I'm here and there's no escaping me
En route to Stratford we hear the story of a Jewish girl from Liverpool who escaped and made it big: Edwina Currie is out selling herself. What a surprise!
Edwina rises and starts accosting the customers, chasing them almost. She moves quickly, coming down on them in a very scary, scarlet-jacketed, pearls-around-the-throat, Tory sort of way. "Hello. Edwina Currie," she says to a washed-out looking mother holding her toddler daughter's hand. "Let me tell you why I'm here today. I've just written another novel. My third. It's very good. You'll laugh with my characters. You'll cry with them. Shall I sign one for you?" "I only came in for a children's book," explains the mother meekly. "But there are young people in my book," Edwina cries, thumping the cover emphatically. The mother buys the book. The thing about you, I tell Edwina, is that you are shameless. "I am! I am," she exclaims, pleased.
The day had started at 9.30am, Euston station, where we met to catch the train to Birmingham. Tomorrow, it is Glasgow. Edwina is "seven pages into a 27 page publicity tour". Alarmingly, she arrives with a big teddy bear peeking out from a Fenn Wright & Mason carrier bag. She explains that her first stop is Gyles Brandreth's Teddy Bear Museum in Stratford. He's asked her to donate a teddy. Her teddy has "Omar Leisure Homes" stitched across it's front. I think it would be safe to assume that this is not some sentimental relic from her childhood, more a freebie she happened to have knocking about.
Anyway, she is smarting over an article in the current Spectator. The article says that, come the Tory Party Conference, "publicity crazed" Edwina is planning to do her worst and cross the floor to Labour. "It's spiteful. And wicked!" she cries. So she's not about to defect then? "No. I'm not. It's lies. The same sort of lies were spread before the election - although then everyone was saying I was about to go Liberal. Whose spreading such rumours? "Other Tories." Why? "They wish I would go away." Because you're a complete nightmare? "No, because they're frightened of strong women." She says she doesn't know why they're still bothering with her. "This is my job now," she cries as she waves about her 27-page tour document. "I'm not even going to be at the conference. I'm going to be out flogging books. I've got a lot of books to flog."
She lost her Derbyshire seat in the election. Does she miss politics? No, she says, she does not. "I love writing. And I love getting paid. I earn three times what I used to earn." She dispatches the photographer to buy her a coffee. "I'm dying for a coffee..."
We talk about her novel, which isn't a very good novel. Characters do things like "frown in the best Cliff Mitchelmore style". There is never any real feel for character or narrative or language or even plot, which are significant shortcomings, I'm sure you'll agree. Edwina doesn't see it, though. "I open up my computer in the morning and the characters speak to me. They all become intensely real."
If the book is of interest, it's because of what it reveals about Edwina. Unlike her two previous novels - which were Parliamentary jobs, and sold brilliantly, by all accounts - this one is a much more personal work. Set in 1963, it's about Helen, a bright girl from a orthodox Jewish family in Liverpool who becomes increasingly disillusioned with Judaism, wins a scholarship to Cambridge, and falls in love with a non-Jewish boy. By the end, we gather she will reject Liverpool and Judaism as, indeed, Edwina - nee Cohen - did.
Edwina was born in Liverpool in 1947. Her father, Simon, was a tailor. Her mother, Pesse, was a housewife until Simon died in 1975 and Pesse went out and got herself a job in a solicitors office. "She worked there until she was 75." Pesse is now in her eighties and still in Liverpool. Edwina says she's become quite close to her mother in recent years. Yes, Pesse manages fine on her own. But if she becomes too frail? "Well, she says if she goes ga-ga she doesn't want to be put into a home. But, as I see it, if she's ga-ga she won't know she's in a home," says Edwina.
Edwina first realised she was Jewish, and different, when she went to the local state school at five, but was banned by her parents from attending assembly. "I felt the exclusion very badly. I felt very restricted by my minority status. I wanted to be in the big group, in the front row, making a lot of noise." This assembly business comes up many times in our conversation. She could never have married a Jewish boy because "I would never have escaped, never have got into assembly". Being a Minister was brilliant because "you're on the front row, and you can look over your shoulder and see everyone behind you".
There are lots of long grumbles about Judaism in the book. No cinema on Saturdays. No prawn cocktails. No educational encouragement because "boys don't like clever girls". Such things must have been tough, I agree, but I tell Edwina that what struck me most about her family (if her family is the one in the book) was their inability to express love. Helen, we are told, "could not recall an occasion on which she had heard her parents exchange words of affection". No one, we later learn, "had ever said, `I love you, Helen, directly to her'". Helen and her father can only communicate by discussing current affairs. I ask Edwina if the problem with her background wasn't that she came from a Jewish family, but from a cold family. She accepts I might have a point.
"I don't recall a lot of warmth at home. I had a friend called Janet and whenever I went to her house it was clear her parents slept together and loved each other because they touched each other all the time and there was intimacy. A lot of talking and arguing went on in our house but there was never any intimacy. I never even got birthday presents or birthday cards. The only present I ever got was a leather briefcase from my father when I got into Oxford. It was his way of saying he was proud. I only got recognition by achieving something."
This is the key to Edwina, I think. Recognition at any price. She never says anything quietly. Poor people should knit their own central heating. Eggs will make you ill. Northerners are going to explode if they eat any more chips. Getting noticed is what she's about, largely. She will say so herself. "I am a very `Here I am!' sort of person." I think she left her Jewish family in Liverpool not because of the restrictions, but because she needed bigger ponds in which to make her great splashes.
Before we got to Waterstone's I'd seen her in action in The Teddy Museum. "Edwina, it's brilliant that you've come," exclaims a very excited Gyles, himself a former Tory MP. "Here's my teddy," says Edwina, taking the teddy out the bag. "He's called... Omar." Gyles gives us a little tour of the museum. People think teddies are trivial, he sighs, "but they're not because they're named after Roosevelt, a great politician".
Edwina's told that her bear is going to go into the literary section, between Barbara Cartland's and Jeffrey Archer's (which turns out to be a great lumbering thing with one eye). I don't think Edwina is best pleased. "Jeffrey writes books for people who, on the whole, don't read books," she says later.
During the eight or so hours I am with her she doesn't seem to have a nice word to say about anybody. The trouble with John Major is that "he's a man who needs his sleep". She feels sorry for Anne Widdecombe because "she's never known what it is to have a man's arms around her shoulder". Thatcher was great "until she went off her rocker". Hague's a bright boy but "not in the same league as Blair. Although that doesn't mean I'm crossing the floor".
I ask her if she has any friends in politics. Her reply, when it comes, takes the form of a long speech about the bonds that unite the pro-European sections of the party. I tell her I'm not talking about political allies. I'm talking about friends. "Oh," she says, looking perplexed. Friends outside politics, then? "Of course." Who are they? "Whoever I happen to be working with."
Waterstones, Stratford. 1pm-2pm. "Hello, Edwina Currie," she says, approaching an old man in his seventies. "Do you live in Stratford? No. Oh, you've come here for an army reunion. Well, look, I tell you what. I'll sign one of my books for you, and put in Stratford '97. That way, you will always have this as a reminder of your reunion." The old man buys the book. Onto the next. "Hello. Edwina Currie. You are? Sharon. Do you come from Stratford, Sharon? No. Your husband's bought you here as a birthday treat? Did he buy you anything else? No. Well, I tell you what, I'll sign you one of my books and put Happy Birthday in it and that'll be lovely for you..."
2.10pm: back to Birmingham International in the limo. We talk about Ray Currie, her husband, who she met when she was 24. No, he wasn't her first man. She'd already lost her virginity at 19 to an oarsman at Oxford. "Strong arms," I say. "Strong everything," she shrieks excitedly. Edwina's always seen herself as something of a sex-bomb. She can't refer to her house in Derbyshire without saying it is "penis-shaped". Her first two books had tons of sex in them. This one has less, thank god, but it's up to the usual standard. "From the way he stuck his tongue in her mouth, Roseanne could tell he was hungry for sex." Well spotted, Roseanne. Top marks.
Anyway, she'd gone to Oxford to study chemistry. But after her first year she switched to economics, and got involved in politics, because "I knew I wouldn't be famous as a chemist. Politics was much more thinly populated and I knew I would get somewhere quicker". I don't think Edwina Currie was ever inspired by the idea of public service.
Her first job, post Oxford, was as a trainee at the accountancy firm Arthur Anderson, where Ray was a tutor. He was, at the time, dating someone else. "She was very blonde, but dim. He was too good for her and at a party I told him so. Then I sent him a Valentine's card. By the end of February we'd moved in together." She said if it hadn't been Ray it would have been someone else non-Jewish. "Perhaps an American. Yes, I think if I'd met a gorgeous American I'd have gone to America."
Her father could not and did not forgive her for marrying out. She brought Ray home only the once, and it was a disaster. "Ray thought he could talk my father round. These two big men with moustaches faced each other. Then Ray came out white and shaking. `You're right,' he said. `He will never accept me.'"
No one from her family attended their wedding. Her father never saw his two granddaughters, Debbie and Susie . When they were born, Simon drove Pesse to the hospital but refused to come in. Pesse always kept in touch. What does Edwina think her mother thinks of her? "In her heart of hearts, she still probably wishes I'd been a hairdresser. But when I say that to her she says: `What's wrong with being a hairdresser?'"
Edwina doesn't know if she'd have been reconciled with her father if he had lived longer. In some ways, it took a lot of guts to do what Edwina did. In other ways, it was the only way.
What are Debbie and Susie up to, I ask. Debbie's still trying to get into telly, she says, while Susie's just decided she wants to be a journalist. Both girls attended boarding schools from an early age. As a mother, was it a wrench to send them away? "No, It was wonderful. Ray and I thought long and hard about how to have careers and children and boarding school seemed the best solution. We knew we were putting them into a warm and caring environment where they would be looked after by professionals." Yes, she had tried live-in help. But it didn't work out. "It meant the girls spent all their time with Judith, who liked pop music and didn't have any exams. She was not the right role model." Edwina's a brilliant snob, about nannies, and even Major, for that matter. Aside from Major's need for sleep, "he suffered from having had a poor education. When you're at Oxford, and have to do three essays in a week, you learn how to clear the decks and concentrate. John ran Lambeth, but I don't think that' s quite the same thing, do you?"
2.55pm, and we're on the train back to Euston, where I am dispatched to the buffet to get her a Carlsberg - "I'm dying for a beer" - and a packet of crisps. When I return, there's this thing that looks like a little dead mouse lying in the middle of our table. "Eek! A dead mouse!" I shriek. But it turns out to be Edwina's purse. "Take whatever it cost," she offers. I am minded to let her pay but when I unzip the mouse I can only see coppers. "My treat," I announce. The mouse is quickly slipped back into her handbag. She says she might nod off. I tell her that if she snores I'll write about it. "I don't snore," she replies. I say if you're asleep you don't know.
4.35pm. Back at Euston, where Edwina makes for the tube because she's going to a concert at the Royal Festival Hall while I go for a taxi because, let's face it, I deserve it. "You been working?" asks the cabby. "And how," I reply.
`She's leaving home' (Little, Brown and Company, pounds 16.99)
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