Pushing 80 and still telling stories

At 79, and with another novel about to roll off the press, Margaret Holt is proving that age isn’t necessarily a barrier. The former midwife tells Steven Russell how she began writing – and about those books she’d rather forget . . .

“I WAS one of these women who dreaded old age, but late in life I’ve come to a calmness and a deep, deep contentment,” declares Margaret Holt over tea and shortbread. “I’m not exactly young at 79, but I’ve never been more truly happy. And this” – her writing – “has been wonderful. Wonderful health . . . good eyesight . . . no glasses. Well, only for watching television or if I go to the theatre or cinema, which is practically never these days. I’m just so lucky: a lovely family, and good friends.” Her creative output – honed and polished in longhand before being keyed into a laptop – will rise to 10 novels this summer when Strangers and Pilgrims is published.

The Halesworth writer has doggedly stuck to her guns with this historical saga about the enduring spirit of love. She admits her agent experienced a plaintive moment of frustration upon learning it was about the unconsummated love of a Franciscan friar for a woman who’s been married twice and has children. Oh Maggie, why don’t you stay with what you know?! “Well, Judith dear, I’m getting on for 80 and I want to write a ‘medieval’ before it’s too late!” Two publishers passed on it before Christmas – “Judith said readers these days ‘don’t want unconsummated love, and you don’t want too much religion . . .’” – but “my agent extraordinary” knew her stuff, suggested cutting 10,000 words and changing the final chapter, and Severn House bit. “As it turned out, she was absolutely right. And I’m so pleased, because it was a story close to my heart.”

Margaret, you realise, is quite prepared to stand up for what she believes in. She tells a story from her midwifery days about an academic whose wife was having a baby. He thought he knew best about natural birth – which put him on a collision course with medical staff. The man insisted there would be no pain-killing pethidine injection, no epidural. There would be appropriate music in the delivery room. “I can never hear Pachelbel’s Canon in G without thinking of that!” And then he made the critical mistake of calling the ladies “nurse” . . . “There’s nothing gets up a midwife’s nose more!”

Doctors and midwives did their best to ease him aside so they could look after his wife, now in agony. A 37-year-old . . . first baby . . . Intuition told the midwives it wasn’t going to be a short labour. The poor woman ended up swearing violently at her husband, needed pethidine, and later had a Caesarean section.

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With books, Margaret admits having words with the publisher about the cover of her recent tale The Carpenter’s Children, set at the start of the First World War. “Too modern. The girl looks as if she’s walking along speaking on a mobile phone! I was really cross about it. But Magna’s large print version is much more stylish: more of the period.”

At the start of her professional writing career there were seven stories for Mills & Boon during the 1990s . . . and a few skirmishes over titles. With choices such as Tall, D’Arc and Tempting, it’s not surprising . . .

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Margaret, who has written those medical-based romances in her own name and 10 mainstream novels under maiden-name pseudonym Maggie Bennett, was a latecomer to authorship, though writing had always been part of her life.

She was born in Farnborough in 1931 and at 18 trained as a nurse in Surrey. Midwifery training followed, and Margaret worked in Guildford.

In 1965, in her mid 30s, she went on a walking holiday and met husband-to-be Allan, a technical chemist with the Co-operative Wholesale Society in Manchester. He was a widower, 26 years older and with three grown-up daughters, and they married within six months of meeting. Their union lasted 17 years, until Allan died in 1983.

It was in the immediate aftermath that Margaret, suffering a bit with depression and with teenage daughters Elizabeth and Rosalind at grammar school, took a correspondence course in creative writing. She enjoyed modest success with a few articles and short stories. Then, towards the end of the course, the tutor suggested she could mine her midwifery experience and write medically-based romances.

“I thought ‘Mills & Boon? What rubbish! Something I’d never read!’ It turned out to be something I wrote – with good profit. I did seven. They got on my nerves after a while. The romance has to be paramount all the time.

“You’re getting to a nice twin delivery, when you’ve got the first one delivered and you don’t give Ergometrine because of the second baby and you don’t want the uterus to contract. Will she need an anaesthetic . . . ? Then the editor says ‘You’ve got no romance in this, Maggie. He’d better be the anaesthetist who catches her eye.’ Oh dear, oh dear. The romance is pretty tacky!”

Nevertheless, her first M&B – A Place of Refuge – brought her the 1992 Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers’ Award. “Its title was changed twice and the script went too and fro like a fiddler’s elbow,” she remembers. “I was always being told to keep the romance in – and you weren’t allowed to have any deaths. I got away with a couple, though, in my books!”

Margaret, who retired from midwifery in 1991, went to the Romantic Novelists’ Association 1996 conference in Bath. It proved a turning point. She met literary agent Judith Murdoch, who sounds formidably businesslike but knows her stuff inside-out and back to front.

Desperate to break away from formulaic romantic fiction, Margaret posted off two chapters of a potential mainstream novel based on her mother’s family history and was thrilled, if a little shocked, to receive a phone call from Judith. It was the start of a literary relationship that endures to this day. The working title had to go, with Silly Woman becoming A Child’s Voice Calling by the time it was published by William Heinemann in 2002.

It was followed by novels such as A Carriage for the Midwife, For Love of Lily, The Tailor’s Daughter and The Unchanging Heart.

Margaret rates 2006’s Nights On, Nights Off as in many ways her favourite. A good bulk of it is true and based on her own life, she says, with the final third or so heavily fictionalised. Main character Shirley Pierce is a widowed Manchester midwife with strong professional views and there are tensions between modern technology and the demands by some mums for natural childbirth. Shirley meets a younger man who has been brain-damaged since birth and their friendship blossoms into a kind of love, though friends try to warn her off.

“We did become friends,” says Margaret of her own near-parallel reality. She had been warned that he could turn violent, but they actually got on well. “I was something to him . . . But he did get into trouble and almost killed another young chap, because he was teased a lot. In the book ‘he’ does kill a fella, and she’s nearly had up for obstructing the course of justice.” That, of course, is where the fiction came in.

Margaret spent 42 years in Manchester, and then moved to Halesworth in December, 2006 – driven the 247 miles by Rosalind on the shortest day of the year: one awfully dark and foggy. Elizabeth and her partner lived in the town, and there was a link with East Anglia deep in the past. Margaret’s father had grown up in nearby Wissett, moving to Hampshire when he was 10 but longing to return east at some stage. When he retired from the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough he moved to a bungalow in Norfolk with his second wife and they enjoyed 20 happy years there.

Elizabeth’s son Owen was born in the spring of 2007 and is the apple of his grandmother’s eye. Margaret often looks after him.

Writing, she says, is a satisfying outlet for her thoughts and emotions. “Put it this way, Steven, I don’t know what I’m going to do when the fountain, the flow of creativity, dries up.”

Today, she concedes, the act of storytelling is spasmodic. “I have days when I write like a storm. Doesn’t happen so much now, but there’d be times when I got up and wrote morning, afternoon and evening!”

She’ll do the bulk of the work on a pad, while sitting in the living-room, conservatory or even in bed. Once it’s polished to her satisfaction she types it into her laptop. “When it’s on the computer I can chop it around a bit – delete this, change that – but the composition, the hard graft, has been done in longhand.” Then a friend who knows how to do these things will despatch it on email for her.

Strangers and Pilgrims shouldn’t be the last book; Margaret already has the germ of another story. “Only an embryo of an idea . . . well, not even an embryo; just a blob of cells!” she laughs.

Conspiratorially, she opens a copy of the DC Thomson weekly The People’s Friend, which has given her a Book of the Month slot. “The People’s Friend is a magazine I wouldn’t really take. It’s too tame; sedate,” she confides. “There’s nothing to upset readers. But there is in this!” She gestures towards The Carpenter’s Children. “I wonder if they realise. A homosexual relationship; and the second of the daughters entertaining the troops in London during the war – and that’s putting it mildly!”

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