The trouble with country life is that it is so unhealthy. Where I used to walk to the Tube I now take the car. Where I used to go out and see friends I now ruin my eyes watching television. After 20 years in Leicestershire I am almost blind and I have no muscle tone. But I have determined to go on a health and beauty drive. My first stop is the optician, where I demand tinted contact lenses — only to be told I can’t have them. They say you should suffer to be beautiful but, apparently, if you are long-sighted, stabbing at your pupils without blinking doesn’t earn you the right to be a violet-eyed lovely. Still, anything is better than glasses. For several days I practise putting in my new, colourless lenses. I have to strip naked to prepare for 30 minutes of panting and sweating until I get the hang of them, but at last I am ready to wear them — and to a party. But with the lenses on I feel as if I am looking through sweet wrappers. I see an old friend coming towards me. ‘Hello Bridget,’ I cry. ‘It’s Pauline,’ she says. Perhaps I should go back to the television for a while.
My closest friend from school, Lucy, has been off the social scene for even longer than I have. She joined an enclosed order of nuns more than 19 years ago. Last week, however, she was let out to spend a few days with her sick mother, and I seized the opportunity to call her. When she answered the phone I didn’t recognise her voice, which sounds strangely old-fashioned. The convent has minimal contact with the outside world, although she tells me that they kept in touch with the Pope’s election by ordering the Guardian Weekly. What a choice! She confessed they were stunned by the rabid anti-Catholicism of Polly Toynbee, and I don’t think they will be ready for any more secular journalism for a long time to come.
Lucy also told me a rather fascinating story. Her prioress was a German Jew whose father had been a lawyer and a prominent anti-Nazi. He was shot not long after the Nazis came to power. Her widowed mother had tried desperately to take her three daughters out of the country, but it was almost impossible to get a visa. One day, when she was queuing for papers, she got talking to a foreigner who told her that if she married a Dutchman she would get Dutch citizenship in six weeks and be able to leave. ‘That’s all very well,’ she said, ‘but I don’t know any Dutchmen.’ ‘You can marry me,’ he replied — and she did. They were subsequently very happy and the children were brought up as Christians in Holland. I wondered what their natural father would have thought of one of his daughters becoming a nun. It seems rather sad that after the Nazis’ determination to wipe out the Jews she had chosen to remain childless, and I was glad that the other sisters had married, although I didn’t inquire about their religion.
To regain my muscle tone, I have hired a personal trainer. My husband, Peter, used to have a trainer who exercised him until he was sick; I tell mine that I only want to achieve the level of fitness necessary to remain alive — and I won’t run because I think it’s bad for the bosoms. She seems pleasingly amazed how well my body has held up, and I am introduced to lots of exciting-looking equipment: earless space-hoppers, heavy metal poles and, best of all, pink boxing gloves. Soon I will be a lean, mean, fighting machine. When my children used to come back crying from the playground, my advice was simple — if someone is mean to you, hit them. I don’t currently have an enemy, but I still remember the 11-year-old Henrietta Bredin dragging me across the common-room floor by my plait. I was small and skinny, but I turned my head and bit her in the ankle until she cried. I wonder if she is the same HB who now writes for The Spectator arts pages?
Unspeakable though Mr Blair and his cohorts are, the Conservative party did not deserve to win the election. They betrayed their party and their country when they failed to play the role of an opposition party in the months leading up to the Iraq war. Whatever they felt about the war, they should have asked the tough questions, but the leaders of the party didn’t. Now we have another leadership beauty competition and, more interestingly, a discussion about what the Conservative party stands for. We can expect to hear a lot about small government and low taxes, but I hope we are also going to hear about savings and pensions from the wonderful Malcolm Rifkind. People are not going to risk putting their money in funds which are going to be plundered by their bosses or their bankers. My own savings, with a major high-street bank, performed 23 per cent below the stock market index, while the man in charge of private clients’ portfolios was getting bonuses of almost £1 million. Just thinking about it makes me itch for the pink gloves — which is probably why the bank paid back my losses. But you can be sure they haven’t done so for others. The Conservative party should stand for the little guy who wants to stand on his own two feet, especially now that Mr Blair has grander airs than Louis XIV.
I don’t know why it is, but a lot of people seem to assume that writing a book doesn’t require any work. I began my book about James I and VI four years ago, and I have only just finished it. The other day when I told someone I was a writer they replied, ‘Oh, that’s a nice hobby.’ Hobby! It was not a hobby that turned my bottom the same shape as my chair or turned me into a gibbering wreck. Awaiting my book reviews, I have called my agent and asked her if she would mind giving me her home number in case of ‘emergency’. The best news thus far is that my Peruvian mother-in-law, who has spent the past four years telling me how boring my book sounds, has loved it. But who knows how others will feel? Peter won’t put up with my hyperneurotic outpourings, and the children’s mantra, ‘Chill your beans’, isn’t at all what I want to hear. My agent, however, is always there for me … I think. She appeared to give me her number happily, but then she told me a cruel story. An American colleague of hers was going off on holiday when a client rang demanding to know what he should do in an emergency. ‘Call the doctor,’ she replied.
Leanda de Lisle’s After Elizabeth; How James, King of Scots won the Crown of England in 1603 is published by HarperCollins.