Life & Culture

Interview: Reina James

Joyous, exciting and rarely there: my dad Sid James


As soon as Reina James had received the Society of Authors’ McKitterick Prize at a ceremony in London in 2007 — for that year’s best first novel by a writer over 40 — she strode over to where Harold Pinter was sitting with his wife, Antonia Fraser, and eagerly shook his hand.

“I think about it now and cringe with embarrassment,” the 62-year-old, Sussex-based author recalls. “He just stared at me as if I was a madwoman.”

But there was a kind of link between the ailing playwright and the emerging novelist — the latter’s father had, four decades earlier, been asked to appear in the former’s play, The Homecoming.

It is a tantalising might-have-been. James’s father — born Solomon Joel Cohen in Johannesburg in 1913 — would have been ideal for Pinter’s forceful combination of comedy and menace. But, busy actor that he was, the former Sollie Cohen, by then known to millions as Sid James, was committed elsewhere. “He wrote a hugely apologetic letter,” says his daughter with a note of regret. “He would have been brilliant.”

As it happens, Reina James is herself a brilliant talent. The book for which she won the McKitterick, This Time of Dying, is a beautifully crafted tale set in London at the height of the 1918 influenza pandemic. This crisis is remembered, if at all, as a footnote to the First World War. Yet it claimed by far the greater number of victims — around a quarter-of-a-million in this country — and over 50 million worldwide. “Little is known about it perhaps because, after the war had debilitated people to such a point, to have a pandemic on top was just too much death,” James speculates. “Men were coming home having survived the war and dying of flu, or finding that their wives had died.”

This Time of Dying, then, fills an information void, quite apart from the literary qualities that prompted the McKitterick judges unanimously to award James the prize. Having come late to writing, this acclaim still feels unreal to her: “To be handed the cheque by Philip Pullman and have Linda Grant interviewing me for the Guardian, and shake Harold Pinter’s hand — all on one day!”

James has now published a second, very different novel. The central character of The Old Joke, set in Muswell Hill, in north London, is an ageing, once-glamorous film actress with an almost painfully devoted husband and two almost painfully distant, adult children.

“I wanted to write about getting old, because I am,” says James. “I’ve come to this writing lark rather late and wanted to experiment. The last book had been rather brooding. I wanted to make this one funny. My husband saw a picture of a woman in the Observer who had been a star in the 1940s and we started talking about how she might be feeling now. The book took seed from that.”

That husband is Mike Reinstein, a music teacher and singer, whom James married in 1991. They live in the countryside near Brighton and perform together in a band called Out of the Hat. It was also in a band, when she was a teenager, that she met the husband of her first, brief marriage.

In fact, her life has always had a musical accompaniment. “In my late 20s I was working in Timothy White’s, the chemists, when I read that Nottingham Playhouse needed somebody to do the Barbara Dickson part in John Paul George Ringo … and Bert,” she recalls. “I applied and got the part, the first major thing I’d ever done.”

Having thus been launched into a singing and acting career in Willy Russell’s spectacularly successful Beatles musical play, James again followed in his and Barbara Dickson’s footsteps (“I sing nothing like her”), appearing in Russell’s Blood Brothers. “My first-ever singing engagement had been in a duo at school with my friend Pattie Palmer. Dad’s agent got us a gig at some club. I can’t remember where it was. All I can remember is that Harry H Corbett was sitting at the bar. We must have been quite nubile 14-year-olds and he was… charming,” she says, searching for the right word.

At 15, James was in her first folk group. At 16 she left home. At 17 she was pregnant — and married. These were colourful years in a colourful family.

“My mother was from New Zealand and left when she was 17 to study ballet in Paris. She came to London in the 1930s, did burlesque, married a South African man whose dance troupe she joined. She went with him to South Africa. They divorced and she went to work in my dad’s hair salon, which I think the father of his first wife had bought for him. Mum and Dad joined the army entertainment unit, and married.

“They left South Africa in 1946 and on Christmas Day arrived here, where I was born in 1947. Mum said I was conceived in Cairo, on a train. My parents separated when I was three and, so far as my contacts with my father were concerned, it was a typical 1950s divorce — Sunday lunches, phone calls and letters. I remember him coming to visit me at my boarding school when I was sick and bringing me Muscatel grapes, and the joy of him at the foot of the bed and those grapes, which were like nothing I had ever tasted.”

James’s first husband lives in America. Their son, Jonathan, is now in his 40s and living in Denmark. “He is married to a lovely Danish architect and they have a seven-year-old son. Jonathan is a nurse, having learnt Danish to an academic standard. I think there is an immigrant thing that when you go to another country you go about it with a will. Dad came here and worked his socks off. He had been a singer, dancer, actor in South Africa and within a week of arriving here he got a job in a film. He was a heavy, he could do comedy, had this extraordinary face, wonderful voice…

“He was recognised everywhere we went. It was a good feeling. He and my lovely stepfather, Johnny Grahame, who married my mum when I was nine, were really good mates. Johnny — who is also Jewish — is a jazz pianist. He played piano for Dad to learn Brush Up Your Shakespeare when he was in Kiss Me Kate at the London Coliseum in 1951.”

It was a great shock when James’s mother’s death, in 1977, came a matter of months after her father’s. She characterises her relationship with her mother as “entangled… when she was sober she was the best, witty, funny, fascinating. When she wasn’t, she wasn’t.”

Writing, singing and acting do not complete the collection of strings to James’s bow. Having given up acting “because it wasn’t who I am. I did it partly as a connection to my parents,” James is, like Mim, the protagonist of The Old Joke, an enthusiastic gardener. And, 20 years ago, she became an astrological counsellor, reading clients’ birth charts. But then, star-turns are something of a family tradition.

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