When I was younger I enjoyed moving around the world, but as time went on it became difficult to tear up roots yet again and transplant myself and my family to yet another country. While interesting and stimulating, the life of a diplomatic wife is not all gins and tonics on distant verandahs. In fact, sometimes it’s both tough and lonely. Though over the years I became more sophisticated and less terrified about entertaining VIPs and crowds of different strangers, at the same time it grew harder and harder to leave friends and family behind.
It was also bad for the self-confidence to be ‘just a trailing spouse’. People tended to ask me what my husband thought - my own opinion being of no consequence!
A tiresomely over-conscientious young woman, I was so busy doing the Right Thing and flying the flag for Her Majesty abroad, I didn’t seem to have time for writing apart from snatches of journalism, though there was always a novel at the back of my mind. Then when we arrived in Geneva, I finally took a deep breath and joined a writers workshop with several published authors of different nationalities. From then on, everything suddenly made sense. I realised that whatever happened, good or bad, it was all material that could be woven into fiction.
My whole life has been about adapting to change and, on reflection, I see that this theme runs throughout my books. Along with love and culture shock, my novel POND LANE AND PARIS touches on the weird contrasts in the life of a diplomatic spouse. One day she’s swanning around in a grand limo, next day she’s back in England scrubbing the floor. The many differences between Britain and France were fascinating too, and I’ve written another book set in Paris, out December 08.
In turn, Geneva had its own serene, sedate charm, but strange people hang around its rich inhabitants and what happens to a woman with no money? What happens if her husband has a fatal accident and she’s immediately thrown out of her expat accommodation? These thoughts inspired AN OLD-FASHIONED ARRANGEMENT.
A strong setting in a novel has its own character, and this affects the plot. I try to bring the interesting or amusing aspects of a foreign city alive for the reader without going into too much long descriptive detail or sounding like a travelogue - the equivalent of showing off one’s holiday snaps.
It’s a cliché but travel does broaden the mind and makes one realise that the British way of doing things is not the only way. I do hope my mind stays open - I reckon it should.
Now I am happily and permanently home in England, and it’s an advantage as a writer of contemporary fiction to be more in touch with trends here than I was as an expat. All the same, I’m hugely grateful for the memories, inspiration and ideas I’ve gathered from all over the world.
This article first appeared in the RNA magazine. (Photo of self and Sydney Harbour bridge taken a very long time ago. Australia was our second posting and I arrived seven months pregnant. Before that we were in Thailand, including a few months at the consulate in Chiang Mai, above, where we had our own white Land Rover, our own orchid house and our own statue of Queen Victoria.)