Monday, 21 December 2009

At midnight in the snow

I've just been for a midnight walk along the snowy streets, where everything is silent beneath the covering of white. There's no sound of cars -- the roads are too icy for drivers to get out -- and London is quieter than I've ever heard it. There is still a distant humming from faraway (of I know not what; but the city is never entirely still).
And as I was walking, I thought of the year that led up to this quiet moment. It began amidst the turmoil of great grief (for me, at least; although all the clamour of my sorrow is so small in this huge world), and is now coming to a close in a more peaceful way. If I have learnt one thing in the turning of the year, it is that however much one might want to be dull the pain of loss, it cannot be evaded; and yet unexpected joys can still appear out of nowhere, and a sense of blessing descends, even when you feared that the sky was falling down.
On Friday, I went to the funeral of a mentor, Paul Eddy, who I was fortunate enough to work for as a young journalist at the Sunday Times. The tributes were eloquent and moving, as were the words of the vicar, who said something very simple yet resonant: which is that at the end of a life, the most important thing is to know what it is to love, and to be loved.
He also quoted from a poet named John O'Donohue, an Irish writer, Celtic scholar and philosopher, who I hadn't come across before; and as is often the case, I then caught a few lines from the same poet on the radio a couple of days later (coincidence, or a chiming of the universe, or a blend of the two; the most potent magic of all).
So here is a poem by John O'Donohue; the Gaelic title is 'Beannacht'


On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.
And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Advent Calendar

Last night I went to the Breast Cancer Care carol service at St Paul's cathedral, which was beautifully Christmas-y; and it felt like such a great privilege to sit within that inspiring church. As a Londoner, it's easy to take the city's grandest architecture for granted (head down, rushing through the streets, rarely looking up to the skyline) but whenever I emerge out of the fuggy darkness of the underground station at St Paul's, to be confronted by the graceful outline of the cathedral, I always feel glad to be alive.
I've been involved with the charity since 1998, after my sister died of breast cancer (I co-founded the Lavender Trust that year, which provides Breast Cancer Care's services for younger women); the carol service is one of many fundraising events through the year, and perhaps the loveliest. The cathedral choir sang like angels, and there were some wonderful readings, including this poem by Rowan Williams, read by Jeremy Irons. I hadn't come across it before, but thought it worth sharing with you.

Advent Calendar

He will come like last leaf's fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud's folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

· From The Poems of Rowan Williams, published by Perpetua Press

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Shanghai Uncut

Here's the piece I wrote about Chanel in Shanghai in today's Sunday Telegraph newspaper. It was very deftly edited to fit the page, but I thought I'd also post the uncut version, in case anyone wants a bit more detail on history etc. There's also a good review of the show on by Sarah Mower, an interesting writer who is always worth reading.

Front row at the Chanel’s first fashion show in Shanghai, and the view is very different to the usual one of poker-faced editors in dark shades on the other side of the catwalk. Tonight, the entire audience is facing in the same direction, perched in a giant glass box on top of a barge moored on the edge of the Huangpu River, overlooking the extraordinary skyline of high-rises across the water in the booming financial district of Pudong. The night sky is alight with neon – translucent, surreal, glittering in a way that Karl Lagerfeld described earlier this afternoon as ‘magical, with colours that look somehow different to Europe, and a kind of transparency about them’. Tallest of all is the Shanghai World Financial Centre, 100 gleaming glass storeys outlined in turquoise blue lights, its top floors occupied by the Park Hyatt, the highest hotel in the world. Alongside is the giant HSBC tower and the Aurora skyscraper, where ‘Chanel’ is flashing in black and white lights up its vertiginous walls; and other towers loom like 21st century pastiches of Gotham City, with edges jagged as cartoon monster robots, or intersected with giant pink pearls.

In the dark waters of the river below, half a dozen police boats keep watch over the Chanel extravaganza, guarding the government officials inside the glass box who have been invited to see the show, along with the international fashion press and Chinese clients. Thus the official representatives of the People’s Republic of China sit side by side with Shanghai billionaires, while Vanessa Paradis (the new face of Chanel’s Coco Rouge advertising campaign) chats to Carine Roitfeld, editor of French Vogue. The proceedings kick off with a short film directed by Karl Lagerfeld, entitled ‘Paris Shanghai: a fantasy’, in which he imagines Coco Chanel travelling to the city in her dreams, and swapping her own couture jacket for a Chairman Mao jacket in the 1960s. The Chinese audience laughs, apparently amused by the idea; as they are by the scenes in the film that depict Chanel in the gambling dens and nightclubs of Shanghai in the 1920s and 30s, accompanied by the Duchess of Windsor and Marlene Dietrich. Thus the cultural references for the collection that follows are clearly delineated: little red dresses and little red bags (Chanel’s take on Mao’s Little Red Book); black transparent chiffon frocks glittering with red sequins (ready-to-wear for cocktails aboard the Shanghai Express); reinvented Chanel tweed jackets and suits in jade-green or Chinese red, accessorized with thigh-high boots, shiny as Oriental lacquer; white camellias and gold embroidery, reflecting the intricate designs on the 18th century Oriental Coromandel screens that Chanel collected, and which lined the walls of her Paris apartment and her suite at the Ritz.

After the show, phalanxes of policemen stop the traffic on the street outside the Peninsula hotel, as the audience stream into the Chanel party in the ballroom. Some of the government officials depart in sleek black limousines, guarded by dark-suited security men, but several hundred of the guests go straight from the catwalk to the Peninsula, along marble-floored corridors decorated with thousands of gilt Christmas baubles, past the brand-new Chanel boutique and its window display of handbags in bright pink, dragon red and emerald green.

This afternoon, even before the show began, the boutique was already doing booming business. It’s not the first in China – Chanel opened up in Beijing ten years ago – but it’s the biggest, selling to the fastest growing market in the world (currently galloping ahead at 20 per cent a year, with sales of luxury goods predicted to reach $12 billion in China by 2010, pushing Japan into second place in global consumption).

Less than 48 hours after opening, the Chanel boutique had sold out of the limited edition red handbags that Lagerfeld had created especially for Shanghai, and customers were adding their names to a lengthening waiting list. The price was 28,800 yuan – about £3000 – in a city where the average monthly wage is 2,000 yuan; but money seems to be no object to the girls who flit around the boutique, trying on shoes and jewellery with the practised alacrity of Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City. Glossy haired and immaculately manicured, they flash top of the range mobile phones and diamond rings; and most of them are already carrying Chanel handbags from recent collections, while their mothers wear Chanel tweed jackets, and smile indulgently, enthroned on Louis XV armchairs.

If the Chanel opening in Shanghai seems emblematic of a new era in global consumerism – the most iconic of luxury brands expanding into the People’s Republic of China – there are precedents in the recent past, as well as in previous decades, when Shanghai was christened the ‘Paris of the East’. Lanvin and Valentino opened boutiques in one of the city’s glitziest shopping malls last month, while Prada and Armani will soon be moving into the Peninsula alongside Chanel. Louis Vuitton has also made its presence felt in the city this week, presenting ‘Hair Room Service’ at the Park Hyatt by John Nollett, a famous French hairstylist who works with Uma Thurman and Diane Kruger, amongst others, and styled Vanessa Paradis’s hair for the Chanel party, where she performed a sultry 1930s nightclub act. Meanwhile, the fashion designer John Galliano checked into the Park Hyatt in Shanghai a few days ago, overseeing David Lynch’s new ad campaign for Dior, which is being shot at different locations in the city.

You can see why a filmmaker like Lynch would be as drawn to Shanghai as a designer steeped in the history of fashionable Orientalism. For as Lagerfeld commented before the Chanel show, the city is as much an idea as a reality for the West, ‘a mysterious place that is a great inspiration, with its intriguing mix between the contemporary and past Shanghai.’ Lagerfeld’s film suggested as much, with its hints of the Duchess of Windsor’s notorious past in Shanghai (rumour has it that she honed her sexual expertise here in the 1920s), and its references to Marlene Dietrich’s 1930s movies set in the city (‘Shanghai Express’ and ‘The House of Seven Sinners’, co-starring John Wayne).

But as Lagerfeld also observed, much of old Shanghai has disappeared, except in the imagination of romantic Westerners. True, he gave a dinner on the evening before his show at the Yongfoo Elite Club in the French quarter of the city, a former consulate decorated with authentic 1920s furnishings. Outside, the streets are still lined with plane trees planted by the European colonials, and a maze of traditional Chinese lanes is hidden behind the Art Deco facades, testament to the co-existing worlds that have existed in Shanghai since the end of the first Opium War in 1842. After the British attacked and invaded the city, they demanded that it become an open trading port, with a colonial settlement within Shanghai that was run entirely under British law; similar treaties were enforced by the French and Americans in 1844. Thus a westernised city evolved, but local poverty was far from eradicated. J.G Ballard, who was born to English parents in Shanghai in 1930, described its pre-war days as ‘90% Chinese and 100% Americanised’, with an international colony of about 50,000 people. ‘It was celebrated as the wickedest city in the world, though as a child I knew nothing about the thousands of bars and brothels. Unlimited venture capitalism rode in gaudy style down streets lined with beggars showing off their sores and wounds. Every day the trucks of the Shanghai municipal council roamed the streets collecting the hundreds of bodies of destitute Chinese who had starved to death. Partying, cholera and smallpox somehow coexisted with a small English boy's excited trips in the family Buick to the countryclub swimming pool.' He witnessed 'young Chinese gangsters in American suits; beggars fighting over their pitches; a vast firework displayed celebrating a new night-club while armoured cars of the Shanghai police drove into a screaming mob of rioting factory workers.' Open sewers flowed into the river and the whole city 'reeked of dirt, disease and a miasma of cooking fat from thousands of Chinese food vendors. Anyway was possible and everything could be bought and sold.'

After the Japanese invasion of the Second World War, Ballard was interned in a camp in Shanghai with his parents, witnessing some of the horrors of those years. When the Communists took over in 1949, they deemed Shanghai to be decadent, and its trading activities became dormant, the majestic mansions and banks requisitioned. Closed to the West, and decaying, it did not emerge until well after the modernizing reforms of Deng Xiao Ping. But the city has been growing at a dizzying pace since the early 90s, its air filled with the dust of demolition and construction; the grey clay churned over and over in the building of new six-lane motorways and monumental bridges; shanties bull-dozed for hundreds of new sky-scrapers and the 2010 World Expo, a vast international exhibition site taking shape alongside the Huangpu river.

Shanghai is as famous now for its pollution as its rampant economic growth, and the streets are filled with traffic jams, crawling beneath giant hoardings for Mercedes Benz. Some murmur that the boom will go bust, that the skyscrapers will crack with subsidence. And yet you can still sense the same vast appetite that Aldous Huxley described in the 1920s. ‘Nothing more intensely living can be imagined,’ he wrote, feeling the city to be so ‘tenaciously alive’ that it would last for ‘a thousand years hence’.

Whatever the modern contradictions that are apparent in the city today – and there are many – it nevertheless continues living at a fast and furious pace; a throbbing hub of trading where Jimmy Choo’s new line for H&M’s flagship Shanghai store sold out in minutes last month, and was being hawked for twice the price on the pavement afterwards. The overwhelming sense is of a young consumer population, fast becoming fluent in the language of Western celebrity culture, as well as their own. They read Chinese editions of In Style, Cosmo, Elle and Vogue, and are adept in the A to Z of European fashion, from Armani to Zara; they watch American television shows and listen to Lady Gaga. ‘Madonna is over,’ says a Chinese journalist from In Style, when I ask her about the current celebrity stakes, ‘Gossip Girl and Twilight are really popular now.’

As for the affluent Chanel customers: they shimmied at the after-show party with the same enthusiasm as they had shopped at the new boutique. Two of the most glamorous girls there – one in a new-season black Chanel dress, another in the label’s signature pearl-trimmed jacket – chatted to me about their love of fashion. Both had grown up in eminent government families; both were now regulars in the pages of Chinese Vogue. The girl in the pearl jacket introduced herself as Bao Bao Wan, the granddaughter of Wan Li, formerly vice premier of the People’s Republic of China, later chairman of the National People’s Congress. She had studied photography at Sarah Lawrence College in the US and French literature in Paris, where she attended the Bals de Debutantes.

What would her grandfather make of the scene at the Chanel party, I asked her, as we watched Vanessa Paradis sing to a whooping audience in the cream-carpeted Penisula ballroom? “He’s very open-minded,’ said Bao Bao, with a charming smile. And then she sashayed off on her high-heeled gladiator stilettos, to dance the night away in the warm scented air of Chanel no. 5, but with a confidence entirely her own.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Could someone post a comment?

I am possibly being a bit paranoid, but the blogosphere has gone very silent since I went to China. I just want to check that the blog is still working. There was a rogue comment on my Philip Larkin post, which I have now deleted; but I do know that he has been hacking into other sites (not Larkin, that is; the strange commenter).
Apparently the odd blog comment directed readers to a Chinese page with a scantily clad young lady. Larkin might well have approved, but I'm not so sure about it.

Could someone post a comment?

Shanghai Express

I've been in Shanghai, trying fruitlessly to get onto my blog (which appeared to be barred to me in China, and is now mysteriously bereft of comments; surely some mistake?), while writing about last night's Chanel fashion show and the launch of its huge boutique in the city. Shanghai is the most astonishing place -- the skyline of neon high-rises, a jumble of new buildings growing up from the traditional streets -- where the rumble of construction goes on day and night. In my blurred state of jet-lag, the city looked like a cross between Metropolis and Mad Max, Blade Runner and the Fifth Element. My head is still spinning, and I'm feeling weirdly dizzy, as if I've been on a boat (well, I was on a giant barge for the fashion show, but it was moored and unmoving). And I haven't even begun to tell you about the little red dresses.
More tomorrow, but until then, a link to the Paris-Shanghai express ...

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Returning to An Arundel Tomb

In case anyone is interested, you can catch up with a Radio 4 programme that was broadcast today, on the subject of An Arundel Tomb by Philip Larkin, already the subject of much conversation on this blog (part of an excellent series called 'Adventures in Poetry', presented by Peggy Reynolds, that has been on every Sunday afternoon for the last few weeks). I happened to be included, but that's not why I'm recommending it; Larkin's biographer Anthony Thwaite provides all manner of insight and detail, as does Peggy Reynolds. You can listen again for another week, and then it will disappear from the BBC website.
In the meantime, please don't stop posting all those inspiring seasonal reads! I've been adding to my already long list of books that I must buy, thanks to everyone's suggestions on the previous post...

Friday, 27 November 2009

Seasonal reads

Many thanks to Enid, whose excellent comment on my previous post has introduced a whole new element to the conversation: Seasonal Reads. Your suggestions, please! Mine are as follows (in a fairly random way).
Winter reads: Great Expectations, Bleak House (Dickens), Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte), Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte), The Life of Charlotte Bronte (Mrs Gaskell), My Cousin Rachel, Don't Look Now (Daphne du Maurier), The Bloody Chamber (Angela Carter), Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons), Love in a Cold Climate (Nancy Mitford), Moominland Midwinter (Tove Jannsson), The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (Joan Aiken), Turn of the Screw (Henry James).
Spring reads: Invitation to the Waltz (Rosamond Lehmann), The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton), The Pursuit of Love (Nancy Mitford), Flush (Virginia Woolf), Frost in May (Antonia White).
Summer reads: The Summer Book (Tove Jansson), Tender Is The Night (F. Scott Fitzgerald), Flowers for Mrs Harris (Paul Gallico), Pippi Longstocking (Astrid Lindgren), I Capture The Castle (Dodie Smith).
Autumn reads: The Owl Service (Alan Garner), Portrait of a Lady (Henry James), Vile Bodies (Evelyn Waugh), Mary Poppins (P.L Travers), Dusty Answer (Rosamond Lehmann), Wide Sargasso Sea (Jean Rhys).

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Women in White

I've been nudged back into thinking about 'The Woman in White' again, in part because of catching snatches of the new serialization of the Wilkie Collins' novel on Radio 4, and also because my younger son has been reading Edgar Allan Poe (a gothic writer who seems to lead to mysterious women in white, whether mad or bad or dying or dangerous). And I was reminded of something that I wrote about in 'My Mother's Wedding Dress', which is that the woman in white has become such a familiar title -- not least because the original novel has been turned into a long-running West End musical -- that it's easy to forget how powerfully unsettling the phrase must once have been. Collins had some difficulty in coming up with the title for his novel, which was to be serialised in Dickens’ magazine, “All the Year Round” – despite the fact he had already written the opening chapter, including its eerie encounter on a moon-lit road with a “solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white” – but when he did decide upon it, in August 1859, and sent it to Dickens for his approval, Dickens replied: “I have not the slightest doubt that The Woman in White is the name of names, and very title of titles.” '

As it happens, Dickens had already described a woman in white of his own, some years earlier, in 1853, in an autobiographical essay entitled “Where We Stopped Growing” in his magazine, Household Words. She was a figure from his London boyhood, he wrote, seen always on Berners Street; “whether she was constantly on parade in that street only, or was ever to be seen elsewhere, we are unable to say. The White Woman is her name. She is dressed entirely in white, with a ghastly white plaiting round her head and face, inside her white bonnet. She even carries (we hope) a white umbrella. With white boots, we know she picks her way through the winter dirt. She is a conceited old creature, cold and formal in manner, and evidently went simpering mad on personal grounds alone – no doubt because a wealthy Quaker wouldn’t marry her. This is her bridal dress.”'

The wind is howling outside as I write this, and I have just come home via the old toll-gate on Spaniards Lane, that runs through Hampstead Heath. On a dark night such as this one, it isn't difficult to imagine the figure of a woman in a white dress, flitting between the shadows of the trees...

(By the way, if you are tempted to re-read 'The Woman in White', try to find the Oxford edition, with an introduction and notes by John Sutherland -- he is such a good guide to it.)

Monday, 16 November 2009

Dear Diary... why can't a woman be more like a man?

Have been immersed for the last half hour in my 16-year-old self; and now wondering, is a hardback diary the same as a blog? I definitely didn't want anyone to read my diary at the time -- and a good thing too, it's hideously embarrassing, overflowing with flighty romance, then plunging into bouts of gloom -- and yet I seemed to be writing it as much for the diary as for myself; or rather, the diary as an object appeared to be a safe place for me to air my thoughts, but also a comforting listener.
Three decades ago, on Thursday November 16th, I was studying Macbeth at school, reading Camus on the bus, and watching 'Pygmalion' for the umpteenth time, while working as a theatre usherette, tearing tickets and selling ice-creams. 'I'm getting a bit sick of Pymalion', I wrote, plaintively, 'and the ending always seems unsatisfactory -- I'm too romantic.'
I did not quote Professor Higgins; but now, with hindsight, it seems to me that I should have done so, and taken note of these lines in particular:
'I find that the moment I let a woman make friends with me, she becomes jealous, exacting, suspicious, and a damned nuisance. I find that the moment I let myself make friends with a woman, I become selfish and tyrannical. Women upset everything. When you let them into your life, you find that the woman is driving at one thing and you're driving at another...I suppose the woman wants to live her own life; and the man wants to live his; and each tries to drag the other on to the wrong track. One wants to go north and the other south; and the result is that both have to go east, though they both hate the east wind.'
At the time, I was far too busy spinning around in a whirlwind to take note of which way the wind was blowing...
PS. I don't really think a woman should be more like a man; and Professor Higgins is no more my dream date now than he was when I was 17. But GBS nevertheless worth attending to, particularly for a romantic teenager of whatever age.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Sunday evening

Have been away from the blog for the weekend, visiting my mother (who as it happens makes very good apple cake). Anyway, so many comments that need to be answered, that I thought I'd better do a new post. First things first: Virginia Woolf -- my own particular favourites of hers are 'A Room of One's Own' and 'Flush' (about Elizabeth Barrett Browning's dog, but much else besides -- life, love, art, everything, really) and her letters, which are completely brilliant.
As for the insurmountable differences between men and women: I've just been re-reading my diary from the year I turned 17, and plus ca change. There are many agonised entries about someone called Andy, my first boyfriend, who is generally unkind to me. I tell him I love him, and he tells me not to be so soppy, so I apologise. Meanwhile, a much nicer boy called Julian says he is besotted with me, but I am still pining for horrid Andy. When I finally come to my senses, and split up with Andy, he decides he loves me, but it turns out he has also been seeing his ex-girlfriend, Amanda. By this time, I am on my way to becoming involved with someone even more unsuitable. Astonishingly, I manage to take a Cambridge entrance exam, the morning after yet another agonised encounter with Andy. I am interviewed there (apparently the tutors ask me about Shakespeare and Milton), and get a place to study English. In between weeping over Andy and reading a great deal of poetry, I also develop a secret taste for the historical novels of Jean Plaidy.
More of this later...
PS. Have just checked back over teen diary, and apparently I very much enjoyed Jean Plaidy's 'The King's Secret Matter' and 'The Road to Fotheringay'; sadly, have no recollection of either of them now.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

While I've been gone...

... what have you all been doing? I've been thinking about houndstooth; red dresses; the postal strike (grrr; my second-hand books ordered from abe haven't arrived); the insurmountable differences between men and women; the pleasure of a hard frost in the sunshine of an early morning. And why are there so many fireworks in the days before and after November 5th? Where do they come from, and why do people let them off in the streets of London after midnight?
Also, have baked an excellent pear and ginger cake. V. good eaten warm from the oven with creme fraiche.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Woman's Hour

I was just part of an interesting Woman's Hour discussion on Radio 4 about Coco Chanel and, more generally, about women and their emotional attachment to clothes -- the threads between what we wear and how we feel. There were some very revealing interviews -- it's a subject that people can talk about for hours, although obviously confined here to less than an hour. I never re-read my old books, but it almost made me want to dip into My Mother's Wedding Dress again. I haven't, aside from looking up the quotes on the opening page of the book, which I love (always easier to return to someone else's writing than one's own). Here they are...

“A consultation last year took me to an intelligent and unembarrassed-looking girl. Her style of dressing is disconcerting; where women’s clothes are normally attended to down to the last pleat, one of her stockings is hanging down and two buttons of her blouse are open.” (Sigmund Freud, “The Interpretation of Dreams”)

“She immediately stepped into the wardrobe and got in among the coats and rubbed her face against them, leaving the door open, of course, because she knew that it is very foolish to shut oneself into any wardrobe.” (C.S. Lewis, “The Lion and the Witch and the Wardrobe”)

“Have you ever been so lonely that you felt eternally guilty – as if you’d left off part of your clothes – I love you so, and being without you is like having gone off and left the gas-heater burning, or locked the baby in the clothes-bin.”
(Letter from Zelda Fitzgerald to her husband, Scott Fitzgerald)

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

While I was gone...

Apologies for absence; have been lost in computer with Coco Chanel. Day and night, night and day; it's all blurring into one. Have been thinking mostly of little black dresses and white satin evening gowns and reflections in the looking glass. Really, have gone quite mad, through the computer screen and out onto the other side of the mirrored walls of Mademoiselle's private apartment, but will return later.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

A brief return to Manderley

Ann Willmore's comment on my previous post has prompted me to leave Coco, just for a few minutes, and return to Daphne du Maurier, if only for a little while. Regular readers of the blog will know that Ann and her husband David run two wonderful bookshops in Fowey, as well as knowing more about Daphne du Maurier than practically anyone else in the world. Anyway, here is the link to the Du Maurier website, which contains all sorts of interesting and intriguing treasures (rather like Ann's bookshelves...), including this comment from Kits Browning, Daphne's son.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Coco goes to Cheltenham

I am still plodding around at home like a sick donkey, propped up at my computer in ancient pyjamas and tattered tartan dressing gown. It is not a good look, but needs must. Nevertheless, will be sprightly again soon -- am praying on a regular basis at the shrine of Coco Chanel -- and off to talk about The Great One at the Cheltenham festival next week (Thursday 15th October). The website says it's sold out, but I have a feeling that there will be space for anyone who really, really wants to go, as I think there might be extra tickets available on the day. Let me know here, and I'll see what I can do...

Sunday, 4 October 2009

On being unwell

Have lost the ability to write with any coherence, and feel like someone has stamped all over me. I ache and ache and ache, and can't even bring myself to drink tea and eat biscuits. Am home alone today (apart from whatever bug it is that is making me feel so sick), which isn't as bad as it might be. I can crawl into bed, and stay there with eiderdown over me, apart from occasional outings downstairs for water and nurofen.
This is a very dull post, I know. But didn't want the weekend to pass in complete silence. If anyone out there is suffering, I feel for you...

Monday, 28 September 2009

The threads of our lives

Firstly, I want to say thank you to everyone who commented on my last post, and for the poems you shared. Sometimes, life seems to unravel -- in huge ways, and in small ones -- and the holes seem to be far too gaping for anything to be patched together again. And then there are the moments when it makes a kind of sense; when threads weave themselves together, rather than getting knotted up like the tangle of thoughts inside my head, or the dread that knots my stomach. I say 'my', but I mean 'our' -- because these are the things that we all of us share: love and loss; anxiety and hope; a kind of communality, even when we feel most alone.
So, in this spirit, I'd like to send you in the direction of a friend and fellow writer, Juliet Barker, who I met while researching the chapter about Charlotte Bronte's ring in My Mother's Wedding Dress. The former curator of the Bronte Parsonage Museum, and a distinguished historian, whose books bring the past alive in the most remarkable of ways, Juliet was also a wise and patient guide to me as I lost and found myself in My Mother's Wedding Dress, and in my subsequent novel, Daphne. If writing, like life, is sometimes a shadowy labyrinth, then one needs to know that someone will help you find your way out again, and back into the light.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Bibliotherapy: What to read in memoriam

Tomorrow is the anniversary of my sister’s death, and like many of us who mourn someone who has died too young, I remember her untouched by the ravages of age, her eyes still filled with courage and hope for the future. But in the aftermath of her death, when I was raging against the dying of her light, appalled at the savage randomness of life that saw her die at 33, I came across Philip Larkin’s poem, ‘An Arundel Tomb’, which was read at his own funeral.

I read the poem in the place of its setting, Chichester Cathedral, beside the Arundel Tomb itself, where the stone figures of a medieval earl and his wife lie together, his hand holding hers. The last line of the poem is the one most often quoted – ‘What will survive of us is love’ – and it struck me with as much force as if spoken by a voice beyond the grave; and has continued to resonate for me as a reminder that death does not consume love; that there are tender threads that bind the living and the dead, even amidst the silence.

But Larkin was too clear-sighted – always a realist, sometimes submerged by pessimism – to skim over the harshness of death. As in his wonderfully moving poem, ‘Cut Grass’, ‘An Arundel Tomb’ is precise in its acknowledgment of summer’s loveliness and its inevitable passing, of the joy of living and the finality of dusty death. ‘… Light/ Each summer thronged the glass. A bright/ Litter of birdcalls strewed the same/ Bone-riddled ground…’

And Larkin – a man who vacillated between women; who loved and betrayed and loved again – is also unfailingly honest about the shimmering shifts of human emotion; of its elusiveness, which can never be preserved in stone. The concluding stanza of ‘An Arundel Tomb’ is more hesitant than its last line (‘Time has transformed them into/ Untruth. The stone fidelity/ They hardly meant has come to be/ Their final blazon, and to prove/ Our almost-instinct almost true:/ What will survive of us is love.’) Yet the poem still stands, like the tomb itself, as a monument to those we love, and always will do; as sad and true as the anniversary of a death, in the turning of the year.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Parties, gardens, libraries, red toe nails, and other delights

It's a beautiful day in September, and summer doesn't seem quite gone (the picture above was taken in Scotland last month, where I was writing the Henry James-goes-to-Tillypronie blog). As it happens, my toe nails were red in that picture, and they're red again today; well, they've been red all week, in honour of the London Library. Yes, I know that sounds unlikely -- the London Library is the most literary of places, where nail varnish should never be discussed; but it turned up, along with me, at a party there a couple of days ago; because I've just contributed an essay about the joys of red toenails to Modern Delight, an anthology of essays published by Faber and Waterstones, in aid of the London Library and Dyslexia Action. The book was inspired by J.B Priestley's original collection of essays, 'Delight', published in 1949; the author, a self-confessed 'grumbler', wrote about the little things in life that made him happy: a gin-and-tonic, detective stories in bed, smoking in a hot bath, meeting a friend, charades, the sound of a football, buying books, having his fortune told, coming home... I'm sure you'll be able to come up with your own lists. (Please do, and tell me about them -- we all need to be reminded of small delights on a daily basis, don't you think?)
Anyway, Priestley's book has been reprinted in a 60th anniversary edition, and is delightful; and the new anthology has lots of good things in it, too: Beryl Bainbridge on growing older; India Knight on twitter; Sebastian Faulks on a certain girl band... and many, many more.
Anyway, this is my contribution, along with some pictures of the London Library (including a room full of good cheer); it's a place that brings me great delight, as does the garden in Tillypronie.
Oh, and by the way, the red nail varnish I refer to in the following piece is by Essie (and no, I didn't know the name until after I chose the colour).

If you believe what you read in fairytales, then wearing red is perilous, presaging doom and disaster. Would Little Red Riding Hood have encountered the wolf if she wore a more modest blue? And could Briar Rose have avoided her long imprisonment as Sleeping Beauty, if she had not stained herself with her own blood after pricking her finger? Worst of all is the dreadful fate summoned up by Hans Christian Andersen for a little girl named Karen after she acquires a new pair of immodest red shoes, for she is cursed to dance until her feet are bleeding, and then her feet are chopped off. As it happens, Andersen’s father was a shoemaker who died when Hans was 11, which is perhaps a clue as to why soles are inextricably linked with souls in his stories (hence the sufferings of the Little Mermaid, who wishes for feet in her pursuit of love, but discovers that they bring her nothing but pain.)

Yet despite these dire warnings of childhood reading, in fairytales where no one lives happily ever after, I have grown up to discover the cheering effects of shoes the colour of rubies, and the delight to be had in painting my toe nails red. Indeed, when disaster strikes – as it does from time to time, when men turn into wolves, and love is gobbled up – then the small pleasures of cherry-red varnish loom large in my life.

One cannot wear red shoes on a daily basis – that would detract from their potency; from the magic they bring to an evening of bold celebration – but scarlet toenails are a secret that can be enjoyed throughout the year. On the coldest nights in winter, they peek out of the scented bubbles of a warm bath; and in the darkest nights of the soul, they point to a way forward, a glowing reminder that the future may not be quite as gloomy as feared.

As I write this on a rainy morning in an English spring, my crimson toenails are hidden in sheepskin slippers, but I know that when the sun emerges, so will my feet. By the way, the varnish comes out of a small bottle marked Well Red… an antidote to the grimmest of fairytales

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Later that night...

It's 9.9.09. Luckily, I am not entirely deranged, as I have not been seized by a sudden belief in numerology (thereby madness lies), but I do like the pleasing pattern in today's date... All of which may or may not have something to do with the fact that I have been writing about Chanel no. 5, and the significance (or otherwise) that Coco Chanel attached to numbers...
Now, I'm going to take a deep breath, and count to ten, and then return to Coco...

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Late night, grappling with computer

It's hot in my study, at the end of a long day at the screen. I'm beginning to feel unhinged, after writing and writing and writing and...
So, here in the spirit of openness, is me deranged as midnight comes nearer. (Incidentally, the clock on my blog is wrong, but I don't know how to change it. One of these days, it might strike 13). Now I'm going to drink a strong cup of camomile tea. Never let it be said that I don't know what's good for me...

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Bibliotherapy: what to read when in need of cheering up

This week's bibliotherapy: v. good for convalescence, as well as Sundays:

From time to time, on a Sunday evening, I feel a certain glumness descend, a gloomy foreboding about Monday morning, and all the responsibilities it entails. As tonight is a very Sunday-ish evening – the end of summer, the return to routine – a little light reading is in order. Most cheering of all in the circumstances is P.G. Wodehouse’s ‘Psmith in the City’, first published in 1910, but still consoling for anyone who would rather be somewhere else tomorrow.

Wodehouse himself understood the predicament of his central character, Mike Jackson, who yearns to be playing cricket at Cambridge University, but has been sent to London to earn his living as a clerk for the New Asiatic Bank, due to a collapse in the family finances. The young Wodehouse was dispatched in similar circumstances to the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank in the City, where he endured an equally monotonous start to his career, before making his escape as a writer. In this early novel, Wodehouse introduced an instant antidote to boredom, in the form of Rupert Psmith, an expelled Old Etonian incarcerated in the City, but with the wit to find his way out. Psmith (the ‘P’ is silent, ‘as in phthisis, psychic, and ptarmigan’) is an advocate of what he describes as ‘practical socialism’, making comrades of his colleagues, and undermining their odious boss, Mr Bickersdyke, thereby coming close to scuppering Bickersdyke’s political ambitions.

‘Psmith in the City’ is very funny, very subversive, and not at all what one might expect from a writer accused of being a Nazi sympathiser after his broadcasts from Berlin during the Second World War. In hindsight, the general consensus seems to be that Wodehouse was foolish, rather than fascist (George Orwell rejected the claim that Wodehouse had ‘consciously aided the Nazi propaganda machine’ as ‘untenable and even ridiculous’). Yet despite his political naivety, Wodehouse’s vision of the City as oppressive and incomprehensible – ‘the whole system of banking was a horrid mystery’ – now seems refreshingly honest. Unfortunately, we don’t all have Psmith as a comrade against the challenges of boredom or confusion, nor as an ally against the Bickersdyke-type. But Wodehouse remains reassuring; for as Mike discovers at the close of play, ‘He examined the future, and found it good’.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Full moon at midnight

The full moon is high in the sky above my back garden, and a fox has just trotted along the pavement. I wish I could find the words to describe the moonlight tonight -- it's so clear, bright enough for the trees to cast shadows across the grass. But there is a cloud inside my head (the after-effect of a general anaesthetic), and my tongue is getting tangled, like my fingers on the keyboard.
Still, I'm glad to be here, in the moonlight, rather than behind the double-glazed windows of a hospital room. Now, back to bed...

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Of gardens and frog's bones and gingerbread cake...

Thanks to Cornflower, I've got some new bedside reading, 'The Cookery Book of Lady Clark of Tillypronie'; and can therefore understand why Henry James and others were so enthusiastic about their hospitable hosts in Scotland. Lady Clark's recipes were published as a book in 1909, after her death, providing a comprehensive range that cater from the most conservative tastes (Balmoral Dessert Biscuits, often served at Tillypronie, from a recipe supplied by H.M. the Queen's Baker, at nearby Bamoral Castle), to the more arcane ('Ritualistic Haddock', 'Wet Devil', 'Boiled Angels', and 'Frog's Bones', which turn out to be crisp vanilla biscuits).
I don't think Frog's Bones will be served with the teas on Sunday afternoon at the Tillypronie garden opening, but there will be cake, so here is one of Lady Clark's three recipes for Gingerbread Cake.

1lb. treacle, 12 ozs. butter; put these into the oven to melt, and add to 1 lb. flour, 1/2 lb. moist sugar. Mix altogether with a little ginger and lemon peel; spread it then upon the tin to bake, and loosen it from the tin whilst still warm, or it will stick.

Cornflower may elucidate further on quantities, as I know she is very good at baking, but I think that for 'moist sugar', one might substitute soft dark brown sugar, and I like zesty gingery cakes, so I'd add more than a little ginger.

The other recipe that caught my eye -- well, actually, there were lots that did, but here is one of many -- is for Oeufs a la Bechamel, and it is labelled as Mesdames Langel's and Justine's Recipe, 1879. According to Lady Clark's husband, Sir John Clark, in a letter written from Tillypronie in 1901 to the future editor of his wife's book, she gathered a considerable knowledge of French and Italian cookery while he was serving in the Diplomatic Service in Paris, Brussels and Turin: 'she never failed, when any dish interested her, to cross-examine the artist the next day, who, perceiving the intelligent appreciation she evinced in his art, rarely failed to give her the best of his knowledge and experience.'

Presumably this explains the wealth of detail in the following recipe for Oeufs a la Bechamel:

Boil 6 eggs hard in boiling water, but not so hard as when cooked for canarybirds' food. To simmer only 10 minutes. When cold, peel off the shells, cut the eggs in two, lengthways, leave the yolks in and place the half-eggs, with the yolks uppermost, in an enamel dish capable of going into the oven, and put a tiny bit of fresh butter on the centre of the yolk of each half-egg. Pour the following sauce over all, and just colour in the oven, but not long enough to harden the whites.
For the Sauce: Rub 2 ozs. of fresh butter with flour and put into a saucepan. Stir well till it is smooth, taking care it does not burn. Add cream, or even milk, and stir on on till it is the proper thickness. Add salt, pepper, and a grate of nutmeg. Cook this thoroughly before pouring it over the eggs, then give them a minute in the oven, and brown with a salamander to a gold colour.

Yum yum.
And now back to Chanel, who I doubt ate much in the way of cake, even when she was in Scotland.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Henry James in Scotland

So here I am in Scotland, in search of the tweeds that inspired Coco Chanel (don't want to give the game away, but she was a frequent visitor north of the border). Anyway, it turns out that Henry James was a guest at Tillypronie, the house where I am staying, and as an ardent fan of his, I feel tremendously excited about this. There's something beguiling in the unlikeliness of the coincidence; of James being on top of a mountain in Scotland, and me being here at all. Of course, his description of Tillypronie is far better than mine would ever be, as you'll see in the relevant extract from the letter he wrote to his sister on September 15th 1878:

"Behold me in Scotland and very well pleased to be here. It is a beautiful part of the country - the so-called Deeside - the mountains of Aberdeenshire - the region of Balmoral and Braemar. This supremely comfortable house - lying deep among the brown and purple moors - has the honor, I believe, of being the highest placed laird’s house in Scotland. I wish that you might contemplate the glorious view of sweeping hills and gleaming lochs that lies forever before the windows. I have been here for four or five days and I feel that I have done a very good thing in coming to Scotland. Once you get the hang of it, and apprehend the type, it is a most beautiful and admirable little country - fit to make up a trio with Italy and Greece.

But don’t envy me too much; for the British country-house has at moments, for a cosmopolitanized American, an insuperable flatness. On the other hand, to do it justice, there is no doubt of its being one of the ripest fruits of time - and here in Scotland, where you get the conveniences of Mayfair dove-tailed into the last romanticism of nature - of the highest results of civilization."

Unlike James, I have not come across any insuperable flatness -- indeed, the hills are so high that I find myself admiring the view on a regular basis (and no flatness inside the house, either, but a lot of very good chocolate cake and scones). If anyone is in the area, and wants to see the beautiful gardens, they are open for charity this Sunday afternoon. Apparently there will be homemade cake and teas, too.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Bibliotherapy: what to read when you're seeing red

If ever a novel demanded re-reading, it is ‘Jane Eyre’, given how often it has been misread as romance; for whatever else it is (passionate, gothic, religious, contrary), it is also an angry book, spilling over with full-blooded rage. We tend to remember the famously quiet first line (‘There was no possibility of taking a walk that day’) and misremember the last line (‘Reader, I married him’); forgetting that this is the opening sentence of the final chapter. The actual ending isn’t about domestic bliss, nor is it uttered by Jane Eyre, but by preachy, priggish St John Rivers: ‘Amen; even so come, Lord Jesus!’

In between these two seemingly well-behaved lines – written by the Charlotte Bronte made famous in Mrs Gaskell’s biography; the devout, quietly spoken clergyman’s daughter, an angel in the parsonage – emerges a far more furious voice. And despite Bronte’s own apparent obedience to a conventional idea of Victorian female propriety – a dutiful teacher at Sunday school; a late marriage to a curate – ‘Jane Eyre’ suggests something more subversive; that rage might be healthier than its inward-looking alternative, depression.

Jane Eyre has good reason to be both angry and depressed from the start: an unloved and unhappy orphan, she must live with her heartless aunt, Mrs Reed, and her bullying cousins. After one of them throws a book at Jane, her head is left bleeding; but when she retaliates, in a different rush of blood to her head, her aunt orders that she be locked in a bedroom as punishment (evidence that female solidarity isn’t necessarily what it should be). The walls of this room are red, yet it is a cold and dark place, where Jane’s uncle died nine years previously.

Alone in the red room, Jane screams out, terrified that her uncle’s ghost will return there; but on hearing the child’s cries, her aunt orders that the punishment be lengthened: ‘and it is only on condition of perfect submission and stillness that I shall liberate you’. Jane collapses into unconsciousness; when she wakes, she sees ‘a terrible red glare’. Defiant, she feels ‘the strangest sense of freedom, of triumph… as if an invisible bond had burst’; and thereafter it is rage that propels her forward, proving that silent goodness isn’t always the best way out.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Coco Avant Chanel

While we're on the subject of Chanel, I thought I'd post the link for the interview I did with Audrey Tautou in the Sunday Telegraph. By the way, there is no 'e' on the end of Chanel in my book title, despite appearances to the contrary on the Telegraph website. And Chanel buffs will have already noticed the anachronisms and inaccuracies in the Tautou movie -- though I enjoyed it, anyway, and Audrey T. looks remarkably like the young Chanel. Glorious costumes, too.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Shoes and bluestockings...

Did anyone else listen to the Radio 4 series this week on the Bluestockings? I dipped in and out of it (during morning tea breaks; too many cups of tea this week), and it was v. interesting. Made me think of Rosamond Lehmann's first novel, 'Dusty Answer', where 1920s heroine (Judith) goes off to study at Cambridge, at Girton, and has passionate friendship with Jennifer, before being supplanted by scary Geraldine Manners, and all the male undergraduates wear grey flannel. I first read the book when it was out of print -- before it had been rescued by Virago -- in the summer before I started at Cambridge, and was seduced by its romance and intensity. Like this...

'Above the quiet, secretly-stirring town, roofs, towers and spires floated in a pale gold wash of light. What was the mystery of Cambridge in the evening? Footfalls struck with a pang on the heart, faces startled with pale beauty, and every far appearing or disappearing form seemed significant.

And when they got back to College, even that solid red-brick barrack was touched with mystery. The corridors were long patterns of unreal light and shadow. Girls' voices sounded remote as in a dream, with a murmuring rise and fall and light laughter behind closed doors. The thrilling smell of cowslips and wall-flowers was everywhere, like a cloud of enchantment.'

I can still read it now, and feel nostalgic, but because I have shoes on my mind (Coco Chanel's shoes, in the late 20s, as it happens), I started thinking about what Cambridge bluestockings might have worn on their feet, and then -- in the way that these things happen, after midnight -- I started searching for a contemporary equivalent, and found these excellent shoes by Rupert Sanderson.
I think bluestockings would have liked them, and even Mademoiselle Chanel might have approved -- I'm tempted to use the words 'lesbian chic', but that isn't quite right (actually, it's wrong, wrong, wrong). Anyway, you can imagine the footfalls, echoing in Twenties' corridors... Oh, and I can imagine the second Mrs de Winter in the brogues, and Rebecca in the cream high heels, tip-tapping down the staircase at Manderley.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Summer in the city

There's something about August in London that can be quite restful -- less traffic, more time, and space to admire the roses in the inner circle of Regent's Park -- but not this week. The city is heaving with people -- not just tourists, but Londoners -- so perhaps more of us than usual are staying at home, or working through the summer. In one way, it feels quite comradely, but still, it's a surprise to see the traffic jams snaking through Hampstead, and down Regent's Street, and around Hanover Square.
Anyway... I went into Vogue today, where I used to work; saw some old friends, and felt nostalgic about my time there. Different clothes on the rails, ready for shoots, but similar sense of anticipation about the forthcoming autumn issues; and even though everything changes in glossy magazines, and in fashion, sometimes it goes full circle, and reminds you of how we were and still are...
Still, there are shifts in the landscape, one of which is the new Vogue blog.
Oh, and I think now is the right moment to wear an old tweed jacket, rather than a new one. And feathers, in some shape or form. Speaking of which, here is my column from the Sunday Telegraph (hopefully better late than never, and just in time for tomorrow). Oh, damn, have just noticed that the online version isn't opening (so much for new technology, or maybe it's my technological illiteracy). So here it is again (thus proving that today is cyclical, like everyday)...

It might seem surprising that the determinedly urban fashion industry should turn to the British countryside for inspiration, were it not for the fact that this happens on a regular basis. Indeed, it is a tradition almost as firmly established as the start of the grouse-shooting season on August 12th; for barely a year goes by without country classics being cited as a starting point for a slick designer collection. Tweeds, head-scarves, twin-sets; they all get trotted out on a regular basis. Not that I’m complaining, because I like the look of them, particularly the ancient faded variety worn by my grandmother, who proved an exception to Nancy Mitford’s rule in ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ that tweed skirts ‘always bag, except on very smart little thin women’. (My grandmother’s tweeds were as redoubtable as she, and would never have had the temerity to go baggy on her.)

Anyway, this year there are new variations on a theme. Prada’s autumn collection includes some startling thigh high leather wading boots and teeny-weeny tweed shorts, which may or may not prove to be popular amongst grouse-shooters. ‘I didn’t want to do anything about the city,’ said Miuccia Prada, in explanation, ‘more something about sport and the outdoors in general – freedom and nature… It was serious, in a way. It was about a need for feminine empowerment.’ So, now you know: the thigh-high boots and hot-pants are liberating, rather than fetishist constrictions.

There are also oodles of grey tweed at Luella, Gucci, and Burberry, and houndstooth at Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney. It all looks quite lovely; but personally, I’m even more preoccupied by the pheasant feather pieces at Graeme Black, the Scottish designer who set up his own label after leaving Armani. He’s had a flurry of private orders for these covetable garments – an iridescent feathered skirt, along with a feathery bolero the colour of dusk, and a feather-trimmed silk coat – from a number of clients who plan to wear them to shooting parties in August. I have no idea whether the pheasant feathers will prove to be a camouflage or a distraction for other game birds; nor whether the shy grouse will be startled by the sight of crystal buttons on the moors and mountains.

Nevertheless, there is something irresistible about feathers, which may be why we pursue them in glorious and inglorious ways; and although I know nothing about the merits of woodcock over snipe (nor will I ever do), I always feel a tug at the heart whenever I see a feather floating from the sky.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Bibliotherapy: What to read when you don’t want to go for a walk

I am writing this in the certain knowledge that I must go for a walk; my dog is looking at me quizzically, and we both know that it will be good for us to stretch our legs, despite the fact that it is a drizzly Sunday, and the park will be filled with disconsolate walkers who would rather be somewhere else instead. It is at times such as these that I am tempted to stay at home and read; in particular, Max Beerbohm’s ‘Going Out for a Walk’ (from ‘And Even Now’, a collection of his essays published in 1920).

‘It is a fact that not once in all my life have I gone out for a walk,’ observes Beerbohm at the outset. ‘I have been taken out for walks; but that is another matter. Even while I trotted prattling by my nurse’s side I regretted the good old days when I had, and wasn’t, a perambulator.’ His reputation as an aesthete and a dandy at Oxford, and a member of Oscar Wilde’s literary circle thereafter, did not protect him from the exhortations of heartier acquaintances to accompany them on walks. These outings were uncomfortable for all concerned, the conversation diminishing with every step. Here, for example, is his account of an enforced Sunday morning walk with a fellow-guest at a country house weekend: ‘We pass an inn. He reads vapidly aloud to me: “The King’s Arms. Licensed to sell Ales and Spirits.” I forsee that during the rest of the walk he will read aloud any inscription that occurs… I see far ahead, on the other side of the hedge bordering the high road, a small notice-board. He sees it too. He keeps his eye on it. And in due course “Trepassers,” he says, “Will Be Prosecuted.” Poor man! – mentally a wreck.’

Lauded by his peers – Virginia Woolf described him as ‘the prince of his profession’; Evelyn Waugh as ‘a genius of the purest kind’ – Beerbohm’s fame has faded, but his prose still glitters with wit. You may not have time today to read his sweetly satiric novel, ‘Zuleika Dobson’ – though it’s well worth it – but do find a few moments for his essay, before you go quietly for that walk…

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Howling at the moon

I felt quite lunatic last night, in the light of a full moon, and remembered what a friend of mine (a doctor) said to me recently: when she worked in the Accident and Emergency department of a big hospital, they always saw a surge in numbers on the night of a full moon. (More moonlore is to be found in Rick Stroud's book of the moon; all that you ever wanted to know, as well as things you didn't even know that you wanted to know, until you read them -- which is just what one needs in a book that can be returned to, over and over again.)
My first child was born at a full moon, and I realised I was pregnant with him when I drove over the Westway into London, and saw a full moon rising in the winter nightsky. So the moon seems significant to me; a visible sign of the passing of time, and yet also of circularity, of changelessness.
It's one of those everyday (every month) reminders of the magic and madness of everyday life, and also of otherworldiness; of how we return to where we began, and why it might seem that the world revolves around us, yet it does not, and can never do; and even though we often place ourselves at the centre of our own narratives, the story follows its own course, waxing and waning, like the moon.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

What to read in the rain?

I can't help it, I feel gloomy in August when the clouds descend over north London. I don't mind the British countryside in the rain -- in previous summers, I've enjoyed August walks along rainlashed Cornish clifftops. But here in London, on a drizzly morning, with a book to finish, I'm longing for the clouds to clear, or as my grandmother used to say, 'enough blue in the sky to make a sailor's suit'; or a Turner sky, like the one above -- now, that would be magical... (though there is magic in all skies, I know, if you look at them in the right way, like he did).
I suppose there's something to be said for the grey sky: it's not going to lure me away from my computer. But actually, I think it is easier to write with a feeling of optimism, rather than foreboding. And the sky today looks threatening, with not a hint of rose-tinted pink above it...
Is anyone out there?

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Bibliotherapy: What to read when you lose your purse.

Recently, when I lost my purse – or rather, just after it was stolen from me – I felt a momentary version of the grief that accompanies far greater loss. Numbness, shock, anger, denial, acceptance, played out in half an hour, and then it seemed unseemly to care. After all, no one had died; it was only money that had been stolen from me; the loss was of an inanimate object.

And then a friend reminded me to re-read ‘One Art’ by Elizabeth Bishop, with its beautifully controlled opening stanza: ‘The art of losing isn’t hard to master; so many things seem filled with the intent/ to be lost that their loss is no disaster.’ The poem comes from Bishop’s final collection, published in 1976, three years before her death; and, like its title, appears to suggest that the art of losing is reflected in the art of writing, and vice versa. If, as in life, every loss reminds us of a previous sorrow (the vanished purse, the missing lover), then Bishop (a Pulitzer Prize winner and US Poet Laureate) offers mastery of language to contain the messiness of long-lost or looming disaster.

Bishop herself was no stranger to loss: her father died when she was a baby; her mother suffered from mental illness and was confined to an asylum; and one of the great loves of her life, a Brazilian woman with whom Bishop lived for 15 years, committed suicide. A self-confessed opponent of self-confessional poetry, unlike many of her contemporaries (‘Art just isn’t worth that much,’ she wrote disapprovingly to Robert Lowell, after he used his wife’s letters in his writing), Bishop nevertheless gave some clues to the grave losses she suffered. ‘I lost my mother’s watch,’ she writes in ‘One Art’, as if in passing; though the material loss of a watch was also an echo of her mother’s absence in childhood; of the loss of both parents to watch over her.

‘One Art’ emerged out of 17 drafts, evidence of the tension between a poet’s artfulness and the artlessness of grief; of what happens when words fail us (‘it may look like (Write it!) like disaster’), as does love; not that we ever stop searching for what we have lost, and what we might still be looking for.

NB: for more (far more), on Elizabeth Bishop's drafts, there's a very good article at Slate.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Port Eliot: through the window

Got back last night from Cornwall, and a good time was had by all. I did a bit of guest-blogging on Saturday over at dovegreyreader, so you could catch up with the festival there. This is dovegrey's picture of my event in the round room, taken from outside, because she couldn't get in, which was a shame, but I do like the photograph.
I have eaten lots of whitebait and chips from the seafood stall at Port Eliot, sustained my strength late into the night with Snickers bars, caught up with old friends (Kate Summerscale, William Fiennes), made a new friend (Hari Kunzru), and met an all-time fashion heroine -- Barbara Hulanicki -- who was creating sparkly space age outfits for festival goers, alongside inspired hats by Stephen Jones. I remember being taken by my mum to Biba when I was a little girl, and she used to buy clothes there, first from the Biba boutique in Kensington Church Street, and then from the big emporium on Kensington High Street. I think it was there, at the age of five, sitting in the changing room beneath a cloud of feather boas, watching my mum try on a pink and purple striped mini-dress, that I realized the potency of fashion...
Anyway, many thanks to everyone who came to see me at Port Eliot, and to everyone who made it into such a magically diverse and engaging weekend, particularly Peregrine and Catherine St Germans, who have opened their house and garden to all of us, with magical consequences.
More to come, but must get on with Chanel for the rest of the day...

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Port Eliot Literary Festival

I've just looked up the weather forecast for this weekend's festival at Port Eliot, and it's sunshine and the occasional shower, as you would expect. But for those of you who are coming to Cornwall for the weekend -- and I very much hope some of you are -- my event is taking place inside the house in the Round Room, which as you can see from the pictures, is very beautiful, and will provide a congenial setting for conversation. I'll be in situ at 4.45 on Saturday afternoon. See you there... (and now I'm off to search for my wellies, which appear to have been requisitioned by teenage sons for other festivals, and have mysteriously vanished, or perhaps simply joined the sediment of lost boots at Glastonbury).

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Bibliotherapy: what to read in a British summer

The weather, as we all know, is an abiding British preoccupation, particularly at this time of year; and though it is a truism that we talk about the weather for want of anything better to discuss, or as a means of evasion or self-defence, it is also central to our psyche. This much, and more, is evident in ‘The Weather in the Streets’, Rosamond Lehmann’s fourth novel, which takes up the story of Olivia Curtis, a decade after she appeared as the heroine of the coming-of-age classic, ‘Invitation to the Waltz’.

As the title suggests, the weather is as integral to the unfolding tale as its other central character, Rollo Spencer, Olivia’s handsome, rich married lover. Their affair begins in the winter, but the turning of the season (and the hours) is suspended, apparently superseded by the momentum of passion: ‘the time began when there wasn’t any time… Beyond the glass casing I was in, was the weather, were the winter streets in rain, wind, fog.’ But when summer is upon the lovers, the weather is impossible to shut out behind closed doors or glass. In the sunshine of July, after some weeks apart, Rollo visits Olivia at a country cottage in Oxfordshire: ‘Alone together all the afternoon. Oh, at last!… It was so still, we heard the hot bees burning in the rosemary. The blind knocked, knocked. Through it the violent afternoon light was purple, almost black.’ Afterwards, they swim in the river, where the ‘westering sun was spilled all over the water’; later, in the warm darkness, ‘stars pricked the blue-iris air.’

The weather cannot always be forecast with accuracy, and nor can affairs of the heart; all that is certain is that time passes, implacably, as does the summer. Rollo returns to his wife, Olivia to London, to the dog days of August: ‘To be alone… in this dry, sterile, burnt-out end of summer… among stains and smells, odds and ends of refuse and decay.’

Olivia, like Rosamond Lehmann herself, and so many of her readers, has not loved wisely, but even as the relationship with Rollo seems to come to its unhappy ending, yet there is a new beginning; for the weather, like a woman, has a will all of its own.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

On losing a purse and wordlessness

This is not a bibliotherapy, because I don't have much in the way of words of advice today (for myself, nor anyone else). I'm going away very early tomorrow morning, with my younger son, and as is often the way with bad timing, my purse was stolen this afternoon. Driving license, credit cards, holiday cash -- all gone, the lot of it. It doesn't really matter, not in the greater scheme of things -- these are inconvenient losses, nowhere close to those big ones that shake everything up, so that they fall down in broken pieces.
But every small loss brings with it an echo of a larger one; sometimes just a bat squeak, the tiniest of reverberations, that set one's alarm bells ringing. 'What if?' you think; 'what next?'. If you have existed in a state of alertness, for whatever reason (and I have been living in a heightened state of anxiety, for a number of months), and then something happens -- the small thing, the stolen purse, the thieves you did not protect yourself against -- you wonder (I wonder), am I paying attention? What will I miss next?
None of which is very helpful; too much of it, and that way madness lies. So here I am (or am I here?), without signposts, trying to write my way out of the wordlessness of panic.
[pause for breath].
[and another one].

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Bibliotherapy: what to read when you can’t move on.

As anyone will know who has suffered loss – and in this, most of us share common ground – there is a simple piece of advice that is handed out with irritating regularity. ‘You must move on.’ To which one might feel tempted to reply, ‘Why?’ or, ‘How?’ or even ruder expletives.

It is at times such as these that I find some consolation in A.E Housman’s poetry, where no one is expected to move on, and everything is suffused with heartache and nostalgia for what has gone before. Most satisfyingly mournful of all is ‘A Shropshire Lad’, and its sighing evocation of ‘those blue remembered hills’: ‘That is the land of lost content,/ I see it shining plain,/ The happy highways where I went/ And cannot come again.’

But if Housman’s poetry is an epitome of melancholic longing, the truth of his life (if such a thing can be said to exist) was rather more complicated. Certainly, he displayed a steadfast refusal to let go of the past, but it was a past that never quite existed. Housman was not a Shropshire lad – he came from Worcestershire, studied at Oxford, and settled in Cambridge – and unlike the protagonists of his narrative, who spend their time fighting, drinking, courting and killing, the poet was a reticent Classics professor. True, he suffered the pains of unrequited love – for Moses Jackson, previously an Oxford contemporary, who subsequently married and moved to India – and appears never to have shifted his affections elsewhere. Forty years after their separation, when Jackson was dying of cancer, Housman wrote to him to say, ‘I am an eminent bloke; though I would much rather have followed you round the world and blacked your boots.’

Globetrotting, however, seems not to have been a pursuit that Housman wished to follow. After Oxford, he and Jackson shared lodgings in London; thereafter, when Jackson moved on, Housman moved into academia (‘those minute and pedantic studies in which I am fitted to excel’). His meticulous scholarship forms a measured counterpoint to his haunting outbursts of poetry; though it is the latter that acts as a surprisingly effective antidote to prolonged bouts of regret. For it seems to me easier to relinquish the past – that luxuriant, imaginary, shape-shifting landscape -- after retreating and returning from those blue remembered hills.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

In Rebecca's footsteps

I'm really looking forward to returning to Port Eliot at the end of July for the Literary Festival. I'll be talking about 'Daphne', and walking in the estate, which is the closest you can get to Manderley, I think.
Just wrote a piece for the Times in their series of Literary Walks; the others are definitely worth reading: Ian Rankin in Edinburgh, Juliet Barker on Bronte country, and Andrew Lycett on Dylan Thomas's Wales.
Anyway, here's mine:

‘We can never go back again, that much is certain,’ wrote Daphne du Maurier in ‘Rebecca’, a novel that is nevertheless about returning (of the dead to the living, and to the places where they still live), which has inspired legions of devoted readers to retrace Rebecca’s footsteps. I count myself as one of those fans, and in the course of writing a book about Du Maurier – and Menabilly, the mysterious Cornish mansion that inspired Manderley – I have been walking the same paths as she did, trying to follow the shadows of ghosts that haunt her landscape.

It is not easy to pin down Daphne du Maurier, the most secretive and reclusive of women; which is perhaps why she fell in love with Menabilly, a house on the south coast of Cornwall, hidden from the outside world and encircled by dense forest; or as she described it, ‘a jewel in the hollow of a hand’. Du Maurier first discovered Menabilly in the autumn of 1927, when it was abandoned and falling into ruin. She was 20, the second daughter of a handsome matinee idol, Sir Gerald du Maurier, and still living at home in Cannon Hall, a grand Hampstead house that hosted the celebrated theatrical stars of the era. But Daphne had already declared that her heart belonged to Cornwall, soon after her father bought Ferryside, a waterside house in Boddinick, sheltered on the wooded side of the Fowey estuary where the du Mauriers holidayed with their friends.

Fowey has become more fashionable than it was eighty years ago – there are chic little shops and boutique hotels overlooking the harbour – but it still has a fairytale air, its narrow streets curving beneath the towers of Place, the gothic mansion owned by the Treffry family that stands on a hill, surrounded by high stone walls. This is the nearest town to Menabilly, and Du Maurier devotees arrive here for its annual literary festival, many of them hoping for a glimpse of the setting of ‘Rebecca’; though the mansion is as inaccessible as it was when the writer first set out to find it, as a trespasser who lost her way. Menabilly remains closed to the public now, as it has always been – it is the home of the Rashleigh family, who have owned the estate for the last 800 years – but there is a footpath at the margins of the grounds, crossing close to the long, overgrown drive that Du Maurier was to describe in the opening of ‘Rebecca’ (‘a muddied path, leading nowhere, and the shrubs, green no longer but a shrouding black…’).

The overgrown rhododendrons and tangled brambles still beat back the most intrepid of intruders, just as they did when Du Maurier made her initial attempt to follow the serpentine twists of the drive; but she eventually found her way to Menabilly by the coastal path, clambering up from the rocky beach that she was to make famous as the place where Rebecca drowned and rose again. Du Maurier fell in love with the house in an instant, yet with a passion that would last a lifetime; for Menabilly appeared to her to be “the sleeping beauty of the fairy tale, [waiting] until someone should come to wake her... She was, or so it seemed to me, bathed in a strange mystery. She held a secret – not one, not two, but many – that she withheld from many people but would give to one who loved her well.”

If Du Maurier saw herself as waking Menabilly, then the house also awakened something within her. It provided the atmospheric Cornish setting for subsequent period novels – ‘The King’s General’ and ‘My Cousin Rachel’ – and when Hitchcock directed the film version of ‘Rebecca’, he observed that Du Maurier’s story was of two women, one man, and a house, and of these four central characters, the house was the dominant presence.

It therefore seems appropriate that Du Maurier used the money she made from ‘Rebecca’ – a book which still attracts legions of new fans, over seventy years after its publication in 1938 – to lease Menabilly in August 1943; and although she could never make it her own (it was entailed to the Rashleighs, who reclaimed it in the 1960s), much of her fortune went on renovating it, to keep its walls safe from the strangling ivy and encroaching fingers of wild creepers. Thus Menabilly was the house that Rebecca rebuilt, and also the place to which Rebecca returned, when Du Maurier felt herself to be haunted by the ghost of her famous fictional creation; an episode in her life that seems powerfully emblematic of her ability as a writer to blend fiction and fact into a landscape that readers can go back to, over and over again.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

The Closet Thinker...

... is thinking about bandage dresses in today's Sunday Telegraph.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

It's my birthday...

... and in previous years, I have celebrated midsummer's eve on wild and windy beaches (the one above was in west Wales). This year, however, after the most turbulent of times, I shall be at home, eating cake and drinking champagne. But what should I be reading in bed tonight?