BEST-SELLING author Barbara Taylor Bradford has left her Manhattan home for the UK to launch her 33rd novel, Master Of His Fate. It’s another sweeping saga from the same pen that brought the world A Woman Of Substance, global sales topping 35 million and counting, almost 40 years ago.
She’s 85 now but looks years younger in her striking scarlet jacket and black silk trousers. It’s not only that, though. There is about Barbara a joie de vivre that belies her age and an undiminished fire in her belly. She’s certainly on barnstorming form when we meet at the Dorchester Hotel, her favourite London haunt.
Yes, she’s keen to talk about this latest work of fiction but she’s also got opinions on all the thorniest issues of the day – and she’s happy to give all of them both barrels.
Let’s start with the #MeToo movement. When it comes to the issue of sexual harassment in Hollywood, Barbara has insider knowledge. Her husband Bob Bradford is a movie producer so Barbara is well used, she says, to a world of casting couches.
“For many years, it was an open secret that this sort of thing went on,” she says. “I met Harvey Weinstein once at an event. I’d heard whispers about his predatory behaviour but I didn’t pay it much attention. I think now that I should have done. I was pleased when it all came out because I can imagine what it must be like for a young girl feeling she had to sacrifice something if she was to land a film role she desperately wanted. So I think #MeToo has been a thoroughly positive movement although I’m getting slightly cynical about it.”
She adds: “The French actress Catherine Deneuve said not long ago that she thought the pendulum may have swung too far in the opposite direction and I think there could be something in that. Now a nice man can’t even compliment you on what you’re wearing without fear of being branded a sexual predator.“
“Bob is a great hugger. He’s a naturally tactile man. But I told him recently he ought to be careful now that the #MeToo movement has gained so much ground. In the end, though, it comes down to common sense.”
And that’s something the Leeds-born Barbara has in spades. She began her career on the Yorkshire Evening Post, where she was the only female in the paper’s newsroom.
“I was very pretty, and I’m sure some of my colleagues would have liked to take me out, but I never flirted with them. I just got on with the job. In time, I was accepted to a point where they invited me for a drink on a Saturday afternoon when we broke early from work.”
“But I never forgot a piece of advice from the night editor, a lovely man called Frank Shire. He said, ‘When you go to the pub with the men, someone will buy a round. Then you’ll buy a round. And then, you’ll make your excuses and leave. I won’t let you become one of the boys, Barbara.’ And I never did.”
HAD any man tried to hit on her, what would she have done? A broad smile. “Easily the best way to deflate a man,” she says, “is to laugh at him. Men hate being made to look ridiculous.”
She moved to London at the age of 20 to become fashion editor of Woman’s Own magazine and eight years later met her American husband on a blind date. They married in 1963 and moved to the US and it was there she embarked on her literary career.
“I was in my late 30s,” she once told an interviewer. “I thought: what if I get to 55 and I’ve never written a novel? I’m going to hate myself. I’m going to be one of those bitter, unfulfilled writers.”
She duly published her first book, A Woman Of Substance, in 1979 at the age of 46 and it went from bestseller to super seller within its first year and stayed on the New York Times’ list for 55 weeks. More than 30 titles have followed since, all of them worldwide bestsellers, and her latest book, the story of a Victorian barrow boy on the make, is dedicated to husband Bob (“My hero”). They will have been married for 55 years on Christmas Eve.
So what’s the secret to such a long-running union? “Marriages endure,” she says, “but you’ve got to want them to. Of course, there have been times when we’ve bickered or we’ve been tested. We didn’t have children, for instance, not because we didn’t want them but because I had two miscarriages, the second in my early 40s.”
“That could have driven a wedge between us. In the event, it brought us closer together. We both believe that, if something doesn’t happen, perhaps that’s because it’s not meant to be. You can’t let anything like that define you.”
“At bedrock, I not only love Bob, I like him too. We also have shared values, shared interests. And there must be mutual respect. Words hurt so I have never, ever called him a bad name in anger and nor has he.”
In Barbara’s opinion, too many people bale out of a marriage when something goes wrong. “If a relationship is worthwhile, it’s worth working at. It’s too easy to just walk away. And, unless you discover he’s a serial killer, you can work out most problems.” Talking of marriage, she is delighted to see how the Duchess of Sussex is settling into royal life after her wedding earlier this year. “As an Englishwoman living in New York, I’ve followed an American woman now living in Britain with huge interest. And I don’t think Meghan has put a foot wrong.”
“She was already used to being in the spotlight, of course. Did you see the way she walked down the aisle of St George’s Chapel on her wedding day? Now there’s a young woman who knows how to look into a camera. But then she would. She’s an actress.”
“I also think she’s behaved impeccably with her ghastly family – her father and her half-sister, in particular. My mother used to say when someone said something unkind about me: ‘Rise above it, Barbara, like royalty do’. Well, that’s what Meghan’s done.”
“She’s also brought Harry out of that deep psychological sadness that’s haunted him since his mother’s tragic death. And she clearly gets on well with Prince Charles which makes me happy because I’m a big fan. I think he’s a lovely man and he’s been an excellent father.”
Barbara is also admiring of Prime Minister Theresa May, someone else, she says, who doesn’t always get a good press. “Leaving politics out of it, I have to applaud her resilience. These past weeks and months must have been a nightmare to live through but she hasn’t weakened.”
“We get the English papers in New York every Sunday and you can’t help wondering whether she’ll still be Prime Minister a week hence. And yet, she’s still here. I see the knives glinting but I believe she’s going to see off these bullying men plotting her downfall. She’s going to win. Mark my words.”
What, then, about US President Donald Trump, another person who seems to have the courage of his convictions? “He was elected by middle America, by the forgotten blue-collar workers. I’ve been to every state in the union promoting my books and these are average people who feel they’ve been ignored. And they’re happy with the way Trump seems to be transforming the economy.”
“He’s not a politician in the accepted definition of that word. He’s a businessman who’s running America like a giant corporation.”
WHAT about the barrage of tweets he issues from the White House? That certainly wasn’t something that characterised Barack Obama’s presidency. She laughs. “Well, he did nothing except make a bad deal with Iran.”
And how about Trump’s stance on migrants? “I believe in law and order. We’ve had boundaries and borders for centuries. They’re there to protect us. And yet, all that’s in danger of eroding. I’m perfectly happy with immigration but it must be controlled by rule of law. There’s currently an army of migrants marching to the Mexican border. Why do they imagine they can just walk into America? They must wait their turn and do it legally. The same is true in England. You can’t have people turning up here just because they fancy a better life.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, she’s fiercely pro-Brexit. “We’re a sovereign nation with our own monarch, our own democratically elected parliament. I can’t understand why we’d want Brussels as a higher authority over our Supreme Court.”
Here’s a woman who clearly knows her own mind. Someone recently questioned the wisdom of her signing a four-book contract in her mid-80s. “I told them they’d be surprised how quickly I’ll write the rest of this saga because I’m planning another four-book series after that,” she says. “Oh, I shall die with my boots on.”
To pre-order Master Of His Fate by Barbara Taylor Bradford (published by HarperCollins at £16.99 on Thursday), call The Express Bookshop 01872 562310 with your card details.
Alternatively, send a cheque made payable to Express Bookshop to BTB Offer, PO Box 200, Falmouth TR11 4WJ. Or buy online at expressbookshop.co.uk.