Monday 24 August 2009


I can never resist a gauntlet, well, not when it's thrown down by someone I admire. So when the Illustrious Waffle put out the challenge to write about first love in all its gory detail, I seized the chance to tell the story of how I unwittingly put someone off worldly relationships for life.

To find the tale's beginning, we must return to the time of tory boys, and fire up the Ashes to Ashes soundtrack. Matthew Fitzgerald, as we shall call him - naturallyI have changed the names to protect the guilty - was my first foray into the tory boy type, though he was much more rebellious and less tweedy than later examples. He had the requisite wedge haircut, nice manners and the wherewithall to buy a gin and orange, but with added Bad Boy qualities - a shocking reputation for breaking hearts and being unrepentantly late with his homework. Usually, tory boys were bard boys, given to slipping scrolls of tortured adolescent poetry into your pocket at the bus stop, but with his brooding way of turning up the collar of his Crombie against the rain, and of curling a sneering lip around a Players No. 6, Matthew had swallowed the anti-hero manual. His name was doodled on every exercise book, girls missed several buses home trying to catch the one he was on, most break-times were spent discussing what it might be like to be kissed by him. Truly, he was the Byron of Birkenhead.

I wouldn't say I was immune to his charms, I was just more realistic: I'd seen him loitering in cool record shops with a copy of The Face. He wore peg top trousers like David Bowie in his 'Let's Dance' phase, and winklepicker shoes. Rumour had it that he'd even been to London to hang out at The Wag Club. Not in my league, I thought. I'd content myself with the mild literary flirtation of the bard boys at the local library.

But as chance would have it, and after not very long at all, we ended up on the same dancefloor of some sticky carpeted nightclub in a forgotten corner of Birkenhead, gyrating to New Order's Blue Monday, the longest danceable tune ever to chart in the UK. Prevented from close physical contact by the outrageous pointiness of our respective winklepickers, the synthpop-fuelled tension built between us until, close to the six minute mark, we lurched into a fierce, compulsive embrace, the braces on his teeth bruising my lips with the force of his passion, my long hair catching painfully on the parallel rows of buttons on his shirt. By the time Blue Monday had given way to Duran Duran, we were off the dancefloor and snogging for England. In the argot of the day, we had 'tapped off'.

Reader, I'm sorry to disappoint, but this great lothario kissed like a carwash. So drowned in spittle was I, I kept having to break off to rub my face affectionately on his shirt. Did I let this put me off? I did not. I was filled with all the exultant triumph of a 100 to 1 racehorse romping home against all expectations in the Grand National. He could have had the breath of Baal and the personal hygiene habits of a Gruffalo for all I cared. The prize longed for by my entire class was mine: Love might be a drug, but victory is more potent and addictive. I let him wait for me outside school on Monday and contrived to appear chilly so he'd put his blazer around my shoulders. I let everyone see his self-consciously romantic gestures like lighting two cigarettes and passing one to me. He bought me Joy Division's Love will Tear Us Apart in 12 inch vinyl and I'm ashamed to say I didn't hesitate to bring it to school to parade in front of everyone.

But I'm afraid that Mr Fitzgerald was a better trophy than he was a boyfriend, so quite how he was so prefixed with mystique, I have no idea. His dating M.O mostly involved coming round to mine on the pretext of helping me with my latin prep but I never saw him get Cicero out of his satchel before he pounced. I can't say that I was immune to pouncing, being young and extremely curious, but his brand of pouncing was so horribly inept, featuring more carwash kissing, and vigorous rummaging under my school shirt, all sweaty palms, doggy tongue and orangutang arms. Within days he was pressurising me to 'go all the way', making so many irrepressible assaults on my virtue I knew exactly how Clarissa felt fending off Lovelace. Actually, scratch that -there is no literary analogy worthy of his persistence. I felt like a leg to which an amorous dog had become attached: he was unshakeable. Had the technique been more honed, and the execution more adroit and less enthusiastic, perhaps I would have succumbed, but at last, bored by my rebuffs, he decided to finish with me.

The Conversation took place on the platform of Hamilton Square tube station in Birkenhead after a visit to Probe, an incredibly trendy record shop in Liverpool run by Pete Burns of Dead or Alive, who looked rather different in those days. He'd been silent for the whole journey, and hadn't launched himself at me once, which was welcome, if unusual.

'We need to talk' he said, in that fabulously original way that such conversations always start.

'Ok' I replied, refusing to be drawn and having read enough Cosmopolitan to know what to expect from such an opener.

'I don't think we should see each other anymore. You see, I've got my exams coming up and I really need to get some work done. Oh, and I'm entering a seminary in September: I'm going to train as a priest.'

'Like, as in Catholic priest?' God I was slow on the uptake.

'Um, yes. I've been called.'

'Well, I can see that having a girlfriend might be a little surplice to requirements.' I regained my composure as best I could, taking refuge in silly puns. I left him on the platform, thinly disguising my high dudgeon, and took the bus the rest of the way home.

But really? I must confess [snigger] that I was a little put out. What can one make of it? That I was so fabulous that only God would do next? That my failure to acquiesce to his base desires confirmed his vocation? To this day, I've not really managed to get to grips with it, and would be grateful for any theories offered.

And as for Matthew Fitzgerald, he didn't become a priest, but a monk, tending the apple orchards at Ampleforth, teaching and such like, or so I'm told, but I didn't trouble too much with keeping up with him. I'm hardly likely to make him my friend on Facebook.

First love? Pah. Overrated. Get it over with for practise. Romeo and Juliet is just a story, and I think there was a dodgy monk in that too.

Wednesday 19 August 2009


I'm not one for memes. I am really quite a tiresome person, so the idea of a questionnaire in which I let you know even more dreary drivel about myself than I already write here fills me with dread.
However, what are rules if there are no exceptions? And so, when one of my all time favourite bloggers, Mothership, tagged me in a meme, it felt only courteous to follow her request.

As if to add insult to injury, I've taken terrible liberties with the original meme. I hope that Motherhood the Final Frontier will forgive me for having bent the rules. It's probably an enormous sin in the blogosphere and I'll have to go to confession. But not this one, I hope.

Anyway, here's the meme. Or, ahem, my version of the meme....

What's your favourite piece of writing?
I'm afraid you'd get a different answer to this question every time it was asked. Writing is a little like clothes, so much depends on your mood. The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford made a great impression on me when I first read it at eighteen, and I must have read it at least every decade since, possibly because it has one of the boldest opening lines of any book - if you start your first chapter 'This is the saddest story I have ever heard', you're setting the bar very high.
But there's a passage within it that struck a chord with me then, and it still resonates, for reasons I'm not prepared to go into, not being a confessional blogger.

We are all so afraid, we are all so alone, we all so need from the outside the assurance of our own worthiness to exist.
So, for a time, if such a passion comes to fruition, the man will get what he wants. He will get the moral support, the encouragement, the relief from the sense of loneliness, the assurance of his own worth. But these things pass away; inevitably they pass away as the shadows across sun-dials. It is sad, but it is so. The pages of the book will have become familiar; the beautiful corner of the road will have been turned to many times. Well, this is the saddest story.

What's the favourite thing you've ever written?
Ha. I can hardly go from Ford Madox Ford into hopelessly amateur Mrs Trefusis, can I? Worryingly,I am still quite pleased by 'THE DUST ON A BOWL OF ROSELEAVES', though it's horribly pretentious. But the four part love story, in which I meet Mr Trefusis is rather better and infinitely more readable. It begins with LOVE IN THE TIME OF INTERWEB, but continues into Espresso Bongo, Love's Labour's Lust, and finally, Love in a Foreign Language.
What blog post do you wish you'd written?
Just about anything by Belgian Waffling, but particularly this gorgeously dark Stella Gibbonsesque post from earlier this week. The Waffle is a genius and can turn 200 words about house dust into something compelling and meaningful.

Choose a favourite quotation
'I like people better than principles, and people without principles best of all'

Oscar Wilde. It always is, isn't it.

Three favourite words
Lambent, idiosyncratic, tenebrous.

Just like the way they sound. But I also like velleity, a word I hadn't heard until yesterday, when Sarah Churchwell mentioned it on twitter. It means 'a mere wish, unaccompanied by an effort to obtain it.' I think I suffer from velleity more often than I'd like.

Do you have a writing mentor, role model, influence or inspiration
Hmm, I'd like to say it's someone very grand, like George Eliot, but it's not. I'm ready to confess that my greatest influences are probably Nancy Mitford and Jilly Cooper. The highbrow stuff is mostly me showing how unbearably affected I am.

What's your writing ambition?
To avoid very obvious spelling mistakes, and to always use the apostrophe in an appropriate manner.

And now I'm supposed to send it onto three people.

I choose Joad Raymond, who writes a very good blog called Miles to Go Before I Sleep , but now he's unable to run, he needs something new to write about, and it may as well be this since he's one of the best read people I know.

And The Age of Uncertainty. This blog, mostly about antiquarian books and the stories they unconsciously tell, gives me such enormous pleasure: I urge you to seek it out so you can discover its delights for yourself.

And last but not least, Helena Halme, an ex-pat Finn whose wonderful story about her English sailor is serialised on her blog. Start at the beginning and I'm sure that like me, you'll be hooked, and desperate to follow it to its conclusion.

Thursday 13 August 2009


The art of Bunburying, when perfected, can enable a person to follow their whims without fear of backlash from meddlesome friends and precarious family obligations.

My taxi driver sensibly dropped me off on Porchester Gardens, right outside the private entrance to Le Café Anglais. If I'd had my wits about me, I'd have stepped out of the cab, and into Café Anglais’ private lift and found myself cocooned in elegant luxury in a trice. Too intent on looking glamorous in an enormous pair of Prada sunglasses, I tottered straight past the lift, and found myself stranded in the middle of Whiteley's shopping centre.

It's slightly counter-intuitive to put a very smart restaurant at the top of a rather less smart mall, and it's greatly to the credit of Le Café Anglais that it manages to overcome the experience of actually getting there. Having finally stumbled upon a public lift, I found myself alone with a Mohammed Al Fayed lookeylikey, who pressed me lasciviously against the lift's buttons, breathed hotly on me, insisting I was 'beeyootifooll' and that we must go for a drink together immediately. It's at times like these I realise the extraordinary disadvantages of being middle-middle class: DidI hit him with my capacious handbag? Did I cry 'Unhand me sir' in a ringing tone, pressing the alarm? No, I did not. Appalled and disconcerted, yet unwilling to appear impolite, I merely squeaked, 'Sweet of you, but I'm meeting friends' and scuttled out of the lift in heart-pounding relief as the doors opened not a second too soon.

I still couldn't find Le Café Anglais. I asked someone in Yo Sushi! who sent me to Cafe Nero. Had I not still been wearing my dark glasses, I daresay I would have arrived at the restaurant an awful lot sooner. When I finally got there, I had to spend several minutes outside, trying to recompose myself, partly to shake off the sweaty horror of my enthusiastic lift companion, but mostly to try and conquer my embarrassment at my own navigational incompetence.

Only a fool - me - would think Le Café Anglais difficult to get to. The upside of the story is that it's such a bower of bliss, I could have walked barefoot from Acton along the Westway, and it would have been worth the pain.

The interior is astonishingly beautiful - all art-deco detailing, floor to ceiling windows, and double-height ceiling. It has a wonderful understated opulence about it, cleverly excising all trace of the MacDonalds that once occupied the same space.

But it wasn’t to stare admiringly at its design or drool at the enormous menu that I was there: co-founder Charlie McVeigh had invited a cabal of twitterers to a lunch, with nothing more taxing on our agenda than a hedonistic afternoon of delicious food, wine far better than my ignorant palate deserves, and vast amounts of gossip – real life twittering, perhaps.

Proper restaurant critics have reviewed the delights on offer far better than I ever could– you may read them here and here – all I shall say is that the menu is cleverly composed of all the things you most want to eat in the world, and some things that you might hesitate to try but are works of staggering genius – like the parmesan custard with anchovy toast, which I’d rather feared might taste like a pair of superannuated socks, but is such heaven I’m salivating as I write, wondering when I can contrive to go back so I may eat it again.

An afternoon like this is my version of Wilde’s Bunburying – a miniature holiday, carefree and without a to-do list or pressing agenda – the London equivalent of a lazy day on the beach with a not-very-improving novel, and with all the transgressive appeal of stolen time, though I hasten to add, in case anyone from work is reading, I have a properly completed holiday form for anyone who'd like to see it.

And really, despite the fact that the lunch gave onto drinks and then dinner, before ending shortly before midnight, it was a very restorative Bunbury indeed.

Le Café Anglais, 8 Porchester gardens, London W2 4DB tel: 020 7221 1415

NB : there are many beautiful pictures of Cafe Anglais on the website, but I took the one above as we were coming to the end of lunch : a reminder of an affable and convivial afternoon

Le Cafe Anglais on Urbanspoon

Friday 7 August 2009


My favourite cinematic seduction comes from Vittorio di Sica's 1963 comedy, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (Ieri, Oggi, Domani), beating by a narrow margin the heartbreakingly lovely scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Don't Look Now.

The on-screen chemistry between Sophie Loren and Marcello Mastroianni is undeniable, and it's a terrific moment in a highly watchable film.
In 1994, for the less successful Prêt-à-Porter, Robert Altman brought the two co-stars back together to reprise the famous scene. I was looking for Ieri, Oggi, Domani on You Tube, and was delighted to fall across this rather clever splice of the two films.

Thirty years after Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, Loren, at 60, and Mastroianni, 70, still set the screen smouldering: I particularly like the wry humour of the scene's end.