Tuesday 29 December 2015


At Susan Hill's Books That Built Me the other week week she said, 'the best way to learn to be a writer is to read books by writers far better than you'll ever be'. As a teenager, fixed on a literary calling, she went to the library in search of a book which might tell her how to be a writer and found Woolf's A Writer's Diary. It seems to have done the trick - before Hill was out of her teens she had published her first novel, reviewed by Elizabeth Jane Howard in Vogue, no less, since when she's written and published fifty six books.

So, if I've learned anything from the (nearly) two years of hosting The Books That Built Me, it's that inside every great writer is a careful reader - their craft honed on careful study of those 'books by better writers'.
One sees Susan Hill's admiration for Woolf in her precise, economic prose - the reader is never led by the hand, but has to dart behind the author, catching signs and clues in a conspiracy of reader and writer. Think of how she effortlessly conjures a disquieting, malevolent atmosphere, and then keeps on turning the screw. It is there in I'm the King of the Castle or Strange Meeting as much as it is in her ghost stories, her craft honed by a lifelong passion for Dickens' dank courtyards, misty Kentish marshlands, Marshalsea Prison, the flat, grey Lincolnshire wolds.

So, the best advice for would-be writers is to read, and read well. It doesn't necessarily mean excluding all but canonical texts, restricting oneself to a diet of Woolf, Proust, and Eliots George and Thomas. It does mean reading 'best in class'  - if you aspire to domestic noir, read Gone Girl and Before I Go To Sleep but also try Daniel Deronda and The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall (for the latter, look no further than Sam Baker's 'The Woman Who Ran', published next month); if crime fiction is your thing, read Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes, Edgar Allen Poe as well as Ruth Rendell and Ian Rankin.

If you want to write, read.

Sunday 20 December 2015


Is it too early for a Negroni?
No, I rather thought not.

The Trefusis Negroni
15ml Campari
15ml Martini Rosso
15ml Gordon's Gin

The Trefusis Negroni differs very little from any other kind of Negroni - it's simply a little smaller because I lost the cocktail jigger, so resorted to using a tablespoon, which halves the usual quantity of alcohol and means one can have a second Negroni without fear of falling into the hedge the minute one steps outside.
 After much experimentation, a fairly ordinary gin like Gordon's works better than the swankier Tanqueray/Bombay Sapphire etc where the botanicals fight with the Campari & the herby Martini Rosso. 
The other moderate Trefusis variation is a marvellous golf ball of ice - the Negroni is particularly delicious when very, very cold, and these vast ice globes chill it fast and melt slowly. They're by Tavolo and are easily available on Amazon.

Shove in a slice of orange. 


Feel better. 

Sunday 6 December 2015


Cecconis, Mayfair, home of the finest Negroni this side of Milan.

"This is the saddest story I have ever heard.
The opening of Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, is up there with "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" and "It was a bright, cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen" as one of the most memorable first lines in fiction. It's also one of the most misleading; you assume it's a statement of fact - but you're no further than the end of the first chapter before you begin to question its trustworthiness. Dowell, the book's narrator, is not simply telling the story, he is the story - so from whom has he 'heard' it? From that moment, the reader begins to suspect that Dowell may be at best a compromised narrator, and at the least, unreliable, albeit in a sense that he doesn't always 'know how to put this thing down.' 

On the surface, the story seems not to be complicated: two well-born couples, one English, the Ashburnhams, one American - John Dowell and his wife Florence, meet at a German spa town, where they become 'a four-square coterie' and spend a companionable 'nine years of uninterrupted tranquility' together until it's discovered that Florence Dowell has been having an affair with Captain Ashburnham, the 'Good Soldier' of the story. But Ford's great skill lies not in exploring the nuances of a conventional love-triangle (love quadrangle?), but in unpicking, and gradually revealing and concealing and revealing again in Dowell's uncertain, bumbling impressions, confessions and revelations, the empty, desolate heart of both marriages. It's a story in which there are neither heroes nor villains, only delusions, self-deceptions and tragic, shameful concealed truths. The Ashburnhams - 'quite good people' - haven't said a word to each other in private for years, yet appear to be a model couple - Florence Dowell's ill-health for which her husband has worked to create a 'shock-proof world' is nothing more than an elaborate charade to conceal an illicit relationship pre-marriage. Yet their spouses aren't deceived innocents, but utterly complicit. It is the saddest story.

 So where are we with the 'ever heard'? In as much as Florence has deceived Dowell, he has conspired with the deception. Leonora Ashburnham goes out of her way to constantly uncover her husband's philanderings and debts whilst rigorously maintaining the front of being 'quite good people' and behaving as quite good people might be expected to. Dowell is different - he refuses to believe the evidence in front of him, he is immune to his wife's aunt's dark warnings and seems almost able to ignore the truth of Florence's past when a perfect stranger blurts it out to him. So he has had to be told, he has had to listen to his own story, and that distancing 'that I have ever heard' underscores the tragedy, it is something he has heard, it is hearsay, it may not be true?

Julian Barnes calls Madox Ford 'a proper reader's writer' - I love him because I enjoy his ingenious manipulation of the reader - he's not considered a modernist, and yet, on the evidence of The Good Soldier, I challenge anyone not to garland him with as many laurels for technical brilliance as Woolf or Joyce. Susan Hill with whom I'll discuss the book tomorrow at her Books That Built Me calls it 'the perfect novel form'.  I keep coming back to The Good Soldier and every time I'm blown away by Ford's extraordinary control over his novel - it is perfection, and I always wonder, 'just how does he do it'.

I managed to read The Good Soldier in some marvellous places - Cecconis, where the treat of a Negroni and a few chapters of The Good Soldier late one afternoon ( scandalously early for drinking cocktails) managed to restore my equilibrium after a shoddy day - and Wilton's, which is such a fixture of The London dining scene one can quite imagine the Ashburnhams dining there. It is heaven - here below is what they say about themselves. 
Its current Jermyn Street location, in the heart of St James's, is ideally suited to its clientele, which includes members of the government, businesspersons, film stars and British aristocracy. Service is discreet, professional and welcoming."

I tried to look like a member of the aristocracy but suspect I only managed 'businessperson'. Anyway, I drank an excellent glass of champagne and finished the Good Soldier as my good friend Wendy arrived to much feting and slaughtering of fatted calf by Wilton's  - they look after their regulars very well. 

Friday 4 December 2015


The Books That Built Deborah Moggach
Deborah Moggach’s Books That Built Me offered guests at the Club at Café Royal a mini masterclass in writing – I went away thinking that these six [pictured] each contain such a profound lesson about how to write, they should almost be set texts on my alma mater’s hallowed creative writing MA. 

But the jewel in the crown of the literary treasure trove was Moggach herself – warm, funny, generous, erudite and full of marvellous anecdotes. I’m mad about her.

Huge thanks as always to Champagne Bollinger, Tatler, Prestat chocolate and The Club at Café Royal, and also to Alex Peake-Tomkinson (vast gratitude for the notes below, Alex).
The Books That Built Deborah Moggach.

1.     Just William by Richmal Crompton

“I was going to marry him, I just adore him,” The eponymous William is eleven in Crompton's books, and Deborah discovered them at the same age. Although her parents were both prolific novelists, she wasn't a bookish child, but William made her realise that being funny is one of the greatest gifts books can give us - there's a truth in laughter and "humour in everything....'When my mother was suffering from dementia, she said, 'Debby, there were two men in my bedroom last night; one in the wardrobe and the other under the bed. Well, I've never believed in threesomes and I'm not about to start now'."
More than the humour, Crompton's refusal to patronise younger readers makes her writing extra special; she uses what might be thought of now as challenging language and expects readers to just keep up (which of course they do) "People [in the books] were always saying 'testily' or 'unctuously' - she'd even say 'William ejaculated'.... She made language come alive."

  1. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Deborah said that, like everyone of her generation, she was affected by both DH Lawrence and Virginia Woolf - Woolf "sensitised me to language". She also said that “Woolf’s snobbishness is very hard to deal with now.” She liked that everything and nothing happened in Woolf’s novels and compared this to Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker, a novel in which a man tries to buy a pair of shoelaces. She said “nothing happens but it is absolutely thrilling.”
Deborah also likes Agatha Christie and Mrs Trefusis pointed out that Christie “is all about plot whereas Woolf is all about voice.” Deborah mentioned how autobiographical some of Woolf’s fiction is and said that her first novel, You Must Be Sisters, was also autobiographical, but writing it “took my past away.”

  1. Middlemarch by George Eliot
Describing Edward Casaubon, the man that Dorothea Brooke – the heroine of the novel – decides to marry, Deborah called him “a frightful dry old stick.” Discussing Middlemarch also led Deborah to talk about how she depicted her own first marriage in fiction – in Close to Home, she wrote about a young mother living in Camden Town, just as she was. She also said that real people can’t be depicted in fiction – “it’s like newsprint, when you hold it too close to your eyes, it blurs”.
She went on to say that in order to create fictional characters who seem real, you should ask questions: what would they do if they got stuck in a lift, for example?

  1. The Siege of Krishnapur by JG Farrell
Deborah described this novel as being “all about people clinging on to their humanity and customs as the world collapses around them”. She described the “myopic world” of this book but also said “a novelist is there to help us broaden our empathies, it’s very important.”

  1. Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
Deborah adapted both The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate for television and says that Mitford’s “dialogue is to die for.” She also commented that Fabrice, Linda’s lover is a “chatterer” and that the “sexiest thing ever” is him calling Linda the minute after he has returned to his own home after the two have spent the night together so that they can talk at length.

  1. Short Cuts by Raymond Carver
Deborah admitted that she loves Robert Altman’s film adaptation of Short Cuts as much as she loves Raymond Carver’s short stories. She commented “Carver understood that writing is all to do with what you leave out. Hardly anything need happen, he understood that. Those stories are an object lesson in how people’s lives are intertwined.”

Thursday 3 December 2015


The Books that Built Jason Hewitt

Jason Hewitt, author of Devastation Road, chose Susan Hill's I'm the King of the Castle as one of his books when he joined me for October's Books That Built Me. In I'm The King of the Castle, Hill explores the cruelty and malevolence of children, and the wilful ignorance of adults who can't imagine they can be anything but innocents, in the tragic story of the bullied Charles Kingshaw and his tormentor, Edmund Hooper.

"I first came across Susan Hill when her short story collection A Bit of Singing and Dancing was on my A Level English course syllabus. Since then I’ve been an avid fan of all her work. Her third novel, I’m the King of the Castle will always will always be my favourite. I think it’s even more terrifying than her ghostly classic, The Woman in Black – terrifying because whilst it has all the feel of a gothic novel there are actually no supernatural elements in it at all. Instead, the horror comes from the everyday actions of two young boys, both trying to gain control and one-upmanship over the other; whilst it also chillingly illustrates the gulf that can exist between children and their parents, who are living in a completely different world, oblivious of the hell that their children are causing each other. It is one of the key books that built me as a writer. The sense of threat that Susan Hill evokes is something that I tried to create in my own debut, The Dynamite Room, and the house in that, Greyfriars, was very much inspired by the atmosphere she creates so wonderfully in Warings. With a writing style that is simple and in no way showy, Susan Hill slowly leads us down a path in to the dark psyche of human nature like no other author I know. She doesn’t shy away from showing the evil of people, and that honesty I find equally terrifying and yet compelling." Jason Hewitt.

I'm delighted that Jason will be at Susan Hill's Books That Built Me on 8th December at the Club at Cafe Royal; I'm very much looking forward to their meeting.

I'm the King of the Castle, Susan Hill is available here, priced £7.99 (P&P free to UK addresses)

Devastation Road, Jason Hewitt, published by Scribner, £14.99