Colours of Snow
to the Pipers
(US) Vanity and Vexation
Such as it is
I dare say all novelists are asked how much of their fiction
recycled autobiography. Given the high old time enjoyed by my heroines,
inclined to retort that chance would be a fine thing. However, I
that here and there fragments of real life must sneak between the
cracks of the most improbable plot, so here's my attempt to tease
the odd fact from the fiction. For anyone who only wants
a few dates and place-names, however, the basic, dustjacket
biog is in bold. Dead easy to skip the waffle.
Kate Fenton was born on the 14th of October 1954, although
now my 50th birthday's closing in, this date may change. 1960 has
a kindly ring. Still, I emerged in Failsworth, on the outskirts
of Manchester, but was brought up with two younger sisters in Cheshire.
Paternal Gran at gate of authentically
-blackened terrace, down t'road from our own
And bang goes any claim to gritty Northern credibility. Like all
authors these days, I blame the parents. For everything. Instead
of sticking around in smoky, mill-chimneyed Failsworth, they hoisted
us up and out to suburban, tree-lined Cheshire. And did they abuse
me, disown me, or at least indulge in a messy and acrimonious divorce
to blight my impressionable years? They did not. What's a future
novelist going to write about? Being startled by the neighbour's
Yorkshire Terrier while cycling to the village shop is hardly bestseller
Educated Convent of the Holy Nativity, Harrytown High School
66-73. Another blow. Catholic Convent Schools are famously rich
sources for great literature, packing crippling neuroses by the
satchel-load. But - here's the catch - only if you're a Catholic.
I wasn't. On Sunday mornings I trudged down to Romiley Methodist
Chapel, with the warm encouragement of my parents who were themselves
vaguely atheist, but fancied a kid-free lie-in with a mug of tea
and the Observer.
Self and sisters (the pretty ones)
and Big Ted
Still, while I may have wondered whether God (if He existed) preferred
me singing hymns or saying rosaries, I wasn't blighted by my schooldays.
Wouldn't say they were the happiest days of my life, mark you, but
then I'm suspicious of people who claim to have loved school. Something
unnatural about it, don't you think? I just mixed swotty subservience
with sneaky subversion, reading Georgette Heyer under the desk and
postponing homework until the last, which regularly left me scribbling
essays at two in the morning. As I sweat to complete a novel against
a deadline I feel I haven't come far.
1974-77, (by a miracle for which I still thank Methodist,
Catholic and all other varieties of God) I went to St Hilda's
College, Oxford - and while there are people who are miserable
at Oxford, I wasn't one of them. Too amazed and grateful. A friend
said she felt like a dazzled child given free run of a funfair.
Quite. Within a term or so, I'd ditched my name (prissy Kathryn
for snappy Kate), my northern accent (and, God, wasn't it hard remembering
which A's to lengthen), a couple of stone (too busy to eat) and
- rather more drastically - my chosen degree course.
I'd been given a place for music, you see, but instead read
Philosophy Politics & Economics and Dick Francis whose books,
interestingly, were prescribed by my philosophy tutor as an antidote
to exam stress. I may never have touched another page of Wittgenstein,
but I'm a passionate Dick Francis fan. Who says a university education
doesn't equip you for life?
Much as I'd like to claim I waltzed through three years of divinely
mad and bad Brideshead-ish decadence, though, I can't. You can take
the girl out of the suburbs, and all that. Neither beautiful nor
damned, I didn't just fail to inhale, I couldn't understand why
so many people seemed to roll their own cigarettes at parties. Even
so, with a ratio of 4 ½
male undergraduates to every female in those deliciously benighted
days, it would have been hard not to have a ball. And it's occurred
to me recently that I often seem to despatch those fictional characters
closest to my heart to Oxford - Ned in The Colours of Snow
and Tom in Balancing on Air, as well as Becca in Dancing
to the Pipers, the novel which actually opens at a college gaudy.
Conversely, characters that frighten me a bit - Mary in Lions
and Liquorice, or Gaynor in Picking Up - get consigned
After leaving university, she was (briefly) employed
as a researcher (secretary) at the House of Commons, by a
(foolishly trusting) back bench MP, who needed a Jaeger-clad
gorgon to regiment his diary, constituency and filing cabinet (see
Too Many Godmothers), not a ditzy ex-student who couldn't
impose order on her own knicker-drawer. Perhaps I'd have done a
better job if I'd been fired by political conviction, but all that
had drawn me to the Palace of Westminster, after three years of
studying political theory, was an idle curiosity to see how the
place worked in practice. So it was never a serious career option
and my employer and I parted on friendly terms (he was a nice man)
before, I trust, his career suffered terminal damage. However, I'd
like to make clear that, unlike Theodora Dunstan and the dishonourable
Member for Tadstone West, our relationship was strictly business.
Then, while cleaning a ladies' lavatory at the Edinburgh Festival
Ah, yes, Edinburgh. Where I was playing piano and bass guitar for
a revue on the fringe. And at this point it occurs to me I've almost
totally failed to mention music.
The hair receded, the waist expanded,
but the pose never altered. Captioned in programmes for at
least 30 years 'this promising young pianist
To say music was central to my life doesn't come near. I should
explain that my Dad, Ray Fenton, was a professional musician. I
won't say he hoped I was destined to play Wolfgang to his Leopold,
but I was plonked on a piano stool while still in nappies. Not that
I was pushed, still less was I a prodigy, it was just that, well,
music was what I did. Like eating or breathing. Almost my earliest
memory is of sitting under a piano, and I still find something obscurely
comforting about the dusty-metal perfume of a Steinway's innards.
So, alongside convent school, 66-74 I was despatched into
town, where I studied piano at the Manchester School of Music
with the extraordinary Sylvia Forbes - a five foot dynamo
who combined Judy Garland's let's-do-the-show-right-here zest with
Gracie Fields's black-pudding accent and the Queen Mother's passion
for curvy hats and tip-tappy shoes. And we aren't talking a miserable
hour a week of scales, arpeggios and Associated Board exams. Music
with Mrs F was an all-consuming, concerts-and-festivals-every-weekend
way of life. My sisters rode bikes and ponies and discovered boys.
I played piano duets and trios and discovered Benjamin Britten.
Mine's the chubby face NE of the hat
Maybe that's why, when I'm asked whether I've always wanted to
be a writer, I'm not sure of the answer. Sure, I've always been
a fanatical reader - the type who'd dodge back below on the Titanic
to grab something to read on the lifeboat - and, when I was young,
the prospect of actually writing books for a living would have struck
me as more magical, if rather less feasible, than flying to the
moon. But everyone took for granted I'd end up doing something in
the music world. Not as a performer, perhaps. For while Mrs Forbes
swept us all along on her dancing tidal wave, she was clear-sighted.
Only a very rare few, in her view, were fitted to become professional
musicians - classical musicians, that is - and, for them, music
wasn't a choice, it was a vocation, and a hard one at that. I wasn't
one of the chosen.
Sure, I could have found employment somewhere in the interesting
hinterland surrounding performers, but after just a term of Palestrina
& Co. at Oxford, I realized I wanted something other than music,
something quite different - even if I didn't know what. That was
why I switched to PPE. About which, incidentally, I knew nothing
at all. Still, music remained as a sideline - as well as a very
nice little earner.
Yup, an earner. For while I may complain that my parents were quite
uselessly kind and supportive to me throughout my blandly uneventful
childhood - hell, they didn't even kick up a fuss when I jacked-in
the music degree - I have to give my Dad credit for one thing. No
sooner had I reached the age of fifteen, and could rustle a few
competent-ish riffs up and down a keyboard, than in the best tradition
of Dickensian fathers he sternly decreed it was time I worked for
my pocket money.
Not billed, but I was there, truly,
on piano and organ
As well as being a musician, you see, he had a sideline as a sort
of theatrical agent. He booked artistes and acts for summer shows,
cabarets, concerts, kiddies' parties and what have you round the
north of England. Thus, Christmas 1969, I found myself in scanty
evening dress hurtling up and down the mighty promenade at Blackpool
(and let me tell you that famously fresh air is bloody fresh at
midnight on Boxing Day), accompanying a glamorous soprano as she
gave a twenty-minute cabaret spot in four or five jam-packed hotels
a night. I mention all this only because if anyone has read Balancing
on Air and scents an autobiographical connection they'd be absolutely
right. Not that my soprano removed any garments. I've never played
for a stripper, rather disappointingly, although I did, in later
Christmases, get to vamp-til-ready while white rabbits were whipped
out of hats and pink doves out of hidden pockets, also while swords
were plunged down oesophaguses (oesophagi?), balloons were sculpted
into giraffes and Scottish baritones, twirling a saucy kilt, belted
out My Way. Interesting combo with convent school girlhood, don't
In subsequent years, I went on tour with pantomimes and musical
shows, played at the ends of at least two piers, and generally subsidized
my student income in far more colourful ways than stacking shelves
at Tesco's. Variety of course was on its last gasp and beyond -
somehow, the very word 'showbiz' sounds sweetly quaint now, don't
you think? - but it was an education, not to say a treat, to find
myself in the pit with magnificent old troupers like Nat Gonella,
Addy Hall, or the Beverley Sisters (who were chauffeured to Yarmouth
Pier nightly in a Rolls Royce) t'other side of the footlights. Echoes
of all this can be found, not just in Balancing on Air, but Dancing
to the Pipers, Too Many Godmothers, and certainly Picking
Perhaps it even explains why I've never attempted to write - correction,
never succeeded in writing - a Serious Novel. I don't mean a novel
without jokes, but one with, you know, A Message. All down to the
parents again. I was reared in the entertainment business. Not a
frustrated Hamlet, just an old time song-and-dance gal. Make 'em
laugh, make 'em cry, and pull out all the stops for the finale.
Still, enough philosophising and back to the point. Edinburgh.
So, there I was in London, post-university and Palace of Wesminster,
a hack pianist and lousy typist with a degree in PPE which famously
equips you only to read Times leader columns, drifting round in
a gloomy why-was-I-born? daze, when I heard that a bunch of medical
students back at Oxford was taking a revue up to the fringe of the
Edinburgh Festival - and needed a keyboard player. Curious, isn't
it, the way so many doctors seem to have cherished theatrical ambitions
in their youth? I dare say this lot are all fearsomely eminent consultants
now, James Robertson Justice look-alikes floating Godlike in clouds
of white-coated acolytes, but I can only say it's been an abiding
nightmare of mine that one day I'd be knocked over by a bus and
come round in hospital to find one of those amiable lunatics grinning
down at me over a mask, scalpel in hand.
The show - called Once Bitten - was not a major hit. Dire, to be
honest, with audiences you could mostly have fitted into a telephone
box, but it was good fun, even if we did have to subsidize our art
by drawing social security and cleaning the cellar in which we were
performing. (cf Dancing to the Pipers, and Picking Up).
Thus the ladies lav where, on the floor, I found a torn page of
The Daily Telegraph - a paper I wouldn't have been seen dead reading
in those days - with a muddy footprint not quite obscuring an ad
for researcher jobs in BBC Radio Wales. If I wanted to be grandiose,
I'd say in that moment and that lavatory I found my destiny. And
if anyone doesn't believe the story, I still have the newspaper.
Thus, from 1978-1985, I worked for the BBC, first
as a researcher, then as a features and documentary producer, in
Radio Wales, the World Service and, latterly, Radio 4 in London
- and loved it. I felt a more passionate sense of belonging to the
BBC than I ever had to school or university or any other institution.
I was employed at various times on Woman's Hour, Pick of the
Week and Bookshelf, but the most intense pleasure came
from making one-off programmes about anything from modern ghosts
to medieval cookery to sea shanties. It was wonderful what they'd
let you do in that pre-Birtian Garden of Eden. No question, the
character of George in Balancing on Air is an amalgam of all that
was grand and glorious and bonkers about the old ethos of public
service broadcasting. And if you think she's exaggerated, you should
have met the gang of venerable old soaks who used to prop up the
bar at the Langham in the good old days. Once the BBC club, since
sold off as a luxury hotel, of course, when Broadcasting House was
overrun with Perrier-quaffing accountants and grey-suited management
consultants and, God help us, focus groups and
But, as I think I also said in Balancing on Air, old Corporation
hands have always bemoaned a lost golden age of broadcasting which,
mysteriously enough, ended the very day they collected their P45.
I'm still a wireless addict. When Neil Kinnock said the luxury he'd
take to Mr Plomley's Desert Island was Radio 4, he won my vote on
the spot. I buy cars according to whether the radio gets long wave
as well as VHF. When reading about Peter Mayle's Provence, or Chris
Stewart's Spanish hillsides, I don't lust for the scent of lemons
or the golden light filtering through the olive groves, I wonder
whether you can get The Archers down there. No? Well, I'll stick
in Blighty then, thanks very much.
'Don't use that picture,' he said, 'makes
me look like a lush
So why did I quit? Maybe because, in the BBC as in any other large
organisation, there's only one way to get onwards and that's upwards.
As I reached the end of my twenties I realized, in a rare flash
of good sense, that I was not a manager. Not just was I lacking
any talent for managing other people, (although that's never held
anyone back in the BBC) I didn't want to preside over meetings and
staff rotas and appointments boards. I'm an artisan, a craftsman,
I like making things. Plus my poor old Dad was mortally ill - for
a short while, I even ended up back on the cabaret circuit, playing
for dates he couldn't make. Besides which, in 1984 I (had)
met my future husband, actor Ian Carmichael. To be accurate,
I'd employed him, to read some stories I was producing for Radio
So, one way or another in 1985 I left Broadcasting House
and London, and joined Ian at his home up here in North
Yorkshire, in the Esk Valley, a few miles inland from Whitby
- a valley not in the least disguised as the Wragg valley in The
Colours of Snow. In truth, I seem to have exploited the culture
shock of uprooting from Clapham Common to the North York Moors so
often in my books, I'm reluctant to go on about it here. If you're
a welly-wearer yourself, you can imagine the pastoral delights -
that heavenly moment of opening the back door of a morning to taste
the air, hay-scented in June, a bonfire tang in December, of listening
to the river, to the indignant croak of a pheasant, or just of revelling
in the crystalline silence. If, on the other hand, you think that
God wouldn't have invented supermarkets had He intended us to be
on neighbourly terms with cows, then I'll admit it's twenty-odd
miles to the nearest Marks and Sparks, and that kindred spirits
are sparse and precious. Out in the sticks, there are a lot of chaps
(and I choose my words advisedly) who think writin's a jolly sort
of hobby for a gel. Doncherknow. Until I moved to the country, I'd
never realized P G Wodehouse was a social historian. But don't be
deceived. Even if I feel an odd twinge of nostalgia for the friendly
yellow wink of a cruising London cab, I love it up here, with all
the passion of a convert.
When I arrived, though, it was only intended to be a sort of sabbatical.
During which I was foolhardy enough to claim (well, I had to make
some excuse for abandoning my chums in London) that I intended,
at last, to Write A Novel. Big mistake. Writing, like dieting or
giving up fags is something you should either do or not do, but
you definitely shouldn't talk about it. I would creep upstairs to
the typewriter I'd installed on an old dressing table - and stare
wretchedly at the virgin drifts of paper. It took me until 1989
to complete the first novel which was published under my
own name, The Colours of Snow. I've described in the notes
to that book just why it took so long - curiously without mentioning
chronic indolence or alcohol. No, no, I wrong myself. I'd actually
written several First Novels, before I wrote my first novel, if
you see what I mean. Still, all that's described elsewhere. Suffice
to say, another five books have followed: Dancing to the Pipers
(1993), Lions and Liquorice (1995), Balancing on Air
(1996); Too Many Godmothers (2000), and Picking
before the first, I'd recognized I wasn't going back to London,
and thereupon installed my piano. Ian has never stopped complaining
that it ruins the sitting room. Personally I thought he should have
been grateful. One could hardly ask for a more substantial commitment
than a six foot grand - there's no tucking that in your suitcase
and doing a runner, is there? But we did also get round to getting
married - in spite of the piano - in 1992.
there anything else you're supposed to put in a c.v.? Children.
None, to my regret and my husband's sneaky relief. Still, I
get the very delightful benefit of his five grandchildren and three
(so far) great grandchildren, along with my own quartet of nephews.
They list clubs in Who's Who, don't they? But I haven't any. Hobbies?
For a long time that box would have been dismally blank, too. Sure,
I like cooking, but it's not what you'd call a hobby. One has to
eat. Likewise sewing, which at times has been sheer financial necessity.
It isn't only Scarlet O'Hara who's gone to a ball wearing a pair
of curtains. Music, books - well, for God's sake, of course. Plus,
over the years I've tried tap-dancing (poor fool) and dabbled in
Only in these past couple of years, though, can I claim to have
acquired a proper hobby: gun dog handling. That's right. And I can
imagine what you're thinking - so sad, this childless middle-aged
woman seeking consolation in dogs. Very true. Spaniels, to be exact,
two. But I don't just drool over them and knit them doggy-jackets.
We work together for local shoots, beating & retrieving, and
I'll have you know I'm becoming quite a snazzy little performer
on the dog whistle. Who'd have thought it of a suburban girl who,
not so long ago, wouldn't have known a grouse from a canary? I even
get paid for my efforts. And if anyone wants to know more, see the
notes to Picking Up. Dog-haters should avoid that section.
Otherwise - well, hell, what an uneventful life. You can see why I
have to make stuff up, can't you?