Sunday, 31 July 2011

In the flower tent at Port Eliot

I loved the white bunting and the stage edged with box hedges. Other highlights of the weekend: talking to Tom Shone about the heartlessness of Trainspotting; admiring Stephen Jones' pinstripe suit; the literary pub quiz (our team came third, but we felt unfairly marked down on the Harry Potter section, despite excellent contributions from Hanif Kureishi and Alex Bellos); meeting Kate Winslet in the fish tent; discussing Daphne du Maurier in Cornwall, and remembering why she is unforgettable; drinking a long glass of Sipsmith gin and tonic, as the sun went down over the walled garden; walking through the woods to the quiet river at Pentillie Castle on Sunday morning... Who could ask for anything more?

Dove Grey Reader at Port Eliot

Lynne's tent was just as you would imagine it: cups of tea and good conversation about books; knitting needles, embroidery, and the most beautiful quilts. Long may she reign...
Oh, and Daisy Goodwin's talk was excellent -- and so is her book, My Last Duchess.

Guess which one is Kate Winslet's tent at Port Eliot?

And who could ask for a lovelier view?

With Michael Howells at Port Eliot

Michael is the creator of the flower tent at the festival, and much else besides.

In the Orangery at Port Eliot

Stephen Jones was one of the esteemed judges of the flower show; and don't you love his hat? A man of many talents, he also revealed how to bake a gingerbread hat in the Port Eliot kitchen, with the help of the Marchioness of Lansdowne. Sadly, I didn't get a bite...

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Struggling with firefox and blogger

Arggh! Hence the lack of Port Eliot pictures thus far. Will return to the battle tomorrow...

And the bride wore...

Cynics may sigh, and think, not another wedding; but I found myself unexpectedly beguiled. Here's the piece I wrote this afternoon for the Telegraph. Or you can read it here (see below). The one thing I didn't mention in the Telegraph, which I should have done, was Jackie Stewart's kilt and matching tie and knee socks. Mea culpa...

For a woman once dubbed a ‘wild child’, Zara Phillips looked wonderfully grownup at her wedding, in an ivory gown designed by her grandmother’s favourite couturier, Stewart Parvin. The bridal dress was as modest and appropriate as you would expect from such a safe pair of hands: full-skirted in silk faille and duchess satin, with a chevron pleated corseted bodice, and a fine tulle veil. Which is not to say it was boring: Parvin, who studied fashion at the Edinburgh College of Art, is an impeccable tailor who knows royal protocol inside out, combined with a flair for elegant understatement. ‘He’s been a bit of an unsung hero in British fashion until now,’ says Paula Reed, the style director of Grazia, ‘He can dress any body shape, and he’s brilliant at sculpting fabric, so he’s been able to come up with a design for Zara that works with her natural athleticism, while also having a fairy tale femininity.’

The bride’s splendid diamond tiara was lent by her mother, the Princess Royal (another nod to royal tradition), yet for all the jewels, the wedding at Canongate Kirk was a comparatively unshowy affair, with none of the pomp and pageantry of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding. The groom, Mike Tindall, was every inch the England rugby player in his bespoke morning suit (tailored by a company called Cad and the Dandy, though rather more restrained than the name might suggest), with his best man and ushers in matching outfits striding into the church like a British Ocean’s 11. But any possibility of the newly weds being upstaged by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge was carefully avoided, not least because Kate was in a previously-seen outfit, a muted pale gold coat dress by Jane Troughton, already worn for the wedding of Laura Parker Bowles to Harry Lopes in 2006. (Surely no coincidence, then, that the Duchess of Cambridge also chose a recycled dress for the pre-wedding party on the royal yacht Britannia: her demure green knee-length frock by Diane von Furstenberg that had appeared on her tour of Los Angeles earlier this month).

Even Zara’s cousins, the Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, looked reasonably uncontroversial; Beatrice in turquoise and a matching hat that was flamboyant, but nothing like as mad as her giant pretzel-shaped headgear for the previous royal nuptials; Eugenie in cream and chocolate brown with another rakishly angled hat (what is it with these peculiar sideways affairs? Is it code for saying, we may be royal, but we are still fun-loving chicks? Or is it a subliminal right-leaning message?). The Queen, as always, was in a perfectly judged outfit: apricot pink by Stewart Parvin, with a matching hat that was firmly centred on her level head. Parvin also dressed the Maid of Honour, Dolly Maude, in a dove grey knee length duchess satin dress, which did not draw attention to itself with quite the same vigour as Pippa Middleton’s bridesmaid gown at Westminster Abbey.

As for the mother of the bride: Princess Anne dressed with her characteristic disregard for modern fashion in a pleated coral skirt and floral vintage-looking jacket, which was oddly cheering; as was Camilla’s exuberantly sprouting floral and feathery headpiece. All in all, an apparently jolly gathering of family and friends in the Scottish sunshine, that will do much to enhance this year’s freshened appearance of the steady Royal firm.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Packing for Port Eliot

See you there tomorrow, I hope... Don't the camellias look lovely?

Thursday, 21 July 2011

The book pile on my bedside table...

... is growing to a teetering tower, with a box of kleenex on top (the flu is receding, but a runny nose remains). Some of the books are old favourites (Janet Flanner in Paris, Stella Gibbons in Nightgale Wood), others are recently finished, but I still want them close at hand (Sybille Bedford's Jigsaw), and Alan Hollingshurst is next on my list of must-reads.
This messy tableaux is entirely unedited or rearranged: you might be able to spot the Gap 2011 summer catalogue, which is lurking there too, along with Boots no.7 Protect and Preserve and Lancome SPF15 face cream. Speaking of sun protection, my fingers are crossed for a sunny weekend, as I'm on my way to the Port Eliot festival tomorrow. I'll be talking about Chanel and camellias in the Flower Tent at 2.30pm on Saturday afternoon, and everyone who buys a copy of my book will get a very exciting surprise; sshhh, but I'll be arriving with several boxes of Chanel white fabric camellias, all the way from Paris. (A kind of coming-home present from me to you in Cornwall, in honour of Daphne du Maurier, as well as Coco Chanel).
All this and more will also be discussed at 11am on Saturday morning, when I join Dovegreyreader in her Port Eliot tent in the Walled Garden. See you there, I hope; in person or in spirit...

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Daunt Books on Tuesday evening

I'm off to Marylebone High Street very soon, for an evening at Daunt Books on Tuesday 19th July, where I'll be talking to my friend and editor Anna Murphy from the Sunday Telegraph. I really hope some of you can come and join in the conversation. There will be wine, and fingers crossed, my cough will have finally gone by then (though I now have a new and unsightly symptom to be rid of, red and sticky eyes).
PS. Have discovered the curative wonders of camomile tea-bags applied to aforementioned eyes. Ah, the glamour! I'll be the woman with the tea-stains on her face tomorrow...

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Rebekah by Daphne du Maurier

There is so much revelation in the newspapers today -- evidence, amongst other things, that journalism isn't dead, whatever its sins -- but I'd also very much like to read Daphne du Maurier on Rebecca Brooks. I know I've already cited Evelyn Waugh as the ideal correspondent on the phone-hacking scandal, but Du Maurier would be brilliant on Rebekah. As with the eponymous (albeit dead and elusive) heroine of 'Rebecca', and the compellingly unknowable woman at the heart of 'My Cousin Rachel', the modern Rebekah is morally ambiguous, yet far more intriguing than the shadowy men around her. Transgressive, powerful, beautiful, clever, yet ultimately felled in the narrative, Rebekah/Rachel/Rebecca remains the character that the reader (well, me, at least) can't help but want to escape from the claws of conventional retribution and punishment.
As for the plot of the real-life Rebekah: well, it's as taut as any by Du Maurier (or indeed her forebears, the Brontes). The girl who rose from an apparently ordinary upbringing, outshining her male colleagues, winning favour from a patriarch who grew to love her as dearly as his own children, thereby drawing jealousy upon her, as well as patronage. If Elisabeth Murdoch is to replace Rebekah as favoured daughter (however close the ties of friendship and insider knowledge that once bound them together), then the plot will only thicken; almost certainly with as many twists as the best of Du Maurier's stories (Jamaica Inn, Rebecca, The Birds) when they were translated onto the screen by Alfred Hitchcock. All we need now is a Mrs Danvers figure to emerge out of the shadows... Suggestions, anyone, please?

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Ways with Words: from the Dartington Hall gardens

It feels like the sky is falling down this week in London. I've still got a bronchial bug -- a chest infection as the lingering after-effects of vile flu virus -- and have finally admitted defeat, and retreated to bed (doctor's orders, with strict admonition about incipient pneumonia). But hacking cough is as nothing compared to phone hacking scandal, which seems to have reached a tipping point. The Murdochs summoned to Parliament, the Guardian at war with the Prime Minister on who is telling the truth about the warnings issued over Andy Coulson, and the whys and wherefores of Cameron's friendship with Rebekah Brooks ... I veer between rage and disbelief and consuming obsession about the details of this vastly significant narrative.
Aside from all of that -- if it can be put aside, which I doubt -- I just wanted to say thank you to everyone who came to see me at Ways with Words in Dartington (and apologies to those who queued for books, only to discover that Waterstones had sold out). The gardens at Dartington were as beautiful as ever; a serene, green oasis in what sometimes looks like an ugly world. Actually, the world still seems beautiful to me... more so, even, when it surrounds such hue and cry...

Thursday, 7 July 2011

The Blenheim Set

In between coughing and spluttering, my head full of cold is nevertheless gripped by the ongoing saga of the latest British scandal. The most coruscating account so far is by Peter Oborne in the Telegraph, but don't you wish that Evelyn Waugh could also deliver his fictional verdict on the affair?
Oborne has dubbed the contemporary players the Chipping Norton set, though a novelist might prefer The Blenheim Set as a title, given that the key protagonists have had various connections with that beautiful palace. Scene one: the wedding of Matthew Freud and Elisabeth Murdoch at the private chapel in Blenheim, a decade ago. Scene two: the gathering, via private jet, on a yacht in the Aegean Sea, of the new scions of influence and power, alongside the ancien regime. Scene three: another Oxfordshire wedding, in 2009, this time in the village of Churchill; the radiant bride Rebekah Wade, marrying David Cameron's old Etonian friend, Charlie Brooks. The nuptials appear in Vanity Fair; more details for the Waugh-to-be novelist can be found here in the Independent. Other potential characters in the cast: David Ross, another friend of Cameron's; and equally glittering tycoons, socialites and eminent party people, some of whom gathered to celebrate in an Oxfordshire garden last weekend.
Please feel free to add further layers, plot twists, and notes on a scandal... There is much gossip circulating about sex and drugs and skeletons toppling out of dark and rotten cupboards, though none of these yet proven (the rumours, that is; the skeletons are always rattling for those who inhabit high places, as for the rest of us; the risk of rattles possibly being one of the reasons that work to keep everyone quiet). I tend not to believe in conspiracy theories, but I'm still waiting to hear more details on so many unanswered questions: who was on the guest list at George Osborne's 40th birthday party last month? Will Hugh Grant play himself, or the prime minister, when the movie is finally made? And could it be scripted by Richard Curtis (Matthew Freud's brother-in-law), along the lines of 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' or 'Notting Hill' (two weddings so far in this potential script, and a funeral, after today's death of the News of the World, at the grand age of 168 years old)? If so, will the heroic Grant throw a punch at his former pr, clever Mr Freud (a man whose many skills include the art of match-making)? Actually, come to think of it, Grant has already come up with a very good plot line for the whole affair... If you haven't yet read his brilliant piece in the New Statesman -- commissioned by his ex-girlfriend, Jemima Goldsmith (whose house, if not her heart, is at the centre of the Blenheim landscape) -- do read it now. You couldn't make it up...

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Ways with Words literary festival: Devon beckons...

This time next week, I'll be at Dartington Hall in Devon, for the Telegraph Ways With Words festival -- which is turning 20 this year (happy birthday, and hip hip hurrah!). Dartington is a magical setting for one of my favourite festivals -- the architecture and gardens of the Hall are reason enough to visit, quite aside from the extraordinary range of speakers, all drawn to Devon by the charismatic festival director, Kay Dunbar. I'm talking at 4pm on Sunday 10th July, and very much hope to see you there. I'm also going to organise a very special prize for one lucky winner at Dartington who buys the new paperback edition of my Chanel book; come to the book signing afterwards, and all will be revealed. Clue: it is authentic Chanel...