Interviews with authors from Chiswick Book Festival, where writers talk about their new books in discussions & events over a long weekend in September.

Jeremy Vine, journalist & broadcaster

Jeremy Vine, journalist & broadcaster

Interview with Bridget Osborne

September 2017

Jeremy Vine has presented Panorama and reported on the Today Programme, Newsnight and as a correspondent from South Africa. But it was only once he had his own show on BBC Radio 2, he says, that he really realised what there is to be learned from the audience.

He talked to me about his book What I Learnt ahead of the 2017 Chiswick Book Festival. As one of the BBC’s most highly paid presenters, he also gave his view on the BBC’s gender pay gap, which was hitting the headlines at the time.

Sally Green author of young adult fiction

Sally Green author of young adult fiction

Interview by Bridget Osborne

September 2015

Bestselling author Sally Green spoke to us about her books, Half Bad and Half Wild, after delivering a talk at St Michael & All Angels Church for the Chiswick Book Festival in 2015.

The books are about Nathan, a witch who is half Black witch and half White witch, persecuted because of who he is. He is one of several strong, powerful characters who have made the series a run away success.

Goodreads review of Half Bad

Sixteen-year-old Nathan lives in a cage: beaten, shackled, trained to kill. In a modern-day England where two warring factions of witches live amongst humans, Nathan is an abomination, the illegitimate son of the world’s most terrifying and violent witch, Marcus. Nathan’s only hope for survival is to escape his captors, track down Marcus, and receive the three gifts that will bring him into his own magical powers—before it’s too late. But how can Nathan find his father when there is no one safe to trust, not even family, not even the girl he loves?

Half Bad is an international sensation and the start of a brilliant trilogy: a gripping tale of alienation and the indomitable will to survive.

Guardian Books review of Half Wild:

‘Character interactions aside, the world they live in is both horrific and wonderful. The world is beautifully constructed and will often have you changing sides, from one to another. The dystopian elements of the story, the council and the dehumanizing of one section of society over another, is extremely well done, as well as the close representation of racial discrimination, making the book a magnificent read’.

Ted Sandling on mudlarking

Ted Sandling on mudlarking

Interview by Bridget Osborne

August 2016

Ted Sandling, author of London in Fragments, appeared at the Chiswick Book Festival in 2016 to talk about mudlarking. Ted studied art history and worked for Christie’s Education. He spends a lot of his time mudlarking: wandering about the foreshore of the River Thames looking for fragments of history.

In his hugely entertaining and informing book London in Fragments he tells the history of London through the bits and pieces he’d picked beside the river. I met him where else but on the River Thames foreshore at Strand on the Green at low tide to go mudlarking and see what we could find.

Santa Montefiore, author of commercial women’s fiction

Santa Montefiore

Interviewed by Bridget Osborne

August 2016

Santa Montefiore appeared at the 2016 Chiswick Book Festival alongside Penny Parkes, Milly Johnson, Jane Costello, Juliet Ashton and Isabelle Broome in a session on what it is to be ‘a modern woman.’ The hugely successful author of commercial women’s fiction had already at this point published 16 books. She talked to me about the book she had out that year, Daughters of Castle Deverill, the second in a trilogy set in Ireland in 1925.
She has a very funny story about why it is that for her, promoting her books in America has been an absolute nightmare.

Peter Hanington journalist & novelist

Peter Hanington journalist & novelist

Interview by Bridget Osborne

September 2016

Peter Hanington had rave reviews for his first book A Dying Breed, a thriller in the mould of John Le Carre or Graham Greene. Its central character is a  journalist of the old school – an hack who is a terrier for pursuing the truth, but not that pleasant a person to work with. The Guardian described it as “thoughtful, atmospheric and grippingly plotted”. Peter appeared at the Chiswick Book Festival for the first time in 2016.

I worked with Peter many years ago on BBC Radio 5Live, so I really enjoyed the way he created a cracking thriller out of the world we both knew and found both the characters and the scenarios he created very true to life.

Harry Parker novelist

Harry Parker novelist

Interview by Bridget Osborne

September 2016

Harry Parker lost both his legs while fighting in the British armed services in Afghanistan. He has turned his experiences into a book which has received great praise from some distinguished writers: “Marvellously told” – Alan Bennett, “Alive to every nuance” – Hilary Mantel, “A brilliant book” – Edna O’Brien. He spoke to me at the 2016 festival about his book Anatomy of a Soldier.

Shappi Khorsandi comedian

Shappi Khorsandi comedian

Interview by Bridget Osborne

September 2016

Shappi Khorsandi is known best as a stand-up comic, but she is also an author. She wrote a book of young adult fiction which she spoke about at the 2016 festival called Nina is not OK.

Anthony Horowitz novelist & screen writer

Anthony Horowitz

Interview by Bridget Osborne

August 2018

I had the pleasure of meeting Anthony Horowitz to do a video interview with him for the 2018 Chiswick Book Festival. I first came across him through his children’s books, delightfully scary stories such as Groosham Grange and Granny, then his teenage fiction, the Alex Rider series, with a hero who could easily be the young James Bond, though set in a different era.

His writing is fast paced and funny; his characters larger than life, and with some 40 books under his belt as well as TV and film scripts for well-known titles such as Foyles War and Midsummer Murders, not to mention all his journalism and theatre work, who better to write the prequel to Ian Fleming’s James Bond series?

The Fleming estate has asked several authors to continue the James Bond oeuvre. Kingsley Amis, William Boyd and Sebastian Faulks have all written Bond books. Anthony Horowitz openly admits to having lobbied for the gig. Trigger Mortis was published in 2015. Forever and a Day is his second Bond book and in it he gets to shape the character of the great spy and fill in a little of the background of what made Bond the cold, ruthless charmer he is.

He talked to me about how he approached the delicate task of writing a well loved hero and fleshing out the character a little without upsetting the fans.

Energetic and prolific as Anthony Horowitz is, although Forever and a Day had only been published two months previously and was as yet available only in hardback, he proudly showed me the finished manuscript of his next book Another Word for Murder (sequel to The Word is Murder) which he had finished writing just two weeks earlier.

Dr Helena Kelly discusses Jane Austen

Dr Helena Kelly discusses Jane Austen

Interview by Bridget Osborne

September 2017

2017 was the 200th anniversary of the death of Jane Austen. There were documentaries made, statues raised and her face was added to the new £10 note.

In Chiswick she was celebrated at the launch of that year’s Chiswick Book Festival, in a special event in the Burlington Pavilion, with authors including Paula Byrne (The Genius of Jane Austen), Dr Helena Kelly (Jane Austen, the Secret Radical) and Dr Esme Whittaker, curator of Chiswick House.

Bridget Osborne talked to Dr Helena Kelly about her book, in which she makes the case that Jane was far more subversive and radical than we perhaps have realised.

Cressida Cowell children’s author

Cressida Cowell, children’s author

Interview by Bridget Osborne

September 2016

Cressida Cowell, author and illustrator of the How to Train Your Dragon books, lives locally and is a regular contributor to the Chiswick Book Festival. She wrote the first book in 1998 and completed the series in 2016 after twelve books. The stories were inspired by childhood holidays with her father on a remote island in the Shetlands which were once inhabited by Vikings – “the kind of place where dragons really could have existed” she says. The series tells the tale of Hiccup, who starts out as a small boy and grows up throughout the series, and his dragon Toothless – “a small, disobedient Common-or-Garden dragon, who speaks to Hiccup in Dragonese (with a stammer).”

The books have been made into hugely successful films by Dreamworks. In the film version Toothless is “a large, frightening Night Fury, who cannot talk” but she says: “Both Toothlesses have a sweeter, gentler side to them than is at first apparent” and both Toothlesses were inspired by cats, in both look and in character”.

Her aim throughout the series is to answer the question “What if dragons really existed, and if they existed, what happened to them?” She spoke to  me when she appeared at the Chiswick Book Festival in 2016 and had just finished the last book in the series: How to Fight a Dragon’s Fury, which is about the ‘great war’ between humans and dragons.

What if dragons really existed, and if they existed, what happened to them?

Cressida Cowell works in her garden shed-cum-studio, where she draws her characters. She showed me how she draws them, in a very quick, fluid style, because she says, she wants children to feel as if the illustration is something they might be able to do themselves.

How to Train Your Dragon books

  • How to Train Your Dragon
  • How to Be a Pirate
  • How to Speak Dragonese
  • How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse
  • How to Twist a Dragon’s Tail
  • A Hero’s Guide to Deadly Dragons
  • How to Ride Dragon’s Storm
  • How to Break a Dragon’s Heart
  • How to Steal a Dragon’s Sword
  • How to Seize a Dragon’s Jewel
  • How to Betray a Dragon’s Hero
  • How to Fight a Dragon’s Fury

Marthe Armitage artist and patternmaker

Marthe Armitage, artist and patternmaker

Profile by Bridget Osborne

September 2019

“Strand on the Green is a hard place to move away from”. Marthe came here as a child, when her parents moved across the river from Kew, and she has never left, apart from a period spent as a wartime evacuee in Oxfordshire, a spell at boarding school in her teens and a couple of years in India as a young woman when her husband was working there. “The river is so amazing, nobody can build on it, the tide goes up and down, there are the boats, the bird life, it’s endlessly fascinating” she told me. The river is a source of inspiration for an artist and many of her motifs include plants, birds and animals.

As a nine year old she saw houses four and five Strand on the Green being built and as a young mother she walked her three children to school At Strand on the Green school. She now lives in a modern house designed by her architect son Jeremy and his wife, and the old family house now accommodates her studio, where she designs and produces her prints with her daughter Jo. In her book The Making of Marthe Armitage Artist and Patternmaker there is a chapter devoted to life by the river. “Strand on the Green is an oasis within the bustle of London” writes Jeremy.

Arts & Crafts influence

“I left a very expensive school with nothing” says Marthe, nothing that is except her School Certificate and “vague artistic leanings”. Fortunately the family’s neighbour at number five was the head of the Chelsea School of Art, who encouraged her to pursue those vague artistic leanings. She studied at Chelsea but always considered herself somehow less of an artist than others she studied with. “The people I’ve always admired could only draw; that’s what they wanted to be doing all the time. I wasn’t like that”. She counts herself very lucky to have studied there and says it was “an exciting time”, but as was the custom of the era she married and wasn’t expected to pursue her own career.

As a young mother at home, with no money to spend on luxuries, she designed her first wallpaper for her own house, then some for an acquaintance and gradually built up a small but faithful clientele. Her her first design, Angelica, was produced as a simple floor print. Having observed Indian printers using block prints in the early 1950s, she experimented with her own. Inspired by the pattern making of William Morris and CFA Voysey, she found that linoleum was the perfect material for creating her printing blocks. She still uses lino in preference over other materials developed later, and still follows the same process of drawing, tracing, cutting out the pattern, inking and printing that she has all through her development as a pattern maker.

The way she works is to start with a grid of four boxes and draw her design in each, building it up bit by bit. I watched as she sketched out first a flower in each quadrant, then a swirl. Essential to do it that way, she explained, to see how the pattern flows across to borders of the grid. The drawing is key and though for a long time she undervalued herself as an artist, it is her talent at drawing, honed at Chelsea Art School, which enables her to be such a good patternmaker.

After the drawing, the print-making: ‘Then the real stuff began’ writes Jo, ‘with the smell of the turps, the stickiness of the ink and the magic of the impression left behind when the block was pulled away from the paper’.

“Drawing is very different from print” says Marthe. “The first time you take a print off it’s such a shock because you can’t tell what it will look like. Usually I think it’s a failure and put it away. But then I get it out again and I show it to someone else and I think maybe it’s alright”. The whole process from initial sketch to printing takes about two months and about one in seven designs she abandons.

Her success has come about slowly, partly because she had so little faith in herself, but also because she says it’s only recently that hand crafted designs have become fashionable again. “I took one or two of my designs to interior designers in Fulham Rd but my designs weren’t fashionable”. Fortunately Hamilton Weston took an interest in her work in 2004. They showed it in their showroom and the features editor from World of Interiors wrote a feature about it. Hamilton Weston sell her wallpapers while Marthe and Jo’s own company handles the sales of fabrics.

“Pattern is not talked about enough”

“Would you prefer to be described as an artist or as a craftswoman?” I asked her “I’m an artist – patternmaker” she says. She quoted me the English philosopher RG Collingwood: “the difference between craft and art is that a craftsman knows what he’s aiming at. Artists don’t know where it’s going to end”. She first did lino cuts at school, but at art school she learned drawing and painting. “Pattern is not talked about enough” she told me. “The composition is all-important – the satisfactory balance of things”.

“Abstract art has a pattern. Music has a pattern. It’s the abstract part of figurative work. With abstract art you start from balance and rhythm and composition. There are some lovely paintings which have been very badly composed”.

Marthe is a member of the Art Workers Guild, ‘a body of more than 350 artists, craftspeople and architects working at the highest levels of excellence in their professions’. You have to be elected as a member by your peers. She is one of only four female past masters.

She is also a born again Christian. She worships at Christ Church on Turnham Green, where you can see one of her designs etched into the glass doors of the church. One of her pieces is also permanently on show on the Chiswick Timeline mural, on the railway bridge over Turnham Green terrace.

Her book The Making of Marthe Armitage Artist and Pattenmaker is absolutely gorgeous, with far more pictures than writing, which is important in an art book. The publishers Graphical House haven’t stinted on full page, beautifully printed, very detailed designs as well as old family photographs and images of her studio. It’s available in a variety of covers – all hand blocked prints in her trademark muted colours. She would be pleased to think of it being used in art schools and hopes it might give some inspiration to young artists just starting out.

You can buy Marthe’s wallpapers from Hamilton Weston –

The book from

and the fabrics from Marthe Armitage Prints Ltd –

Sadie Jones Costa prize winning novelist

Sadie Jones

Interview by Bridget Osborne

September 2019

Author of The Outcast, Small Wars, The Uninvited Guests, Fallout talks about her latest book The Snakes

I am thoroughly enjoying Sadie Jones’ excellent book The Snakes. It reads a bit  like a thriller, but is deeper, examining the unwholesome relationships within a family and unravelling their dark and destructive secrets. Alice O’Keefe, in The Bookseller, wrote, ‘I was expecting this to be good. But, I have to tell you, I was awestruck… I may not read a better book this year.’

I’ve interviewed Sadie once before and she said then how difficult it was to write her second novel Small Wars, because her first book The Outcast won the Costa prize for Best First Novel, so the pressure was immense. She tells me now that “with every book” (this is her fifth) “the pressure increases. It gets harder as you go along”.

The Snakes is about a couple who are recently married and living in London with all the usual pressures of paying the mortgage and not being able to escape from a job you’re not enjoying. At least that’s the case for Dan, who works as an estate agent but really wants to be an artist. Bea on the other hand is fulfilled by her job as a psychotherapist and feels slightly guilty that she enjoys her work when he doesn’t. Their backgrounds are very different too. He’s from a mixed race, ordinary London background and is completely used to worrying about where the next penny is coming from, all the time. She is from a family who are immensely wealthy, who she never mentions and very rarely sees. They didn’t come to their wedding and she refuses to take their money.

They go on a three month trip, driving across Europe, and on the way through France call in on Bea’s dysfunctional ex-junkie brother Alex, who is supposed to be doing up an old building as a hotel but, as they find out when they get there, is clueless as to how to achieve it. It’s when Bea and Alex’s deeply unpleasant parents turn up out of the blue that things really start to unravel.

It struck me that in The Snakes, as in Outcast, the drama stems from a traumatic event in childhood. “Childhood is traumatic by definition” says Sadie, “growing up is an agonising process” so not only is childhood trauma a good source of drama for a writer, but it is “a universal and essential truth”. Sadie’s books are not easily pigeonholed, so I ask her what she wants to achieve, what she wants her readers to take away from her books. “I want people to be moved” she says, “to feel”. She describes The Snakes as “a reality tale, specific to our era; a political book but not a cold book”. Explaining that further, she says she doesn’t want to be political in the journalistic sense but “we live in very tough times; there’s so much outrage; people need to feel their anger expressed”. The result, she says is that some people have described her book as ‘political’ while others have likened it to a Greek tragedy.

To say that her books are about the essential human condition sounds glib, but they are about human nature. Reading The Snakes I fall into the world she creates, totally immersed in her story and not thinking about structure or character development or dialogue. So well crafted is her work there’s nothing that stands out to call you back to the reality that it is an artificial construct, which is of course the effect she’s aiming for.

“Because I feel that story is so important I always try and find the place where story and writing meet. As a reader I get angry with books that are all about the style and I get bored by stories which are badly written. When reading a story it’s annoying if you can see the bones and the skeleton. I like the glass between the reader and the story to be as thin as possible”.

Does she write for herself or her readers? If she had no readers would she do it anyway? “Yes” she says. “I have an imaginary platonic reader in mind, a version of myself, but I’m sure all writers have this compulsion to write”. Her difficulty is to “turn off the inner critic” and free herself to write. She is always “scared”, only becoming more confident once she’s got in to her stride and is beginning to feel she’s saying what she wants to say, at which point she begins to be a bit happier about turning it over to her readers.

She writes in the mornings and finds four or five hours at a time are enough of a stretch. Her children have reached adulthood, so as an empty-nester, without the confines of the demands of family, she finds she has to be even more disciplined than she used to be. She’s already working on the next novel. She finds it easier to break off and deal with the demands of the real world, such as phone calls from people like me so she can publicise her latest book, if she has that cushion of fiction and of knowing the next project is safely under way.

Sadie appeared at the Chiswick Book Festival in 2019. The Snakes is published by Harper Collins.

Mark Billingham crime writer

Mark Billingham

Interview by Bridget Osborne

September 2019

Author of the Tom Thorne series of crime thrillers, talks about his latest book Their Little Secret

Mark Billingham’s latest book Their Little Secret is number 16 in the Tom Thorne series. The Detective Inspector goes out on a routine call with the Homicide Assessment Team to a suicide by tube train. It wasn’t a homicide so he should have handed it on, but there was something about the death which niggled …

Like any good writer of crime thrillers, Mark makes you invest in Tom Thorne – his taste in music, his insubordination, his disastrous love life. I read the first few of the series Sleepyhead, Scaredy Cat, Lazybones, The Burning Girl, avidly, but gave up after that because they were a bit too gory for my taste. This one is more of a psychological thriller I think. Still gory but dwelling less on the oozing viscosity of it all.

I ask Mark what kind of sick, twisted individual produces books like his? “Everyone has a twisted imagination” he says. “We live in a very dark world”. I wondered whether the crimes committed by his villains were inspired by real ones. “My last book The Killing Habit was based on real crimes. It was about the Croydon cat killer, but usually they’re not” he says. “Two or things came together which had been percolating in my consciousness”. He’d been fascinated by con men. “Why con men? Why not women? Men are far more gullible”.

In Their Little Secret there are two very different types of liar who come together to commit crimes. The concept of folies à deux, a shared psychosis, is something he had come across while making a documentary series on Couples who Kill for TV. “I was fascinated by Myra Hindley and Ian Brady. He wrote to me. He wanted me to know how miserable his life was in prison, but also how clever he was. I remember the last line of his letter: ‘the ball is yours’ ” Did he write back? No, he didn’t.

“People want to tell you their stories” he says. They tell him all sorts of dark things. I told him I’d stopped reading the Tom Thorne series after Burning Girl. Have his books got less horrible or have I just become inured to it through watching television dramas like Peaky Blinders and reading all the Scandi Noir books? “My books have got darker in tone” he says “but less gory. You throw the kitchen sink at it when you first start writing” New writers look at the books which are selling and think they need to add in lots of blood and guts. He now knows better. “Violence is interesting from the point of view of its effect on people, not for its own sake. A single spot of blood on a pristine kitchen floor in much more effective than lots of blood and gore everywhere”… “It’s terribly easy to disgust the reader. Much harder to keep them interested”.

Well he certainly achieves that with Their Little Secret. It’s a proper page turner. There was nothing else done in this house for a full 24 hours and I will now go back and pick up where I left off in the series, and not be such a wuss.

What next for Mark Billingham? “Next year is a big year for me” he says. “It will be 20 years of Tom Thorne novels and I will have written twenty books”  (17 in the Tom Thorne series and three stand-alones, in which the detective has a walk-on part). His twentieth book will be a prequel to Sleepy Head. He also has some big gigs lined up. He appears in a band called ‘The Fun-Lovin’ Crime Writers’, with Val McDermid. Chris Brookmyre, Doug Johnstone, Luca Veste and Stuart Neville, who are all genuinely crime writers. They play cover versions of songs about murder and they’re good enough to have played at Glastonbury this year. “We’re playing some big shows next year” he says. “It’s all got a bit out of hand”.

Mark Billingham talked about Crime and Suspense with Linwood Barclay at the 2019 Chiswick Book Festival.

Polly Devlin journalist

Polly Devlin

Interview by Bridget Osborne

July 2019

Irish journalist and Bedford Park resident Polly Devlin talks about her memoir Writing Home

I had the great pleasure of meeting Polly Devlin this week. The Irish writer has a new book out, just published, which is a collection of her writings from throughout her life.

Writing home is a glorious serendipitous mix of material ranging from the fierce history of the Devlin clan and the treacherousness of Irish bogs to life as the features editor of Vogue in London in the Swinging Sixties. Head-hunted by the American editor Diana Vreeland to work for her in New York, Polly writes about meeting Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Barbara Streisand, John Lennon and Yoko Ono but also about the instantly relatable – the joys and frustrations of motherhood and the fulfillment of a lifelong desire to sleep outside in the open (‘I hadn’t known about dew. I thought dew was a light misting …’)

One of the impressions I get very clearly from Writing Home is that Polly remains true to herself and unaffected by power and status.

Writing home to her sister, describing the offices of Vogue in London, where she landed a job at 19 by winning a competition, she is impressed, but not overawed. ‘Think of the shapelessness of home (Ardboe, Northern Ireland) and what shines there; the sun on the lough, the reflection of a brass harness on a horse’s neck, the gleam of leaves in the chestnut tree. Here, it’s the arc lights in the studio, the shine on the pearls that nearly all the girls wear, the gleam on their faces, the sheen on a satin ball dress … I feel very atavistic somehow, as if I were wearing a shawl.’

Photographs below: Polly in the Sixties; Writing Home book cover; Polly in a recent photograph taken by Jonathan Goldberg 

 Princess Margaret was ‘a madam’

When she met Princess Margaret it was not a grand occasion, but a small informal dinner at her own flat. Her then boyfriend Andy (later her husband) was a close friend of Tony Armstrong-Jones. The evening was ‘an unmitigated disaster’ she says. ‘They arrived in a little Mini and the first thing was: I didn’t curtsy. I wish I could say it was because of my integrity to my republican sentiments but the truth is I didn’t know I was supposed to curtsy … so I had a black mark against me from that moment on’.

Princess Margaret. She says, was ‘a madam’. I’m sure she now knows how to behave in whatever strata of society she finds herself, in several continents, (she curtsied to the Queen when she received her OBE for Services to Literature in 1992) and she’s acquired a liking for good champagne and a fair amount of wealth along the way, but she seems unaltered by rubbing shoulders with the great and famous. She retains a very clear voice that is her own and when you meet her, comes across with a directness and honesty which is immensely refreshing.

Maybe it was the two years having weekly lunches with Diana Vreeland so Polly could channel the London youth zeitgeist which gave her confidence: ‘I had absolutely no idea; but terror … loosened my tongue, and a fair few of the items in that famous Vogue column ‘People Are Talking About …’ sprang straight from my crazed verbal inventions as I sought to unclamp my teeth from a piece of pastrami without her noticing’.

Photographs below: Polly with daughters Rose, Daisy and Bay 

Estee Lauder ‘a piece of work’

She’s also a fantastic writer. She manages to convey a huge amount with a few well chosen words, so that after reading her book I feel I know her intimately and like her tremendously.

She admits to vulnerability. One searing entry is about having been abused as a child. She doesn’t remember it but found out many years later that the STD infection she suffered from all her young life could only have been caused by penetration. She realized then why she had been profoundly miserable for many years, despite the gilded career. She had suffered from anorexia as a young woman and her abuser had done such terrible physical damage to her that she had to have her children by caesarean.

The chapters weren’t designed as an autobiography. Her publisher, Pimpernel Press, asked if they could publish a collection of her writings. It was her good friend Carmen Callil, founder of the Virago Press, who suggested she arrange them chronologically, so they hang together as a memoir.

Her comments on the famous people she interviewed are revealing an insightful. ‘I once watched Estee Lauder – there was a piece of work – test new aftershaves for men; there was a cross-looking Frenchman there who I think had concocted the smells. Every time La Belle Dame Sans Merci uncorked a bottle, his face contorted with anxiety. After a few sniffs she announced ‘This is the only possible one, the rest smell of soap. I want sex.’ You never saw a happier Frenchman.

Abandoning Ursula Andress at Hogarth roundabout

She says she ‘hated’ interviewing. She actually abandoned an interview with Ursula Andress because she was so banal. Talking to her in the back of a Rolls Royce en route from Heathrow to fit in with the actress’s busy schedule, by the time they reached Chiswick, Polly had had enough. She  got out at the traffic lights at Hogarth roundabout and walked off.

Some interviewees of course she admired: ‘Janis Joplin, I adored her’ … ‘John Osborne was the most wonderful talker’ … ‘Barbara Streisand was a fantastic phenomenon, she was just rude’.

At 78 she says she’s now given up writing, although she finds it ‘as easy as a cow pissing’ and still responds to desperate entreaties from long term editors with gaps to fill. Her husband, whom she loved for 50 years, died a few years ago after a dreadful illness which meant he had to have both feet amputated. She still teaches writing in America though she spends most of her time here at her beautiful home in Bedford Park, as she wants to cherish the time with her six grandchildren.

Who does she admire in journalism now? Marina Hyde and Hadley Freeman in the Guardian “I think they’re two of the wittiest writers around”.

And what does she think of living in Chiswick? “Love it. I love walking down Turnham Green Terrace, chatting to the guys in Wheelers and meeting people in the street. I love the village atmosphere and I love the new benches. Who do I admire? Karen Liebreich (who organised the new benches by the railway bridge in Turnham Green Terrace). Philanthropist, genius, she ought to be a Dame. Write that.”

Photographs below: Polly in her garden at Bedford Park and inside the house, with her dog Queenie

Polly Devlin spoke at the 2019 Chiswick Book Festival. Writing Home is published by The Pimpernel Press Ltd.

Sonia Purnell biographer

Sonia Purnell biographer

Interview by Bridget Osborne

May 2015

In 2015 one of the themes of the Chiswick Book Festival was the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Sonia Purnell published First Lady: The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill, also commemorating the 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s death.

Without Winston Churchill’s inspiring leadership Britain could not have survived its darkest hour and repelled the Nazi menace. Without his wife Clementine, however, he might never have become Prime Minister. By his own admission, the Second World War would have been ‘impossible without her’. Yet Clementine Churchill seems to have been airbrushed out of history. One official biography of Churchill makes not one single mention of her.

Sonia Purnell (journalist and serial biographer – she’s written one on Boris Johnson too) has had unique access to members of the family – the papers of their son Randolph’s wife Pamela Harriman for example – and to some of their staff. With her exhaustive research she has produced a book which not only sets the record straight but is a thoroughly good read. She illustrates how Clementine was Winston’s emotional rock and his most trusted confidante involved in some of the most crucial decisions of war, exerting an influence over her husband and the Government that would appear scandalous to modern eyes.

A Woman of No Importance

Sonia’s research into the Second World War also led her to unearth the story of Virginia Hall, an American spy who changed the course of World War II.

“She was without question a hero, who played a significant role in altering the course of the war. In 1942, the Gestapo made it a priority to track down the mysterious ‘limping lady’ who was fighting for the freedom of France”.

Virginia limped because she had lost a leg in a boating accident before the war, which didn’t stop her escaping from France by hiking over the Pyrenees into Spain, through deep snow.

Read my interview with Sonia about A Woman of No Importance here.


Before plunging into researching and writing about the Second World War, Sonia’s first biography was of the colleague she shared an office with in Brussels when they were both there as journalists writing for the Telegraph. Her book Just Boris – A Tale of Blond Ambition, published in 2011, is ‘a major and controversial new biography of one of the most compelling and contradictory figures in modern British life’ (Goodreads).

It made her a New York Times best seller as well as putting her on the map as an important biographer in Britain:

‘Sonia Purnell examines how a shy, young boy from a broken home became our only box-office politician – and most unlikely sex god; how the Etonian product fond of Latin tags became a Man of the People.’

Since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, Sonia has been in great demand in the media, commenting on his character; (‘reckless and un-priministerial’ for example). Read some of the scathing comments she’s made about him here.

Cathy Renzenbrink, author & book pundit

Cathy Renzenbrink, author & book pundit

Interview by Bridget Osborne

August 2016

Cathy Renzenbrink has had a long career in the book industry. She used to be a contributing editor to The Bookseller magazine and is often to be found doing bookish events at festivals, including the one in Chiswick, where she also lives.

Her first book The Last Act of Love was about the life and death of her brother. Variously described as “brilliant … harrowing and heart-breaking”… “beautiful, devastating and ultimately uplifting”, it was shortlisted for The Wellcome Prize and The Portico Prize and was a Sunday Times bestseller.

Her brother was severely injured in a car accident at the age of 16, and the family had to cope with this bright, funny teenager suddenly not being present in his own body, in a persistent vegetative state. Ultimately they had to face the decision to let him die. Now Cathy speaks and writes regularly on life, death, love, literature, literacy and mental health.

She spoke to me in 2016 about The Last Act of Love.

Janet Ellis novelist

Janet Ellis novelist

Interview by Bridget Osborne

September 2015

Janet Ellis, actor and former presenter of children’s TV programme Blue Peter, is an ambassador for the Doorstep Library charity – one of the charities which have benefited from the Chiswick Book festival. She talked to me about what it’s like to volunteer for the charity, which provides books and reads them to primary age children. literally going door to door and knocking to see if they’d like a story.

I spoke to her in 2015, a few months before her first book The Butcher’s Hook was published. The first of a two book deal, its about murder in the eighteenth century. “Probably not the book people would have expected me to write” she said. When it was published, the Guardian wrote: ‘She has a sharp eye and a sharper wit. More importantly still, she possesses a subtle and compassionate understanding of the human heart’.

Deborah Cadbury biographer

Deborah Cadbury biographer

Interview by Bridget Osborne

June 2015

An amazing cache of Wallis Simpson’s letters has shed new light on how the royal family behaved during the Second World War. Award winning documentary maker and author Deborah Cadbury, who lives in Chiswick, has had access to this material and to Second World War intelligence documents, and has written a book about what she has discovered. She spoke to The Chiswick Calendar about the revelations in her book Princes At War.

Charles Cumming thriller writer

Charles Cumming

Interview by Bridget Osborne

July 2018

Charles Cumming has a good grasp of contemporary geopolitics. His spy thrillers range from North Africa to Beijing; from Moscow to Washington and Turkey, and he always seems to have his finger on the pulse, whether he’s writing about the Uyghurs in China or Basque separatists in Spain.

I met him not long after he and his wife had moved into the area, to talk about the most recent of his series of spy novels, The Man Between, in which a writer is asked to work for the secret services on a trip to Morocco for a book festival and soon gets out of his depth.

Charles Cumming took part in the Chiswick Book Festival in 2018.