‘I don’t do pub­lic dis­plays of grief ’

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Living - - R14EVIEW -

Ro­mance writer Les­ley Pearse’s life has been as strange as any of her best­selling nov­els — but she’s happy now, writes Emily Houri­can

LES­LEY Pearse is cel­e­brat­ing 25 years as a best­selling au­thor. In her case, that means 26 nov­els, and more than 10m books sold. She is 73 — her first novel was pub­lished when she was 48 — and looks great, not just for her age but for any age: strong, vi­brant, glam­orous.

“My ed­i­tor says I’ve got a por­trait up in the at­tic,” she says with a laugh over tea in the Clarence Ho­tel, then adds “I’m very happy now.”

What is mak­ing her happy? “I’ve moved to Torquay, all my friends are gay — so I’ve got male com­pan­ion­ship with­out any of the mucky bits, or, as my friend calls, it ‘the squelchy bits’, and last year I had a re­ally aw­ful year, but it’s all a dis­tant, dark mem­ory now.”

What was so bad about last year? “In Septem­ber I broke my an­kle, which was re­ally life chang­ing. I slipped on some cob­bles. It was wet, I slipped, my an­kle went un­der me funny, and that was it. It was a re­ally bad break, I had to get an op­er­a­tion. I found how help­less you are when some­thing like that hap­pens.

“It’s that feel­ing of pow­er­less­ness. You can’t do any­thing, you can’t get about. I was liv­ing on a cliff top over­look­ing the sea and it was so steep, I had to rely on other peo­ple for ev­ery­thing. I moved into the ground floor flat, which was on a level and I could scoot around in my typ­ing chair. But I felt I was in prison. It wasn’t my home, it was the guest flat.”

At least she could write? “That’s what I thought, but I couldn’t be­cause you have to keep your leg el­e­vated, and when I didn’t keep my leg el­e­vated, it started to swell up. That’s when I had to have an­other op­er­a­tion.”

At the same time as Les­ley was try­ing to nav­i­gate life with a bro­ken an­kle, “the guy who owns the land be­low me de­cided to build sev­eral town­houses right in front of my house. This was my dream home, I’d had it for two years, with a 360-de­gree view of the sea and bay”. Not only was her view ru­ined, but “my gar­den just dis­ap­peared into a sink­hole. I was scared to live there be­cause the house was creak­ing. It was only a mat­ter of time be­fore it came down, or so I thought”.

From there, “ev­ery­thing”, she says, went wrong, and she ended up sell­ing the house to the de­vel­oper, and los­ing “£200,000” on it. She moved into Torquay and bought a Vic­to­rian house; “it was in a 1950s time­warp and I did that up and it’s re­ally gor­geous now. So I’m re­ally happy. Some­times”, she says, “things turn out to be a good thing even if it was aw­ful at the time”, then adds “los­ing that much money wasn’t fun”.

So what does she think when she looks back on the last 25 years? There was a time, she says, “par­tic­u­larly early on, when I thought ‘I’ll wake up one day and I’ll have dreamt all this. I’ll wake up in a grotty bed­sit in Earl’s Court with one cook­ing ring be­side a nasty gas fire’. It is like a dream re­ally. I don’t have to worry about money any more. I can treat the kids [she has three daugh­ters] when they need; they’ve got a start in life that they wouldn’t have had. So yes, life is good”.

Life may be like a dream now, but it didn’t start out that way. Les­ley’s fa­ther was in the Royal Marines and away at sea when her mother de­vel­oped sep­ti­caemia fol­low­ing a mis­car­riage. She died, with Les­ley, then just three, and her el­der brother Michael alone in the house. For three days they man­aged, some­how, un­til a neigh­bour saw them play­ing out­side in the snow with no coats. That be­ing the 1940s, the chil­dren were put into care, to Catholic in­sti­tu­tions be­cause their mother was an Ir­ish Catholic from Roscom­mon. They were split up — Michael was sent to Glouces­ter­shire, Les­ley to Lon­don — and spent three years in in­sti­tu­tions. Then their fa­ther mar­ried again and they were brought home, to a new step­mother, Hilda, and two new sib­lings, an older sis­ter who had been fos­tered by Hilda, and a new adopted baby brother, Paul.

How much does she re­mem­ber of those or­phan­age years? “My mem­ory is in­cred­i­bly clear. That never goes away. I can see that place now. It was hideous.” The ne­glect was so bad that her step­mother tried to get both places closed down. Les­ley’s feel­ing for nuns to this day is “ha­tred”.

Although she had a home again, and a new fam­ily, Les­ley found that her step­mother Hilda was a “hard woman. There were no cud­dles, no sym­pa­thy”. Was she cruel? “She could be, beat­ing me with a stick. But a lot of peo­ple did that kind of thing then.” And, she says, “I don’t re­ally want to dwell on any of that any longer. I’ve done a com­plete about-face about my step­mother. My brother, Michael Sar­gent, be­came an em­i­nent mi­cro­bi­ol­o­gist. He died five years ago (his obit­u­ary in The Guardian says that “his pi­o­neer­ing work... in­spired the field”), and just be­fore he died, we were talk­ing one day and I said ‘you know, she was the best thing that ever hap­pened to us’.”

In what way? “Michael was a very gifted child in the days when peo­ple didn’t recog­nise that. She saw that, and she pushed him so that he passed his 11-plus high enough to be able to pick what­ever school he wanted. She sent him to a naval school, which she thought was the best and it turned out to be. I am par­tially dyslexic, I see that now but it wasn’t recog­nised back then. That’s why it took me so long to read — I was 10 — but once I got that, she gave me books and I read ev­ery­thing. She’d pick lines from Dick­ens that were par­tic­u­larly good, and had great ex­pres­sions. She used to say ‘I have net cur­tains to keep out the vul­gar gaze’. She gave us that edge.”

What about Les­ley’s fa­ther? Did he ever in­ter­vene? “I think he felt he had to take the line of least re­sis­tance, and that we were bet­ter off than in those or­phan­ages which were hor­ri­ble.” And, she points out, “They were very happy to­gether even though it wasn’t ro­man­tic.”

And, in a strange way Les­ley un­der­stands the way “a strong per­son­al­ity can be seen as be­ing hard; you’re ac­cused of be­ing ‘ hard’ if you never show lots of emo­tion”, be­cause the same ac­cu­sa­tions have been lev­elled at her. “I don’t do a big dis­play of pub­lic grief,” she says. “I wasn’t brought up to that. I’ll go to bed at night and cry. I had hard­ships all through my life. I lost my mother, I was in care, by the time I was 15 I was liv­ing on my own and look­ing af­ter my­self. I didn’t have any­body to run to. You soon de­velop a spine.”

Hav­ing left home at 15 to be­come a nanny, Les­ley wound

‘There was a time when I thought “I’ll wake up one day and I’ll have dreamt all this,”’

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