Sunday, 12 April 2015


The Books That Built Andrew O'Hagan: pictured here with Penhaligon's Nyetimber English sparkling wine, 
'If my writing is about any one single thing,' said Andrew O'Hagan at The Books That Built Me, 'It's about the precariousness of identity'.

The Illuminations, O'Hagan's latest novel (Faber £17.99), deftly and movingly explores themes of identity in the combined narratives of former photographer, Anne Quirk, and her ex-soldier grandson, Luke Campbell. It articulates brilliantly the sense that no one is only one thing, in the way that Woolf, and Stevenson and Dostoevsky - Luke is a rare soldier 'who knows that Browning is not just a small arms weapon', Anne is the alzheimer-suffering occupant of an old people's home whose past life comes back to her in increasingly illuminating flashes. We are about the omissions and the yearnings and the latent desires and the ways in which others see us, at the same time as we say 'That's not me,' or 'I'd never do that', as if our identities are somehow a fixed point.  And if selfhood and the way identity is constructed is the thread that runs neatly through O'Hagan's writing life, whether fiction or non-fiction, then so too are the books he selected to show what has inspired and delighted him along the way.

The books that built Andrew O'Hagan

1. The Penguin Book of First World War poetry
The first job O'Hagan had after graduating and leaving Scotland for London was at St Dunstan's, a charity for blind ex-servicemen, some of whom had fought in the First World War -  'Sassoon's men called by bugles from the sad shires'. Their voices echo down the years through the poetry.

2. I am David, Anne Holm
I can't believe I'd never read I Am David as a child - it's an atmospheric and moving story of a boy who escapes the prison camp where he's lived all his life - he has no idea who he is, he has no idea of his origins, all he has is his name, yet he has a strong and immediate sense of self.  Andrew O'H and I grew up in a world dominated by the Iron Curtain, and it's almost impossible to imagine the how divided the world was until relatively recently.

3. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde offers an extraordinary metaphor for the power an author has to reveal the hidden lives and desires of their characters to readers, the things that can't be seen by the people around them.

4. Norma Jean, A Biography of Marilyn Monroe, Fred Lawrence Guiles
If Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is about the divided self, the same is true of the myth of the divided Marilyn - Guiles is responsible for concreting into the popular imagination that the 'real' Marilyn Monroe is Norma Jean. I adored Andrew O'Hagan's last novel, The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, And Of His Friend, Marilyn Monroe, in which we get Monroe through yet a further lens, that of the imagined opinions of her maltese terrier and I remember reading an interview in which A O'H wrote she was 'a woman who had somehow been erased as a woman and replaced with mythology', but Norma Jean is in the list less as a way of illuminating that novel, though it does, or so that we can talk about the role of writers in constructing a public identity for their subjects, though we do, but because it's the only book A O'H remembers his father giving to him. A bookish child in a resolutely un-bookish family, it's an oddly touching and tender gift (and who knows, without it, would Maf the Dog have ever been written?)

5. The Executioner's Song, Norman Mailer
Mailer, of course, was famously accused of cribbing vast swathes of Guiles' Norma Jean for his own Monroe book, a work he called 'a species of novel', or 'a novel biography'.  A O'H got to know Mailer well when interviewing him for The Paris Review [wonderful, read here], and like A O'H, Mailer is that rare breed of writer who moves adroitly between fiction and journalism - we talked a lot about A O'H's work for the LRB, particularly the brilliant account of his aborted attempt to ghost-write Julian Assange's autobiography.

6. The Girls of Slender Means, Muriel Spark
Set in 1945 in a shabbily genteel boarding house for young ladies, in the same part of Kensington that A O'H lived in when he first moved to London, The Girls of Slender Means is one of Spark's finest novels. She's savagely brilliant in the economy of her prose, and no character emerges unscathed - some are literally not slender enough to live. If you've never read Spark, or are only vaguely aware of her from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, do please immediately get hold of a copy of The Girls of Slender Means. Stylistically, A O'H has been compared to Spark, though if this is the case he's infinitely kinder to his creations.

The next Books That Built Me is with Lissa Evans, author of the Bailey's Prize long-listed Crooked Heart, on 28th April. Do join us.

Thank you to Prestat once again for the delicious goodybag chocolate.

Sunday, 5 April 2015


I took the Tiniest Trefusis and her friend to the Rubens exhibition at the Royal Academy today, on the pretext that it's terribly important for children to experience High Culture at an early age, but really because I couldn't face another morning confiscating all the screens in the house to try to prevent the Infant Trefusii from watching yet more Mermaid rubbish on Netflix. 
The Rubens is quite wonderful, and even if you're there on your own I recommend acquiring the children's Art Detective leaflet, much more entertaining a way of looking at Ruben's paintings than the grown up equivalent, I'll bet. The infants were quite agonisingly well behaved, sitting quietly for ages in the room about Ruben's ceiling paintings (reminded me of what a complete treasure the Banqueting House is), drawing their own designs for a decorative ceiling on their leaflets - the TT's of an apotheosis of Ninja Cats were unorthodox but inventive. 
There were only two slightly dodgy moments - right at the beginning when The TT ran towards the sculpture in the courtyard (pictured) shrieking 'climbing frame' (I moved fast), and then later, when her friend thoughtfully stuck her finger into the middle of one of the fried eggs on Sarah Lucas' 'Two fried eggs and a kebab' ... I had visions of running across the road to The Wolseley to beg for a well done fried egg to replace it, and smuggling it in under my coat and onto the Sarah Lucas table before the RA realised the original had a hole the size of a seven year old's finger in it. Fortunately, on closer inspection, it seemed no harm was done, and I hurried them back into the room of Ruben's fleshy naked ladies before questions could be asked. 

Thursday, 2 April 2015


left; Ca' D'Oro, Venice - one of the daguerreotypes owned by Ruskin, discovered by the Jacobsons. Right; Ruskin's watercolour of C'a D'Oro

Ruskin's marvellousness always seems to get a bit lost in the whole Effie saga: it's such a shame that a man whose extraordinarily wide-ranging contribution to 19th Century culture seems to be remembered now mostly because he couldn't (or wouldn't) make love to his wife on their wedding night. (And here I am, bringing it up again in a most Daily Mailish fashion). But Ruskin was a critic, novelist, artist, patron, philanthropist, proto-environmentalist and socialist who believed passionately in the power of art to transform the lives of people - as Tolstoy said of him, he 'was one of those rare men who think with their hearts'. 

I first became aware of him because I developed a teenage obsession with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, in love with Rossetti and Holman Hunt at about the time when my peers were mad about Simon Le Bon and Adam Ant (in retrospect I can quite see why I was considered an eccentric child - let's just say I grew into myself). Ruskin defence of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in a letter to the Times saw a dramatic shift in critical and popular perception of pre-raphaelitism, and their commitment to 'naturalism' was greatly influenced by his writings. Later, when I discovered that one of my forebears had been friends with Ruskin at Coniston towards the end of Ruskin's life, it sealed the deal - I would be forever a Ruskin devotee.

Ruskin's skills as watercolourist are well known, but he was also a very early proponent of photography, working with daguerreotype soon after its invention in 1839 by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre. The Daguerreotype was the first publically announced photographic process: the photographic impression rests on the surface of a shiny silvered-copper plate and each daguerreotype contains a unique image with no negative - Ruskin bought daguerreotypes but also took them himself (apparently with the aid of his valet, isn't that marvellous? I'm convinced I could do so much more if only I had a valet too), creating one of the most extensive collection of daguerreotypes of Venice and probably the earliest surviving photographs of the Alps, much of which was thought lost until a lot of 188 daguerreotypes - more than half those Ruskin was believed to own- turned up in an auction in Penrith a little over nine years ago. The lot was bought for £75,000 (rather an increase on the original estimate of £80 - the auctioneers can hardly known what they were sitting on) by Ken and Jenny Jacobson, dealers in historic photographs, who have carefully researched, restored, conserved and catalogued them.
The result, Carrying Off the Palaces: John Ruskin’s Lost Daguerreotypes, written by the Jacobsons and published by Quaritch, tells the story of their discovery, of Ruskin's use of photography and its relationship to his watercolours. I've put one of the daguerreotypes with Ruskin's watercolour of the same scene at the top of this page: the Ca' D'Oro had been bought by a rather flighty ballet dancer and was being restored - Ruskin paints only the unrestored portion and leaves the rest deliberately blank. The book also serves as a fully illustrated catalogue raisonné of the 325 known John Ruskin daguerreotypes and the overwhelming majority of newly-discovered plates are published here for the first time. As Jacobson says, "Ruskin’s daguerreotypes would be a sensational new revelation in the history of photography even if he were completely unknown. We hope the work will be as intriguing to others as it has been to us.”
Seeing the book and some of the daguerreotype's at the book launch made me once again marvel at the breadth and ambition of Ruskin's achievements: he is truly the polymath's polymath.

Of the three daguerreotypes above, the first was taken by a photographer known as the Frenchman, the two beneath by Ruskin with the assistance of John Hobbs, his valet. 

This, also by Ruskin: it must have felt a breathtaking miracle to be able capture with such precision and in such exquisite detail what one had only previously been reproduceable  as an artist's impression. It's making me come over all Walter Benjamin.

I'd like to say a huge thank-you to Quaritch's Alice Ford-Smith, who I first met when she came to Sarah Churchwell's Books That Built Me, and who invited me to the launch of Carrying Off The Palaces, with my great friend, gallerist and Ruskin scholar, David Wootton.

Carrying Off the Palaces: John Ruskin’s Lost Daguerreotypes by Ken Jacobson and Jenny Jacobson can be purchased online at Publication date: 19 March 2015 – ISBN 9780956301277 – Price: £85 – 432 pages (including 601 illustrations). Hardback. 

Founded in London in 1847, Bernard Quaritch Ltd sells rare books, manuscripts and photographs to private and institutional clients across the globe. Specialisms include photography, the history of ideas, science, travel, the fine arts, English and international literature, Islamic and European manuscripts, and early printed books. Further information:

Bernard Quaritch Ltd
Antiquarian Booksellers since 1847                          Tel.: + 44 (0) 20 7297 4850
40 South Audley Street                                                 Fax: + 44 (0) 20 7297 4866
London W1K 2PR                                                          Email:                                                              

Tuesday, 31 March 2015


The last fortnight has been rather frantic.  The Infant Trefusii and I have our birthdays in a mid-March Piscean cluster, which always creates its own kind of chaos, I hosted Andrew O'Hagan at The Books That Built Me, went to the Basel Watch Fair, collapsed in a heap, picked myself up, went to Paris to see more clients, and today I'm in Milan for a lunch at Villa Mozart, the beautiful home of jeweller Giampiero Bodino for a lunch with the super-yacht owning readers of Boat International.

Added to which, a number of work deadlines fell on top of me, like opening the door on an untidy cupboard, leaving me clutching my season ticket to The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul. The best one can say is that all the travelling has given me an excuse to escape into novels, making a journey into someone else's imagination is the only holiday I can take at the moment. 

The Dynamite Room is Jason Hewitt's first novel, the thoughtful, polished product of his Creative Writing MA at Bath Spa: a follow up is due in June. Set in a remote Suffolk village during the early part of the Second World War, it tells the story of Lydia, a resourceful eleven year old, who has made her way back to her family home after running away from Wales where she'd been sent as an evacuee.  She reaches her house only to discover her family has disappeared and the surrounding countryside is deserted. Soon she's joined by a German soldier, who will kill her unless she does everything he says. Hewitt deftly conjures a convincing portrait of a serious, determined little girl, coping in her own way with being held hostage by the mysterious German, as we slowly uncover his past and his purpose as the novel builds to its tragic conclusion. You know it can't end well, but nor can you look away. I like it very much for the ambiguities it sets up - we're awfully sure the Germans are the baddies, but in any war, does belonging to the opposing side automatically make you the enemy?

I'd like to draw lots of interesting parallels between The Dynamite Room and Lissa Evan's Crooked Heart - both novels feature unlikely relationships between rather lonely, precocious children and grownup strangers, and are set against a backdrop of wartime Britain, but I might save this for when I write about the next Books That Built Me - Lissa Evan's is my guest at The Club at Cafe Royal on 28th April (click on the Books That Built Me logo top right for more details). In the meantime I'm very much looking forward to Hewitt's next novel, due in the Summer. 

Fortunately, Paris Gare du Nord is the end of the Eurostar line, or I'd almost certainly have missed my stop, so engrossed was I in Eliza Kennedy's debut novel, 'I Take You'. Lily Wilder is getting married, but as her wedding day draws rapidly closer, her behaviour is much closer to a wild-eyed party child than a bride to be, drinking from dawn to dawn, and shagging just about anything that takes her fancy, including her brilliant archaeologist fiance. I've made it sound like chick lit, and it does have all the page-turning pleasures of an airport novel, but Eliza Kennedy is a much more accomplished writer than that, with a quick, dry wit and an ability to break all the novel-writing rules without breaking the novel. There are few novelists, let alone debut ones, who are able to create an appallingly badly behaved, utterly transgressive heroine and then allow the character to carry the story first person. What I loved is that really, one ought to find Lily Wilder beyond the pale, and yet one loves her despite her self-made car-crash of a life.

Anyway, if I don't post this, I'll end up on another plane and I can't write and fly at the same time - the seats in front are too close and I'm so long -sighted that I need the laptop at some considerable distance if I'm to be truly comfortable. I was looking at some bloke, hunched over a very high powered looking powerpoint, amending a sales pitch to a massive multi-national, and I saw he'd written 'The Basic Tenants of Our Proposal' which sent me apoplectic. For two pins I'd have corrected him, but imagine if he'd flipped out - aeroplanes are very confined spaces, and people don't always take kindly to Being Told.

Thursday, 5 March 2015


I started off writing a post wondering how it is that, eighty seven years after Universal Sufferage, forty years after the (not awfully effective) equal pay act, fifty five years after the introduction of the pill, forty eight years after the legalisation of abortion, thirty six years after Britain got its first woman Prime Minister (whatever you might think of her politics), and twenty four years after the criminalisation of marital rape, we seem still to be  ceding power to men? 

Why are only a quarter of MPs women? Why are there more male CEO's called John in the world than there are female CEO's named anything at all? Of the 1112 director positions in FTSE 100 companies, why are fewer than 18% held by women? What have we been doing for the past forty odd years that the corridors of power are still pretty much the exclusive preserve of men? How is this so in 2015? 

Anyway, I started off writing about all of that and realised that all I had achieved by writing it was winding myself into a coil of impotent rage. So I think I should stop being angry and start being effective. I'm not quite sure how I'm going to change the world in time for international Women's  Day on Sunday, but I'll have a go. 

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Francis Plug: How to be A Published Author

I'm reading a very funny book at the moment (mostly in the interstices between reading other, less funny, books). It's called Francis Plug: How to Be A Published Author, in which the eponymous anti-hero - gardener and would-be author - door-steps literary luminaries at various author events. Each chapter is prefixed by a picture of a book's title page, signed 'to Francis Plug from [author].

Francis is a singular character - I'm not at all sure I can do justice to his rather dubious appeal. It takes a few chapters for the book's subversive humour to get under your skin, but by the time Francis Plug, with a satchel slung across him full of manure from the Queen's horses adding an extra hum to his whisky-sodden trampiness, is marauding John Berger, you're hooked. I'm not sure Plug is one of the great literary comic creations, but the whole thing is so brilliantly, barkingly bonkers, it makes for original and entertaining satire. 

Plug's interior monologue occasionally veers off into delusion and hallucination so you're never quite sure of the line between eccentricity and mental illness. He's vividly drawn as the kind of plastic carrier bag carrying book-event going individual you'd rather die than sit next to, the smelly bus nutter. 

Anyway, below, is one of the more benign  musings of Francis Plug - 

Another big debate currently is whether digital books will replace physical books. Personally, I don’t think so. Wearing a digital watch was cool when I was a kid, and where are they now? My own theory is that digital books were actually designed by NASA for astronauts, to reduce bulk. The galaxy is also very dark, and digital books light up. But they’ve stopped the space shuttle missions now because they’re too expensive and they keep blowing up. This has left the digital book suppliers with a warehouse full of the things that they can’t shift, so now they’re trying to flog them to everyday earthlings.

[with thanks to Andy Miller - author of The Year of Reading Dangerously - for bringing Plug to my attention]