Review: Playing the Game by Barbara Taylor Bradford
HarperCollins, Hardback, €21.04
When she was younger, Barbara Taylor Bradford refused to wear jewellery to an interview.
The author of A Woman of Substance and 25 other bestsellers did not want to "flaunt" her wealth (estimated at around $200m). After a string of sneering profiles in which the bling and not the books became the story, the former journalist became sensitive.
"Then one day I thought, why do I care what people who don't actually know me write?" As she says this, the 77-year-old is resplendent in turquoise and diamond jewels that add glitter to the fusty light of The Dorchester's dining room, where we are having lunch.
Besides, I actually like the woman seated opposite me. She may look like a senior millionaire Manhattanite, but she is funny, kind and, beneath the Upper East Side gloss and flawless skin, retains the rugged landscape of her Yorkshire youth.
"I love this book!" she roars at one point, causing other diners to look round. Then she adds, making me almost choke on my roast potatoes: "Anybody who doesn't like this book, I'm going to punch in the face!" She is laughing, a mischievous, I-dare-you-to-write-that kind of laugh. This is not what I expected.
The book in question is Playing the Game, Taylor Bradford's 26th blockbuster, and as romantic and thrilling as the rest. This time, the excitement centres on the international art market and Annette Remmington, a London art consultant whose life is made dangerous by the arrival of sudden fame and the handsome journalist Jack Chalmers.
It is classic Taylor Bradford: glamorous people in glamorous places doing glamorous things but beneath the surface lie grubby secrets that threaten to bring their whole world crashing down. Annette is, says her creator, "still a strong woman and independent, but stuck in a terrible situation".
At 18, she married the rich Marius Remmington, 20 years her senior. "He tries to control her, but because she is a Barbara Taylor Bradford woman, she fights and resists this total control," she adds with the pride of a mother describing a daughter.
Annette is the latest in a long line of feisty heroines, beginning with Emma Harte in A Woman of Substance, who combine the looks of an Angelina Jolie and the business acumen of a Deborah Meaden. Taylor Bradford loves these women and their stories.
As strong women are her forte, I wonder how she feels about the domestic drudges who inhabit much contemporary women's fiction these days. "I'm not interested," she says, dismissing them like flies with a flick of her hand. "I know people say I write about women who are rich, but that is not really true. I write about women who become successful."
Pretty much like herself, then? The rise to fame of the woman who was Barbara Taylor is not quite a rags-to-riches story, but her background in Leeds is unremarkable. The beloved daughter of Winston and Freda, who had lost a son to meningitis before she was born, the writer admits that she was spoiled.
Headstrong, Taylor left school at 15 to work for the Yorkshire Evening Post, where she was taken under the wing of Keith Waterhouse, who taught her how to fiddle her expenses and produce sparkling copy. As she describes it, she sounds like a junior Hildy Johnson, determined to look and act the part: when her mother bought her a mac, she trampled it into the dirt because it was "too new". She giggles like a naughty schoolgirl as she recalls her mother's shocked face.
In the late 1950s, Taylor arrived on Fleet Street. Had she wanted, she probably could have been its first female newspaper editor, but in 1963 she met Bob Bradford, an independently wealthy American film producer.
"We got on like a house on fire. It was like we knew each other," she says of that first meeting. He was, she says, handsome and charming. As she remembers that first date, she smiles more to herself than me. They had wanted children, but after two miscarriages Taylor Bradford never got pregnant again.
Whether it was this which turned her from writing children's books to writing A Woman of Substance, she does not say. I ask whether she misses not having had children, adding that I feel crass asking the question.
There is no rancour in her reply. "It's a normal question," she assures me. "There have been times in the past when I have missed having a child."
Given her phenomenal work ethic (she writes every day and produces a book a year), children would have been a distraction. A self-described feminist, Taylor Bradford admits that something has to give if you want to be successful.
"I read recently about Emma Thompson having been quoted saying you can't have it all -- and I don't think you can," she says. "You can have your husband and children and work, but you can't have a social life."
Other feminists may baulk at her assertion that to be a successful woman "you need a good husband", but what she means is that women should not be burdened by everything; that they need a partner's support.
For Taylor Bradford, it meant that she could write while Bob took care of the business side of things. He has recently relinquished his control over this aspect of her career, although he remains involved in producing the screen adaptations of her books.
She does not have to work and now that Bob is taking it easier, it would be natural to assume that she would follow suit. She looks shocked at the suggestion.
"People say to me, 'Why do you still work? You don' t have to, you are rich and famous.' I say, 'Forget all that! What would I do all day?' I have worked from the age of 15, what am I going to do? Go out shopping? Have lunch with girlfriends?"