Novelist Liz Fremantle and jeweller Dinny Hall are such close friends they couldn’t imagine living apart – but where does Dinny’s partner Piers fit in?
Have you ever had that dreamy conversation with your girlfriends about the future? You know the one; it’s where you pledge to sell up and move in together once the planet has run out of single men and/or the children have left home. In theory, it makes perfect sense – until you realise that in practice a houseful of women would drive you bonkers. Oh, and you also have a partner, remember him? He’s definitely not a commune sort of guy.
But what about a cosy threesome? You, your soulmate and your best mate escaping to the country, far from the madding crowd and sharing pretty much everything. Yes, tongues might wag in the village shop, but a little gossip is a small price to pay for a thoroughly modern ménage à trois, as jewellery designer Dinny Hall has discovered.
When she and her partner Piers Blofeld (nephew of former cricket commentator Henry) moved out of London into a rambling farmhouse in Norfolk last year, she couldn’t bear the thought of leaving her best friend behind. And so she invited historical novelist Liz Fremantle to come, too. ‘I asked Piers how he felt about it first,’ says Dinny. ‘He replied that he’d expected Liz to be involved because he knew how close we were and as he also enjoyed her company, it seemed like a marvellous idea.’
As we all sit drinking coffee in the summer stillness of their garden, it’s easy to see why Dinny and Liz fell in love with the place. For Piers, a literary agent at Sheil Land Associates, this corner of Norfolk is his ancestral home; he and Dinny rent it from his elder brother Tom who inherited the sprawling Hoveton estate.
‘I’m a Londoner through and through,’ observes Liz, with a bemused sigh. ‘I love living somewhere so leafy, but Dinny is the only person in the world who could have persuaded me to leave the city.’ Blonde and willowy, Liz is a charming foil to Dinny, who is fabulously outspoken, with a take-no-prisoners sense of humour. Piers, by contrast, is the very embodiment of ancien régime good humour and well-bred affability.
‘The great thing about Liz being here is that I can wander off all day with a chainsaw and Dinny won’t feel abandoned,’ he says mildly. ‘We do things separately and together; Liz and I watch the football, whereas Dinny and Liz watch Strictly – it means I dodge that bullet. They also go to pilates, whereas Liz and I will accompany each other to literary events in Norwich or London.’
These three trailblazers reflect a key social shift in how older people are reassessing their lives. Academics call it co-housing; where people over 50 live in shared ‘intentional’ communities as a way of reducing social isolation – with its proven negative impact on both mental and physical health – and offering support to one another in the decades ahead. It makes sense now we’re all living longer.
It also makes for fun. Presenter Mariella Frostrup recently admitted she’s been begging female friends to move in with her and her husband, human rights lawyer Jason McCue, after her own jolly ménage à trois recently came to an end. ‘My best friend, who was living with us, went back to Florence and it’s very lonely without her,’ the 55-year-old mother-of-two said. ‘My life is bereft. I want her back.’
Here in East Anglia, Liz, Dinny and Piers are clearly making their threesome work. They spark off one another intellectually and laughter constantly bubbles up, as well it might; what could instil greater cheer than friends with benefits in a sylvan idyll? ‘Let’s make it plain: the benefits do not extend to the bedroom,’ points out Dinny firmly. ‘Only Piers and I share a bed.’
Liz adds her voice for extra emphasis: ‘We may be Bloomsbury in the Broads, but without the sex; the only meetings are of minds. Dinny and Piers are fabulous, good-looking people, of course they are, but that’s as far as it goes.’ This is slightly disappointing, not least because Liz has had relationships with both men and women in the past, which is, by definition, a thrillingly Bloomsbury Set thing to do. Piers puts paid to any lingering doubts. ‘Liz is an attractive woman but ours is a sibling type of relationship and the boundaries are so clear we’ve never even needed to speak about them,’ he says. ‘For example, I wouldn’t dream of popping over and asking Liz for a cup of sugar if we ran out. I’d drive to the shop.’
‘Would you really?’ asks Dinny in astonishment. ‘Honestly?’ echoes Liz.
‘Yes, and I have done just that,’ Piers says. ‘It’s a matter of principle.’
By this stage, you will have gathered that although the three technically live under the same roof, they reside in and rent separate cottages – albeit with an interconnecting door. Liz always knocks first if Piers is at home. Piers always knocks. Dinny and her schnauzer Bo wander about at will. ‘I think we’ve all reached the age where we are confident enough to speak up if something is bothering us,’ continues Piers. ‘But we’ve been here more than a year and nothing has come up, has it?’ Dinny and Liz aren’t listening because they are still pulling faces at his rather hardline sugar policy.
Dinny and Liz have been friends since their early 20s in London. Dinny was at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, Liz worked at high society magazine Harpers & Queen and each recognised a kindred spirit in the other. ‘We were drawn together because we liked each other but then we discovered a host of similarities,’ says Liz. ‘We both had unhappy relationships with our mothers and felt adrift; finding one another was like a homecoming.’
Liz went on to marry a Frenchman and moved to Paris where she worked at Vogue and had her children Alice (now 24) and Raphael (22), known as Raffie. Dinny married an Irishman and had a son, Lorcan (22). Raffie and Lorcan eventually attended the same prep school and are as close as brothers.
‘Through the years Dinny and I have laughed together and cried together, mopped each other up and celebrated each other’s triumphs,’ says Liz. ‘We married at the same time and are godmother to each other’s children – our marriages even fell apart around the same time.’ During good times and bad, they have supported one another, clutching tight through the darkest of tunnels until they emerged into the light. It is this that has helped their friendship endure.
‘The parallels between us are uncanny,’ says Dinny. ‘We are like sisters who never argue; in fact, my own sister is a bit jealous of my friendship with Liz. Possibly because I admire her so much for what she’s achieved in life; after a difficult start, she has spread her wings higher and wider than anyone I know.’
Liz looks at her, entirely startled by the unexpected tribute. ‘Oh look, I think I’ve got something in my eye,’ she fibs, brushing away a treacherous tear. Liz’s unsettled family life and unhappy childhood saw her expelled from two schools by the age of 15. She always knew she wanted to write fiction but decided she needed an education first. So after her marriage ended she undertook an English degree at the University of London’s Birkbeck College, followed by a master’s in creative writing. Meanwhile, Dinny’s eponymous jewellery business went stratospheric after her entire graduation collection was bought by luxury department store Liberty. Then the fashion designer Rifat Ozbek championed her work on the catwalk.
‘It was an amazing rock-star rise from nowhere,’ says Dinny. ‘I was selling in America and Japan and I was suddenly at the helm of an empire.’ Her fans included Christy Turlington and Madonna. ‘Then the recession struck and I almost lost it all. I’ve been through every conceivable up and down during my 35 years in business and cried on Liz’s shoulder every time.’ But Dinny weathered the storm, rebuilt her brand and now has six shops.
Liz published her first novel Queen’s Gambit in 2013, ten years after she began her writing career in earnest, and her critically acclaimed fifth book The Poison Bed has just been published. Meanwhile, back in 2009 Dinny and Piers met serendipitously through their sons, who attended the same school. Piers has two sons – Zephyr, 23, and Alexander, 20 – and when Dinny was visiting friends in Norfolk, Lorcan asked if he could visit Zephyr. The spark between Dinny and Piers, also divorced, was instant and they ended up staying for almost a week.
When Dinny moved in with Piers in Norfolk, they bought a London flat they now use as a
pied-à-terre during the week. Liz also kept on her flat for when she’s in town. They may eventually sell them both in order to buy a bigger place together, but for now they are revelling in their escape to the country. ‘Long before I met Piers, Liz and I used to talk about living together in some sort of feminist commune,’ says Dinny with a smile. ‘But I would loathe living with lots of women. I love the company of men: feeling like one of the boys.’
Piers is under no illusions about his gender: ‘Men act differently when there are women around,’ he says. ‘On their own they tend to slump into being depressed slobs. Dinny and I never run out of conversation and I certainly don’t take her for granted but I do find having Liz around is a nice reason to be on marginally better behaviour and there’s such a joy in sharing food together; it’s one of life’s greatest pleasures.’
Absence helps promote fond feelings; Piers and Dinny will regularly disappear to London on a Monday morning, returning on a Thursday night. ‘I’m not a needy person,’ explains Liz, who has a pair of poodles called Tony and Lola (a quirky homage to the Barry Manilow song ‘Copacabana’). ‘As a writer I crave solitude and in London I would go for days without talking to a soul, which isn’t ideal. Living here with Dinny and Piers means that I have companionship when I want it without having to compromise my work, and I look forward to weekends because I can dip in and out socially. Dinny is my sounding board for everything; she’s not just a gifted designer, she is the most candid, open-hearted person you will ever meet.’
The women’s mutual adoration aside, it’s worth noting that Piers’s connection to Liz is not solely through Dinny; there are common threads that unite them in the publishing field, so there is always much to talk about. And there are the children. ‘None of this would work if the kids didn’t get along,’ says Dinny. ‘We feel like a big blended family. I really enjoy a houseful of people coming and going. When the young people are here the place buzzes with energy.’ And when they’re not, it stands to reason an empty nest feels a lot less abandoned when your best friend is living next door.
Liz and Piers tend to have breakfast catch-ups because they are both early risers; but (presumably this is another of Pier’s principles) they each make their own coffee and engage in civilised chat over the garden fence. Dinny teases that his reaction if Liz were to appear one morning sharing a latte with a new alpha male (or indeed alpha female) has not yet been tested. Piers guffaws loudly and agrees he might be rather more on his mettle than usual.
‘One or two of my less evolved friends have struggled with the idea of our living arrangements on the grounds they can barely manage one woman never mind two,’ he adds drily. ‘But of course there’s no question of me managing either Dinny or Liz. I can imagine us here for the next 30 years if we live that long. The main thing is that right now this is a very happy place to be.’ As the sun passes the proverbial yardarm and the talk turns to literature, jewellery and those thistles that need weeding, it’s impossible not to agree that two may be company but sometimes three can make for the cosiest of crowds.
Tips for harmonious threesomes
- Lay out clear boundaries in advance
- Don’t live in each other’s pockets
- Good communication is key
- Don’t take each other for granted
- Little acts of thoughtfulness add to the feel-good factor
When three’s cosy…
When Ashton Kutcher was married to Demi Moore he had to get used to the presence of her ex, Bruce Willis. ‘At first it was difficult,’ said Kutcher. ‘You think, “He used to sleep with my wife,” but being with Bruce is normal now. We watch movies together, we talk about sport.’
Before he met Meghan, Prince Harry was famously happy to tag along with brother William and his wife Kate, and drop in for roast chicken at their apartment. ‘To have a big sister is very, very nice,’ he said.
Hugh Grant was a fixture in the life of his former girlfriend elizabeth Hurley while she was married to Arun Nayar. ‘Hugh is a part of our family,’ Hurley said. ‘We all go on holiday together.
Tilda Swinton’s lover Sandndro Kopp, far left, lived for several years under the same roof as the actress, her twins and their father, playwright John Byrne. ‘We are all a family,’ she said.
After Kate Beckinsale split from director Len Wiseman, near left, in 2015, she was often seen with her former husband Michael Sheen and his then partner, comedian Sarah Silverman. Appearing as a threesome on the red carpet felt so normal, she said at the time.
But, of course, the late Princess Diana notoriously complained that ‘There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded’ – referring to Prince Charles’s relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles.
The Poison Bed by E C Fremantle is published by Michael Joseph, price £12.99. www.dinnyhall.com