Thursday 23 October 2014


What is literature for? Bibliophile as I am, I'm not sure that I've ever asked myself the question - but as so often, The School of Life has the answers....

Sunday 19 October 2014


A blow dry will do more for you than a new dress any day of the week - no wonder Anna Wintour reputedly has her hairdresser come by at 6.30am every morning to do her hair (though seriously, how hard can that bob actually be to do yourself?) and it's the one thing I rely on to transform how I look if I'm going to an event, or have to look especially soigné for some reason. For a proper rug rethink or for colour, I go to the genius Graham (Tilley & Carmichael), but he is to the quick fix blow dry what Le Gavroche is to Pret á Manger, too marvellous for everyday. Not being Anna Wintour, of course, I have to leave the house for my blow dry, but then I'm on my own money, not Condé Nast's.

The rise of the blow dry bar has put A-List grooming within the sights of ordinary mortals: there's the blow dry menu at Headmasters (though it's irritatingly restrictive to be offered only six styles), my go-to salon, Feel, on Berwick street, reliable and an accessible £22, and Hershesons, which suffers from the same menu-itis as Headmasters.  

None of these quite passes the Wintour test: I've yet to find one that can get you back on the road in under 40 minutes, and not do they open early enough. If I want to pretend I'm an intergalactic business empress, I want to give good hair at a breakfast meeting, not skulk around until a lunchtime appointment: I like to maximise the hair-miles.  However, I recently stumbled upon Blo by Real Hair -both the Elizabeth Street and Cale Street salons open at 7.30am and guarantee to take no longer than 30 minutes, all without shoehorning you into a menu card, but giving you the hair you want, your way, double quick and for £25. -the result is below. Utter bliss (slightly worried it might be habit forming...)

Blo By Real Hair
Opening hours, 7.30 am to 7.30 pm Monday to Wednesday, 7.30 to 8pm thursday friday, and 9am to 8pm Saturday (also open Sunday)

18 Cale Street Chelsea, SW3 3QU or 36 Elizabeth Street SW1W 9NZ 
telephone number: 02030219050

A word about lipstick
My passion for red lipstick is well documented on these pages - in my head, scarlet lips offer instant screen-siren glamour and, like a blow-dry are one of my default style upgrades when the occasion but not necessarily the time demands. This, Lipstick Queen's Jungle Queen, was designed to work with animal print (which it does) because it's an orange toned red rather than blue. However, since I turn all red lipsticks too pink, the slightly orangey thing is a Godsend for me - and at £20, it's nearly half the price of my previous favourite, Tom Ford's Wilful, almost saving me the price of another blow dry at Blo.

Saturday 18 October 2014


The Tiniest Trefusis, wearing a Ralph Lauren Varsity blazer, as Roald Dahl's Matilda
Last thursday, Ralph Lauren celebrated their children's literacy programme and their collaboration with Book Trust with a Matilda themed tea party at the Bond Street store.

Ralph Lauren believes that 'books open windows to the world and have the power to transform lives' (absolutely true, of course) and are helpfully putting their money where their mouth is by donating 25% of proceeds from their literacy collection and 10% of the purchase price of the children's fashion show collection to Book Trust.

The Tiniest T would like to say thank you very much to Ralph Lauren for inviting her to such a lovely tea (tiny cakes! apple juice in miniature milk bottles with stripy straws! games with Sharkey and George!). And, as someone who very much believes in the transformative power of books for children, I would like to say an enormous and heartfelt thank you to Ralph Lauren to supporting Book Trust's incredible work.

Saturday 11 October 2014


'Look,' [says Lizzie Vogel, ten year old narrator of Nina Stibbe's Man at The Helm, to her sister]
'I know about the plastic parsley - but, in real life, she's got plenty of friends and acquaintances and so forth who will all rally round and do their utmost.''No, they won't, that's not what happens,' says my sister, sounding horribly grown up at only eleven years old. 'That only happens when someone dies and even then not for long. If a lone female is left, especially if divorced, without a man at the helm, all the friends and family and acquaintances run away.''Do they?' I asked.'Yes, until there's another man at the helm.' She said.'And then what?' I asked.'Then, when a new man at the helm is in place, the woman is accepted once again.'

Nina Stibbe at The Dorchester
Man At The Helm is the 'semi-autobiographical' novel Nina Stibbe began to write in her twenties, and at one point shows to Alan Bennett in Love, Nina, her first book, an epistolary memoir of her years as the nanny to the editor of the London Review of Books, in which the cast of walk-on characters includes the great and the good of London's literary scene, Bennett included. He thought it was funny, and rightly so: more than twenty years later, Man At The Helm has emerged fully formed, its humour fulfilling the promise Bennett identified, scorchingly honest, and underpinned with that especially British pathos, the kind that keeps you laughing through the tears. After her parents split up, Lizzie Vogel and her siblings move to a village where they're ostracised for their lack of the eponymous man at the helm. Anxious when their mother turns to booze, pills and  - most worryingly - play-writing, Lizzie and her sister make it their business to find her a new husband and produce 'The Man List', of all the men they consider eligible in the neighbourhood and then send them notes on peach writing paper, purporting to come from their mother inviting them to a drink, in the hope it will lead to 'sexual intercourse and possibly marriage.'
Few things nicer for the tube journey home
 than an excellent novel and a bar of posh chocolate

It's hard to think of a more enjoyable guest for The Books That Built Me than Nina Stibbe, every bit as entertaining in real life as she is in print: dry, droll, charming, clever and generous. In fact, I enjoyed talking to her so much, I quite forgot to look at my watch, and only realised after an hour and ten minutes how far we'd strayed over time.

Anyway, before I share with you her books, I must not forget to do my thank yous, being an exceptionally well-brought up person, particularly to The Dorchester for hosting the salon, to Nyetimber for the delicious pre-salon drinks reception, and to Prestat for the chocolate treats in the goodybag to eat on the way home.

The Books That Built Me: Nina Stibbe

1. Jill's Gymkhana. Ruby Ferguson
In the first in a long series of Jill books, published in the fifties, lonely Jill Crewe makes friends with a neglected pony. She decides to buy Black Boy, but she can't even unsaddle him, let alone ride him. And girls like Susan Pyke are very scathing that she doesn't have the right riding clothes. But her friends show her the ropes, and encourage her to ride in the local gymkhana, where she has a few surprises for the unpleasant Susan Pyke.
 'Horsey but more interesting than most horsey books because Jill wasn't as posh as most horse people or as well off and secure as the rest of her family (and had horrid posh cousins who thought her a bit of an oik).. and felt continually slightly out of place and  had a writer mother and tragic absent father (deceased).' wrote Nina when I asked which books she wanted to talk about at the salon,  'Jill's stories were first person narrated and involved lots of straight to reader talk, and tiny mundane detail ('I washed the carrots under the tap'). Jill was tough and worthy and nice. I loved Jill and loved her story telling style.'
There's a marvellously recalcitrant pony in Man At The Helm called Maxwell who goes inside the Vogels house and climbs the stairs.

2. Black Beauty. Anna Sewell
Black Beauty tells the story of his life in his own words.  'This story stunned me as a nine year old. I couldn't believe it was narrated in the first person. By a HORSE. I was very interested in the horse-voice and fascinated by Black Beauty's slightly judgemental tone on things (such as alcohol) that he couldn't possibly have known about (him being a six year old horse)....' Black Beauty enjoys a rather idyllic life with the Gordons until he's sold to Lord Westland where he's ridden hard and horribly whipped by drunken groom Reuben Smith, then sold into quite a different life pulling a London cab - he's treated well, but the hours are long and it's terribly hard work. Like Man At The Helm, it's the story of changed circumstances -
 'My sister and I and our little brother were born (in that order) into a very good situation and apart from the odd new thing, life was humdrum and comfortable until an evening in 1970 when our mother listened in to our father's phone call and ended up blowing her nose on a tea towel - a thing she'd only have done in an absolute emergency.'
There's also a sense in which Lizzie's mother is Black Beauty - one minute being driven around in a Daimler by Bernard the Chauffeur, the next in a relationship with an unsuitable plumber called Charlie and living off whisky and anti-depressants.

3. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged thirteen and three-quarters. Sue Townsend
Adrian Mole reminds Nina of her 'Love, Nina' years with Mary-Kay Wilmers' children, Will and Sam,  in Gloucester Crescent. Published in the early 1980's, Adrian Mole is a much more political novel than I remember it - it's not simply its backdrop of Thatcher's Britain (and Townsend herself endured great privation), but the things that one forgets like the SDP. I think I'd also forgotten what a comic tour de force it is.
What was endlessly fascinating for me (and probably the reason I lost track of the time) is that in all the books Nina chose, it's possible to track the things that speak to her as a writer, that have built her craft and made Man At The Helm into such a finely honed and brilliant novel - first person narration, the effortless ability she shares with Townsend in particular to inhabit the voice of a child, bringing to a story a tremendous combination of naiveté and knowing.

4. The Country Girls, Edna O'Brian
Edna O'Brian's first published novel tells of innocence eventually lost. Narrated in the first person (see the theme emerging...), it's the story of Caithleen, who at the beginning of the novel is a 14 year old girl living in an Irish village, and at the end, an 18 year old in Dublin, abandoned by her first lover.
'I read this as a teenager and was thrilled,' wrote Nina, 'Very excited that someone who lived in the country (as I did) was so thrilled to move to a town. Also, I loved the nothingness (yet the hugeness) of her relationship with Mr Gentleman until the very end when she compares his penis to an orchid (an orchid of two different purples). At that point I rushed around looking for pictures of orchids and got quite freaked out. Loved her relationship with best-friend Baba. Who was a total bitch and yet a loyal friend at the same time. Which can happen'

5. Jane and Prudence. Barbara Pym
'I picked it up in my teens,' said Nina, 'and couldn't believe how utterly dull it was. My mother was a huge fan and claimed Pym was hilarious. I finished the book and thought I'd avoid Pym in future. For some reason, I came back to her via Some Tame Gazelle, and then re-read Jane and Prudence and fond it joyous and funny.'
One of the great delights of Pym is how she captures life's mundanities in great detail. It's a style which creates a particular intimacy with the characters, who stay with you long after the novel is finished.  I came across a review of  Love, Nina in which Kate Kellaway wrote, 'What makes the book special is her understanding that it is often in the most inconsequential details that people reveal themselves most fully.' and this is absolutely something that she and Pym share.
Nina, with Diary of A Nobody, George and Weedon Grossmith's comic novel

Nyetimber English sparkling wine
(if you haven't tried it, do: it consistently beats the biggest name champagnes in blind tests)
& Nina's Books That Built Me

6. Diary of a Nobody. George and Weedon Grossmith.
Pooter, the 'hero' of Diary of a Nobody is one of the great literary comic creations. A City of London clerk, he and his wife Carrie have moved to their new house at 'The Laurels', Brickfield Lane, Holloway and he begins to record the minutiae of his daily life. With every small vexation, often arising from his unwitting pomposity, the humour quietly builds.
"I told Sarah not to bring up the blanc-mange again for breakfast. [writes Pooter in his diary]. It seems to have been placed on our table at every meal since Wednesday....In spite of my instructions, that blanc-mange was brought up again for supper. To make matters worse, there had been an attempt to disguise it, by placing it in a glass dish with jam round it...I told Carrie, when we were alone, if that blanc-mange were placed on the table again I should walk out of the house."
One of the things Nina nails so brilliantly in Man At The Helm is the pooterishness of little England, the sneaky censoriousness, the self-importance of villagers like Mrs Longlady at the Village Fete

"Mrs Longlady, our almost neighbour, was one of the judges and seeing her there ... she seemed tall and important like her name and she kept saying Thrice which seemed important too 'The Entrants will be viewed thrice,' she announced to the entrants and their mothers in her echoey mic voice, 'walking, standing and close up before we adjudge who is to be awarded the prizes."  

I hope I haven't made the salon sound like a forensic examination of a writer's style - all lit crit and no wit. Although I always intended The Books That Built Me to describe how an author's favourite novels must inevitably reflect the kind of writing they respond to and admire - that lovely quote of Sarah Churchwell's 'how the books you love meet the books you write' comes to mind -  I hadn't expected Nina's to give me quite so much insight into Man At The Helm. Perhaps it's because I too adore first person stories, and those in which the 'inconsequential details' create a conspiracy between author and reader, that I find myself so captivated by her journey as an author. Man At The Helm is a triumphant achievement - incredibly sad and incredibly funny as all the best books are, and I feel quite sure that, like Adrian Mole, Jane and Prudence, Diary of a Nobody, et al, its appeal will endure.

Man at the Helm is published by Penguin, priced £12.99

The next Books That Built Me is with India Knight on 12th November at The Club at Café Royal.

Wednesday 1 October 2014


A little over six years ago, in the days before blogging and tweeting and all the rest of the social media folderol, I sat in a black cab, clutching a copy of Mrs Dalloway, staring out into another London, thinking of Septimus Warren Smith as we drove past Regents Park, 

Men must not cut down trees. There is a God. (He noted such revelations on the backs of envelopes.) Change the world. No one kills from hatred. Make it known (he wrote it down). He waited. He listened. A sparrow perched on the railings opposite chirped Septimus, Septimus, four or five times over and went on, drawing its notes out, to sing freshly and piercingly in Greek words how there is no crime and, joined by another sparrow, they sang in voices prolonged and piercing in Greek words, from trees in the meadow of life beyond a river where the dead walk, how there is no death.

Six years ago, in that cab, I was only idly thinking about writing a blog - everyone had a blog then, why shouldn't I? - I didn't know what to call it, but there was Mrs Dalloway, not Clarissa Dalloway but Mrs and it seemed to me, newly returned to work after maternity leave, that nothing had changed in in the intervening eighty-five years; women were still defined by their relationships with men.

And as the taxi carried me up and over the Westway towards home, I felt that I, too, could make my own kind of quiet comment on that; choose Mrs yet append it to a surname that was neither my father's nor my husband's, but one that tangentially reminded me of Woolf. So there it was and I was, Mrs Trefusis Takes a Taxi; my own, odd, homage to my literary touchstone, and my acknowledgment of the debt that every woman writer owes to Woolf.

Mrs Dalloway is a book that pays with repeated re-reading: every time one comes back to it there is a new book inside, waiting to be unwrapped. I've spent every Tuesday evening this September at Wendy Meakin's literary salon at The Club at Café Royal, reading Mrs Dalloway with a group of fierce, clever, interesting people, teasing out its secrets, listening to other Mrs Dalloways, attempting to articulate answers to Wendy's incisive, provocative questions about the text - how long it is since I heard a book called a text - hoping the friction might conjure sparks in long-dormant synapses. It was a bootcamp for the brain: six weeks on and I feel intellectually fitter than I have since university. It can't last - I will ruin myself again with vampire books and Jilly Cooper, but just for a bit I felt I could cut it in a conversation about Freud and Saussure and Barthes. I bluffed my way through when Lacan and Foucault came up, but I was never that hot on lit crit, even as an undergrad.

Anyway, this year, my Mrs Dalloway was Septimus Warren Smith's Mrs Dalloway - in no small part, I'm sure, because we're all so immersed in the centenary of the Great War. I'm not sure I'd stopped to think before how well Woolf articulates the unhealed and unheal-able wound the war had left upon Britain in the early twenties - soldiers returned from the war, alive but 'in rats' alley, where the dead men lost their bones', and her own experience of mental illness allows her to portray the sufferings of shell-shocked Septimus and the hopeless inadequacies of treatment - isolation, enforced inactivity, over-feeding, with extraordinary insight and compassion.

Septimus was one of the first to volunteer. He went to France to save an England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare's plays and Miss Isabel Pole in a green dress walking in a square....
He had gone through the whole show, friendship, European war, death, had won promotion, was still under thirty and was bound to survive. He was right there. The last shells missed him. He watched them explode with indifference....
He looked at people outside: happy they seemed,  collecting in the middle of the street, shouting, laughing, squabbling over nothing. But he could not taste, he could not feel. In the teashop among the tables and the chattering waiters the appalling fear came over him - he could not feel. he could reason; he could read, Dante for example, quite easily ('Septimus, do put down your book, ' said Rezia, gently shutting The Inferno), he could add up his bill; his brain was perfect; it must be the fault of the world then - that he could not feel.
Woolf begins Mrs Dalloway in 1922 (it's set in 1923), the annus mirabilis of 20th century literature, the year in which Joyce publishes Ulysses, and Eliot The Waste Land. Reading the pages in Mrs Dalloway in which Septimus goes to war with Shakespeare (Antony and Cleopatra, which he picks up again, post-war, 'That boy's business of the intoxication of language - Antony and Cleopatra - had shrivelled utterly') and returns with The Inferno. The war has left him in hell without a Virgil to lead him out; he sees the ghost of Evans, his commanding officer, everywhere and
In the streets, vans roared past him; brutality blared out on placards; men were trapped in mines; women burnt alive; and once a maimed file of lunatics being exercised or displayed for the diversion of the populace (who laughed aloud) ambled and nodded and grinned past him, the Tottenham Court Road, each half apologetically, yet triumphantly, inflicting his hopeless woe.
Eliot, of course, also uses Dante and Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra in The Waste Land - but, since Wendy's next deep dive into the sacred texts of modernism begins on 21st October with a two week salon on The Waste Land, it will wait for another time.

[the Wendy Meakin Literary Salon: The Waste Land is 21st and 28th October, 7pm to 9pm at The Club at Cafe Royal, price £30 for both sessions, or £41 to include a copy of TS Eliot Selected poems. If anyone is interested in joining me there, email me on]