Christina Patterson: Our enduring love affair with Mills & Boon

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The Independent Online

In the age of the brand, one has endured particularly well. While Starbucks, for example, conquered the universe and then, like an ageing emperor, watched it slip from its fat little fingers, Mills & Boon has continued to capture the hearts, and loose change, of women around the world. For the price of a caramel macchiato (a mere brush of the lips and a lifetime on the hips), you can spend several hours on a paradise island, or a luxury yacht, or a hospital ward, where your chief concern, it's safe to say, is not MRSA.

When Gerald Mills and Charles Boon established the company, in Bloomsbury 100 years ago, it published authors as wide-ranging as P G Wodehouse, Jack London and Hugh Walpole. With Georgette Heyer's pounding hearts and trembling bosoms, however, it found its niche. The men (apart from the directors, obviously) were shown the door and told they weren't welcome any more and that the women would survive on their own, thank you very much. And boy, did they. A Mills & Boon paperback is sold in a UK bookshop once every five seconds – one of 35 million sold annually across the globe.

Many years ago, as part of a short course in publishing, I did a little project on Mills & Boon. I dug it out last night. On the front cover, there are some quotes: "Leo Coulter was an especially maddening case – wealthy, devastatingly handsome, completely sure of his own attractiveness. His persistent attentions puzzled Brenda, infuriated her – and awakened a hunger that had been dormant for years ... " Or: "But she wasn't prepared for her response to Richard – his looks, his volatile temper, but most of all, his humour, so in tune with her own. How was she going to hold him at bay?"

I remember reading one, as research. It was rather good. The heroine had short, red, spiky hair and contact lenses that kept falling out. The hero had a limp. Obstacles to true love were surmounted. Catharsis sweeter than caramel, sweeter than cake. "We are looking for novels that communicate the magic of falling in love," said the soothing voice on a cassette entitled And then he kissed her, which the publishers then sent out to prospective authors, "and the tension that comes from identifying with the characters". The key, says the soothing voice, "is to write from the heart".

That, presumably, is why so many people who thought they might make a fast buck from a brand they despised (under a pseudonym, of course) have failed. You can't do Mills & Boon with irony. People see through it. And at a time when even the scrapings of the popular culture barrel – the gawping at people's sub-standard lives, and homes, and bodies, and clothes – are dished up with knowing winks, there's something refreshing about that.

Mills & Boon offers a cheap, safe respite from the pressures of boring jobs and bad marriages (and maybe even good ones) – one that doesn't involve pricey Chelsea basements and treacherous prostitutes, and one which doesn't assume that a so-called celeb's cellulite, or spots, or row with her boyfriend, on telly, or in Heat, is the best circus to go with your sliced white bread. Its fans know that it has as much to do with reality as caramel macchiato has to coffee. Which, I'm afraid, is more than can be said for some of the fans of the carnival parade on our screens.

Good health, and good luck, to Ms Goody

Jade Goody was not blessed with great beauty, intelligence or the best start in life, but when a TV company with a God complex picked her to star in its torture-chamber-cum-opium-for-the-masses, she seized the opportunity with both plump hands. And when humiliation struck, she picked herself up and carried on and won the affection of the nation.

If she was stupid, she wasn't too stupid to make more money than I will earn in a lifetime, or to publish an autobiography (and be canny enough to get someone else to write it) or to launch a perfume (and get someone else to create it).

She did 21 miles of a marathon, which is 21 miles more than I could probably manage, and when she made silly, abusive (but not, I think, racist) comments on Celebrity Big Brother last year, she was keen to make amends. Surviving mass vilification, she decided, cleverly, to launch a perfume called "Controversial" and to take part in an Indian Big Brother, hosted by the woman she abused. Who, incidentally, doesn't think she is a racist. It was in the Indian Big Brother house that she was told yesterday that she had cervical cancer. It's in the early stages and chances of a full recovery are high.

Cancer at any age is no joke, but at 27 it's cruel. I just hope that this woman who has grown up in the full glare of a merciless media can have some privacy and peace. Jade, we wish you well.

History lessons for boys and girls

For anyone like me (and the odd American President), whose grasp of the geopolitics of the Caucasus is just a tiny bit shaky, the past week will have been somethinig of a challenge. So, just remind me: who are the good guys? The nice young man with a beard who seems to be having a nervous breakdown, or Mr Putin's neat, clean-shaven pet? Freedom's good, but you need stability and you need strength, but only from our friends, but then who are our friends? Whoops, I've lost it again. And Musharraf? Good guy? Bad guy? Or imam's egg?

For a little tutorial in world affairs and how to run them, might I suggest a cosy evening in with a takeaway and the DVD of Charlie Wilson's War?, Mike Nichols' rip-roaring tale of a coke-snorting American congressman who is persuaded by a super-glamorous blonde to raise funds to help the Afghans fight the Soviets, thus ending the Soviet invasion and, arguably, the Cold War, and launching a new era of Taliban power, is riveting, if a little far-fetched.

Except that it's largely true. Of such stuff is history made. As Anthony Beevor said on the Today programme yesterday, it's a "game played by big boys' rules".

* The other day, an American with frizzy hair tortuously slicked back à la Wall Street remarked on the "hippy look" of mine. I was tempted to say that if I was going to get up early to blow dry my hair, I might as well become an Olympic swimmer, but that frankly I was planning to do neither, and sometimes you just didn't have the will to fight hair follicles or sleep. But soon, it seems, I won't have to. German scientists have, apparently, made a breakthrough which might end bad hair days for ever. And there I was worrying that they were wasting their energy on Aids.