Tuesday 18 November 2014


In Your Prime; Older, Wiser, Happier by India Knight, a copy of Harper's Bazaar and Prestat's delicious chocolate - ready for guests to take home.

'The charm of your writing' Evelyn Waugh once wrote to Nancy Mitford, 'depends on your refusal to recognise a distinction between girlish chatter and literary language.' The same could be said, I think, of the appeal of India Knight, whose considerable intellectual clout is effortlessly tempered by the warmth, wit and generosity of her writing. 

Guests drank ice-cold Nyetimber - not for nothing has it outclassed the big brand champagnes in blind testing - and went home with a goodybag containing a copy of In Your Prime, December Harper's Bazaar and a delicious bar of Prestat chocolate. I went home without my copy of In Your Prime (I think a guest may have inadvertently picked it up. Tant pis...) but with a renewed sense of purpose and in my full pomp - very much in my prime.

India has an uncanny ability to produce a book at precisely the moment I need her most  - From Pig to Twig  [more properly known as 'Neris and India's Idiot-Proof Diet'] arrived when I realised that the avoirdupois I'd acquired whilst pregnant with The Tiniest Trefusis wasn't going to shift itself. Thrift turned up - helpfully - in time for the Great Trefusis Economic Crisis, and her four novels have endlessly consoled and amused me (& once, when I was reading 'Comfort and Joy' aloud to my sister as she drove us up the A303, she became so hysterical with laughter she had to stop the car). And of course, India's weekly comment column and newish beauty feature for the Sunday Times seem to connect exactly with the collective zeitgeist (one has no sooner thought, 'God, my legs are the colour of skimmed milk' than a column appears recommending the ne plus ultra of fake tans). Now, when the face that stares back at me in the mirror shows the relentless march towards middle-age, India's latest book 'In Your Prime; Older, Wiser, Happier,' appears, oasis-like. It's full of India's trademark drollery and shrewd, sensible advice - not all of which must be followed prescriptively - my blissful friend Belgian Waffling and I were paralysed by wardrobe anxiety before the launch party for In Your Prime, after reading in its pages that after a certain age one must never wear black, it being so funereal and 'draining'. Obediently, both of us cast off our nightly colour only to discover India resplendent in a super-sexy black sparkly number, looking for all the world as if she'd had her DNA blended in a centrifuge with Gina Lollobrigida's and Sophia Loren's. Nor do I think we should worry too much about getting  'on top': as suggested, I put a mirror on the floor, straddled it, and looked down. Admittedly,  the view wasn't delightful but I think one's partner is probably too busy in the throes to pause for much thought (also, if similar age, will probably be quite grateful to you for taking weight off his ageing joints). 

Anyway, if you're tempted to punch people when they ask you what you're going to do for 'your big birthday', this book is for you. If you're about to ask one of your friends, or your mum, or any other woman in your life what she plans to do for her 'big birthday', please button your lip and buy them 'In Your Prime' instead. 

 'In Your Prime' has my favourite appendix of all time - a list of more than fifty comfort reads, alone quite worth the price of the book. Uncle Matthew, one of the glorious characters in India's first Books That Built Me choice, Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love, says "My dear Lady Kroesig, I have only read one book in my life, and that is ‘White Fang.’ It’s so frightfully good I’ve never bothered to read another.”. I'd go so far as to say these fifty are so good one would never have to bother to read others, though one should definitely add these, below. So, here are India's Books That Built Me

1. The Pursuit of Love, Nancy Mitford. A novel that can be read again and again without it ever losing its charm. 
(Regular guests at TBTBM will know that Penhaligon's always perfume the room with a scent to match something in one of the books - this time they chose their new gentleman's cologne, Bayolea, based on a traditional recipe and gorgeously manly with citrus and cedar, lavender, musk and moss, absolutely the essence of Linda's great love, Fabrice de Sauveterre.) The Amazon link is to the Complete Novels of Nancy Mitford, because India wrote the foreword, and as India said at TBTBM, everything Mitford wrote is worth reading, not simply the novels but also the hugely entertaining and well-researched biographies - Madame De Pompadour, Frederick The Great, The Sun King, Voltaire in Love, and so on.

2. An Omelette and a Glass of Wine,  Elizabeth David. India's mum sent her off to university with this book, but India said she mostly read it for the beauty of Elizabeth David's writing and ate Pot Noodle. David not only transformed how the British Middle-class art after the war (as India said, even as late as the early seventies, her mother was horrified to discover that olive oil was sold in tiny quantities from Boots, for medicinal purposes, quite insufficient for dressing a salad) but was also a very literary food writer, much published in newspapers and magazines (Harper's Bazaar published her first ever piece, about rice, in 1949). An Omelette and A Glass of Wine is her anthology of her journalism and, I quite agree with India when she says it's also the perfect description of the perfect meal for one.

3. The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, Georges Simenon. All writers are tremendous readers, says India, and as a child in Belgium with her grandparents, she devoured books - everything she could lay her hands on, including Tin Tin and Asterix and detective stories like Simenon's The Man Who Watched Trains Go By. It's not a Maigret novel, but a bleakly gripping thriller about a petit-bourgeois official who is so tired of being who he is he commits murder. John Banville calls it 'insouciantly gruesome ... A superb and polished work of art masquerading as pulp fiction', and I wonder aloud if India has unconsciously absorbed Simenon's ability to pen a page-turner yet not stint on intelligent writing, as with Mitford. I think the truth lies in India's response -'What was it Dolly Parton said? 'it takes a lot of effort to look this cheap'' 

4. India's fourth book choice is by fellow Belgian Albert Cohen's Belle Du Seigneur (often translated in English as 'Her Lover'). Cohen is hugely celebrated in Belgium but little known in England and, published in 1968, Belle Du Seigneur, has sold over a million copies on the continent. It's a story of a doomed love affair between Solal, a handsome Mediterranean Jew who has risen to become  Under Secretary-General of the League of Nations and Ariane, the beautiful, aristocratic Swiss wife of one of his underlings.  
Belle Du Seigneur is an epic tale of adulterous passion in the Paolo and Francesca mode, two legendary lovers doomed, in Dante's Inferno, India's penultimate book, to float perpetually on the wings of love, always reaching for each other, always missing each other's embrace.
Belle Du Seigneur is also the reason I know India, but that's for another time.

5. Speaking of Paolo and Francesco, who occupy the Second Circle of Dante's Inferno (quite unfair, really, adulterous get away with only the second circle of hell, whilst fortune tellers and tarot readers get the 8th, India's fifth book is The Divine Comedy (Inferno) by Dante. India read modern languages at University, and first discovered Dante in its original Italian, which must have been wonderful (I can say Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate, but that's the only Italian I can muster, soI'm all about the English translation). 

Delicious Nyetimber

6. Barbara Pym - all but in particular Excellent Women and Some Tame Gazelle. James Thurber once wrote that the difference between American and English humour is that the former makes the extraordinary, ordinary, and the latter turns on transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary, and the quiet pleasure of Pym's writing is quintessentially English. Wistful, witty and wise, Barbara Pym's novels are marvellous about all the quiet details in the lives of the middle-classes and much of the joy of her as an author lies in the way one recognises one's own life in her pages - in her novels, as in life, it's the small, seemingly inconsequential details that have the most power. I have some recollection of India saying that she could never quite love anyone who didn't like Barbara Pym - if I've misquoted that, forgive me and ascribe the sentiment to me instead. 

Guests drank ice-cold Nyetimber - not for nothing has it outclassed the big name champagnes in blind testing - and went home with a goodybag containing In Your Prime, a copy of Harper's Bazaar and a bar of Prestat's gorgeous cardamom and orange chocolate. I went home without my copy of In Your Prime (I think someone must have inadvertently picked it up, tant pis) but, having spent an hour or so talking to India, I think I absorbed by osmosis the essence of what she means by being in one's prime, and off I went, full of confidence, vigour and very much in my full pomp.

The next Books That Built Me salon is on 8th December with Justine Picardie, author of several books, including the best-selling Coco Chanel; the Legend and the Life, and Editor in Chief of Harper's Bazaar

No comments: