I need to tell her how we’re getting on and that we’re managing.’ And because he was telling it very honestly and she’d died young and left these children and they were all coping for her sake, I really felt moved almost to tears,” her eyes glisten. “I felt much more than I felt when Diana died, there’s no doubt about that.”

As for her own bereavement and grief, James writes about these private emotions only at arm’s length and through the filter of fiction. “One does use one’s pain through some of the characters, very different characters from myself, but I think in quite a number of them there is pain,” she says. “And when I say that I don’t get overwhelmed, that doesn’t mean I don’t feel pain. I do feel pain. I can feel pain quite acutely. I have had a lot of pain in my life and I have felt it. And feeling fear and feeling distress and feeling lost and feeling inadequate, all these things are part of being human.”

She married Connor Bantry White, an Anglo-Irish medical student, when they had both turned 21 in the summer of 1941. They met in Cambridge where James was working as a general dogsbody at the Festival Theatre, and White was reading medicine at the university. Children came soon after, two daughters, Clare and Jane, and on completing his medical training, White went off to join the war with the Royal Army Medical Corps.

While he was away in service, the young doctor suffered a mental collapse from which he was never to recover, and spent the rest of his married life in and out of psychiatric hospitals. Sometimes he would return home unannounced and delusional, and so James decided that in these challenging circumstances, it was best to send her daughters away to a pre-prep boarding school, even though the younger of the two girls was only four.

As it now fell upon her to support the family, James went out to work as a filing clerk in the NHS (she had left school at 16 with no thought of higher education), working herself up to hospital administration, overseeing five psychiatric outpatients’ clinics, taking evening classes at the City of London College which led to a job in the Home Office, and eventually rising to a senior civil service position running the Criminal Policy Department.

She started writing in earnest in her thirties, waking at sunrise and getting down the words before arriving at the office each day, not because she needed the extra money but because she felt driven to do so. In 1962, the first of her 18 books, Cover Her Face, was published by Faber – which she says, quite rightly, now seems a bit old-fashioned and creaky – and she was on her way. Two years later, her husband died at home at the age of 44, after taking a combination of alcohol and drugs. She has said that it probably was suicide.

In her semi-autobiography, she writes: “I shan’t write about my marriage… except to say that I have never found, or indeed looked for, anyone else with whom I have wanted to spend the rest of my life.” Later, on April 1, 1998: “Connor would have been 78 today and I am trying to picture him, like me stiffer in his walk, his strong fair hair now a thatch of grey. I know that he was glad to die and I never mourned him in the sense of wishing that it had not happened. I still miss him daily, which means that no day goes by when he doesn’t enter into my mind.” And on the publication of Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters – the poems about Hughes’s troubled marriage with Sylvia Plath: “No one who has never had to live with a partner who is mentally ill can possibly understand what this means. Two people are in separate hells, but each intensifies the other. Those who have not experienced this contaminating misery should keep silent.”

They were both so young when they married, the period of straightforward happiness was so short, and there were decades of difficult times when Connor was sometimes unable even to recognise his wife… I wonder how often in the 20-odd years of his illness there were glimpses of his old self, and were they enough to sustain her? “From time to time he was himself,” she says. “Briefly, yes, he was.” And did that help or not? “It gave me false hopes to begin with, I think, but the false hopes faded and then I realised that he would probably never be entirely right again.”

Did you understand what had happened to him? “Partly. I think one has to realise that it was a long time ago and now he would have had much more help and much more effective help psychiatrically compared to what he got then,” she says. “I’m not sure if I did altogether understand, but I don’t think I ever stopped loving him. You can have a love that isn’t an overwhelming love but it can be a very steadfast love.”

I had supposed that because all this heartbreak had happened long ago James would not feel discomfited talking about it, but she does: “It’s still painful and it’s distressing to the children if I talk about it too much. They do find it more distressing, more than I do, I think. My elder daughter does.” She says that they remember him, “Oh yes, with affection,” but feel that

it’s a private matter. I wonder what it was about him that made her fall in love? “Charm. He had charm and he was funny and he was a very sweet person. Yes, he was a very dear person.”

She is able to talk more freely about her decision to send the girls away when they were so young, perhaps because whatever the short-term damage or resentment at the time, the family is extremely close now. One of James’s great pleasures in life is spending weekends at the home of one daughter or the other, surrounded by grown-up grandchildren, enjoying their marvellous meals and wine and going for a good walk, preferably by the sea. Sadly, having enjoyed robust health all her life, she has just recovered from her second deep vein thrombosis so her walks are rather less vigorous. More like a 20-minute stroll, then? I ask, with an understanding look. “Oh, more than that, dear,” she says stoutly. “Probably more like an hour and a half.”

As people approach the end of their years, particularly if they believe they are going to meet their Maker, they can become beset with remorse about early episodes in their lives. There’s a striking passage in The Murder Room when Miss Strickland, who has a complicated past, talks to Dalgliesh about her last conversation with the first victim, a psychiatrist: “I said that in old age the past wasn’t so easily shaken off. The old sins return, weighted by the years. And the nightmares… For some of us that small diurnal death can be a nightly descent into a very private hell… He said that to be human is to feel guilt: I am guilty therefore I am.”

James does not appear to be overburdened by guilt, although I doubt she would tell me if she were. She does, however, suffer from terrible nightmares which she describes emphatically as “very, very, very, very weird”, which suggests there might be some anxiety lurking in the recesses of her mind. She also suffers from claustrophobia, and always has, so she is not quite as straightforwardly no-nonsense as she might first appear.

What she says about leaving her young daughters is this: “I missed them a very great deal and I felt distressed whenever I saw them and had to leave them, but I think it was the best thing because of their father’s illness. I think that parents should try not to feel too much guilt because all any parent can do is the best she can at the time. With thought, with love, and some of the decisions we make are right and some of the decisions we make are wrong, but as long as we’ve cared and we’ve bothered and we’ve taken trouble,” she mutters something I am unable to hear, and then says almost to herself. “They were happy there. It was a good school and they were happy there.

“Funnily enough, when they were at home during the long holidays, they used to wave me off when I went to work in the morning and they used to think that I wasn’t going to come home at night. I remember one of them did tell me: ‘We thought you might not come back.’ So you never know with children.”

I wonder, knowing all she does, what advice she would give to a stranger who was suffering from some terrible and seemingly inconsolable grief. “First of all, I would probably put my arms around them if they were that sort of person, and then I would say that you have to believe that in the end the pain will lessen. It may never completely go away. If you’ve lost somebody you dearly love – you’re going to miss them, the hurt will be there probably for as long as you live. But it will lessen. You will be able to come to terms with it.

“And, secondly, that you’re not alone in this. This is part of being a human being that we love people and we lose them and we suffer. It’s part of life. It’s that Blake poem, ‘Man was made for joy and woe; and when this we rightly know, through the world we safely go.’ It’s a question of holding on. It’s a question of taking each day as it comes, not to torment yourself with the thought of all the years ahead. Take each day as it comes and find the courage to live that day as fully as you can. And even if they were not religious, I think I would say that if you pray for help, you will get it.”

She really does not care to revisit the days when she and her father would walk to the Gothic hospital where her mother had been placed. There is a pitiful description in Time to Be in Earnest of Dorothy James clutching at her nightclothes, begging to come home; one can well imagine the impact of this scene on her young daughter, and why it is still evoked so vividly more than half a century on. How awful that the writer’s early adult married life would be marred by visits to much the same gloomy sort of institution. It is not surprising that she only becomes reticent when drawn on such subjects. Put at its simplest: P. D. James likes to be happy and it doesn’t make her happy to talk about sad things.

It is quite a relief to move on to the less confrontational subject of sex. I read back to her a slightly surprising quote from an interview she did in the mid-Nineties: “I never really had a sex drive. I suppose I was frightened of the sex drive like some people are frightened to drink because they might never stop.” I say that it makes her sound as though she feared she might be a raving nymphomaniac, which makes her laugh hugely: “Well, I must have been out of my mind because I can’t remember ever feeling that. I would never had sexual relations and children, if I hadn’t had a sex drive.”

Might it not be true to say that you are probably more of a head person than a sexual person? “Absolutely true,” she says. “I don’t in any way dislike people who are sexual, I would just say that sex has never been so necessary to me that the need has overwhelmed me. And I would feel that if it did that would be slightly dangerous.

“I am neither sentimental nor over-emotional, but I can’t imagine saying that I feared that sex would overwhelm me. I suppose the fact that I am a head person makes it difficult to imagine how

you could be so much a slave to any

physical need.”

She admits that in all things, what she does fear is being out of control. Surely this must have had something to do with having so much responsibility thrust upon her shoulders at such a tender age. In her twenties, as a mother of two, she had to deal with what must have been at times a terrifying and confusing ordeal, while holding everything together. And, going back further, when her own mother was ill, it was Phyllis who cooked and cleaned and cared for her siblings until Dusty, the housekeeper, arrived. She has written about one particularly acute memory from that time: “It happened very soon after she [Dusty] arrived. I went up to my bedroom and there, lying folded on the sill beside the open window so that it was aired by the sun, was a clean, ironed nightdress. It is still a powerful image of conscientious caring and it lifted my heart. After trying, not always successfully, to cope with housekeeping and school, I was going to be looked after.”

A supporter of the promotion of her own sex in the secular world, in the church – as in her politics – James is a conservative traditionalist and was originally doubtful about the ordination of women. Now, however, she says, “I believe it is inevitable and right.” She has mixed views on hardline feminism but since she was attacked by a clique of male crime writers a few years ago, after a comment she made about class was misconstrued, she says she has rather more insight into why some women dislike men so much.

Her curriculum vitae includes such positions as the vice-president of Prayer Book Society, seat on Church of England’s Liturgical Commission, chair of Booker Prize, president of Society of Authors, associate fellow of Downing College, Cambridge, and so on. You don’t get much greater or gooder than that roll call, but is that why she accepts the roles? “I quite enjoy it, dear, let’s face it,” she smiles. “But I also do feel that if you’re asked to do something as a woman, even if you’re going to be more or less the statutory woman, and you’re sure that you can do it, then I think there is an obligation to do so. I like women very much and I admire my own sex very much, and you can’t complain that women aren’t sufficiently represented if when you’re offered the chance, you say no to it.”

While she would defend any woman’s right to go out to work – “I have very much sympathy for women who want a professional life; that’s the sort of woman I am myself” – James feels it quite wrong that women who opt for full-time motherhood should feel diminished by their choice. Her hackles rise particularly when career women are cavalier, or worse, about the women they pay to work in their homes: “There was one on the radio and I took a real dislike to her when she said, ‘I want someone to do my shit work.’ And I thought, ‘Well, I wouldn’t work for you, dear. If you think looking after a house and making people comfortable is shit work, thank you very much. I would hate to work for you… because what respect would I get if I did.’”

The memory of that “clean, ironed nightdress” is still clearly very much intact.

When I say that professional women still tend to do the bulk of the domestic work when they get home, she says: “That is unfair, and I feel very strongly about it, indeed. It’s interesting the way I brought up my daughters, you see. They both have husbands who would never let that happen.

“From the beginning, I led them to feel that you’re not born as a woman to spend all your life ministering to a man. You hope to meet a man that you love and with whom you can have children, but it has to be an equal partnership.”

The only time in the interview when I catch a glimpse of the occasional astringency which can inform James’s writing, is when we talk about politics more broadly. I make an unflattering remark about Margaret Thatcher (it was her successor who was responsible for James’s peerage), and the Baroness gives me a concentrated look. She wastes no time at all dispatching my suggestion that under Mrs T we were encouraged to be selfish and greedy. “I think that materialism is very much part of human nature,” she says firmly. “We all like what money brings. There are very few who won’t go after the biggest profit they can get. There are very few who will sell their houses at under their value because a poor family’s trying to buy it. Show me them, I’d love to see them. There may be some, but not many.

“It’s lovely to have Mrs Thatcher to blame for this, you see. We can tell ourselves it’s not our fault, that we’re all Thatcher’s children and she taught us to be greedy. I very much distrust that. The present Prime Minister is very fond of his rich friends. There’s no doubt that he consorts only with people who are minded about prosperity and about money. So I think there are people who are greedy under any administration, and we must take responsibility for ourselves.”

But what materialism and consumerism cannot guarantee, as we all know too well, is happiness. It is a testament to the buoyancy of the human spirit – the “holding on” – that despite all the sorrows in P. D. James’s life, there is no trace of bitterness or any feeling that she has been hard done by. Even in her darkest times, she never felt that happiness would elude her. And, as she says, it can come when you least expect it:

“You may be in the country, leaning over a fence, and there’s the smell or the sight of a bean field, and suddenly there’s that tingle of wonderful physical wellbeing, a sense of being completely at home in the world; as much at home as the bird is in the air or the fish in the water. And that’s happiness which can’t be bought or sought. It just steals upon you. Doesn’t it, dear?”

Celebrities, Music, Women

Ginny meets Dolly

THE TIMES MAGAZINE – November 2 2002
Ginny Dougary

Dolly Parton’s bosom goes before her. It is impossible to think of her voice and her songs without conjuring a mental picture of that famous cantilevered shelf which juts so implausibly over her minuscule waist. Her top-heavy form even enlivened debate in the House of Commons when some years ago Kenneth Clarke chastised Gordon Brown for relying on the “Dolly Parton school of economics — an unbelievable figure blown out of all proportion with no visible means of support.”

If it seems unseemly to linger on a person’s poitrine in this way then it must be said that no man or woman has more boldly gone into this territory than Parton herself. Reading past encounters with journalists — mostly male — it is she rather than her interviewers who nudges the subject back to her breasts again and again. Dolly’s bust, she makes it clear, is up for grabs. There has been much speculation in the press over the decades as to the secret of her bosom’s buoyancy: exactly how much silicone has been pumped into those mamas? She has never denied that she is partially plastic but she won’t be drawn on the detail. When one persistent fellow pressed her for specifics, she said: “Look, I’m in show-business. I look at my boobs like they’re showhorses or showdogs. You’ve got to keep ’em groomed.”

Emboldened by Parton’s own approach to her body, I had convinced myself that it would be a dereliction of journalistic duty not to ask her if I could briefly touch her, ahem, breasts. The readers of The Times surely had a right to know what such significant assets in the Parton empire felt like. But, alas, when it came to it I chickened out…partly because in the flesh, despite appearances to the contrary, there is nothing remotely fluffy about Dolly.

A big heart may be beating under her big chest but Parton is also a tough cookie and steely in her determination to run the show precisely to her specifications. If you attempt to steer her into uncharted waters, she makes her disapproval very plain. The version of herself that she is prepared to offer has been carefully honed over the years — the teasing paradox of the God-loving “toilet-mouthed” sinner; the woman who has been apparently happily married to her teenage sweetheart, Carl, for 36 years (they met outside the Wishy-Washy Laundromat in Nashville) who has neither confirmed or denied rumours of her affairs with men and women over the years; the simple country girl who is an extremely shrewd businesswoman, an owner of five houses as well as various enterprises including a radio station, a brand of cosmetics, a lucrative theme park in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, Dollywood, and a Hollywood film and television production company.

One of Parton’s much-quoted lines is that she looks like a woman but thinks like a man. “You know, there are many women who think good,” she tells me. “I just mean that you would be foolish as a man to underestimate me.” Plenty of men have been fooled by her appearance which has doubtless been good news for the Dolly dollar: “It’s worked for me because I’ve got the deal done and gone before a lot of people have got past looking at the boobs or the hair.”

She makes no bones about the importance of being in control of her business affairs, and I wonder whether Parton would go so far as to say she was a control freak. “No, I’m not a control freak but I’m very alert and very aware of my things. I have to take care of my things my way,” she says, sounding very southern indeed, with her mah’s (for my’s) and ah’m (for I’m) and swooping high-speed delivery. “I’m a very professional Dolly Parton. I don’t try to run other people’s lives but I know what I want, what I don’t want, what I will do, what I won’t do and I think it’s important for people to take care of that part of things themselves. And I don’t care if I’d been born a man or a woman or both.”

When I visited Dollywood two years ago (of which more later), I was told by one of Parton’s assistants there that her boss’s days often started as early as six in the morning and ended late at night, with every minute in between accounted for. Like presidents and Hollywood stars, Parton keeps her interviews short and to the point, treating herself as a rare commodity to be sampled at arm’s length by outsiders, and only with limited access. The briefer the encounter, of course, the easier it is for her to keep the conversation within the boundaries which suit her. She is happy projecting a contained provocativeness (four-letter words, a relish for sex) — which may be bold and shocking in her hometown of Pigeon Forge, dominated by hellfire Baptists obsessed with sin — but she is not prepared to be controversial in a broader context.

I come close to offending her, for instance, when I broach the subject of politics. “I’ll talk about sex and God but I ain’t talkin’ about politics,” Parton says firmly. So I can’t talk to you about America and Iraq? “No, you cannot.” She says that she definitely has her opinions — which I don’t doubt for a minute — but she doesn’t even care to discuss politics or religion with her friends because those discussions can very soon turn into arguments. And being in the limelight herself: “I don’t voice my opinions about those things because people take it out of context. Especially journalists. You say one thing, next thing you know it’s plastered all over the page and taken out of context: ‘Dolly said this’. I just wish we all got along. I wish the world was perfect, but it is not.”

Dolly’s world-view is this: “If we were more God-loving, God-like, Christ-like people, we wouldn’t be having the problems we do. But we’re having them because nobody will forgive, nobody will love, we’re all so selfish and just get into our own little place of what is right and what is wrong and so we’re all just screwing up big time.” These sentiments are echoed in several of the songs — Hello God, Raven Dove — on her new record Halos & Horns, the fourth back-to-bluegrass album Parton has released in the past four years. This return to the unadorned acoustic music of Parton’s mountain roots — fiddle, banjo, snare-drum, washboard, tambourine and goosebump-inducing harmonies — has given her career a new lease of life, happily coinciding with the post-O Brother Where Art Thou hipness of bluegrass (her first album in this vein, as she points out, came out before the film), and prompting her to form a new band, the Blueniques, made up largely of Pigeon Forge recruits, and go back to touring. For die-hard Dolly fans like myself, it is incredible to think that she hasn’t performed a concert in this country for 20 years.

“It takes a lot of money to look this cheap” is one of Dolly’s favourite Dollyisms, along with, “If I hadn’t been a woman I’d have been a drag queen.” She based her look, she has said, on a local prostitute who stood out from the rest of the drably dressed, careworn women in the community with her yellow hair, red nails and lipstick. For our interview, however, Parton looks comparatively sober, almost tasteful, in a little charcoal grey skirt and matching monochrome sweater, a V-neck revealing only a glimpse of pale cleavage, flesh-coloured nylons and high-heels. Most of the time, she tucks her pointed feet underneath her bottom on the sofa.

There’s the same wig of teased hair but close-up — obviously, really, since she’s a 56-year-old woman — her face does not have the dewy, youthful glow of her photographs in which even recently she looks like a gorgeous tarnished angel. The Annie Leibovitz snaps on the sleeve of the new album are a case in point and among the best of Parton I’ve ever seen: tatty, faded denim shirt, blue jeans, and the sort of understated make-up which takes at least three hours to apply.

The singer’s husband, Carl Dean, has always come across as a mystery man in the press, principally because he has rarely been sighted in public. They met the day Dolly arrived in Nashville; she was 18, he was 21, and they married two years later. I must say that I do like the detail of the Wishy-Washy Laundromat: “Well, I was doing my dirty laundry that I’d brought from home — you know having graduated the night before — because I was in such a hurry to get to Nashville and be a star.

“Carl had just finished work — he and his father owned an asphalt paving company — and he had gone home and cleaned up and he was just driving around…looking for me, he said. And he must have.” Her voice does a fabulous loop-the-loop — he-yyyyyy-uhv. “He was very shy and bashful and that’s not like him. So that’s another way I believe God has purpose for people.

“Of course, I was tiny and I was blonde, for sure, had that hair all hiked up and I had on a red rib-tickler halter top and my little hip-hugger red pants and I guess he just looked and thought, ‘I’m gonna say something to her.'”

Do you remember what he said? “Well, yeah, I know exactly what he said. He just pulled up to the sidewalk and said, ‘You’re gonna get sunburnt out here, little lady.’ And I said, ‘Oh, you think?’ And so we just started talking and that was that.”

She says that her husband loves music and is forever whistling and singing around the house and the barn “in a kind of pop sounding voice”. He has a large record collection and is a great Led Zeppelin fan, which was one of the reasons why she did her own version of Stairway to Heaven on Halos & Horns “because I’d heard that song in the house a million times”. I think it’s by far the most exciting track on the CD, and really beautiful — full-blown and delicate at the same time, building up to a great choral swell of celestial female voices at the end.

And what was Carl’s reaction? “‘Only you’d have the nerve to do that damn song that way!’ You know, he doesn’t say it’s good or bad. He just says, ‘Well, it’s different, I’ll give you that.’ Yeah, that’s about all he says.”

Is he a loner? “Very much a loner. But he’s friendly. He’s funny. He does have a handful of very good friends but they’re mostly people that he went to school with.”

I had gone to Dollywood in the summer of 2000 in the hope of talking to Parton, who was scheduled to be there. The interview had been agreed — after questions had been asked about The Times (“Was it a tabloid?” “Was it a new paper?” “What was its circulation?”) — but after a great deal of shilly-shallying about how many minutes I would be given, Dolly’s people cancelled. I decided to go anyway, and thought that if I approached Parton after her press conference to launch her new water park — Dolly’s Splash Country — she might relent. Not a bit of it. There was no hobnobbing with the locals at the reception, no pressing of flesh, or bestowing of gracious smiles. This was a glimpse of the “very professional Dolly Parton”. She came, she went, she vanished and although you can be sure I pestered her manager, Ted Miller, for at least an introduction having come so far, none was forthcoming. Dolly had a toothache, it was explained. And, besides, she was only interested in local journalists for this story.

Still my time there was not without its diversions. Her appearance was sensational, to say the least. The local press and dignitories were sealed off behind a cord waiting for Dolly to say the word so that the bulldozer could start the ground-breaking ceremony. We had watched her blonde head approach us, poking out of the top of an army tank as it made its stately progress up an interminable dirt track while Islands in the Stream crackled in and out of the loudspeaker system.

She was helped out of the vehicle by a half-a-dozen butch lifesavers, and there was an appreciative murmur as she asked coquettishly: “So howdy’all like mah wet suit?” Lady Penelope meets dominatrix scuba diver, I wrote down on my notepad. I was amazed by how filthy she was, which possibly explains why she and Graham Norton hit it off so well. (Norton went to Dollywood to film a Christmas special last year.) All the attractions, she explained, were based on places that were important to her as a child: “Like the Suck Hole but I don’t think with mah reputation we should call it that!” She screamed with laughter. She brought up a story which had appeared in the National Enquirer about her alleged dalliance with a 15-year-old boy: “It’s not true, unfortunately. I wish it was,” she said mock-wistfully. “Sounds fun!” And then she was gone.

I was impressed by Dollywood itself. Having expected to enjoy it in an ironic “Isn’t it kitsch?” way, it was far better than that, with none of the plastic unpleasantness of mainstream theme parks. In Craftsman’s Valley, blacksmiths, soap-makers, woodcarvers and coopers were hard at work. The food all smelt delicious: wholesome, authentic home-cooked ham and beans and grits. The children’s area was a splendidly inventive Professor Branestawm interactive paradise. There’s a replica of the two-room newspaper-lined log cabin Dolly and her 11 brothers and sisters grew up in, and many spangly frocks in the Rags to Riches Museum. And, naturally, you can hear every sort of music from country to gospel to Fifties rock’n’roll…although one of Dolly’s brothers, Randy, who does a sort of gospel meets Blues Brothers gig would probably not be drawing crowds where it not for his sister’s patronage.

I went on the Imagination Express, a brightly painted vehicle designed to look like a train, for a storytelling session at a local infant school down a long, winding road. This was part of Parton’s literacy programme — the Dollywood Foundation — through which every child in Sevier County, where the singer was born, receives a new book every month from birth to the age of five. I was given Madeleine in Paris to read to the children by Parton’s jolly assistants, Karen and Doreen, since my suggestion of Harry Potter had been rejected. (The book had recently been banned in a couple of southern states on the grounds that J. K. Rowling was promoting sorcery.) That evening, I went to The Dixie Belle Saloon and drank nasty sweet non-alcoholic cocktails out of a plastic drinking vessel in the shape of a boot. The county is dry, and being America there was no smoking. And although the cocktail waitresses were trussed up to look like old-fashioned whores (frilly knickers, plunging necklines), it would — of course — be a sin for gentlemen to harbour impure thoughts about them, even if those thoughts only did remain in the mind.

What is intriguing is how Parton reconciles her robust appetites with her Godliness, particularly given her severe Baptist upbringing. For a true Holy-Roller doesn’t just believe that sex is sinful — it’s also a sin to dance or drink or have any kind of fun. As her fire-and-brimstone preacher grandfather used to tell her: “A dancing foot and a praying knee don’t fit on the same leg.” And she used to think: “‘Well, why not?’ Because I believed in making a joyful noise and rejoicin’.”

Even as a child, the young Dolly was a determinedly free spirit so she simply remoulded her God into a more accommodating form: “I didn’t want to worship a God that I felt was vengeful and scary. I mean those preachers — and not just my grandpa — they would scream at you, and threaten you, and yell at you, ‘If you go out of this church unprepared and get killed on the way home, you’re gonna go straight to hell’…that used to scare me to death.”

So she would take off on her own and have her own conversations with God in an abandoned church and “try to reason with him a little bit find him in a softer way”. One morning, when she was nine years old, she had such a feeling of profound light-heartedness as the empty room flooded with sunshine that she believed herself to be “saved”. She skipped down the street telling everyone she met that she was on her way to paradise and insisted on being baptised there and then…”So I made my communication with God in my way and he’s always dealt with me according to how I can accept him in my own heart and in my own emotions and in my own mind.”

On Halos & Horns there’s a jaunty-sounding song called Shattered Image which Parton wrote and recorded in 1976 in response to one of the first tabloid stories about her love life. It uses the image from her childhood of her throwing stones into the river to shatter her watery reflection, and then fast-forwards to the present: “I’m far from perfect, but I ain’t all bad/It hurts me more than it makes me mad/You gather your stones by stooping so low/Then shatter my image with the stones you throw.”

She says she dragged the song out again because of more stories in the press about her alleged 19-year affair with an improbably named singer-songwriter called Blaise Tosti. He claims that Parton seduced him when he was 13 years old: “That’s bullshit. I know the people. We used to go to the house and feed the family because they were poor and the boy’s mother was an alcoholic. He was a kid then, I was young also and I had just gotten married and brought down my own brothers and sisters to raise them. (One of the reasons she has cited for never having had children of her own.) And he was a great singer and a great writer and I worked with him. But, you know, people turn on you and are desperate for money so they do stuff and it does hurt.”

There has always been speculation about the precise nature of Parton’s relationships with her leading men — from the man she first sang with, Porter Wagoner, through to co-stars in various movies, such as Burt Lancaster. She’s an open book on this, just as long as you don’t attempt to turn the page yourself. So she will spin an impression to me of herself as a free agent: “Even if I was having an affair with someone, you don’t like to hear people talking about it…all people are capable of anything and I’m no angel…I’ve not done all the stuff that I’ve been accused of, but I have done a lot of stuff that nobody’s found out yet…” But if she suspects that you are angling for more information, she will slap you down: “I’m not here to tell you everything about myself. You have no right to know that any more than somebody else. But I’ll tell you all I can. I’ll tell you all I will [weee-youl],” her voice goes up. “And you can guess the rest.”

My question had been, simply, whether she thought her God was an unjudgmental one, particularly as regards sex. “Well, how can sex be wrong?” she says, after subjecting me to her mild knuckle-rapping. “I have no problem with sex. I have no hang-ups about sex. I enjoy sex. And if that’s a sin, well, then somebody else will have to punish me and if God decides to…and, you know, I’m not saying that I’m right, I may be the first person he punishes, I may be burning in hell tomorrow…but if it’s wrong, as much faith as I have in God, I would just ask him to take the whole desire from me. You can make anything a sin. It’s all in how you deal with it. If you believe it’s a sin, if you feel it’s a sin, then it is a sin.”

Parton has not always felt this unmuddled and forthright. In her forties, she suffered from a serious depression for 18 months. She was 50lb heavier than her ideal weight, which ballooned over three or four years, she had mood swings, gynaecological and personal problems: “Never between me and Carl…that was always fine, thank God.” She hated herself and felt despairing enough to think about suicide. You didn’t! I say, shocked that such an indomitable force could have been so derailed. “I didn’t do anything, let me finish telling you,” Parton says, crossly.

“I’m just saying that when you get into those places, you really realise how people get on drugs and how they would commit suicide because you really don’t want to live and it’s like you’re waking up dead every day. And one night, I was thinking: ‘Do you know what? I’m just lying here wallowing in my fat, wallowing in my misery, and it’s either do something about it — git off your fat ass and git on a diet — or shut the hell up.’ And I said to God, ‘You either get my ass out of this mood, show me a way, help me, or I’m ending it. Even if committing suicide is a sin, I’ll just burn in hell.'”

Fortunately for us, God came up trumps, Dolly went on a diet, sorted out her hormones, and went though a whole emotional, spiritual and professional rejuvenation. When I point out how unexpected is this glimpse of a darker Dolly, even though a fair number of her songs — and she has, incredibly, written more than 3,000 — deal with heartbreak and despair, she says: “I am cheerful and optimistic but people also forget that people like me are not mannequins, we’re not plastic dolls; even if we’ve got plastic parts, the heart ain’t plastic, the mind ain’t plastic. People think that just because you’re a star and because you’ve got a big smile that you never suffer, you never hurt. But people like me are the ones that hurt most because we’re the ones that leave ourselves wide open in order to be able to write. To be sensitive enough to pick up on everybody’s sorrow as well as your own, you have to leave yourself wide open. And I don’t know how to do anything just a little. Same with food. If I want to eat, I want to eat the whole thing. If I’m gonna love you, I’m gonna love you to death. If my heart gets broken it’s gonna shatter. And you know, it’s just the whole thing. That’s the kind of person I am.”

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