After three husbands and feted for her classic book Superwoman, SHIRLEY CONRAN shares her life lessons on teaching men about sex and the joy of bacon sarnies in bed
THREE MARRIAGES – BUT I WAS HAPPIER ALONE
Your parents’ marriage often informs your own.
My father, Thirlby Pearce, a dry-cleaning baron, was a violent alcoholic. My five siblings and I lived in terror of him.
One Christmas, he threw the uncarved turkey against the wall in a rage – I remember the greasy stain it left on the pale blue wallpaper – and locked us children in the cellar.
Recently I read a book by a Nazi concentration camp survivor, and he treated the guards as we did our father. Never look him in the eye, bow your shoulders slightly, always appear meek and humble.
By the time I left home, aged 19, I decided I would never be humble to a man again.
My first husband, legendary designer Sir Terence Conran, was the love of my life. Something I hotly denied until after he died in 2020, when I felt so depressed I could barely do anything for a month.
SHIRLEY CONRAN shares her life lessons on teaching men about sex and the joy of bacon sarnies in bed
We married in 1955 when I was 23, had two sons, and divorced in 1962.
Terence was so unfaithful he even cheated on his mistresses, but it was his daily ‘gaslighting’ that tipped me over the edge.
He didn’t want a divorce. When I asked why he wanted to stay married, he replied: ‘Because you’re a very valuable business asset, you make me laugh and I’m as cosy with you as I was with my old school rug.’ I left, in tears.
Two years later I married John Stephenson, former Conran sales director, whose fiancee had been having an affair with Terence. Brought together by shared betrayal, our interests were totally different and we amicably divorced five years later. John later married a charming, successful fashion designer and had a son. When they made their wills, they asked me to be his formal guardian. The biggest compliment of my life.
My third marriage, to sales director Kevin O’Sullivan, in 1972, started badly when, flying to Malaya on our honeymoon, he told me he’d made a mistake. Our marriage was not consummated for five polite, unhappy days.
Conscious of having failed twice before, I baked bread, made salt from seawater and wore frilly, demure Laura Ashley dresses.
But within two years, Kevin had dumped me via letter, leaving his wedding band in the wastepaper bin.
Looking back, all three husbands resented female emancipation. They expected a humble little wife but they didn’t get one in me.
Women had changed dramatically since the Second World War but, emotionally, men hadn’t caught up.
It was only in my late-40s that I discovered I was happier living alone and I didn’t feel guilty about it. I felt free and adventurous. Free to be my hard-won, authentic self. Free to eat a toasted bacon sandwich in bed at 2am, should I wish.
IT’S EASIER TO TALK TABOOS IN THE DARK
A good relationship depends on good communication. So does good sex. It’s unwise to expect your partner to know what you want by osmosis – you need to tell him.
My third husband told a friend: ‘She actually talks in bed when we are… you know…’
By husband No 3, of course, I did. ‘Further to the left, up a bit, down a bit…’ Not that he took any notice.
In bed, some men don’t listen, others are, shall we say, geographically uninformed – astonishing considering that sex is thrust in your face every time you turn on the TV.
Start by asking your lover what he likes best. Then it’s your turn. Speak plainly and precisely.
Even when I’d reached middle-age, English men still seemed to think The Clitoris was a Greek hotel.
Back up your astounding information with something in print. I recall stabbing a finger at an explicit paragraph in Cosmo to one lover who only then accepted I was not a crazy fantasist. Angrily he said: ‘Why don’t they teach that to boys in school?’
Our relationship then became much more cosy and genuinely intimate, and lasted 14 years.
Oddly enough – and it may be because it’s easier to talk in the dark – once you have sexual communication, it’s easier to communicate in other areas.
THE UNSPOKEN LEGACY OF DIVORCE LASTS A LIFETIME
As a society we’re only just realising how devastating divorce is for children.
My sons, Sebastian and Jasper, are now in their 60s – and the impact is still evident. Jasper can’t remember when his father Terence and I lived together, because he was two when we split, but to me he still seems silently bereft. Sebastian adored his father, who disappeared when he was five. It wasn’t until he was eight that I discovered my son thought it was his fault that his father had suddenly gone.
When I talked to Sebastian’s school headmaster, he told me it’s common for children to think Daddy left because they had been naughty. Especially if the father then creates another family.
After Terence had three further children with his third wife, Sebastian described himself and Jasper as ‘second-class children’. It was so cutting I wondered if I should have divorced their father after all.
Mind you, Terence was just as godawful with the rest of his wives, so I think I would have ended up having a serious breakdown if I hadn’t left.
Terence could be cruel in a cunning way. The wife who followed me commented that by the end of breakfast the day was often poisoned. That was exactly how I had been made to feel.
As 42 per cent of British marriages now end in divorce, I hope parents have worked out a better way to guide children through it.
The perfect divorce leaves no resentment on either side. Is that ever possible?
NEVER FEAR AN EMPTY NEST – THEY’LL BE BACK
When Sebastian cheerfully announced he was leaving home aged 18, I was distraught.
Children are always buoyant when they break the news, as if they expect you to clap. You, however, feel as if your arm has been torn off without anaesthetic.
In tears, I phoned my mother, who was by then widowed and living in Canada. She said in a tough voice: ‘He’ll be back within a year.’ Determined he wasn’t going to bring all his laundry back to me every week, I sent him a new washing machine. He was bewildered, saying anyone would think I was happy to be rid of him.
He didn’t exactly move back home, but he was soon visiting regularly, asking my advice.
In his first year at Central Saint Martins art school, Sebastian booked bands for weekend gigs. He was responsible for punk band The Clash’s first gig and became their road manager. As such, he phoned to say he had to arrange their accommodation for a forthcoming tour – what could I suggest?
I called the charming and cheerful Lord Forte, who owned a chain of good hotels. He agreed that The Clash – who Sebastian sometimes brought to see me on Sundays (they were polite and always did the washing up) – could stay in his hotels up and down the country.
After the tour, I asked Sebastian how it went. His eyes wobbled around the room. ‘What happened?’ I demanded. He explained that when musicians finish a gig, they’re on a high. Unfortunately, all these hotels had fire extinguishers, which the band used for giant water fights in the corridors at 4am.
I wrote to apologise. Lord Forte said he’d been young once.
Even to this day when Sebastian, now 68, and I are alone together, it can feel as if he’s eight years old again. I’ll say: ‘I bought some strawberries for you.’ He makes fresh mayonnaise for me nearly every week. They never really leave you.
A good relationship depends on good communication. So does good sex. It’s unwise to expect your partner to know what you want by osmosis – you need to tell him
DISASTER CAN TURN INTO THE BEST NEW BEGINNING
When I was 37, I went into hospital with viral pneumonia and came out with chronic ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis).
Bang went my career as launch editor of the Daily Mail’s Femail section. I was never able to work for anyone again.
No one knew what ME was in those days (now it’s often called chronic fatigue syndrome).
My doctor thought I was cuckoo and sent me to what he said were ‘experts’ (code for psychiatrist). One said I was trying to attract attention and another that I was ‘shirking work’.
But I had too much attention and I loved my work.
ME certainly existed for me. Everything was exhausting. Just making a cup of tea meant I had to lie down for two hours.
With two small children, I had to find a way to earn – and save – money.
I could no longer afford a cleaner and for the first time in my life had to do all my own housework.
I was still totally exhausted and found all books on housework were rubbish, so I began to make notes on how to get things done more quickly and simply. These housework notes turned into my first bestseller: Superwoman (in 1975).
I was nearly 50 when, after another nasty bout of ME with a live-in nurse for six weeks, I realised that I might need 24-hour care for life. How would I pay for it? Determined never to be a burden on my grown-up sons, I felt a flame of fierce, naked ambition. I had to write a bestselling novel.
My first blockbuster, Lace, was published in 1982 and broke European records, making me a millionaire (including the film rights).
Without the restrictions of ME, I wouldn’t be an international bestselling author. So don’t look back, look forward. Weep if you must but deal with the muck and keep your emotions out of it. Focus on positive action. Ban all self-pity.
SUCCESS IS LIKE BEING PUNCHED IN THE BELLY
It was an odd feeling having no money one minute and millions the next. Five other international blockbuster books followed Lace.
I was dizzy with delight but soon discovered that sudden global success is like being punched in the belly – exhausting.
Everyone wants a bit of you. The phone doesn’t stop ringing.
My first big tour in America was for Lace – I was the leading author with the leading book of the world’s leading publisher. This meant I had to get up at 5am, rush off to breakfast TV, then on to a lunch meeting, followed by an early evening meeting. I’d be lucky to flop on to my next hotel bed before midnight.
Then there’s the worrying rate at which those millions can disappear.
I don’t expect anyone to sympathise, but wealth brought tax demands, accountants, lawyers, business consultants, pensions advisers, bankers. I was at their mercy. It took me years to realise I shouldn’t trust anyone with it.
Don’t delegate your finances to untrained family members. After all, it’s difficult to sack your dad. Once a month, put aside time when you’re not tired to check your finances, long term and short term.
Also check on your supposedly well-trained financial advisers: agents, lawyers, bankers, estate agents and accountants. Rich people get another accountant to double-check the first accountant’s work – then they check on him, too.
WHEN IN A HURRY, DO THINGS SLOWLY
When in my 70s, I didn’t think growing old was a problem. You are still fit and active, able to dance the samba with ease – should you remember it – and you wonder what all the fuss is about.
Then you hit 80 and things go downhill rapidly. No one warns you about the speed of the decline from that point.
A friend recently remarked that the best piece of advice I gave her was: ‘When you’re in a hurry, do things slowly.’ This applies to old age. When you’re carrying delicate, valuable things, maybe hum, ‘Here comes the bride.’ You’ll drop and break less.
NEVER MIND A LIFE COACH, HIRE A DEATH COACH
Aged 90, like everyone, I know that death is my destiny. While some people have a life coach, I have a death coach who helps get my business affairs in order so that I can die neatly. Otherwise it will be a nightmare for my executor.
The last thing the recently bereaved want is to organise a funeral, which is a bit like planning a wedding with the bride in a box.
I’ve told my sons not to worry when I go, they won’t lose me completely. I’ll be in their head for ever.
THE BLITZ SPIRIT TAUGHT ME NEVER TO GIVE UP
Everyone had their own nasty experience during the Second World War. And no matter our age and ability, we all strained to do our best. To keep calm, hide our fear and never give up.
My mother once heard me tell younger friends that we had been bombed out three times at our home near the RAF airport in Biggin Hill, Kent. We lost ceilings, doors, windows and much of the roof. But after my friends had left, Mum reproached me: ‘Yes, we were bombed, but we were not bombed OUT.’ That was the Blitz spirit: quiet, grim determination.
The drama and destruction of war gave me a sense of perspective that I’ve called upon throughout my life. Today, people I work with describe me as a determined person who gets things done. And that is why.
SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO SAY, ‘WHAT THE ****!’
In the Nineties, I became a friend of Princess Diana, shortly before her divorce from Prince Charles.
We were in very similar positions. My marriage to Terence ended because he was with another woman and he refused to discuss it with me. And Diana knew right from the beginning about Camilla.
Diana and I used to give each other silly little presents. Once, when she was going through a bit of bad luck, I gave her a wrapped gift and said: ‘I want you to keep this and open it when you need cheering up.’
She said: ‘I can’t wait! I can’t wait!’
I said: ‘No! Don’t!’
She tore it open to reveal a leather jewel box. Her face froze; I could tell she was afraid that it might contain something valuable that she wouldn’t want to accept.
But when she opened it, she found a large black lapel button with writing on it. It said: Sometimes you just have to say “What the f***!”
‘There, you’ve ruined it now,’ I said. ‘If you’d waited to unwrap it when something ghastly happened, it would have cheered you up.’
‘Harry’s going to love this!’ she said. He was 12 at the time. I suspect he could do with it right now.
© Shirley Conran, 2023
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