1. What is the most frightening (or bravest) thing you have ever done?
I was, at the time, a professional singer and my London agent had introduced me to Tommy, who was looking for an assistant who could also sing. The job required a considerable amount of energy and fitness, not to mention good co-ordination. Don’t ask. I can’t tell you. I took the Magic Circle oath. Just take my word for it. There was a lot of leaping involved.
But the most worrying thing was that one of the tricks involved placing Tommy in a full-size guillotine and dropping the blade. Of course, he assured me, he would have escaped from the stocks before the blade fell. Unfortunately, I was unable to prove this to my own satisfaction, since the rehearsal hall did not have a high enough ceiling to allow us to erect the bloody thing.
On the night of my first appearance as The Lovely Tanya, having demonstrated that the guillotine worked by chopping a cabbage in half, I locked Tommy in the stocks, handcuffed him for good measure, pulled the curtain round the front to screen him from the audience, held the rope, counted down thirty seconds and … let go!
There was a sickening thud. Then… nothing. I stood, facing the audience, afraid to look down at the pool of blood I knew would be seeping out from under the curtain. The audience, catching my terror, waited in utter silence. You could have heard a pin drop.
Then, an unconscionably long time later, the curtain was swept aside and Tommy bounced forward, smiling and saying, without moving his lips, “Got you there, didn’t I?” Maintaining my own radiant smile, I answered between clenched teeth, “You bastard!”
2. What sort of family do you come from? Tell us about an interesting ancestor.
My father’s family comes from a small factory town in Yorkshire and my grandmother, a matriarch of the highest order, ruled us all with a rod of iron. She lived in a one-up, one-down rented house in the centre of the town with no electricity and no indoor lavatory. But that’s another story. The point is, we all loved and feared her. We thought she was the very height of respectability.
It was not until after her death, many years after, that I discovered she had not been all she seemed. I should have explained that my grandmother had a market stall selling children’s toys and second-hand clothes and her house backed onto the old woollen mill. During the war, this mill was almost exclusively producing dark grey cloth.
Now, my grandmother had a friend who worked in the mill. He was a very tall, thin man and he had a very large overcoat. Legend has it that he used to smuggle bolts of cloth out of the mill by wrapping them around his body, putting on his overcoat and strolling out of the gates. My grandmother would then hide the cloth under the mattress of her marital bed, to be sold ‘under the counter’ on her market stall.
“I’m not kidding, Jennifer,” said my Uncle Tony, as he told me this tale. “Every bugger in Heckmondwike had a dark grey suit.”
There is a sequel to this tale. My grandfather, who really was respectable, discovered the stash of cloth one night when the mattress had risen so high that he had difficulty getting into bed. He put a stop to my grandmother’s nefarious activities immediately. But in the meantime my grandmother had made a thousand pounds – a considerable sum of money in those days.
When she died, she still had the thousand pounds. “What a shame,” said the solicitor. “She could have spent that money. She could have bought a nice little bungalow.”
“My mother didn’t want a nice little bungalow,” said my Auntie Barbara. “She loved living where she did, in the middle of the town where everyone came to visit her. And she spent that thousand pounds over and over again. She lent every one of us the deposit to buy our own house. She enjoyed every penny.”
I suppose there’s a moral there, but I’m buggered if I know what it is.
3. How do you imagine life after death?
I think it’s highly unlikely that there is such a thing, but the idea that appeals to me most is that of Terry Pratchett. Everyone gets what they’re expecting. The Buddhist is reborn, the Christian goes to Heaven (or the other place), the Muslim is given an inexhaustible supply of virgins and so on.
Personally, although not a Buddhist, I favour reincarnation. I hate the thought of just going out completely. But, on the whole, I’d rather not die at all. I’m with Maurice Chevalier who, when asked how he felt about growing old, replied, ‘old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.’
4. Apart from your parents, who was the most important person in your childhood?
Between the ages of eight and eleven, I went to Royal Oak school in Wythenshawe and I had the most incredible teacher, Mr Alan Dale. Hard to forget his name, as it is almost identical to that of one of Robin Hood’s merry men. He was young and very handsome and I secretly hoped that he would wait for me to grow up so I could marry him. I was devastated to discover he was not only already married but had two children!
But that’s not the point. The point is he was the most charismatic teacher you can imagine. The curriculum was not so strict in those days and he used to have optional lessons in which he could reward or punish us for our recent behaviour. I don’t remember him ever punishing us. Perhaps we were always perfectly well-behaved.
Mr Dale’s optional lessons were to die for. He would get us all to write a play, then we would have a competition to choose the best one and we’d do it as a radio play, deciding how to do the sound effects, etc.
He taught us to play chess in one lesson. In another he told us fascinating historical facts. Years later I impressed another teacher by being able to tell him how Jennings invented the small-pox vaccine and how they discovered that cholera was water-borne.
And he persuaded me to write a book. I never finished it, sadly. I wish I had now. It was supposed to be for the school, to remember me after I left.
I loved Mr Dale. He will have retired many years ago. If he is still alive he is will be at least in his late seventies.
I wonder how many people today are writing books and plays, playing chess and teaching history because Mr Dale made them find the magic in themselves.
You never know, Jenny – Mr Dale might be one of those silver surfers, using his retirement to find things on the internet. So just in case he’s reading this, tell him – and everyone else – a little about your latest book, All in The Mind, which you have finished. It’s about old age, I believe, isn’t it?
Yes, that’s right. It’s about a lady called Tilly. who wakes up in the dark, alone and very frightened. She finds she is in a strange room inexplicably furnished in 1940s style. However did she get here? Has she somehow slipped into the past? Has she been kidnapped? Of one thing she is absolutely certain, she has never seen this place in her life before.
So what is the theme of this book?
All in the Mind is a story about the human capacity to overcome any obstacle, no matter how great, as long as you believe you can. It deals with the dilemmas posed by new developments in a society whose culture is geared to the idea that the natural span of a human life is three-score years and ten.
So without giving too much away, what actually happens in the book?
Tilly is part of an experiment working on a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. She and most of the other patients taking part in the experiment seem to make a full recovery, but there is a strange side effect.
Tilly and her fellow experimental subjects appear to be getting younger.
So Tilly wonders if the same experiment be repeated for her beloved husband so that he can recover from a stroke? Tilly thinks it can and she will move heaven and earth to make sure it happens.
Tilly was dreaming.
It was VE Day and they were dancing in the streets. All the lights were lit. She kept looking at them, not quite believing it.
She was dancing with Johnny, her head against his chest, exhilarated by his closeness and the knowledge that the war was over.
It was so real, the dream. She could feel the rough fabric of his greatcoat against her cheek, smell its particular aroma of damp wool and tobacco.
She felt the dream slipping away and tried to hold on to it, but it escaped her grasp and shifted seamlessly into memory.
They had danced late into the night. Long after the gates to the nurses’ home were locked. Eventually, exhausted and intoxicated with the euphoria of the crowd, they had walked back to the nurses’ home and he had given her a leg up to climb the wall.
And as she sat at the top of the wall, one leg on each side, getting ready to swing over to the other side, he had grasped her by the ankle and said, “Will you marry me, Tilly? As soon as I’m demobbed.”
She looked down at his face, illuminated by the one street lamp in the lane, one lock of hair hanging over his forehead, his expression earnest and pleading.
She said the first thing that came into her head. “You’re supposed to get down on one knee.”
“OK,” he said, with a grin, and dropped down on one knee. Did he know? Did he know then what her answer would be?
“Tilly”… he began in a loud, theatrical voice.
“No, get up,” she whispered urgently. “Someone might hear.”
“Who cares? What are they going to do – sack you?”
She smiled back at him in the lamplight. “You fool!”
And she pulled her leg out of his grasp and dropped gracefully down to the grass on the other side.
“Well?” His head appeared over the top of the wall. “Will you?”
“Yes,” she whispered back to him. Then she picked up the skirts of her uniform and ran across the lawn towards the darkened building.
As she ran, she heard someone whistling the Wedding March, the sound fading as he reached the end of the lane and turned into the street.
It sounds fascinating, Jenny. If this book is anything like Domingo’s Angel, which I loved, it will be a really good read. I wish you all the best with it. Thank you very much for being the very first interviewee on Tim’s Curious Questions!
Jenny Twist was born in York, in north-east England, and brought up in the West Yorkshire mill town of Heckmondwike, the eldest grandchild of a huge extended family.
She left school at fifteen and went to work in an asbestos factory. After working in various jobs, including bacon-packer and escapologist’s assistant, she returned to full-time education and did a BA in history at Manchester and post-graduate studies at Oxford.
She stayed in Oxford working as a recruitment consultant for many years and it was there that she met and married her husband, Vic.
In 2001 they retired and moved to Southern Spain where they live with their rather eccentric dog and cat
Her first book, Take One At Bedtime, was published in April 2011 and the second, Domingo’s Angel, was published in July 2011. Her novella, Doppelganger, was published in the anthology Curious Hearts in July 2011. Uncle Vernon was published in Spellbound, in November 2011. Jamey and the Alien and Uncle Albert’s Christmas were published in Warm Christmas Wishes in December 2011. Mantequero was published in the anthology Winter Wonders in December 2011 and Away With the Fairies, her first self-published story, in September 2012.
Her new anthology, with Tara Fox Hall, Bedtime Shadows, a collection of spooky, speculative and romance stories, was published 24th September 2012.
Her new novel, All in the Mind, about an old woman who mysteriously begins to get younger, was published 29th October 2012.