Friday 27 February 2015


I've been travelling for work a lot recently.

If I tell you I flew into Innsbruck on Sunday, out of Salzburg on Tuesday and in and out of Milan tomorrow (I should say today), you'll say, how impossibly glamorous, but it's just making me feel as if I've been shaken out of a cereal packet from a great height.

Partly the problem for me is the lack of sleep - the three days I spent in Austria kicked off with a four am alarm call on Sunday morning and a succession of late nights and early mornings. The trip to Milan is another four am call, so it's utterly dandy that, despite having gone to bed early, I find I'm as awake as if hooked to a caffeine drip, super-stressed and hyper-anxious, riven with existential angst and a clawing inability to locate myself in the here and now. 

Of course, small dark hours bring large dark thoughts - all the positives have fled, I'm paralysed by panic, and once again I'm Chicken Licken, convinced the sky will fall in. 

And if you told me the sky wasn't falling in, it was only an acorn that had dropped on my head, I wouldn't believe you.

Thursday 26 February 2015


Picture credit: Tricia Malley.Ross Gillespie
wice nominated for the Booker Prize, Andrew O’Hagan is one of Britain’s finest authors and essayists. 

His latest novel, The Illuminations, tells the story of former documentary photographer Anne Quirk and her beloved grandson Luke, serving in Afghanistan as a Captain in the Royal Western Fusiliers, and is his triumph. 

In the writing of it, ‘ writes Elizabeth Day in The Observer, ‘O’Hagan has cast a shimmering light on love and memory, life and loss and on the secrets we keep from those closest to us, even from ourselves.’

Do join The Books That Built me on 17th March at The Club at CafĂ© Royal, where O’Hagan will share the books that have inspired and influenced his writing life, and share the stories behind The Illuminations.


Friday 20 February 2015


Last night I hosted a Q&A with the owner of new luxe fashion brand Tabitha Webb at the Design Museum as part of the Women, Fashion, Power programme.

Tabitha had an enviable and successful career in advertising but threw in the towel when she learned the gargantuan size of her Saatchi overlord's annual bonus and determined to found her own fashion business. Everyone said 'You're brave' (which is friend code for 'you're mad'), but Tabitha's response was to say that she wasn't brave to leave, they were brave to stay put, and now that I've set up my own show, I completely get what she means. 

Anyway, the spirit of entrepreneurship is strong in Tabitha, and after an accessories business and a slightly ill-fated collaboration with Danni Minogue called Project D, she has a compact yet beautifully considered collection of wearable clothes, a boutique in Belgravia and a website, and numbers the Duchess of Cambridge, Pippa Middleton and Miranda Kerr amongst her customers. I feel that Tabitha has embraced the famous Yves St Laurent dictum, 'what is important in a dress is the woman who is wearing it', and her clothes are designed to make you feel a happy and fabulous and confident and a well-dressed version of yourself rather than a clothes horse for a designer's rigid aesthetic. Tabitha also hosts salons in the boutique every Tuesday, where women can have a glass of champagne and listen to someone like Glamour's Jo Elvin talk about her life and inspirations. I like this, it's all very friendly, as fashion should be but rarely is.

Anyway, over supper at the Blueprint Cafe after the exhibition and before the talk, I butted in halfway through a conversation Tabitha was having with a friend of mine, academic and star of the Channel 4 show, Four Rooms, Wendy Meakin, about whether one should call oneself a woman or, as Tabitha had it, a girl (now that I've started this anecdote I realise I actually have no idea how this vociferously good-natured debate came about.) Wendy, who was urging me to read the whole of The Second Sex, not the Vintage edit I posted about the other day, maintained no other word than 'woman' is suitable for a person of our gender. Tabitha thinks the word 'woman' very silly indeed and calls herself 'girl','chick', 'bird' and so on. I would say 'woman' because I'm too superannuated to use 'girl' unless prefixed by 'in the olden days, when I was a', but I can see that it can sound a bit seventies yoni-worshipper out of context. Maybe not - there was a stunning picture of a young Germaine Greer in the Women Fashion Power exhibition, and I'd never dare call her a girl or a chick or a broad or a dame or a lady -but then she was rather fierce and wrote things like 'if you think you're emancipated, you might consider tasting your own menstrual blood - if it makes you sick you've a long way to go, baby', in The Female Eunuch. Yikes.
 So I'm perfectly happy with 'woman' and i think 'girl', 'bird', 'chick', 'broad', etc are also perfectly ticketty boo if that's what you prefer. I also confess I quite like it when they call me 'Madam' in John Lewis. I don't like to be referred to as a lady (because it sounds so terribly hostess trolley), and there seems to be a rather irritating habit creeping in of substituting 'a female' for 'a woman' which always sounds very police procedural. I was trying to find an example of the use of 'a female' when I fell across this from Campaign magazine 'Maguire said that one of her former bosses sold her script to a client, but changed her name to Mickey[from Vicki] because the client didn't want a female working on the account', and I was so shocked by the reminder of the appalling sexism rife in the advertising industry, I quite forgot to mind about the 'a female' thing. When you next watch a commercial on tv, remember that only 3% of top Ad agency creative directors are women, fewer than in agencies in the 1930's, and ask yourself how a predominantly male lens affects the way we are sold stuff. I also heard recently of a client getting very wigged about some magazine copy because it was 'too feminist': when men no longer occupy 85% of senior executive roles, and when the pay gap between senior men and women no longer stands at 35% (this widens even more after 45, by the way) you can tell me something is 'too feminist'. Not before.

Of course, I've now taken myself down the path of rant and wandered off the point - where was I going with this, I'm not sure, but anyway, Women Fashion Power: not a multiple choice...

Wednesday 18 February 2015


When I began Mrs Trefusis, eleventy three trillion years ago, I fell across some wonderful women bloggers, and their posts about the quotidien stuff entertained and inspired me, and made me want to keep on writing, to be amongst their number. We ended up in lists like the Tots 100, and became known as 'mummy bloggers'  because occasionally the children were hauled into service when otherwise short of material, but I'm not sure I particularly loved the moniker, and I wasn't absolutely mad about the consequences, the barrowfuls of emails from PR's inviting one to try a new range of fishfingers or road test a new potty or review a special yoghurt with hidden vegetables or something. 
Anyway, one of the bloggers I liked enormously was Clare Mackintosh - she was funny and wry, but also capable of breaking your heart when she wrote incredibly movingly of the death from meningitis of her tiny son. Fast forward six years, and whilst I've been fiddling about with the internets, she's given up the day job (she spent twelve years with the police force), made a living from writing, founded Chipping Norton Literary Festival, and landed a two book deal with Little, Brown. Chapeau! as Trefusis Minor likes to say. 

 (I like to say, Mrs Trefusis, you're a mega slouch and should delete twitter and all its satanic works and finish writing The Great Unfinished Novel - although, imagine if I do finish it, and discover it's abysmal, and I've wasted six years on it... )

I Let You Go is a psychological thriller - a woman's five year old son is killed in a hit and run, and she retreats to an isolated cottage to try to deal with her grief, but of course, the past, as it's wont to do, catches up with her. 

I'm twenty pages in and it's already enormously gripping stuff, and what's really quite wonderful is that the 'voice' I liked so much when Clare was blogging is very much in evidence - it's truthful and hugely engaging, with a deft, polished, pacy style.

I can't quite bear to put it down, and I rather suspect it's one of those books that has you reading until the wee smalls, but I must save it until I've finished cramming for SJ Watson's Books That Built Me next week.

Sunday 15 February 2015


What does it mean to be a feminist in 2015? 

It feels to me as if feminism now has a more practical expression than the feminism of my university years, which was driven by a radical, separatist ideology, which neither felt terribly sisterly, nor very helpful, although I remember being hugely engaged in the theory. Andrea Dworkin was our idol, fierce, polemical, radical and of enormous integrity, she was also much misunderstood and much maligned. 
I think it has taken me more than twenty years to understand the truth of what she was saying. But then, I've never been much cop when it came to ideology. I like people better than principles.

Anyway, twenty five years later, I am more optimistic about active, practical feminism: in the intervening years I've quietly despaired when female power was repackaged and sold back to women as raunch culture, or when (very enjoyable) shows like Sex and The City were perceived to be 'sisterly' and 'empowering' yet were still predicated on a relationship with a man - Cinderella could only find validation in society if she found her prince.

Yet now, quite wonderfully, social media has given women a voice: it's identified a collective that previously existed only in pockets. We no longer feel alone. Social Media has helped to give feminism scale. Popular writers like Caitlin Moran have taken feminism out of the margins and put it centre stage. Exceptional businesswomen like Helena Morrissey use their power to make other women powerful too - her Thirty Percent Club has had a productive impact on the composition of boards in the UK's top companies, and if women's representation at a very senior level is still lamentably small, I'm still encouraged by the step-change Morrissey has driven at board level. In the six years since I began Mrs Trefusis, I've discovered a marvellous, supportive, female world of blogs and bloggers and twitterers who were (are) sisterly, and generous, and supportive. And offline, magazines like ELLE reclaim 'the F word' for a new generation and Harper's Bazaar talks openly about 'The Sisterhood'. 

It feels new. Positive. A reason to hope. I like it. 

Of course, these are small green shoots rather than evidence of dramatic cultural change. Social media may have given women a platform, but it also gives a voice to trolls and I am angered and horrified by the extraordinary abuse my sisters face when they poke their head above the parapet. It's forty-five years since Germaine Greer wrote 'women have very little idea of how much men hate them' in The Female Eunuch, and I don't think I ever believed her, until now, until one sees the rage and hate unleashed by something as anodyne as suggesting there might be a famous woman on a bank note.

It's also forty five years since the Equal Pay Act, but women still only earn 85p for every pound a man earns. Women may have a voice, but we have yet to succeed in demanding that men listen when we say equal work means equal pay.  

But still, I am not despondent: the sisterhood exists, & there seems to be a new mood. Although I am quite the Pollyanna, I believe that the pace of change is gathering and one day we will live in a society where women have equal rights with men, where the playing field is level, where the narrative isn't driven solely by the needs of 49% of the population.

Perhaps that's why it's important to keep reading the sacred texts of feminism - not, perhaps, Dworkin or even Greer, but De Beauvoir and Wollstonecraft and Wolf. 

We are moving forwards, but we shouldn't forget that we are still fighting. 

Friday 13 February 2015


When I was an undergrad, I had in my head a clear distinction between good books and bad books. The former were 'texts' to untie, their author was dead, they were frequently voice driven, rather than plot. These books were the literary equivalent of the gym: enjoyment was secondary to the good it was doing you.

I read English, there were a lot of texts to get through. I once deliberately selected several terms worth of poetry seminars purely because poems tended not to run to hundreds of pages.

So there were 'texts'  and then there were 'reading books': one could never spin an essay out of a reading book, and only rarely would a 'text' keep one awake all night, unlike a really gripping airport novel which has one turning the pages in a bug-eyed and frantic effort to discover whether the heroine gets the man of her dreams, or if the baddie will be caught by the detective before the hostage perishes, or if there really was a sixth secret member of the Cambridge Five.

My bookshelves were segregated along these lines - or rather, in my tiny room at university, only the improvingly literary books were on display. Under my bed were concealed piles and piles of romances, detective stories, spy thrillers and other pulp fiction, and I was always rather terrified they might tumble out, like bottles clanking in an alcoholic's handbag.

We were vociferously critical of the Western canon and Leavis' Great Tradition (a term's seminar on Modernism ground to a halt, quite rightly, because Woolf had been omitted and there were no women represented at all). We talked very airily in those days about high brow and low brow culture, deciding that no-brow was where we wanted to be and that all books were texts and should be evaluated on their own merits. And I read, and read, and read and debated the set texts and wrote essays pulling Baudelaire, Eliot and Proust into one big literary hug, and yet other essays about patriarchy and the gothic, and graduated and spent a year decompressing by reading nothing but Jilly Cooper and Barbara Cartland.

'for there's nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.'

Yet, it is true that some books are better than others, and it doesn't always follow that they're more enjoyable, as Andy Miller's tremendous and terribly funny comparative reading of the Da Vinci Code and Moby Dick in 'The Year of Reading Dangerously' shows. Some books are easier than others - Nancy Mitford doesn't require the effort of George Elliot, for instance. And some books are more disposable than others - read Emma or Jane Eyre, or even Barchester Towers again and there's something new to discover within the comfortable and familiar narrative, but re-read Lee Childs and all you'll wish for is that you'd remembered to pack more than one book. However, some books repay the effort of reading them a thousandfold - Anna Karenina is one of these, as is Parade's End and Vanity Fair. None of those books is especially challenging in the way that, say, Ulysses is, but each of them has something important to say about how narrative and character are properly constructed, and once you've committed yourself to them, they're a compulsive read.

Depressingly, it seems to follow that the more challenging and yet more rewarding a book is, the fewer copies it will sell, while utter rubbish flies off the shelf in seemingly infinite quantities (Fifty Shades of 'Holy Crap he wants to spank me' Grey, anyone?), and the publishing industry runs off chasing the tail of that particular squirrel until the W.I decides to publish 'erotica' and everyone realises it's time to stop. But that's the same in every market, and it probably only feels rather sadder in publishing than in the perfume world because I'm such a book zealot. I think the act of reading fiction is like discovering the X on a treasure map and starting to dig, in the certain knowledge that there's a chest of Spanish doubloons waiting for the thud of your spade.

So, now, in the era of Kindle, I confess I'm still a book snob - I still make a distinction between 'reading' books and books that require me to push myself a bit. Now, as then, I'm a voracious and indefatigable reader of both kinds, though I'm more likely to read the former on kindle than keep them under the bed. I write this staring rather guiltily at a vast pile of new fiction, all of which must wait until I've finished cramming for SJ Watson's Books That Built Me on 24th February. Through his choices, I'm rediscovering Jeanette Winterson, and the intense pleasure of her prose feels as if my spade has broken right through the wood of the treasure chest, and I'm surrounded by pearls, rubies, pirate gold and all other manner of precious jewels. I'll store it all in my word-hoard.

Wednesday 11 February 2015


The whole grunge metal thing passed me by at university. I arrived expecting sex, drugs and rock and roll, and instead discovered polite conversation, lapsang souchong and opera: my mother always said I'd get in with the wrong crowd.

It's not that there wasn't a thriving musical scene - we were once rehearsing The Importance of Being Earnest and Lemmy from Motorhead burst into the rehearsal studio to tell us to shut up (I've bowdlerised what he actually said). He'd been having a snooze in the next room, relaxing before his gig: Lady Bracknell was evidently too stentorian and Gwendolyn too shrill and we'd woken him. He had strong opinions about the floppy Brideshead haircuts of Jack and Algernon and if he'd known the chap playing Canon Chasuble had arrived at rehearsal on his horse, having ridden from Wymondham, I suspect it would have finished him off. Either Lemmy was very grouchy without enough sleep or a class warrior.

You see? The wrong crowd.

The hardcore rock fans (grunge, thrash, heavy and probably death metal too - East Anglia had a climate akin to Finland and it rubbed off on the music), tended not to mix with the arts students. They were a troglodyte breed who had many more than our ten hours of teaching a week, who did things like computer programming in the days when we were still writing our dissertations long-hand. They had long hair and beards and emerged occasionally to make food and go to battle-reenactment societies. I had a surreptitious crush on one called Gavin, about seven feet tall, a part-time Viking warrior who looked like a young Catweazel: he'd once come out of his room in halls, blinking, to ask if I could help him mend a fiddly link in his chain mail surcoat. 

Arts students didn't listen to rock, or to metal. We listened to Joni Mitchell and Nick Drake, to Dylan and to Leonard Cohen, to music that properly belonged our lecturer's generation, but which we'd co-opted as a sign that we were cool. The semantics of the stereo.

Anyway, before going up to university to smoke cigarettes, languidly listen to Baez and Berlioz, and talk meaningful nonsense about Eliot and Pound, I'd had quite a thing for metal. I'd go with my cousins to clubs thick with the pong of sweat, patchouli, snakebite and black and motorbike oil. It was sexy and rebellious but it couldn't be mistaken for cool. Riff for riff, it was certainly no worse than the pretentious folky guitar ballads that propped up conversations among my new peer group, but belonging is everything at university, and so I left The New Skin for an Old Ceremony album cover lying on top of my half finished Chaucer essay and slyly listened to ACDC on an unmarked tape on my Sony Walkman. 

So my memory is that, whatever the genre, none of us really listened to new music. There must have been some, even in East Anglia, and the SU had a packed gig schedule, but I can't name you a single band. In Cincinnati at around the same time, the Afghan Whigs were recording their first album, so someone, somewhere was was doing something new and different, but not in Norwich. Maybe grunge could've built a bridge between my guilty metal pleasures and the arty noise of my fellow Eng lit students. 

Anyway, fast forward a billion years and my listening habits have moved on but the eclecticism is still there. I love Fauré but also thrash, which is why it's perhaps not surprising that I end up at an Afghan Whigs gig (I can't say 'gig' without putting it in inverted commas. No one over forty should use the word unselfconsciously). It's nearly thirty years since the band got together, and the superannuated audience all look as if they were fans first time round, rather consolingly. My friend Joad warns me that the Afghans lyrics are sexist, but they may as well have been singing about Kierkegaard for all that I could hear the words - noisy guitar bands are not known for their diction, and if I wanted poetry, I'd have settled down in a coffee shop with some Seamus Heaney.

Monday 9 February 2015


I keep starting riveting posts about Paris and Milan and grunge metal bands and then having to leave them half finished to go back to the gargantuan task of doing my VAT. 

Running one's own business is like having a baby - you long and long for it and imagine all the delights, and then discover when it's far too late to back out that reality is quite different, all sleepless nights and being up to your ears in poo. 

However, like having a baby,  I wouldn't necessarily recommend it, yet don't regret it for an instant. 

Saturday 7 February 2015


The Tiniest Trefusis is incorrigibly sociable - a walking Facebook. Yesterday, I asked her to tell me which friends she wanted to invite to her birthday party, in the vain hope they might number six, and we could have a small tea party at home with pass the parcel and musical chairs and cake, but after the thirtieth name, I gave up and changed the subject. 

There's been an awful lot about birthday parties and presents and so on in the news lately, and the whole shooting match is much more complicated than it was when I was a child, when the norm was to have a party at home, with mum-tertainment. There was an exception - I was at school with a boy whose parent's owned a circus and the whole class was invited, except me. It obviously still rankles after nearly forty years. 

Anyway, the TT has a grand vision of her perfect party, much like the ELLE Style Awards, but with the TT as the only celebrity. Like managing a client with expectations far in excess of their budget, the best way to tackle it is to present her with a single affordable option and dress it up to sound impossibly novel, glamorous and imaginative. I have no intention of breaking the bank for an eight year old, but creativity and novelty requires time and effort.

One of the quirky things that may just float the SS Demanding, is Boomf's brilliantly bonkers customised marshmallows. They're the brainchild of a friend of mine, Andy Bell, who likes food and square photos (his previous wheeze was turning your instagram pictures into fridge magnets), and you upload either your best instagrams, or Facebook pics or a selection of other photographs onto the website, and 9 customised, square marshmallows will come winging their way by first class post all nicely boxed, or you can go to the concession in Selfridges (near the posh chocolate on the ground floor) and your personalised Boomfs are yours in about five minutes.

"Despite initial hoots of derision, Boomf sold more than 8 tons of marshmallows in its first year, all in individually personalised 15g squares"
There's something in me that really really wants to do 9 pictures of Octavian and Marmalade the cats. Is that an effective use of posh, personalised marshmallows, or have interweb cat lolz destroyed what little brain I have left.
Valentine's Boomf: more novel than chocolates and at £15 a tenth of the price of a dozen red roses. And if you visit Boomf at Selfridges there seems to be a brilliantly pagan ritual going on called 'Roast Your Ex', which if I have it right, involves uploading a picture of him/her onto a marshmallow, and then toasting it. There's something oddly appealing about this, I haven't got an ex, but I can think of someone for whom performing this ritual would be immensely satisfying, not to mention cathartic....

Actually, I've just had the most marvellous idea - I'm going to create a box of Boomf for SJ Watson's Books That Built Me - with his six books That Built Me and the two he has written, plus the Books That Built Me logo, there's my nine squares. Never mind planning the TT's birthday, Books That Built Me Boomfs will be much more fun.

Tuesday 3 February 2015


I can't remember when I started to read the marvellous The Age of Uncertainty, but I rather think it cant have been long after I began writing Mrs Trefusis.
The Age of Uncertainty is the work of a fellow book obsessive, so it's hardly surprising that it's one of my favourites. 

The Age of Uncertainty is the work of a fellow book obsessive, so it's hardly surprising that it's one of my favourites. Formerly of Ottakars and Waterstone's, Steerforth now has his own antiquarian and secondhand book business, and has entertained and beguiled me over the last six or so years with beautiful posts about photographs and postcards tucked inside books, long forgotten by their owners, of offbeat, bonkers, mass-market paperbacks from the fifties, and his wonderful pastiche of
Ladybird books. Steerforth is eloquent and erudite, with a dry, ironical wit which I'm sure you'll find as appealing as I do.

Anyway. Steerforth and I have an occasional correspondence - the last time we were in touch was as I was planning Sam Ellis' Books That Built Me, and I had mentioned the central role Wuthering Heights plays in How To Be A Heroine. Imagine how wonderful it was to return home and discover he had sent me a very lovely edition of Wuthering Heights (and Agnes Gray) from the early thirties (see picture at top of page)  - how amazing and how very thoughtful. 

Thank you. Steerforth, I hope to see you and Mrs Steerforth at the Andrew O'Hagan Books That Built me in March. 

Sunday 1 February 2015


Imogen, my first Jilly Cooper

Jilly Cooper is my universal panacea - whenever the sky looks like it's falling in, I duck into one of her novels and shelter there for a while (rather than bolt off to tell the King like Henny Penny - the flight or fight instinct is not strong in me - I'm all about the hiding). I re-read Riders, Rivals, Polo, Imogen, Emily, Harriet, Octavian, even the lesser Jilly's of Jump! Score! and Wicked! (Let the exclamation mark be a warning sign) until I feel I can tackle whatever has sent me scuttling.

The comfort of Cooper has, of course, a lot to do with the way she writes within a conventional literary framework, rather than challenging it, and even when things look bleak for her characters, we know that the wheel of fortune will turn upwards again for them. Her language underpins this narrative certainty - things are larky, merry, jaunty - and one reads on, secure in the knowledge that the good will end happily and the bad unhappily, because, to quote Wilde, 'that is what Fiction means', at least in the cosy world of Cooper.

As a teenager, two authors kicked down the door to the magical, infinite riches offered by books: TS Eliot's The Waste Land was a poem which came with a free gift of a literary education, a Grand Tour of Western Culture, books upon which all sorts of other books are built: Dante and Milton, Shakespeare and Spenser, The Bible and Baudelaire, Ovid and Virgil - an intellectual paradise. But Jilly Cooper took me to the books that nourish and sustain the soul - through her I discovered Nancy Mitford, Barbara Pym, Forever Amber, The Diary of A Provincial Lady, Cold Comfort Farm, Barbara Comyns, Mary Webb, Austen and Trollope. In her voice, in her characters and in her plots you sense the blissful influence of these writers, and if occasionally Cooper's love for them seeps into her writing a little too literally - a character in Harriet, confronted with a bawling, teething child, suggests it should go to the dentist and Red Alderton, in Polo, is given to sporting brightly coloured jackets, piped with a contrasting braid, both of which echo Cedric in The Pursuit of Love - it's more as a musician might use a sample than anything else, a reminder of her references, staking her claim to a particular literary tradition. 

But it's not simply Cooper's voice that led me down a primrose path of literary dalliance - she uses literary quotation to as a shortcut to describe character better than any other writer I can think of - sexy, temperamental, irresistible Rory Balniel is Young Lochinvar, you know Polo's Luke Alderton is a thoroughly good egg because he reads poetry - Martin Fierro and Robert Frost's 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening'. Declan O'Hara, Rival's charismatic, irascible, tragic-romantic hero's great love is Yeats: he whispers to his faithless wife 'there is grey in your hair, Young men no longer catch their breath, When you are passing' and the quote so cleverly captures the drama of their relationship, I had my head stuck in Yeat's Collected Works for months afterwards. Cooper doesn't only feed the quote habit of her male characters - literary women abound, and nor is literariness a universal indicator of goodness in a character - Helen, Rupert Campbell-Black's first wife is given to earnest quoting as a sign both of her pretension and also a signifier of the mismatch in the relationship between her and Rupert, who believes reading anything other than Horse and Hound a monumental waste of time.

So, for thirty years, Cooper has sustained me, and brought me enormous pleasure, not only with her own books but with those to which she's introduced me. If T.S Eliot and Jilly Cooper are my formative literary experiences, and if what you read can't help but rub off onto what you write, then heaven help the Great Unfinished Novel ...