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‘Why I say no to I’m a Celebrity…’ The best-selling author on reality TV, the flooding of her dream home, terrible rheumatoid arthritis… and wild aardvarks in Norwich

PUBLISHED: 21:21 27 September 2017 | UPDATED: 21:46 27 September 2017

'One of my teachers told me I would never amount to anything. But do you know what? I like my life. And to be able to say that is your biggest achievement. I’ve got great children and grandchildren,' says Martina Cole. Picture: CHARLOTTE MURPHY

'One of my teachers told me I would never amount to anything. But do you know what? I like my life. And to be able to say that is your biggest achievement. I’ve got great children and grandchildren,' says Martina Cole. Picture: CHARLOTTE MURPHY

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‘Why I say no to I’m a Celebrity…’ The best-selling author on reality TV, the flooding of her dream home, terrible rheumatoid arthritis… and wild aardvarks in Norwich

Martina Cole's new book, Damaged. Picture: HEADLINE Martina Cole's new book, Damaged. Picture: HEADLINE

She might be a multi-millionaire, ensconced today in a swanky Covent Garden hotel billed as a “haven of discreet glamour”, but Martina Cole still tells it as it is.

“I’ll tell you something funny,” she says, breaking off to cough again – the sign of a dogged chest infection she’s fighting with antibiotics.

“I had a tiny bit of filler, because I was going on television. It left a terrible bruise. So my six-year-old grandson went ‘Nanny! What…?’ I told him I’d got attacked by a wild aardvark in Norwich. He was Googling aardvarks.

“I told him they’re actually native to Norwich. A couple of them escaped from a zoo and there’s now this huge colony. I said ‘They’re normally very friendly but someone startled it and it sort of jumped up.’

“He said ‘They’ve got very big noses, haven’t they?’ And I went ‘Well, yes.’ So he still believes I was attacked by a wild aardvark.

“My son said ‘Mum, you do make me laugh. I don’t know where that came from.’ I said ‘Nor do I, but it makes him happy.’”

Hooray for a vivid imagination, honed through reading.

“I’ve always lived in my head. There were five of us – I was the youngest. My dad was at sea, my mum was a nurse and worked every hour God sent. My nanny, my mum’s mum, came to live with us and she said ‘You’re never on your own with a book.’ It’s true.

“I still live in my head now. I can write in a pub. I can write anywhere – because everything’s in your head. I can be in Cyprus or Istanbul, sitting outside a café with my eyes closed, and I can walk myself through London.”

Has Martina Cole ever been approached for I'm a Celebrity...? 'Theyve invited me so many times. I say No. Can you imagine me on Im a Celebrity? My friends say Has Martina Cole ever been approached for I'm a Celebrity...? 'Theyve invited me so many times. I say No. Can you imagine me on Im a Celebrity? My friends say "Please! That would be so funny. Especially when you lost your temper and told everyone what you think of them." But it doesnt appeal to me.' Picture: PA/Nikki Crisp

This imagination’s served her well – certainly lifted her far from an unpromising start in south Essex that included expulsion and a bridling against authority. Martina left school at 15 with no qualifications, married at 16 and divorced a year later.

At 18 she found herself a single mother in a run-down council flat, struggling to raise a son. But she was a grafter. She took on what work she could get, whenever she found it, to keep the wolf from the door: from waitressing in pubs and clubs to stuffing leaflets into newspapers at night, often with her son in tow.

Short of readies for “luxuries” like going out or affording a TV, she began to write once Chris had gone to sleep. The little “books” she produced found a fan in her neighbour, with whom she’d trade them for a packet of fags.

Her parents died within six months of each other when she was 21 (her father had been a merchant seaman from Cork and mother a psychiatric nurse from Dublin). Later that year she began work on what would become her first novel… a decade or so later. For now, she daydreamed about being a famous author, but lacked the confidence to go for it. The mindset among her friends was that working-class folk didn’t write best-selling books. Or books at all.

At 30, though, she decided to give it a crack. Martina quit her job running a nursing agency, invested in an electric typewriter, and gave herself a year to complete a full-length novel. That languishing manuscript of Dangerous Lady was revived, and polished, and she finished it in 18 months.

The advance she earned for her tale of a tough and beautiful 17-year-old woman who takes on London gangsters was a cool £130,000 (or £150,000, depending on which report you believe) – then the highest ever for an unpublished writer.

Even so, there were those who dismissed her as an Essex girl who had dared reach above her station and reckoned the book was a one-hit wonder. They won’t be smirking now.

For the numbers speak for themselves. In the 25 years since Dangerous Lady appeared, Martina’s written about a novel a year, shifting more than 16m copies (worth £63.2m) and occupying the summit of The Bookseller’s Original Fiction chart for a record 62 weeks all told.

Four of her novels have been adapted for the screen and three have become stage plays.

The label of “undisputed queen of crime drama” is not hype.

So: 25 years… “I know, darling. It’s frightening. I was only 12 when I wrote it,” laughs the 58-year-old.

Does she feel any sense of triumph for proving the doubters wrong? And those critics who have been a bit sniffy about the low-life and tawdry nature of the world she portrays, and what someone once called her “pavement vernacular”?

“I never cared, sweetheart. I’m a 25-book wonder! People like the books, I’ve got a fantastic fanbase, and I enjoy my work. With respect, Val McDermid is much more violent than I am. So is Stephen King.

“I write about criminals. I write from the point of view of criminals; and I write from an emotional standpoint as well. I write about the women who get caught up with these men. My books really, if I’m being honest with you, they’re cautionary tales.”

Steer clear of bad people, then? “My mum used to say ‘Lie down with dogs and you’ll get fleas’.”

Martina grew up on the periphery of the criminal world. Bad men such as the Kray brothers popped up when she was a girl and teenager, and one of her friends was the sister of a gangster.

If she was writing about the 1950s or ’60s, he could tell her where they’d eaten and drunk in that era, where they got their suits made, what cars they drove and so on. It added authenticity.

Today, the author often picks through second-hand shops and buys old A-Zs. “London’s changed so much – so I can get an idea in my mind of where they would have driven.”

Suppose the crime world has altered, too. “Course it has. I write about old-school villainy a lot of the time. The Yardies arrived in the ’80s. You’ve got the Russians now. Albanians. It’s a different world.”

Martina thinks her use of underworld vernacular is a big part of her success, giving that sense of realism. She’s still involved with a lot of prison writing workshops, including with lifers, so the rhythm of speech and lingo is never far away. But she doesn’t discuss with them the details of their pasts.

“It’s none of my business. And I’ve got enough stories of my own, darling, without theirs.” It’s been said her books are the titles most requested from prison libraries – and the most stolen.

Have time and success changed her? “Oh, I’m still the same person. I still have every friend I had at school. Forty-five years some of us have been friends.

“I love my job. I love writing. I think I’m so lucky. I got up for so many years to do jobs I hated to keep the bills paid.”

It’s not all plain-sailing. A few years back, when Revenge was coming out, she feared it might be her last novel because agonising rheumatoid arthritis made writing in longhand almost unendurable.

“I felt like it at the time, but I’ll write till I’m dead,” she insists. The arthritis is still bad and she takes things to try to keep the pain in check.

“I’m a great realist – a fatalist. I just have to get over it. I signed 500 books yesterday at Headline (her publisher). It was so sore later. You can imagine: writing your name 500 times. I just dip my hand in ice.”

Then there’s the awfulness about her beautiful 600-year-old home in Kent. She hasn’t lived there for 16 months, since it was flooded. “Do you remember not last June but June before? We had six months’ rain in an afternoon.”

The aftermath has, she admits, “been awful. But hopefully in the next month it’ll be finished”.

That must have made the writing process hard, to say the least.

“Oh god yeah. It was really difficult writing this book, Damaged. I didn’t have anything of my own around. The insurance company have been fantastic. They got me this really nice detached house, but I couldn’t get my furniture through the doors. So everything, all my possessions, are in storage. But, anyway, sh*t happens, doesn’t it?”

She coughs again. For a good 20 seconds.

She’s got a terrible headache. “Got to take a Lemsip thing – my antibiotics.” Martina says she tends to get a chest infection every year. “I must shake hands with 5,000 people. Plus the photos. Plus the kisses. Plus the how-are-yous? I get everything that’s going, love.”

Even though she must have enough money not to worry, there seems no appetite for putting her feet up and pulling back.

Martina’s in the midst of what seems a draining publicity tour. She’s on live radio later, and in the evening is even due at a 1920s-style burlesque, cabaret and jazz supper club not far from the Tower of London. Interestingly, she still finds personal appearances a bit nerve-racking.

One bit of good news, healthwise, is that she’s quit smoking in the past six months, more or less, and taken up vaping. She does admit to loving smoking, and has a fag every now and again. But not very often.

With her what-you-see-is-what-you-get openness, you’d think Martina would be nailed on for shows like I’m a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here! Ever been approached?

“Oh god yeah. They’ve invited me so many times. I say No. Can you imagine me on I’m a Celebrity? My friends say ‘Please! That would be so funny. Especially when you lost your temper and told everyone what you think of them.’ But it doesn’t appeal to me. Nor Big Brother. None of them do.

“I’m only doing Pointless this year because my grandchildren adore it. ‘Oh Nanny, please!’ I’m doing it with (fellow writer) Peter James.” Filming is due in October.

The author’s not a obsessive TV fan. She says there wouldn’t be much anyway without crime series, would there, and is scathing about a show such as Keeping Up with the Kardashians. “I hate reality TV.”

American Gods, a series based on Neil Gaiman’s novel, does get her vote, however. “Gillian Anderson as Bowie… (Her character takes the form of personalities such as Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland.) Google her. It’s fantastic!”

By the way, what would she be if not an author? Not a nun, that’s for sure – one of her notions as a convent school girl.

“Well, I was running a nursing agency – a really good job, actually – and I was going to buy into it. So I’d probably still be running that.”

Nowadays, the Cole empire is wide-ranging. She owns, for instance, two bookshops in northern Cyprus, where she’s also got a home. Other people run them for her. “My book readers come from all across the world and I’m sure they think I’m going to be on the till!”

She is, herself, “a big reader” – always has been – and collects first editions. “Books are my dream.” When her son and daughter were young, she’d steer them away from rubbishy TV that ate up valuable time and encouraged them instead to pick up a book. It’s a habit that’s stuck.

Chris is now heading towards 40 and has three children who stay with their nanny on Saturday nights. “I love it. I wish I’d gone straight to being a grandmother, to be honest!” she laughs.

Daughter Freddie, now at college, is “a bit of a punk. She’s very much like me. Oh god, we clash because we’re so alike. If I said this wallpaper is grey, she’d argue it’s blue. It’s a mother and daughter thing. We’re very, very close. She still has a hug and calls me Mummy.”

Martina also has a film company and record company. She loves her music – when she’s working, she tends to listen to the sounds of the era she’s writing about.

A “Floyd girl” who thinks we enjoyed the best music in the 1970s, she’s also a fan of some modern artists, such as Adele.

“I must be the only grandmother in the world who shouts out ‘Turn it up!’ And I’ve never had to listen to Justin Bieber. How lucky am I? Although my little grandson does like Little Mix, but I allow him that because he’s only six.”

She loves jazz and Elkie Brooks, and has seen Queen and Ian Dury live. Martina loves the theatre, too. Last night she saw Grease/The West Wing star Stockard Channing in Apologia in the West End. Recently, in America, she caught Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly! on Broadway.

“Music can transport you back to an era. You can be on a bus or Tube train, or in a car, and when a certain piece of music comes on you’re suddenly six again and you can see your mum in the kitchen, listening to it on the radio.”

Any ambitions unfulfilled?

“I’d like to direct a television programme or a film of mine.” Any chance of that? “Who knows?

“One of my teachers told me I would never amount to anything. He also put on my school report about games: ‘not exactly the energetic type’. Sarcastic person [though she uses a word beginning with F] he was. But do you know what? I like my life. And to be able to say that is your biggest achievement. I’ve got great children and grandchildren. I’ve got a great life.”

Martina’s said in the past that we can’t ever put our happiness in someone else’s hands. Does she still believe it?

“Someone said to me about a man. I said ‘I love men. I just couldn’t eat a whole one.’ I’ve been seeing an actor friend for a long, long time, on and off, but I don’t want to marry him and he certainly doesn’t want to marry me. I don’t want to be married. I like my life.

“I’m going to LA this year; I’m going to Vegas. Last year I was in Cuba, the year before that Jamaica, the year before that Rio, before that Buenos Aires. I like travelling, and I do not like answering to anybody.

“If I wake up and decide I want to get on a plane, I’m going. I’m too independent, really. Everyone I have a relationship with, I tell them from the beginning I do not want anything too serious and I like my life. If they can live with that, then they’re in with a chance. If they can’t, show them the door!

“Life’s too short.”

Martina Cole is coming to Waterstones bookshop, in Colchester High Street, to sign copies of her latest book. She’s there on Friday, September 29 from 12.30pm to 1.30pm.

Damaged sees retired Det Ch Insp Kate Burrows called to help when bodies of local girls are discovered in a town that seems determined to hold on to its secrets. There’s no evidence to help catch the serial killer responsible.

Her enjoyable life with former gangster Patrick Kelly is having to go on hold until the murderer is found. It’s not the only problem for Kate, though: a young man appears from nowhere, claiming to be Patrick’s son. The ex-detective’s instincts sense trouble. Certainly something about the man’s wife, Bella, definitely seems “off”.

Damaged is published in hardback by Headline, at £20.

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