HOW WE MET; MARGARET DRABBLE AND NELL DUNN

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The Independent Culture
Margaret Drabble, 57, was born in Yorkshire. She wrote her first novel, A Summer Bird Cage, at 23 and has since published 12 further novels and two biographies. She has three children and three grandchildren. She lives in London and Somerset with her second husband, the biographer Michael Holroyd.

Nell Dunn, 60, was born in Wiltshire. Her first novel, Up The Junction, was published in 1963. Her debut play was the award-winning Steaming (1981). Divorced, she has three children and a grandson, and lives with her two dogs in London and Wiltshire

MARGARET DRABBLE: I first saw Nell in 1963 or 1964. She had won the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial prize for Up The Junction. I had been shortlisted for A Summer Birdcage and I remember going along to Olympia or somewhere rather gloomy and sitting in the audience. I would have preferred to have won this prize myself. On the other hand, if you're not going to win, you always want the prize to go to somebody whose work you like. I loved her work. There was never any rivalry at all. She was the kind of writer I wanted to know, but not that I wanted to be.

I remember seeing the curtain on the stage and under it this pair of red shoes. I thought, "Those must be Nell's." I didn't know her but I thought, "Those are a novelist's shoes." Then the curtain went up and there was Nell. There was a party after the prize-giving and I said hello to her. I thought she was wonderful. She is a very disarming person.

We really got to know one another later, when the writer Angus Wilson was the chairman of the literature panel of the Arts Council. He set up the first writers' tour in March 1969 and invited myself, Christopher Logue and Nell to go on it. I already knew of Nell and I thought, "This will be fun." We travelled around doing readings, having discussions, going to talk to schoolchildren, which Nell was very good at.

Nell always looked lovely. She had freckles and a lot of curly fair hair. I wore a short Moroccan coat and very short skirts. She was more floaty in long skirts. She had this wonderful bandeau that Angus used to tease her about. I was attracted to her slightly bohemian appearance - colourful without being wildly eccentric.

Nell was very much a 1960s figure, living quite "experimentally". She had, to me, this rather exotic life in Battersea. She had stopped working in the factory by the time I met her. She'd gone off and got a job in one and it was through that that she got to know the characters who she used in her novels, Up The Junction and Poor Cow. She has this amazing capacity for getting on with people from all social classes. I couldn't do that, though I'm much nearer to that class in birth origins than she is.

Nell was related to the man that broke the bank at Monte Carlo. Her father was wealthy and her mother was a very beautiful woman. I found all that fascinating, because it was so utterly unlike my own Yorkshire background. But it was interesting, too, because I find it difficult to get on with people who are very upper class and who stick with it. Nell was just amazingly approachable and open-minded and easy.

In my novel The Needle's Eye, I used quite a lot of Nell. The heroine gives her money away. I was very impressed by the fact that Nell didn't want to inherit the family money. She didn't want to live in a grand way. She used to tell me absolutely frightful stories about her childhood, which made the blood run cold. When Nell and her sister were in New York with some nanny or other, they were on the 30th floor and had to hold one another out of the window to pee because they'd been locked in the bedroom. It made me think my childhood hadn't been so bad after all.

I had a much more formal education than Nell. I went through the proper hoops, but she didn't do that at all. That was an added curiosity to me. She was lucky in many ways, not having a formal literary education. It gives her an extraordinary freshness of eye and ear and means she's much less burdened with all sorts of baggage than I am.

I can't remember whether or not Nell was married or separated back then. But she did have three children and I did too, which was a great bond. The next stage in our relationship, after the tour of North Wales, was when Nell invited me to stay with her. She had a farm on Exmoor at Withiel Florey. For me that was the beginning of a complete love affair with Exmoor. I got my house in Porlock directly through Nell introducing me to Somerset.

Nell is very non-judgemental. You can tell her things. I would rely on her never to be shocked. And there's something very unconstructed about her way of looking at the world. She has a sort of faux-naive quality. It's very hopeful. I really admire the way she has perslsted as a writer. She took on the theatre, which I've never had the courage to do.

We're both respectful of each other's time. Nell is extremely diffident about imposing herself. I am too. We both have to overcome a certain shyness. We get depressed and low-spirited and feel we haven't got the strength to lift the telephone, because the other person won't want to hear from us because we're so boring. In a way, it's quite a miracle that we still see each other.

Nell and I really enjoy country pursuits. Occasionally, we go to the theatre together. We went to see Three Tall Women. I thought it was wonderful, but quite painful. Afterwards, at supper, Nell announced, "Oh well, I fell fast asleep for about 20 minutes of that, but it was very comfortable."

Nell's one of the people I wouldn't at all mind knowing when I'm 85. I remember in the Sixties Adrian Henri, Nell and I said we should buy a large house and turn it into an old people's home for ourselves. It would have been very far-sighted, especially as we're now going to end up in old people's homes that cost pounds 500 a week. If only we'd done it.

NELL DUNN: I remember it as being 1969, on an Arts Council tour with Angus Wilson and Christopher Logue. We went to North Wales. It was very busy, that tour - an incredible amount of dinners with the Mayor of Wrexham in full regalia, that sort of thing.

And talking to schools and reading in village halls. Just non-stop. It was winter and there was snow on the ground and we went to see the house of the ladies of Llangollen. There was an ice house in the garden and I remember Maggie and I looking at it together. I remember thinking she was very beautiful. She'd got this dark, straight hair to her shoulders, which was windblown. I had horribly, wispy, slightly curly hair and was very flower-power. Maggie was rather dashing. She had half a bottle of whisky in her suitcase and at that time I only drank milky tea and Mackeson stout.

I had heard of Maggie but I don't think I had any expectations. I didn't know Maggie was clever, didn't know that she'd got a first at Cambridge, because it wasn't my world. I hadn't even read her novels. It was just lovely for me to be with a woman I could talk to about books and serious things, because I'd been living in Somerset with only sheep people to talk about sheep with.

The friendship grew when she came to stay in the farmhouse I was living in. That was 1969 or 1970. She came with her children. I remember her going on a walk with them and just loving it. She came back with a badger's skull and it stayed on her mantelpiece in London for a long time. I was always pleased to see it there. And it features in her new book, The Witch of Exmoor.

Maggie and I both have a strong response to and need for natural beauty. In some ways, our strongest connection has been through a shared love of Somerset. We walked the Quantocks with Richard Holmes when he was doing his book on Coleridge. Maggie read The Crooked Thorn Tree by Wordsworth, while we sat by a crooked thorn tree.

We once tried to find the farm in Somerset where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan. It's in a part of the country by the sea which we both love, near where Maggie now has a house. It was an incredibly magical walk, through an ancient oak forest with the trees covered in lichen. That seemed a very special thing to do together, somehow. What was so nice was the excitement on both our parts, the shared pleasure.

Another strong connection is that Maggie has supported my work enormously. There's a feeling sometimes of wanting to go on being a writer, but thinking nobody believes in you. Maggie went on believing in me. She proved a tremendous friend when I was lost with a book called Tear His Head Off His Shoulders. She read it and said, "Push on with it until a publisher publishes it." I would love to help her with her work but I don't think she needs my help.

I like her books very much and love her commitment to the truth. She is very brave in her work. Maggie has a fascination with the ordinary, which in a way I do too. We both have an intense curiosity about human nature.

We've both written about young children and what it was like to be young women in the Sixties. We're going to the Cheltenham Literary Festival together, to talk about each other's books and being writers of the same generation.

I don't know whether all writers have a seething insecurity. This is something that we have in common, though we come from different backgrounds. Maggie's was probably more suppressed than mine. I wasn't brought up with any rules, or even believing that monogamy was necessarily right. I was brought up to believe in individuality. Maggie had more sense of achievement through hard work and I had more of a sense of doing what you wanted to do, that sometimes you're lucky and sometimes unlucky. We are both extremely unshockable. There are no limits on what I could tell Maggie. I absolutely know I could ring her at 2am with a crisis. She is non-judgemental of the way I conduct myself.

I never, ever wanted a conventional life and big house. I always wanted a lot of freedom. Maggie has a more organised mind than me. I would say she approaches life in a more rational way. I'm slightly more homoeopathy and herb tea. I'm very touched by how Maggie accepts my two dogs in her house, although they are quite badly behaved. She doesn't have dogs but she is so nice to mine.

Friendship is so odd, isn't it? It's something to do with a reciprocal warmth, an on-going liking. I don't think Maggie has changed or mellowed over the years. The friendship has changed a bit, because now Maggie is married and I have a constant man in my life. When she came to stay in Somerset that first time, we were both young women with children, on our own. It's nice to feel we're getting older together. Maggie isn't going to like me any the less because I'm 60.

Around 1970 Adrian Henri and I wrote a book together and we had a lovely idea: we'd buy a great big old house and have lots of writers living there. The idea that we should have each other's company when we were old appealed to us. It still does. !

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