I was born in the back of a traditional gypsy barrel topped caravan which was parked up in my parents’ back garden. Grand – my Mum’s mother – was Romany but had settled down and now lived with my parents almost like a regular gorgi or house-dweller, although she refused to give up her van and only came indoors to use the facilities. Grand insisted I be born in the van like a proper Romany, and not in the house.
Grand was a tough old soul, having endured a long marriage to Grandad, who was a brutal drinker who ruled the family by fear of his fists. He used to knock his grown-up sons’ heads together and leather them with his belt, and my mum once hit him with a flat iron to stop him beating up Grand. When Grandad ran off with another woman, everyone in the family was relieved, not upset.
I grew up living the country life, playing in the dirt with Dad’s chickens, often tethered by a rope to the back of Grand’s van so I didn’t wander off too far.
Grand had The Sight and read the tarot (she taught me how to read the cards too) and was a great one for predicting things – she even predicted I would be a writer.
‘She’s got a strong writer’s fork,’ said Grand on my third birthday, examining the palms of my hands. ‘Two, in fact. She’s not only going to write, she’s going to be famous for it.’
My dad was not a gypsy, my mother married ‘out’. He was an engineer and was to become very wealthy . He met my mother purely by chance. A friend of my father’s took him along to a young farmers’ dance, where a dark-haired gypsy girl – my mother – came in fresh from a day’s strawberry picking on the fields and stole his heart away.
Knowing he was interested in boxing and had done a bit of fighting himself as a keen amateur, she invited him to go and see her cousin compete against one of the local bare-knuckle champs – gypsies are all about challenges and fighting, about who has the strongest, the bravest, the best champion – and her cousin won.
Tales of this and other fights – the blood flying, the roar of the crowds around the makeshift ring, the betting, the pulled punches and thrown contests – came down the family, stuck in my brain and inspired Fearless, an epic tale of which is very personal to me and of which I am extremely proud. From London to New York and the American Deep South, it’s big sprawling tale that grips from page one.
Fearless is about the Flynn clan, the men of which are bare-knuckle fighting Romany gypsies but whose womenfolk aspire to be so much more. They want to climb the social scale, to mix with the top people in society. It’s an ambition that brings tragedy and devastation in its wake. Fearless is a big, sprawling tale of a struggle for power, an unsolved mystery and an undying passion that crosses all barriers and continets, from the 1970’s right up to the present day.
I’m very proud of my gypsy heritage; my partner often teases me about my ‘gypsy genes’, and wishes he had some because they are such a gift. He’s right. Gypsies are strong, resilient, tough as old boots. Fighting’s in their blood and It’s an honour to be one of them.
Although my very early life could be viewed as idyllic, my life from teenage years onwards was like a slow-motion car crash. First, the family business started to fold amid arguments, embezzlement court cases and recriminations. Then my dad, who’d been the powerhouse of the company and the family, got ill with lung cancer (he’d always smoked).
I felt his agony, his desperate efforts to try to rally, to raise cash to keep the company going; and nothing seemed to have any point after that, least of all education. So I failed the 11 plus exam and ended up in a sink secondary school instead of the grammar school everyone expected me to attend, was bullied mercilessly, and left with 1 O level – English.
Dad died and the firm collapsed. The family home was seized by the banks, and my mum & I ended up on a rough council estate, bricks coming through the windows and being sworn at in the street because we were perceived to be ‘posh’.
THEN I RAN
Something seemed to snap inside my head at that point: I fled to London, thinking that there had to be a better life out there somewhere. I crashed on a friend’s sofa and got a job washing pots in a restaurant. In my free time I wandered around the capital, unable to believe that I was actually here. London and all that it had to offer seemed like magic, another world.
THE BRIGHT LIGHTS
In break times we went around the Soho bars and clubs in Greek Street, Old Compton Street, Dean Street, Frith Street and St Anne’s Court, and started to make friends with the people who worked there. The atmosphere in the clubs was glamorous, smoky, racy, very exciting for a quietly-raised innocent from the sticks. And the girls who worked in them had a chic worldliness that I coveted for myself.
AND THEN CAME ‘PRECIOUS’…
In one of the clubs I met a fabulously beautiful stripper called Joanna (not her real name), who formed the basis in Ruthless, one of my Annie Carter books, for Precious, the super-bright and warm-hearted girl our heroine Layla Carter befriends. Didn’t she hate this work, I asked her. ‘I keep my mind on the money. I’m getting out of here soon,’ she always said.
Joanna was intelligent and friendly too, with ambitions far beyond the (then) seedy Soho world, with a photographic memory and a hunger for learning. She wanted to be an actress, and I wanted to be a writer. We spurred each other on, and for a while everything seemed wonderful.
BUT REALITY BITES…
I slowly became aware that the glossy world I was now inhabiting had a nasty and dangerous underbelly, only barely hidden. My friend was mixing with a very shady crowd of pimps, deadbeats and flashy hustlers who took her to dinner and made her extravagant (always empty) promises of fame. One of the deadbeats became my first boyfriend, a car thief who quickly got himself arrested and then sent me begging letters from prison. And then one day Joanna turned up at my friend’s flat in tears with a black eye. I started to feel uneasy, like I was walking too close to an edge. Which I suppose I was.
After three months in the city, I’d had enough. I was worried about and missing my mum, so I decided it was time to leave London. We said we’d keep in touch, Joanna and I, but the letters got fewer and fewer, and then I received no more. I often wonder what happened to her, did she leave the bad boys behind and achieve her dream, like I finally achieved mine? I hope so. And she gave me a wonderful character for my book, so I’m eternally grateful to her for that.