Santa Montefiore - yummy mummy on the top rung
Author, aristo and close friend to Prince Charles, Santa Montefiore, chats about her childhood connections with Connemara and her latest novel set against a west of Ireland backdrop
The living room of Santa Montefiore's elegant Kensington house is full of piles of books and family photographs. There she is in one, dazzling for the camera on her wedding day, cosying up to Prince Charles (an old family friend) who is standing on her right-hand side. On a different table is a snap of her with her sister Tara Palmer Tomkinson taken in 2011; Santa in royal purple, Tara in royal blue, fit for a royal wedding. They are all hats and legs and jewel-shade dresses against the grey sky outside Westminster Abbey on the day of William and Catherine's marriage.
They went together as each other's dates "We always knew we were going to go together because I have a husband and she doesn't, so it worked out," she says cheerfully.
Santa – 5ft 11in, with Chelsea hair, (expensively highlighted to a tawny blonde) light tan and impossibly perfect white teeth – does British aristo as imagined by Hollywood. She looks pretty in photographs but in person is strikingly beautiful. Even when she's dressed down in jeans and a T-shirt, the photographer seems a bit hypnotised by her.
Despite coming from a prominent British landowning family, she's more yummy mummy than lady of the manor, in her element in her designer kitchen, making a mug of tea and chatting about her kids' sports day. She doesn't even sound all that posh.
Santa is a bestselling romance fiction writer. And her husband is the famous historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, born into a prominent Jewish family. His mother's parents were originally from Russia, but settled in Newcastle via Ireland, from where they fled during the Limerick pogroms.
Funny then, in a way, that Santa has decided to set her latest novel, Secrets Of The Lighthouse, against a thoroughly romanticised West of Ireland landscape. Her protagonist, Ellen, goes to Connemara to escape her stuffy blue-blooded background in London and connect with a bit of peaty human warmth, via Guinness and salt-of-the-earth pub humour.
Santa had her own version of this experience, running away from London in her late teens and going to live with her extended family in Argentina. "Obviously I draw so much on my own experiences, and having lived in Argentina and Italy and spending time in other countries, I've been the outsider in my life a lot. And the foreigner a lot. But I understand Ellen because I also am a Londoner, and I come from the same world that she comes from."
The setting of the novel in Ireland is inspired, she says, by the childhood summers she spent in Connemara. Santa, Tara and their much lower-profile older brother James grew up in Hampshire on their parents "farm", an unassuming description she gives to their 1,200-acre estate.
Her childhood was by her account, a period of innocence and bucolic bliss, as far away from the high society lifestyles with which she and her sister are now associated as you could imagine. Up until her teens she "was still building camps in the woods and dressing up as rabbits. I was so childish".
She's often cast as the sensible one in comparison to her sister Tara, a reality TV star and It girl whose battle with cocaine addiction has been well publicised. It's true that they do occupy vastly different public spaces, Tara appears on I'm a Celebrity... and the cover of Closer and OK!, while Santa speaks to journalists from her family living room about life as a writer, wife and mother of three. But the pair are close. "There's no rivalry," she says.
"Because our lives are very different, our jobs are very different. We're great friends. When you're very different from someone you often get on better."
In any case, she recognises that people, especially siblings, are often defined, and define themselves against each other. That certainly applies between her and her husband, whom she calls Sebag. "I remember having a boyfriend who was very very sensible, so I was the naughty one. And I liked that. I was the lively, slightly wild one. Which, in my relationship with my husband now isn't the case, because he's the wilder one. So you can be different with whoever you are with," she says.
"You do hope that you fall into a relationship with someone who brings out the best in you... I remember in his old flat, when we first met – we'd been going out for about six months or something, and I remember him saying, "all I want is a column at the Sunday Times," and I said I would just love to get a book published. I was scribbling away at Meet Me Under The Ombu Tree. (Her first novel) Now I've just handed in my 14th novel, and he's obviously done Jerusalem and the Stalins and Catherine the Great and Potemkin.
"And I think of where we've come, and we've done it together. So we've obviously brought out the best in each other and enabled each other to do those things. I could have easily fallen into a nest with somebody where it just didn't happen. He might have demanded a different part of me. I know friends of mine who have very demanding husbands and they're pretty much just secretaries for their husbands. They don't have any time to themselves."
Not only that, but Sebag, who she admits cheerily is the "cerebral" one, is "very useful for me with my research. Because if I'm writing about the war, say, down south in Italy I'm able to say, It's 1944, darling where are the Germans?"
It wasn't always so co-operative and harmonious though. She was sternly warned off him when they first met, when she was 24 and working for the jewellery brand Theo Fennell.
"I had people squeezing my arm going, (she whispers through clenched teeth) 'do be careful'. I think... because he was a bit of a womaniser and very commitment-phobic. He liked having girlfriends, but he didn't want them to stay over, and he didn't want them to stay actually beyond about six o'clock. He got frightened off very easily. Talk about having to play hard to get – it was exhausting. He was like the wolf in Dances With Wolves – where it takes ages to come. But once you've got him, you've got him.
"I'm amazed I stuck with him, I really am. Because at the beginning he was so difficult and so hard to get close to. And I remember having been with him six months and thinking, I don't know him, I didn't really feel we were friends. There's still a part of him that is remote, actually. He's just one of those people that you never feel you've totally pinned him down. Which is probably why he always keeps me interested."
Quite cleverly, she doesn't try to hard to control him. They've the sense and the solvency to cultivate and nurture their independence from each other. Sebag often goes off travelling without the rest of the family. And she's tolerant of his lone wolf behaviour and delight in flirting.
"I knew what he was when I married him," she says. "I'm a very unpossessive person. I see him flirting and I don't get jealous. In fact, I'm thrilled because it makes him feel good. And he loves women. He's not sort of wanting to go and sweep them off up to bed." Well, she, qualifies with a grin. "Of course, every man would love to have women up to bed all the time. But he's just enjoying himself, and he loves beautiful women and I think that's fine," she says, tossing that thick blonde hair.
Her pragmatism seems appropriate, not least because she must know that even if he's been described as "the best lunch date in London", he'd be hard pressed to find someone else in town to match her.
She'd be as incorrigible a flirt herself if she lived in France or Italy, she thinks. In England, on the whole, she finds the men neither terribly sexy nor overly interested in the company of women, and seems quite pleased that Sebag, being Jewish, has sensibilities that are more similar to Latin ones. And while he flirts, she makes do with her fictional heroes. "I have a certain sort of man at home, so I write about the sort of man I don't have, because it's a fantasy. I have this one, so there's no point in fantasising about him. At home he's quite like Woody Allen. He's quite neurotic."
In Secrets of the Lighthouse, the fantasy in question is a tall, dark brooding Irish film-maker called Conor. If English men don't seem likely to make it into her romantic fiction, she's happy instead to borrow some of ours.
"Sebag, he's bald, intellectual, he's not sporty, he's hugely funny. But he's very cerebral. Whereas Conor is physical, he's riding horses, he's probably a great tennis player. All my men are creative, because I like a creative man. I don't write about men who are solicitors or bankers. That sort of man doesn't appeal to me. My heroes always have to be a bit troubled or complicated. You don't want a sort of regular, easy-going guy. That's a bit boring," she says.
As well as hot men, her books are full of ghosts too. Secrets of the Lighthouse has a strong supernatural story-line. This reflects another of her slightly kookier interests. Since she was a child, Santa believes she's been able to see dead people.
It takes a certain combination of brass neck and winning charm to chat away blithely about spirits like Mystic Meg without losing one's standing at the centre of British society. After all, Montefiore is the sort of hostess who hangs out with the Middletons and sometimes has David Cameron and the heir to the throne sitting at her dining room table. But somehow, with a flick of her hair and an insouciant grin, she gets away with it. Not long ago, she started training to be a medium, and is planning to write a book this summer instructing other people how to do it.
She says that as a child she used to be regularly woken in the night by ghosts, but never really mentioned it to her parents. "I had a lot of nightmares at that time, and my mother did take me to see a woman who manipulated my head. And it really hurt, and in the end, she said well I don't know if I've cured her nightmares, but now she's an inch taller. So now that I'm five foot eleven, it's thanks to this weird woman. She didn't cure my nightmares, which were recurring, recurring, recurring – probably to do with a past life or something" she says brightly. "Now I sound really weird!"
There's a reason ghosts keep popping up in her books. "I don't just want to write to a one-dimensional story because that's not interesting to me. What's interesting to me is to write about the things that mean a lot to me," she says.
The book is dedicated to Miguel Pando and Natalie Montalembert, "who were two very good friends of mine," both now dead. "She died first when we were about 21, she went on a school trip to France from Argentina and died in a canoeing accent. She was the second person I'd grown up with who died.... And then Miguel, who I had a romance with when I was 19 when I lived there (in Argentina)... got a brain tumour and died about two years ago.
"The day he died, I went into meditation, because I see spirits more that way now. And in meditation that night, Miguel and Natalie both came through, with Miguel's father. It's wonderful to see them and know that they're still around."
And what does the cerebral Sebag make of her spiritualism?
Some of it he accepts, she says, though he draws a line at "my level of tarot reading, angels, spirit guides. I believe that angels are all around all the time, wanting to help us.I will ask for a parking space, I will ask for inspiration, I will ask, I need a present for someone, can you just help me out here. I will ask for anything, but he rolls his eyes."
Secrets of the Lighthouse, by Santa Montefiore is out now published by Simon and Schuster, €18.75
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