A life in the day of Hunter Davies

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HUNTER DAVIES is trotting around his leafy Lake District garden in his It Ain't Half Hot Mum baggy shorts when he smells burning. He scampers to the side of the house, where his builder has lit a small bonfire. "I was saving those bits of wood," he groans, because he never likes to throw anything away. "I'm very thrifty; it's my pure Scottish blood," he adds, gazing mournfully at the tiny conflagration.

Then he's off again, nippily leading the way to his orchard so that he can show off his apple trees, despite the fact that he has an arthritic knee. "Don't mention the bad knee," he urges, although he has written endlessly in countless publications about his aches and pains, his operations, his torn cartilage and even an epileptic seizure he suffered at his daughter Flora's wedding party, brought on by a combination of painkillers and wine.

We have to see his tree-house, he says, tramping through the long grass, because he built it himself from carefully gathered pieces of wood and old railway sleepers. Now 70, the prolific author and biographer of The Beatles, Paul Gascoigne and Wayne Rooney, isn't joking about his canny ways. Being a bit of a cheeky chappie, he even recycles words.

His latest book is a gossipy memoir, The Beatles, Football and Me, and he freely admits that most of it has already appeared elsewhere in the avalanche of articles and books he is for ever writing about his life, his family, his beloved Lake District and his many obsessions, which range from the aforementioned football to collecting prime ministers' autographs, Beatrix Potter first editions and even stamps. If ever a man was wearing a metaphorical anorak, it's Hunter Davies.

"I can't think why he wanted to write his memoirs," sighs his 68-year-old wife, the celebrated novelist and best-selling biographer Margaret Forster, who is known for speaking her mind. "It's embarrassing."

But write the book he did, and it's an enjoyable read, particularly the chapters about his childhood, growing up on the brink of poverty on a council estate in Carlisle, his apprenticeship in journalism in Manchester and his years in Fleet Street. He charts his time as women's editor at the Sunday Times, which led to him being lampooned by Private Eye as 'Oonter Underpants Davies'. He also edited the colour magazine, inventing the much-emulated 'A life in the day of' slot, which is still running 30 years on. He even recycled that idea, he says proudly. He first came up with it while editing Palatinate, the student newspaper at Durham University.

Davies wanted to call his autobiography A Life in the Day of since it is a reference to both The Beatles and his long career, but his publishers insisted nobody would know what it meant and that The Beatles and football would be a better combination. The jury's still out on the 'me'. "Having decided to write about me, there is little escape from me," Davies reckons. "In all the books I've done, even those about other people, some have been totally self-obsessed. With this book, it has been difficult to avoid becoming self-obsessed by myself."

So what has he learned from doing the book? "Nothing about myself, except how lucky I've been, which I knew already. And what a lousy memory I have for dates and people's names," he replies.

His is a life in which ordinary and extraordinary things have happened, such as being with The Beatles, Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull when they heard that Brian Epstein was dead. He was also in the Abbey Road studios during the making of much of the music for several albums, including Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The Fab Four would often visit Davies at home, bringing their wives and girlfriends for tea or a meal. John Lennon would talk to Forster about books, or sometimes just sit in a daze. Indeed, shortly after Yoko Ono gave birth to their son Sean, he confessed to Davies that he had slept with Epstein some time before. Davies didn't mention this in Shout, his 1968 biography of the band, because homosexuality was still illegal then. "And John was happily married to Cynthia at the time. He wasn't gay, but he was daft enough to try anything once."

In 1969, Paul McCartney turned up unexpectedly with his new American girlfriend, Linda Eastman, and her daughter, Heather, during a family holiday in Portugal. They stayed for two weeks. And McCartney started writing a novel, which Davies says was completed, although it's still locked in a safe while McCartney decides whether to publish or not.

On that holiday, the singer discovered that Davies's first name is Edward. "He went off to the lavatory and when he came back he played us a charming little song on his guitar, which went, 'There you go, Eddie, Eddie, Eddie; there you go, Eddie, Eddie you've gone...'" Years later Davies heard it on a bootleg tape, recorded during one of the 'Let It Be' sessions. "Paul sings and plays it to John Lennon, who seems quite impressed. But it never appeared on any album. What a shame - I would love to have been the inspiration and subject of a Beatles song," sighs Davies.

He says he is saddened by McCartney's current marital troubles, since he's the band member he knew best. "I've never met Heather Mills, but I knew Linda well and liked her very much. Paul invited me to her funeral. I couldn't go, though, because we were in the Lake District at the time, and we have this rule that we never leave when we are here, no matter what happens.

"Oddly enough, just a day or two before the news about the break-up, Paul left a message on my phone in London, saying, 'Hunter Davies, are you still living in the same house?' Unfortunately, Margaret wiped it. Our house in London is near Hampstead Heath, and Margaret and I walk there every day when we're at home. Friends tell me Paul has been seen walking his dog around the Heath, looking rather forlorn and lonely. It's a sad business."

Some sad and tragic things have happened in Davies's own life. In 2001, his eldest daughter, Caitlin, was brutally raped and stabbed by a stranger, who entered the house she shared with her husband Ron and their baby daughter Ruby in Ron's home village in Botswana. He caught the rapist, who was tried and eventually imprisoned. But in the wake of this trauma, the marriage broke down.

Caitlin wrote her own memoir, Place of Reeds, and spoke movingly about it at last year's Edinburgh International Book Festival. "Not for a moment did Caitlin keep silent about what had happened to her. She told everyone, used no euphemisms," says her father. "She wrote and spoke publicly about her ordeal in the African and British media, and campaigned against various injustices she had witnessed in order to help other women. She was so brave, so defiant, so determined not to be beaten, not to let the rapist win or her life be ruined for ever. I could never have done what she did or behaved as she did."

He says that he has written about "all that horror" only because she published her own book. "It's her story; I wouldn't have spoken about it if she hadn't been so courageous and written so well about it herself," he says. Now, happily settled into a new life in London with her six-year-old daughter, she has won a two-book contract and is determined to become a full-time novelist.

"In my own private life, nothing truly remarkable has happened," Davies insists. "The awful things, when they did happen, have been awful things that have happened, alas, to hundreds of thousands of others."

As a result, The Beatles, Football and Me leaves the readers searching for an emotional hinterland. Davies is not given to introspection - unlike his distinguished wife. "Oh, you know Hunter," she says with a dismissive wave of the hand, while he's off getting his photograph taken. "It's all one-dimensional."

Well, acknowledges Davies, as we sit together drinking tea and nibbling chocolate digestives in the garden of their Victorian house, it is presumptuous, writing your memoirs. In fact, he admits in the book's introduction that it wasn't as if publishers were beating a path to his door, begging him to reveal all. "When my wife and children heard what I was planning, they each said the same thing, 'Oh no, spare us,'" he writes.

To add to his family's distress, his memoir is being serialised in a mass-market, right-wing daily newspaper. "At least none of my friends will see it - they don't read that paper," says Forster in her blunt fashion. "And it's coming out in August, when everyone's away anyway."

"Do you want to know how much I got for the rights?" chirps Davies. "Twenty-two grand. But it doesn't go to me - the publishers get that money. I got an advance, and the royalties if anybody buys it."

It isn't as if they are hard up, as he confesses in his book - again much to his wife's annoyance. "Margaret's furious with me for writing about how much money we've made," he confides. They have also made sizeable donations to charity.

davies and Forster met in 1956, when she was still at Carlisle and County High School for Girls, being academically brilliant and winning scholarships to both Oxford and Cambridge. He was her first and only boyfriend, just into his second year at Durham, where he was studying general arts. They have been together ever since.

They celebrated their ruby wedding in June 2000, an event marked by Forster with a gift to Davies of a sturdy wooden garden seat, parked outside their flower-filled conservatory. The dedication on the plaque reads 'From his lucky wife'. "Tee hee!" sniggers Davies, whose skin is as brown as the hazelnuts he has gathered and which are now drying out in his study. "Our daughters were up in arms with their mother for those words. His lucky wife, indeed! Of course, she is lucky to have me as her husband, don't you think?" he asks. Personally, Hunter, I can't see past those distressing shorts, but each to their own.

Both come from working-class homes in Carlisle, although he was born in Johnston, Renfrewshire, the eldest son of Marion Brechin and John Hunter Davies, a pay clerk in the RAF. They met while Marion was working in the NAAFI in Perth. John suffered from multiple sclerosis and was bedridden for some years. He died at the age of 52, in 1958, leaving Marion struggling to bring up their children alone. She died in 1987, at the age of 79, after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease (which inspired Forster's poignant novel, Have the Men Had Enough?).

Davies and Forster were each the first members of their families to go to university. Like their old Cumbrian friend Melvyn Bragg, they made it in London in the Swinging Sixties, going on to become two of the most successful writers in Britain. Forster's literary novels and weighty biographies of Thackeray, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Daphne Du Maurier have won her praise, and she has also written compelling books about her own family.

While she made her name in 1965 with Georgy Girl (which became a popular film starring Charlotte Rampling and Lynn Redgrave), Davies wrote the sub-Salinger Here We Go, Round the Mulberry Bush, also adapted for the screen - but minus that vexed comma. Three years later, he published his Beatles biography, which was such a phenomenon that it enabled the couple to take a year's sabbatical in Malta and Portugal. Mind you, their Protestant work ethic means that they haven't stopped writing since, whether in the Lakes, where they spend six months over the summer, or in London, to which they return for the rest of the year. They are both creatures of habit and love their routine: writing, walking, reading and going to bed at 10pm every night. It's decades since they gave a dinner party.

Long before football became fashionable, Davies wrote one of the seminal books on the sport, The Glory Game, about Tottenham Hotspur. He has also written children's books, biographies (subjects ranging from William Wordsworth to Dwight Yorke), a small library of books about walking in the Lake District, travel books and five novels. He gave up on fiction in 1992 - or perhaps it gave up on him, he jokes. It's six days since he wrote any journalism, he tells me, sipping his tea. "I'm getting very twitchy."

So, thanks to all this industry, the couple have made a tidy sum - "Margaret much, much more than me" - although Davies maintains that he's "mean with money", the title of one of his 40-odd books, a collection of his Sunday Times money columns. "We're very comfortable, although if we both live to a great age - and Margaret's dad, Arthur, was 96 when he died - it may all evaporate on nursing-home fees," he says.

He's clearly fascinated by money and has written many articles about his pension plans, his whopping tax bills and his share options. "I'm working on simplifying our finances at the moment, moving everything out of building societies," he says.

As good socialists, Davies and Forster don't believe in inherited wealth, so they plan to leave 40% of everything to the chancellor of the exchequer. They bought their Lake District home 20 years ago for 91,000. It's way off the tourist track, set amid breathtaking scenery near three of the loveliest Cumbrian lakes - Loweswater, Crummock Water and Buttermere. They own another home in north London, a substantial Victorian townhouse, which they bought for 5,000 in 1963. "Our houses are our pensions," he says.

When we meet, the reviews are just coming out for the Wayne Rooney biography, which he has ghost-written. "We want footie, not flimflam," screams one headline. Nonetheless, Davies has a fondness for the 20-year-old Manchester United forward and his "very bright" girlfriend, Coleen McLoughlin. "I've done lots of celebrities," he says. "With John Lennon, I'd often discover it was a day when he had chosen not to speak. Or with Gazza, I'd get to his hotel and after ten minutes he would say, 'You're doin' ma f***in' heid in.' But I was lucky with Wayne. I had eight weekly sessions with him of three hours each, being chauffeured to his lovely home. He gave me his total attention.

"Like most lads of 20, especially one who is at his most fluent on the pitch, things often had to be coaxed out of him, but he talked freely about the prostitutes and the gambling. He never got bored or ratty or refused to answer a question."

Before I leave, I get ratty, because I'm subjected to a barrage of questions about myself (where did I grow up, where did my husband grow up, where do I live now?) from Davies, a curious man with a hell of a lot of curiosities. "Would you like to see round the house?" he asks. So we take the guided tour, even into Forster's monastic study, where she writes for two hours every day in longhand. "For God's sake, don't tell Margaret I let you in here. She'll kill me!" he whispers. r

The Beatles, Football and Me (Headline Review, 18.99). Hunter Davies is at Edinburgh International Book Festival tomorrow at 6.30pm