Hard-living, hell-raising MP Sir Nicholas Fairbairn may have been dead for almost a decade but Papa continues to cast a long shadow over his daughter Charlotte’s life and fiction, says Jackie McGlone
Charlotte Fairbairn is sitting at the big, old wooden table in her cobalt-blue dining-room. With its clutter of slumbering dogs, enormous hat-stand festooned with clothes of all sizes and wall-to-wall examples of artwork by her two young children, this splendidly chaotic room is the heart of a happy family life.
She is reading out the contents page of the July issue of a glossy magazine. "Listen to this!" she exclaims. "‘Destiny’s Child - the fact, the fantasy and the screwed-up family behind Charlotte Fairbairn’s novels.’ Screwed-up family," she repeats. "Honestly, I despair. It makes us sound as if we’re all completely bonkers, quite mad - and we are not. It’s just so unfair on my mother and my sisters and the rest of our family. We’re just a group of respectable people with decent moral values, leading perfectly normal lives in our slightly eccentric way." Well, she adds, with an apologetic smile, if you can call being a novelist normal.
The problem is that Fairbairn’s family history is anything but ordinary, although it would be difficult to imagine anyone less screwed-up than the pleasant 38-year-old who meets me in her Land Rover at Kendal station in Cumbria. Lightly tanned, her face innocent of make-up, she comes across as calm and controlled, a thoughtful woman who thinks before she speaks.
The eldest daughter of the late Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, the hard-living, headline-hogging Tory MP, she and her "very dynamic" husband, Ross Pople, their seven-year-old son, Jake, and three-year-old daughter, Clara, live in an exquisitely restored Elizabethan farmhouse in one of the
most glorious parts of the Lake District. They share their idyllic surroundings with five horses, several cats, numerous chickens and two shaggy dogs.
We are in metaphorical roses-around-the-
In addition to all this cheerful domesticity, Fairbairn does at least half a dozen other things with her time, maintaining the large and enviably pretty gardens, running a livery stable, a holiday let on the property and a private concert hall in one of the barns, as well as being hailed as a coming name on the literary scene.
She has written two richly imagined, magical realist [magic realism?] novels, the latest of which, God Breathes His Dreams through Nathaniel Cadwallader, has just been published. She confesses she does go to bed early with a good book most evenings; her 57-year-old husband, the New Zealand-born cellist and director of the London Festival Orchestra, spends the weeks in London working at his Warehouse recording studio, near Waterloo, and comes home at weekends.
Yet, despite the fact that she now lives in such luxurious and bucolic bliss, Fairbairn is fully aware that there are those who perceive her family’s story as being the very stuff of fiction. However settled and sorted her own life is, it seems she will never escape the shackles of the past. Her surname alone is a constant reminder of her father. The colourful Sir Nicholas was famed as much for his exuberant wardrobe - which included two pairs of high-heeled patent leather boots and a see-through negligee top that he was wont to wear with white flares - as for the fact that he was at one time Solicitor General for Scotland. He also successfully defended a number of men who faced the death penalty during his time as a QC, restored the ruined Fife castle of Fordell, and had several mistresses, one of whom bore him a son whose existence remained secret until after his death in 1995 at the age of 61.
He was a brilliant man, but also wildly eccentric - the word flamboyant could have been invented to describe him. Indeed, he is still perceived as being as flawed as he was intellectually gifted, virtually drinking himself to death out of bitter disappointment at not reaching the pinnacle of success in either politics or the law, for he had a well-developed ability to self-destruct. Nevertheless, "Papa was a lot of fun when he was younger," says Fairbairn rather forlornly, recalling a parent who was maddeningly volatile, but also fascinating and rambunctious, and ultimately a victim of his own notoriety. "He had this thirst for appearing in the newspapers."
Fairbairn may have grown up with her two younger sisters in a castle haunted by a Green Lady, but the ghost of her father (she has remarked more than once that she would like to dig him up out of his grave so that she could murder him for being so infuriating) continues to spook the family. When her first novel, A Bear with an Egg in Her Paws, was published in 1999, she wrote: "It’s extraordinary how my father’s gigantic shadow prevails long after his death."
Now, here she is with a new book - her publishers believe she’s a major talent and are talking her up in terms of "another Angela Carter" and "the new Paulo Coelho" - and all anyone wants to talk about is her dead parent.
The tartan-sporting, Thatcher-adoring shade of Sir Nicholas, it seems, will never be laid to rest. "My family will be forever haunted by Papa and the past," agrees Fairbairn. "Yet it is all in the past. It’s dead and buried and we should be allowed to move on." Then she jumps up and says: "Anyway, let’s not talk about him," as she darts into the kitchen to brew another pot of tea.
Of course we are here to talk about her latest book, but as we sip our tea she acknowledges that we probably wouldn’t be here but for her name. "Oh, God," she says, burying her head in her hands, "do we have to talk about my family?"
She can hardly complain. She has, after all, chosen to keep her family name. Had she published a fable about the cataclysmic effect on a village of the arrival of a mysterious stranger as Charlotte Pople, we probably wouldn’t be sitting here talking about it, despite the fact that her publishers are selling it as "a fairytale for grown-ups" that will appeal to addicts of Chocolat.
She says she did think about using her married name when the now-defunct Citron Press published her first book. "But I had always written as Charlotte Fairbairn, or rather I had always
been writing in my mind - I’ve been doing it most of my life without actually committing anything to paper. Now, when I answer the phone I sometimes have to think, ‘Am I being Pople or Fairbairn?’
It’s dreadful because I find writing is very schizophrenic anyway."
A dreamy child who grew up to become a dreamy woman, Fairbairn insists she’s a doer as well. "I’m a very practical person," she says. She dreams while she does. "That’s the advantage of living in the country - it creates space in your head." When she was growing up at Fordell Castle she was forever having intense conversations with herself. "I think that’s what you do as a writer - you constantly chip away at an idea." She was a watchful child, not saying much, but taking it all in.
Before she wrote her two books and before she went to Oxford to read languages, she produced "bucketsful" of bad poetry. "It’s absolute doggerel. But I never really wrote things down at all; I think I just chose to live in my imagination."
Was that because her childhood was unhappy? "Not at all," she replies. "My childhood was really very happy, although unusual." She and her sisters - Anna-Karina, 36, a furniture designer, and Francesca, 33, who lives in Australia and is studying the law in relation to political prisoners - had a strict Victorian-style governess. They called their parents Mama and Papa, and roamed the rhododendron-filled woods around the neighbouring farm that belonged to their mother, the Honourable Elizabeth Mackay, beautiful daughter of the 13th Lord Reay, and to whom Charlotte and her sisters remain very close.
When Fairbairn was 14 her parents divorced after 17 years of marriage. They had had five children, two of whom died in infancy. Charlotte was one of twins but her sister died at the age of four months, a cot death. "I am intrigued by the idea of having a twin, but it hasn’t affected me emotionally. Apparently we weren’t identical, so I have no sense of a missing part of me. It was dreadful for my parents - but it’s their story. I know they were shattered by her death."
After the divorce, Sir Nicholas married his long-term mistress, Suzanne, and they lived together for 12 tempestuous years. Lady Sam, as she became known, died of alcoholism earlier this year at the age of 59. Sir Nicholas left his entire estate, estimated at more than 1m, to her, cancelling legacies to his daughters in his dying hours. The legal dispute over the will was finally resolved with settlements being made on the three girls.
Charlotte Fairbairn says she started to write novels in order to make sense of her family. "Writing is good therapy, isn’t it?" she says. In A Bear with an Egg in Her Paws, she created a larger-than-life father, Freddie, for the heroine. The book describes him as "cruel and impossible... neglectful… thieving, a peacock among chickens". Like Sir Nicholas, he’s a man possessed by demons, yet he’s also a man of enormous talent and charm, albeit curdled by anger, spite and carnal appetites that he cannot, or will not, control.
"That book was my way of working through what had happened to my family, but there is no way the story is remotely autobiographical. I wanted to get inside my father’s head and my mother’s head and to find out what they were going through - that’s all a writer can hope to do and it’s what I love about it, although the words are important to me."
No one, she adds, could read her new book as autobiography, although it was sparked by a dispute her husband had some years ago with the Musicians’ Union. It was resolved successfully, but it made her think how destructive mob hysteria can be. Now, finishing her third novel, she is also well into her fourth. "Finishing a book and letting it go is such a deeply emotional thing - I don’t want to sound precious - that I find it helps to be writing something else."
Next month, she slips off her green wellies and dons her party shoes to launch her novel in London. She’ll probably wear her favourite black leather jacket - the one decorated with appliqus of playing cards. "I love dressing up," she says. "In fact, everyone in my family loves it, although I have to say we’re not into tartan." n
God Breathes His Dreams through Nathaniel Cadwallader is published by Review, 10