The green-fingered novelist

ALAN Titchmarsh has enjoyed decades of enduring TV popularity, and today he has a new novel out.

ALAN Titchmarsh has enjoyed decades of enduring TV popularity, and today he has a new novel out. LYNNE MORTIMER talked to the writer and broadcaster about his multi-faceted career.

HE is just one of the nicest blokes you could ever hope to talk to.

Writer and broadcaster Alan Titchmarsh has managed to survive decades of TV popularity with seemingly effortless good grace and, what's more, he's happy to chat in the car on his way to the first book-signing of the day, in Fareham (Then it's on to Southampton and Chippenham).

Over the next week he is visiting 12 towns and cities - including having visited Bury St Edmunds on Monday to inscribe copies of Love & Dr Devon, his latest novel.

And among his fans, queuing for that fleeting moment in his presence, will be women like me who find him very appealing.

It's that boyish charm, that easy manner… and it's not only me that says so. In one poll, he was voted the second sexiest man in the world - and there is certainly no shame in coming second to George Clooney.

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Thinking about which of these two heartthrobs I would rather spend a day with, though, Titchmarsh wins every time. We could talk about gardening and why aphids the size of barrage balloons infest my lupins. We could talk natural history, music, novels… endless topics.

So it is difficult to know where to start but this interview is about his new book and so it seems like the obvious place.

Love & Dr Devon - a rollicking good read - is about three men in so-called period “mid-life crisis”. The hero, Christopher Devon is a highly ethical GP whose life is jolted out of middle-aged complacency when his wife walks out on him. He and his two friends, helicopter pilot and Tiger Wilson and commitment-phobic civil servant Gary Flynn meet in the pub once a week.

They talk about seeking a bit of excitement but unexpectedly each of them gets caught up in whirlwind events that will change their lives forever.

You can't help thinking the hero - Devon - is very like his creator. He is a character who loves his garden; loves classical music; is dedicated to his work. And he's quite sexy too. Is he Alan Titchmarsh? I asked

“I don't know… I think there's a bit of you in all your heroes really.

“When you write about any character - be they a man or a woman - you have dig inside yourself to get to their feelings. So, in a way, you have to feel what they all feel.

“I've steered clear of gardening almost completely since Mr McGregor (his first novel). This is novel number six and I thought, 'oh do I make him interested in gardening - is he interested in gardening or will people just say how he's doing that because it's all he knows about?'

“I quite enjoy writing about people who, I suppose, are ordinary but in extraordinary situations. That's where I get most of my mileage rather than choosing dysfunctional families or someone who is weird or off-the-wall or whatever. Most of my people are ordinary because most people are. I like to write stories about people to whom my readers can relate.”

Over recent years Alan has moved from mainly gardening to embrace some of his other interests including natural history and music - last year he brought us the traditional part of the last night of the Proms on BBC1. How has that happened?

“I think we all change as we grow older and, for me, the key has always been to keep being stimulated. Gardening is what I did when I left school - I've always done it and always will do it but when you're presented with opportunities to do other things you think you might have an aptitude for - and that you might enjoy - it seems to me churlish… rather narrow-minded to say 'Oh no I'm a gardener I do this, I don't do that'. And I've been very lucky. I've been given the opportunity to do other things.”

He gives the example of writing fiction.

“They said to me 'why don't you write a novel'. The first one I wrote in '97 and sent it off and got one rejection slip, one request to see more and an invitation to lunch - so I went to lunch.

“I'm very lucky and very fortunate.” he paused.

But a lot of it is down to hard work, I suggested.

He muses: “Yeah, I have worked hard - tried to seek out opportunities, I suppose. I don't sit down a lot,” he laughed.

“I follow my aptitudes. That's the thing.”

He says he is lucky to have found out what those aptitudes are. “I'm a firm believer that everybody is best at something but the lucky people are the ones who find out what it is that they are fairly good at or reasonable at.

“I'm not judging my work but I certainly enjoy doing what I do and I always found myself incapable of doing something that I don't like; that I'm not suited to and it's been my greatest stroke of good fortune that I've found out what I am suited to.”

He says writing is a very solitary pursuit, writing which is why he enjoys it.

“The television world is more sociable, which I also enjoy. But I also need quiet, I need solitude and writing fulfils that.”

Love and Dr Devon has a clever plot and I wonder whether the ideas come to him while he's gardening.

“While I'm doing everything. They drift in and drift out. It's a bit like being a medium really,” he chuckled at the thought, “you're tuned into any sort of vibes that are coming through. I don't know where ideas come from.”

I can't resist it any longer - how does it feel to be voted second sexiest man in the world?

“On television, I think it was,” he corrected me gently and I get the feeling he would rather like to sidestep this one but I pressed on. I say I know girls in their mid-20s who find him attractive and he jokingly entreated me not to put them off.

“I need all the help I can get… I'm grateful for any audience I can get.”

But it's not just women who read his books: “The great thing is, I get male readers as well, which I'm rather pleased about. I don't write exclusively for women - I just write stories. I hope they have a fairly broad appeal.”

“I was a writer first. I've been writing for a living since the mid-70s. I started off as a gardener at 15 and went to college and then to Kew. I taught at Kew for a couple of years and then I went straight into horticultural journalism as an assistant editor on gardening books. My first radio was in 1977 but I didn't start doing telly till 1979.

“The one thing I've learned about both television and writing is that the most important thing is to be yourself. If you start adding on bits and putting on affectations you suddenly forget what you're meant to be.

“I've found it's not about adding on to yourself, it's about taking things away. The 'pure you', if you like. When you start in television, particularly, you're bound to have role models and heroes and you kind of emulate them but you're aware that sometimes that you're, perhaps, imitating them and you don't need to do that.

“You can observe good television technique and learn from that but once you've espoused that you then need to find out who you are and learn to put yourself over as you.

“I'm not over-burdened with confidence and I think to assume somebody else's mantle is actually quite handy in that respect but you've got to learn that you can't hide behind that.”

I am surprised that he is not supremely confident.

“No, not dreadfully. I know I can broadcast now as myself. I'm reasonably confident in that.”

He is wary of the sort of confidence that edges over into arrogance and complacence although he will allow: “I've got nerve - cheek you might even say.

“I'm not over-confident in my general ability, you might say. I'm easily shot down… A sensitive child, really.

You have to differentiate between constructive criticism and just prejudice. Not everyone is going to like you. When you're on the box, you think, 'I'll go on and do my bit and everyone will think I'm wonderful'. And they don't… not everyone is going to like you. You just got to try and appeal to as many as you can.”

He tails off for a moment and I fear I have lost him.

“Just seen a nice little car for sale,” he said unexpectedly.

I recall he likes cars. He explained: “I saw this little old car at the end of a drive. I'd have stopped if we hadn't been talking - never mind. When I look at old vintage cars I get a bit drooly. I do like old cars.”

Which brings us neatly on to the theme of his book - mid-life crisis. Now in his mid-50s, does he have any urges?

“Well, people say 'he's in mid-life crisis' when he's bought a motorbike or he's bought a BMW. Men work all their lives to be able to afford to do that. When they reach the age at which they can (afford it) they get told it's a mid life crisis. I think it's a mid-life blossoming,” he said firmly.

Underpinning the successful career(s) is his family. His wife of 27 years, Alison and their two grown-up daughters, Polly and Camilla. I mention that he has a happy marriage and a stable home life and he quickly intervenes: “Well, I had when I left this morning but you can never be complacent.”

But adds, more seriously: “I couldn't do it without a wife and kids who are very supportive. That's the most grounding thing in my life, really. The thing from which it all radiates; to which it relates. It's very important.”

N

Don't miss the Evening Star's gardening tips every Saturday.

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