Did you have a childhood sweetheart

Edwina Currie, former MP and novelist

He was five. So was I.

We lived in a cul-de-sac of eight small semis called Meadow Way on the edge of Liverpool, and we were baby boomers. The neat houses backed onto a real meadow (long since built over), where our gang played happily, me with my little brother in tow, led by the oldest girl, Gail Harcombe. We came home for our teas, covered in mud, with scraped knees, having been pirates or cowboys and Indians or sea captains – it was Liverpool, after all. His name was John. Come to think of it, their names were often John in later years (current husband included).

John had a solidity I warmed to, blue eyes and fair hair, the strong and silent type. I told him I would marry him as soon as we were old enough.

Disaster struck. In that hot 1951 summer, Gail came home with a headache and ended up in an iron lung: polio.

My mother became fearful; within a year, we had moved to Childwall, to be closer to our grandparents. We made new friends, as children do. Decades later, I was signing books at a northern bookshop when a lady in a wheelchair approached. “Hello, Edwina! You don’t recognise me, do you?” – a greeting that usually has me murmuring, while frantically stirring my memory, “Ah, it was a long time ago.” It was Gail, whose life of disability had not quenched her spirit.

We became friends again and this time stayed in touch. Then she became ill, was neglected shamefully in hospital, and died too young. I went to the funeral. There, among the red squirrels and pine trees of Southport Cemetery, was a stolid middle-aged man with gentle blue eyes. “I’m John,” he said.

“And you are still gorgeous,” I replied. And I meant it.

Rachel Johnson journalist

We moved around a lot when I was a child, so it was hard to put down roots anywhere. When I was six, I was at Primrose Hill primary, and even though David Miliband was in my year, I was inseparable from a boy called Stephen Devaney, who lived in Mornington Crescent. I included him in family drawings, and would play with him every day after school.

That perfect relationship was ruptured in 1973 by the UK’s accession to the EEC and our move to Brussels, where we were sent to the bilingual European School and placed in its burgeoning English section. My abiding memories of the school are the daily three-course hot lunch, the pitched battles with the Germans (and, curiously, the Danes) in the playground, and the annual trip to the Alps, where we did classes de neige: skiing in the morning and lessons in the afternoon.

I was in love with a handsome, dark-haired boy called Diccon Close, but I sensed, aged eight, he was out of my league.

One evening, all the girls decided that we’d storm the boys’ dorm and each kiss the one we liked. I ended up pinning a poor scrap called Peter Murphy on a bed and kissing him so hard, he banged his head against the wall and burst into tears. I think he found the whole episode a terrible shock and if he’s reading this now I’d like to say sorry. I hope I didn’t put him off women for life.

Jilly Goolden wine critic

Physically, I was advanced for an 11-year-old, but I was a tomboy trapped in a teenager’s body. The only thoughts of “love” I had were for my pony.

My parents had some friends, new to the village, and asked them to supper. They suggested bringing their 13-year-old son – my brother's age. As my mother prepared the dining table for her guests, I made a miniature replica with candles and napkins in the hall. Everything was ready for the arrival of Grant, who was going to have supper with me and my brother.

Now, that was an extremely misleading start. Grant was very handsome and charming and much, much more sophisticated and worldly than I was. And he got thoroughly the wrong idea: his mind turned not to boys’ games, but romance. Grant went away to boarding school, and luckily the “dinner” was at the end of the holidays.

You can't beat a holiday romance...

At first, I could manage the letters that arrived, and was very happy to see him at half term. At my convent school, he became quite a trophy, and it all seemed to spin along just like I imagined a boy/girl thing would, according to the young girls’ magazines I read. But Grant didn’t read the same magazines, that’s for sure!

After a trip to the cinema and a couple of hand-holding incidents, maybe even a fleeting kiss, he returned to school and then began quite a different sort of letter. Grant started to write to me about love. Love! That exclusive feeling I reserved for my pony. I hid the letters from my mother in embarrassment – and burnt them when she was out.

The next time he came home again, so handsome but alarmingly full of ardour, he trapped me in the stable and pushed the pony aside, lunging for a proper kiss. I was a great disappointment to him, he said, and he found a girl older than him instead.

I still see him occasionally now. He’s still handsome. Still a romancer. And still a swashbuckling batchelor.


Virginia Ironside agony aunt

As I was at a rather strait-laced girl’s day-school in London in the Fifties, run by my great-aunt, the idea of having a sweetheart wasn’t ever part of the curriculum; the emphasis being on good manners, moral behaviour and Norman architecture.

But at about 12 years old, at a party organised by one of Sir Hugh Casson’s daughters at the Royal College of Art (a daring affair), I met the son of an old friend of my parents, not only an Etonian but a member of the elite Pop, no less. I was utterly bowled over by his charm – though clearly he had no interest in me. After the party, I thought of him endlessly. Frequently, after doing my prep, I would toil up to the house where he lived, and stare mournfully into the lighted windows, wondering if he might be home for the weekend, hoping that I might “bump into” him. No such luck.

I did, however, re-meet him about 15 years ago. Now he’s a retired lawyer and happily married with children. I told him of my childhood crush.

“Ah, if only I’d known at the time!” he said, ever gallant.

And, had my age and upbringing not prevented it, I probably would have fallen for him all over again.

Virginia Ironside’s latest book is Yes! I Can Manage Thank You! (published by Quercus).

Richard Madeley broadcaster

It was Christmas. Well, nearly. The last day of term before the holidays. The atmosphere somehow seemed more intense than on Christmas Day itself: teachers in silly hats strolling through the corridors; us kids frantically rehearsing for that afternoon’s nativity in front of the parents. We were dizzy with excitement. I was Third Shepherd with just the one line. “Look upon yonder star!” I unfailingly cocked it up.

“Mary” was Julie. Julie Butcher. Blonde, eyes like huge blue saucers, absurdly pretty and calmly self-contained. She was fabulously dressed in blue floor-length cloak, head shawled in cream and gold habit; feet shod in neat gold sandals. I was in love with her. I had been since our first dress rehearsal the week before. I thought she was magnificent. We were both eight.

Outside, it had started to snow. Our dull grey concrete Essex playground was transformed into a field of white. I longed to take her outside and build a snowman just for her, in her honour. But we had a performance to deliver.

I had never been in love before and I lurched between dizziness and nausea. The worst of it was, when the play was over I wouldn’t see her for two whole weeks. A fortnight, when you are eight, is a lifetime.

So I screwed my courage to the sticking point and after the performance, I walked over to her as she whispered and giggled with her co-star, “Joseph”. Nigel Woods, the swine. Once my best friend, how I hated him now.



“Next Saturday, will you come with me to Saturday morning pictures?”

“I dunno. I’ll have to ask me mum.”

I didn’t see her again that day. Her best friend, Faye Barker, was dispatched to give me the bad news.

“Julie says to tell you that her mum thinks she’s a bit young for that kind of thing.” An unforgettable, crushing rejection.

Still, at least I still believed in Santa Claus.