About the author

A colourful family

Colourful is one of those irregular verbs: I am colourful; you are eccentric; he is as mad as a hatter.

The author as a child.
The author as a child.

I was born in 1954 in Leicester, England. My Mum's parents lived in a huge house at Maidenhead, near a lovely stretch of the Thames just upstream from London. My father's parents lived in a small, tidy four bedroomed semi-detached house in Muswell Hill in North London. As I grew up I came to realise that my Grandparents and relations were somewhat more colourful than my friends' relations - but as a young child you just accept everything as "normal".

The author as a child.
The author as a child.

I later learnt that my mother's father was in fact her stepfather. My Mum's father was one of the earliest people involved in the motoring business and designed a car called the Sheffield Simplex, which was regarded as a competitor of the Rolls Royce. I also found out when going round a motoring museum that he drove a 100 hp Austin Grand Prix racer in the 1908 French Grand Prix.

My grandfather.
My grandfather.

He and my Gran led a very privileged existence as part of the smart society before and after the First World War; they went bobsleighing down the Cresta run; they gambled at the casinos in Deauville and Monte Carlo; they hunted; etc.. My Gran was then a very beautiful young woman who so liked other men's company that her husband divorced her (rather unusual in those days, when it was more usual for husbands to let their wives divorce them, even if it was the wife's fault).

My gran on the left.
My gran on the left.

She then married the man I knew as my Grandfather and they continued to live a very privileged existence at Maidenhead (see the images of their house called Greentrees to see just how privileged!). Where did the money come from? Where did the money go? By the time I remember Greentrees in the early 60s it was suffering from about 20 years of neglect and the large staff were long gone.









Greentrees (click on a thumbnail for a larger picture).

I was in my early teens when my Grandfather died and my Gran bought a small cottage at the bottom of our road outside Brighton. I got to know my Gran quite well and found her a fund of fascinating stories. She told me that she may not have been the first woman to fly but she certainly flew before the woman who is mentioned in the record books. A friend of my Gran's (or it might have been her first husband) was paid a lot of money by the woman credited with being the first to fly to take her up in his early biplane – he was due to take her up in the afternoon and took my Gran up in the morning! She was also one of the first women to go down the Cresta bobsleigh run. She was a most successful poker player. She used to pay for her hunting with her poker winnings. She complained to me that she was once banned from the casino in Monte Carlo. She was playing (very successfully) against some "high rollers" and they had her banned because she used to knit whilst playing poker ("well, they had no conversation").

 Uncle Martin driving an ERA at Shelsley Walsh...
Uncle Martin driving an ERA at Shelsley Walsh...
 ...and a Bentley.
...and a Bentley.

My two uncles (Mum's half brothers) certainly deserve the title colourful. Martin owned a vintage Bentley and used to take my brother, Alan, and me for rides from Greentrees. On one memorable occasion he took us out to race Mini Cooper S's on the newly opened section of the M4 motorway - "I am sure we can blow one up" said Martin. We got behind a Cooper S ... 60, 70, 80, 85, 90, bang! We cheered and then we started to slow down as smoke came out of our bonnet. There were no emergency telephones yet installed on the M4, so we had a long walk to a phone. We got back hours late - my mother was livid. Martin also had raced Bugattis and an ERA in hill climbs and vintage racing car races - we still go to Shelsley Walsh and Prescott hill climbs with him. He is over 75 and we have trouble keeping up with him as he walks up the hills.

Clive was just as "larger than life" as Martin. Unfortunately he was an alcoholic and died in his late 40s. A great shame because he had finally settled down with a lovely lady called Clarissa Dickson Wright - who much later went on to find fame as one of the two fat ladies. When I met Clarissa she was still drinking, but was wonderful company. Clarissa certainly fitted into our family because she too lost a fortune! When I met her she still had one of the last of her prized possessions - A Bristol car, one of only two with a Chrysler V8 engine hand-built by Bristol as part of their evaluation of the Chrysler engines that they use to this day.

My Mum kept surprising me by the people she knew from her childhood. There was a program on Dick Francis (famous jockey and author) on the television and Mum said - "he learnt to ride on my horse". I was never sure whether to believe all her stories; then one day we were visiting Martin and he told her Dick Francis lived just round the corner, so we popped in for tea. I was pretty impressed! I was particularly impressed by how "ordinary" (in the best sense of the word) Dick and his wife were. Dick was probably most famous for riding Devon Lock, The Queen Mother's horse, towards the winning post of the Grand National when the horse collapsed for no apparent reason. He was obviously devoted to the Queen Mother but said she could be "a wicked old woman". While he was still a jockey she used to invite him to tea and offer him cream cakes - which she knew he could not refuse ... knowing that he would have to starve himself afterwards to keep at his riding weight. I was perhaps most impressed that he owned a number of twin engined Piper aircraft that he rented out (I was mad about aircraft). Martin was a part owner of a single engined Piper Tri-pacer, but Dick's aircraft were much better.

One of the thrills of my youth was being taken up in Martin's Piper. Later on I joined the Air Cadets and was frequently taken up for aerobatics in an elderly RAF Chipmunk - I always threw up, but it was great.

After meeting Dick Francis I started to believe Mum's stories, and I lost count of the number of times she said "Oh! I knew him when he was a boy". The last time she did it was when Sue and I were thinking of buying a Morgan sports car ("Oh! I knew Peter Morgan when he was a boy").

My Mum and Dad met each other when studying for their Doctorates in Chemistry at University College London. Mum never called herself Dr Peeling. My father was an academic who moved when I was eight years old to Brighton to help set up the Chemistry Department at the newly formed University of Sussex. He died in Spring 2005 at the age of 84 and lived just down the street from my brother on the Isle of Wight (my Mum died in the Summer of 2002).

My Grandfather on my Dad's side was the importer of Zeiss Ikon camera into the UK. It was one of those paradoxes that one set of Grandparents lived in a mansion and never had much money, and the other was very rich and lived very modestly in Muswell Hill in London. My Gran died when I was very young. Grandpa's business meant that even when my parents were not very well off my Dad always had wonderful cameras (both still and movie). As a result we are very lucky to have loads of great photographs and home movies of our childhoods.

I have one brother (Alan) who is three years older than me, and one sister (Janet) who is six years older than me. My brother retired at 38 having made a small fortune from owning part of the Isle of Wight bus company. My sister is a fellow in Mathematics at Mansfield College at Oxford University. I have five nieces and nephews, who I am very proud of.

I had two sets of Aunts and Uncles who made a great impression on me during my childhood.

Joyce and Ray – Joyce was my Dad's sister – lived in London and moved to Eastbourne when Ray retired. They were very kind to me and the first time I spent away from home was staying with them in London to "see the sights" - Madame Tussauds, the Planetarium, watching the aircraft at Heathrow (a particular treat for me), going up a number of high buildings such as the Shell tower. After Ray died we went on holiday with Joyce a number of times in Sussex ... again seeing the sights. Joyce died in Spring 2004.

Peter and Brenda were a bit more distantly related, my cousins called my Dad's father Uncle Bobby. Uncle Peter was a very high-powered architect - the partner of Sir Denys Lasdun, and together much of their life’s work was designing the National Theatre in London. Their houses were wonderfully stylish examples of modern design and they started a lifelong interest in me in modern architecture and modern design. They had four children. The eldest Elena was my age, and then came Iain, Antonia and Timothy. Iain inherited his father's artistic flair and is now a film director. He has directed four films: Backbeat (about the Beatles early days in Hamburg), Hackers (which gave Angelina Jolie (Lara Croft!) her first big break), Wings of a Dove (which won an Oscar nomination for Helena Bonham-Carter), K-PAX (starring Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges), and most recently The Skeleton Key (starring Kate Hudson).