A Weekend to Remember

Thursday 8 November 2018: early afternoon

I huddle in the doorway of 31 Beaumont Street, Oxford, hoping my hat won’t blow away, and waiting for the wonderful Eloise to bring sandwiches and cakes for a gaggle of hungry publishers. I am bribing my way into seeing the great bubbly David Fickling to discuss old times and autobiographies.

He opens the door and stands there, silver-haired, bow-tied, grinning.

“Valerie!” He’s the same as ever, only forty years older and probably a great deal wiser. “You look terrific!”

I should do. It has taken me four hours and lashings of mascara.

“Come in … The sandwiches can ring the bell.”

We talk about the bad old good old days; about his hilarious flourishing comic, The Phoenix, and his forthcoming Corpse Talk. He throws my poems out of the window. I tell him they are meant to be fun, not Woodstock’s answer to T. S. Eliot. He tells me to bring some warmth, alongside the anger, into my project. Silently, I decide to reshape it, give it a new name and unlock the real sweetness of my adorable little heart, hidden for a thousand years from my millions of fans.

“I am not the publisher for autobiographies,” he tells me, as if I didn’t know.

“If you can pull it off, Jamie Byng at Canongate’s your man … Now, I need to make an essential phone call … May I keep a copy of Larkswood?”

I leave him behind the enormous doors of his magical room, rapidly polishing off sixty-five sandwiches and a Victoria sponge cake before anyone else can get at them. I know exactly what to send him for Christmas.

 

Friday 9 November 2018: noon

I am huddling in another doorway. This time it is one to which I belong even though I was never its formal student. Somerville College always feels like home. When I began writing The Choice I was allowed to wander around its corridors as part of my research. Several hatching years later, its current Librarian and Archivist, Dr Anne Manuel, was even more helpful, sending me photographs of the college in the late 1930s and the brilliant name of one of the porters. Scroggs became a much-loved character in my novel.

This morning, Anne is up to her eyes and beyond. I manage to catch her as she hurtles between meetings, vast paper files tumbling out of the filing cabinet into her arms. Anyone who thinks that a college librarian’s job is to sit cataloguing manuscripts in between drinking cups of coffee had better think again.

Anne, alongside Somerville’s distinguished new Principal, Baroness Janet Royall of Blaisdon, runs the engine room of her small kingdom, switching between hiring new staff, looking after new collections of books, arranging launch parties, to organising one of the most important days in the college’s history. The Centenary of the Armistice will be celebrated on Sunday.

Anne’s desk is piled with beautifully written, illustrated and produced programmes for the event. I am thrilled to be invited. Suddenly, a wet and windy day in Oxford transmutes into something particularly special.

After a quick lunch – fish delicately fried in a light batter, crisp apple crumble with a dash of custard – I am introduced to the new Principal.

“Valerie and her photographer, Chris Challis,” Anne explains, “have their lovely montage hanging on our wall. They took the photos in June 2015 while she was writing The Choice.”

“We were extremely lucky,” I tell the Baroness, who is slim, trim and hardly a day over thirty-five. “The sun came out for three hours and the college gardens looked absolutely beautiful.”

She has no idea what I am talking about.

Reluctantly I tell her I am Sam Mendes’ mother.

The Principal jumps to attention. I wish people would do that when I tell them who I am. I reckon it’s going to take me another twenty years, by which time I shall be one hundred years old and will be proudly waving my congratulatory telegram from the King. Whoever he may be.

 

Friday 9 November 2018: mid-afternoon

The post brings a late thank-you card from two Hampshire friends who came to my birthday party tea on a gloriously sunny Sunday afternoon in October.

Although I hate going to parties I love giving my own. They reveal so much about my guests. My friends fall into four categories: those who immediately decline; those who reply to my invitation and come; those who are not sure whether they will be free, decide in the interim they have better things to do and don’t arrive; and those who can’t be bothered to answer at all. The last lot are my bête noire. I compile a list of hateful names which I hide in a place so secret I never remember where it is.

The party I gave to celebrate the publication of my first teenage novel, Girl in the Attic, was held at a restaurant called Gee’s in Oxford. The owner allowed me to redesign its interior for the Sunday-lunch event on 21 July 2002. He liked it so much he never returned Gee’s to its old look. I assume the ugly drooping palm trees made excellent firewood.

At the lunch, my literary agent, who took me on because I had already sold the project to Simon & Schuster, got drunk as a skunk. At four o’clock, she stumbled out of the restaurant accusing me of stealing her jacket. I sacked her the following morning and thus gained a reputation for being difficult. The jacket was found by Gee’s on Monday 22 July. It had been hanging under someone else’s coat. Without the party it would have taken me a little longer to discover my agent’s true colours.

 

Friday 9 November 2018: evening

I fall asleep after an early supper, waking with a start, cross and exhausted. I long to go straight to bed. Out of a sense of duty and to keep a promise, I haul myself into a wet and windy night to listen to the poet Wendy Cope who is giving a reading at St Mary Magdalene’s in Woodstock.

I am infinitely glad I did.

The Seventh Poetry Festival is organised by The Woodstock Bookshop’s efficient owner, Rachel Phipps, and her vital helpers Merle and Janie. The newly refurbished church, with its miraculously comfortable chairs, is packed to the rafters with dedicated poetry lovers. I rejoice to see so large an audience without a drop of alcohol to fuel their enthusiasm.

As the autumn rain thunders onto the roof, and the audience laugh and clap, Wendy reads her work with deliberation and care. The poems – short, pithy, witty and wise, mostly selected from her recent collection Anecdotal Evidence – can be heard at the front, middle and back, loud and clear.

A rare event indeed.

 

Saturday 10 November 2018: evening

I take two friends to see Magdalen College School’s new play, written specially for them.

Reflections: Remembering The Great War is ambitious and full of sparkling youthful energy and movement. Its five pupil script-writers have not only done some immaculate research, but manage to combine the laughter and the tears, the songs and the dialogue, the squalor and the sanity, the pain and the healing into a truly memorable evening.

Student theatre at its best in the best of all Oxford schools. We go home with tears in our eyes, singing Keep the Home Fires Burning.

I turn on the television to watch firefighters trying to stem a blazing California. We are still at war, but today in many different ways.

 

Sunday 11 November 2018: morning

While the bells toll at St Mary Magdalene’s and the wreaths are laid, I write an episode for my autobiography called Danger’s Claw. I manage to upset myself so much I have to stop to have a long bath and feed the cat. Memories of nine eleven, which Sam escaped by the skin of his teeth and I watched paralysed with terror on television, are so vivid it’s as if the tragedy happened only yesterday.

Then I remember the much earlier time we took a boat out on the lake in Regent’s Park. Sam took it into his head as we rowed to grab the underside of a bridge and hang from it. I looked back when I heard him shouting for help, his little legs fighting the air, his face flushed with effort.

We turned the boat round pretty fast, I can tell you. He collapsed in a heap, saying the view had been wonderful. To my uncertain knowledge he has not been hanging from any bridges lately. These days, he hires a stunts man to do it for him.

 

Sunday 11 November 2018: afternoon

As the sun totters into the Oxford sky and the wind eases to let us walk in peace, the great gathering at Somerville College begins.

In 1915 Somerville became a military hospital, its elegant rooms transformed into sanctuaries for the men who had survived to tell their tales of mud, hatred, madness and the death of all their friends. Treated, sewn together and patched up at next door’s Radcliffe Infirmary, they spent their convalescence being fed and watered by the nurses who took the place of Somerville’s staff and students.

Until they were told the war was over and life could begin again.

So here we all are, now, remembering, imagining, listening. Chatting over cups of sweet tea.

And, best of all, hearing the mellifluous voice of one of the great women politicians of our time – and Vera Brittain’s daughter. Shirley Williams, now Baroness Williams of Crosby, remembers her days at Somerville during the Great War and unveils a plaque to make the day immortal.

We have remembered them.