Sunday, 29 November 2015


"Books help to form us." says Susan Hill in her memoir, Howards End is on the Landing, "If you cut me open, will you find volume after volume, page after page, the contents of every one I have ever read, somehow transmuted and transformed into me? Alice in Wonderland, The Magic Faraway Tree. The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Book of Job. Bleak House. Wuthering Heights. The Complete Poems of W.H.Auden. The Tale of Mr Tod. Howards End. What a strange person I must be. But if the books I have read have helped to form me, then probably nobody else who ever lived has read exactly the same books, all the same books and only the same books, as me. So just as my genes and the soul within me make me uniquely me, so I am the unique sum of the books I have read. I am my literary DNA".

Howards End is on the Landing is a marvellous memoir, not only for the insights it gives into Hill's 'literary DNA', but also for the people she's met: E.M Forster is a 'small man with thinning hair and a melancholy moustache' who drops a book on her foot in the London Library, there's kind Sacheverall Sitwell and his terrifying sister, Edith, with her extraordinary eyes, 'huge, heavily lidded, mesmerising, half-closed like the eyes of an apparently sleeping but terribly watchful crocodile' and asks a young Hill which poetry she has by heart. There's T.S Eliot, at a party, Elizabeth Jane Howard, W.H.Auden, Roald Dahl, Benjamin Britten, Ian Fleming, Iris Murdoch - I can't think of a more beguiling and breathtaking list of cultural greats. Only V.S Naipaul sounds less than a treat: they meet at Radio 4, Susan Hill is to interview him on Bookshelf.
"When he comes up to me and takes my hand in his silken ones, he bows.'I am most honoured to meet...' a pause. Then '...the wife of the distinguished Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells.'
Typically generous, Hill goes on to say 'there is surely no novelist writing since the 1950's who is greater than Naipaul'.

Re-reading Howards End is on the Landing, those words - 'I am the unique sum of the books I have read' - spring out at me. I first read it in 2009, and somehow, the fascinating idea of a writer's literary DNA must have tucked itself away into my unconscious. When I conceived The Books That Built Me, I thought it was the exchange between Elizabeth Jane Howard and Martin Amis that had inspired the salon's conceit, but perhaps my preoccupation with exploring the relationship between the books an author reads and the books they write owes a greater debt to Susan Hill: Howards End is on the Landing grafted itself into my own literary DNA, and the result is The Books That Built Me.

 I love her work - I'm the King of the Castle, Strange Meeting and The Woman in Black are a masterclass in characterisation, deft plotting and a vivid sense of place underpinned by supple, lucid, evocative prose. I loved going through her 'Final Forty' list of books at the back of Howards End is on the Landing and seeing so many of the books I also love there. And I've loved re-reading the five books she has chosen for her Books That Built Me, and tracing a line back into her writing.

Eventbrite - THE BOOKS THAT BUILT ME: SUSAN HILL, DECEMBER 2015So, on 8th December, at the Club at Cafe Royal, I will touch the hand that's touched the hand of E.M Forster and T.S Eliot, and have the great privilege of talking to an author I admire enormously. Do join me, Tatler, Champagne Bollinger and Prestat chocolate for The Books That Built Susan Hill.

Buy Strange Meeting for £5.99

Howards End is on the Landing: A year of reading from home

Friday, 20 November 2015


'Confidence is the key to success,' said Deborah Meaden when I interviewed her at an event at Annabel's last week, 'And it's what I always try to instill in my people'. 
And it's true, no matter how talented you are, if you're unable to squash the insidious voice in your head that tells you you're not good enough, you won't succeed. You need to believe in yourself.
You can if you think you can. 

Clockwise from top left: Astley Clarke Kula bracelets; my place setting at The Arts Club; selection of Astley Clarke Biography pins

It's easier said than done - over the years, I've become practised at oozing a veneer of self-belief. The truth is, I'm always quaking inside, convinced I'll be unmasked. I was particularly quakey about interviewing Deborah Meaden for Annabel's - I know about books, so talking to authors at The Books That Built Me every month is well-within my comfort zone, but steering a conversation about someone's life and successes for a large audience felt very daunting. Try as I might, I was failing to psych myself up: I couldn't find my confidence mojo. 

The morning of the interview, my consciously incompetent self was crying out for something tangible to prompt my self-belief. The universe has a way of giving you what you need, when you need it, albeit in unexpected ways, and I found it at a press breakfast given by Astley Clarke.

Astley Clarke is one of the great success stories of online retailing. Founded by Bec Astley Clarke in 2006 to celebrate the best in fine jewellery design, the company grew quickly and began to create their own collections with an ethos to inspire intelligent modern women to wear relaxed fashionable jewellery. One of Astley Clarke's signatures is the Biography Collection, and the purpose of the breakfast was to launch a new iteration of their famous friendship bracelet - the Kula collection (pictured above) -and to introduce Biography Pins: a clever new take on brooches, a selection of fourteen of Astley Clarke's favourite charms, each of which has a symbolic meaning, and can be worn on lapels, or on a scarf or hat, or anywhere and in any combination. 

It's a fun, accessible way to jazz up an outfit, but more than that, it struck me at once that you could edit your selection to act as a little aide memoire, to remind you that 'you can if you think you can'. I've never really been one for talismans, but with my nerves jangling about the interview, I knew I could really use a lucky charm. I opened my Astley Clarke box and there, in some gorgeously karmic coincidence,  was a Hamsa pin - a symbol of protection that brings blessings, power and strength, and a lightning bolt, to symbolise creativity and inspiration: Sometimes, things do come into your life at exactly the moment you need them.
I'm wearing the Hamsa the wrong way up, don't judge me.

Later that evening, in the taxi back home after the Annabel's event with the brilliant, witty, inspiring Deborah Meaden, I was fiddling with the pins I'd stuck to my lapel and I was reminded of Glinda in the Wizard of Oz when she says to Dorothy, 'You always had the power, my dear, you just had to learn it for yourself' and I thought, thank you, Astley Clarke for providing me with the perfect study aid.

Astley Clarke Biography pins from £45

Astley Clarke, 6 Junction Mews London W2 (also stocked in Selfridges, Liberty, and other stores nationwide)

For US Stockists, please click here

Confidence also comes from putting your best face forward, of course: it helps if there's no distracting voice in your head telling you your hair is a mess, your eye makeup makes you look tired and your shirt gaps at the bosom. Skincare and cosmetics brand, Eve Lom, partnered Astley Clarke at the breakfast to show off a lovely new product, Illuminating Radiance Powder, a very finely milled golden powder with rose shaped particles and mother of pearl extract. It comes complete with brush, so all you need to do is to shake it gently and sweep on subtle, light-reflecting highlights for instant desk-to-dinner glamour. Or if you're all over the strobing lark (I'm no expert selfie-ist, so it's safe to say that strobing is a completely new word for me) you can unscrew the bottom and use a finger tip to stroke the powder directly onto cheekbones and so on. 
Eve Lom Illuminating Radiance Powder inexpertly yet joyously applied

I really love the way it bounces light away from one's face, which has an excellent anti-ageing effect (see below for a picture of me in the harsh winter daylight - can you see my wrinkles? No, you cannot. I call that a result.)

 I daresay, if you're good at instagram and contouring, you'd be able to give yourself the cheekbones of Ursula Andress. 
It smells delicious and it's now an essential in my 'Tube to Party' makeup bag (other marvellous insta-glam discoveries include Charlotte Tilbury's utterly foolproof Colour Chameleon eye pencil - crayon it on and smudge with a finger for smokey eyes in a trice and Tom Ford lipstick in Wilful, a subtle, glossy red which looks chic rather than disco)

Eve Lom Illuminating Radiance Powder £50 Available from Space NK and other Eve Lom stockists.

Sunday, 15 November 2015


Wuthering Heights feels like a much darker book now than the one I read at university. Then, it was rich pickings for a cynical student looking for decent marks - one could pick out its psychoanalytic aspects to please a Freud obsessed lecturer, scribbling reams of half-baked thoughts about Penistone Crag and the fairy cave beneath, or about virginity myths and menstruation taboos when the Linton's dog bites Catherine's ankle, about Heathcliff being Catherine's id and Edgar Linton her super-ego. I wrote yet another essay about ghosts, doubling and the Untheimlich (the uncanny) for a professor whose special focus was The Gothic, and another which took a structuralist approach for a third lecturer whose obsession was Derrida (though rereading it, I've no idea how I pulled that off).

Cafe Colbert, Sloane Square. Warm and civilised, unlike Wuthering Heights.
Narratives are never fixed. The plot stays the same yet the reader's perspective is all - what you bring to a book changes it, you inscribe yourself on a novel. My Wuthering Heights was different every time I read it, either in harness to my degree, or because Kate Bush was a powerful cultural influence (not joking - I'd never have come across Bronte, Delius, Hammer Horror, or Kierkegaard if Kate hadn't sung about them and made them sound sexy and mysterious), or because, like now, I'm reading it because Jason Hewitt chose it as one of his 'Books That Built Me', so yet again the story is filtered through a new lens. This time, I'm reading it to locate how Bronte builds the dark, unsettling, claustrophobic texture of the novel - like the moors, Catherine and Heathcliff and Wuthering Heights are savage and uncivilisable - they are part of it, unlike the Thrushcross Grange, Lintons and Lockwood. In death, it's as if the moor reclaims her; Catherine is buried in a corner of the graveyard where 'the wall is so low that heath and bilberry plants have climbed over it from the moor; and peat mould almost buries it'. This sense of a power struggle between the passionate wildness of nature and the controlled, civilising effects of man is also in the house itself - Isabella arrives at Wuthering Heights after marrying Heathcliff to find once expensive furniture thick with dust, once bright pewter dark with tarnish, rich curtains in tatters, torn from their fastenings.
In Hewitt's Dynamite Room and Devastation Road you can see traces of this - part of the success of his writing is that he inscribes the powerless of the individual by embuing a house, a road, a river, an empty field with a dark sense of menace.

 I like Wuthering Heights less and less every time I read it - it feels overwrought, self-absorbed, childish now; perhaps I've had a surfeit of it. The fault is in me, of course, because it's one of the Great Books, but four essays and two Books That Built Me later, I can't say I haven't mined its depths. For me, civilisation has triumphed over savagery, and I'm glad to be here in Cafe Colbert, the Thrushcross Grange of the Corbin and King empire, drinking a decent capuccino, surrounded by efficient, unobtrusive and beautifully courteous service, a world away from the belligerent, pious slovenliness of Joseph, amongst ladies waiting politely for Peter Jones to open.

Sunday, 8 November 2015


I have never written a ghost story merely to evoke a shudder. I cannot see the point in simply making people afraid. I want to do more. I want the reader to ask questions, to ponder, to be intrigued and to create an atmosphere from which the story will emerge.

Susan Hill is one of Britain's most celebrated writers. The author of more than twenty-six novels, and many works of non-fiction, children's books, plays and short-stories, she is not only a prodigious literary talent, but also pleasingly prolific ; small wonder she was made CBE for services to literature.
Recently, her Simon Serrailler series of crime novels has brought her huge success in a new genre, but it's as a writer of ghost stories many of us know her best, not least because of the extraordinary success of The Woman In Black.
Having read many of her books over the years - my first was the chilling and moving first world war novella Strange Meeting - I'm a lifelong fan, and Susan Hill's Books That Built Me will be an enormous treat. I'm very much looking forward to seeing you there.