So, off to meet Liz Jones – at last! – as she is quite my favourite writer and although, traditionally, it has only been acceptable to dismiss her as bonkers while pretending not to read her column in the Mail on Sunday, I am happy (nay, proud) to say it's the first thing I turn to every week. She is magnificently fascinating and, in a strange kind of way, I've always rather liked the nutty sound of her. But is she for real? I sort of hope not, for her sake, but, on the other hand, what does it mean if she isn't? Have I been taken for a ride all these devoted years? It's going to be complicated, I just know it, but then most things to do with Liz Jones are.
She used to live in Islington, in that exquisite, just-so Georgian house with the small patio she would vacuum. (True story; fascinating.) But she decamped to Exmoor a few years back, and so meets me off the train at Tiverton Parkway. She arrives with her "new boyfriend" who, it turns out, pants quite noisily and has pretty ropey breath. Well, someone had to say it. His name is Michael, and he's a rescue border collie, but still. There is never any excuse. She has thick, black, horsey hair, tattooed eyebrows (quite spooky) and is wearing grubby jodhpurs, a grey T-shirt with a hole in the seam, flip-flops and a self-tan so cack-handedly applied it pools in streaks around her ankles. It's all rather bizarre, especially as she used to be such a famously high-maintenance fashionista. Is she finished with all that? She insists she is, plus she's too broke anyhow. "I've stopped spending," she says. "The last pair of shoes I bought was over a year ago. And that was for a wedding, and I've worn them about four hundred times." She used to spend willy-nilly. "I'd go into Gucci, see a shirt for £350, and actually think it was cheap." She insists she is also over the exclusive spas and all that malarkey. "All that bloody pampering ... it's nonsense." Liz, I say, I could have told you that 49 cheques and several thousands pounds ago. She says: "But it's so seductive, isn't it? And I'm always trying to better and improve myself." Why? "To fit in. I've always only ever wanted to fit in." It's one thing not to fit in and not know it or care, but to not fit in and know it and care. Therein some kind of tragedy may lie.
We get into her BMW convertible, which she says she sometimes can afford to drive and sometimes can't, depending on whether she has the petrol money. Really? Things are that bad? Aside from her column in You magazine, the Mail on Sunday's supplement, she works prolifically across the Mail group. Her last day off was 23 December. Her income, I'm guessing, is upwards of £250,000 annually. When she recently wrote about how the debt people at NatWest and AmEx were hounding her day and night, readers sent in various bits of money, as well as scratch cards. She has returned what she could, she says, and, "I've given the rest to charity." I can't work out if she gets the irony of the poor and the elderly and the dispossessed sending emergency cash to someone who spends £26,000 on a bat sanctuary, or whether she even has a sense of irony. All she says is: "My readers are very sweet." OK, Liz, where has all your money gone? Her farm and her animals cost an absolute fortune, she says. She then adds that she's given a ton of money away. "I used to spend a lot when I was married, to make my husband like me. I've tried to stop doing that. I no longer try to make people like me by buying them stuff." This is good, but is it enough to save her?
Liz is probably a brand now and, in Daily Mail terms, is probably a core brand at that. She receives, she says, 4,000 to 6,000 emails and letters from readers a week. But I wonder: is she playing a dangerous game? If she is keeping nothing back for herself, it'll empty her out. It's horribly Faustian. And some of her latest columns have read like suicide notes. One even concluded with: "I don't want to wake up in the morning..." Has it gone too far? A former editor of Marie Claire, her eye-bleedingly frank columnising began in The Guardian before transferring to the Mail and has, over the years, and in no particular order, covered the following: her fashion excesses (she once bought two pairs of Alberta Ferretti "buttery suede" trousers in case she got a smudge on one); her beauty excesses (a crack team at Aveda appeared to be on standby at all times, just in case her knees suddenly needed waxing); her sex life (didn't have a boyfriend until her thirties; sex is "tiring and repetitive"); her fur babies (cats); her age (lied, until finally revealing her accurate birth date: 5 September 1958) and her brief-ish marriage to a trainer-sniffing, free-loading lummox of a husband, Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal. More on him later? I hope not. I'm so over him, even though she may not be. Actually, I rather think she is. "He is a decent person, but he sort-of believed his own hype," she says. "And it went to his head and he had affairs with lots of other women." Did you marry him because you thought it would normalise you? That being married would help you fit in? "Yes. Probably." And do you ever hold anything back, Liz? "There is someone I could write about but don't because there are children involved," she says. Many of her (former) friends feel they have been betrayed in print. Would they be right? "I can only write what's true," she says. "And all writers betray people." Not necessarily, I say. "It's a tricky one," she says. We leave it at that.
Anyway, off to the farm. Has her transition from town to country been smooth? It has not, predictably enough. She has written about the locals as toothless imbeciles. She has said that the area has "a slightly Amish air". Still, the locals took it well and asked her to tea. Only joking – they shot at her letterbox – but you know what? As we drive down country lanes, passing a few people, I can see that they do have the look of toothless imbeciles and, as for the air, it does feel slightly Amish. She was bang on, God love her, and if anyone wants to shoot at my letterbox, please don't. I've just had the front door painted. (My neighbours' door is quite shabby, though. They're at Number 8.) Anyway, it's all settling down now. "I've even been asked to open a fête in Taunton tomorrow," she says.
We arrive at her 46-acre farm, which, it turns out, may be the most beautiful place on earth. The house is vast and Victorian, with mullioned windows glinting in the sunshine. The garden is bursting with poppies, lavender, sweet peas and dried dog turds, but I think we'll skip over that, in every sense. I say a place like this must make you feel all is right with the world, at least occasionally. She says: "Nooooooooo. Never." Why not? "I think I have that illness where you can never be happy." There's a stable yard, a horse school, a lake on which glittering turquoise dragonflies dance. The fields of hay seem to go on for as far as the eye can see. And there are the animals, too, of course. Liz is famously nuts about animals. Her gardener, Brian, is under instruction to "never kill a slug". What's he meant to do with them? "Re-home them." Are there any animals you don't like? "I'm not fond of spiders, but I wouldn't hurt one." She has rescue sheep that she walks on a lead. "The local farmers think I'm insane," she says. (Does she have a sense of irony? I still can't work it out.) She has her ex- battery hens. She has her three horses (Lizzie, Benji and Dream), none of whom are shoed, as "that's cruel". They wear special little boots instead. She has her other three lovely rescue collies: Mini-Pup (likes to jump up and kiss you on the mouth); Grace Kelly (she of the stress-wees); Jess, "who is old and deaf, like me". I do not know where her fur babies are today but suspect they are snoozing on cashmere blankets somewhere. Some have said Liz prefers animals to people, but I don't know. It may be that, in her way, she has quite a lot of love to give, and humans just don't want it. Life's complicated enough as it is.
We have a walk round. She leads, I follow. She has an odd body. She's been anorexic since childhood. She recently confessed she'd never eaten a whole banana. I ask if she thinks she may be suffering from low-level malnutrition. "Probably," she says. "But I don't care about my health." She has one of those Chupa Chups lollipop physiques: thin, with head that looks too big and round. She says the anorexia kicked in when she was 11. "I didn't have a problem with food until then. I had a problem with self-image. I didn't look in the mirror, didn't want people to see my profile, but I didn't have a problem with eating until I was having toast and marmalade one day and my sister said to me: 'You shouldn't be eating that if you want to lose weight.' It was the era of dieting and Nimble bread and that balloon advert and One Cal soup ... awful stuff. And I thought: Yeah, I'm going to be really good at this. I'm not going to be weak. So it is one moment that can switch a switch on, or switch it off.'
She had an ordinary childhood in Essex with her six siblings; her father was in the army, her mother was a former ballerina, and they were happily married. Still, Liz never felt she belonged, and felt alienated at every turn. She was obsessed with horses, and went for riding lessons, but because her family wasn't wealthy, she never had the right kit. "I always rode in plimsolls, because my parents couldn't afford jodhpur boots, which made the other horsey girls snigger." Her mother made her school uniform. "So it was never the same as everyone else's". In 1975, she developed another obsession when she bought a copy of Vogue and fell in love with fashion which, I suppose, neatly dovetailed with fretting about having the right kit. She's continued to buy, and save, every Vogue since, even though, she says: "The fashion industry stinks and everyone in fashion hates me. No one talks to me when I go to the shows. I'm barred from a lot of shows now. I've been barred from Armani, Louis Vuitton, Chloe, Chanel, Marc Jacobs, Victoria Beckham..." One of the reasons she was sacked from Marie Claire, she says, was because she listed all the fashion freebies she'd been offered that month, "which included a week on a yacht in Capri from Todd's, the handbag people". It's all absurd, she says. "If a Westminster reporter took money from the Government or a football reporter took money from a club, it would be a scandal," she adds. That's true, I say, and you're dead right, I say, but you must see how it's going to get people's backs up. Say stuff like that, and the game's up for everyone. She can see that, she says. So why don't you cancel your subscription to Vogue? Go on. Walk away. She is aghast. There is a silence. She then says: "I felt my heart tremor when you said that." Her compulsions always appear to get the better of her intellect, and I do think it's quite an intellect.
Certainly, she is a beautifully natural writer, as well as a funny one. Her most recent book, The Exmoor Files, contains some great one-liners. "I am in the spam box of life," she writes at one point. I have no idea why she's such a mess, just as she hasn't, but whereas she used to protest about seeing a therapist – "I don't like myself enough to change" – she is seeing one now. She eventually drops me back at the station, which is kind, as it's a 45-minute drive, and she's already done the round trip once. Is she the real deal? Yes. And she may even be fearlessly honest in a way few other people ever are. You have to grant her that, if nothing else. As we part, I make to give her a hug, but she stiffens and flinches. I don't blame her. I'd stiffen and flinch if I saw me coming in to give me a hug. Still, I don't think she is used to affection. Or warmth. It may be sad or it may not be sad. It's just the way Liz is.
'The Exmoor Files (How I Lost a Husband and Nearly Found Rural Bliss)' is published by Phoenix at £6.99Reuse content