How We Met: Ian McAlley and Shirley Conran

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Shirley Conran, 60, married three times and currently divorced, has two sons, Jasper and Sebastian, by her first husband, Terence Conran. In the Eighties, she broke into bodice-ripping block-busters, starting with Lace, followed by Lace 2, Savages and, this month, Crimson. She lives in Monte Carlo and has a chateau near Bordeaux. She met Ian McAlley in 1976. McAlley, 64, became a textile chemist after leaving Manchester University. He is now chairman of the Deleray transport group. He was divorced in 1976 and has four grown-up children. He lives in central London.

SHIRLEY CONRAN: In 1976 my secretary sent me to Shrublands, a health farm, for a rest. I think Ian was in import/export then. In Monte Carlo that means gun-running. For all I know he might be a gun-runner.

At Shrublands Ian was immediately surrounded by women. I tended to lie exhausted on my bed and beat off people who rang up, saying, 'How did you find out I was here?' Everyone flitted around in negliges and the men wore rather manly terry-towelling robes and this led to a curiously frivolous atmosphere. When we met, Ian was sitting looking bewildered, with women batting their eyelashes all round him. He cast me a piteous look as if to say, 'Help] How do I get out of here?' I don't remember who spoke first.

We used to go on long walks together and occasionally we'd cross paths while we were being hosed down or beaten with pipes or whatever they did to us, or swimming in an odd outdoor swimming-pool that looked as if it had an elephant's contraceptive stretched over the top of it, a most unappetising sight.

We've been friends ever since. I always see Ian when I'm in London and I sometimes stay with him. He has an extremely good palate and serves delicious food. He cooks very well. He lives in a grander house than I've ever lived in, with pillars and a porch . . . so maybe he is a gun-runner. When I'm in France, where I live, we talk a lot on the phone, but we don't write to each other unless I write to say, 'Would you like to borrow the chateau and take a girlfriend?' or something.

He's a very strong, reliable, generous person. In particular he's good when you're a bit down on your luck. He listens and gives advice. But we have never talked about my novels and Ian has never featured in any of them. I've no idea if he reads them.

We have a lot in common but his idea of fun doesn't always coincide with mine and we quite often have rows. He never loses his temper but he is one of the few people in the world who can make me lose mine - I quite enjoy it. His idea of fun is to ask you to dinner and you find you're going to the station hotel in Edinburgh on a train. I backed out of that one. He will look amazed and say, 'But the food is wonderful.'

As to whether our relationship has ever been romantic or sexual . . . I think I never talk about that sort of thing. We have held hands. If we'd done more than that, I certainly shouldn't dream of talking to a stranger about it. I'm very fond of him.

I haven't really had any adventures with him yet, but maybe I'll ask him on my camel trek. I'm hoping to go on one in Jaipur as soon as I get the time. And I think we're due to sail across the Atlantic in his boat - I expect there'll be more people than him and me. I shall be hanging off the end of a rope.

I have a small group of close friends - about half of them are men. I have 12 close men friends and 12 close women friends. Ian is definitely one of the 12 men. He has a very fast mind, much faster than mine and I love being with him. I wouldn't talk to my women friends about what the yen is doing and what will happen to the krone because they simply wouldn't be interested. I wouldn't talk to them about what Clinton is doing right or wrong, but I would with Ian. I'd go to Ian if I was in trouble. He's like a rock. I trust him in every way - he's good for a cuddle, he's a cuddly sort of chap. No, he's not a sort of a father - I was scared of my father. I think he's more a brother, the brother I would choose to have.

IAN McALLEY: I hope Shirley's told the same story] We met at a fat farm in 1975 - I ought to call it a health farm. I was there for a rest and was pampered all day by men and women pummelling and bashing me. There were 10 men to 90 women - I suppose I was in clover but I didn't go with that in mind. It was a pleasant surprise a little later on, but at first it was daunting, all these women in diaphanous night-dresses, or rather day coats, and they never got dressed all day. I didn't wear diaphanous garments, just a sweater and slacks. After a few face masks and some pummelling they literally softened up and it was quite different. Shirley was in a lilac-pink bleached-looking garment, which was fairly diaphanous and she was draped on a sofa having fed royally on a teaspoon of honey and a carrot and the whole evening was still to go.

I thought she looked quite ill to begin with - she probably was, she was starving. The other women were on chairs at the back of the room. She had the main position in front of the fireplace. There weren't any chairs except near her, so I sat down. There was a lot of time to kill. We started with the usual gambit - 'Read any good books lately?' - and the conversation started. We felt beleaguered so we talked to each other throughout the rest of the stay. She was a cracker and looked magnificent arrayed on the sofa, one couldn't fail to notice this, although I mustn't diminish the competition. There were some pretty nice women. But Shirley and I were kindred spirits.

I don't think I'm going to say whether I fancied her or not. I thought she was very attractive, but it wasn't really the situation - the rules were terribly strict. It was boarding-school-plus. One would have been worried about matron, so to speak, and they all felt rotten anyway, they were all starving.

Occasionally we drove out to little churches and looked longingly at tea shops, we talked a lot about mutual friends and marriage problems and then I drove her home at the end of it. Then we said we must keep in touch and there was an exchange of cards. I can't remember if she invited me to dinner or I invited her but we've been friends ever since.

I've talked to her about her business and her plans, the problems she has had occasionally, and she's been very helpful to me; I've had hiccups and problems too. She has a suitably distanced common sense, a better sense of perspective sometimes now that she's down in Monte Carlo.

I suppose people would ask if we'd ever been lovers. I don't think so. I hope we gave the same answer. I mean certainly the right thing to say is 'No.' I don't think we have ever been lovers; we weren't allowed to, and since then we've all got old and well-behaved. Time passes and one matures, gets more circumspect about one's actions. I suppose at times I have felt lecherous but then all men do towards all women, pretty well, so it isn't a thing you could pin particularly on us. But you couldn't say there was a budding affair. It's a pure and platonic relationship. We haven't been rolling around in bed together for years and years.

Oh yes, we discuss her books. You see my name at the front of some of them, acknowledging that she'd talked to me about things. But Crimson would not have been a book I'd have bought or read, had I not had a special interest. Lace was quite good. I thought it was quite fun. I didn't think it was filthy. What is filthy in sex, for God's sake? Nothing. But her books are not my kind of books.

When she's here we see a lot of each other, but I rarely go down to Monte Carlo. When we are together we eat, usually. I hate the theatre, loathe it. I find it squalid, the awful intervals and all that knocking each other's coffee over. I've been to various of her houses but not the chateau. I've been to the couple of flats she lives in in Monte Carlo. She lives on the edge of the beach, but we don't go to the beach. We don't gamble. We go out to dinner and talk for hours and drink. She's very good company. She's multi-topical. She is very well-informed, she writes everything down in thick notebooks with tiny writing.

She's very generous and assiduous and remembers things and always does what she says - she's thoughtful and loyal. We talk on the phone, and sometimes at length. I try to make sure it's her phone bill. I love her as a friend. She's someone one always likes to see again and again and again, and that will never run out.-

(Photograph omitted)