All the books I have written are in some ways personal memoir, that odd category now studied in universities as “life writing.” They are all very different. My first book , Scarlet Ribbons: A priest with AIDS, (published in 1997) was about my brother, Simon Bailey, and the remarkable support he received in his illness and death, from his Yorkshire mining village parish.
By early 1995 Simon had become the Vicar With AIDS. His natural inclination had been to avoid the spotlight but eventually he had grasped the media nettle and agreed to make a television programme for the BBC Everyman series about his illness and the remarkable support he had received from the parish. The programme, which was broadcast in January 1995, produced a phenomenal response, hundreds and hundreds of letters, sympathetic, supportive but many also pouring out their own problems; gay and straight, bereaved, grieving, carers and people with AIDs themselves. An avalanche of suffering detonated by Simon’s own pain; he had become the wounded healer, able to articulate and understand the pain of others.
When I declared myself a journalist to the TV producer I knew I had made a decision to engage, that it was going to be impossible to sit on the sidelines and let someone else tell the story. The journalist and the bossy elder sister combined inexorably. I wrote an article for The Independent on Sunday to complement the TV programme and we talked about the possibility of a book. Simon and I began recording conversations, and I started to interview his parishioners and his friends. It seemed very important to put on record what had happened there in Dinnington, the symbiosis between Simon and his parish which had produced such a surprising response to a situation which most would have expected to end in bitter and scandalous tragedy. When I told my pagan friends what was happening they were always astonished. It didn’t sound at all like the church they had rejected either.
I began to realise that in choosing to get to know Simon better I would suffer more grief. But I knew this was better than an unresolved relationship. And I wanted to try and find this brother of mine; I wanted to know who he was and where he found his strength and power to live. One Easter morning I went up to the altar rail and knelt to take communion from him. At one time I had sworn I would never kneel to my own brother, but now this fragment of wafer and sip of wine from the silver chalice had a different meaning for me. I didn’t believe in the sacrament but I found myself believing passionately in this community, this particular place, these ordinary folk.
In some ways Scarlet Ribbons “told the tale of the tribe” articulating the experience of the people of Dinnington as they lived through my brother’s illness and death. So when I came to write Life in a Postcard, (published in 2002) about our escape to live in the French Pyrenees, I felt I was doing the same thing, telling the tale of the tribe of Mosset, recording a period of time when the village changed from an inward looking rural enclave to a community which welcomed outsiders and foreigners, artists, potters, elderly English ladies and punk hermits with equal relish. I wanted to cherish and celebrate the real depth of community I found.
Writing about people you know has its challenges and drawbacks. Novelists do it all the time but they disguise their sources as fictional characters. Fay Weldon once said to me when I was struggling with research for an article, “Write fiction! Then you can just make it all up.” Somehow to me though real life always seems infinitely more interesting than creating an imaginary world.
I was writing about my brother’s illness and death as it happened. Interviewing him on one occasion about his attitude to death as he lay in his hospital bed. He didn’t mind.
I have always kept journals and drew on them extensively for both those books. In Scarlet Ribbons I also used Simon’s own journals, a strange and deeply intimate experience. I wrote a lot about our experiences in France, the problems of moving and living in a new country, restoring our monastery, and getting to know a small Pyrenean village, but it was a long time before I consciously tried to craft the material into a book. I began the book at a very low point. I needed to make money (one Amazon Books contributor complained about this, that I wrote for money, as if writers should not expect to earn money!) I wanted to try and figure out quite what I thought I was doing there. Why was I pursuing such a romantic dream?
Once I began consciously writing of course, everything, however traumatic, became good copy, from the leaking roof to the squabbles with the farmers and the regular invasions of horses and cows in the garden.
It is undoubtedly strange to write about events as they happen, and one is always conscious of the effect of the writing on events. The real challenge is how to be truthful without doing damage. In an odd way I became used to the writing being part of the living process. Sometimes when I was writing about my brother my family would say, “Are you going to write this down?” and with Life in a Postcard, my son Theo was occasionally horrified at me noting down something he said, and we had to negotiate what he thought was appropriate for me to include. We had a long discussion over the colour of his eyes; “They’re not grey, Mum, they’re grey-green,” which though accurate didn’t sound so poetic. When he finally came to read the book after it was published his editorial comments were trenchant. Of a chapter about the history of the village, entitled, “A cavern of bandits and thieves” he remarked, That’s not a very good title – only a policeman would want to read that.”
My husband agreed to my writing about him and about our relationship, sorely tested by our French adventures. As a biographer of among others, American Beat poet, Allen Ginsberg, whose whole philosophy was one of total openness in his poetry and his life, he could hardly do otherwise. And he too has published a book about his own experiences, in Sixties London, ( In the Sixties by Barry Miles, published by Jonathan Cape) in which he had to negotiate the delicate path of writing about friends and personal experiences.
For Life in a Postcard Miles volunteered to be the fall guy, “You can make me the old curmudgeon,” he offered, complaining about his unwilling rustication, French farmers and the iniquities of the French Internet. But try as I might to caricature him he emerged as a sympathetic character nonetheless, what one reader described as a “quiet hero.”
When I came to write about the community in a small French village, I was anxious not to create a cast of caricatures. I tried to ensure that people knew I was writing a book. In some cases where I had written a lot about them; Gerard the Dutch gardener, Hans the donkey man, Paul the stone mason, I gave them sections to read before it was published. They also corrected some of my worst faux pas; Vosges cattle that were black and white not brown, as I had written, the colour of Californian poppies and the correct recipe for lime mortar.
The only negative reactions came from the gay grandfathers in the village (there are two). One objected to me describing him as gay, the other for calling him a grandfather. “You make me sound old,” he grumbled.
It seemed important that the village should know what I had written about them, but since few could read well in English, it was necessary to translate it for them. The culture vultures of the village offered to organise the event, and it rapidly evolved into a celebration of Sant Jordi, the patron saint of Catalonia. In Spanish Catalonia, Sant Jordi (St George- the same one as England) is celebrated on 23 rd April as a festival of books. It is also as it happens the birthday of both Shakespeare and Cervantes. Women give books to men, and men give red roses to women. Mosset would do the same, it was decided. Bu the time I returned from promoting the book publication in Britain, a brochure had been produced – but entirely in Catalan, not even French, including the description of my English book. It somehow seemed bizarrely appropriate in this Village du Monde (as it is proudly sign-posted) of over a dozen nationalities, in the border land of French Catalonia between France and Spain.
On that occasion we translated a section in the book about the benefit held in the village for a young couple, struggling to set up a dairy business. Isabelle a “true” Mossetan and her “foreign” husband, a cow herder from the Vosges in the north of France, had been forced to destroy all their cows as a result of a brucellosis scare, and their budding enterprise seemed doomed to failure. The whole community rallied behind them and raised enough money to buy more cows. The event was symbolic to me of the strong community I had found.
My proudest moment came later when the village of Mosset was awarded the accolade, “one of the most beautiful villages of France.” In his speech about the village the mayor, Olivier Betoin, quoted my description of that event, translated into French, “ All ages, several nationalities, French, Catalan, Spanish, Dutch, Belgian, Algerian, Chilean, English. There were singles, gays, lesbians, divorcees both with different partners, adopted children, foster children, even a few conventional legitimate offspring. Teetotallers and pot smokers, fascists and feminists, politicians and beekeepers, farmers, gardeners, teachers, potters, donkey owners, tinkers, tailors, soldiers, sailors, beggarmen and doubtless thieves too. Not to mention the writers, artists, nurses, carpenters, builders, librarians and jugglers.”
One of the best thing about writing Life in a Postcard was that the process of writing helped me resolve many of the issues with which we were confronted and learn more about what I really wanted. Indeed the process has changed my feelings and helped me understand the compromises and conflicts we have all experienced.
Oddly the lovely building which first brought us here is no longer the most important thing, though I cherish it and would dearly like to complete the restoration. I treasure even more the rugged beauty of the Pyrenean landscape in which it is set and the community I have found.
I wanted to write more about the Pyrenees, a region which has had little written about it, apart from walking books, since the 19th century. The Man who Married a Mountain, A Journey through the French Pyrenees, (published in 2005) combines personal memoir with travel and history. I became fascinated by the eccentric and inspired character of the 19 th century mountaineer, Count Henry Russell, who seemed more than anyone to have fully explored and celebrated these beautiful mountains. I felt if I could understand him and his story it would help me to appreciate the mountains more, and understand the region better.
I decided I wanted to see the Pyrenees through the eyes of Russell and his 19 th century contemporaries. I had lived at the Eastern end, in the Mediterranean Pyrenees, for seven years, and decided to explore some of the romantic sights further afield- the great waterfall of Gavarnie, longest in Europe, the Lac de Gaube, the Pic du Midi with its famous Observatory. I travelled sometimes alone, occasionally en famille, and sometimes with my son Theo, then aged 12, hoping to share with him some of its beauty. Travelling with Theo added a dimension of appreciation, and a way of deepening our relationship, that I will always treasure.
The more I discovered about Russell, his proto-hippie travels across Siberia, to China, Japan and Australia and a year spent walking around India, his passion for the mountain tops, his romantic communing with nature, the more of an echo I found with the people I had begun to know in my own Pyrenean village. Not the prosaic peasants, really, but the hippies, the potters, the painters, the rainbow warriors, the teepee dwellers, who seemed to embody the same spirit, of seeking space, and inspiration in the mountains. We could all find refuge in this magical land.