First loves

It's 14 February - and to celebrate Valentine's Day, we asked 14 leading writers to recall their earliest romantic encounters
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Alain de Botton: Novelist & commentator

Alain de Botton: Novelist & commentator

I was 12, and staying in a hotel in France by the seaside. There I fell in love with an angelic creature who was staying at the same hotel; I never found out her name. The interesting thing is, I had no idea it was love that I was feeling. I didn't know what was wrong with me. I thought I might be ill: I felt sad and moody, I didn't want to play with my sister, I didn't want to go swimming, I couldn't explain to my parents why I didn't want to leave the hotel. I didn't connect this girl with my emotions.

Michel Foucault said something like, "There are some people who would never have fallen in love if they didn't know what such a thing felt like", and that certainly applied to me. It was a real experience of mystery, as my feelings were completely unrequited and I was both unaware and unable to capitalise on them. All I could do was skulk round corners and stalk her as she sat in the hotel library.

There is a line to be drawn between that girl and my wife, a kind of continuity. Maybe it's something commanded by biology, or maybe it's simply that I'm desperately unoriginal, but I've always gone for similar types: rather bookish, a little sad, and desperately beautiful when they take their glasses off. She became an ideal figure that, ever after, I was looking for.

'Status Anxiety' by Alain de Botton (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99) is published on 4 March

Stella Duffy: Novelist

I was 15, and Michele was 16 - and you know how that really matters at school. It began with us looking at each across a crowded lunch-room. For about three weeks we would just stare at each other, several tables apart. They say when you stare at somebody, you fall in love without realising that's what you're doing.

Michele was the first person I knew who talked about teachers like they were people. If we had a teacher who was in a bad mood, Michele would say: "They've probably been having a hard time at home." She had a really adult attitude, and I didn't know anyone else my age like that. She was good-looking, but it wasn't that that attracted me to her: it was her brain, her response to the world.

We'd stay up really late together at our Catholic boarding school, talking until 3am, which you absolutly weren't supposed to do. My friends and I used to drink and smoke dope, but she didn't - not because she was "good", but because she thought it was uncool. Basically, I wanted to be like her: I was gawky, a loud mouth, whereas she was quite reserved and only spoke when she had something to say. When she went to the sixth-form ball she put her hair in a French pleat - she knew things like that, things I didn't.

When she left school to travel round the world with her parents, I was heartbroken: I sobbed for ages. But I didn't know I was gay, I didn't know what I was feeling. In retrospect, it's clear I was in love with her, but I didn't have any context. I didn't realise you could be in love with another girl.

Years later, when I was about 23 and she was already married, we had drinks, and I told her how I finally recognised that what I'd felt for her was real love. She said, quite simply: "Yes, I know."

'State of Happiness' by Stella Duffy (Virago, £12.99) is out now

Thomas Keneally: Booker-prize winning novelist

My first love was a girl from the western suburbs of Sydney. She was head prefect of the local convent school, and we nearly went all the way at the Christian Brothers' Dance. "All the way" for us was holding hands. We nearly did it, but, thank God, we gave ourselves a shake, re-examined our priorities, and didn't quite cross the line. Anyhow, not long afterwards, she was called to the deathbed of an old Irish nun, who asked my beloved to become a nun herself and take on the same name: Benignus. This old Irish nun was anything but benign. I knew her when I was a little child, and she was a terroriser of small boys. None the less, she asked this good-looking girl to become a nun, and the good-looking girl did: she became a Dominican, in Tasmania. Through those means I learnt early that convents exist only in case I proposition someone: one word from me, and women flock to them.

'The Tyrant's Novel' by Thomas Keneally is published on Monday (Sceptre, £16.99)

Joan Bakewell: Author & broadcaster

When I was about five, I used to walk to Norbury Church School with another child. It was next to a church, so we would go into the churchyard, down a little muddy path, over a stile, and then through a shrubbery past the school playground walls. On the other side was the playground - it was divided into boys' and girls' areas, so we didn't have much to do with each other - and in this playground was a boy called David. David had wiry blond hair, short trousers, wrinkled socks, and a lot of dash and style. Even at five, I got that "across a crowded playground" feel: I thought he was the bee's knees and, though I didn't tell anyone, I was mesmerised. One day I dared myself to do a sensationally naughty thing: I ran up to him, seized him by the shoulder, kissed him on the cheek, and ran away.

I suppose the opposite sex up until then had been something of a mystery. I didn't have any brothers and I lacked f confidence around boys - though, God knows my story indicates I didn't lack it. I'm rather shocked at myself. But seeing David, I had my first experience of attraction between individuals, a very pure feeling, uncluttered with neurosis or expectation. I simply realised, "Yes, that's what boys are. And isn't he a nice example." I never looked back.

Benjamin Zephaniah: Poet & performer

I could have said my first love was the girl in primary school who I gave six birthday cards to, before her sergeant-major-style Dad frightened me off. Or the girl I first had sex with, up an alley, standing up - though we never had much to do with each other afterwards (perhaps I had been a disappointment). Or the woman - a prison warder in social worker's clothing - with whom I had an affair when I was at approved school. But really my first love was words.

I realised I loved words when I started to play with them. That would mean sitting in the corner and working out "What does this say? Does it start with a rhyme? Does it end with a rhyme?" I used to play with alliteration, though I didn't know until years later that that was what it was called. I only realised this was slightly odd when I saw that no other boys were doing it. They were playing with Action Man instead. They'd say, "Bang! Bang! You're dead!" I'd say, "D'you wanna hear a poem?"

My affliction helped with other kinds of love, though. In the playground, when all the other boys were playing football, I'd have all the girls around me thinking I was great because I'd make up rhymes about their names. "Jackie, she comes from up the alley and she loves Mr Wally..." I lyric'd them. I'd lyric one girl, then a few days later another, then a few days later another. I lyric'd them so nice they all thought I was their boyfriend. Eventually they all ganged up on me, nine of them, and said: "You've got to pick one of us." I couldn't; I told them I liked them all. Anyway, the words were more important - at least back then.

Benjamin Zephaniah's 'Gangsta Rap' (Bloomsbury, £5.99) is out in September

John Hegley: Poet & comic

It was 1962. This is her song:

"I was a London boy, living in Luton Town,
I was 10 years old and could frown the whole day through,
I had the hots for you, to use an inadequate phrase,
But I kept it undisclosed.
Was it just that girls weren't cool? Or was it fear of rejection?
Was it self-protection? Or was it my predilection
For being a fool around school?
Jane, Jane, Jane, I called you every name
Except the one I wanted to: I never called you Jane.
I was the second-best fighter in the class,
Wanted to be number one, reckoned to be the second-best,
But I had the thirty-second most fun.
Kicking you instead of kissing you, missing out on your smile
Always being vile,
Instead of singing a song for you, the way I wanted to.
Jane, Jane, Jane, I wouldn't explain
The way I loved the way you were,
The way you surprised me when you took that bully teacher's bamboo cane
Across your hand without a whimper.
Kicking instead of kissing, missing out by a mile,
Bringing up the bile
Instead of singing a song for you, the way I wanted to.
Jane, Jane, Jane, I'll see you again
And I will explain,
I'll call your name,
I'll say your name,
I won't call you smelly pants,
I won't call you smelly poo,
Unless you want me to."

Now I don't want to give the game away, but 40 years later, Jane read some of my poems and got in touch. Want to know what happened next? You'll have to listen to Radio 4: I'm making a programme about it ...

John Hegley's latest collection of poetry is 'The Sound of Paint Drying' (Methuen, £10.99)

Mavis Cheek: Novelist

I first saw him at the youth parliament they used to have in Wimbledon. He was a member of the Young Communist League and he gave an impassioned speech on all sorts of things including dialectical materialism, which I gathered was very important for getting rid of the running dogs of capitalism. I was 15 and just thought he was wonderful. He had re-christened himself "Yan", but his real name was Ian Barnes. He was about 21 and seemed so sophisticated in his knowledge of the world. And the fact that he was a window cleaner was nice and radical. He wasn't handsome, but he had a really nice face. And he was missing a tooth, which gave him a rather roguish smile. It was the first time anyone had turned my heart over. I had all these strange fantasies. Nothing to do with manning the barricades I have to say, more to do with settling down and having radical babies.

He came over afterwards and apparently asked my friend who I was. We had a talk together and I was on cloud nine. I went to a couple of Young Communist League meetings after that and he was wonderfully radical. He actually came from Cobham, I think. Eventually, about two or three weeks after we had met, he made a date with me and said he would come to my house at 8 o'clock. I don't think I knew where we were supposed to be going. Merely the fact that he wanted to see me and come to the house was enough, really. I probably thought we were going to walk off into the sunset. There was nothing between us at this point at all except that I thought he was heavenly.

Came the day, came the evening, I waited and I waited and he never came. And I sat up in my grandmother's front bedroom staring out of the window for about four hours, wearing a calico-coloured long-sleeved smock dress f with a ruffled lace yoke. It had probably taken me from seven in the morning to get ready. Every movement in the street I thought was going to be him. He didn't come and he didn't come and he didn't come. I was absolutely devastated. It was my first experience of having my heart bruised.

The next thing that happened was that he wrote me a very sweet letter and said that he couldn't have come, but that he was now going off to Scotland to work and he sent me a dozen red roses. We then had a long and wonderful relationship by letter and telephone. He did extraordinary things like send me one of those completely awful "For My Sweetheart" padded cards with a heart on it. I called my kitten after the niece he was living with at that time. I had all the benefits of having a boyfriend, which you desperately wanted to have, but none of the problems of having to deal with sex and bad breath. We were probably writing to each other for about nine months, until I met Chris Cheek, my husband to be. Then I lost interest.

I never saw him again. He's probably some semi-retired banker now. But he did steal my heart and I was so grateful to him for that because it's what every girl wants at the age of 15, really. I still have a tender spot for him. I've still got his letters in a box down in the basement.

'Patrick Parker's Progress' by Mavis Cheek is out now (Faber & Faber, £12.99)

Trezza Azzopardi: Novelist

I must have been about six or seven when I first met Scott Tracy. Unfortunately I was in my winceyette pyjamas at the time, whereas he was looking very smart. Our television was black and white, so I couldn't tell what colour uniform he was wearing, but I suspected it may have been red.

Scott's appeal lay almost entirely in his dark eyes. Most of the other Thunderbirds boys were, as you will know, very fair; only Scott and Virgil were dark, and to be honest Scott was far more masculine. Plus he was the oldest, and I liked that maturity. For a time I was tempted by Stingray's Troy Tempest, who was equally as dark; but Aqua Marina, with her silence and her lovely blonde hair, was too much of a threat for it to go any further.

My participation in the affair extended only as far as watching and admiring - there was no marketing back in those days, so I couldn't buy the duvet cover or the pencil case. And, like all first loves, we lost touch over the years.

I do see him occasionally, still - though he seems more self-contained than I remember, and what I took at the time for swarthiness now seems to be more of a yukky perma-tan. But I think he did influence my taste in the long term. My current partner has the look of Scott Tracy, especially when he's driving. He doesn't have any strings, though.

'Remember Me' by Trezza Azzopardi (Picador, £16.99) is published on Thursday

AC Grayling: Philosopher & writer

In 1956, when I was seven, the world suffered a major epidemic of Asian flu. As a result, the English prep school where I was a boarder was closed and all of the children sent home. Except me: my parents were in the USA, and there was no one else to look after me.

I caught the flu pretty badly, and had to stay in the school sanatorium for about three weeks, completely alone, save for the matron, a caretaker or two, and a nurse who was drafted in to take care of me. She was an attractive young woman of about 19 or 20, and would visit me every day - though because to me she was always "Nurse", I never knew her name. Despite this, I fell madly in love with her: her cool hands and sweet voice; her smile and the delicate smell when she kissed me goodnight.

After a couple of weeks of her TLC I could contain myself no longer, and asked her to marry me. She sat on the end of the bed, and said, very kindly, that it was extremely nice of me to ask, but as I was a little young for marriage we would have to wait until I had grown up before we could discuss it further. She was so nice about it that it almost felt as if she had accepted.

I think it was that nurse's response, as much as anything, that has led to me always having happy relationships with women. If she had laughed or sniggered at me it would have been a blow. Instead she made me feel that women were people you could talk to and trust, and that positive attitude has never left me.

'The Mystery of Things' by AC Grayling (Weidenfeld, £12.99) is out now

Al Alvarez: Author & biographer

I was always falling in love. I came from a very romantic family, with a father who was continually in love with someone, though that someone wasn't often my mother. However, my first real coup de foudre occurred when I was a graduate student, 50 years ago. I was about 22 and had come back to Oxford to teach at summer school, alongside Kingsley Amis, John Wain and Raymond Williams. There were all sorts of romances going on, but almost without exception we were all in love with the same girl: Susy. Though she looked about 16 (barmen would refuse to serve her), Susy was in her twenties, had two children, and was married to a much older man - the organiser, in fact, of the summer school I taught at.

It was love at first sight. I saw her across the room and immediately wanted to go up to her and say: "You don't know me, I don't know you, but I've been in love with you all my life." Like everyone else I hung around her, but nobody could get near her. She had a kind of lovely, cool distance about her, which was very enticing, and she was very clever, very grown up.

This was the 1950s, when everyone, including Susy and myself, was totally enslaved by D H Lawrence. Because Susy was German, with an older husband, I think she saw herself as Frieda, Lawrence's wife, and rather wanted a romantic fling. I fitted the part, for a bit, and eventually we had a doomed affair. I'd never been so besotted, so miserable, or so flattered - but, like the best romances, it was totally unreal.

It ended in Germany. She was always getting ill, so told her husband she needed to go back home to visit a clinic. I, being obsessed, followed her there. Once she had me on her own she realised, as any sane woman would, that all this adoration was totally boring, left me flat and went back to her husband.

I made an unsuccessful marriage shortly afterwards; then, at 35, I met my second wife. And that was when I found my first real love.

'The Biggest Game in Town' by Al Alvarez is published by Bloomsbury, £7.99

Justine Picardie: Journalist & novelist

I'm usually bad at remembering names, but Billy Denton is one name I will never forget. We were in the same class at junior school in Oxford: he had red hair and freckles, and his dad ran a bicycle shop. I don't know what it was about him that made me fall in love so passionately, but I did. Of course, being nine or 10, we hardly exchanged a word and certainly never went on a date. I'm not sure if my feelings were completely reciprocated, but somehow, in that playground way, I knew he "liked me".

Almost simultaneously - which is why they're linked in my memory - I was deeply in love with Elton John. I don't know how I came across him, as my parents had impeccably cool musical taste: I had grown up listening to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Probably because of this, I decided that I, on the other hand, liked Elton, so I went out and bought Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. The music and the words seemed to me so beautiful; they inspired the same love that I felt for Billy Denton, only more so. I thought that if I could just meet him, he would like me very much and maybe we would get married when I was a bit older. Alas, that was not to be.

Many, many years later, I was invited to Elton's birthday party by a mutual friend. I found I was suddenly overcome again by my feelings: Elton was, after all, the first man I ever loved, while Billy Denton was only a boy. I made a total fool of myself by telling Elton just that. I have to say that, though understandably rather taken aback, he was also charming about it. He said he was "very touched". Sadly, unlike those early childhood dreams, he didn't ask me to marry him.

'Wish I May' by Justine Picardie (Picador, £15.99) is out now

Kevin Crossley-Holland: Novelist & children's author

When I was 13 and a boarder at Bryanston school, I first experienced true love: that swirl of joy and pain that is, for me, perfectly expressed by the Adagio movement of Janacek's First Quartet. Her name was Tessa Ashton, and she went to a different school from me, so I spent just about every penny of pocket money I had phoning her, talking and talking until I was cut off.

We wrote letters to each other continually, in a way that just won't obtain now. When I left school I hitchhiked across Holland and Finland, stopping at strategic spots to rush to the post office to see if there was a letter from Tess to further me on the next stage of my journey. In a book I've recently written, called King of the Middle March, Arthur, the central character, writes to his betrothed on the eve of battle. In his letter, he says that love sickness and battle fear are the same. That exactly sums up my huge romantic yearnings.

Our relationship lasted for five years. I can't say there weren't punctuation points in our long journey, but it ended with a mutual drifting away, a f recognition we had overstayed our course. Therefore it wasn't in the end impossibly painful: I went to Oxford, she went to art school, and we both found new friends and opportunities.

Though we are no longer in contact, I hear about her from time to time. Most curiously, she married the lord of the manor of the Suffolk village where I lived for 10 years, so she remained present in my life - and still does. These things are never lost, they are just available to us at a deeper layer. Though we grow away from childhood, artists of all disciplines can quarry the energies associated with those moments of intense awareness. So I'm aware that I've drawn on my relationship with Tess in the writing of Arthur's affair. But then the first book I wrote, when I was six, was called I Love the Waitress, and love has been part of my thinking from that moment to this.

'King of the Middle March' (Orion, £12.99) by Kevin Crossley-Holland is out now

Craig Brown: Author & satirist

Crossroads brought my family together. We didn't have any other interests in common, but at 5.25pm the cry would go out: "Crossroads! Crossroads!" and from around the house everyone would come running. I was about 10 when I started watching, and from then until I finished university, Noele Gordon - aka Meg Richardson, later Meg Mortimer - was a central part of my existence.

She was just such a coper. I picture her now, with her cropped red hair, standing behind the reception desk in that foyer with the word "Welcome!" on the wall in four different languages. "Crossroads Motel, can I help you?" she said, over and over again. The motel would often catch fire, but she coped. Her staff - Jim Baines, Vera Downend, Wee Shughie - were very, very difficult, but she coped. Her stepson Chris not only went away to Switzerland and came back played by a different actor - which must have been a shock - but joined a gang of international terrorists in kidnapping his own father. Still she coped. In fact, she positively glided through each crisis, wearing one of her three expressions: concerned, relieved, or faraway (the one with a slight smile).

I knew more about Meg/Noele than I did about my own family. I watched her get married - I still have the video of that episode, which is, in its entirety, simply a marriage service. Nothing dramatic happens, but you do get to see the congregation singing all the hymns. (Larry Grayson, who was Noele's great friend, makes an appearance as her chauffeur, though I was never quite sure what he was meant to be doing there. Was he being funny? Was he simply being a chauffeur?) And I was always fascinated by Noele's real-life mother, whom she lived with. She was called Jockey.

I remember being terribly distressed when a friend of mine once said: "That woman's face is like anyone else's bottom"; I didn't think she was ugly. And I was most upset when the Daily Star ran a competition asking readers how they would like to get rid of Noele - the winning entry was "beat her to death with a frying pan". Despite these strong emotions, ours was a platonic affair, based on respect rather than passion. For that reason, it didn't affect my taste in women later in life. I've never been out with someone that sensible - or, indeed, anyone who ran a motel.

'This is Craig Brown' (Ebury, £7.99) is published in paperback in May

Hari Kunzru: Novelist

I experienced my first all-consuming crush when I was 11 and arrived at secondary school. Previously I had been in a single-sex prep school, which was like a little slice of the 1930s - all tuck shops and the cane - and hadn't paid much attention to girls. Suddenly I was at a mixed school, where 50 per cent of my class was girls, all of which I found quite overwhelming. I had to get advice on how to handle them from another 11-year-old, who had been at a mixed school previously; I remember him telling me that he had "had an affair", which made him seem very experienced.

Before long I started staring across the classroom at a little Chinese girl, who had amazing skin. She's probably married now, so I'll call her Lisa Chow. I thought she was fantastic, but I didn't know what to do about it; I had no sense of what to do with my feelings. I think we'd got to the stage of smiling shyly each other - we may even have made it as far as holding hands - when I made the terrible mistake of confiding in my little mate. Instantly, the news was all round the class. My friends rather helpfully made up a little rhyme: "Lisa Chow, you silly cow, have it off with Hari now." She was utterly mortified and during our next seven years at school together we never paid each other any more attention. That's Essex for you.

'Transmission' by Hari Kunzru (Hamish Hamilton, £12.99) is out on 6 May