“Only those who risk are going too far, possibly find out how far they can go.”
T. S. Elliot
Alida Baxter was born during the Second World War, of which she has only one memory the cat carrying its kittens to the open bottom drawer where it had a bed of blankets in a chest of drawers, and her mother saying, she knows a bomb’s coming. The cat always took its kittens to a safe place when a V2 was on its way.
Her mother was evacuated to give birth in Oxfordshire, after which she immediately returned to Soho, where she and all her siblings had been born and lived, and where she and one of her sisters found, with the baby, a large flat on the top floor of a house behind Regent Street. Alida’s father was an Army captain who died after the war but while still abroad and before his daughter could have any memory of him.
Her mother and aunt were tailoresses, sewing on Savile Row suits. From childhood, her mother had been exceptionally gifted artistically and had won a scholarship to Art College, but the family had been too poor for her to take this up she had to work and earn a living. Her mother (Alida’s grandmother) had also been widowed.
The flat in Kingly Street was full of books, mostly from the second hand stalls all over Soho, and Alida can never remember wanting to do anything but write except perhaps to paint. When she was very small, she stood in a library and traced the embossed letters on the spine of a book and thought, One day I want my name to be on a book like that.
The tailors for whom her mother worked asked if the little girl, too, would go into tailoring when she grew up, and her mother said she would rather that her daughter went on the streets. It was dreadfully hard work which paid very little, despite the fact that the suits were wildly expensive and made for the most famous people in the world. Her mother sewed on jackets for innumerable celebrities, amongst them, later, President Kennedy (a dummy of him was kept at the tailor’s for fittings).
A family friend was French, and the very first year after the War when it was possible to go abroad all the women travelled to Switzerland for a holiday, beginning a long association with an Alpine village, and an aptitude for foreign languages that anyone would have if exposed to them when young.
Alida missed a great deal of schooling due to illness, and only later discovered that spending much of childhood confined to bed reading was absolutely typical of the early life of many writers.
From the time she could write at all, she wrote stories. (Her mother used to write letters for newspapers, all of which were published, and was in correspondence with many Fleet Street editors there’s still a file full of friendly letters to her, not typed but handwritten by some of the most legendary names in journalism!).
But terrible problems began when the owners of the building wanted to force their tenants out, in order to turn the flat into business premises. Rachman was already notorious in London for the tactics he used to rid himself of sitting tenants, and the family’s landlords were as bad. At night people tried to break down the door which separated the flat from the lower part of the building, while others attempted to get in from the roof, via the trapdoor that led to it. The police could only advise, but not act, and during her last two years at school Alida returned every afternoon to ask whether her mother had been able to find anywhere else for them to live. Just before her GCEs they moved to a tiny flat in a Victorian block. It was so small that, in its entirety, it would have fitted into one room of their old home, and they had to leave behind almost all their furniture.
She had been supposed to go on to higher education (the suggestion being that she should teach art, although she herself wasn’t sure about that), but the trauma of the previous years was crowned when a small Army pension allowance for her stopped when she was sixteen, and although her mother pleaded with the authorities nothing could be done.
She sat on the floor of their minute living room, looked at her exhausted mother and aunt and the remnants of their furniture and decided that only she could improve their situation, and the only way to do it was to get a job and earn money. She’d taken a commercial course whilst at school, and went to work in offices which were full of people who became marvellous material later, and in her spare time she went on studying languages and taking examinations, and occasionally writing for her own amusement.
In her late teens she wrote an unusual short story. Everybody at a literary appreciation course she attended seemed to be very struck by it, but her practical mother wanted a professional opinion and sent it to one of the Editors she knew. He wrote back, having adored it, and put her in touch with the only journalist on the paper’s staff to have acquired an agent Leslie Thomas, then a foreign correspondent, who had just written his first book.
Thanks to him, she met the agent, who thought a teenage writer of something so unusual and funny should write a book, so she expanded the story and was taken to lunch by the agent and a publisher. But the two professionals fell out the publisher thought the quirky story should be written as a book for children, whilst the agent thought she should aim at adults. Always impatient, and not really aware how unusual the situation was or that there might be ways to go farther, she walked away from them both if they couldn’t decide what was best, to Hell with them and returned to taking language and art courses, reading voraciously and even joining an amateur film unit.
The years went by, she and her mother were rehoused in a newly-built block and her aunt nearby, she got better and better and more highly paid jobs and made lengthy translations. But it wasn’t until after she had married and was living in Dolphin Square, by the river, that she started writing furiously funny articles about the difficulties of married life. She sent the very first to She magazine, and had an immediate reply, asking her to send everything else she had written it was assumed that she was a professional writer. Working at night, she wrote eight articles and every one was accepted. She visited the magazine, and the Features Editor asked why on earth she wasn’t writing for the Sunday newspapers. He also took her to meet the editor of another magazine in the same group, who immediately asked her whom she’d like to interview (she couldn’t think of an answer). But she sent an article to the Sunday Times, which was immediately accepted. When she sent a second she was rung up, and an apologetic Editor told her that their humorous writing was allocated to Jilly Cooper, so they couldn’t put anything more of hers in, no matter how much they liked it, and whispered that she should try the Observer.
She sent the article there, and when a couple of weeks passed with no reply she rang up to find out what had happened. Told they probably hadn’t reached a decision, she demanded the piece be sent back so that she could send it somewhere else, and by return got the proofs to correct. After that she wrote articles for the Observer, and for others one notorious magazine contacted her to buy a piece already published elsewhere and she then wrote for it too.
All this time she had a full time, highly paid and hectic job, plus being married and doing a lot of entertaining. One day at the office, less than a year after sending her first article to She, she had a telephone call from someone who said he was with Michael Joseph, the publishers, and Katharine Whitehorn at the Observer had told him about her that there was this girl no-one had ever heard of but they were buying everything she wrote. The man on the phone said that they were looking for new writers and would she like to come to lunch?
After several lunches, she was offered a contract to write a book and given an advance before having written a word. Thrilled, but again with no real idea how unusual all of this was, she was put in an increasingly difficult position by the fact that her husband had been offered a job abroad, in Germany. He had debts he wanted to clear, and this was the ideal way, but it meant that the only time in which to write the book was the interval between packing up their home in London and leaving for Germany when her husband found a permanent place to live. He stayed in various hotels, while she moved in with her mother, writing all night and still working at her job during the day, plus flying out to Germany every few weekends to look at properties. Her boss was so reluctant to lose her (he was able to able to spend months away from the office, knowing she could cope) that he suggested she should not resign but commute to London from Germany, flying out on Friday nights and back on Monday mornings. It was in many ways an attractive offer, but she knew she’d probably be living too far from the nearest airport to make it practicable.
When her husband finally found a house he liked, she arranged to join him without having seen where she’d be going, took the manuscript to the publishers and flew out only days later.
Life in Germany came as a shock, because it was totally unlike her previous experience of the country. She was fluent in the language, and had been there often throughout her life, but she had always visited the South, where people were informal and friendly, the food delicious and the landscape lovely.
She found herself in the flat North, far from the nearest small town and surrounded by endless miles of standing timber. The isolation was total. When she first searched her locality for a shop that sold food, she found just one, a long trek away, which had a sign on it saying it was closed for two months summer holiday.
The difficulties of reaching the nearest town for food, of coping with housekeeping that never ended in a large house which her husband suddenly insisted should always be perfect, and the formal rituals of forming friendships with local Germans were all time consuming, but she still managed to write pieces for the magazines who wanted her work. She had to find extraordinarily coloured envelopes in which to send her articles to London, so that the forewarned Editors could easily pick them out of the mail.
She knew that she would have to return to London when her first book was published the following year, and hand in the next manuscript, which the publisher awaited. But it was harder to be funny about the difficulties of marriage when she saw so much less of her husband, who regarded his firm as the most important thing in his life and was often away.
There was also the question of driving, for someone whose usual form of transport had always been taxis. Although she’d only rarely be able to borrow her husband’s car, it was essential that she should be able to drive in this wilderness, so it was eventually decided that she should stay in London the next year in the lead-up to publication, finishing the second manuscript, and taking driving lessons and her test.
Everything went perfectly she handed in her manuscript, passed the driving test immediately, and her first book was serialised in a newspaper at the same time that a magazine published it in condensed form. It even went to a Book Club, and the reception everywhere was heady and exciting, with many celebratory lunches.
Returning to Germany, she found an icy contrast. Her marriage had been very troubled for a long time, and was now even worse. Her husband said that he could not afford a divorce, so the only way forward was for her to be purely a housekeeper. Not surprisingly, the situation did not last, and she packed suitcases and flew back to London a few months later, leaving virtually all her possessions in Germany. This was supposed to be a trial separation, and her husband rang her only days later, but the call was because he’d seen she’d had a letter printed in The Sunday Times and wanted to know how much she’d been paid for it. He did not believe her when she told him there was no payment for letters, which was to set the tone for what lay ahead.
Few divorces are simple, and in this case there were many complications. It would have been far easier if everything could have been dealt with in Germany, but only after her departure did her husband tell her he’d loved someone else, who worked with him, for a long time, and the lady moved into their house.
Money, or rather the lack of it, increased the difficulties. In the career she’d had alongside her writing, she’d known one of the best lawyers in London, but she had no money. Idiotically, she didn’t realise he would have applied for the Legal Aid she was entitled to, so when her husband asked her to start divorce proceedings she just rang the Citizens Advice Bureau for a list of Legal Aid lawyers, and began talking to a series of Articled Clerks who took details and then put her file under a heap of papers.
Nor was the State helpful. Being broke and sleeping on a soft in her mother’s flat, she asked whether she could get Unemployment Benefit while she looked for a job, and learned that because she’d been out of the country and made no National Insurance contributions the previous year, she was entitled to nothing, not even if she was sick. (These rules have changed, thankfully).
She was never to forget the kindness of her mother, in putting her up (and putting up with her!) during this time, while various gay male friends empathised and were the most cheering people she knew.
She did innumerable temporary and part-time jobs, some of them fascinating, while still writing (she needed to keep in touch with her contacts, as well as making whatever she could from articles, and having to have her third book in view) and she was also looking for somewhere to live. But time passed and she was getting letters from Germany (in German now!) about the fact that the divorce wasn’t happening. Every time she rang the solicitors a new Articled Clerk would find her file, but point out that they weren’t getting any answers to vital questions. The most hilarious incident occurred when she bumped into her husband, accompanied by his lady, near Regent Street and he shouted at her that if she didn’t divorce him he’d be in the Super Tax bracket. I don’t get any tax relief for you because I’m not giving you anything, and I can’t claim for her because I’m not married to her! he raged, waving his umbrella. Afterwards she wondered whether her successor could speak English and understand what was being shouted, and somehow doubted it.
She was writing like a mad thing, and looking at flats everywhere. The ideal block was one North of Oxford Street, run by a Trust and full of theatre people, and she put her name down on a waiting list. In the meantime, the person who’d sold all the serialisation and other rights to her first book everywhere moved to another publisher, and she decided to follow.
The new publisher was famous for its wonderful parties, to all of which she was invited. By now she was a member of the National Union of Journalists, as well as being a courted author, yet it was to be several months more before she could give up the last of her part-time office jobs. She puzzled the people she met in the various companies, particularly when she typed up translations of incoming letters and attached them to mail, or turned out a week’s work in a day. What are you? she was asked. It had been terrible to lose all the money she’d ever had and to have to start from scratch all over again, but the fascinating people she met through the publishers made up for all the worry.
A Fleet Street editor invited her to lunches, and to El Vino’s to meet famous columnists, a friend invited her to a meeting of the Crime Writers Association, which she adored, talking to people whose books she’d loved reading, and all of this was a wonderful contrast to the details her husband sent of possessions to be divided, which listed tea towels.
The publication of her second book wasn’t remotely as much fun as the first, and she was right in leaving for another and far more glamorous world. It wasn’t just the parties now it appeared her books might all go to paperback, which would change everything. And she was starting on her first novel, with plans for a children’s book to follow it.
But at one of the parties two important things happened. First, the Fiction Editor of a famous magazine asked to be introduced to her a meeting that would have enormous consequences. And suddenly there before her was the agent whom she’d met when she was a teenager, and who introduced himself by repeating to her the first line of the story she’d written then, and which he told her had been unforgettable.
He asked her to meet him for lunch, and she reeled away from the party in a haze of champagne. Her husband might not want her, but all these wonderful people did, even if she was still sleeping on her mother’s sofa and writing on a kitchen table.
Lunch with the agent resulting in his acting for her, and now lunches were at the most expensive places in London. But he didn’t involve himself in her journalism, and the Fiction Editor she’d met at the same party also took her to lunch and asked her if she’d ever considered writing stories in several parts, and mentioned the sort of money that was usually offered for book deals.
She was already known as a writer of short stories, and those in the mystery genre resulted in her becoming a member of the Crime Writers Association a delightful social club.
Yet another lunch was with her publisher and the illustrator of her autobiographies, Bill Tidy. The lovely man drew a cartoon on the damask tablecloth at the end of the meal, and said that the last time he had done this, the restaurant had waived the bill in exchange for the drawing. Instead the furious maitre d’ added a fantastic sum to the charges. Bill Tidy took up the tablecloth and put it in her handbag, and only years later she discovered that her mother had found it and washed it!
She was given a wonderful party for the publication of her third book, having been lined up for innumerable media interviews, and with her first novel accepted she was finishing the children’s book when she was asked to write the book of Two’s Company, the television series. But what about her next non-fiction? She decided it should be a travel book, and this could be tied in with her books being launched in paperback in Australia and New Zealand the following year.
Everything happened at once. Her divorce was absolute at last, and a flat had become vacant in the Victorian block North of Oxford Street. It was in a terrible state and decorators had to remove six layers of wallpaper, but at last she had her own home, so small it was christened The Wendy House.
Her possessions arrived from Germany, but things were missing because she hadn’t been able to remember and list them. At least, though, she had her precious typewriter.
A relationship with a writer ended, and another with a best-selling author much older than herself started. She was reviewing books and interviewing writers now, and finishing Two’s Company before leaving for Australia.
From the moment she arrived there, the media blitz began and built. Television, radio, newspaper and magazine interviews, from first thing in the morning till she fell into an hotel bed at night to make notes about everything for the book she would write. By the time she reached the third state on her itinerary she had promised to return to the one she’d just left for more television and had been invited to the South Pole. Letters from home were waiting for her everywhere from the man she’d left behind, who phoned daily and relayed all news to her mother, whom he visited in order to have long talks about her.
Another state, a near-crash in a light aircraft, New Zealand’s north island, Singapore she turned down invitations to casinos in Tasmania and holidays on New Zealand ‘s south island, and after months away she flew back to London.
Her publishers, who’d taken care of her almost constantly, celebrated her return. Her books had sold in sensational numbers and the Australian media wanted her back the following year whether she wrote another word or not.
When her first novel was published in the autumn, her lover gave her the only leather-bound de luxe edition of his own first novel, which had been made into a famous film. He took her to Cambridge to show her his old college, and she fell in love with the place.
She’d introduced him to her publisher, for whom he would subsequently write a book dedicated to her, for a sensational advance, which was to solve many problems for him.
At Christmas the publisher’s Sales Director came to collect the manuscript of the travel book and take her to dinner, and she had no idea that all this happiness and success would soon be ending.
The Chief Editor who’d constantly chivvied to know about the next book left to start a family, and nobody rang to discuss what she had in mind now. The person who’d sold all the rights had gone elsewhere. The Sales Director and his team were wonderful, but in the meantime she seemed to have no-one with whom to discuss future plans.
Except her agent, who was also a small publisher, and was insisting she leave the firm with which she was so happy and sign a contract with him. He’d had an idea for the title and form of a novel he wanted her to write, which must be set in America, and she could stay in his luxurious New York apartment to do any research she wanted. She’d wanted to write something set in Soho, and to write another travel book (she’d been told her latest was the best she’d ever written) this time about the Far East, but he was interested in neither of these suggestions. Everything about his proposition worried her, but he seemed to be sure it would crack the American market, and no-one on the editorial staff of her publishers had rung her. More, he said that if she stayed with her present publishers he would no longer act for her. Fatally, she signed his contract.
Much later, a reviewer she’d always liked told her that the worst thing you should ever do with a successful brand was to change it, but it was far too late by then.
Too late as well, her publishers rang her agent, but the only result was a row. They still gave her a party when her travel book was published, but in the meantime everything that could go wrong had. The stay in the New York apartment didn’t materialise, and the man in her life was overtaken by troubles and had to rush to tax exile in Ireland. When she landed in New York she was covered in a stress-related skin condition that looked like smallpox, and the small publisher who’d been such a good agent had no support network like the organisation that had been available for her all over Australia. Even hotel bookings fell through, and the Sales Director of her previous publisher was far more concerned about what was happening than anybody at her new one.
Worse still, she flew back having been rung and told that her aunt was desperately ill in hospital and might be dying. Although her aunt survived, from then on she and her mother would have to share the responsibility for an increasingly frail elderly woman.
At what had been her agent’s office, there was no Public Relations department to line up interviews and advertising when the book she’d had to force her way through was published, and the fact that a massive film deal was nearly secured was no consolation. But it went to paperback after hardback, while the publisher who’d been her agent (and who’d been delighted with the manuscript) had another idea, another title for a novel he wanted her to write but with which she felt no connection. The only consolation was the amount of lucrative writing she was doing for magazines, but when she suggested that all this might be sold abroad her publisher/agent wasn’t interested. She also pointed out that one of the features she’d written could easily be developed as a non-fiction book, but having initially agreed with her he changed his mind.
The second novel for him also went to paperback, despite having had no publicity, but by now she was so miserable at locking herself away in her flat, writing books to order and not from her heart, with no more lovely publisher’s parties to go to, that she knew she didn’t want to do it any more. The parting was bitter, but she discovered that in his case this wasn’t unusual.
An agent who dealt in such things began selling the foreign rights to her features and stories all over the world. Startling amounts from America, money from the Far East, from Australia , and all for work which she’d had her heart in.
Then a publisher approached her about a book in her old, humorous autobiographical style, but abruptly she lost contact the agent, who was making life changes. And suddenly television discovered her she was invited on chat shows, met very pleasant and interesting people, but had an important invitation withdrawn by the BBC when she agreed to sign a contract with the new rival breakfast channel. As intrigued as many others, she found herself involved in the chaos of TVAM.
It was fun learning to read an autocue, but not arriving to tape a piece only to find no studio booked, no camera crew and no lighting. She braced herself for 5.00 a.m. starts, but couldn’t adjust to being constantly rung late at night with changes of schedule. Or being driven in to review, live, a programme seen a few hours before, and finding just seconds left for an item the choice was not to talk, or to gabble. An entire script she’d written could be gone when she arrived in the morning, and there was continuous nagging to get pay owed her (and everyone else). Then journalists began besieging the building amidst rumours of fallings out amongst the most important people in the organisation.
It had been an extraordinary experience, which she wouldn’t have missed, but she left, telling people she had to write a book. She had to give an acceptable reason nobody gave up the chance to be on television. As a guest on evening shows, she’d loved it, but she could only admire people who, no matter what the mayhem, were able to be bright and witty at dawn.
A new agent took her to lunch and asked to handle her foreign rights, and what was on offer was far better than locking herself away again, for all the time necessary to produce a full length manuscript. So, finally coming to a decision, she didn’t proceed with that, but wrote what Editors welcomed, what she enjoyed, and what was so successful abroad. Everything would have been lovely, if her aunt and mother hadn’t needed her more and more so much so that eventually she had to leave her little flat and move to one in the block where they lived, to be on hand constantly.
All this time, the man in her life had been sometimes there, sometimes not, very interesting, very possessive she’d joined him in Ireland, he’d come back to England, he took her on holidays but the relationship was always subject to change, the man unpredictable, while still making himself part of her family, charming them all and even taking her mother away with them. Repeatedly, when she and mother went abroad for a break, he would turn up at the airport and fly out with them. And then, back in England, go away again. He’d taken her to look at flats, at houses, all over London and in their favourite place, Cambridge. He broke up any other relationship she started, vanished, returned to swamp her with flowers, an engagement ring, phone calls, and finally blamed her for not recognising he was bipolar. She ran away and hid in an hotel, not telling her mother where she was because she knew he would plead for the information and get it, but she had to come home sometime, and there he was again, having rung her closest friend daily about the future he planned for her and those she loved. He was the best possible material for articles and stories about unsatisfactory lovers, but the emotional cost was high. It went on for ten years, until the rest of her life became too difficult to cope with him too.
Her aunt had died, her mother had fought and beaten cancer but had many other physical problems and then suffered from dementia, just as her aunt had done. Writing about dementia, she got some of the biggest post bags she’d ever had.
At first she could continue working, but always with the interruption of midnight rushes to hospital in ambulances, and daily visits to feed and wash the patient and have discussions with doctors. In the last years work was impossible she hardly had time to clean her own teeth, and rarely slept.
After her mother’s death, although having to try and get over what she’d witnessed, she began to work again, even writing stories which were dramatised on television, and a year later was booked on a wonderful holiday when she strained her back. For many years she’d been helped by excellent physiotherapy, but in the absence of her usual therapist someone used straps to traction her spine, with terrifying results. Still in her forties, she was never to be out of pain or able to travel again.
In the treatment of back problems there are good and bad people everywhere, and she tried them all. The best were a new physiotherapist and a wonderful surgeon, but a private operation only resulted in partial and temporary relief. A second, massive operation had to be on the National Health, and unfortunately, although it changed her life, the change was for the worse. Since then she has become a connoisseur of hospitals, consultants, and their overworked secretaries. Nothing more can be done for her spine.
Incredibly, the man who’d been such a part of her life had returned armed with red roses, but, clear sighted, she realised that what he wanted now was someone to look after him. When she didn’t get better, he continued to need her as a confidante, whilst looking around for someone else to nurse him in old age, and finding the right candidate. He still rang her almost daily, until he died.
Her mother had continued mountain walking in Switzerland till the end of her seventies, and she’d expected to be the same. But she has learned how unpredictable life can be. She lives in a small flat in Soho, where she spends most of her time lying flat because that’s the only way she’s comfortable, listens to audio books and Jacques Brel songs, watches old movies, and shares her knowledge of the area, its history and its community whenever she can.