Tuesday 27 January 2015

S.J.Watson at The Books That Built Me

My next guest at The Books That Built Me is SJ Watson, author of the smash hit, Before I Go To Sleep, to celebrate the publication of his second novel, Second Life.

Every bit as gripping as his first, Second Life tells the story of Julia, a woman  whose obsession with tracking down her beloved sister's killer leads her to put the comfortable life she's built  at enormous risk. I can't possibly say more without plot spoilers, but I read Second Life through in a single sitting, desperate to find out how Julia will navigate the many twists and turns of the plot, and I'm sure i won't be alone in finding it utterly compelling.

Watson has quickly established himself as a major player in the art of the psychological thriller, but came to writing later in life, having first had a successful career as an audiologist. The game-changer was being accepted onto the Faber and Faber writing course in 2009 where he honed the book that would become Before I Go To Sleep. His success is not only utterly well-deserved, he is also a huge inspiration to all aspiring authors.

I have had a sneak peek at his book choices for the salon, and they're every bit as original and fascinating as his novels - he promises to be a wonderful guest.

To book for the salon on 24th February, click here or click the big blue 'Books that Built Me' logo on the right to take you to the eventbrite page. 

Sunday 25 January 2015


I'm in Paris on business. I'm reminded of the first time I came here, whilst at university, on a kind of field trip to discover the Paris of Baudelaire and Proust.  I took the train then, too, but it was long before Eurostar. 
When we arrived, I became separated from my friends and sat down on my bag in the middle of the station and, like Linda in The Pursuit of Love, had a bit of a cry: it was very early and we'd traveled all night. Fabrice de Sauveterre did not find me before my friends, probably just as well, or I'd have been too busy having fittings at Dior to bother graduating.

Anyway, more of this tomorrow. 

Friday 23 January 2015


I had breakfast today with Ed Warren, ad guru and founding partner at hip creative shop, Creature, to talk about an extraordinary immersive theatre experience he's producing - Alice Underground is Alice in Wonderland as you've never seen (heard it/smelled it/touched it) before. It's on in April, and sounds utterly magical - it's mainly for grown-ups, but there's a special version for younger children too. And of course 2015 is the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland, so this promises to be the buzziest thing in all the anniversary buzz.

Anyway, whilst we were chatting, the subject of native advertising came up, and how it's hardly a new thing, despite being vaunted as digital's new black.

Did I actually know quite how ancient a practice native advertising really was, asked Ed. Could I name him any early examples?

I took a stab at the Michelin Guide - still a pretty cool way of creating engaging content around the incredibly dull subject of tyres - but I was wrong. It's Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne, commissioned around 1522 for one of the great patrons of Renaissance art, Alfonso D'Este, Duke of Ferrara.

The gold urn in the foreground was famously one of D'Este's most treasured possessions. Who knows if it was Titian who cannily chose to include it, knowing which side his bread was buttered, much like magazines make sure the big watch and fashion advertisers are credited, or Alfonso D'Este insisting on a spot of product placement - inserting the D'Este 'brand' into the editorial content of the picture. Either way, the story goes that every time Titian painted it, D'Este said he wanted the urn to be more prominent.

Titian, I can sympathise: I've never known a client who didn't want their logo bigger....

Thursday 22 January 2015


If, like me, you have an incorrigible book habit, I must counsel you not to buy How To Be A Heroine: Samantha Ellis writes so winningly and persuasively about her literary heroines, that you immediately feel you must own the full 153 books in its bibliography. It's a magnificent reading list, and it also makes you aware how lightly Sam wears her considerable scholarship.
Anyway, she and I had a glorious time chatting about books and heroines at last night's event at The Club at Cafe Royal: over a glass of Nyetimber (always encourages a sparkling conversation I find), we talked about quests and journeys, active resistance, learning to save oneself, and the necessity of writing one's own life. 
Henny Penny, Anne of Green Gables, Lace, Wuthering Heights, Lolly Willowes, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
As I crawled into bed last night, I wondered if we all, like Northanger Abbey's Catherine Morland, are "in training for a heroine", even if that means we have to determine our own individual brand of heroine-ism?
Samantha Ellis, author of How to Be A Heroine


1. Henry Penny

Henny Penny was Sam's "most tattered and destroyed book, a read-along picture book of The Story of Henny Penny, a heroine on a mission, a heroine who does something, a heroine with a social conscience, a heroine who knows fear. And she's not a princess"
For anyone unfamiliar with Henny Penny, it's the story of a chicken who thinks the sky is falling in when an acorn falls on her head so she goes off on a quest to tell the king, taking along a whole gaggle of feathered friends with her. She has a narrow escape from a fox. Her friends are less fortunate.

2. Anne of Green Gables - L.M. Montgomery 

"Anne Shirley is a heroine with an imagination...it's not only that Anne can imagine stories, she's also able to imagine what it's like to be in someone else's shoes - reading Anne taught me that a heroine should have both imagination and empathy"

3. Lace - Shirley Conran

Let's not be distracted by the goldfish and other sexual shenanigans in Conran's 1982 best seller, Lace is actually "a career-woman's handbook" 

4. Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte

"I've read Wuthering Heights every year since first finding it at twelve....At 29 I decided to live by it...It's not really about Heathcliff as a hero or Cathy as a heroine, it's about love - transcendent love, operatic, excessive, abandoned and unreasonable". 
Is Heathcliff husband material? I really don't think so...

5. Lolly Willowes - Sylvia Townsend Warner

Lolly Willowes is the magnificently original story of Lolly (Laura) Willowes who doesn't see men or a relationship as her destiny at all. Instead, "at the age of 47, she finds her independence by selling her soul to the devil and becoming a witch". 
Before the rather cosy satanic pact, Lolly lives with her brother and sister in law where "she says she builds up a 'mental fur coat' of things to make her feel better when things get rough, things like marrons glacés, flowers and books."
lolly's epiphany about moving away from her brother and sister in law to live in the country comes when she is given a large spray of beech leaves when buying flowers, and she misses walking freely in woods and orchards as she did as a child. Penhaligon's scent the event so I chose their beautiful candle 'A Walk In The Woods' to remind us all of Lolly's quest for freedom.

6. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - Anne Bronte

"Helen [Graham, the novel's protagonist] is interesting because she's an artist, not just because she is a painter, but because she paints her own life: she takes out what she doesn't like in the picture, and puts in what she does like, and she ends up (after much struggle) with a beautiful life."

I discovered that Samantha Ellis' next book will be about Anne Bronte: I absolutely can't wait to read it, and to welcome her back to The Books That Built Me. 

Copies of How To Be A Heroine are available here.

The next Books That Built Me literary salon is with SJ Watson, author of Before I Go To Sleep for his new book, Second Life. Tickets here

I'm sure I wasn't the only one to wolf the delicious Prestat on the way home
Guests drank Nyetimber English Sparkling wine and took home a goody bag with chocolate from Prestat, a copy of How To Be A Heroine and a copy of Harper's Bazaar. 
Nyetimber - a perfect complement to the elegance of the Club at Cafe Royal

Penhaligon's A Walk in the Woods

Tuesday 20 January 2015


Every month, I get together with a group of like-minded women for breakfast. 

We call it Lima Bravo Bravo, because Ladies Business Breakfast sounded really dreadful, and I couldnt think of anything catchier.

It's a wonderfully eclectic group - creatives, artists, PR's, journo's - all interesting and interested, supportive, and nourishing, and I always leave with soaring spirits, full of admiration for what each of the members has achieved in the weeks since we last met, though each will shrug it off and say 'it's nothing'. 

My former editor at Harper's Bazaar, Justine Picardie, always used to say that when you bring women together, wonderful things happen, and that's absolutely true of Lima Bravo Bravo. 

This morning we were hosted by the Institute of Directors at their glorious HQ in Pall Mall. I have it in my head that the IOD was founded by a woman: I hope I haven't made that up, it's rather a wonderful thought. 


Monday 19 January 2015


For a while, I thought Blue Monday was another shopping thing, like Black Friday, invented by retailers to shift the last remaining Christmas stock before Spring/Summer comes into store.

Instead, it turns out to be the day when the nation is struck down by depression, the universal comedown after Christmas; the long dark January of the soul.

Three weeks through the month, few people are awash with cash, many are stoutly carrying on their New Year's temperance pledge, and some are even eating kale. Most are cast down by work - by turns Herculean or Sisyphean, and no one can fail to be gloomy about world geo-political ghastliness - Charlie Hebdo, Boko Haran, Syria, the Swiss franc ...

We are glum, because things are a bit rubbish, but we are mostly still hopeful of improvement. We know spring will come. We find the strength to change the things we can, and the courage to accept those we cannot. We are not depressed. To be depressed means walking an endless tunnel without anticipation of a glimpse of light in the distance.

I was idly wondering why moods have colours - seeing red, feeling blue,&c. It led me to ponder on how old philosophies and long outdated theories are hard wired into the folk memory. The idea that we are made up of four 'humours' all of which must be kept in balance if we are not to fall ill only fell out of favour in the late seventeenth century: small wonder we still use some of the language. 
Anyway, it used to be thought that depression was caused by an imbalance of the humours, possibly an excess of black bile, a theory that possibly holds more credence than it just being because it's the third Monday of January. 

In 1621, the priest and scholar, Robert Burton, published a book that was for centuries the definitive work on depression. The Anatomy of Melancholy brought together two thousand years of study, articulating Hippocrates and Galen's philosophies of the Humours, and drawing from every science the seventeenth century mind had at its disposal - psychology, astronomy, astrology and even demonology to create an authoritative and exhaustive study of melancholy, and documenting in the process Burton's own attempt to understand his malady. 
It's an extraordinary work - vast yet readable, and if anyone's interest is picqued, then Google the brilliant BBC Radio 4 podcast, In Our Time, on Burton's book to hear the Anatomy of Melancholy's theories and cultural importance explored.

And as for blue Monday, well, January sucks, but I have a sanguine nature: we're already two thirds of the way through.

The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is: With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cut Up

Friday 16 January 2015


I've only now got the children to bed. The Infant Trefusii are supposed to go to bed between half past seven and eight o'clock, which ostensibly leaves one with few hours to collapse on the sofa with exhaustion before it's time for your own bed, and so the later it goes, the more irritated one becomes at having no time to oneself at all. I want to watch an unsuitable french cop show on BBCiPlayer, and finish off some work emails and write this blog, and none of that is possible with the children zipping around the house like wakeful squirrels. The Tiniest Trefusis, in particular, has been a jack in the box - I'd only to tuck her in and trudge once more down the stairs for her to pop up in front of me, glaring balefully and telling me I had forgotten to give her a hug (blatantly untrue). Or, later, once I'd tucked her in so tightly I'd almost swaddled her, to appear in the drawing room, wailing that the tooth fairy had forgotten to collect her teeth (reader, this is true, the West London tooth fairy is good at leaving the cash but seems reluctant to take the horrid teeth in exchange. Who knows why this could be.). And if it wasn't The Tiniest Trefusis, it was Trefusis Minor, who is ten going on fourteen, shambling downstairs to mutter incomprehensibly about the 'not-fair-ness' of something. I'm not sure what. 
All of this was quite wearisome. So I was quite heartened to discover an old blogpost from 2010, when the children said funny things, and were tiny enough to stay in their beds once there, and yet old enough to sleep through the night. 


This afternoon, in an entirely unprovoked fit of idle violence, The Tiniest Trefusis took one of my chunky perspex cuffs and chucked it straight at Trefusis Minor's head. It caught him hard on the corner of his eye - unlike Trefusis Minor, the Tiniest Trefusis has quite a true aim - with an audible crack. Tears, shrieking, howls, wails ensued - you know the drill.

Anyway, since we have a firm 'No Fighting, No Biting' policy here at Trefusis Towers, Tiniest Trefusis went straight to the naughty step to consider her position, which I'm sorry to report was typically unrepentant.

After taking a couple of minutes to recover from the shock of a thwack on the head from a flying bangle, Trefusis Minor went to visit her on the naughty step. He crouched down to her level and took hold of her hands in his, saying, in his best lentil-botherer voice, 'I'm just trying to understand why you felt you needed to hurt me'.

He did his best to make eye-contact, fixing her with a look of one who is more sinned against than sinning, but the Tiniest Trefusis was having none of it, 'Go 'WAY,' she shouted, and turned her head to the wall.

'But why did you do it,' persisted TM. 'Were you trying to get some attention?'

The Tiniest Trefusis mulishly refused to be understood. Time-up on the time-out, she wriggled off the stair and sidled off, without either explanation or apology.

I'm quite interested in his response - his sister brains him, and rather than smack her back, he simply wants to get to grips with her motivation.

Trefusis Minor has always been a bit odd like that: He's not one for a textbook response to any given situation. I remember taking him to the Lyric Hammersmith to see some kind of children's theatre production consisting of a gigantic Calder-esque mobile from which various actors were suspended, calling 'Hang on' to each other at dramatic intervals. It was very striking, entirely narrative-free and popular with the entire audience of under-fives. All except Trefusis Minor who, whenever one of the actors appeared to be a little casual in the way they hung from the mobile, would leap to his feet, shouting 'Get down! It's too dangerous' at the stage, like some demented juvenile health and safety officer.

The Tiniest Trefusis was formerly known as Hunca Munca. But she's a little less destructive now she's coming up to three, so it seems unfair to stick her with the soubriquet. She's very funny and told my mother over Christmas that she liked the vicar at church because he wore curtains and a party hat.


I was chatting to digi-guru Steve Thompson the other day about 'Dark Social.'  Apparently, much to the despair of marketeers who have leapt upon insta-tweeting as the dernier cri of free media space (sorry, I mean, 'earned' media), we are all eschewing conventional social media as a way of sharing cat lolz and 'you know you were born in the 1920's if' listicles in favour of sending links to stuff we like to our actual friends via whatsapp, and messenger (of various iterations from BBM to hangouts, or whatever Google Chat is called now it's trying to be a bit cooler). 

'Dark Social' sounds like it should be sexier and more exciting than that, I thought, feeling a bit short-changed, but then digital can often seem that way (look, look, I have invented this amazing shiny round thing which will revolutionise transport as we know it etcetc ). I used to have a bet with a friend at my old work about how many times we could get 'intimate offline social networks focused around key passion points' into presentations before anyone realised we were referring to groups of mates watching Rugger down the pub. 

Of course, the web has always been a social space, but what Dark Social reflects is, probably, people's increasing unease with the exchange of vast quantities of personal data in return for being able to talk to their friends (facebook) in an easily accessible, public space, or being able to offer your witty 140 character epigrams to like-minded strangers (twitter) like some digital Oscar Wilde. It's also useful because there's a whole heap of things that are better shared privately - controversial opinions, a link to a youtube clip of Nosferatu because it reminds you of your boss, emergency kittens whilst you're in the middle of a board meeting and so on.

The challenge for marketeers is that it's harder to advertise to you if you're out of the conventional social space - they can't push dull messages at you and pretend you're engaged with it, simply because it's in your feed. It means that every brand with a 'content strategy' needs to work much harder to earn your attention, and make it genuinely interesting and clever. Guess what, you actually have to earn it.

I'm now just thinking of the last thing I shared on 'dark social'. I'm ashamed to admit it was a picture of Cindy Crawford's nipple. I wouldn't pop that on twitter - what would people think? Or on Facebook- what would my mum think?

Thursday 15 January 2015


One of the really tedious things about running one's own business is the book-keeping. At least until one is successful enough to get someone else to do it, you have to trawl through reams of receipts and incoming and outgoings, paying invoices, chasing invoices so one has the money to pay what one owes and so on. Essential to get one's accounts right but by God it's killing me.

As I was sitting there last night like Bob Cratchit, I found it particularly irksome, because it was taking me away from a really gripping book. I expect everyone has already The Miniaturist - I'm a little late to the party - it tells the story of Nella, newly arrived in Amsterdam to marry a rich merchant she has only met briefly once, and who gives her a replica of their house to furnish, as a wedding present, like a very grand, grown up doll's house. Of course, this being a really satisfying book, nothing is quite as it seems.

It's hardly a fortnight into the New Year and I've obviously not been too assiduous with my accounts because I've read at least three excellent novels.

In Olivia Glazebrook's Never Mind Miss Fox, recommended to me by Belgian Waffling,  the possible revelation of an ugly secret threatens to unravel the lives of a family, who are, to misquote Tolstoy, superficially happy in the manner of most families but unhappy in their own very particular way. At one level, it's a tale of the havoc infidelity can wreak, but Glazebrook's writing is much cleverer and more subtle than that: her characters are vivid, complex, flawed and none is wholly likeable, yet you're caught up - complicit even - in the dense psycho-drama of their lives from the very first page. Glazebrook is especially good on the ways one can love people without absolutely liking them, and that goes for the reader's relationship with the novel's protagonists as well as theirs with each other. It's disturbing and original and utterly brilliantly written with a voice that is as beautifully realised as its plotting. 

Anthony Quinn's Curtain Call is billed as a murder mystery. If you're mad about murder mysteries by Val McDermid or Lee Child, I'm not certain Curtain Call will rock your boat, but if you can imagine a murder mystery written by Evelyn Waugh, then it's definitely for you. And really, imagine the absolute bliss of a murder mystery written by Evelyn Waugh - for this, if for nothing else, buy Curtain Call at once.

I'm not going to try to precis it - instead, read this marvellous review by Sadie Jones (author of another terrific book, Fall-Out) - and anyway, to badly paraphrase one of Curtain Call's most glorious characters, trying to capture the essence of a really good book in a few lines is to risk doing it no justice at all - like describing Barchester Towers as a book in which the arrival of a new bishop at a cathedral town ruffles a few feathers. 

Marvellously, Anthony Quinn has just written this for the Vintage books website about how characters can be the key to your plot - it's quite brilliant, and gives great insight into why he's such a terrific writer.

Anyway, I am going to give up on the accounts now and go to bed. Tomorrow I'm going to start cramming some of the marvellous books Samantha Ellis has chosen for The Books That Built Me on 21st January in preparation for the salon.

Sunday 11 January 2015


How To Be A Heroine. Samantha Ellis

'If I were playing 'Snog, Marry, Avoid,' writes Samantha Ellis in her marvellous memoir, How to Be A Heroine, 'I'd still snog Heathcliff but I'd never try to marry him. I'd still avoid Rochester, because I don't think he'd make me happy. And maybe (thank you, Ms Du Maurier) I'd marry Jem.*'

Who would I play a literary 'snog, marry, avoid' with?

I fear I may have terribly bad taste and be tempted to snog Count Dracula, and then come to a sticky end like Lucy Westenra, stabbed through the heart by my fiancé with a wooden stake (to serve me right for dallying with bad boy Drac). Or being frightfully well brought up, I might marry instead of snogging and make hopeless choices like Linda in Nancy Mitford's Pursuit of Love, who first marries a very great bore in Tony Kroesig, and then mistakes convictions for passion in awful Christian Talbot, who loves principles far more than people. Happily, things improve when she meets divine Fabrice de Sauveterre, with whom she has the most delicious affaire.

I'd be mad keen to marry Lord Peter Wimsey, which makes it a dead cert he'd never fall for me - Harriet Vane eschewed his advances for at least two books til he was champing at the bit, and I'd never have that kind of sang froid. I wasted several afternoons imagining myself locked in a hectic snogathon in a posh stable with Rupert Campbell-Black, until I discovered Jilly Cooper based his character on Andrew Parker-Bowles, who I'm sure is a delightful chap but really not at all the RC-B of my dreams. Avoiding all the usual suspects is easy (St John Rivers, no thanks, ditto Mr Collins) but I have always felt that Gabriel Oak would make an excellent sort of husband - 'when I look up, there you'll be, and when you look up, there I'll be', as would James Bond if one had a lot of one's own extra curricular interests, and the ability to turn a blind eye to things that happened 'overseas'.

It's natural, isn't it, to put oneself in the heroine's position in relation to the hero in a book, and imagine what might happen after the 'Reader, I married him,' or the happily ever after, or if Mark Darcy was a tiny bit on the lights out, rummages under nightie side after the sexual olympiad of Daniel Cleaver, and if the allure of Wickham's ways wore off for Lydia after they were married. Or is it just me that suffers from excessive literary prurience?

Actually, speaking of Jilly Cooper, in 'Harriet', one of Cooper's 'name' books, the eponymous heroine's Oxford tutor, Theo Dutton, asks her to write him the kind of essay that would have got him a coating of Stop Sexual Harrassment stickers on his office door in my day.

His hard, yellow eyes gleamed through his spectacles. He was smiling, but she wasn’t sure if he was fooling or not. He always made her feel faintly sexy, but uneasy at the same time.
‘Now,’ he had said briskly, ‘for next week, write an essay on which of Shakespeare’s characters would be best in bed and why.’
Harriet flushed scarlet.
‘But I can’t . . .’ she began, then bit her lip.
‘Can’t write from experience? Use your imagination then. Shakespeare didn’t know what it was like to be a black general or a Danish prince, did he?’
‘Hamlet wouldn’t have been much good,’ said Harriet. ‘He’d have talked too much, and never made up his mind to, until it was too late and one had gone off the boil.’
Theo had given a bark of laughter.
‘That’s more like it. Write something I might enjoy reading.’

Romeo would have kissed like a carwash and got off one stop too early, Henry V would have been all gung-ho and slap-you-on-the-arse on the way up the stairs and 'haven't you got those trousers off yet, I haven't got all day'. I don't like to think too hard about Titus Andronicus.... Oh dear, I'm now starting to wonder about Karenin vs Vronsky, and the merits of Nick Carraway vs Tom Buchanan vs Gatsby ....

Anyway, which literary heroes do you think would have been best in bed and why?

[And do come and hear Sam Ellis talk about her literary heroines at The Books That Built Me at The Club at Cafe Royal on 21st January - tickets here]

* - Jem Merlyn from Du Maurier's Jamaica Inn who, as Ellis writes is 'just lawless and wild enough but not black-hearted like his brother'. 

Saturday 10 January 2015


 Before Christmas, I had the great treat of being invited aboard the Orient Express by Mappin & Webb, the Queen's silversmith, to celebrate the beautiful new jewellery collection by Creative Director Elizabeth Galton. As I took my seat, I realised a marvellous extra bonus treat was in store because there, opposite me, was my great friend Sasha Wilkins, AKA Liberty London Girl. Here is the post that she wrote about the day (with much better pictures - she's infinitely better with her camera than I am with my iphone)
The Orient Express was pulled by a proper steam engine - very Ivor the Engine: I half expected Idris the red dragon to appear from the firebox
One half expect to find oneself in an episode of an Agatha Christie crime drama, or in a remake of The Lady Vanishes

The delightful Liberty London Girl 
Francois Le Troquer (left), Executive Director of Mappin & Webb - I'm just visible chatting to Sasha in the far carriage through the window on the right

Elegant, subtle branding turned the Orient Express into the Mappin & Webb Express

I didn't miss the opportunity to try on some of the beautiful new pieces in the Mappin & Webb collection

Hard not to covet this beautiful Floresco diamond and white gold ring - it has a very pretty design and the exquisite craftsmanship one might expect from a jeweller with the heritage of Mappin & Webb 

Friday 9 January 2015


Towards the end of last year, I left Harper's Bazaar and Esquire where I'd worked for nine and a half years, to set up my own business. It was something I'd always wanted to do, it took me a little longer than I thought to be ready to take the plunge, but the first three months have been tremendous.

There are some disadvantages, of course. Cash flow is a hideous, insomnia-inducing nightmare - you have the income on paper, but suppliers need paying before your clients pay you because as a new business, you don't get the same payment terms as you would if you were Harper's Bazaar, say. 
There's also the tension between fulfilling your obligations to existing clients whilst also finding enough time for hunting down new business. And there's also tiny things - you can't be off sick - firstly you don't have time, and secondly, you don't get paid. Yesterday I had a migraine and had no choice but to go to bed in the dark. I'd consider myself to be pretty stoical - I've soldiered on in the past through laryngitis and pneumonia (though that got me in the end and I did have to take time off) but migraine is so thoroughly incapacitating one can do nothing other than go to bed, try to keep the drugs down and wait for it to be over. 

Anyway, fortunately I'm much better today and can get on with work. 

And the work I couldn't do yesterday will have to be done over the weekend. 

Wednesday 7 January 2015


The Tiniest Trefusis has discovered pop  music. She has one of those 'Now That's What I Call a Cacophony #1650' CD's, watches back to back Taylor Swift videos on You Tube and keeps switching the kitchen radio from Radio 4 to Kiss. It's driving me demented, partly because I'd not expected the pop thing to happen quite yet (she is seven), and partly because I realise I'm a massive old fart.

I remember, as a child of the eighties, forcing my parents to retune the car radio from Radio Four to Radio One and insisting that China Crisis or Duran Duran or Hayzee Fantazee or Echo and the Bunnymen were the sine qua non of musical loveliness, and my father saying, very grumpily, 'it's all just noise'. Now it seems I'm my father. It is all just hideous noise. I know this is a generational thing - I still love the music of my yoof and I don't hate new music - London Grammar and Bear's Den are brilliant, for example - but pop now sounds like fingernails down a blackboard. Actually, Taylor Swift is fab, but on the whole, pop makes my ears bleed.

I was given a very swanky pair of Beats headphones for Christmas. I'm wearing them wrong, of course; my observations in West London suggest one must sport a beanie and wear the headphones over the top. I'm listening to Beethoven's Choral Fantasia in C Minor, which I'm sure isn't at all the sound Beats were conceived for, but it makes my soul soar. 

Next time The Tiniest T puts Kiss on the radio, I'm going to pop the headphones on and listen to the Goldberg Variations. If you can't join them, Beat them (or something like that). 

Tuesday 6 January 2015


If Christmas is the season of goodwill then surely January is all about misanthropy. The buses and tubes are in a perfect fug of rage: quite a contrast to last month's, when people happily chatted to perfect strangers, something that only ever happens on London Underground in the third week of December or during the Blitz. Everyone is miserable about being broke, back at work and off the booze. 

I'm no neutral observer: having been clouted in the head for the fifty third time by some bloke's rucksack and shoved out of the way by yet another Middle-aged, middle-class man in his unseemly scramble to get to the seat before me, I'm full of temper too.


Monday 5 January 2015


Six years ago, I started to write a book. Fiction. Slightly roman à clef, but not too much so, as I think it's probably helpful, if writing something even vaguely autobiographical, to have a life interesting enough to be worth writing about, and whilst mine is hardly without incident, it lacked anything like the drama required for a plot. One also ought to write the kind of book one enjoys reading, and I rarely read non-fiction. But still, write about what you know, and all that, so I set the book in the magazine world - a Devil Wears Prada meets Mrs Dalloway.

Anyway, I am not a fast writer. At the end of last year I had 70,000 words, not all of them good ones. I shall blame the pram in the hall, the spectre of the bank manager and the demands of work, but still, I'm hardly an automatic writing machine. 

People have given me good advice, which can mostly be captured in the succinct and pithy counsel Stephen King once gave a friend of mine -'Stephen,' he asked, 'What advice would you give to a first time writer?'
'Just f***ing write it.'

That's all very well, but along the way, one has to also teach oneself how to write: I unwittingly set myself the fiendish challenge of writing first person and - like Mrs Dalloway - setting the damn thing on a single day. Would I do that again if starting afresh? Probably not, because it made life immeasurably harder - but the plot, narrative arc and characters couldn't be written another way (or they  possibly could but it wouldnt be a book I  wanted to write) so I simply taught myself how to overcome the pitfalls of the first person/rigid time structure thing.

I also learned that you can map out your characters in enormous detail - down to their horoscope and the scent they wear - but infuriatingly, they take on a life of their own and become wilful and contrary, even when one shouts 'But I'm the omniscient author' at them.

Six years is long enough, I thought to myself over New Year-the traditional time for castigating oneself about things done and undone- I will blooming well finish it by May. It is two thirds done, I know what happens in the unwritten chapters, I even know how it ends. But, imagine the horror: I sat down at the Mac only to find my writing had become perfectly horrid. Dreary, even. I know that in these circumstances one is supposed to plough on (Advice to Writers #37), but the words I put on the page were so inept, I really couldn't bear it. 

I remembered something a New York writer I admire once wrote: writing is a muscle. You have to use it frequently or it becomes flabby, inflexible, wasted. Good work only comes with practice, like many things, it's 10% ability and 90% effort. Much like I've become entirely unfit and out of shape in the six months since I stopped beasting myself at Equinox, my writing has become creaky and clumsy. It couldn't manage a single burpee. 

It reminded me that one of the reasons I began this blog in late 2008 was to create a space where I could give my word-hoard a workout. So, before I return to my resolution to get the last five chapters down on paper, I'm putting myself in blogging bootcamp. You're getting a post every day, even if it's a rubbish one, in the spirit of a Couch to 5K mission. I'll let you know when I think I can run without stopping to gasp for breath.

Sunday 4 January 2015


Whenever I feel a little daunted by the prospect of beginning 2015 proper, I have a look at this cartoon and it perks me up no end. 

Saturday 3 January 2015


The next Books That Built Me salon is with Samantha Ellis, author of one of my favourite books of 2014, How To Be A Heroine. 

If, as a child, you devoured books like Anne of Green Gables, or A Little Princess, and later Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice and Gone with the Wind, and identified with their heroines, this Books That Built Me is for you.
Samantha Ellis' pilgrimage to the ruined farmhouse that inspired Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights leads to a disagreement with her best friend as to whether Cathy Earnshaw or Jane Eyre is the better role model: having held onto Cathy as the epitome of a romantic heroine her whole life, Ellis decides to revisit all the literary heroines she's held dear to see if they still pass muster.
Her heroines are a wonderfully eclectic bunch (Shirley Conran's Lace makes the cut, as does The Little Mermaid).

Join me on 21st January to hear which heroines make the Books That Built Me list.

Tickets are either £26, to include a subscription to Harper's Bazaar, a copy of How to Be A Heroine, a pre-event drinks reception with delicious Nyetimber, and a Bazaar goodybag with a gift from Prestat chocolate; or £15, to include How To Be A Heroine, the Nyetimber reception and the Bazaar goodybag. Penhaligon's will, as ever, choose one of their scents with which to fragrance the room.

The Books That Built Me is an elegant literary salon, a desert island discs for authors, or as Sarah Churchwell, author of Careless People, wrote, it's 'how the books you love meet the books you write'.

Thursday 1 January 2015

Trefusis Minor & His Sensible Friends

The Infant Trefusii had a clutch of friends to play today -  Trefusis Towers is an absolute pigsty so I'm more than happy for hoards of the little blighters to rampage like Visigoths, though my experience is that they're, without exception, blissfully polite and well-behaved and ready with the old P's & Q's.

Trefusis Minor,lui-meme, is a very law-abiding soul (though of course this may change over-night, when, like a Gremlin splashed with water, he hits puberty, and turns into a Lynx-spraying, grunting BigFoot). So it shouldn't surprise me that his mates are similarly health and safety.

My sister, who's brought Lucky St James round to join the fray, has a chat with one Lorenzo, about his favourite cars.

'So, Lorenzo, what have you got your eye on?' She asks.

'I'd really like an Audi A5.' He says.

'Really?' She replies, quickly googling it to make sure she hasn't confused it with something sportier, 'are you sure you wouldn't rather an R8? They look rather fun.'

'London is not a racetrack,' says Lorenzo, reprovingly, 'and the R8's fuel economy is very poor.'

Very sensible, these West London ten year olds. They'll be advising us to pay down our mortgages next.


Justine Picardie was my last guest of 2014 for The Books That Built Me at The Club at Cafe Royal. 

Justine is Editor-in-Chief of Harper's Bazaar (and launch editor-in-chief of Town & Country), and author of five bestselling books, including 'Chanel, the Legend and the Life', and 'If the Spirit Moves You', a moving memoir of the year following the death of her sister, Ruth Picardie, and it was a great treat for me to play host to someone I so greatly admire.


The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis
‘Books at their best can feel like they’re part of your life. This was my first lesson in how to read and how to write.’
I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith
‘There’s a great sense of the meaning of clothes, that there's no beautiful surface without a depth to it.’
Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
‘A book of hauntings – you can feel the ghost of the Brontës in all of du Maurier’s writing.’

The Pursuit of Love, Nancy Mitford
‘On the surface a light and sparking read, but also about loss and death.’

Oxford Street Tide, Virginia Woolf
‘Woolf wrote essays and short stories for Harper’s Bazaar; she always recognised the importance of tiny details.’

Guests drank Nyetimber and went home with a copy of Justine's 'Chanel, The Legend and The Life', a treat from Prestat chocolate and a copy of Harper's Bazaar.

The next Books That Built Me is on 21st January with Samantha Ellis, author of the marvellous 'How to Be a Heroine'. 

As ever, the event will be held at The Club at Cafe Royal - it's not usually open to non-members, but guests of The Books That Built Me are welcome to stay after the event and dine in the excellent restaurant or have a cocktail at one of the lovely bars.