How we met: Jonathan Co; & Shirley Eaton

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The Independent Culture
Jonathan Coe was born in Bromsgrove, near Birmingham, in 1961. He published his first novel in 1987 and has since written four more, including `The Dwarves of Death', which is being made into a film, and `What A Carve Up!', which was inspired by the film starring Shirley Eaton. He lives in south-west London with his wife, Janine, and their two-year-old daughter, Matilda

Shirley Eaton was born in Edgware, Middlesex, in 1937. Her acting career began at the age of 12. She made 29 films, including `What A Carve Up' and `Goldfinger'. In 1957 she married Colin Lenton- Rowe, and, aged 32, stopped acting to bring up her two sons. She lived in France for several years until the death of her husband. In 1995 she returned to London

JONATHAN COE: I first became aware of Shirley in the Seventies when they used to show black-and-white British comedy films on television in the holidays. They all starred this gorgeous comedienne, Shirley Eaton. One of them was What A Carve Up, and there's a scene in that between Shirley and Kenneth Connor which just crystallised my hero's sexual hopelessness. So Shirley became my novel's shorthand for female desirability, and I used the title of the film for the book. Penguin produced this wonderful image of Shirley for the cover and sent it to her along with the book, and she loved it.

Soon after the book came out a newspaper asked me to interview her. I'd been warned that her husband had just died and within five seconds of clapping eyes on her I thought, there's no way I'm going to do an interview with this person. She was glazed with grief. I thought she was intensely nervous about meeting me, but with hindsight I think she was just nervous about the prospect of meeting any stranger at that time.

We had a very nice lunch and then, after we'd talked on tape for about 10 minutes, I said, this isn't a good idea, and turned the tape recorder off, and we talked for the rest of the afternoon. It was quite heavy, but there was obviously a connection made, because when I got home I wrote to her. She wrote back saying she was very pleased that we'd met, and we both felt that there could be the beginnings of a friendship.

She was still living in France at that point. Then in 1995 she moved back to north London. We'd been speaking on the phone and writing to each other and we got to the stage where we thought it would be nice to meet again. So we had tea at the Ritz, which just seemed right for her. The friendship grew from there and we started seeing each other more regularly.

One of the things I like most about Shirley is her combination of domesticity and glamour. She doesn't hide her feelings at all - she's incapable of doing so. She gave up a thriving film career to bring up two children and she's very good to talk to about family and home life. She knits and crochets for Matilda, which is wonderful. At the same time she's unashamedly glamorous, and there's not much glamour in a writer's life.

Shirley's got lots of irons in the fire at the moment - she's started to write, and she's a very good sculptress - which is wonderful, having seen her so desolate when I first met her. Now she's making records, she's writing, and she's going round movie conventions again.

We talk a lot and I plumb her for anecdotes about British movies of the Fifties and Sixties. She tells me stories about people like Kenneth Connor and Peter Sellers, whom she knew very well. She's very good fun.

Someone should find a really meaty motherly role for her. A sort of glamourpuss mum. If they ever make a television series of What A Carve Up! we're committed to giving Shirley the role of Michael's mother, which would add an amazing layer of Oedipal complexity to the whole scenario!

SHIRLEY EATON: I'd never heard of Jonathan until his publishers sent me the manuscript of What A Carve Up! I knew immediately I was reading something by a very talented person.

We met three months after my husband had died. I'd come to London to get away and Jonathan wanted to interview me. I was in a terrible state so I said no at first. But I wanted to know why the leading man in What a Carve Up! had such a thing about me, so natural curiosity overcame me and I said OK. We had lunch together and my first impression was that Jonathan was very tall, very polite, with beautiful blue eyes, and he was very shy and nervous.

After we'd eaten we went to do the interview, and he looked at me and said, "If you don't want to do this we don't have to." He saw me in the deepest grief, and he picked up on it immediately. That was when I met Jonathan and to me it will always be very special.

When I moved back to London I made sure he had my address. I knew about Janine so I wasn't doing a flirty thing. I just knew he was going to be a friend.

The reasons for us to see other again were professional. He sent me the book and suggested to the ICA that they include me in their James Bond season. So because of him I made my first public appearance in years and I haven't really stopped since.

Jonathan's very special. I hope we'll always be friends. We're opposites in many ways. He's extraordinarily intellectual; I'm intelligent but I wouldn't class myself as an intellectual. He's got a wicked, wry sense of humour. I adore his writing, because in contrast to his shy demeanour, his writing is full of passion and anger, and that's a fascinating combination. He says writers are often shy, they write what they can't show. When I started writing my book I sent some of my writing to him, so he's a bit of a mentor.

We ring each other just to say hello, and we're on the phone for ages. I just wish we lived nearer each other. We meet for lunch but it's an awful journey.

I love flirting with young men, but I'm not attracted to them - but there's something about Jonathan that's old. Something very special that you don't often get in a young man. I said to him the other day: "You know, Jonathan, I'm not attracted to young men, but you're different. You're 38 going on 70!" For a moment he looked shocked and then he said in his wry way, "Shirley, that's the nicest backhanded compliment I've ever had." But I was actually saying a truth.

There's a strange kind of intimacy in our friendship, and that's lovely. You don't meet people you have this affinity with very often in life. I would hate to lose touch with him and I think he feels the same way.

Shirley Eaton's autobiography, `Golden Girl', with an introduction by Jonathan Coe, is published by Batsford on 22 July