Martina Cole: 'I know I don't write literature'
When I arrive at the home of top-selling crime writer Martina Cole I have no real expectation as to how our meeting might pan out although, having read her latest book, The Faithless, I'm rather hoping she doesn't machete off my arms, and then my legs, and upturn my torso in a dustbin, which would be irritating and a drag, and probably make me late getting home. Also, I would prefer it if she didn't take out my eyes out with an apple corer or remove the top of my skull with a claw hammer, as I simply don't have patience for that sort of thing. What I did not expect was to arrive mid-morning and still be there several hours later, intact physically – she didn't even go for my neck with a broken whiskey bottle, the big pussy – but rather half-cut, because the wine came out and when she said "It's only a Pinot... do you mind?" I found I did not mind at all.
And then there were cigarettes (I had several, and don't even smoke any more) and the exhortations ("You'll be wanting a sandwich. A salad? Shall we go to the pub?") and the tour of the first editions she collects and the stories that just keep coming and her Irish grandmother's homilies – "she said you must always have a good mattress and good shoes as when you're not on one you're on the other" – and more wine and would I like to see her chickens? I would, as it happens, and so out we go. She loves her chickens whom are known, collectively, as "my gels" but also have individual names. The fluffy white one, for example is called Miss Snowflake, which may have been a mistake, as her young granddaughter continually mispronounces it as "Miss Fuck's Sake" – we giggle, I'm afraid – and I am also introduced to her "little cock", otherwise known as "Tom Cruise". Martina Cole is funny, warm, smart and a delight. I think I'd do anything for her except, perhaps, bash in my own mother's head with a bronze statuette until her face sprays blood like a crimson mist, as I'm thinking that would take up a whole morning, and who would clear up? .
Martina is an Essex girl originally, from a council estate where her books are still largely set, but she now lives in Kent. She had a son when she was 18, Chris, now 34, and when he moved here she moved to be closer to him and his family. (She talks just like her books and says of her latest grandson, Little Chris, "he sounds like a rapper, don't he?") Anyway, her house is set in a picture-postcard village and is stunning: Tudor, half-timbered, rose-covered, with an orchard up top and a large vegetable garden at the back. She meets me just inside the electronic gates. She is 52, pretty, blonde and so petite (size 2 feet) I'm thinking if she does come at me with a claw hammer or machete or apple corer or bronze statuette, I could probably just sit on her. I would take little pleasure in it, but it could be done.
She walks me up the drive. It is a beautiful day and as she does the sun bounces off her gold Rolex and boulder-sized diamond ring. She says she always buys her self "a little treat" when her books go to No 1, as they always do. One year, it was a Bentley, and if I am considering purchasing a Bentley I should know that I don't have to visit the showroom. "They'll bring the car to you!" Into the house and kitchen via an anteroom packed with hundreds of recipe books. Martina adores cooking. She works at night, mostly, as she only needs four hours sleep. She also has a daughter, Freddie Mary, who is 13 – she's been married twice but neither husband was the father of her children – and once Freddie has gone to bed she gets writing and if she hits a wall she'll make an oxtail stew to put in the Aga for the next day. She is mad about offal. "I love it all. Tripe in milk, stuffed hearts..." Martina, I say, would you give a minute while I retch? She continues regardless. She says when she was little and her mother bought pigs' feet home from the butcher "my job was to shave the hairs off". What? You like a pig's foot? She says: "Oh, please, do I like a pig's foot!" Endearingly, many of her sentences begin with "Oh, please". Martina, when you were a teenager, did you have a crush on Bowie, as I did? "Oh, please, did I love David Bowie!" Did you learn about sex via Harold Robbins? "Oh, please! We used to go the library, get his books out, and hold them upside down by the spine because they'd open on the sex pages, where everyone else had opened them, and have a look." She attended a convent school and was once discovered by a nun reading The Carpetbaggers. "Oh, please. The trouble! She took it off me and went mad. And I remember my mum saying: 'How the fecking hell did the nun know what that book was about?'"
Into the sitting room, which is beamed, and chock-full of the crockery she collects and, above the sofa, there's a Picasso (Lady in a Hat) and a Renoir (a painting of Monet's nieces), but not her latest acquisition, a pink Marilyn by Warhol, which is in her bedroom and makes her so happy "every time I look at it I cry". She is passionate about art, as she is passionate about so many things. The cooking. The chickens. Her family. Travel. Designer hand-bags. Go on, I say, tell me the most you've ever spent on a handbag. "Three and a half thousand... ah, no... that's a lie. I spent £7,000 on a Hermès recently, the Birkin. I've still got it in the box upstairs I'm that ashamed but, oh, I love that bag."
Martina Cole started out with nothing, pretty much, and brought Chris up in a council flat where she slept on the kitchen floor so he could have the only bed. And so I put it to her like this: "Money can't buy you happiness. Discuss". She says: "I've been miserable and poor and I've been miserable with a few quid and I'd much rather be miserable with a few quid because at least I can then think 'fuck it, I've had enough' and get on a plane and go somewhere and get a bit of sun." So that's that old chestnut put to rest.
Martina Cole is a publishing phenomenon. Her worldwide book sales now total over 10 million copies. She has been translated into 29 languages. She has produced a new book every year since 1992, more or less, and not only does each one go straight to No 1 in the Sunday Times bestseller list, it outsells the last. There have been several TV adaptations, and there's an upcoming theatre adaptation. They are the most borrowed books from prison libraries, and I can see why. They are not police procedurals. The police don't even figure. These are dark tales from the Essex badlands; a place populated by violent petty criminals and the women who must put up with them. As far as I know, there is no one else writing in this particular voice, from this particular point of view, not that the literary world will ever sit up and take notice. Still, Martina seems more amused by such snobbery than offended. "I know I don't write literature," she says, "and I've never pretended to write literature, but one posh author once said to me: 'I wouldn't want your readers reading my books, Martina' and so I said: 'They wouldn't, because my readers like a good story.'" She is also well-used to being patronised and finds it a hoot. One time, she says, "a colonel's wife turned up at a book-signing in Eastbourne and said to me: 'I liked your book so much I stayed up until nearly 10pm reading it.' And then she went on and said she gives them to her friends, and tells them not to mind the bad language, because it's just how those kinds of people talk." Martina laughs.
Martina Cole was born the youngest of five into an Irish Catholic family. Her mother was a psychiatric nurse while her father was a merchant seaman and as they were both hard workers the family weren't, in fact, that badly off. "I remember we were the first people on the estate to have fitted carpets and a television," she says. "I can still remember watching Dr Who and being so frightened. Do you know what I was thinking about the other night? Do you remember Mystery and Imagination?" I do, I say. And do you remember Tales of the Unexpected? "Oh, please! Tales of the Unexpected!" she says. She does not appear to have directly experienced violence and crime during her childhood. In fact, when I ask if she has ever committed a crime herself, she says only once, when "I nicked some nail varnish from the local chemist and my mum literally dragged me back there by the hair to apologise." Still, there were school friends whose fathers were always going in and out of prison. Her first-ever boyfriend was a bank robber. You like bad boys, then? "Oh, please. I love bad boys. I'm terrible for bad boys, I am." So she did grow up in that milieu, although I would say that books appear to have had just as big an impact.
As a kid she was, she says, "a book fanatic". She doesn't know why; she just was. She read her way though the library and "I used to go to every jumble sale going just to find books. I'll always remember the first time I was introduced to Catherine Cookson. I was about 10 and I bought her book called The Round Tower because it had a sticker on it that said 'Winner of the Winfred Holtby Award' and I thought, it's won an award, I'd better read that." She was super-bright, obviously, but hated school. "I hated the regime, I hated having to wear the uniform. We had to wear a straw boater and big sash, and you had to wear these big red knickers. And I just hated it all and became very rebellious." She was expelled at 15. "A nun threw an O-level physics textbook at me so I threw it back, which didn't go down too well." She was then married at 16, divorced at 17, and pregnant with Chris at 18. Gosh, I say, your parents must have been overjoyed with the prospect of you becoming an unmarried, single mum. Where were you, when you told them? "In the kitchen and my mum went ballistic, and my dad was really funny. My dad said: 'Come on now, Eileen, these things happen, and when it arrives I'm sure it'll be gorgeous and you'll be loving the fecking bones of it. And he said to me: 'Come down the pub and celebrate' and my mum went: 'She's ruined her life, and you want to go celebrate?' That's how it was then."
Martina worked her butt off supporting Chris. She stacked shelves in a supermarket. She stuffed leaflets into magazines. She waited on tables. She was a punk at the time and would take Chris up to the Tower of London where she would charge Japanese tourists to take photographs of them. When I ask her if she thinks she could cope if she were to wake up tomorrow and find all her money gone, she is certain she could. "You know what, I've got a pair of hands on me, and I'm quite happy to go and clean your house. I've done it enough times. I used to clean people's cookers. I'd go round their house, strip it down, scrub it and put it all back together."
She seems utterly fearless. Is she frightened of anything? Spiders? "No, I'm not scared of anything like that." She has a house in Cyprus, "where we've got tarantulas and recently I had a tarantula sitting on my living-room chair and I just picked it up with a dustpan and threw it out the window." She just gets on with it, although she and Chris did have a game they called When My Ship Comes In. "I used to go: when my ship comes in we'll do this and that. If we were at the bus-stop and saw a lovely house I'd say: 'We'll have a house like that, when my ship comes in.' And he'd go: 'I know.' He always believed in me, my Chris."
She had started writing stories in exercise books as a teenager, and wrote her first novel, Dangerous Lady, at 20, but stuffed it in a drawer and did nothing with it until, a decade later, she happened upon it again. "I had a glass of wine and a fag, as always, and I started reading it and for the first time ever I thought: that's good. I'd buy that." She used a tax rebate to buy an electric typewriter, typed it up, and sent it to an agent (Darley Anderson) plucked rather at random (she thought it was a nice name, and assumed it was a woman) from the Writers and Agents Yearbook. She posted the manuscript on the Friday and received a phone call on the Monday. "It was a man. He said: 'Darley Anderson here and you, my dear, are going to be a star.'" Dangerous Lady was sold to Headline for £150,000, a record at the time for an unpublished author, and her ship was truly in. She says she took that phone call in her kitchen "and Chris and I just danced around the room". What did you first spend the money on? "I bought Chris a leather jacket and a bike." And for yourself? "A BMW". She says the man at the dealership was very rude and off-hand until she mentioned she was paying cash, today, at which point the manager came out the back and was all over her. She enjoyed that, I think.
I think, too, that she absolutely loves her life. She loves writing. She loves dreaming up violent endings for her characters. (You're not squeamish at all? "No.") She loves what money can buy. She loves her children and grandchildren and is close to them all. Do you have Christmas here? "Oh, please! I have big trees everywhere." But I wonder, is there a boyfriend? She says: "When I split up with Fred's dad, when she was two, I made a conscious decision I'd never bring anyone into her life and I haven't. I said to her the other day: 'You do realise my best years are behind me thanks to you, don't you?' She just laughed. I'm quite happy on my own. I like my solitary life." You don't miss having a sex life? "I have got one, but it's very quiet. I've been seeing someone on and off for years but I just would never bring anyone into Freddie's life, you know?"
Anyway, more wine, more cigarettes, more tales of that Irish grandmother – "she was really fun and really tiny and she had a hump and she'd say: can you lend me a pound to get it straight?" – and now it's early evening, and, although I kind of want to stay forever, I figure I'd better go. And so I do, albeit rather unsteadily. Actually, I think even if I'd wanted to slash someone's arteries and watch them bleed to death in the bath, I probably wouldn't have been up to it.
'The Faithless' is published by Headline at £19.99
Dangerous Lady, 1992
Cole's first bestselling novel sees mouthy anti-heroine Maura Ryan – beautiful, 17 years old and hard-as-hell – take on London's gangland
The Jump, 1995
Donna is heartbroken when Georgio is thrown into the slammer for armed robbery. So begins a journey of brutal sex and casual violence, as she fights for justice for her man
Two Women, 1999
Prison life, the pursuit of justice and a claw hammer, are recurring themes in this piece, which was adapted for the stage at Stratford's Theatre Royal last year
The Know, 2003
Joanie Brewer (prostitute, petty criminal) would do anything for her kids, so when her daughter is raped and murdered, she'll go to any lengths to nail her killer...
The Take, 2005
Criminality, sex, family breakdown: all the Cole hallmarks are in place in this tale, which became a critically acclaimed TV drama starring Tom Hardy and Brian Cox
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