Saturday, 30 August 2014


The Books That Built Me with Liberty London Girl 13th September 2014
On Saturday 13th September at 7pm, Sasha Wilkins, founder of, and I will be at the Chiswick Book Festival for a special Books That Built Me salon to celebrate the forthcoming launch of her first book, Friends Food Family.

I first came across Sasha when I had just begun to write Mrs Trefusis Takes A Taxi and Sasha's legendary blog was the, then anonymous, account of the ex-pat life of a British magazine editor, working, living, dining and dating in New York. Liberty London Girl became a synonym for smart, single, stylish and savvy - insights into the arcane world of fashion mixed with amusing anecdotes about the New York dating scene alongside musings and meditations about food and friends. Above all, it was Sasha's warm, wise and generous personality that made her a star in the brave new blogging firmament.

A little over six years later, the online world has evolved: Sasha has left the traditional world of magazine publishing and anonymous blogging behind to build a successful dotcom business in, with a powerful social media voice and readers in 139 countries world-wide. What's more, her love of bringing people together over food and good conversation has resulted into what promises to be a best-selling cookery book: small wonder You magazine has pounced on the exclusive serialisation rights (I think this starts a week Sunday). Sasha is living proof that following one's passions is the secret to success.

In those early days, when blogging was quite new, and twitter a minority interest, Sasha and I bonded over our love of books - a mutual, raging passion for Georgette Heyer, obsessive re-reading of I Captured the Castle, and so on. Her online support for Mrs Trefusis, and her subsequent actual Real Life friendship, is something I value very highly. It's also fair to say The Books That Built Me wouldn't exist without Sasha - the idea has its seeds in a long conversation she and I had on a wet and windy day in 2012  about the way books bring women together, and how childhood favourites sustain one in adult life.

Anyway, having watched Sasha's extraordinary trajectory from fashion editor of The Wall Street Journal-AKA-anonymous-blogger to a bonefide dotcommer and author of a brilliantly useful book, I'm absolutely delighted she's going to share her thoughts about her journey with the help of the books that have inspired her and informed her along the way.

Sasha Wilkins, of, talks about the books that have built her on 13th September at the Chiswick Book Festival. Tickets are available here and include a copy of Harper's Bazaar and entry into a prize draw to win fabulous treats from Nyetimber, Ralph Lauren and Le Creuset.

Also at the Chiswick Book Festival is previous Books That Built Me guest, Andy Miller, author of The Year of Reading Dangerously, in his hugely entertaining one-man show, 'Read Y'self Fitter'.

Friends Food Family, by Sasha Wilkins is published on 25th September by Quadrille, priced £18.99

Saturday, 16 August 2014


Andy Miller & I at The Club at Cafe Royal and his chosen 'Books That Built Me'
The last Books That Built Me salon with Andy Miller, author of The Year of Reading Dangerously, went so delightfully well, I'm ashamed it's taken me so long to write the experience up. I have no excuse for my tardiness, other than reading Andy's book so rekindled my own  
 passion for books, I've have had my head stuck in a succession of novels ever since, some improving, some not so much.

Andy Miller's Books That Built Me took place, as ever, at The Club at Café Royal, which has welcomed the great and the good of London's literary set since Oscar Wilde was a regular in the Grill Room. In a lovely coincidence, I discovered Wilde (reputedly) wore Hammam Bouquet, the first scent created by Penhaligon's, who support The Books That Built Me and give the lovely fragrance libraries that guests get in their goodybags. I have a deeply superstitious side, and in the spirit of making a kind of burnt offering to the ghost of Oscar Wilde, willing him give the salon his benediction from the other side, Penhaligon's very kindly gave me Elixir candles to scent the room, a decadent contemporary take on Hammam Bouquet, all exotic spices, incense and old libraries with leather bound books.

The Year of Reading Dangerously is about a man whose life has been built of, and on, books. It's all about the beautiful truth every book lover understands: books not only have the power to open up the world, but they also have a magical ability to open up one's understanding of oneself. They heal and nourish, delight and entertain. Yet as every bibliophile will also understand, the acquisition of books is an addiction - ownership of these enchanted objects leads inevitably to a large pile of unread books reproaching one from one's bedside table - as Miller writes in The Year of Reading Dangerously

“Books, for instance. I had a lot of those. There they all were, on the shelves and on the floor, piled up by the bed and falling out of boxes. Moby-Dick, Possession, Remembrance of Things Past, the poetry of Emily Dickinson, Psychotic Reactions and Carburettor Dung, a few Pevsners, that Jim Thompson omnibus, The Child in Time, Six more Ian McEwan novels or novellas, two volumes of is short stories…. These books did furnish the room, but they also got in the way. And there were too many I was aware I had not actually read. As Schopenhauer noted a hundred and fifty years ago, ‘It would be a good thing to buy books if one could also buy the time to read them: but one usually confuses the purchase of books with the acquisition of their contents.’
These books became the focus of a need to do something. They were a reproach – wasted money, squandered time, muddled priorities. I shall make a list I thought. It will name the books I am most ashamed not to have read – difficult ones, classics, a few outstanding entries in the deceitful Miller library – and then I shall read them.”

And so he did, as you'll discover if you read his book. But for the Books That Built Me, Andy and I talked about books he had already read and loved: here are the six Books That Built Andy Miller.

1.Moominpappa at Sea

“One afternoon at the end of August, Moominpappa was walking about in his garden feeling at a loss. He had no idea what to do with himself, because it seemed everything there was to be done had already been done or was being done by somebody else” Andy says Moominpappa perfectly describes his existential angst, his innate Eyore-ishness, what one of his favourite writers, Douglas Adams, calls 'the long dark teatime of the soul'. It's "a chronicle of a mid-life crisis foretold, for readers of nine and over.” I say, Andy Miller is a lot cheerier than he believes himself to be.

2. Absolute Beginners

"Absolute Beginners gave me an exit strategy, a teenage identity I could relate and aspire to. In the process, it liberated and liberalised me – awaked in me the nervous excitement of being young, on the brink, in the same way that great pop music does." 

3. The Whitsun Weddings
I wondered if Andy had chosen The Whitsun Weddings because Larkin is another self-confessed pessimist, like Moominpappa and Andy Miller. Perhaps there's some truth in that. Andy read Larkin's Arundel Tomb - and talked about how its most famous line 'what will survive of us is love' was entirely misinterpreted by Julian Barnes in A History of The World in Ten and a Half Chapters. Bold but fair, I thought.

4. A Rebours (Against Nature)
Oh, Andy Miller, mon semblable, mon frè fabulous to discover someone else who's actually read this marvellous book. Against Nature is a now rather obscure late nineteenth century novel about Des Esseintes, a world-weary, filthy rich, fin-du-siecle French aristocrat who leaves town for an isolated country house where he can indulge in a kaleidoscope of extreme sensual experiences – he has a black feast in which everything is, he fills his house with symbolist art, he grows a garden of poisonous plants, he spends days trying to make the perfect perfume – he has exhausting sex with a lady athlete called Miss Urania – and there’s the tortoise, of course, which he encrusts with astonishing precious jewels so it can crawl exquisitely over his carpet. It expires under the weight of its beauty, logical conclusion of an aesthete's life.

Andy says it's one of the funniest books he's ever read, I say it's one of the most tragic: the truth is somewhere in between.

5. Anna Karenina 
Andy describes Anna Karenina as the perfect union of art and entertainment. I'm ashamed to admit that I'd owned a copy of Anna Karenina for nearly thirty years without ever having read it, thinking it might be enormously hard work. It isn't. I read it whilst swotting for Andy's Books That Built Me and it's every bit as miraculous as he says it is, gripping and nourishing in equal measure.

6. Tigers are Better Looking
Jean Rhys will be known to most only for her Jane Eyre prequel, The Wide Sargasso Sea, read by Andy during his reading odyssey for TYoRD - there's something immensely satisfying about discovering an author you love and then going on to read everything else they've written too.

Andy and I talking about Against Nature - in honour of the famous tortoise passage, I'm wearing Livyora's beautiful Tartarucha earrings, smoky quartz surrounded by diamonds in the shape of a tortoise
Like Andy Miller, I seemed also to have ..."forgotten the parquet floor, the boy sitting in the back seat, or stretched out on his bed on a summer’s day, lost and found in a good book… So far the List of Betterment had offered me glimpses of something bigger and better. It was up to me to keep looking for it, to push reality aside until I relocated the magic of reading." - hosting Andy's The Books That Built Me helped me completely relocate the magic of reading: for this, and for being such a marvellous and entertaining guest, I owe him quite a debt.

Guests went home with a goodybag containing a copy of Andy Miller's The Year of Reading Dangerously, a copy of Harper's Bazaar, a Penhaligon's Scent Library and a delicious bar of Prestat chocolate. 

Andy Miller's solo show 'Read Y'self Fitter', a ten step programme to cure yourself of bad reading habits (like not reading at all) is at the Chiswick Book Festival on Saturday 13th September. Tickets on sale now.
The Books That Built Me is also coming to the Chiswick Book Festival in a special salon with Sacha Wilkins of, in advance of the launch of her gorgeous book Food Friends Family:  tickets will be on sale next week.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014


As I was saying to a friend of mine at the weekend, the problem with men is that one can't often tell very much about them from first sight - really, they should be bar-coded like biscuits, and one should be able to scan them for quality and (emotional) price.

I expect someone inventive will soon have something like that for the iPhone, but in the meantime we'll have to make do with the tried, tested and trusted advice of the planets: here's what I think you can tell about a man from his starsign.

Obviously, this post isn't for astro-sceptics (bugger off Richard Dawkins - Aries, incidentally - we'll never agree on anything) or, probably, men....

How to spot one: Always at the centre of the room, holding court. Tells anecdotes. Aspires to being a raconteur. Usually has good hair
Good at: Making you feel like the sun just came out. Bask in the warmth of his personality
Worst habit: Not noticeably liberated. Very keen that he’s the actor and you’re the audience
Most likely to say: ‘Oh yes, I’ve been there, but I stayed at the [insert name of eleven thousand star hotel]. I hear the [insert name of the crummy BandB you went to] is very nice though’
How to play him: Flattery will get you everywhere
Reliability rating: ***** Extremely loyal
Romance rating: *** Generous and keen to impress. Good at fancy cocktails in smart bars and pretty trinkets
Sex rating: *** Very performance orientated – don’t forget to applaud

How to spot one: Neat creases ironed in his jeans, bitten fingernails from all that worrying. Concerned look. Organised wallet. Nice manners
Good at: Evolving – he’s very big on self-improvement. You can train him not to leave the loo-seat up in less than twenty-four hours
Worst habit: Will also try to improve you. It’s quite tedious when someone wants to change you, particularly when they say it’s because they can see your potential
Most likely to say: ‘I’m only saying this for your own good’
How to play him: Listen to his advice and look like you’re taking it seriously. He prefers practical presents and gestures
Reliability rating:** Changes his mind as often as the weather
Romance rating: *** Very good at remembering when he said he’d phone. One of the very few men to believe in putting things in a diary
Sex rating: *** Ultra-fastidious, so not for the unwaxed. Someone who remembers that the devil’s in the detail. Expects you to write a letter thanking him for having you.

How to spot one: charming and good-looking. Often to be found acting cool and cultured in chic restaurants and art galleries
Good at: long-term relationships rather than brief flings
Worst habit: Refuses to argue, which is plate-throwingly infuriating
Most likely to say: ‘If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?’
How to play him: Hire a stylist and a personal trainer, and always get up before he does to put your makeup back on. Libra men can be a little too appearance conscious
Reliability rating: *** As long as it doesn’t put him out of his way, and as long as you don’t let yourself go, you’re fine
Romance rating: *****Deeply, deeply smooth. The man for whom candlelit dinners were invented
Sex rating: ** Lazy, so makes you go on top, which then gives you massive anxiety about droopy boobs and remembering to hold your stomach in.

How to spot one: His X-ray eyes strip you to the bone: he doesn’t know it’s rude to stare
Good at: Sex – he’s very talented
Worst habit: Jealousy and possessiveness. He may be cool on the outside, but don't flaunt old - or current - flames
Most likely to say: Not much. He’s the strong, silent, staring type (no, don’t call the police)
How to play him: He’s into power-games – let him think he’s in charge
Reliability rating: **** Exceptionally loyal, but if you break up, he’ll never forgive you
Romance rating:*** Big on brooding intensity and drama. Is it just me, or does that sound the tiniest bit tiring?
Sex rating:***** Oh dear. He’ll spoil you for everyone else. Too rude, too fabulous.

How to spot one: An endearing combination of optimism and clumsiness, he’s the one who knocks his glass of wine all over you
Good at: Adventure – he’ll encourage you to do mad things you’d never do off your own bat
Worst habit: Doesn’t know the difference between honesty and tactlessness
Most likely to say: 'Er, yes, actually, your bum looks enormous in those jeans'
How to play him: Respect his independence
Reliability rating: * A risk-taker who may not think twice about gambling with your heart
Romance rating: **** Even the most basic model is generous, cheerful and impulsive
Sex rating: *** Values quantity above quality. Enthusiastic, yet lacking in technical merit.

How to spot one: he’s the sign most likely to wear a jacket: even if he doesn't look like a Captain of Industry, he'll have a distinct air of gravitas
Good at: Getting serious. Capricorns are rarely commitment phobic
Worst habit: Career will always be his priority – he treats his blackberry as if it were a tamagotchi that has to be kept alive with constant attention
Most likely to say: ‘Darling, I’m afraid I’m stuck in this meeting’.
How to play him: Don’t look too enthusiastic – he’s the one who you should treat mean to keep him keen
Reliability rating: ***** Accept his work comes first and you couldn’t wish for a more constant consort
Romance rating: **** If he sets his sights on you, he won’t give up until you’re his. Buys extremely decent presents
Sex rating: ***** He’s determined to excel in every area of his life, including you.

How to spot one: He’s the one keen to get inside your head, rather than in your pants. Slightly odd fashion-sense – either out-there trendy or, well, just badly dressed
Good at: Creating a truly equal relationship – he genuinely wants you to be yourself (as long as your true self isn’t clingy and emotional)
Worst habit: Emotionally illiterate. Even Mr Spock had more EQ
Most likely to say: ‘You’re just being irrational’
How to play him: Be challenging and ballsy, always phone when you’ve said you will. Never, ever cry or sulk
Reliability rating: ** Does what he likes, when he likes.
Romance rating: ** Doesn’t expect to have to treat the relationship like some kind of kitten that needs nurturing and fluffy ickle babba talk. If he’s said he likes you, he likes you – why do you need to hear it twice?
Sex rating: ***** Inventive. Experimental. Unshockable. Don’t let him near the fruit basket.

How to spot one: Acts tough with the guys and sensitive with the girls, merging chameleon-like into his environment
Good at: Being sensitive and romantic – he’ll give you a spritz of Eau d’Empathy at every opportunity
Worst habit: Escapism – loves a romantic fantasy, not always troubled by telling the truth
Most likely to say: ‘I’ve found this poem that describes exactly how I feel about you’
How to play him: Trust him as far as you can throw him – Pisces is ruled by Neptune, planet of deception
Reliability rating:** Just as you feel the relationship might be going somewhere, he’ll drift away
Romance rating: ***** If you’re cynical, you’ll think he’s watched far too many soppy films. Otherwise, expect to be carried away by the sheer force of his poetry
Sex rating: ***** His imagination would make a Swedish porn movie seem tame. Book the chiropractor – he’s bound to put your back out.

How to spot one: Hunt one down at the gym, preferably playing some kind of competitive sport
Good at: Winning – once he feels you’re the prize, he won’t stop til he’s got you
Worst habit: Appallingly impatient. Won’t wait, even for five minutes. Not even during a tube strike
Most likely to say: ‘I love you’. Ten minutes after you meet.
How to play him: He loves the thrill of the chase, so always leave him wanting
Reliability rating: **** As long as you make him feel he’s number one, he’ll come back for more
Romance rating: *** Fantastic when he’s in pursuit, pretty pants once he’s made the conquest
Sex rating: *** Aries men will try anything once. And twice if they like it.

How to spot one: Looks strong, handsome, manly. Rarely badly dressed.
Good at: Creating an entire shelving unit out of some mystery IKEA flatpack, unblocking the lav, cooking dinner, sex
Worst habit: Pedantic. Stubborn. Mulish.
Most likely to say: ‘I can bring my toolkit round if there’s anything you need fixing’
How to play him: Cook for him at the earliest opportunity – the way to a Taurean’s heart is through his stomach
Reliability rating: **** Oh God, so reliable. And tenacious. Taureans are like porridge – easy to make, nutritious, but a devil to get off the pan once you’ve done
Romance rating: ***** Believes in men being men, women being women, and is good at buying presents. What’s not to like?
Sex rating: **** A sexual gourmet with an insatiable appetite and earthy tastes. But once he’s discovered what works, he’s reluctant to alter the routine.

How to spot one: Simultaneous use of iPhone and Blackberry. Fidgety. Outrageous flirt. Constant checking of Twitter.
Good at: Making you laugh and being terrific company. Gives good email, and sends saucy texts.
Worst habit: Gemini men always manage to look single. Especially at parties.
Most likely to say: ‘What are you thinking?’
How to play him: Be cool and amusing. Avoid laying any heavy emotional trips on him. Keep him guessing
Reliability rating: ** Forget it. Learn to love his unpredictability
Romance rating: *** Great at Cary Grant-style flirty quips and compliments. Always texts to say he misses you.
Sex rating: *** All gong and no dinner. Unless there’s an App for that too.

How to spot one: By his kind look and shy smile. Loves his mum. Thinks animals are cute. At work you’ll find him sulking in the kitchen
Good at: Hugging, stroking, getting in touch with his feminine side. He’s sensitive, sympathetic and understanding
Worst habit: Extreme moodiness – one minute it’s raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, the next he’s giving you the cold shoulder
Most likely to say: ‘If you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you’
How to play him: Look after him – deep down he’s quite needy
Reliability rating: ***** A real catch (whatever you think of the above) – he’s the best starsign for commitment
Romance rating: *** Sentimental rather than romantic – but wouldn’t you prefer a great husband and father to a tough action hero?
Sex rating: *** Exceptionally good at the post-coital bit: think plenty of cuddling followed by a nice cup of tea.

...cross dress: Aquarius - he can take his belief in gender equality a little too far
...commit: Scorpio - tops in the loyalty stakes
...jilt you at the altar: Sagittarius - 'they can't take away my freeeeeedom' at B&Q on a Sunday morning: Taurus - loves tools, but isn't one
...spoil you: Leo - loves to impress with expensive gifts a body fascist: Libra- break out the steamed vegetables a good dancer: Pisces - clear the dance-floor the housework: Virgo - bathrooms don't clean themselves, you know
...keep you in style: Capricorn - compensation for another dinner in the dog
...insist you watch the match: Aries - can't understand why you're not turned on by all the aggression
...take you for granted: Gemini - you're there to provide the entertainment, not him his mum more than you: Cancer - she's the most important woman in his life, and don't you forget it