Ysenda Maxtone – Graham D75 – 78.
Sharing a dormitory in Duckworth House with Paromita Sanatani, Karen Davies and Helen Nickalls, I started at Dover College aged 12 in 1975. Tins of talcum powder from Woolworth’s crowded our dressing tables. Mrs Tuckwell was our bracing housemistress. Hockey five times a week; ankles whacked, fingers frozen, as the hands on the chapel clock moved round far too slowly. Helen and I also did Junior Nursing with Mrs Tuckwell as our Friday-afternoon ‘Activity’, learning how to resuscitate, using an inflatable dummy called ‘Rescussy-Anne’.
I had two superb English teachers: first Mr Townsend and then Mr Bax. I also had the delightful Mr Wright, with his ultra-clean blackboard, for German. All three inspired me to work in the world of words and writing. I went on to King’s Canterbury to do A levels, and then to Girton College, Cambridge to read English.
‘Get into publishing!’ I thought – and (luckily) failed to get a job at Faber & Faber as secretary to the Sales manager. Instead I worked as a temporary sub-editor at Harpers & Queen, covering another sub-editor’s maternity leave. When that was about to end, my father told me to write to the editor to say ‘please may I stay? I love it here.’ The editor said yes. Ever since, I’ve been advising younger people to dare to ask people for things. Knock, and the door just might be opened unto you. From subbing I moved on to features writing and started writing for The Sunday Telegraph and Evening Standard.
I got married aged thirty to Michael, a media lawyer and keen amateur pianist, and life then went book, baby, baby, book, baby, book, book book, book. See how much freer life became as those three boys grew up! The Real Mrs Miniver (2011) was a biography of my grandmother Jan Struther, who created the character of Mrs Miniver in her anonymous Times columns that started in 1938. Hollywood’s Mrs Miniver film came out in 1942 with Greer Garson in the title role, and it did wonders for Allied propaganda. My grandmother was far from being the contented Chelsea housewife that Mrs Miniver was, and that book told the story. It was shortlisted for the Whitbread Biography of the Year award.
A barren patch in the career followed the birth of the third baby. All my contacts in the world of journalism seemed to have vanished into thin air, and I felt bereft and depressed. Then I wrote a brief history of the eccentric Catholic boys’ prep school where my youngest sons went, Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School, never expecting it to be published, but it was snapped up by Slightly Foxed and was a surprising success.
Writing that, as well as rereading the works of Angela Brazil, inspired me to write a non-fiction book about what life was really like for girls in girls’ boarding schools in the mid-twentieth century. I thought of the book’s title, Terms & Conditions, on a dog-walk. That, too, did well, expressing more than I realised about the way daughters’ education in those days was far less important to many parents than sons’ education. It was a chronicle of lino floors, chilblains, lacrosse, table manners and spinster schoolmistresses in long cardigans, pacing the corridors.
This summer, just when lockdown was easing and (in a normal year) the school summer holidays would be starting, my latest book British Summer Time Begins: The School Summer Holidays, 1930-1980 came out, published by Little, Brown. It was Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4 and a Sunday Times bestseller, and seems to be being widely enjoyed, thank goodness. My question was: what happened when you walked out of the school gates in early July into ‘the balmy ocean of unscheduled time’? How did you spend those long, empty weeks, and how did they form you into the person you are today? This book was a chronicle of grass, ham sandwiches, sand, siblings, rusty bikes and hours spent hitting a ball against the back wall. Any of us who lived through those uneventful summers of the 1960s found life in lockdown highly recognizable, as well as a breeze.
I’m now starting on a new book, and am also reviewing books regularly for the Daily Mail and The Times.