(Photo by Olivia Grabowski-West)
Kathy Lette is an Australian author who has lived in London for over 20 years. Kathy has written a number of bestselling books including Puberty Blues, How to Kill Your Husband (and Other Handy Household Hints), To Love, Honour & Betray, Mad Cows and Foetal Attraction.
I suddenly found myself living in the UK. I was living in LA writing sitcoms when the writers’ strike happened in 1988. I went back to Australia and went on Hypotheticals, and met Geoff (husband Geoffrey Robertson) and suddenly my life derailed. We fell madly in love, he left his girlfriend at the time, Nigella Lawson, and I moved to England. He tricked me, he said we’d just come for a year and now it’s turned into 23. I never wanted to live in Britain – what a cold, grey, gloomy, damp place. The English are eyore-esque — they think optimism is an eye disease. But I have come to love many things about living here.
In Australia I was just known for Puberty Blues. I was 30, had my first grey pubic hair and was still considered an expert on teenage angst and orgasms. It was getting a bit embarrassing. Coming to England I could start from scratch. I just started from nowhere and it felt good for me to realize I could do it all on my own. Girls Night Out came out, and it was followed by Foetal Attraction and Mad Cows — the best books for Australians to read when they come here. They’re about that fish-out-of water experience, and coming to grips with the UK condescension chromosome. The Brits see us as the recessive gene, the Irish of the Pacific. They think of our record collections as criminal, not classical. All of that prejudice still exists.
I got pregnant quite quickly after arriving here. I had Jules, and two years later I had Georgie. It was around the same time I found out Jules had special needs, and it was full on. I was really struggling to keep my head above water, and I went on this show called Start the Week with Melvyn Bragg. I was weaning my daughter at the time, and I had tits like two hot rocks. I was sitting in this studio, in agony, talking about Foetal Attraction – which satirizes the world of the literati, gliterati and clitorati — and Melvyn took offence. He was condescending, misogynistic and anti-Australian, and I just kind of took it on the show, because I was hormonal and surprised. When journalists asked me about it afterwards, I thought I could curl up and cry like a bit of wilted lettuce, or I could kick back. I comically kneecapped him — saying his midlife crises had started without him, that he had love bites on his mirror, whatever line I could think of. It got the book up the bestseller list, and he eventually apologised. It taught me a great lesson — not just to lie back and think of Canberra. As long as you have a couple of putdowns up your cardigan sleeve, you’ll get grudging respect for giving back as good as you get.
The great thing about being Australian in the UK, is it gives you social mobility. In Britain people are very compartmentalized by the class system, they’re born into it. My English friends can meet someone and tell within two minutes where they went to school, what they eat for breakfast, what colour underpants they’re wearing and what their sexual proclivities are. Australians can be socially Vaseline coated. The Brits have to be nice to you, just in case you’re the daughter of a rich grazier or newspaper magnate. They don’t speak English here — they speak euphemisms. You need those United Nations headphones to decode the language. They’d say things like: ‘Oh, you Australians — you’re so refreshing’, which actually means: ‘Rack off you loudmouth, colonial, nymphomaniac.’ I’d think — how dare they call me a loudmouth?!
One day (in 2004) I got a call from the Savoy asking if I would like to be their writer in residence for three months. It was the first hotel to have a writer in residence program – most programs are in prisons, or libraries. They wanted to rekindle their literary links, because lots of famous authors had lived there in the past — from Oscar Wilde, to Mark Twain and Noel Coward. Of course, Kathy Lette is a natural segue. Hotels are all about fun and frivolity, and I just had to swan about, swing from the chandeliers, and host four literary dinners. I invited Stephen Fry, Salman Rushdie (we all wore our bullet-proof bras that night), Richard E. Grant and John Mortimer. John was my literary love god. He used to call himself my toyboy, although he used to say it would take him three weeks to get a soft-on.
I invented my own champagne cocktail for the menu — the “Kathy Cassis”. I put in a lot a research. Julian Barnes came to visit me, and I told him I was pleased I was going to have my own cocktail but I was slightly worried about all the men who could go around town saying that they’ve had me. Julian said: ‘Don’t worry Kathy, as long as they say you went down rather well.’ For an Englishman with pinstripe underpants, I thought that was pretty damn good! I’ve also got a Kathy Omelette— it’s an omelette with lobster legs sticking out the sides, because my legs are all I’ve got left!
Moving to the UK you have to think to yourself you’ll conquer the Great Indoors. To survive the winter I have indoor Aussie barbies. We turn the heating up really high, play Australian music like INXS and Crowded House and run around the house in our cossies. Kylie or Dannii (Minogue) gave me this game where one person wears a Velcro cap on their head, and all the others chase them around the house scoring points by throwing Velcro balls at the hat. I have pictures of Salman Rushdie, Kylie, Danni and Geoffrey all running around in their swimmers being bombarded with Velcro balls.
Australian humour is drier than an AA clinic. We have chronic scepticaemia — we’re sceptical about everything. I think it’s our way of coping, like strapping a shock absorber to the brain. I love writing Australian characters in my books, because they’re so colourful. In my new book, The Boy Who Fell to Earth, I’ve got a lovely old aging Australian rockstar — Archie. They’re going to make a film out of it, with Emily Mortimer playing the mother, and I wonder who they’ll cast as Archie. It has to be someone knockabout, rough around the edges — an unlikely sex symbol. I’ll have to help cast by driving around town with a casting couch strapped to the roof racks.
I wrote the book to give people a greater understanding of autism. I think the best way of describing it is like the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, but from the mother’s perspective. I was planning on writing something else, but this book just started pouring out and I couldn’t stop. It’s based on my own experiences with my son, who is on the autistic spectrum. People think I’m really candid, but you should hear what I’m not telling you. This book left me feeling very exposed. I thought, am I really going to do this emotional striptease for my readers? I asked my son, and he said he loved the book. Julius said: ‘It’s a celebration of idiosyncrasies and eccentricities.’ Most of the things the character Merlin says in the book really did come out of his mouth. There are these beautiful letters in there written between mother and son, which are amazing and really touching. They’re what makes the book I think, and most them are verbatim. I am so proud of him, he’s a remarkable young man. If only we could be more accepting of people who are different. How dull it would be if we were all the same — a case of the bland leading the bland.
As a writer you always have to be in Margaret Mead mode, you have to try to experience everything because you never know what might be material. Although I’m a republican I agreed to go to the Royal Polo with a friend of mine. Clarence House saw my name on the list and asked if I wanted to present the cups to the Princes — obviously they were limbo low on celebs that day. Some fuddy-duddy explained I had to kiss each Prince on the cheek and present the cup. I could see them looking bored, so as Prince William came towards me I thought, ‘oh I’ll have a bit of fun with this.’ I said to him: ‘Apparently I have to kiss you, do you want tongue?’ He told the others, who killed themselves laughing. Then to Prince Harry I asked: ‘Do you want tongue?’ He said: ‘Oh yeah’, and picked me up and swung me round. I’m pretty sure I felt a frisson with Harry. Who knows, if I play my cards right, I could be the future Queen of England!
One place Australians should make a pilgrimage to is the Captain Cook museum in Whitby. It’s a beautiful little town, like something out of a fairy book — all these little houses clinging onto the riverbank like periwinkles. The whole place haemorrhages history. I felt very moved when I went there. My ancestors were on the First Fleet and the Second Fleet. I call myself the crÃ¨me de la crim.
I’m still trying to get myself deported. Next time I’m at Buckingham Palace I’m going to impale a corgi on the end of my stiletto, and they’ll put me in the tower and send me back to Botany Bay. When the Royal Wedding was on I was doing some coverage for Channel Nine, and had my friend Toni Moon in Cronulla whip up a suit with corgis on it, with diamond encrusted tiaras on their craniums. We were invited to Buckingham Palace for some soiree because the Queen was heading to Australia on tour, and had all the Aussies down to the palace. I whacked on the corgi suit, did the mascara in the car, and lined up to meet the Queen. She was in a rigour mortis of boredom, and I stood in front of her in my corgi suit, and said ‘I hope you like my suit, I wore it just for you’. She threw her head back and laughed. I always go too far — I then said to Prince Phillip: ‘I’m slightly worried one of your corgis might try to mate with my leg’. He just said: ‘Oh get on with you’ in his gruff way. I think the royals get tired of people being sycophantic and awestruck. It’s good to be someone who can have a bit of fun.
The Boy Who Fell to Earth is released in the UK on 11 April.
As told to Alex Ivett.