When celebrities destroy your house and cut through your bedroom door with a carving knife saying, “I miss you.”

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January 1999

My mother had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s some years earlier which didn’t stop her pointing her fingers very firmly at me. The shaking had got worse and my mother decided she was going to intervene before she became unable to reprimand me. The operation that was recommended by the doctors was having an electrode implanted into her brain to control the shaking. But the electrode would have involved my mother either moving to the United States, as the implant needed to be monitored every two weeks, or constantly travelling to the US. Determined to stay in Jamaica, with the favourite part of her family (ie not me) she decided she would instead have a partial lobotomy. This was a much riskier operation to remove part of her brain to control the shaking.

As my mother’s shaking worsened and the operation approached, I suddenly became obsessed with building a house in Notting Hill. I was living in Maida Vale but all my friends were in Notting Hill, it was 1999 and the epicentre of cool. I spent hours on the phone to my mother begging her for the money to build the house. She kept saying, “why don’t you wait till I die?” which wouldn’t have worked as by then she’d given it all away. It was like pulling teeth from an un-sedated (and peckish) polar bear trying to get the money out of my mother. This was galling as she threw money, quite indiscriminately, at her family in Jamaica. When I said my mother had given me some of the money to buy my first flat, I did somewhat gloss over the difficulty of this. We saw several flats but just as we were about to make make an offer, I would leave a glass on the table and my mother would withdraw from the flat, saying I would “turn it into a slum.” This left me wandering around, without a settled home, for years.

Eventually, in the spring of 1999, I persuaded her to give me one of her flats in Maida Vale. I sold my flat in Maida Vale, for a considerable profit and moved into lodgings in Notting Hill to find a new home. Alas the lodgings didn’t last for long because of my mess and because the landlady, very strangely, slept in the bathroom and would have a fit if you went in there at night for a wee. I was clearly still attracted to nutcases and freaks. I moved in with my cousin, Miranda, in Ladbroke Grove, still obsessed with building a house. She was used to the mess so didn’t complain.

After some searching, I found a derelict garage in an idyllic mews on the lower slopes of Notting Hill, as it slid down towards Ladbroke Grove. Rejected by squatters for decades, its only inhabitants had been a squadron of squiffy pigeons, (Imodium is obviously unknown in the pigeon world). Luckily the pigeons had been removed before I saw the house. But the pigeons have had the last laugh. In 2015 they’re all back there now. Despite the holes in the roof, rotting floors and smashed windows, (“an opportunity to put your stamp on the place” the agent said), the price tag was a hefty four hundred thousand pounds. The London property market was just beginning a massive boom, which lasted until 2008. This came after it had been stuck in the doldrums of recession for over a decade following the late 80’s early 90’s housing crash, with its interest rates of 15% and tsunami of repossessions. The half a million pound garage did have permission to demolish and build a house. But I didn’t actually like the design of the Dadaist greenhouse it had permission to build. It had a glass roof in the main bedroom, which made it far too visible from the higher houses behind. I decided this would interfere with my sex life and that the house needed to be redesigned.

I set about trying to find an architect to revise the plans for the house. I saw a stunning custom made glass staircase pictured in a magazine. I contacted the architect and commissioned her to do a re-design.  One of the things I didn’t like about the design of the proposed house was the lack of windows at the back. This made it poky and dark, like a dwarf’s boudoir in Lord of the Rings. I visited the planning officer at Kensington Council to see if it could be changed. The planning officer said the council would welcome the redesign of the house, which it thought was a bit of a modernist eyesore, and wanted more “traditional” mews features, such as stable doors and hay. I said I (unfortunately) didn’t have a horse but would try to work some bales of hay into the design.

I visited the neighbours to check whether the redesign of the house would be acceptable. The Croatian neighbour, Mrs Milosevic, (“No relation! No relation!” she screamed loudly upon introduction), was opposed to the new design. She said the windows at the back would invade the privacy of her garden – a six foot high tangle of weeds – and a poodle nail clipping service on the first floor. Luckily she’d decided to sell her house and the new neighbours didn’t mind.

In the summer, as my mother’s operation approached, I became more and more obsessed with buying the house, not realising that I was wanting to create a nest as my mother was falling apart. The British obsession with buying property has been described as an “Edifice Complex.” And I had one so huge I would have needed to clone Sigmund Freud and move him into my bedroom to sort it out. When I actually went to Canada to accompany my mother for the operation, I was on the phone to the estate agent and solicitor 20 hours a day. My family thought this was awful, evidence that I was selfish as my mother said. But the reality was I couldn’t cope with the fact that my mother might die in the operation and was using the house to distract myself. After all the abuse I’d suffered from my mother as a child, my feelings about her illness and possible death were complex to say the least.

Back in London, I took the biggest risk of my financial life. I was unable to get a mortgage on the flat my mother had given me in Maida Vale, so exchanged contracts on the garage in Notting Hill without the funds to complete. I would get the money somehow, I thought. I also didn’t have planning for a structure I actually liked, the peeping Tom roofed oddity that had permission was not my cup of tea. My mortgage adviser asked me, “what is your attitude to financial risk?” I said I was cautious, he said I was, “as buccaneering as the Pirates of Penzance.” The only way I got through that month, before I finally did get another mortgage, was by necking Valium which I persuaded myself was a new kind of vitamin. But I was buying my dream home, that I would live in for the rest of my life, or so I thought. My obsession with the house was causing problems with my cousin who politely asked me to leave. I moved into the derelict garage in August 1999 causing the estate agent to fall off his chair when I told him. The place was still covered in pigeon shit.

The great attraction was the location – a quiet, charming, peaceful, little backwater. Or so I thought..

I was not the only new girl on the block. A few doors down the street, TV presenter, Paula Yates, ex- wife of Bob Geldof and partner of dead rock star Michael Hutchence had set up home. The house’s framboise walls were filled with fairy lights, exotic drapes and substances. But bereavement had taken a bitter toll on Paula. Soon after arriving at the house, she purchased absolutely too much Absolut in the local Lost Your License. While walking down the street she strayed from a straight line, or even stumbled. Her three daughters with Bob Geldof, the curiously named, Fifi Trixabelle, Peaches and Pixie, went straight back to his house.

Within hours, sinister looking snapperazzi swarmed into the street, parking outside my house all night and day. This made moving all my carefully selected ethnic artefacts into my new house quite difficult. I say “house” because – as they say – an Englishman’s hovel is his castle. And just because I was living in a slum didn’t mean I couldn’t have chic accessories.

But I had very little money and had taken on a massive project I couldn’t really afford. My friends thought I was mad, had taken on too much, and did keep pointing out that I was living in a garage encrusted with pigeon shit. One room, particularly thickly pooed, I optimistically re-christened “the principal guest bedroom.” I promptly announced I wanted to rent it to a lodger, to raise money for the building works. “A LODGER!” exclaimed my horrified friends. “But even the pigeons have left.” “Nonsense,” I said, “all it needs is a clean and a good coat of paint.” And so it was. With electricity and water restored (and a Biological Warfare team to remove the pigeon shit) the place acquired a distinctly bohemian air. The wording of the advert for the room (in London Property Bible Loot) required some care. “You have to say it’s a Squat,” insisted the Friends. “A Squat?” I said. “That’s unfair! I’ve been to far better Squats than this!” The phrase I selected, amid gasps from astonished Friends, was “requiring some decoration.” I also said the house had “a low carbon footprint” ie no central heating.

At 6am in the morning the ad came out the mobile began to jerk in a frenzied fashion. (The room, after all, was cheap and in one of London’s Most Fashionable Zones). “Wearily, I answered.

“Vloom you adletize in Root it flee?”

“No,” I said, “it’s gone.” The same applied to students, vegans and cheapskates who wanted to share the room with a spouse.

After five thousand frenzied calls, I’d selected a crowd to visit the house that night. Returning from work at 3 – I was surprised to see a gaggle of early Looters hovering outside the house. “The room,” I said, “is not ready.” The bed was still in the garage. A suspicious trickle of water was pouring from the roof. “Nonsense!” they cried, “it’s perfect! When can we move in?” Clearly location not sanitation was key in their quest.

An Evil Plan was forming in my head. “Not all of you can move in,” I said sweetly. “But there is the space downstairs?”   “The Garage?” a Looter asked. “I wouldn’t call it that,” I said. We trooped downstairs.

“The Car repair pit,” one sputtered, “it’s still here!” “Very useful,” I trilled, “for a sunken bed or bath.” “I’LL TAKE IT!” yelled one and that was that. I was a proper slum landlord, my only saving grace that I was living in the slum.

Despite a large hole in its roof, there was fierce competition for the room upstairs, which eventually went to sealed bids. The winner was a pretty young actress, unemployed of course, who was working in a local bar. In the garage I had the executive producer of TV show, Film 2000. Why on earth would he move in? Well the garage was dark enough to look like a derelict cinema.

The Matrix had been released, arguing that reality was an artificial construct created by machines. I decided to take this on board and mentally transformed the derelict garage into a 7 bedroom mansion with a swimming pool and off street parking for my 5 imaginary cars. The news was full of stories about the Millenium Bug. Businesses were (quite pointlessly as it turned out) spending billions preparing their computer systems for possible collapse. Luckily my garage, where all the fixtures and fittings were already vintage in 1922, was completely immune to the problems that beset the more high tech world.

As the end of 1999 approached something changed – dramatically – which shook our entire world. Not the dawning of a New Millennium – as this was no surprise. Dwarfing this, my flat mate scored a leading part in a TV soap. Her face was on the cover of every TV magazine and her wages shot up to £2,000 pounds an hour. Amazingly, she said she wanted to stay in my “house” saying the rain falling onto her bed was “quite refreshing at night.” Sack loads of fan mail – some clearly from the clinically insane – turned up at the house and were read in disparaging tones. She said she was too famous to walk down the street and started catching a cab to Tesco – at the end of the Road. Requests for washing up were dismissed with the phrase: “please email my PA.”

Celebrity hangers-on, with nasty habits, started to frequent the house and turned my perfectly respectable slum into something really squalid. Cigarettes were stubbed out into rotting plates of food and cocaine was firmly back on my menu. Unfortunately I was sleeping in the sitting room where the cocaine sessions took place.

I made a flimsy MDF wall to enclose my bed with a door held shut with electrical cable. My flat mate said this made her “feel excluded.” So, quite understandably, she chopped through the cable with a carving knife and burst into my bedroom one night, borrowing my cocaine. She must have had a toothache as the pharmacy was closed. I did enjoy the celebrity parties though, where I went wild dirty dancing with a 10 foot inflatable bottle of Banana Schnapps.

But, at home, another thing was happening that was very strange indeed. My flatmate seemed to agree with everything I said and appeared to be just like me. She later said she was acting and “mirroring” everything I did to make me like her more. But, duped by this, I decided we were soul mates and “meant to be together.” I was falling in love with her. I was devastated when she said, just like Alex, that I was too short and that she liked tall women instead. And even more upset when she went off with the other lodger who was living in the cave downstairs. Rejected and excluded in my own home, I asked them to move out, saying building works were imminent, (although they weren’t).

In fact the tenders for the building project had come in massively over my budget, forcing the axing of the glass staircase and glass ceiling in the hall as well as the, less obviously useful, glass toilet and glass dishwasher. When the revised plans arrived, (sadly denuded of glass), I was surprised to see the French doors in the sitting room four foot above the ground. The architect recommended a flight of stairs taking up half of the room. I vetoed the stairs and said the plans had to be redesigned. But I still needed more money, and had a few ideas. I was desperate to have an ocelot and could start a breeding programme creating mini ocelots in the garage downstairs. Upon investigation, Harrods pet department had no ocelots, so I would have to try to beg my mother for more.              Sign up for updates on this blog

My mother had nearly ruined the Christmas of 1999 for me, saying as, I was preparing to go to Jamaica to visit her, that “there was no point my coming” as she “wanted some space.” The 5,000 miles between us were obviously cramping her style; she hinted our relationship would be better if I moved to Japan. I stopped speaking to her for weeks but then, after pressure from my Jamaican family, resumed contact again and booked the flight to see her. My family in Jamaica always excused my mother’s mad behaviour. For example, my mother had put all her property assets in London in her cousin-in-law’s name in an effort to avoid inheritance tax which I wouldn’t have been liable for anyway. I said this meant she didn’t legally own the flats but she dismissed my concerns. Instead she forced me to change my will, which she dictated to the solicitor, as she said now the flat in Maida Vale had been transferred into my name, if I died and it went to my father she would have a coronary. In the new will everything was left to her. Of course when I got to Jamaica, at Christmas, the first thing she said was “go and stay in a hotel.”

It was in the next year, 2000, that a disaster happened in my life. My mother had a massive stroke, possibly connected to the lobotomy. She had to go to a stroke rehab centre in Florida in the summer and I went with her to keep her company. But my feelings towards my mother were confused because of her abuse. She said I was selfish and uncaring because I didn’t visit the stroke treatment centre once. But I just couldn’t handle what was happening to her. To fly in like Florence Nightingale and want to look after her just wasn’t going to happen after the way she’d behaved. She had never really looked after me.

In Florida I had another accident in my attempts to “improve” my appearance. I wanted to grow my hair and had discovered Minoxidil maximum strength for balding men, aka “Amazon Head.” This said “do not use if you are a woman,” on the packet, “may grow facial hair,” but despite this I poured most of a bottle on my head. Suddenly my heart started racing and I turned purple in the face. If I’d checked on the packet I’d have seen that Minoxidil was a heart medication and that an overdose can cause heart attack. I was too embarrassed to go to A and E saying “I’ve overdosed on “Amazon Head.”” So I, perhaps dangerously, waited for the symptoms to go away. After my face returned to normal, I decided no more throwing funny chemicals at my scalp. This resolution lasted until I returned to England and the memory of the near heart attack had faded to (just another) beauty legend. This problem of my hair not growing, because it was Afro and would only get to a certain length, had beset me since I was a child. I hated going to the hairdresser to have it cut and dreamt of long flowing blonde locks like Rapunzel. But no matter how much I prayed, waist length hair was as much of a fantasy as winning the Oscar for best actress. I say fantasy, despite not doing any acting, I had already written the speech.

I returned to London and the building works began on September 9th 2000. As the demolition team went in and the house practically fell down on its own, the builders remarked they were surprised we hadn’t fallen through the rotten floors. The immersion heater exploded as the house came down.

When all that was left of my house was a hole, I was surprised to see a picture of my scaffolding headlining the one o clock news. I rushed to the house to find the street swarming with camera crews but not, alas, with builders whose legality was tenuous and had all disappeared. Paula Yates had died of a heroin overdose. I looked bleakly at the hole that used to be my home, wondering when the builders will be back. The BBC was hassling me to get an interview with Paula Yates nanny but she’d flown to Outer Mongolia to avoid the press.

Eventually the builders came back. I thought things would return to normal. Wrong… The TV footage of the idyllic mews had caught the eye of film location scouts. An endless stream of film crews hit the street, blocking it for days each month with dollies, lighting rigs and Big Star Winnebagos. The entire equipment for the films was dumped outside my house. None of my builders or materials could get in and nor could I. I complained and was given a bunch of daisies to compensate.

When the building project started, I had moved out to a friend’s flat in Shepherds Bush conveniently close to the BBC. Although, since I’d developed the obsession with the house, my focus on work had deteriorated rapidly. My room in the flat in Shepherds Bush was too messy to be called a pigsty, (as a pig would have complained) with clothes all over the floor and samples of wood and stone flooring from the house in my bed. I needed to get close to the materials I thought. When I unexpectedly pulled an eligible barrister, he took one look at the room and said “you’ve got slabs of stone in your bed, it looks uncomfortable, perhaps I’d better leave.” He refused to give me his phone number saying it would get lost in the mess. So I took up with another bod at the BBC who said (after I’d puked on the floor) that there “must be something wrong with me,” because of the way I behaved on drink. I still didn’t realise I had a problem with alcohol.

Late in 2000, I went out one night to Shoreditch in East London with Susanna. I got completely shit faced drinking double vodkas and pulled an attractive artist, so said to Susanna I wasn’t going home, or not with her at least. By the end of the night, I wasn’t going anywhere, as I was falling on the floor and crawling around. He took my back to his flat, where I got lost on the way to the bathroom at night and weed in my handbag. Still resolutely anti casual sex I had refused to sleep with him when I was so drunk. But the next day I thought what the fuck and slept with him. After that I became totally obsessed dreaming of moving to East London to start a private zoo, and fantasising about him reading me Chinese poetry in bed. The fact that I wouldn’t understand it just made it all more Zen. The tiny problem that I hardly knew him obviously didn’t stop me at all given I had form for falling in love with men I’d never met. After a short fling he dumped me, saying he wasn’t over his ex. I was heartbroken and continued to fantasise wildly about living with him in an art co-operative/zebra hospital.

It was in the flat in Shepherd’s Bush that I had another of my disastrous attempts to “improve” my appearance. Having been told I was ugly all my life I spent considerable amounts of time trying to enhance myself. I had salicylic acid to treat my acne but instead decided that I was going to scrub my imaginary wrinkles with a toothbrush and the acid for an hour. I gave myself chemical burns that lasted a year.

At the end of 2000, running out of money, I moved in with my father, which was a total disaster as my step mother and I practically killed each other. And the bulimia, which had always been present, got completely out of control leading my father to say, “you’ve eaten everything in the fridge where do you put all that food?” The cat was no longer there to blame so I said their parrot had eaten it. It was at my father’s house that my obsession with the building project reached its crazy zenith. I was finishing work at 1am and, still fired up from my shift, would fly round to the building site to do some DIY. I was desperately short of money and had no option I thought.   I spent many nights out on the scaffolding painting and filling the front of the house at 3am, in the pitch dark, thinking it was strange that people painted in the day. I was laying floors with power tools at 4am. When my neighbours asked me to cut it out I just didn’t understand. Of course everything I did at 3am came out completely fucked and had to be done again. Meanwhile back at my father’s house, as the rows with my stepmother escalated, my father said I had to leave. I decided I’d better move into my almost completed property.

I finally moved back in when the shell of the house was finished in May 2001. I say “finished” although the builders had forgotten some minor details – like a hot water or central heating system.

As I still needed to raise some money for further works I then moved in three lodgers to the downstairs. The council had insisted that I maintain a garage in the house although I didn’t have a car or a license and had failed the test so many times that I was on the DVLA’s: “Top 10 (un)wanted drivers list.” The first lodger, sleeping in the converted garage fled after a flood came from the street under the garage door. Her replacement stopped paying the rent as works were ongoing and the carpenter had turned his bedroom into a workshop, covered in saw dust, while he was away for the weekend.

In the meantime my drinking was out of control again. After a friend’s party in which I’d fallen to the floor, (after snogging an Anthurium) I had to be carried out of a bar in Notting Hill by the entire staff. And then, although it was June, I started singing “Auld Lang Syne.” I apparently danced to “Thriller” on the pavement (perhaps it was convulsions instead) and had to be airlifted home. I woke up the next day with my trousers still on but, curiously, inside out. I panicked thinking I’d slept with someone. But when I phoned my friends they said I’d gone into the loo at the bar and emerged, rather green, with my trousers inside out. I was obviously too un-coordinated to manage a complex task like pulling my trousers down. One of my best friend’s, Imran, said “you really have a drink problem and you have to do something about it.” I said I didn’t have a drink problem I’d just been drinking on an empty stomach. It would never happen again, I swore. A portion of chips would cure my alcoholism. Another night I ended up in bed with someone from work. He asked me when I’d last had sex and, too drunk to censor myself, I said “I think it was last night but I’m not sure it went in.” He politely declined my offer of sex, thinking I was a slut, and went home instead. The reality was if I hadn’t been for alcohol I would never have had sex at all; but now it was turning me into something so far from the virgin I used to be.

The artist came back on the scene, newly interested saying I’d “gone up in the world” since I’d moved into the house in Notting Hill. Of course I got back together with him but the fantasy of living a highbrow literary lifestyle with him was dented by the fact that he couldn’t spell in texts.

Then I had a disaster with a neighbour. One night I woke up at 2am to find a strange man in my bed. Thinking it was one of the lodgers who’d made a mistake, I turned on the light to shoo him out. It wasn’t a lodger it was my neighbour who was totally pissed and lying flat out in my bed. I tried to shake him awake but he kept calling me “mummy” and saying he wasn’t going anywhere. I had to call 999 to get rid of him. I later found out one of my lodgers, who was very weird, had let him in and he’d bolted up to my room. He reacted very badly to me throwing him out starting a campaign against me and sending me hate mail written in a circle, (like a snail’s shell), saying I was “the spawn of Saddam Hussein.” Unfortunately he was a locksmith so I felt entirely unsafe as he could have broken into my house at any time. But the police weren’t helpful at all, saying that they couldn’t intervene as he might have ended up in my bed as part of Neighbourhood Watch.

My mother had been phoning me all summer begging me to come to Jamaica to spend time with her, sounding increasingly desperate and weak. So I decided to take a career break from the BBC to spend six months with her. I owed it to her, despite our difficulties, without her I would never have bought my dream property. If I hadn’t been leaving anyway I would have had to move house because of the psycho locksmith opposite. I headed off to Jamaica in October 2001, leaving the lodgers at large in the house.         Sign up for updates on this blog

Next week: doing time with my mother, misplacing the Jamaican Prime Minister and preparing for Queen Elizabeth, the Invisible Head of State.

Breaking up with Mr Right, hooking up with Mr Wrong, and getting down with the Mime Minister, Tony Funfair, at BBC News 24

BBC PICTURE 22 05 2015

Despite the chaos of the trip to Sudan, which of course I glossed over to the BBC, denying there were any cock ups but saying the circumstances were “challenging,” my documentaries went well. Apart from when I tried to do a feature for the World Tonight on Radio 4 and they told me I was too disorganised and sent me back to reporters’ nursery. But my profile as a reporter had improved, I was on my way to getting a stringer’s job (a reporter abroad for those not in the trade). I just hoped that it wouldn’t involve carting around lots of equipment which would end up in the wrong continent. Indeed I had the honour of being “banned from Sudan” because of the piece I did on the government using food as a weapon against the South. This was in addition to the (spiteful) ban from driving on UK roads by the DVLA after I’d failed my test 36 times. I settled into an attachment at the Aramaic Service, still pestered by Gogol the Gargoyle. He wasn’t troubled in the slightest by the fact that I had a boyfriend, who he thought I would edit out of the picture along with his wife.

But all was not well between Tarquin and me. I was getting younger and younger, and was practically a stem cell. And there was an upsurge in the bulimia, which seemed to have got worse since I stopped being clinically depressed. When Tarquin took me to expensive restaurants he would say it was a waste of money as, “the food only stays in you for 10 seconds before you sprint to the loo.” My behaviour became so outlandish that it was only because Tarquin was infatuated that he kept a straight face. We went to a very posh wedding in a stately home. I sneaked down to the kitchen at night and ate the top tier of the wedding cake, replacing it with a packet of salt and vinegar crisps. Of course it was all regurgitated down the loo. Despite an aversion to dogs, I developed an obsession with chewing dog biscuits and had to invent an imaginary job as a dog walker to convince the pet shop that I wasn’t running some kind of illegal dog cloning programme.   I also started sucking on frozen fish fingers, as a more diet conscious version of lollipops. And when I would try to throw food away, an hour later I would just fish it out of the bin, once chasing the dust cart when the bin men had taken it away. To save time and rapidly rid myself of calories, I started eating over the loo, and became so comfortable doing this, I moved the TV in there.

Crazy cravings weren’t my only concern. Unfortunately, though living with Tarquin, my unrequited feelings for Alex, my friend from Oxford, started to rear their ugly head. I suddenly decided I was “in love” with Alex again. I told Tarquin but he loved me so much he swore he would stay with me. I cut Alex off, saying we could no longer be friends, at first without explanation but then saying I was in love with him. He was still not interested in me. Despite this I started fantasising about marrying Alex, which was only marginally more sane than my fantasies about the Sudanese rebel leader, John Garang. At least I’d got over that ludicrous idea a few months after getting back from Sudan.

For the first time in my life, I voted in the general elections of May 1997, of course choosing New Labour star Tony Blair. I had absolutely no idea what was in Labour’s election manifesto, they could have said they were sorting the UK’s housing crisis by colonising the moon, but I thought Blair was an exciting new leader and wanted a change after 18 years of Tory rule. Everyone I knew, apart from my family who threatened to withdraw to a nuclear bunker if Labour got in, voted for Tony Blair and Labour were elected by a landslide. The whole country, apart from my family who thought voting Conservative was as essential as going to the loo, was sick of the Conservatives following a series of political scandals, squabbling over Europe and the events of Black Wednesday in 1992 when the pound crashed ignominiously out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism.

Oblivious to the seismic change in the political landscape, Susanna and her boyfriend from Madrid came to stay. This caused massive contention with Tarquin, as he’d told me he didn’t want me doing drugs with Susanna on my own. He clearly didn’t quite trust me to keep my knickers on. Despite this, Susanna and I went out getting off our heads on magic mushrooms in the local garage, which we thought was a spaceship docking on Mars. When we went into a bar where everyone looked gigantically tall with elongated heads, we thought we were on a reality TV show with the inhabitants of Zog. This is why I’ve spent all that money on therapy, I thought, to un-disturb my mind so that acid actually works. But fearing the gigantic size of all the alien penises around me, my sex drive remained on earth.

On the 31st of August 1997, Tarquin and I had been out clubbing, as usual strictly observing the Ecstasy Eating Plan ie handfuls of pills and no food at all. He woke me up the next morning, very sombre, saying I should know that Princess Diana had died. Funereal music was playing on Kiss FM and all the dance music stations – most of the country was in shock and mourning. Because of Diana’s bulimia and mental health problems, I identified with her and was profoundly affected by her death, feeling the only member of the Royal Family I had any affinity with had gone. Tarquin and I, who stood on Kensington High Street watching Diana’s coffin move slowly from Kensington Palace to Westminster Abbey were amongst the three million mourners on the streets of London that day. It was the height of our connection and love. As I stood in the crowd next to Tarquin, I thought, this is exactly what I want with my life. Alex was boring, he didn’t do drugs anymore. With Tarquin I could be myself which, by then, meant taking drugs.

But when I was alone with Tarquin, everything changed. I was like a different person, very abusive, screaming at him when he didn’t do what I wanted and telling him I’d only fancy him if he had plastic surgery. He loved me so much he almost went ahead with this disastrous plan. Thank God he didn’t. He stopped dropping me at work, which he’d done every day, as I kept shrieking it was his fault every time a traffic light went red. One time he popped into my bedroom to tell me he loved me as he was going on a skiing trip on his own. I left 25 abusive messages on his mobile shouting that he’d woken me up. I denounced his un-glamorous Audi saloon, saying it was too tacky for me to drive around in and forced him to buy a Mercedes convertible instead. At first he was heartbroken by this behaviour but later, as he detached, he would just laugh at me. I didn’t understand what I was doing at the time. But now think, that as I felt safe with him, I was taking out my unexpressed anger towards my parents on him. And I was too naïve to realise I didn’t fancy him and felt trapped by the relationship like a hummingbird in a bird eating spider’s web.

Tarquin had told me he would “never love another girl as much as me.” But despite this, as the screaming continued, he started to pull away. When we went on holiday with his friends they all asked what was wrong as we kept pretending to forget each other’s names. We had a “break,” always a presage of doom, and it was then that I realised the perils of ecstasy. I had gone out clubbing on my own with his friends and, off my head on ecstasy, said to Tarquin’s best friend: “well if it doesn’t work out with Tarquin, what about you and me?” I then tried to snog his ear. “I could never do that to Tarquin,” he nobly said, although I later found out he fancied the pants off me.

This led to months of embarrassment for me, having to apologize and backtrack furiously. I started to wonder whether the desire to confess all your darkest secrets on ecstasy was actually a good idea. At a later date, after revealing my soul to someone I’d met at a party who announced I was a “freak,” I decided it wasn’t and that ecstasy wasn’t for me.

Eventually Tarquin said he couldn’t go out with me anymore. Although my feelings for him were confused, I was devastated. He had wanted to marry me and have kids although I had no real idea what that meant. I spent hours on the phone to him crying from the Aramaic service at work, barely able to write at all. Even Gogol the Gargoyle temporarily stopped hassling me. I felt like I’d ruined my life by pushing Tarquin away and that I would never find someone who loved me as much as him. But despite everything I was still too naïve to realise the real problem: I just didn’t fancy him.

With the break up from Tarquin my alcohol use started getting out of control. I would go out binge drinking with Susanna and have to be carried home in a wheelbarrow. I told my GP who said that binge drinking was a form of alcoholism. I thought this was a joke. There was no way I could be an alcoholic. Alcoholics, I was convinced, were very loud people in Newcastle who’d been filmed multiple times assaulting the police. I was loud, while drinking, but I had never been filmed and had no experience of Newcastle. When I woke up from a Rohypnol and alcohol induced blackout, in the middle of having sex with someone I had definitely not wanted to fuck, I just shrugged off this near rape experience as “one of those things that happen when you’re having fun.” Of course despite the fact that it was all over the papers as the date rape drug, I still didn’t stop mixing Rohypnol and alcohol.

Despite the increasing chaos of my life outside, I never let it interfere with work. I was obsessed with work, I never drank when I was going in the next day. And now Tarquin (and my free drugs) had gone I’d stopped taking cocaine. At the office things were going well, I had moved to TV centre and was learning how to produce TV news and write for TV. This was exactly what I needed if I wanted to be a reporter abroad. But I would still be running into the loo to cry over Tarquin 15 times a day. I said my bladder had shrunk, after chemotherapy. I started off at World Service Television news, covering foreign affairs. I had an interview to be the BBC’s Central America correspondent, based in Mexico. But despite being the favourite to get the job, I withdrew before the final interview, saying I couldn’t possibly go as my father had broken his toe. I think this was because, after the trips to Sudan and Argentina, I thought I was too disorganised and would fuck up the job.

As for my father, I wasn’t speaking to him after he’d said I looked like a “dundus,” a very insulting Jamaican word to describe a black albino, who Jamaicans think look like freaks. Reacting to the racism from my father and society around, I was going through a white phase with red hair extensions and green contact lenses. My step mother helpfully said I looked like Michael Jackson.

I decided I wanted a change of direction in my career and went on an attachment to BBC News 24. News 24 had just started, had very young and inexperienced staff and was going through teething pains. It was using experimental TV technology which required expert handling. Alas the staff at News 24 were only expert at muddling things up. There was an issue with live feeds going down, video clips going to black, and a persistent problem with badly spelt Astons. Astons are the captions that come up giving someone’s name or other information on TV. At News 24 it was as if Dada, Dali or Picasso had written them. Thus “The Prime Minister, Tony Blair,” came out as “The Mime Minister, Tony Funfair,”   and “the Chancellor Gordon Brown,” emerged on News 24 as “That Chancer, Gordonn Browwn.” News 24 was the only area of TV news that was using this digital technology, where we didn’t use physical tapes to run the news. The main TV bullets were still using old fashioned tapes and manually inputting Astons and would chuckle merrily at the cock ups on News 24. The BBC had watered down their criteria to recruit the staff of News 24. They were not primarily from Oxbridge, in fact some of them spelt so badly they must have bunked off their spelling tests at primary school. There was an atmosphere of chaos at News 24, but also of an exciting project that was just getting off the ground.

Desolate after the break up with Tarquin, I had taken up with a married BBC producer I’d met on a training course. Having been abandoned by my father, who’d left the family for his girlfriend and proceeded to transform totally – dropping the shagging around and worshipping her – I thought that the “other woman” was the more powerful position to be in. Without realising it, I wanted to replicate the situation with my father, without being the one who was left. But when the producer said he “wasn’t quite ready to leave his wife,” I said, “you must be joking, I don’t want to break up your family.” The adult part of me didn’t but the child was confused. Above all, it was some welcome attention and a shoulder for me to cry on. And we had sex in exotic locations – once just before lunch in the disabled loo at TV Centre during Prime Minister’s Question Time. I have to admit that was my idea. It’s always fun having sex at work, (or anywhere you shouldn’t), but I didn’t fancy him enough and still thought an orgasm was something that only happened in Jilly Cooper books. Still at least the whole affair got my drinking back under control and I was able to return from nights out on the town vertical and without my clothes on my head.

The thing that particularly appealed to me about News 24, (apart from the disabled loo), was the entertainment programme, Zero Thirty, that was on at half past midnight every night. This covered showbiz and, as my reading material had increasingly strayed from the Economist to Heat magazine, I thought this was just the ticket for me. I became a reporter and producer on the programme going to film premieres, celebrity photo exhibitions, musical festivals and concerts. When you’re standing on the red carpet at a film premiere it really doesn’t feel like a job. I had never had so much fun in my life. And I didn’t have to get into work till 3 pm. I still managed to be late. The only fly in the ointment was of course, with my disorganisation, I would sometimes fuck things up. Thus I would be due to arrive to film the start of an important showbiz event, but would turn up, after a curling tong crisis, too late to witness it. Of course the great thing with TV was that the camera man did the technical side instead of you. They were always on time and staunchly reliable. It was when it was left to me that things would go wrong, I would be so obsessed with getting the right library pictures for a piece that the piece would be ready a week after it was due on air. But generally I scraped by and I was on TV, no one was saying I was ugly now.

News 24’s entertainment reporter was strangely absent from the job, so I practically took over as their main showbiz reporter. Of course, I was working as a producer as well so didn’t sleep for six months. I met Ewan McGregor, Rachel Weisz, Michael Caine, David Bailey and Snoop Dogg. Snoop was tall and very attractive padding around like a jaguar. One of his sidekicks asked me to spend the night out in London with Snoop and the Boys. I had to say no as I had to go back to work to edit my piece. But that would have been a crazy night, fuck knows what would have happened to me.(well I can guess)

I was flying ahead with my career, out on showbiz stories every night, although the editor of the programme didn’t like me as he thought I was too posh. I could continue like this indefinitely I thought. But then something happened that would change my life and cause me to crash.

Next week: when celebrities destroy your house and cut through your bedroom door with a carving knife, saying, “I miss you.”   Sign up for updates on this blog

Reporting from a barracks in Southern Sudan in a pair of hot pants and phone sex with the head of the Sudanese rebels

Reporting from a barracks in southern sudan in a pair of hot pants (2)

November 1996

The trip to Sudan to cover the civil war, began, as it continued, with a mishap or two. I had set off from Heathrow airport with a massive quantity of equipment including a Morse code machine. I’d been kitted out with a child’s size flak jacket (in case I got shot) but, of course, being blasé about my survival, I never put it on.

I arrived at the airport in Frankfurt to catch the flight to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, and became unfortunately distracted by the perfume in duty free. Missing the announcement for the flight to Khartoum (how on earth can they expect anyone to understand German just because they’re in Germany) I realised, with 5 minutes to spare, that the flight was going to leave. Sprinting through Frankfurt airport with the contents of an electronics shop was not an easy feat. Particularly as the airline staff from Lufthansa kept shouting at me. Time had never been my strong point and I thought they were being unreasonable in insisting that a 10am flight should leave at 9.53. Of course just when you’re in a hurry, a massive fuck up arrives, and before I could get on the plane, the German security officials decided my satellite phone was a bomb. “It’s not a bomb!” I said, “I work for the BBC. Look at all this equipment. If I was a terrorist, I’d keep it more low key.” After showing my staff card I was eventually allowed on the plane. But with the memory of the shouting still fresh, I swore I would never travel on an airline as punctual as Lufthansa again.

The suspicion about my equipment continued when I arrived in Sudan but, eventually, I got through and settled into my hotel. Not speaking any Arabic apart from: “English… you… speak… yes?” would be a slight problem I knew. I therefore hired a translator to make sense of the newspapers for me. I was very prolific filing for the BBC, sending reports on everything from movements in the war to who’d won first prize at the Khartoum zebra show.

Sudan was supposed to be one of the strictest Islamic states in the world, with stoning still a punishment for adultery, and I had to be covered up with long sleeves and trousers everywhere I went. But it wasn’t nearly as controlled as Saudi Arabia or Iran and you didn’t have to cover your hair. In fact there were a lot of women in government jobs in Sudan, mixing freely in the offices with men, although I’m sure they all toed the line and did all cover their hair. I was amused to see the official “toilets” in Sudanese government buildings were in fact a hole in the earth. And in common with the offices, the holes were unisex.

Everyone in the government departments in Khartoum kept asking me if I was Lebanese. I do look vaguely Arab, Mediterranean, Brazilian, Cuban generally “exotic” because of my Jamaican heritage. When I later phoned all the government departments from London, they kept saying to me, “Oh yes, you’re that Lebanese girl.” I kept trying to say I had nothing to do with Lebanon, but eventually gave up and said, “Yes I’m from Beirut.” I met the BBC’s freelance reporter in Sudan, a giant man called Joseph. He told me he had been very thin when living in the South of Sudan but had got fat in Khartoum. Thinness was a problem in Southern Sudan; there had been a famine going on there for years. But there was no shortage of food in Khartoum, quite a few people looked like they’d been kicked out of Weight Watchers. I finished doing all my interviews in Khartoum, including a feature on a failed attempt by Jack Daniels to set up a mega store there, and then had to get on with the real part of trip, covering the war in Southern Sudan.

The latest outbreak of the civil war in Sudan had been triggered by the Islamic government in Khartoum cancelling an autonomy agreement for the south and saying it was imposing sharia law on the south. In the north of Sudan the inhabitants were mainly Muslim and had a lot of Arab blood. In the south they were black Africans, practising traditional African religions or Christianity. 2.5 million people were killed in the civil war in Sudan, and four million lost their homes. It was to become Africa’s longest running civil war. I was covering a story about how the government was using food as a weapon of war against the people in the south, ie starving them out. And on the divisions between the southern rebel movements who had more splinter groups than a carpentry shop. Many of the rebel groups wanted independence for the south. But the government didn’t want to give it as most of Sudan’s oil reserves are in the south. You couldn’t fly from North to South Sudan because of the war. You had to go from Khartoum to Kenya and from there to Southern Sudan. All the NGOs and media organisations had their offices in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, which was a cool, pleasant, town full of foreigners. I say pleasant, apart from the minor inconvenience that the foreigners had to have armed guards on their homes.

I was on a quest to track down the elusive leader of the main rebel group in Southern Sudan, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army or SPLA. The SPLA had an office in Nairobi, (well it was more of a shed), which I went to to make contact. They said I could interview their leader, John Garang, if I took a flight to the south of Sudan then crossed over the border into northern Uganda. This was suicidally dangerous, the border was heavily mined and the north of Uganda was controlled by a loopy rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army, “Christian” fundamentalists, who thought that if they rubbed themselves with special ointments they couldn’t get shot. They would have got on well with my uncle I thought. Nonetheless I was so desperate to meet John Garang I agreed to go to Northern Uganda, and was about to jump on the flight. As I’d only just emerged from 13 years of clinical depression, in which I’d wanted to kill myself, I had little regard for my life and no sense of danger at all. Of course I didn’t tell the BBC of my plan, knowing they would ban the trip. Luckily the flight was cancelled, or I would probably have been killed or ended up as a sex slave to a commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army with 25 kids.

Instead I took a UN plane distributing corn into Southern Sudan. Flying low overhead, I could see it was barely like a country at all. Flat and marshy without any roads, towns or electricity it looked like something out of the Stone Age. I arrived at a barracks on the border with Ethiopia that was being held by the SSIM, the South Sudan Independence Movement, a rebel group that had split off from the SPLA and was allied with the government in Khartoum. Several factions had split off from the SPLA, often along ethnic lines, but the new groups were like a virus, splitting off and multiplying again. Thus there was the SPLA, the South Sudan Liberation Movement, the SSIM, the South Sudan Layabouts’ Organisation and the South Sudan Cattle Rustlers’ Group. As a result of the infighting between these groups, more southerners died at each other’s hands than were killed by northerners during the war.

In the barracks on the Ethiopian border I was sleeping in a deluxe mud hut. I say deluxe as there were no holes in the roof. You did have to dodge the multiple snakes when you went to the loo at night. It was only after a day of being at the barracks that I realised a calamity had befallen me: I had left half of my equipment on the UN plane which had gone back to Nairobi. How could you not notice that you had left the equipment behind, you say. You try travelling with the contents of the average Curry’s and see if you don’t get confused. I’m sure this experience and the terrible loss of my tape recorder in Buenos Aires has contributed to the OCD that means I now check behind me forensically wherever I go. I phoned the UN in a panic. They said there was no way the equipment would still be in Nairobi airport, as it was a den of thieves. But this time I was lucky (or protected) and the stuff was all still there. Keen for my story about the government starving the south to come out, the UN sent a plane to ferry my missing equipment into Southern Sudan. Luckily, in those days, I wasn’t worrying about my carbon footprint.

Perhaps unsurprisingly in a barracks, I was heavily outnumbered by thousands of male soldiers, with only one female aid worker for company. Despite the heavy male presence, I decided that, as it was hot, I would throw off my clothes and put on a pair of tiny shorts. It was boiling, I reasoned, bored by covering up in Khartoum, surely it was the time to dress as if I was on a beach. I’m not quite sure what kind of beach is populated by two thousand men with guns, possibly Sicily when the mafia are there on holiday.

Every morning the rebel soldiers would get up at 5am and parade around with their weapons singing acapella. They had wonderful voices, the soldiers, and could have formed a choir. That was the only thing – X Factor voices – that the rebel groups had in common. Although the barracks was stone age, the weaponry was high tech, machine guns and what looked like rocket launchers or anti-aircraft guns. Despite all the heavy weaponry, I loved it in Southern Sudan and decided that when I got married, I would go there for my honeymoon. Of course the mud huts in Sudan were not quite like the mud huts on safari in South Africa. There were no six course meals, no fine wine, in fact, no wildlife at all as it had all been eaten by the starving inhabitants.

I’m not sure what gigantic gene is present in Southern Sudan, but all the men were almost seven foot and the women over six feet. At five foot two they thought I was a child. “Why have your parents let you leave school and come here?” they kept saying to me. “Have you done your O levels yet?” I kept saying I was an adult but they just smiled and patted me on the head.

One night I set out across the bush with some SSIM soldiers, I didn’t know where we were going. I heard a tribal drumming that sounds suspiciously like human sacrifice. When we got to a tiny mud hut, with a collapsing grass roof, there were a load of children banging drums and singing tunelessly. “What are they doing?” I said. “This is the Church of the Holy Redeemer, Aloysius 25th, they’re singing Christmas Carols.” said the SSIM. I looked around the mud hut and did spot a tiny cross. And the place was in keeping with the original Christian spirit, derelict enough for the virgin birth. A minority of the southern Sudanese were Christian, though probably in a similar way as the Santeria Cubans were Christian, most had traditional animist beliefs.

After my trip to the SSIM, who were courting publicity and on their best behaviour, which was probably why I didn’t get raped, I went on to a barracks controlled by the SPLA. There it was completely different, no friendly soldiers at all. I was sleeping in a tent and accused of being a spy. It shows how little regard I had for my life that being stuck in the bush in Sudan with a paranoid rebel group did not worry me at all. I realised later that they were edgy as they were about to launch a major military offensive.

Despite my cool reception, I became obsessed with John Garang, the head of the SPLA, thinking that I could meet him and live happily ever after in a hut in South Sudan. The fact that I had never even seen his photograph, (he doesn’t, as I imagined, look at all like Will Smith), didn’t dent my enthusiasm at all. I was destined, I thought, to be a guerrilla bride. But my efforts to contact him were fruitless, I couldn’t get hold of him at all.

I headed back to Nairobi, my Afro hair turned into a massive bush. They didn’t have any hairdryers where I was staying in Southern Sudan. I was due to come back to the UK on Christmas Day and go straight in to work. After a long, hard, trip I had a piece of good news. Reuters wanted me to carry some footage back to the UK and were prepared to pay for me to have an upgrade to first class. I arrived at the first class check-in wild and dishevelled, very like my uncle after a bad day. “I think you must be in the wrong queue madam,” the officials said. I was surprised they didn’t ask if I was cleaning the plane. “No,” I said, waving my first class ticket, “I’m in the right line.” They checked the ticket and almost fell over in disbelief.

When I got back to my flat, Tarquin had decked the place out with Christmas decorations and dozens of helium balloons. He was so proud of me, he said, when he’d heard me on the radio he’d pulled over the car and cried. He took me to the Connaught for our Christmas lunch which was lovely (although I was surprised that they let me in with my hair looking like I’d survived a dangerous encounter with an electricity pylon.)

Shortly after I came home, my dream came true. John Garang phoned me at home from the Sudanese bush on his satellite phone. I couldn’t believe I was actually speaking to him. Although the conversation was strictly business, this was obviously code for saying he wanted me. It was the best phone sex I had ever had. I say that as I had, obviously, never had phone sex. And the fantasy about living happily ever after with him went into the stratosphere. We would have a giant mud hut, with an en-suite mud loo, a couple of kids, and drive around in a tank.

Of course I didn’t tell Tarquin about my feelings for John Garang. But all was not bright on the horizon for Tarquin and me. And what happened next would precipitate a rapid deterioration in my life.

Next Saturday: breaking up with Mr Right, hooking up with Mr Wrong and getting down with the Mime Minister, Tony Funfair, at BBC News 24.

Meeting Mr Right (or am I just high as a kite?) and turning down Grade A cocaine in Cocaine Utopia

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I met Tarquin through some (very posh) friends in the summer of 1996. Within two hours of us dating, he was coming up with our children’s names. He would stare at me, open mouthed, for days on end saying I was “amazing” and he’d “never met a girl like me.” My feelings for him were less certain. I fancied him when I was on ecstasy, which he would happily supply, a female Viagra that brought out the bunny in me. But I wasn’t that discriminating, I would fancy every man in the room. And when I wasn’t high, the feelings for him seemed to vanish down the loo like (so many) of my unwanted meals. But he adored me, had money, was good looking and intelligent. Surely I must fancy him I thought?

We got into hardcore clubbing, going out on Friday and Saturday night, off our heads on ecstasy. I would spend the whole weekend just dancing and drinking water and maybe eat a crisp. As someone who’s had a lifelong eating disorder, a drug that made me exercise compulsively and not eat for three days was like winning the lottery. I often had to be at work at weekends. So I would come straight in from a club, take off my bra top and feathers and glitter tattoos and change into a suit. This was fine on ecstasy, as the quantities of water I was downing were purifying in a way. But when I tried it on cocaine, it was a disaster and I couldn’t write a line. Tarquin had introduced me to coke and every time we went to a party we would immediately seek it out. If it wasn’t there we announced the party was “boring” and would leave in a huff. I had given up smoking cigarettes at the age of 25, because I didn’t want to get wrinkles. The substitution of cigarettes for cocaine seemed a healthy alternative to me.

But there was disaster between us when I was off my head on coke. I would want to break up with Tarquin and didn’t fancy him at all. I was too naïve and inexperienced to realise that I just didn’t fancy him. I soldiered on, already emotionally dependent on him, and enjoying the attention from someone who wasn’t a freak of nature or a misogynist. My lodger had left as Tarquin and I were constantly canoodling in the sitting room. He said he would be my new lodger and moved into my house. He’d just bought a maisonette in Notting Hill and was doing it up. Still innocent as a child, I didn’t think that having my boyfriend as my lodger wouldn’t work at all. He didn’t pay any rent and brought two dangerously furry cats, which caused my cleaner to resign.

When he moved in, my mental health immediately hit the skids. After spending two thousand pounds on a new double bed, I said I couldn’t share a room with him. So he was exiled to the back bedroom with the cats. They all had a lovely view of a power station. I completely stopped sleeping and when he phoned me at work (25 times a day) I begged him to leave, saying I was falling apart. He said that if I threw him out, the relationship was off. I couldn’t bear to let him go. This, at 26, was the first proper relationship I’d ever been in. So instead of calling his bluff, I shot down to a private doctor looking for something “that would put an elephant to sleep.” He gave me Surmontil and Rohypnol, the date rape drug, which said clearly on the packet you weren’t to mix it with alcohol. Still I was doing so much ecstasy I was barely drinking at all but I was so dosed up on tranquillers I felt like I was in a coma until lunchtime every day.

I had developed an emotional dependence on Tarquin and something very odd had happened. While actually 26, I had regressed to a two year old. We would call each other “possum” and “pigling” and sit around talking to each other in infant squeaks. Tarquin did mention he felt like a paedophile. I’m not quite sure what happened when I was two, perhaps it was my beloved grandmother, Doll, leaving our house. She had to look after my uncle who was having animated conversations with invisible people in his chimney stack. Either that or the fact that I’d almost died of an epileptic fit. But some kind of trauma had stunted my emotional growth. If my grandmother had stayed, my life would have been entirely different. She was loving and kind and not like my mother at all. By the time I was eight I counted eleven nannies that I could remember. Some of them left or were fired because my father got too close to them. A volcanic eruption came from my mother when I said, completely innocently, “isn’t it funny how Daddy’s always kissing Sally and pinching her bum.” I had no idea what I’d done.

From the age of three or five I’d retreated into an elaborate fantasy world with the toys. There were seventy toys and they all had their own voices and personalities. I would sit around for hours every day, bringing the toys to life, creating complex Elephant v Snoopy sibling rivalries. We had schools, hospitals, swimming pools, (requisitioning my parents’ bath), even our own Christmas Day. Although the nannies were around, after multiple departures, I knew not to get involved. My father was often in the house, as he’d inherited a lot of money and didn’t have to work. A gentleman barrister, he would pop into work at 12 and take a 3 hour lunch break at 1 o clock. I adored my father, who would take me to school every day, as he said I was “creative” and didn’t have to tidy up my room.   But he was so interested in chasing women his mind was elsewhere. My mother was out of the house six days a week, working as a diplomat, a skill she unfortunately never used on me. She would return, very unwelcome, to discipline and criticize me, saying I was “useless,” although I was top of the class. Everyone around me was unreliable or unavailable. So I took refuge in the toys.

Then something happened. Even though I was only three or four stone, I started locking myself in my room screaming that I was fat. Running up and down on the spot and weighing myself obsessively 5 times a day. Anorexia at the age of seven was an anomaly in 1977 and my family blamed my mother who was overweight and kept crash dieting. It was partly her fault. At the age of six, I had woken up shocked from a dream about putting spiders on my mother’s grave. I resented her not being around and then trying to discipline me.  I didn’t want to be like her at all. For a while, it just went away. But when I was at boarding school at the age of 10, the child psychologist said I’d develop anorexia again. My friend Susanna and I had already started having competitions as to who could eat less (I was the winner of course).

I took refuge with the toys again during my parents’ divorce, during which the toys also went to their own boarding schools. We were a massive extended loving family, completely unlike my own. When I was 12 or 13 my parents were behaving in such an abusive way, that I wanted to kill myself. I said to myself out loud at school, “I won’t let these people ruin my life. I’m going to do very well at school, get into the best university and get a very good job.”

After a rocky start at Roedean, I had come top of the class, despite being so depressed all wanted to do was sleep. My father said this was “boring” and was equally dismissive when I got into Oxford at 16. My mother still said I was useless and “a selfish bitch” nothing was going to change that.

The happiest memory of my entire childhood was a time I was totally alone. It was a Christmas Day I’d had with the toys, a week or two before Christmas, in 1984. The night before our Christmas Day the Christmas tree was lit up in my room for the entire night, and the least favoured toys had come down for the first sitting of Christmas Day. As I had an entire tribe of toys, there was a group of favourite toys, who talked a lot more than the rest and had extensive designer wardrobes. But this time they had to wait. Although there were so many, every toy got a present, a full stocking and a luscious Christmas meal. It had taken me weeks to prepare and the whole thing was magical.

Back in 1996, I was clubbing every weekend, taking ecstasy and cocaine, flying around the world on expensive holidays. But inside the house, I clamped myself to my boyfriend like a two year old and was getting younger and younger every day. Soon, Tarquin said, I would be an embryo. But I was getting more and more into cocaine which I thought of as glamorous, celebrity dust. So different from my childish self at 18 who’d been presented with cocaine cornucopia and hadn’t touched it at all.

BOLIVIA 1988.

I headed to Bolivia in the summer of 1988 to work as a volunteer for Save the Children, in a village called Inquisivi. In English, Dozy Llama. It was 6,000 metres above sea level on the Bolivian Altiplano. Luckily I had the constitution of a giant yak and didn’t suffer from altitude sickness at all. I also dodged an epidemic of cholera despite being the only foreigner to drink the local water. I’d had to raise the money for the trip myself as my parents had not agreed it to fund it, saying it was dangerous. I’d worked as a receptionist and dogsbody in a company owned by my mother’s friend. I was incapable of answering the phones or getting anyone’s sandwich order right. I mixed up all the filing so half the records got lost. “So you’re going to Oxford?” they kept saying to me in disbelief. “Umm,” I said not wanting to say I was clever but clueless at practical things. Before I left my parents had taken me to a psychiatrist. I was obsessed with extending my legs and was going completely nuts. Alas the relationship with the shrink didn’t last for long. He told my parents it was their fault that I was unhinged. So they boycotted him. But before I left for Bolivia, I had asked him whether he thought I would be alright. “You’ll be 7,000 miles away from your parents,” he said, “I’m sure you’ll be absolutely fine.”

I had brought a massive suitcase full of books to Bolivia, which was not entirely useful as I was working in the day and the village had no electricity. I say “work” though the job was sporadic and the woman in charge of the project had a close relationship with Campari and it was often closed. I was teaching Spanish in the school to Quechua speaking children, and working as a translator and interpreter. At night I was dodging tarantulas that kept trying to parachute onto my head from the ancient cistern of the loo. There was only one toilet in the village, everyone would go outdoors. But this was easy for the Bolivian women as they had massive skirts and petticoats that acted like a mobile toilet cubicle. The Bolivians were childlike and innocent, they would stare at you in the street. The village was idyllic, you could climb to the top of the mountains and see a puma or a jaguar. I was happier than I had ever been, for the first time in my life on a spiritual high, at one with nature and whoever created it. This ecstasy was probably connected to the fact that the only contact I had with my parents was via messages on a carrier pigeon that took 6 months to arrive.

But there is always a snake in paradise. And I got into trouble at a party when a man, (whose children I’d been playing with all day), asked me if I wanted to go to the other side of the square to have a drink in a bar. When I got there, the bar was closed and he dragged me into a church. He was a farmer and massively strong. I was struggling but I couldn’t escape. I knew enough by then not to say I was a virgin as it would have egged him on. But I begged god that violent rape should not be my first experience of sex. It says something about the dangers of travelling as a naïve teenager that two out of three of the times I’d come close to sex by the age of 18 were rape. A country woman came in and interrupted him in his quest. I called him a bastard and ran away. He continued to harass me and I had to leave.

I went travelling around Peru, and Bolivia getting close to the border with Brazil. In Bolivia, you could leave large quantities of money lying around on your bed. In Peru it was edgy, the terrorist group, Sendero Luminoso, was rife and everyone kept hassling you for money from three years old and up. I joined a demonstration in Cusco but left because I was carrying a ruck sack and saw everyone was travelling light, ready to run from the police.

While I was by the border with Brazil, I was just about to get on a flight back to the Bolivian capital La Paz when two very good looking men on motorbikes asked if I wanted some cocaine. I had heard of cocaine though never seen it of course. Without a thought about the opportunities for Grade A cocaine I was passing up, (and clueless about how you take cocaine)I said I wasn’t interested in eating that kind of snack and had a flight to catch. “You won’t be catching a flight after this,” they said, “you’ll be in paradise for days.” Thinking that this paradise would probably involve me being blotto in a bush with no trousers on, I politely declined. On my way back to the UK, the plane lost a wing in Colombia and we had to dis-embark. My finances had forced me to take a flight on bargain basement Airline, We-hope-you-can-swim. It was the height of the Pedro Escobar bombing campaign. The airline staff escorted us nervously around Bogota but we weren’t allowed out alone. When I arrived it was amazing they let me back in the UK at all. My ticket itinerary read, “Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela, Colombia,” ie “I am smuggling cocaine.” If I’d taken that trip 8 years later it would have been an entirely different result.

But my lifestyle of cocaine and parties in London was beginning to pall. My ambitions to be a reporter had not died down, just had a brief nap because I was OD’ing on elephant tranquilizers. I submitted a proposal to the BBC for me to go and cover the war in Sudan, not as a freelance but as a fully paid trip. The proposal was accepted and in November 1996 I set off, very excited, for Kenya and Sudan.

Next Saturday: Reporting from a barracks in Southern Sudan in a pair of hot pants and living happily ever after with the Sudanese rebels.