Gladys Meakin flashed a slightly wicked smile at me and winked,
‘One minute I’m playing bingo with Peggy & Daphne in the day room and the next I’m slinging back Pol Roger at The Ivy.’
She laughed naughtily. ‘I’ve even had to buy one of these,’ she said, waving an iPhone at me. ‘I’ve just downloaded that drawing app, it’s quite compulsive, I’m playing it with my literary agent Chaz, and of course, I can’t help checking my Amazon listing every now and then. Not bad for a 98 year old eh?’
At this point Gladys’ ring tone, which I recognised as ‘We’re in the money’, drowned out the tea cups in ‘The Golden Meadows Care Home’ and she broke off our conversation to talk to her publicist; fine tuning some details of her book tour.
I reminded myself that I was gazing at the publishing phenomenon of 2012.
Born in 1914, Gladys wrote from early childhood, but it wasn’t until 1936 that she submitted her second full length novel ‘Lift Not the Painted Veil ‘, to a publisher. The rest has been history, quite literally; her meteoric rise up the hardback best-sellers list and her domination of the top spot since, has become the oddest publishing story of 2012. The novel which has famously highlighted a previously hidden aspect of country life in the 1930’s has caused a sensation.
‘I can’t think why people were so surprised, although I knew that it was pretty racy stuff when I sent the manuscript to Hudson & Ledbetter all those years ago.’ Gladys said.
‘Funny isn’t it, to think of it sitting there at the very bottom of that slush pile all through those years, you know they discovered that it had become wedged beneath a radiator, sort of holding the whole thing up, that’s why no one threw it out.’
Gladys thoughtfully spat an olive pit inaccurately towards a sanitary receptacle.
‘But, in a way, it was a mercy, if it had been published I think my father might have shot me, he’d tried it before y’know.’
‘Your father tried to kill you?’
Gladys nodded vigorously as she topped up my glass with vintage champagne.
‘It happened when I was beating on a pheasant shoot. The night before, I had told Daddy that I quite liked the Quakers and he’d flown into a rage, very light on the trigger, Daddy. Of course, Mummy would have died of shame, she didn’t even want people to know that she bought her underwear at the Home & Colonial Stores, so god knows what she would have made of our sexually deviant branch of trained anarcho-syndicalists.’
‘Tell me about that training’
‘We all went to Godalming’
‘Was that code for something?
‘No I mean literally, Aurelia Blythe-Goodman the founder of our movement lived just outside Godalming.’
‘And did she teach you personally?’
‘Only if she fancied you’,
Gladys chuckled and rummaged in a pocket of her voluminous cardigan, pulling forth a packet of cigarettes and covertly showing them to me.
‘I bought these off the caretaker’, she said, ‘he gets them in from Albania.’
So saying, she stuffed the packet back into her pocket while I tried to regain the train of my thoughts.
‘What did the training consist of?’
‘We had to be able to fight off fascists in hand-to-hand combat, naturally. In order to improve our fitness, Aurelia devised a particularly aggressive form of lacrosse, in which the objective was to ram your opponents head into the net of the lacrosse stick. She also gave every girl a small stipend to buy herself a bicycle. We were trained to use the bicycle as a potential weapon. We also knitted balaclavas, pretending that they were for Grimsby trawlermen, but really they were intended for our night raids.’
‘But what did you raid?’
‘Well that was a little disappointing, the girls in the towns had a better time of it really, radicalising factory workers, but we did our bit; we infiltrated dairies, forges, creameries and once smashed up a tea shop, gosh we laughed about that for months; cream horns flying, Spode hitting the deck, women in fur-trimmed coats and feathered hats fleeing up the High Street; how I miss those days.’
And were you all Lesbians?’
‘Good Gracious yes, I should say so,’ she said dreamily.
Gladys charged her glass once more and then fell into a fitful doze, so I left her, re-enacting her Anarcho-Syndicalist triumphs in the by-ways of Surrey. I had meant to ask her how it felt to have spent a lifetime trying to get published, only to succeed as a nonagenarian. But in a way I didn’t need to ask, all the answers were there on Gladys re-juvenated face.
It’s poignant to remember Gladys asking me to explain again what her publicist had meant when she’d said that ‘Old was the new young’. But since Gladys’ sad demise on the eve of her book tour, this phrase had taken on the weight of prophecy. In publisher’s offices, all around London, interns have been developing dust allegies from turning slush piles upside down, in hopes of finding another of Gladys Meakin’s racy series of novels concerning the sexy and political antics of a bunch of 1930’s girls, because she submitted them to every publisher she could find. So far no more have turned up and dear Gladys will not be supplying any more.