It is an altogether unexpected boiling hot London summer’s day. Weeks of torrential rain have given way to the sort of halcyon heat English people think they remember of their childhoods but, in reality, probably just read about in a favourite book or watched in a movie. And with this increase in temperature comes a sort of hysterical happiness that manifests itself in pedestrians skipping along the pavements and usually knowledgable black-cab drivers confounded at major intersections.
This is not a good start: I’m on the way to see Kathy Lette, writer and wit extraordinare — possibly the fastest brain in the west — at the home she shares with human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson and their two children Julius, 16, and Georgina, 14, and the taxi driver is lost!
Black cabs are supposed to be a main reason for visiting London; one of the great plusses as opposed to the long list of minuses such as the weather. But today, the glorious rays must be substituted for sitting in the back of the cab and map-reading the London A to Z, as the hapless driver goes on to apologise that he has forgotten his glasses, too. This is a journey to Hampstead, one of the greenest parts of London, very sought-after as a place to live but in truth a sylvan stronghold for writers, artists, actors and their lucky broods.
Later, sitting in her conservatory, Kathy will wave a manicured hand to the left to motion to the house behind, where actor and writer Stephen Fry lives, then to the right where Barry Humphries resides. She counts writers such as Julian Barnes as dear friends, too, and had to curtail our time to make a mercy dash to the Oxford home of ailing friend, barrister, writer and dramatist, John Mortimer.
But, while all this could be a recipe for smugness, maybe even patronising thoughts of the Sylvania Heights home she grew up in with her three sisters, let it be known straight away that you are about to enter the domain of a true-blue proud Aussie, who misses her homeland almost more than it’s bearable to hear and whose tastes and decorative choices simply reflect her love of life; of its colour, of what there is still to learn.
She opens the door to the very English sound of doves cooing, not a leaf of the lime-green beeches moving on this day. She is tiny, fit as a fiddle, and has a gentle smile on her makeup-free face. She’s clad in workout pants and a top that show a figure totally at odds with her 48 years.
Today, the seven-bedroom 1900 property spread across four levels — where they have lived for 10 years — seems quiet; as though a party has just come to an end. Indeed, a discarded champagne cork under the loungeroom table suggests that she and Robertson — who had just returned from an overseas trip the previous night — were celebrating a family reunion. This is a family who must pass like ships in the night. Son Jules was away in France. The talented tennis prodigy, about to go on “the circuit” later in the year, was competing in the semis of the French Open Junior Championships and Georgie was doing what teenagers do and spending time at a friend’s.
There is something beautiful about the house the minute you walk under the portal. It’s not just the colour or the off-the-wall objects, but more a feeling of energy, excitement, intelligence, passion. For this is a dynamo couple whose talents have garnered them accolades and earned them riches, but won them many, many friends to boot. They love to entertain and, as we sit at the table that can seat 10 in the light-filled conservatory-style kitchen, you can almost hear the laughter and conversation of the creative minds who gather to eat, drink and be merry here. Indeed, a pink Kath and Kim toilet seat cover is the perfect starting point for talk — the irrepressible duo had visited the other evening. Add Kathy to the mix and that trio would have been worth staying in for.
“I looked for a home that had a good middle-aged spread about it, because all the houses in London are very anorexic. They all look like supermodels, the architectural versions of Naomi Campbell,” says Kathy, spouting the first of many quickfire quips that will roll off her tongue without effort. “I wanted an Australian house where we could live on one floor, which had a nice, big, comfortable wide bottom to it, which we like!”
The house, formerly the residence of Hart to Hart actress Stefanie Powers, was once, like many London mansions, converted into flats. “There were a million bathrooms; it was the perfect place to be incontinent,” says Kathy, who put in a generous deck outside and, more importantly, ripped out the formal dining room and moved it into the kitchen, creating a spacious informal kitchen area as well as a huge see-through front-to-back lounge setting. “The English are so formal. I always say they wear pin-striped underpants,” smiles Kathy. “If you put them in a formal dining room they go completely rigid and their condescension chromosome kicks in, whereas Australians are so informal we can be in a formal setting and still dance naked on a table top.
“We have lots of mad dinner parties; it’s the only way to survive winter here, to alleviate the grey tedium. Sometimes I turn the heating up really high and we wear bikinis and have beach parties!” Certainly, as we chat in the kitchen, the Australian sense of humour abounds — even the funky twirling vertical radiator manages to make a mockery of the very unfunny English way of warming a property with blood-thickening central heating.
It is to be a day of quintessential English behaviour, though. Being on a corner, there is a third neighbour to introduce besides Dame Edna and Stephen Fry: the very exotic Mimi, a chef — fortuitously for all three famous writers — lives next door, too. She will pop by later, fresh from boxing, with a mug of black coffee to help herself to milk from Kathy’s fridge. It’s a delightful and spontaneous invasion, especially as she announces, “This is the only house in England with no fence!”
The girls will banter. “I’m so lucky to have a wonderful chef next door,” says Kathy. “No, I am the lucky one,” says Mimi firmly and you know from her tone she means it. “I don’t cook. I call in the food fairy!” laughs Kathy, referring to Mimi. “You miss your whole dinner party while cooking. It’s horrible. Like having 12 raucous, really loud, annoying husbands, waiting on them. I hate it.”
But this is an Australian home without a barbecue: “The English have only recently discovered the barbecue and they still can’t do it. You get a couple of charred, cancerous things they call sausages, which are really cow’s lips or something hideous, half-cooked inside.
“We don’t have one as it rains so much and we end up standing outside, shivering. It’s just too sad. And when I’m at home, all my family have huge barbecues by their pools. When my father was here last, we bought one of those disposable cardboard things with charcoal. We took photos of him standing outside dismally with his beer, thinking, ‘This is wrong!’
“If you live in England you have to conquer the Great Indoors because you are inside even in the summer, whereas in Australia, our homes are more minimal — unlike the English with all their knick-knacks and dedicated libraries and movie collections. We’re at the beach, the national park, canoeing, eating out, up and down the coast.
“There is definitely an ‘Eeyore’ gene here [as in A.A. Milne’s depressed pessimistic donkey in the Winnie the Pooh books] and I think it’s all to do with the climate. The English think optimism is an eye disease. In Australia, you are outdoors as a child, gaining confidence, using your ingenuity, innovations.
“But there is always the English sense of humour. If there was a Wimbledon for wit — you know that thing which measures how fast a ball goes — if you had one of those at a London dinner party, you would see how quickly quips fly back and forth.”
She affectionately calls her little corner of London “Vegemite Valley” and previous neighbours have included Kerry Fox, Natalie Imbruglia and Jonathan Coleman. “Being an Australian gives you great social mobility. English people pigeon-hole each other, but as an Australian you are Vaseline-coated; you can slide up and down the social scale. I can have arvo tea with my single mother friends on the housing commission and can be at a garden party at Buckingham Palace that night. People have to be nice to you in case you are Kerry Packer’s daughter. But I’m trying to get deported … if I kill a Corgi, they will have to deport me!”
Her English friends are frequently bemused by her stubborn Australian way of keeping fit: cycling or walking to lunch or social appointments and changing — “Clark Kent style” in a red telephone box — from trainers into power suit and high heels. “English people so let their bodies go, I suppose because they’re covered up all the time,” she says, herself a size six, if that, and legs to die for. Husband Geoffrey is a fine figure, too, and will later emerge from upstairs to greet us before literally dashing out in jeans to a meeting.
She runs five kilometres a day or swims a mile. She observes that the great writers — Jane Austen and Charles Dickens — always walked. She had run in the resplendently royal Regents Park that very morning. Swimming, though, is not so regal in England.
“I swim in a disgusting pool up the road. The pools here are overheated, chlorinated phlegm and the English use them as a bath — you can smell their armpits as they go past. It’s disgusting and wrong! We are so lucky in Australia … Olympic-sized swimming pools everywhere. I used to swim at Sutherland Pool in Sydney where Ian Thorpe trained. I got anti-fog goggles so I could perv on his beautiful body. “The only things my English friends run up are bills!”
Both children love their parents’ homeland, although there was recently a family divide over Kathy’s desire to return to live in Australia. “We nearly moved back last year. We lived at Wunulla Road, Point Piper, for four months just after the Cronulla riots. I kept saying I was having the Wunulla riots if two hostesses turned up in the same frock!
“I was desperately hoping everyone would want to stick, but Jules and I wanted to go back, whereas Georgie and my husband want to stay in England. I’m really annoyed with myself. I left it a year too late — Georgie is 14 and friendships are like cement: you can’t jackhammer them apart. Julius was born in Australia and Georgina in England. They are Poms!” laughs Kathy. “I take them home once or twice a year to try to flatten their vowels — the opposite
“Living in England is great for work and fun, but when you get older, priorities shift and I feel I’ve done all that now and what I’d really like is to be with my mum and dad and my sisters. I have three fabulous, funny, feisty sisters. The oldest, Jennifer, is a police inspector; then there’s me; then my sister Elizabeth who is in PR [currently working for SSHED, the Sutherland Shire Hub for Economic Development]; and little sister Caroline who is a qualified naturopath and masseuse. So there’s the police inspector, the beige sheep, the yuppie and the hippy!”
Dad, Merv, always wanted four boys: “He was a front row forward for Canterbury. He was so famous when he was young and always on the front page of the paper. But he has six grandsons now.”
Kathy met Barry Humphries when she was 17 and knew they would get along straight away: “Dame Edna has a daughter called Valmai, who is married to Merv, and they live in a blonde brick-veneer in suburbia. My dad is called Mervyn and my mother is called Valmai, and they live in a blonde brick-veneer in Sylvania Heights. “I said, ‘Barry, I think you invented my family.’ We’ve been friends ever since.”
Her family are first fleet. “I’m practically Antipodean royalty, darling! The créme de la crim! When I told my grandmother I was moving to England, she said, ‘Kathy darling, that’s where all the convicts come from.’”
Merv brought his family to England on a long service leave trip and a young Kathy even went to Clapham Girls High in London for three months, “where I learnt to read, write and drug deal.”
She came back to Sydney at Christmas for two months to fine-tune her latest novel, a fascinating new fictional diversion for her. For the first time, she is writing as an Englishwoman observing Australia in what she describes as a sort of “Menopausal Blues” [she wrote Puberty Blues in 1979].
It, too, is set in Cronulla and the narrator is a middle-aged Englishwoman talking about her daughter. “It’s quite amusing being known as this rebel teenager, now having a rebel teenager. I am writing about Australia from an outsider’s point of view. I’ve never done that before, so it’s very exciting. The mother stuff is easy because I just write down whatever my daughter says to me. And I’ve lived away from Australia for so long now — 18 years.”
She has two other exciting projects on the go: her last book, How to Kill Your Husband and Other Handy Household Hints, has been sold to the producer of the movie The Queen and is being made into a television series along the lines of Sex and the City, but 10 years on. “I’m writing the pilot episodes right now and we start filming in the English autumn.”
She is also writing a movie with young children’s TV show presenter and UK personality June Sarpong, called The World’s Worst Boyfriend. Finally, she has been building a fine reputation as a good and funny travel writer, penning articles for the Daily Telegraph newspaper in England. The family were off to the Caribbean the week after we visited.
But the woman who launched a whole new genre, who wrote first-person female funny fiction before the term “chick lit” had been coined, is at her most glowing when she talks about one of the things she carries closest to her heart and of which she has always been a devoted champion: the Australian woman.
“I am a woman’s woman. I am a champion of Australian women. I adore them. They are the world’s best — loyal, funny, fantastic, the best friends you could ever have — and I will always stick up for them against men.
“I always say women should be like a Wonderbra to each other: supportive, uplifting and make each other feel better and bigger. But if someone crosses me, well that’s another story … there’s the time I went to a party and turned a woman’s bathroom scales up by half a stone. Now that’s really good revenge …”
And, suddenly, a truly delightful few hours in the entertaining company of Kathy Lette has flown by, and here she stands, car keys in hand, dressed in a fun power suit and high heels with red lippy perfectly in place, offering a kiss to say goodbye.
That was one halcyon summer’s day in London, one to remember and one to talk about.
Story: Katie Ekberg.
Photography: Alan Olley.