The release of the film Jackie reminded me that years ago I interviewed Oleg Cassini, the man who designed the outfits for Jacqueline Kennedy everyone now describes using that massively over-employed word, ‘Iconic.’ There’s no question he dressed America’s First Lady in a way that was original, stylish and distinctly European in character (Cassini was a Russian aristocrat born of maternal Italian ancestry in 1913 in Paris). When I sat down for a conversation with him in a London hotel 20-odd years ago, I did so expecting someone sophisticated and maybe slightly world-weary. Also possibly a bit bored – he’d done a lot of interviews over a long lifetime, after all. What I didn’t anticipate was meeting someone so insightful he seemed almost to be psychic.
Cassini was a friend of the Kennedy family with strong Hollywood connections. At one time he was engaged to be married to Grace Kelly. He played tennis regularly with Errol Flynn. Flynn was pretty good, he told me; ‘Powerful serve and strong forehand and like all Aussies, he hated to lose.’
Cassini became spectacularly successful in pre-war Hollywood. Then after Pearl Harbor he served first in the United States Coastguard and then in the U.S. Army as a cavalry officer. After the war he settled in New York and became one of the most feted of American fashion designers and then in the early 1960s ‘Secretary of Style’ to the White House in the ‘brief, shining moment’ of Kennedy’s Camelot. And he kept up the A-list film wardrobe work right up to his death in 2006, winning accolades and awards and competing in Harness Racing at the age of 74.
You’d think a man like that would be pretty preoccupied with his own status and achievements. And the interview ran its course with some fascinating anecdotes about the people he’d met and the momentous 20th century events he’d been a part of. All par for the course (and why me and my tape recorder were there in the first place). But then at the conclusion of our conversation something happened that just astonished me and when I reflect on it, still does. The exchange went like this:
‘Are you happy being a magazine editor, Francis?’
‘It’ s a pretty good job.’
‘Which isn’t answering the question.’
‘Why do you ask it?’
‘Because you’re totally unfulfilled. If you have an unspoken ambition, and I believe you do, you need to do everything you can to try to realise it. You’ll never find contentment otherwise.’
Careers advice from someone who achieved pretty much everything he wanted to. And the novel pictured at the top of this post is its direct consequence. I went home and pondered on what had been said to me and began to think seriously about becoming a writer of fiction. This was my first novel -published when I still wrote as Francis rather than F.G. and my pages weren’t peopled by ghosts. F.G. came about when my fifth novel manifested a strong paranormal streak and its author needed to sound a bit more sinister.
Fourteen novels on from The Fire Fighter, eleven of them as F.G. Cottam, I honestly think I’d have written fiction eventually had I never met Oleg Cassini. Of course I would. But I’m still very grateful for the truth with which he confronted me all those years ago at the conclusion of our chat.
Fitness for me these days is less about how I look than how I feel and mostly about having an eleven year-old daughter I’d like to see into adulthood. Then there’s a 19 year-old son who doesn’t quite yet want to commemorate his dad’s life with a brass plaque affixed to a wooden bench on Queen’s Promenade facing the Thames. Instead of having, ‘He loved it here,’ etched in metal, he wants me to go on loving it there for a few years yet.
Thus the instrument of torture pictured here. Those of you who’ve read my Colony novel Dark Resurrection might mistake this for Andrea Thorpe’s garrotte, the deadly weapon with which she tried to strangle Ruthie Gillespie over dinner one summer evening in the lovely Sussex town of Lewes. But what it actually is, is my skipping rope. Americans call them jump ropes, but since I’ve been using one of these for more than 40 years, it’s fair to say I do a bit more when I skip than just jump.
You have to. You have to do the tricks. It’s really boring and monotonous otherwise. And breaking the rhythm makes it harder and more effortful and therefore more effective. I skip in rounds (seven five-minute rounds) with a minute’s rest between each. It’s brutal compared to running, but it works. I’ve been running regularly along the river towpath, which is when my story ideas tend to occur and hadn’t skipped at all since the Spring of last year, when this came off its cupboard hook last week. ‘You’ve asked for it,’ I said to myself, stepping off the scales post-Christmas: ‘you’ve run out of excuses, it’s got to be the rope.’
Shedding pounds inflicted by overdoing the sherry trifle wasn’t the only honest incentive. Yes, I get my story ideas running along a scenic stretch of the Thames. But right now it’s pretty cold and wet and miserable out there and when you encounter mud, you don’t so much run as slither. It isn’t a huge amount of fun. Skipping is done indoors. There’s a roof and walls and central heating involved and no risk whatsoever of being bitten by a dog. I get a bit tired of hearing, ‘He/she won’t touch you if you stand still,’ when I’m out running.
Anyway, at the time of writing this I’m not short of new story ideas. Three or four are competing for attention in my head. And last week I rediscovered a novel I wrote in 2012 and had somehow forgotten about. I can’t quite explain how I managed to forget 90, 000 words of fiction, except to say that there was a lot going on domestically back then. I moved on to other projects and Hercules Road (only the working title) somehow got lost in the shuffle. I was pleasantly surprised re-reading it and now have to work out what to do with it. Since it’s set in 1942, that isn’t a time-sensitive decision.
I don’t dislike dogs, by the way. Being bitten by a Ridgeback and a Doberman were experiences I could have done without, but I’m really fond of my brother’s dog Reggie and my sister’s dog Dora (having dog-sat the former and named a character after the latter). Pets bring joy. They bring companionship. They also win prizes, but that’s another story and thankfully not one of mine.
I’d like to wish everyone reading this a happy, healthy, prosperous and peaceful New Year. It’s customary to do that today. It’s also surrendering to a very human impulse. The beginning of something is for most of us instinctively a time of hope. I’m well aware that the line between optimism and self-delusion can sometimes seem a very thin one. The year just passed seemed at times determined to prove that. But life is surely brighter for all of us for having ambitions to try to fulfil and dreams to try to realise. Of course striving for anything inevitably brings the risk of failure and no one likes to fail. But the great Canadian ice-hockey player Wayne Gretzky had the best retort to that when he said, ‘You miss 100 per cent of the shots you never take.’ Anyway, there endeth the lesson. I’ll stop preaching and clamber down from the pulpit, with all the agility and grace of someone who emphatically overdid the festive cheer.
My personal challenge for 2017 is to write the best novel I’ve yet completed. There are those who’d say that’s not much of a challenge at all, but I’ll press on despite the waggish barbs. Having said that though, some of the criticism of my past output is totally valid and I’d rather learn from than ignore it. Persistent criticism is discouraging but consistent criticism is usually pointing out that there’s a real flaw or weakness. I’m not deaf to it. It’s instructive. I believe I can write a better book than any of those I’ve so far written and that’s an ambition I find inspiring. Unusually, this one already has a title. And it’s a cracking title, so I feel I’m out of the blocks rather than off to a tentative or uncertain start.
In other news my Colony trilogy will soon be coming out as a single package, both for download and as actual, physical books. The novel that completes the trilogy, Harvest of Scorn, is published in physical form on January 13 and I’m pleased about that. It means I’ll be responsible for a box-set. It’s a modestly sized box-set as these things go, but the idea of being binge-read is quite an appealing one.
The picture above is one taken at dusk from the top of Richmond Hill on the shortest day of the year about a fortnight ago. The evenings are getting lighter now. Things are looking up…