Belfast writer Diana Wilkinson serves up a novel look at life and love for the over-fifties
Belfast-born tennis coach-turned-writer Diana Wilkinson tells Una Brankin why she hopes her first book will be a smash with ladies of a certain age
The cross Irish mammy depicted by Diana Wilkinson will ring many bells with readers in her hometown of Belfast and throughout the north and south.
The former tennis pro has the stereotypical target down to a T, especially when the heroine of her debut novel, Fifty Fifty, has to draw up a shopping list for her: "The tea bags had to be extra strong; full fat milk; orange marmalade (without the bits. Heaven forbid it has the bits in it!); white, doughy, long life, extra thick sliced bread for toast; Irish Kerry Gold butter; ginger snaps (Jacobs only); lard for the Sunday roast; teacakes for the afternoon tea session (onto which, I can't remember, whether it should be the butter or lard that is smeared); corn flour for the gravy; ginger ale mixer; and a 10 litre bottle of Bells whiskey."
The Belfast-born author, now living in Hertfordshire, has of course exaggerated the character and her other colourful protagonists for comic effect in her debut novel - "a Bridget Jones for the 50-plus age bracket", as she puts it. But she admits there is a lot of herself in the irreverent narrator Sally Dodds (named after her late mother), a bored middle-aged housewife with a pompous, overbearing husband, who reconnects with her first love in the sleepy English market town of Pudsley.
"Friends tell me they recognise many of the characters but I have to tell them it's only fiction," laughs Diana. "My son James (18) is mortified! He's not interested in reading it at all but my husband Neil has, and says it's very good. I didn't let him read it as I was writing it; only my sister Linda in Hillsborough and another friend were allowed to. They get the Ulster sense of humour in it - slapstick but real."
Diana (58) flies over regularly to visit Linda, who's married to Ashley Piggott, MD of AJ Power diesel generator manufacturers, who were winners of the Belfast Telegraph Business of the Year 2014 award.
The sisters grew up on the Cavehill Road in north Belfast, opposite the Cavehill Tennis Club, and attended Belfast Royal Academy. Diana followed her father, Jim Kennett, an official with Belfast Harbour, into the tennis club on their doorstep, when she was 10.
"He was a good player but not one of these full-on, in-your-face tennis parents like you have now," she remarks, north Belfast tones intact.
"You were driven by yourself back then. I joined the tennis club as soon as I was allowed entry, at 10, and played tournaments all summer long, then went on to play the circuit - the problem was I had no money. I was temping and playing in between times. There's no money in tennis unless you're ranked in the top 10 in the world - the top 10 in the UK are only on about £20,000 a year."
Diana spent most of her childhood pursuing dreams of becoming a tennis champion. She represented Ulster for many years and won the under-15 Irish Junior Championships in Dublin when she was just 13. At 18, she left Belfast to study geography at Durham University, but after stints in teaching and as a broker in the City of London, found herself drawn back to tennis. She met husband Neil, an accountant, at a tennis club, and when the opportunity arose to buy three disused tennis clubs in London, she snapped them up and ran them as coaching schools for more than 20 years. Her dream of establishing a tennis club back home didn't materialise, however.
"I was very homesick at the beginning - I love Northern Ireland - but I made new friends and a new life and decided to stay in London," she recalls. "I couldn't have a career in tennis in Ulster; the opportunities were better here.
"I tried to set up tennis at the Boat Club but it wasn't a success. It's quite provincial in Ireland - there's nowhere else to go when you've got to the top. It's because of the small size of the country and the weather - it's totally different when you can play all year round, unless you have indoor facilities, which Ireland hasn't."
Tanned and toned, Diana now runs an International Gap Year Tennis programme based in Spain, encouraging student players to concentrate on top level tennis combined with their studies. She also organises social tennis holidays in Murcia and has encouraged many juniors into the game, running numerous squads, which included her son from a very young age.
Her active lifestyle was to come to a sudden halt, however, in her mid-50s, when she almost died.
"I'd lost all this weight - from 10 and a half stone to seven and a half - and thought it was because I'd cut down on chocolate and wine, which I love," she explains. "But then my anxiety levels shot up and I couldn't go to the shops or drive. It was horrendous. My heart was pounding off the scale and I would have died if I hadn't got into hospital in time.
"I was diagnosed with an overactive thyroid and the consultant said I had a 5% chance of fully recovering. I was in denial but my muscles had wasted away. I had to change my life and stop all the heavy stress and rushing around."
Initially, Diana had put the symptoms down to the menopause.
"My periods stopped on my 50th birthday and apart from the very odd hot flush, I had had no problems at all with it, but when I started to feel awful, I thought this is it. It wasn't - but when you turn 50 everything really does begin to change. You get much more aware of how you look to others. I never thought about it before and I've always kept fit, but you do start to notice wrinkles," she says.
"And Camilla Parker Bowles was right when she said that middle-age spread in women is nature's way of protecting against osteoporosis, which her mother suffered from. It's not good to be skinny - it's hard on your bones. Mine take a battering through tennis but it is great exercise. Despite that, it is harder to keep the weight off. I like a glass of wine and nibbles, then I feel guilty about the calories."
As a result of her illness, Diana had to end her ladies tennis mornings, in which she coached and enjoyed coffee and chat afterwards with "the ladies-who-lunch", as she describes her former students. It was these well-heeled women who gave Diana the inspiration for Fifty Fifty, which she wrote in one year while she had the builders in to do work on her house.
"I got a great insight into their lives and got the chance to write when we were getting a new kitchen and extension built - I would have gone mad with nothing to do for a year while I recovered. I locked myself upstairs and just got stuck in. I'd written a book before about a voyeuristic postman but, looking back, it wasn't good enough.
"English was actually my worst subject at school - I hated writing essays but I always read. I'm better at writing at this age, with more life experience under my belt, and I absolutely love it. I don't know how these 20-year-old novelists do it but I love all those new thriller writers, like Gillian Flynn, who wrote Gone Girl."
The 500 words a day Diana managed for Fifty Fifty has increased to 1,000 for the sequel, Sixty Forty, which she hopes to publish next year. In the meantime she's on the publicity circuit for her debut, which popular online parenting forum Mumsnet have described as "a great summer read, pick up and put down for all mums around mid-life crisis point! Hilarious". The actresses Caroline Quentin (Men Behaving Badly) or Lesley Sharpe (Scott & Bailey) would be her choice if the novel were to be dramatised for TV - although that's a tall order without an agent to approach the television companies.
"I decided to self-publish and market it myself without an agent - they're inundated with five or six manuscripts a week," she concludes. "Everybody's writing! And there is such a quick turnaround in books these days, if you don't make your money in the first few weeks you won't make any."
With that in mind, Diana will be flying back to Belfast next weekend to sign copies of her book at the city's branch of Waterstones.
"Waterstones say I have found a niche market and they've given me brilliant advice on how to get the book out there," says Diana. "They threw a wonderful launch event for me over here and they're doing this one for me in Belfast now, so all your readers are invited, of course!"
- Diana Wilkinson will be signing copies of her novel Fifty Fifty at Waterstones, 44 Fountain Street, Belfast on Saturday, November 22, at 2pm
Diane on growing up in Belfast, 1969-74
“Home life was very different to how it is today. We lived in our father’s old family home and my mother typified the Irish mother of that time.
Without the luxury of washing machines, central heating, dishwashers or vacuum cleaners, I remember my mother daily screaming her frustrations at the mountains of work. I think going out to teach helped her escape what she felt had become a life of drudgery.
Looking back, things were very primitive. My father would carry a large iron bath into the breakfast room and put it in front of the fire, and we all took turns to bathe in it!
I remember our first television: a small boxed screen with three channels, until Countdown finally heralded the much-awaited Channel Four. Who can forget Doctor Who and the Daleks or the Crossroads motel? We didn’t really watch much TV, though, and I remember escaping to my bedroom every evening to listen to the radio, read comics and do my homework.
I don’t think we realised just how much the Troubles affected us. I just recall the boredom of my teenage years being peppered with daydreams of brighter lights and greater activity. The weekend discos at out-of-town pubs and hotels provided a frenzy of excitement.
There didn’t seem to be anything in between. There were no casual after-school trips into Belfast for drinks or hot chocolate on weekdays.
Summer holidays were full of meaning for me as I travelled all round the province playing in tennis tournaments. I remember taking two buses and walking a mile or two to compete in out-of-town events. As my mother and father both worked, I had to be extremely self-motivated and self-reliant to succeed, and, along with my sister, we soon learned our way around Belfast.”.