Finding her voice... how literature rescued Polly Devlin
She left rural Tyrone to become a writer for 'Vogue', and the toast of literary London. Acclaimed essayist Polly Devlin tells Julia Molony how literature and love rescued her from the chaos of being abused as a young child
Polly Devlin invites me to meet her at her home, but doesn't give me her precise address. She doesn't need to. I'll find it, she says, if I come to the right street and keep an eye out for "lots of fading wisteria".
It's true. There's no missing the rococo-esque cascade of purple blooms covering almost the entire façade of her sprawling London period home. But even this exuberant display is no match for the maximalism of the welcome within.
The lady of the house greets me warmly in the hallway, a small stout dog yapping at her heels. The former features editor of Vogue is dressed down in navy slacks and a leopard-print top. A pair of red resin spectacles pushed high on her head, struggling to restrain a mane of blonde hair. Blondeness is one of her trademarks. (There's a paean to golden hair in her new book of essays) as is her magpie-eye for interior design. Her house is a shrine to eclecticism, stuffed to bursting with colour and texture and objets d'art.
Despite the many decades she's spent living in her adopted country, it seems the English virtue of restraint hasn't rubbed off on Devlin.
Her abundance of spirit still gets her into trouble sometimes, she tells me. "I'm a seanchai, I just can't help telling stories. And in fact it's difficult in England because they think you're being a dominatrix or something at the dinner table... 'Someone tell Polly to shut her mouth and let us speak'."
In truth, though, the British establishment has welcomed this Irish woman from the far reaches of Co Tyrone into its heart. She's been awarded an OBE for services to literature. Indeed, she's been moving in high-society in Britain since she entered a competition, aged 21, won a job at Vogue magazine and found herself transplanted from rural Northern Ireland to the beating heart of 1960s London. Then, in 1967, she married the renowned British industrialist, Andy Garnett, an ex-Etonian who moved in the same social circles as Princess Margaret.
The daughter of a publican and a school mistress, Polly grew up an avid reader who dreamed of a life of refinement. When she was just 20, her fate was changed in an instant when she spotted an ad for a talent contest at Vogue. She had to write a short biography and the prize was a job on the magazine. She sat down "one bored afternoon, did it and just sent it off. I've never made anything of what happened to me, I've always thought, you know anyone could have done it. It's what happens to Irish Catholics, the self-esteem is knocked the s**t out of you," she says.
Arriving at Vogue, the contrast with her early life marked her profoundly. In her writing, she describes the richness of this new world with an anthropologist's eye, as she rubbed shoulders with royalty, interviewed writers she was in love with such as Tom Wolfe, flew first class to Crete to meet John le Carre and lunched with John Lennon. "I watched their manners, I watched their modes, I watched their rituals, I watched their human sacrifices," she says.
She's just brought out a new book, Writing Home, a compilation of essays which span her whole life. Together, they loosely connect to form a memoir of sorts. It starts with her girlhood in Ireland, where she grew up as one of seven children, six girls and one boy in a big house on the edge of Lough Neagh. It covers her years at Vogue in London and New York, where she went, after being headhunted by the legendary editor Diana Vreeland to capture the Youth-quake as it happened, through her long and largely happy marriage to Garnett, motherhood, and the pleasures and passions of her later life.
She says that the "home" of the title remains an elusive notion. "I have always basically been ambivalent," she explains. "Because I don't know where home is. And yet my home, is so radically, in the root sense, Ardboe in Northern Ireland. But if you leave it very early, if you change your name as I did, if you live from when you are 21 in another country, in another world, in another entire cosmos, you don't know where home is."
The home she grew up in was an island - annexed on the edge of the world, set apart geographically, socially and psychically. The family were relatively well-to-do. Her mother, unusually for the time, worked as a school teacher and used to buy Vogue magazine on special order. She learned an appreciation for aesthetics and refinement at her mother's knee. "She came from Newry and played tennis and had driven a sports car and had blonde hair," she says before adding, "can you imagine how unhappy she was?".
Polly wasn't the only one in the family with creative leanings. Her brother is the musician and film-maker Barry Devlin, who was the front-man of the rock band Horslips and later wrote scripts for Ballykissangel and The Darling Buds of May. Her elder sister, Marie, married Seamus Heaney.
In Writing Home, her mother is depicted as a distant figure - seen only in glimpses. Theirs was a complicated relationship, she explains now, largely because her mother was overburdened by the business of raising seven children in isolation.
"I do circle my mother," she admits "and now that she's dead I just wish I could have her for two minutes to say that I understand, and that I'm sorry".
Her father was a remote man with a gambling habit. "Gamblers tend to be narcissistic," she says. He was away a lot. He was a very loving father but he wasn't a father. I don't think I ever sat on his knee. But he was a very good grandfather."
The big fracture of her childhood, an event that would define her life, was not made clear even to Polly herself until many years after it happened. As a small child, she suffered for years from an unspecified ailment which went undiagnosed. It was only after the malady recurred in adulthood that she finally had appropriate tests and the problem was identified as trichomoniasis, which she could only have contracted through penetrative sex. She has no memories of the abuse. "I was an infant," she says. "It happens a lot. Everything fell into place... One of the classic things I believe with child abuse is that the child doesn't remember anything before the age of five. Whereas other children remember something… a bit of ice-cream or something. Mine is blank. Blank."
For years, she'd sought to understand the sense of "chaos" that threatened to "engulf" her, she writes. She spent 14 years circling the issue in therapy without ever identifying it. She'd been referred for therapy "because I was very low at one point... We talked for a great many years... But I never mentioned it. We never got to it. Never once in 14 years."
Once a simple medical test finally revealed the truth, "it was a devastating revelation, but one that explained so much," she says. "It totally distorted my life. I had a weight problem. I had anorexia. I bed-wetted. I did all the classic things. It was a huge shock and then afterwards it didn't enter my life. It didn't play a part in my life. And I just buried it so much. I think I totally buried it in the amazing way that your mind can do that." She has a hunch who might have been responsible.
"I began to remember how when I was walking down a road at home, I would meet a certain man cycling, whom I didn't like and who I had avoided, pretty much. I don't think he was a nice man. But I certainly was frightened of him. But as far as I knew there was no reason to be frightened of him. He never got off his bicycle or approached me, he just went cycling on. But I think it was him. Based on my reaction."
It's an issue she tackles in her essay The Millstone, which she was prompted to write in 2012, when the Jimmy Savile scandal came to light. "When I was reading about Jimmy Savile, I thought, "where am I on this? It suddenly was normal. But I've never talked about it to my children." It's not that she's kept it a secret. "They can read The Millstone," she says.
"It's not that important in my life any more, except that I think my life would have been different had it not happened in terms of psychology. But then on the other hand," she reflects. "I might not have married the man who rescued me."
When she met Garnett, she was, she says "like a bad watch, you know and he repaired the watch. It never kept good time but it kept ticking along. He was a wonderful man."
On first meeting Garnett at a dinner party at his home, she recognised immediately he was a man who could "hold me up and hold me straight" as she writes in The Millstone. "This man was so obvious that he would stand at the mouth of the cave and fight until he died," she says now. "And he did. He was a remarkable man." At first, she "didn't want to marry him... I'm passionate. I was a passionate creature, as one is. And the thing is that if somebody is stalwart and true and good and virtuous, they're not aflame with passion all the time in the way that a rogue is or a rapscallion."
Her long career seems to have sustained itself almost by accident. She denies being ever driven by anything as gauche as ambition. Writing, she says, is not a compulsion for her. One the contrary, she says, "you have to prod me with a cattle prod to make me write. I've never written without being asked. And prodded. I find writing very easy. I just hate it," she says with a chuckle. And yet, over a career that has spanned five decades, she has published 10 books. She's been a Booker Prize judge and is currently adjunct professor at Columbia, where she teaches creative non-fiction. She's not even convinced she's a born writer. "If I had been born a writer, I would have written all the time, and I had many years of not writing. I was too busy living. But I was born a seanchai. I was born a storyteller. Those years were spent telling stories to my children and to anyone who would listen."
The importance of storytelling took root in her own children and flourished. With Garnett, she had three daughters; Rose, the eldest, is now head of films at the BBC. Daisy is a writer who followed her mother's footsteps and cut her teeth under Anna Wintour at Vogue, and Bay, the youngest, is a fashion stylist and founder of Cheap Date magazine.
Her husband, Andy, died in 2014 after a long illness. His death, when it came, was a relief. "He had been suffering in every way," she says. And she's clearly not lonely. These days, her London home seems a hub for the extended family who live locally. One of her daughters has moved in with her family while her own house is being renovated. It's a house filled with animals, in-laws and grandchildren. Writing home is not necessary for Devlin these days. She's built her own; solid and replete, under the wisteria in West London.
'Writing Home' (Pimpernel Press) by Polly Devlin is out now
An audience with Polly Devlin: The writer's top encounters...
In the early days of her relationship with Andy Garnett, he invited Devlin to join him for dinner at his flat with his good friend Anthony Armstrong-Jones and his wife, who just so happened to be Princess Margaret. The evening, Devlin remembers, "was an unmitigated disaster". Devlin didn't know she was "supposed to curtsey", so had a "black mark" against her straight away. Her Highness "ate very little, smoked a lot and was fairly rude about everything and everybody," Devlin remembers. "Though after dinner was over, she did grab the Fairy Liquid and got straight into the washing up".
John Lennon and Yoko Ono
When Devlin arrived to their sprawling mansion, she found the superstar and his wife "doing something with a hearse and a helicopter". "Being in love isn't exactly an equal thing," Yoko told her, while John played his new composition, Imagine on a white piano in the background. Yoko worried, she told Devlin, about "which of us will die first, because that's the one thing we can't control".
Devlin's first interview with Warhol was her most difficult. When she met him in the 60s at the start of his career, she thought him "a freak". "All this art is finished," he told her, "Squares on the wall. Shapes on the floor. Emptiness, empty rooms." Twenty years later they met again and Devlin had changed her view. "By then I revered him as a genius," she writes, "one of the hinges in art, like James Joyce of Duchamp, who make the doors of perception spring open."
The Vogue of the 60s was Vreeland's creation, writes Devlin, "Eclecticism, freakishness, style, hysteria, erudition, invention - and narrow to the bone". Vreeland head-hunted her to join the team "coming into my life like a genie" after she read a profile of John Osborne Devlin had written for British Vogue. The young writer was initially terrified as she offered up editorial ideas during their weekly lunch meeting, but the fear soon wore off. "I knew that this woman, whose style was in the cut of her vision, who was also ridiculous and often unintentionally funny, could miss the point by a mile and still arrive on target. She was also a fashion genius."