Friday 15 July 2016

Mrs Trefusis Retires...and reposts an old story to remind you of what she once was

Alas, dear readers,  I have so singularly failed to keep up with Mrs Trefusis as life has evolved, I am retiring her. I find I'm no longer very good at autobiographical writing, and as there are only so many words in me, I have discovered that the imaginative ones go into the great unfinished novel, and the rest go into keeping up with The Books That Built Me. She may well ride again, but for the moment, I'm taking the gold watch...

By way of a parting, I thought I'd re-post the the story of how Mr Trefusis and I ended up together, which I wrote in 2009, not long after I started blogging,  inspired by something the ineffable Belgian Waffling had written.
I've gathered all three episodes into one post. Well, someone said that reading things on a mobile phone was no impediment to the art of long-form writing...


Alas, disappointment awaits all tragic romantics: I seem not to have the depth of sentiment for 37°2 le matin. Beatrice Dalle would turn her nose up at the film script and sack her agent for suggesting it. Renee Zellwegger might consider it until the moment she realised it would require her to get fat again.
Mine is only an amour fou in the sense that it's utterly bonkers and quite silly. Sigh. I always wanted to be even a little bit poetic. But no.
This is not, I'm afraid, a tale of doomed love. There is nothing unrequited. No hopeless yearning. No notes slipped under the door, only to remain wedged under the carpet*. Then, as now, the only moonlight in the great Trefusis romance is in the gap between fusing all the lights and flipping the trip switch, candlelight is reserved for when we have people to dinner and need to disguise the parlous state of the paintwork. The closest we ever came to love songs was when I discovered a Michael Bolton CD in his possession. Reader, I nearly broke up with him on the spot: it's hard to deal with that kind of shocking truth. Another 'make or break' musical moment in our relationship came when I discovered Trefusis Major had downloaded Britney Spears' 'Pieces of Me' from iTunes. His defence was that he found it 'poignant'. Oh God, I thought, it surely can't get any worse.... Be not mislead by this: Mr T and I are devoted to one another. But Goethe would have walked on by and we'd be nothing more than colourful village rustics in the footnotes of a Hardy novel. But a nice cup of tea and a sit down is more my emotional style these days.
But so much is prologue. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that this whole story maybe prologue in an 'all gong and no dinner' sense. Tant pis. My story starts in the office, not too many months after 9/11. I am, unusually, single. I haven't been single since I was 18. Three -possibly four and a half - horribly serious long term relationships have come and gone, without so much as a wafer thin mint to pass between them, and now I've finally extricated myself from the latest kitchen sink drama I consider myself in retirement. Or more accurately, perhaps, in recovery.
My problem in relationships was always in inability to say no, so I'd find myself living with (and indeed, was once married to) entirely unsuitable people for years on end for a variety of entirely unsuitable reasons. Perhaps this might be something to return to, but for the moment you find me somewhere in early 2002 slaving over a hot spreadsheet being interrogated by my colleagues about why I'm so resolutely uninterested in putting some slap on and drinking vats of wine at an overpriced style bar in the interests of Being Chatted Up. But I know drinking wine on a thursday night is a merely the thin end of the wedge: some idiot will buy me a glass of sauvignon blanc and the next thing I know I'll be living with a balding photocopier salesman in a thirties semi in Cheam because I don't want him to be upset when I say I don't want to see him again. Go to the barber's often enough and you'll end up with a haircut. I don't want another bloody relationship, so I need to steer clear of all venues where relationships might be a possibility.
However, this being the moment of 'Sex and the City', I am rather intrigued by the notion of dating. As distinct from relationship. I surreptitiously watch a few episodes, purely in the spirit of research, SATC not being quite as, ahem, positive a viewing choice back then as it later became, and learn that dating appears to come without obligations. No one is going to start burning you CD's of Captain Beefheart's Ashtray Heart and insisting that their life will be ruined if you don't watch the directors cut of 'Last year in Marienbad' with them. What's more, one appears to be able to date several people concurrently, as long as one dates in the American sense ie no real physical contact.
This sounds like an excellent scheme. Dating. What I want is for someone to buy me expensive cocktails in hip hotel bars and laugh sycophantically at all my jokes. They don't have to do it twice, no one will be able to accuse me of being a porridge girl, easy to make but appalling to get off the saucepan afterwards. Alas, this is London in the very early noughties. All men have been dropped on their heads as adults and appear not to want to even wish an early thirty something girl a cheery 'Hello' in case she brandishes a set of ripe ovaries and a ticking biological clock in his direction. Datees appear to be in short supply. I am disgruntled.
"Internet dating" says Colleague A one afternoon, apropos of nothing.
"What?" say I, a swift, pithy response ever ready on your heroine's lips.
"Internet dating. Vast supply of ostensibly unattached men, all desperate to meet girls, not all of them photocopier engineers or Albanian refugees. Try it - it worked for my sister"
Why the hell not, I think. What can possibly go wrong? At worst I'll garner a few hilarious stories about putative serial killers and men with dishonourable intentions, and at best I may get a few expensive cocktails (and possibly cheap sex, though you should know that Mrs Trefusis is a woman of the highest moral probity and not easily parted from her virtue).
So I sign up immediately to one of the new fangled interweb dating sites and sit back happily as I watch the inbox of the iMac fill up with vast numbers of astonishingly normal looking thirty and forty something men, most of whom have their own teeth and hair. Admittedly, it takes me a few email exchanges to discover that GSOH doesn't stand for good salary own house, though I wish it did because i've always thought a sense of humour was an overrated commodity in a man. For the first time in my life I appear to be spoilt for choice - yes, I know they haven't met me yet, only my souped-up cyber-self - and I resolve to meet everyone who fits my stringent criteria (breathing, human, at least superficially male) for a coffee, and if they look promising, one of the aforementioned cocktails.
And so I embark on a thrilling frenzy of non-stop dating. Which is, predictably, Enormous Fun. There's only one slightly psychotic axe-murdering type and even the IT consultants are a laugh in their own trogloditic way.
And Mr Trefusis? Well, children, that will have to wait for another time....
*I read far too much Thomas Hardy as a child. Most deleterious to one's romantic benchmark.


So. Where were we? Ah, yes. I was getting into dating as a cure for serial monogamy. Well, when I say 'monogamy' I am of course excising from the record the rather non-monogamous episode with that scoundrel Vronsky on the grounds that it was more than 10 years ago and the Statute of Limitations has expired. But essentially, there I was in 2002, having missed out on the excitement of 'dating' as a teenager, assuming it was even invented in the 1980's which I doubt*, mad keen to make up for lost time and enjoy a misspent adulthood.
Ah, the possibilities of new technology. Anyone that tells you there aren't any single men in London has merely set their standards too high. There's no point insisting on tall, or dark, or handsome, or rich, or poetic, or athletic, or funny or whatever else it is women are supposed to want from a man: he's just as likely to be Mr Wrong. So it was with a spirit of adventure that I accepted an invitation from anyone who emailed me and could also spell and demonstrate correct usage of the apostrophe (oh come on... low standards doesn't mean no standards). In practice, this sometimes meant two dates a day. I hasten to add that this was the early days of internet dating, there were many, many more men than women on the more popular sites, so it was very much a supply/demand issue, rather me being especially delicious. Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. Or a coffee.
And so, for several weeks, I became Costa Coffee's best customer. I drank espressi with ad men, capucchini with the IT guys, machiati with lawyers (maybe it's the wig-like white foam?), San Pellegrino with journos and a diet coke with a former marine doing 'private protection work' for foreign nationals. He didn't progress to cocktails.
In the midst of all this coffee drinking (wired? Moi?) an email drops into my inbox. "I had to look up Manolo Blahnik**,” it says, “But I guess that means I'm not gay". There’s little more to go on, barely enough to prove proficiency with English grammar and punctuation. 'All-comers', I remind myself, encouraged by the fact that he’d at least had a look at my profile, and I click through to his, as taciturn as his email, yet with promising photos. However, though buff and intriguing in manner of ‘strong and silent’ Heyer hero, Manolo-Man lives Abroad. No sense in whetting one's appetite for someone who's 500 miles away from The Sanderson - look, it was the ne plus ultra of cool in those days. Times change. I send something relatively non-committal in reply and think no more about it.
This being the early days of online dating, there's a certain Austen-esque etiquette to the process. You don't scout round after a likely lad, they are obliged to come to you, and make some courteous remark indicating interest. If he has a face like Nosferatu and lists the cultivation of flesh-eating plants amongst his hobbies, the polite form of refusal is to thank him for his interest, and say 'you're not who I'm looking for right now: wishing you the best of luck with your search'. And after the consumption of coffee - Costa's baristas being every bit an assiduous a chaperone as Charlotte Bartlett was for Lucy Honeychurch - things either progress to a second meeting or there's an exchange of' you're not who I'm looking for etc' emails.
Some men give better email than others, though this is, sadly, no guarantee of fabulousness. I meet up with one promising chap and discover that whilst his body was designed by Apple, his mind is definitely Microsoft Windows 2000, and realise that his mate Cyrano must have been helping him with the fancier elements of his on-screen wooing. And then there are those who tick every box, can quote poetry, have no visible literacy problems and dress unobtrusively, but with whom there’s absolutely no chemistry whatsoever. Sigh.
Anyway, if I detail all of the very nice men I met during my dating frenzy, I’m never going to get round to the story of Mr Trefusis.
Perhaps I have attention deficit disorder, but after several weeks of caffeine overdose and more expensive cocktails and sycophantic laughter than I knew I wanted, I realise that I have Worked Through Some Issues –I’m a quick study – and am ready to work out What To Do Next.
This is what I’ve learned. Hold your breath and wait for the astonishing insights:
There are a zillion single men in London. I don’t need to go out with the first one who expresses an interest. Hah! I can now say ‘Thank you for your interest but not if you were the last man on earth’.
Being picky is silly. Everyone looks pretty promising after a lavender martini.
Martinis are like breasts. One's not enough. Three's too many.
Through-put is easy. Chemistry is elusive.
I decide I’m still not looking for Mr Right. But I reckon I could cope with Mr All-Right-For-Now . Maybe I could meet someone I liked enough to progress from a coffee and a cocktail to a trip to the cinema?

And what of Manolo-Man? Am I prepared to widen my dating territory outside W1? And what is the true identity of the International Man of Mystery? Will I work my way through The Sanderson's entire cocktail menu? Are you bored by this tale yet?

Wait for the next exciting*** instalment….
*I think we called it 'getting off with' and, if that happened more than once, 'going out with'.
**[about the only thing I'd put in my 'interests' box, not wanting my bluestocking tendencies to put prospective dates off]
***I realise this is a purely subjective judgement.


Enough of the specious nonsense. On with the plot or I'll lose my audience - yes, you three, I can see you yawning. It might be dull but it's my life and you'll enjoy it even if I have to bribe you with promises of champagne cocktails in Claridges.
So. It's Easter 2002. London is, as ever on a public holiday, empty of everyone and everything. Thursday's copy of The Evening Standard blows like tumbleweed around the legs of the Japanese tourists blocking the entrance to the escalator at Piccadilly Circus. All of my friends appear to have dashed off in a fit of giggling coupledom in the direction of Babington House or other hip Mr&Mrs Smith hangout. Honestly, that kind of behaviour is designed to bring the twisted spinster out in even the most resolute dating devotee. And when one's audience has disappeared, gathering petits amuses about lecherous lecturers or demented dentists begins to pall.
I mooch around for a bit on Good Friday, watching Audrey Hepburn in The Nun's Story and spend some time in front of the mirror draping a black scarf round my head, wondering if taking up Holy Orders might not be just the thing. And then, whilst idling on the internet - not nearly as fun as it is now, due to it only being web 1 point zero, or whatever it was called before it was 2.0 - a couple of more than fortuitous emails drop into my inbox. One is from Manolo-Man, with whom I've had a little desultory email exchange since the initial one-liner. The other is from Canadian Banker who, despite littering his emails with the kind of literary pretension guaranteed to get my pulses racing, has been irritatingly tardy in extending an invitation to meet. Being an ex-pat, he's evidently bored and home alone with the Audrey Hepburn box set too. Or possibly something a bit more rugged because I've just made him sound very gay. Maybe he was, albeit locked in a B&B Italia closet of his own choosing. I never stopped to find out.
Canadian Banker suggests getting together for the Modernism exhibition at the RA, and frankly, meeting for just a grande frappe latte at Costa isn't going to fill anything like enough of the long weekend stretching and yawning before me. But Manolo-Man's email is, curiously, much more intriguing. "I've had to come over on business, and I've stayed for the long weekend. Don't suppose you're free for dinner tomorrow night?" Well, the mountain has come to mohammed. MM is no longer in parts foreign, at least temporarily. Left to my own devices, Saturday dinner would be pasta with pesto at best: dinner in a proper restaurant with The International Man of Mystery is far to good to pass up on the grounds that I suspect he may be a man of few words. Yippee, I think, the weekend might not be miserable after all, send 'yes' replies to both invitations and nip off to start the laborious process of de-spinsterfying myself.
This involves more than an emergency Show Me Your Wardrobe session, though frankly it's a good job neither of the prospective candidates could have seen the Sweaty Betty yoga pants and a fleece so unattractive that I couldn't even have fancied myself. Obviously there's eyebrows to be plucked, face packs to be smeared on, hair to be laboriously blowdried, nails to be painted etc etc. God that I could have the time to go to this level of effort for anything these days. It's possibly so memorable because it's the last time I did. But it's relevant here, readers, because I break my golden rule: I shave my legs. Now, mistake me not - the hairy legs have nothing to do with sisterhood, though if you've been party to my rants about Observer Woman, you'll know that feminist is a much cherished word in my vocabulary. The unshaven legs were my tried, tested and trusted way of remaining chaste, despite all temptation and the most fervent persuasion. I have too much vanity to be in a situation where I get my kit off only to be unmasked as Mr Tumnus. But although I've read Freud's Psychopathology Of Everyday Life, consciously I believe I'm only defoliating because I have time to kill, rather than because my unconscious is almost certainly Up For It.
The following day, I present myself at the Royal Academy ticket office, and recognise Canadian Banker at once, he having helpfully worn an enormous pair of yellow Oliver Peoples sunglasses in the manner of Bono. Which he doesn't take off during the whole exhibition. In manner of Anna Wintour. We show off madly to each other, and nearly come to blows rushing to translate L.H.O.O.Q on Duchamp's Mona Lisa in a bid to prove that we're so damn cool we love a clever joke in a foreign language (though he cheated, obviously, being Canadian). He's utterly fabulous but really, we were too busy scoring points to notice if there was anything swirling in the undercurrent. And perhaps, dear reader, something has picqued my interest about the trappist with whom I'm due to have dinner....
Unfortunately for you, it's way past my bedtime, and this post has gone on long enough. To discover the true identity of Manolo Man, and to find out whether my unconscious knew what it was doing when it made me wield the Bic razor, you'll have to wait. Again. But I solemnly promise to finish the story next time, if only so I can get on with the business of telling you all about my super-strength British Botox.
Ok, here's a sneak preview for those of you who haven't already guessed the end: Manolo Man is, naturally, Mr Trefusis. But what's more, he's far from a man of few words and reminds me most spookily of favourite Heyer Hero, the Marquis of Alverstoke. Not only that, but I discover an Interesting Truth about myself. And yes, oh yes: Lady Luck has shone upon the future Mrs Trefusis and in the fullness of time, you'll get your happy ever after...Possibly in time for Valentine's Day.


He was taller than [she] had at first supposed, rather loose-limbed and he bore himself with a faint suggestion of swash-buckling arrogance.....he was dark, his countenance lean and rather swarthy, marked with lines of dissipation....*
Manolo-Man is something of a surprise: as I'm walking towards him through the stygian gloom of La Poule Au Pot, a Pimlico restaurant so busy doing authentic french paysanne bistro it could audition for a part in a Stella Artois commercial, I realise that contrary to internet dating protocol, Manolo-Man's photos have greatly understated his looks. He's channelling brooding byronic hero, euro-banker, officer-material and repressed output of English public school all at the same time. Not only that, but the fit of his jacket over his broad shoulders would not have disgraced Weston**. As Mr Trefusis -Manolo-Man being too flimsy a soubriquet for such substantial virility - stands up for me as I reach the table, I realise the dinner has distinct promise.
But the pleasing mien and elegant manners count for nothing compared to the real clincher of the evening. The waiter, straight out of central casting with white apron and superior attitude, comes over to talk about the specials or the wine list or some such, and Mr Trefusis, english as a scone or cricket or a red postbox, breaks into a volley of such fluent, flawless french, I can only gawp at him, captivated and drooling. Reader, early imprinting is not confined to dress sense. A pre-teen run-in with 'A Fish Called Wanda' left me fatally scarred: I go wild for a man who talks foreign and right now, listening to Mr Trefusis recite the menu, I feel like Wandawhen Otto speaks 'Italian'. Oh yes. Oh Yes.
I have absolutely no recollection what we talked about that evening, in English or in French. My pants had flown off at the moment he started on the parley-voo, and all thoughts of not being 'that kind of girl' and of reputation and respect and similar archaic nonsense had flown with them. The next thing I recall is sharing a bottle of Laurent Perrier in the bar of the Royal Court theatre, and brazenly asking him if his hotel was conveniently at hand.
One taxi ride later, I find myself clutched to his manly bosom, and, like Barbara Cartland, I shall leave you shut firmly on the other side of the hotel bedroom door. All I shall say is that my unconscious knew what it was doing when it prompted me to shave my legs in the bath that afternoon. Though such was the allure of Mr Trefusis, I doubt I'd have cared if they'd been bristly as a badger.
A month later, and apropos of absolutely nothing at all not least a conversation with me, Mr Trefusis announces to my father he's going to marry me. The fact that I heartily disagree with this at the time, and vehemently protest I don't want a relationship, hardly matters now, being mere detail and history. And that I finish with him, heartlessly and unceremoniously, halfway through a holiday in Venice a month or so after that, doesn't seem to put him off either. Mr Trefusis knows better than I that my dating days are done. He has set his cap at me, and eventually, I concede he's right.
The moral of this tale? Ignore anyone who tells you a man won't respect you in the morning***. Reader, I married him....
Seven years later, we're still living happily ever after. And because this is Valentine's Day, I should say something nice, and possibly even romantic. But I find that I've come over all British, and although I don't want sentiment, I shall probably eschew the writing of poetry in favour of a comradely and playful punch on the shoulder.
*Venetia. Damerel is one of Heyer's very best heroes.
** Another little detail for Heyer fans
***this is a moot point: it was after midnight, so technically it was the second date. That's my story and I've stuck to it til now despite it being utter nonsense
You tube: a fish called wanda- otto speaking italian

Sunday 1 May 2016


About eight years ago, when I started this blog, I started to ferret around the internet for other bloggers I might like and by a very happy alignment of the stars, I fell across Belgian Waffle, a then anonymous blog written by an English ex-pat about her life in Brussels, the job she hated, 'lesonfons'; her adored small children, and a menagerie of animals, including tortoises and a morose whippet called 'Weepette'. What became immediately clear was that whoever Belgian Waffling was, she wrote utterly superbly - funny, wry, satirical, often confessional, she could turn three hundred words on house dust into the most beautiful and gripping prose, taking one from laughter to tears and back to laughter again in a single post.

She and I became proper friends in actual non-online life and have been firm friends ever since. Back then, she and I were writing novels - Emma finished hers, ditched it and wrote a brilliant memoir called 'We'll Always Have Paris' (I'm still crunching the gears on the novel I began in 2009... I may finish it one day - I'm in awe of Waffle's productivity as well as her talent.)

We'll Always Have Paris, trying and failing to be French, was published last week and you can still, I think, read the first five chapters on The Pool. I challenge you not to want to buy it the minute you've read the first paragraph.

Anyway, Emma very kindly let me interview her about the book and about writing. I distracted her terribly with a conversation about Emma Bovary, which I've mostly edited out, but you can read it here on my Books That Built Me website. And Emma is joining me for her own Books That Built Me on 21st June.  Every ticket comes complete with a copy of We'll Always Have Paris and a glass of Bollinger with which to toast Emma's continued success.

We'll Always Have Paris: Trying and Failing to Be French, Emma Beddington is published by Pan Macmillan, price £12.99

Wednesday 6 April 2016


Hound Lodge was once a very luxurious home for the hounds of the Charlton Hunt: long before Goodwood House had central heating, the hounds had underfloor heating and every kind of treat. I daresay they even had a canine equivalent of their own butler. 
Here are the whelping kennels. Jolly nice they are too. If I had one of those in my garden, I wouldn't let the dog live in it, I'd turn it into my office.

Now that Hound Lodge has been immaculately restored and turned into a country retreat, it's the humans who live in the lap of luxury, though visiting dogs are very welcome - there are dog beds everywhere, a special dog menu (dogs are rumoured to get dog icecream for pudding - I wonder what flavour?), and someone on hand to wash muddy paws should they have had an enthusiastic romp through The Valdoe (a very pretty wood, with the requisite bluebells, and owls hooting at night). I didn't try the dog menu, of course, but dinner for people was glorious.

Each of the ten bedrooms is named after the hounds of the 'Glorious Twenty-Three' owned by the second Duke of Richmond in 1738. Mine was named after Dido, the leader of the pack. 
What a blissfully comfortable bed, possibly due to the mattress stuffed with sheep's wool from the Goodwood flock. I could have quite happily lived in that room - it was full of beautiful flowers and books 

and elegant objets. The bathroom was equally sybaritic - after a lovely trip to Goodwood House to gawp at the extraordinary art (Van Dyke, Veronese, Lely, Sevres porcelain, rather mindblowing) I submerged myself neck deep for a bathe in a delicious essence made from the pine needles from the Duke of Richmond's Scottish estates (I may have the pine detail wrong, but the jist is there), and read Elizabeth Taylor's In a Summer Season. By the time I'd gone properly lobster pink (to match the horrid Rita Ora nails), I was late to rejoin everyone in the drawing-room for cocktails.

Butlers? Oh, I'm an old hand with butlers now, she says, with a blasé shrug; When the lovely butler asks one if one would like something to drink, one simply says, 'Oh, a glass of champagne would be perfect, thank you.' and lo it appears.

After dinner, when we came back into the drawing room for coffee, I realised that one of these dogs

was looking at me from over the fireplace, very reprovingly, as if to purse its dog lips and say, 'I saw you have a second glass of Mersault, and now you've just asked the lovely butler for whisky.'
One has to get used to dogs staring at one at Hound Lodge - they're on every surface - 

even on the bookshelves - I rather wanted to settle down with the story of Bellman the lugubrious beagle. The fox gets a look in too from time to time -

This sweet china fox was in my room, sitting daringly on top of Siegfried Sassoon's Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man.
The stone fox looks out over the whelping kennels, immortalised in stone. 

I used to see Lucien Freud breakfasting at the Wolseley. He didn't breakfast on sherry. Nor did I.

Instead,  I had vast amounts of delicious bacon from Goodwood pigs, cured on the home farm. This Wedgwood china is gorgeous. I wish I could get away with it in West London, but although there are many foxes here, and an awful lot of hounds (well, French bulldogs mostly, round here, but dogs, anyway), it wouldn't do.

I came home and was rather disappointed to discover it wasn't nearly as nice as Hound Lodge - how quickly one becomes accustomed to the good life - and spent the evening assembling flat-packed furniture. The glamour.

Hound Lodge at The Kennels, Goodwood, Chichester. Bring a dog, or borrow someone elses.

Tuesday 5 April 2016

The Digital World is Complicated

Perhaps it's not so much complicated as hard to tidy. I switch on my iPhone every morning and the entire internet falls on my head, as if I've inadvertently opened a messy cupboard. 

It's not simply that I'm lured into trying to read the whole of the Internet before breakfast (heartwarming stories of pet rescue found on facebook, a link on Twitter to a - very long -  Paris Review interview with Norman Mailer, essential hunt for interesting British stone circles inspired by someone mentioning Julan Cope on Instagram, not to mention reading all my email and the Guardian) it's the writing too. I have developed an unhelpful sense that if I don't keep posting stuff on the plethora of social platforms I will somehow cease to be.

Looking at the last date I posted anything on Mrs Trefusis, you could be forgiven for imagining I have ceased to be. I realised earlier this year that The Books That Built Me needed its own internet home, rather than boring on here about all the novels I like. There is an awful lot of Internet to be done. I have discovered there are no half measures: it is impossible to be a little bit Internet.  Either one goes completely dark (imagine, what would one do with all the spare time?) or pushes one's sleeves up, grabs a metaphorical digital spade and gets stuck in.

Anyway, enough prologue, if you like the books stuff it can be found at Mrs Trefusis had better revert to what it once was, a kind of diary of a not very provincial lady. What is the opposite of provincial? Would it be metropolitan? The Diary of a Metropolitan Lady sounds infinitely more ritzy than it ought. It sounds as if I should be sleuthing round with a cigarette holder in one hand and a cocktail in the other, solving crimes. I'm not. On one hand I have a disgusting white nail varnish like tippex (it looks pale pink in the bottle but it's unspeakably naff on the nail). On the other hand I have painted a single nail bubblegum pink from a range I discover, on closer acquaintance with the bottle, is by Rita Ora, which should have told me everything I needed to know about the unsuitability of the colour. 

I panic-bought both bottles of nail varnish in Boots on my way to Waterloo, having realised my nails were repulsive in their natural state. Poor lighting must have thwarted my quest for something unobtrusively neutral. 

I particular wanted to look better groomed than usual because I'm on my way to the Goodwood Estate, to the Hound Lodge. It sounds like the last word in luxury: one has one's own butler (what will I do with my own butler? The problem with modern metropolitan life is that it leaves one entirely unprepared for having staff, even if one only has staff very temporarily). How does one make a good impression? I don't want my butler raising his eyebrow about me below stairs, like in Downton Abbey. I have been racking my brains for literary examples - one never sees the servants in Nancy Mitford or Waugh so they're no help as a behaviour guide. I can only come up Jeeves and Wooster and am now worried that my butler might remark that my evening jacket is 'rather exuberant' and I will have nothing to offer but some excuse about the style being favoured by the chaps at Drones.

Hound Lodge has ten bedrooms and sounds heaven on earth: when I arrive I have the promise of tea (I'm assuming proper teapots and good cake and so on), followed by a potter around the Van Dykes and Rubens at Goodwood House itself, or feeding lambs at the farm. I will have to keep my unbecomingly painted hands in my pockets. 

Sunday 17 January 2016


Louis De Bernieres

Louis de Bernieres is the best-selling author of Captain Corelli's Mandolin, The Dust that Falls from Dreams, Birds Without Wings and A Partisan's Daughter.  Throughout his life he has written about matters of the heart, and with poetry his first and greatest literary love, he is about to publish a beautiful collection of love poetry: Of Love & Desire, with influences ranging from Pablo Neruda to the classical Persian poets. I have been dipping into the collection over the Christmas and New Year break, and it's evocative, lyrical and alternately witty and poignant: I adore it - it's quite rekindled a long dormant love of poetry in me.
Here is one that particularly touched me, called A Short Night

[After Sappho]
I do remember that night that fled so fast,
When we were golden, beautiful and young,
When dawn surprised us from her yellow throne
And filled the room with gathering song.

Your face shone back at me, your lovely hair
Spread out across your breasts, your hand caressed
My face. You said, Let's always remember this.'
I said, 'I wish these nights were twice as long.'

Of course, Louis is best known for his novels - from the inventive magical realism of his early novels set in South America to the captivating Captain Corelli and The Dust That Falls from Dreams. His trademark wit and charm, coupled with his brilliant characterisation and great skill with language have made him one of our best-loved authors, and I can't wait to discover the books that he loves too. There's something of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts - will 100 Years of Solitude be one of the books that built him?

Join us on 9th February as we talk about how the books Louis de Bernieres loves meet the books he writes.

Saturday 9 January 2016



'Stop. Cut. Jesus, whatever directors usually say.' The director, raking his hands through floppy, Brideshead hair, frowned wearily in the general direction of Lady Bracknell. 'Try 'A handbag.' again, and this time, less 'Kenneth Williams plays Edith Evans', more - I don't know - more bewildered.'

'A handbag?' [faintly]

'No, that won't work either. Try sounding exasperated'

'A handbag.' [plaintively]

'Christ, how many times? No sodding Edith Evans. Go again.'

'A handbag' [challengingly] 


'A hand ... bag?' [tentatively]


'A handbag.' [wearily]

'And again.'

Rehearsals for the University Drama Society's production of The Importance of Being Earnest were not going well. It wasn't simply that the director's expectations were bafflingly high: Rehearsal Room B was right behind the main stage of the Student Union and any Lady Bracknell would struggle to make herself heard against a Motörhead sound-check - UEA being the default East Anglian concert venue in those days, the band were due on later that evening and from the sound of it were rehearsing as hard as we were.
Anyway, our director, flushed with the triumph of his 'Look Back in Anger' the previous term - some even said the cast's heroic battle with a collapsing ironing board added a symbolic dimension - was determined to put his own stamp on Wilde's classic - perhaps he hoped people might later refer to it as 'The Jonty Jones' Importance'. Jonty had updated the production to the nineteen twenties - motivated less by artistic intention than by availability of costumes, most of which had done service in last year's  Present Laughter. He cast a man as Lady Bracknell - very radical for the 1980's - and we had instructions to rehearse wearing a part of our costume, and with the odd prop so that we might better inhabit the role and collapse the artificiality of Wilde's mannered dialogue. I'm afraid, as Gwendolyn, I didn't take this terribly seriously; the best I managed at rehearsal was to fish a Letts diary and a pair of broken spectacles from my pocket ('Mama, whose views on education are remarkably strict, has brought me up to be extremely short sighted') but others of our troupe were more method. An aspididstra appeared. Miss Prism invariably brought a toaster, so we might eat muffins unrepentantly in the second act, there was a battered briefcase (barely big enough to have concealed a baby in a railway station cloakroom but still), Canon Chasuble had borrowed a chasuble from a friend at the Cathedral, Jack Worthing had taken up smoking ('a man must have an occupation of some kind') and Lady Bracknell wore a large picture hat, white gloves, a feather boa and a Cupid's bow of scarlet lipstick beneath his moustache. Our director had the added challenge of directing himself as Algenon, and wore tweed plus twos and a ritzy pair of co-respondent shoes. No one brought any cucumber, there being none available, not even for ready money.

Every term, the cool kids in DramSoc got to do a Brecht or a Beckett for an audience of about seven and to rave reviews from the university paper's drama critic, who smoked a pipe and referred to himself entirely unselfconsciously as 'channelling the late, great Kenneth Tynan'. Every term, the less cool but more commercially-minded members of the society underwrote the inevitable losses of Great Art with a play that guaranteed bums-on-seats: the people of Norwich would turn out for endless Coward or Wilde at a tenner a ticket and so we balanced the books. Credibility was sacrificed on the altar of a full-house and cash-flow traded for predictably poor notices: there was little evidence of a Tynan-shaped Spirit Guide in the critic who wrote after the first night of The Importance of Being Earnest, 'Jonty Jones' Algernon Moncrieff has all the aplomb of a wet Labrador in a production neither important nor earnest.' Fortunately, no one read the University newspaper, and as any actor will tell you, rapturous applause trumps a would-be hack's savaging any day of the week. Fortunately, as long as it was Wilde or Coward and nothing too avant-garde, and you said the lines and didn't fall over the furniture, the good people of Norwich would still come and see it, regardless of how you tinkered with the detail, and were very good at clapping, particularly if you added a strong clacque of parents to the middle of the stalls.

So there we were, less than three weeks to curtain up, full of enthusiasm, telling ourselves that saying our lines against the thrash of drum and guitar was good practice for projecting to the back of the circle, as Jonty Jones became more and more frustrated by the delivery of the play's most famous line, his tweeds bristling with artistic ill temper.

'Let me hear it again.'

Lady Bracknell burst into noisy tears at the very moment the rehearsal room door was flung open by a skinny, long-haired, rather grubby looking man - be-jeaned and be-leathered. 'What the fucking fuck is this?' he said. 
'Lemmy. Blimey. I mean, gosh, Mr erm ... Lemmy,' Jonty Jones glided obsequiously towards Motorhead's lead singer, flicking back the Brideshead hair, 'How do you do?'
Lemmy ignored the outstretched hand and glared terrifyingly at the assembled company. Seen through his eyes we were a sorry sight, like refugees from the set of It Ain't Half Hot, Mum. With the exception of Lady Bracknell, who stopped sobbing and gave Lemmy a saucy, appraising look from underneath the brim of the picture hat, evidently harbouring fantasies of being carried off on the back of a Harley, we all imagined he might call the roadies in to give us a good going over with a length of bicycle chain. 'What the fuck are you doing in my Green Room?' Said Lemmy.
'This is a rehearsal of The Importance of Being Earnest - do you know Wilde? Er, no?  Well, you'll find the Green Room on the other side of the corridor - just go back out and the door is right in front of you.'
Lemmy turned on his cowboy boot heel and stalked off. As he slammed the door  behind him, the opening bars of 'Eat the Rich' came pounding through the breeze blocks that separated us from the gig.

Jonty Jones undid and re-tied his cravat in a more pleasing shape and turned back to Lady Bracknell.
'Lady Bracknell, Jack? Let's take it from "You can take a seat, Mr Worthing"' 

Monday 4 January 2016


The Box Set: A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell
A Dance to the Music of Time is a captivating, witty, caustic glimpse into the upper reaches of British society beginning sometime after the end of the First World War and ending in the sixties: it's somewhere between Proust A La Recherche du Temps Perdu and Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga and, like both, runs into volumes, individually of varying brilliance, but a masterpiece taken as a whole. I read the First Movement last summer - the twelve novels of the cycle are much more easily digested in four parts. Don't be tempted to set yourself a target of a book a month for twelve months: like a good telly box-sets, it's designed for bingeing on, gobbling as much of its deliciousness as one can manage in a single sitting. It's not for ekeing out into smaller portions, not least because one will lose track of the marvellous and numerous characters who wander in and out of the narrative, and whose rediscovery at different points in their lives is one of the many pleasures of this great literary treat.

The Greatest British Novel (as voted for by the rest of the world)*: Middlemarch, George Eliot
I'm ashamed to say I've read very little George Eliot: I can only think it's laziness. Middlemarch is not a short novel at nine hundred pages, and it's utterly impossible to skim read it, as I discovered when Deborah Moggach chose it as one of her Books That Built Me. I read enough to recognise why Moggach loves it so, and why Woolf described it as "a magnificent book... one of the few English novels written for grown up people.' I began it anew over the New Year break and resolved to read and savour slowly - it is a literary superfood after all.   
*the BBC recently polled 82 critics from Australia to Zimbabwe, but none from the UK, to discover the greatest British novel (from a non-British perspective) - see the list here

The Blind Spot: Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens
I didn't dare confess to Susan Hill, a Dickens devotee, that I had never read Little Dorrit. Nor did I let on that I was secretly relieved when she swapped Little Dorrit for A Christmas Carol for her Books That Built Me. However, if she feels it is Dicken's greatest novel, that's good enough for me. 

The 'Greatest comic novel of the twentieth century': Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis

Fond as I am of other members of the Amis family - Elizabeth Jane Howard, Martin Amis - I've boorishly written off Kingsley as too misanthropic and curmudgeonly to be bothered with. This breaks one of my few rules; to judge the work and not the artist and I'm rather ashamed of myself.
Christopher Hitchens believed Amis managed to 'synthesise the comic achievements of Evelyn Waugh and P.G Wodehouse' in Lucky Jim, and Amis remains one of only two comic novelists to have won the Booker Prize (the other is Howard Jacobson). So, I shall give it a go,