Interview: Shirley Conran, writer
BEFORE Sex and the City, before Fifty Shades of Grey, there was Shirley Conran’s bonkbuster Lace. Now being reissued 30 years on, it’s ageing just as well as its glamorous author
I T’S a typical Thursday morning chez Shirley Conran, beginning with three outfit changes and a grand tour, and ending with a gift impeccably wrapped in white tissue paper and ribbon. All in all, a satisfying encounter with the original Superwoman.
It was Conran, after all, who taught harried housewives of the 1970s that “life’s too short to stuff a mushroom”, sofas are for lying on, not sweeping under, and rugs can hide a multitude of sins (the devil dust, in other words). It’s a relief to discover that even as she approaches her 80th birthday and the 30th anniversary of her famous bonkbuster Lace, Conran remains a paragon of softly coiffeured and hard-nosed efficiency. “This is my dressing room,” she murmurs, opening a door off the hall where she still practises her model’s walk every morning.
“And here are my clothes for the week.” She opens a wardrobe and waves a bejewelled hand at seven outfits, cleaned and pressed. A signature Superwoman principle in action.
We’re in Conran’s elegantly restored art deco mansion flat in the leafiest outreaches of south-west London. A carefully constructed, orchid-scented atmosphere of peace and industry pervades, a combination you tend to find in the homes of rich people. A young, glamorous personal assistant whispers me through the door, while a cleaner is busy in the kitchen.
I’m instructed to wait for Conran in the lounge, a room dreamt up to make Elle Decoration editors swoon. Cushions standing on their points crowd low-slung white sofas. Books line white walls. Magazines are fanned out on glass tables flanked by Regency chairs. A weighty coffee table book of David Hockney landscapes lies open with a magnifying glass placed reverentially beside it. A stone bust of Queen Victoria surveys the immaculate scene from the window sill.
Then Conran appears, wafting in wearing a powder blue jacket, white tunic with a hint of lace, white trousers and canary yellow flats. Her hair has the bouffancy you would hope for in a writer whose most famous line in Lace is “which one of you bitches is my mother?”. Her eyes are very blue and shrewd. Her face is lived in but not that much, thanks to a nip here and tuck there. “I can’t get this room to look untidy enough,” she sighs, giving me a barely-there handshake. “It always ends up looking as if I’m expecting photographers.”
She ushers me into a walk-in closet filled with more clothes, bags and shoes than even the creators of Sex and the City could imagine. Then again, Lace – which also tracked the lives, loves and libidos of four glamorous working women – was around long before Carrie and co started necking cosmopolitans. This was having it all, 1980s-style, as in bigger hair and loadsa money.
Anyway, the kitchen is even better: a glittering black affair that looks more like a nightclub than a place to do the washing up. I mean this literally, by the way. There is a sprung wooden dance floor and a sound system loud enough to make your bones shake. “I’m just demonstrating that I can have a bit of action in here,” she bellows as she cranks up the volume. And then, once the music has died down, “I’m afraid my grandchildren use it more.”
Conran has lived here for 13 years. “It has got the same square footage as my five-storey house in Regent’s Park, but without the stairs,” she says pragmatically, referring to the home she bought from her first husband, design tycoon Sir Terence Conran, after their divorce in the early 1960s. He had an affair and she walked away with nothing, bringing up their two children, Sebastian and Jasper (both designers) alone. It was partly this experience that lit the fire in her belly. Conran became passionate about the feminist issues that would inform the rest of her life: a woman’s right to work, money, help with housework and childcare and, last but not least, sex. And she started writing about it.
She reinvented herself as a journalist, becoming the first women’s editor of the Observer magazine and then the Daily Mail, where she launched the first women’s pages (Femail) on Fleet Street. Then, when a spell in hospital with pneumonia led to chronic and for many years undiagnosed ME, she left journalism and bounced back again as a writer. First it was practical guides for women (Superwoman and a series of others) on how to live, work and clean, and then came her wildly successful “female empowerment” novels. “My friend Anthony [Burgess] was living in Monte Carlo and invited me there,” she recalls.
“I had no money at the time and he knew that I could rent out my London basement for £135 a week and rent a studio in Monte Carlo overlooking the beach for £35 a week. It was a no-brainer. I decided to try and write one last book to make money.”
For the next 18 months, Conran, whose circle included everyone from Mary Quant to Princess Diana, Bruce Chatwin (who died in her house in Provence) to the Duke of Bedford, saw no one. She wrote every day from 8am to 6pm. “I had been researching a sex instruction book for teenage girls, a sort of Superwoman about sex,” she explains. “But I decided to turn it into fiction. All the other stuff came out of my own life. The background and the people in Lace are real. It’s only the plot that is invented.” She pauses. “It was a very difficult time for me. I wasn’t well. I had left Fleet Street. But Lace turned out to be my own Cinderella story. It saved me.”
Lace sold millions and set a European record for an advance when Simon and Schuster bought it for a whopping $750,000. Ostensibly about sex, shopping and a certain eye-popping activity with a goldfish, underneath all the raunch, ruffles and rude bits it was a feminist tract. Like Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls, Lace was that rarest of beasts: a mainstream book with a subversive message. A Hollywood producer described it to Conran as an enormous creamy meringue that is somehow good for you. “My book was very much about the empowerment of women,” she tells me.
“It was about women making their way in the world and not just having their sights set on getting married. And it was unashamedly about clothes. I was pissed off that there was so much detail in James Bond that we had to hop over. I just did the same for women. And it’s also a novel about how women treat each other. I don’t think female friendship was as confidently accepted when Lace came out as it is now. When I was a girl you would drop your date with a girlfriend whenever some weedy, spotty youth phoned up and asked you to the pictures.” She flashes me a tight, wicked smile. “Mind you, sometimes spotty men can be really very nice.”
Lace was also, of course, about sex. “When I wrote [it],” she notes in a new introduction to the reissue of the book, “the average man thought the clitoris was a Greek hotel.” The huge amount of sex in Lace was feminist too in its explicit defence of female pleasure. “I embarked on a one-woman geographical lesson to tell everyone where the clitoris is,” Conran admits. “But I was a bit surprised that Lace was seen as a sexy book. I thought I was being subtle about it.” We both howl with laughter at her knowing understatement.
Which, inevitably, brings us to that famous scene, featuring an Arabian prince, a lucky conquest and a goldfish. How the hell did she come up with it? “It wasn’t me,” she admits. “Terence came back from a trip to Finland and told me about it. It wasn’t a goldfish, though, it was a stickleback. God knows how many goldfish have been killed over the years because of me. It might still go on for all I know. I haven’t been there personally,” she adds airily. “But I was once handcuffed by a chap and hated it.”
Conran, if you haven’t already guessed, is a riot of an interviewee. She is bossy, canny, clever and occasionally outrageous. It’s like a well-honed act that has, over the years, become her true self. Even now that she tires easily, and meanders all over the place when recounting a story, she is brilliant at playing the ageing eccentric. When I tell her I spent a pleasurable week reading Lace, she raises her eyebrows and replies, “Oh really? My ex-husband paid his lawyer to read it, to check whether there was anything to sue me about. A lovely job for £250 an hour.” Did he find anything? “Well Terence didn’t sue me,” she replies. “But I don’t think his lawyer did a very good job.”
She comes across as someone who learnt how to maximise herself at a Swiss finishing school (which, of course, she did). And she knows exactly how to play the game. This is why, after putting down her pen in the mid-1990s, she turned to the issues themselves, founding the likes of the Work-Life Balance Trust (she invented the now common phrase), advising government and, in 2004, accepting an OBE for services to equality.
Talk eventually turns to Fifty Shades of Grey. Conran has already been hilariously candid about EL James’s erotic trilogy, branding it “baby porn” (as opposed to mummy porn) in a tabloid. “It does show that there is a huge demand for porn for women,” she says. “By that I mean erotica that puts you in the mood, though I’m not sure that a man knows what I’m saying. It doesn’t mean I want penetration now. It means foreplay, and I can’t really be more technical than that.” And does Fifty Shades scratch that particular itch? “No more than a deep freeze does,” she says with a withering glance. “You clearly haven’t read it.”
Conran was born in 1932 in London, the eldest of six. Her mother was a housewife and her father a wealthy dry cleaning entrepreneur. He was also a violent alcoholic who regularly beat his wife and children. “In those days the father was the king of the castle and the daughter was a handmaiden,” she says. “The only difference with my father was that he was an alcoholic, and he was violent. I just think it’s such a waste. I’ve always thought it was very sad that he spent so much on us and we hated him, loathed him. He was the ogre.”
She went to St Paul’s school, where she was taught by women whose fiancés had died in the First World War. “Although they never explicitly told us we were any man’s equal, it was understood.” After a further year in that Swiss finishing school (which inspired the opening section of Lace and taught her how to deal with silk knickers falling off at a dance), she studied fashion in Portsmouth, but only because the sculpture department was next door. “The fashion department was full of girls called June drawing white neck dresses on pale blue paper,” she says, rolling her eyes. “As soon as I heard the sculpture department had a vacancy, I shot off.”
Two years later, her father kicked her out and she worked as a waitress and photographic model until she had saved enough to go to Chelsea Polytechnic and fulfil her dream to study painting. “In the first term I met Terence,” she continues. “I used to go and waitress in his coffee bar in exchange for a free meal. I’ve done a bit of washing up in my time. But then again, who hasn’t? Anyway, one thing led to another and we got married. I suppose it was love in the scullery.” She laughs.
In Lace, one of the women, Maxine, has to cope with her husband’s infidelity for many years. He doesn’t talk about it. She doesn’t admit she knows. I wonder if this was based on Conran’s own experience? “Absolutely right,” she says. “Terence and I have still not discussed our divorce. You know, I didn’t want to leave him but on the other hand I knew I would not have survived if I’d stayed. I knew the situation. Everybody in our circle knew the situation. I had talked to the woman herself. Being humiliated like that is literally depressing ... it grinds you down. It’s like water on a stone. Slowly, slowly, it wears you away.”
Eventually, she left with her two young children. “I didn’t get a thing,” she says. “And I’d like to make it clear that I didn’t ask for anything. It does irritate me that some people, including Terence, think I walked away with a small fortune.” She was working for Conran Fabrics at the time of the split but was sacked when the marriage ended. “I got my pay envelope from the accountant and there was £14 in it,” she recalls. “£7 for the week and £7 severance. It didn’t go very far.”
Two more marriages followed, but neither worked out. “I was recently hotly pursued by a very, very desirable man,” she says conspiratorially. “Good looking, 6ft 2in, much younger than me. He was very serious and I had to consider whether I wanted to get married again at the age of 80.” And does she? “No, no, no, no,” she squeals. “He might want to watch football on a Saturday afternoon. I might not be able to eat baked beans in bed at 3am if I want to. You know, I am very happy ... well, not exactly happy but very, very contented. If I could continue this way until I die, and if I could drop down in my hall, I would be very grateful. I do not want that feeling of being a doormat again.”
And so we come back to Lace and another of the main characters. Kate is a beautiful and successful journalist who is powerful at work and submissive in love. She is, of course, Conran. “I am Kate,” she tells me, “but I would have fiercely denied it until about five years ago. And that’s because Kate was such a success at being a success and such a failure at being a woman.” That’s very harsh. “Yes,” she replies, “but that’s how it is. It’s very easy to see why. My dad ... well, it’s a cliché. But nice men bore me. It’s the wicked pirates I like, and pirates don’t do domestic life.”
It wasn’t until the 30th anniversary reissue of Lace that Conran sat down and read her own book for the first time. She was struck by how much of it really happened. There was the time a designer stole her son Jasper’s first collection, or when the husband of a best friend had a heart attack on their honeymoon. “It was like opening a scrapbook and going down memory lane with a vengeance,” she says. “I thought, ‘My God, Sebastian and Jasper will know where every line in this book has come from.’ The background of Lace really is the foreground of my life.”
Conran is getting tired, though she is too polite to say so. She had an operation on her foot recently, the anaesthetic tube tore her vocal cords and her throat is scratchy. Also, living with ME means she gets exhausted and has to rest often. We say our goodbyes, but as I’m walking out of the door, she calls me back. “What size are you?” she asks, looking me up and down. Then the original Superwoman scurries away and returns with a package. “Open it now,” she commands. So right there on Shirley Conran’s doorstep I tear off the tissue paper. And inside, neatly folded, is a pair of white lace shorts.
• Lace, the 30th anniversary edition, is published by Canongate in paperback and ebook on 2 August
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