Sunday 21 July 2019

Samson's delight


As a former publicity director with a big English publishing house, Polly Samson would recognise herself as a marketing man's dream. She has an exotic family background, is mother to seven children (not all her own), and lives in rustic splendour with her famous pop star husband. She's also an accomplished writer who once featured on a list of Britain's 50 most beautiful women. Patricia Deevy heard Samson's story.

PRECISELY because Polly Samson is a publicist's dream, you'd be tempted not to write about her just to spite the machine. She looks great (of course that doesn't matter, but we're talking marketing here, not art). She has a wonderful warm personality. Her family background is full of jaw-dropping drama. She is a mother of three sons and a stepmother to another boy and three girls. She lives in rustic luxury, amongst a menagerie in west Sussex with her husband, Pink Floyd frontman David Gilmour. She is happy. But chiefly she's worth knowing about because she is an accomplished new writer.

Despite her contentment, Samson has a streak of hilariously melodramatic fatalism. Recently, in an Oxford Street bookshop to sign copies of her first novel, Out of the Picture, she watched a woman deciding whether or not to buy it. She picked it up, studied the front and back, put it down, walked away, walked back, picked it up again, left it down. And on it went. ``And I said: `If she buys it, everything in my life is going to be OK. And if she doesn't buy it everything is going to be terrible, my whole life is going to go wrong.' In the end she went and bought it and I've never felt so relieved. If this woman knew I was stalking her around the shop: `Buy it, buy it, buy it ... '''

That Samson is still in touch with girlhood and its ``he loves me/he loves me not'' model of rationality partly explains why Out of the Picture works as well it does. In it a young woman flees to London after falling out with her stepfather over something which is a mystery for most of the novel. It is 1980 and Lizzie finds a crummy bedsit, takes a job at a photo-agency, begins an affair with her seedy middle-aged boss, and sets about finding her father, a painter who walked out of her life when she was a child. At 18, and lonely in London, Lizzie's resentments and sorrows propel her in two directions: into the stupid affair, but also towards taking responsibility for giving her life a shape and a meaning.

Samson is Lizzie's exact contemporary and at 18 her life was in a similar need of direction. Now, she calls herself ``the luckiest person alive things very much landed in my lap''.

She will talk about the goodness of her life, but is irritated when the publicity concentrates on her marriage. For instance, in Germany her publisher mentioned Gilmour in the book's author blurb. She raged about it to her mother, who observed that Pink Floyd were ``probably quite famous in Germany''. Her mother, she realises, still hasn't quite got just how big the band is. When she began seeing Gilmour her mother told her uncle that she was going out with a chappy from a band called Lily The Pink.

Her mother might be forgiven for missing out on some of the 20th century's cultural phenomena, having been there for the really important stuff. Esther Cheo Ying was born in Shanghai in 1932, the daughter of a 17-year-old flame-haired cockney chambermaid and a Mandarin Chinese maths wizard from a wealthy family. They met when he was in London to study at the London School of Economics. Three children later, Anne, the chambermaid, was on the boat back to England: ``I think my grandfather had concubines and the whole thing was a mess. She couldn't cope with these three little children and she got them all into a Dr Barnardo's home.''

For the rest of her childhood, China represented contentment to Esther, and her quest was to get back there. At 16, she married a Chinese-American war hero she had met at an embassy function. ``She was married to him ... it must have been for all of three months. She got as far as Hong Kong and she said: `That's it. I'm off to join the revolution.' They stuffed her in the Red Army where, first of all, she had to learn to read and write.'' (Esther saw her father just once on the street as he was being packed off to a forced labour camp. She is in touch with her family of Chinese half-siblings.)

Six years later, Esther was disillusioned with the revolution, in danger because of her interest in rock music and working as a translator and interpreter with Radio Peking. She was eight months pregnant when she married Alan Winnington, a journalist with the communist Daily Worker (the forerunner of The Morning Star). They moved to East Berlin. Wanting to reward him for his services, the paper gave Winnington his heart's desire of a British car and got a Daily Worker colleague, Lance Samson, to deliver it.

``Somehow he left the car and brought my mother back. And during this time I was conceived. The first four years of my life she was very much between the two men. I remember Alan Winnington absolutely. I used to call him Dad and I used to call my dad Lance. Isn't that dreadful? But they [her brothers] called him Dad. I've never really called my dad Dad.''

Lance Samson had arrived in England in 1938, a 10-year-old Jewish refugee. Sadly, but also luckily, his father had just died of a heart attack. Samson senior was so adamant about fighting for Jewish rights that, had he lived, the family would have remained in Hamburg and probably gone to a concentration camp. With her husband dead, Ilse Samson sent the children to England. They were separated and put into four different institutions.

Lance and Esther married when their daughter was seven, mainly, she says, because she nagged them into it.

``I longed to be a bridesmaid. I think I've got long hair now because I always had the urchin look when I was small, in all my brother's hand-me-downs. Nobody would have this speccy shaven-haired child as their bridesmaid. So I used to beg them. I remember that they took me to this department store to choose my dress this was 1968 or '69 and I was so excited I was running around the shop telling all these sales assistants in this rather posh store: `My mummy and daddy are getting married, my mummy and daddy are getting married.'''

After the brutal suppression of popular agitation in Prague in '68, the Samsons abandoned communism and moved from London to the West Country. When Samson was growing up, at first in Cornwall and later in Devon, her parents were respectable members of the community, a local newspaper editor and a village school headmistress. The only sign of previous activism was more political talk than in most homes and a house where neatness and matching curtains and cushions were not a priority.

HER rebellion against free-thinking parents was excessive compliance: she asked them to tell her what to think. She took herself off to Sunday School from about the age of seven her parents were atheists. In her teens, she made her statement by getting expelled from school after throwing a table at a teacher, by getting a dead-end job as a telex operator in a local factory, by going out with the local stud lovely but dumb and planning to marry him and settle down to domestic bliss. Six months of that and boredom got to her. ``I ran screaming both from the boyfriend and the clay company.''

She arrived at the door of her German grandmother, who was then working in the British Library. Ilse encouraged her to look for work in publishing. Though Polly couldn't type, she started as a typist in Macmillan.

She stayed late to do the work she hadn't managed during the day and impressed the boss with her diligence. She was promoted and by her mid-20s was the publicity director at Jonathan Cape. It was a dream job where she worked with writers like Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Clive James, Ian McEwan, Bruce Chatwin and Doris Lessing. But in 1989 she lost her job when she and her new boss did not get on. Though shocked and upset, the ``enormous pay-off'' suited her very well for she was pregnant and moving to Cornwall with her partner, the writer Heathcote Williams.

A second blow came when Williams left her and their son, Charlie, a year later. Samson has written that when he walked out, Williams quoted Cyril Connolly's famous dictum to her: ``There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.''

His attitude came as a total shock. ``But he's a complicated person. I was utterly utterly miserable. Part of it is the feeling of responsibility towards your child and just feeling that you'd utterly failed. I still, to this day, don't think it was my fault. I saw Heathcote the other day. We had a good conversation about it. It's very nice, eight years later, having a conversation where you're able to talk about it. I said: `I was never going to stop you working, you know.'''

Feeling at her lowest ebb, Samson believed nothing would ever be right. ``I really thought that was it. When you're in despair, you do. God, it's too horrible to go into despair is a funny thing and I definitely thought that Charlie's life would be better, maybe, if I wasn't in it.

``I just thought: `My parents are perfectly good parents.' We'd go and stay with my parents in Devon and it was very stable. And I used to feel almost bad then packing him back into the car. I was almost jealous of my parents at that stage because they had a home and each other and we were living on friends' sofas.''

Samson went into journalism and ended up working mainly for the Sunday Times, doing a column called Style File, an early-Nineties version of the offbeat gossipy social columns that are all the rage now. She hated it.

``Life was hard for a couple of years. But I wouldn't have wanted my life to be good all the way through. I'm glad that I had a couple of years where I was living on my wits.''

Mutual friends of herself and David Gilmour tried to get the two of them together for years. At numerous dinner parties they sat beside each other and had friendly but polite discussions about children and music. Then, when there hadn't been a dinner for quite some time, Gilmour asked her to a U2 concert.

``I thought: `Gosh, I should go, because he might be a really good character for a novel.' And I had a boyfriend at the time this is a really horrible story who I wasn't that keen on. And I said to the boyfriend: `I've known him for a while. There's nothing going to happen and, God, it is something that might be really useful one day if I needed a character like this. He's larger than life. Will you babysit?' And so this boyfriend oh dear, it was terrible babysat.'' She managed to get him babysitting for the next two nights as well. That was enough.

THEY married in July 1994 and became parents, one way or another, of five children. ``It had been a very lonely experience being with one little boy. It was like a bonus getting all these children because I was ready to be in a big family. The youngest was six, the girls were 10, 12 and 16. The 16-year-old was a challenge because that's the age they don't want another woman coming into their father's life. I think it helped that I was a mother already, actually, because I think that they can see that you are mother material.'' Since then the couple have had two boys together Joe, who is just five, and Gabriel, who will soon be three. Gilmour adopted Charlie.

Samson co-wrote seven songs for the Pink Floyd album, The Division Bell, an album which went to number one in the US just two weeks after its release. It was a clever way of making her independently wealthy going into marriage with a multi-millionaire.

Although Samson had wanted to write, and during her lonely times in London wrote 30-page letters home, when she went to the Sunday Times, she was terrified. ``I used to ring my mum from the newsroom: `Do you mind if I just read you what I've written?' And other people, they'd be staring. `Hello, Mum, I've just got 1,000 words.' I think it's the act reading to someone whose opinion you care about.''

Writing fiction is no different: ``I will write a paragraph sometimes and I will have to call David into the study and say: `David, do you mind if I just read this to you?' And it's not because I think he's going to give me expert guidance. He's incredibly patient because he'll be in the middle of something else and I'm hopping up and down with impatience: `I have to read it to you right now!'''

Samson says that when she's working she is like a woman possessed. The characters go about their ordinary lives in her head, doing the banal stuff that they would do between appearances in her novel. Describing how she combines motherhood and writing, she has written about the way the boys would wait to ambush her on the way to the bathroom. ``On more than one occasion, I climbed out of the study window and peed on the lawn.''

The summer is given over to enjoying her children and in September she will start again. Anyway, she says, her writing is good for them. ``I never want that thing of saying, `Everything I gave up for you.' I never want to say that to them. I never want to say to them: `I could have written a novel if it hadn't been for you.' That would be terrible.''

* Out of the Picture is published by Virago at stg£9.99

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