Jenny Eclair has that rare knack of being able to make people laugh without uttering a single word. Just watching her haul herself on stage at the British Library had us falling about with laughter. “I can barely walk”, Jenny (unnecessarily) informed us. “I did a ballet class on Friday that fucked me completely. I’m 59 and I think I’m Darcey Bussell!”
Having lowered herself, tentatively, on to a waiting armchair, Jenny continued, “I only joined a gym because of this book I’m here to talk to you about, ‘Inheritance’. Writing is very bad for your health. I finished writing the book in July last year, at which point I’d been welded to a chair for ten months in Camberwell.”
Grimacing, Eclair continued “By then, I was sure I’d got DVT. I finished the book and thought: what am I going to do now? So, I went to a gym for tests and they told me that I have the upper body of a 54 year old, which is fine. It turns out that typing equals cardio!”
To appreciative cheers from the audience, everybody’s favourite comedienne concluded “They weren’t so positive about my lower half, which apparently resembles a 74 year old woman’s. Mind you, I am a shambles from the waist down – as you’ll know if you’ve seen my Vagisil ad!”
Cue much laugher from a predominantly female audience. In case you’re wondering why Jenny was willing to endorse said product, she was ready with an explanation: “When I was asked, my initial thought was: do I really want to be the face of vaginal dryness? And then they told me how much they were prepared to pay me! Thanks to Vagisil, I now have a pension. And, I’m officially the first woman to have uttered the words “vaginal dryness” on TV. My work here is done!”
It’s hard to disagree with that. But how and why did Jenny Eclair make the transition from stand-up comedy to novelist and author of five books? “A lot of comedians write”, she told us, “but the only ones who’ve made any money from it are David Walliams and David Baddiel. I only became an author because David Baddiel and I share the same agent.”
Whether or not that’s true, Eclair is clearly passionate about her chosen second career, all the more so because she “…didn’t do well at school. I was too lazy and too noisy. Just as well those qualities suit writing and comedy!”
Take the above with a pinch of salt: Eclair is clearly highly intelligent and I’m not sure I believe her claim that she only qualified for grammar school by copying the exam paper of the girl seated in front of her.
Eclair’s first novel, ‘Camberwell Beauty’ was, funnily enough, set in Camberwell – where Jenny still lives: “I’m a big South London girl. All my books are set in places I know. I used to live in a pink house in Camberwell, which featured in the title sequence of Dempsey and Makepeace! Florence, from Florence and the Machine, lives there now. But I burned the house down in my book!”
Houses, it transpires, are a source of fascination for Eclair, who was brought up as “…an army child: a weird thing, as we lived abroad a lot, always in army houses. Which are inevitably very uniform: pebble-dashed, semi-detached with regulation army furniture. Every army house looks the same.”
Reminiscing, Eclair continued: “When my dad left the army, I began mixing with friends who lived in all sorts of houses. Since then, I’ve been obsessed with people’s homes. I’m very knowledgeable about soft furnishings!”
Families, as well as homes, intrigue Eclair. Not because of any personal demons – in fact, the reverse is true: “I am very secure with my family and had parents who were very loving towards each other and their three children. Only once did I ever hear my parents row – and that was over a lack of scotch eggs in my father’s packed lunches!”
Eclair’s father is no longer with us, but her mother is alive and well, albeit in her 90s, and Jenny had us in stitches as she described the “iPad masterclasses” that she delivers over the ‘phone to her long-suffering, and technology-resistant, mother.
We were equally amused by her musings on her forthcoming 60th birthday, and how to celebrate it. “It’s a bone of contention”, Eclair began. “My friend Judith, who I do the ‘Older and Wider’ podcast with, has a proper life – with an Aga. Whereas I live in Camberwell. Judith had a fancy dress party in a village hall for her 60th, whereas I suspect that, for mine, it’ll be me with a helium balloon and a can of Tennent’s on a park bench. What I want to do is run away to Japan, but my partner doesn’t like sushi – so we’re not on speaking terms!”
Turning 60 isn’t all bad, though, with the woman who describes herself as “Boris Johnson in drag” again reducing us to fits of giggles with her glee over her forthcoming Freedom Pass: “I’m going all the way to Penge!” If you weren’t brought up in South London, that will mean nothing to you, but I grew up just down the road from said town and her humour totally resonated with me.
This talk was interspersed with readings from ‘Inheritance’, which my lovely manager David got me for Christmas. I’m only a few chapters in, but am engrossed. So often, in literature, women become invisible at around the age of 34. This protagonist, however, is Jenny’s “Middle-aged everywoman. She’s in her 50s, and she’s great. She’s me, really!” Bel lives in Clapham, in a house with too many coats – and can’t let go of her sons; even though they’re in their 20s, she’s clinging on to the time when they still needed her.
Needless to say, there’s a mystery involved, too – but I’d be giving the game away if I revealed too much. Instead, I’ll urge you to seek out Jenny Eclair’s writing for yourself and enjoy its warmth, depth – and wit.