Wednesday, 26 October 2011

A walk around Tillypronie

Up in the Highlands last weekend, and around every corner was a blaze of glorious autumn colour. The rose garden was still filled with pink petals, and the Michaelmas daisies blooming in the borders, alongside the rose hips and hawthorn berries. The acer leaves seemed even more vivid than I've seen anywhere else before, and the heathers brighter than August (the last time I was at Tillypronie). I walked through long grasses on the hill, and jumped over a burn, then climbed breathless across heather, and down into the woods. All was quiet, as if in a silent dream, even the roe deer, standing motionless as statues, waiting for me to pass, and then leaping up, disappearing towards the skyline...

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Keep reading...

Here's a piece I wrote for Saturday's Telegraph on the latest wave of Chanel biographies... the picture (above) is by a wonderful photographer, Shahrokh Hatami, one of the few to come close to capturing Chanel...

Given that five was Coco Chanel’s lucky number – not least because she saw it as synonymous with her best-selling perfume – she might have been pleased, as well as amused, to see that she is the subject of a quintet of new books this autumn. As the author of a previous biography of Chanel, I should, perhaps, be dismayed at the arrival of competitors. I’d like to think that mine is the only book required by those in search of the truth about Chanel; but one of the many mysteries of Chanel – the most elusive of women – is that people seem always to want more of her, rather than less (which is itself an intriguing conundrum, given her legacy of streamlined modernism, in sartorial matters, if nothing else).

Of the various stories told about Coco Chanel – born Gabrielle, misidentified as Chasnel, the illegitimate daughter of an itinerant market trader, in a provincial French poorhouse in 1883 – a great number were invented by herself. These legends were to be the undoing of the earliest of her biographies (ghosted memoirs commissioned by Mademoiselle Chanel, but never completed or published, always smothered by her at birth when she realized that the truth was less compelling, at least to her, than the self-invented creation myth). They also permeate the recollections published after her death in 1971, including ‘L’Allure de Chanel’ by her friend Paul Morand, which repeats the fairytale that she was raised by aunts, in the wake of her mother’s death. In fact (not that facts are readily available to those seeking uncover the realities of her childhood), Chanel had been abandoned by her father, along with her two sisters, in an orphanage run by nuns at Aubazine, a medieval Cistercian abbey in an isolated region of Corr├Ęze. From these remote beginnings, via a shadowy period as seamstress, shop-girl, music-hall singer and mistress, Chanel made her way to Paris, and fame.

The fairytale remains sufficiently compelling for writers, as well as readers, to wish to make it their own; a myriad reinterpretations and variations, all of them woven out of Chanel’s raw material. Given the afterlife of her classic designs that still prevail in her own (now globally recognized) label, not to mention all the other brands, we should not be surprised; simply consider the lasting appeal and reinvention of her little black dresses, soft tweed jackets, chain straps on quilted handbags, stripy tops, pearls, camellias. Each of these can be linked to Chanel’s past: black as the colour of mourning, remade into a symbol of female independence; pearls akin to the rosary beads of the nuns that taught her to pray, and to sew; chains like the ones worn around their waists; white camellias in recognition of La Dame aux Camellias, the archetypal courtesan who died of consumption (as did her mother); tweed from the sporting garb of her lover, the Duke of Westminster; sailor stripes and trousers from her Riviera escapades.

So far this season, I have been reading these five new books, in between marvelling at the way Chanel’s language of fashion continues to shape the latest collections (just look at the Jazz Age dresses and Coco white collars atop black sweaters). Two are by serious academics: Amy de la Haye’s ‘Chanel: Couture and Industry’ (V&A Publishing) and Linda Simon’s ‘Coco Chanel’ (one of the Critical Lives series published by Reaktion); the author of the former is a professor at the London College of Fashion, the latter an English professor in New York, and both are an indication of the central status that Chanel occupies in the history and culture of the 20th century.

As for the others – Hal Vaughan’s headline grabbing account that depicts Chanel as a Nazi agent, Lisa Chaney’s ‘An Intimate Life’, and Isabelle Fiemeyer’s ‘Intimate Chanel’ – well, where to begin? I am not convinced by Vaughan’s interpretation of Intelligence sources (we have both spent much time researching military archives, but draw differing conclusions; my own view about Chanel’s wartime activities is somewhat less sensational than his, although I hope more subtle and nuanced). Of the two biographies that promise intimate truths, Chaney’s text is undeniably thorough, but Fiemeyer has the distinct advantage of having collaborated with Chanel’s closest surviving relative, her great niece Gabrielle Palasse-Labrunie, who knew her well.

Gabrielle the younger, born in 1926 (and rumoured by some to have been Chanel’s granddaughter; her father, Andre Palasse, officially Chanel’s nephew, was certainly as close as a son -- of which more in my book) was enormously helpful to me in my researches, and her memories and inheritance are displayed again here. The unhappiness of Chanel’s past is made clear – both of Coco’s sisters committed suicide, according to Madame Labrunie – but perhaps most intriguing of all are the photographs of the talismans that Chanel held most dear. If her life and work was shaped by magical signs and symbols (numerology, tarot, with the dead always close at hand), then some of her esotericism was passed on by her first great love, Boy Capel, as is evident in his handwritten notebook that she treasured after his death in a car-crash in 1919. This contains fragments from sacred texts – including theosophy, alchemy, Masonic secrets – and provides an intriguing context to Chanel’s jewellery collection, including the Egyptian medallion that she wore constantly and the child’s ring with which she was buried.

But in the end, however closely we may study these and other precious objects – and I wrote several chapters of my book surrounded by some of them, working at Chanel’s own desk in her private apartment – no one can ever fully possess Chanel, although she continues in her remarkable possession of us…

Monday, 24 October 2011

Daphne: The Guardian Reading Group discussion

I'll be online from 1 until 2pm today as part of the Guardian's Du Maurier discussion... Hope to chat to some of you there.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Autumn roses...

The temperature has dropped, but the sky is still blue over my garden, and I've been admiring the late flowers, whilst also giving the honeysuckle a gentle trim (its blossom is long gone, and the highest branches are looking bare and spindly). Every so often, the wind whips fast, and the last petals are blown away, quicker than I can capture them on camera (which makes me wonder if one should ever try to catch a rose), but then I notice another rosebud, on the verge of opening...
So I'm not feeling as apocalyptic as Emily Dickinson, but couldn't resist the temptation to quote her poetry (again).

The name—of it—is "Autumn"—
The hue—of it—is Blood—
An Artery—upon the Hill—
A Vein—along the Road—

Great Globules—in the Alleys—
And Oh, the Shower of Stain—
When Winds—upset the Basin—
And spill the Scarlet Rain—

It sprinkles Bonnets—far below—
It gathers ruddy Pools—
Then—eddies like a Rose—away—
Upon Vermilion Wheels—

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Rediscovering Daphne

Thanks to some thoughtful questions from Savidge Reads and Novel Insights, I've been absorbed in Du Maurier again. Excellent questions from Simon and Polly, and good to read along with their 'Discovering Daphne' blogs. They've taken me back to Menabilly again (and its ghosts, and mine), and from there down the track and through the tree to that cottage in the woods...

Sunday, 9 October 2011

And next to Norwich...

... where I am speaking on Tuesday at the Jarrolds Literary Lunch, alongside the distinguished Robert Shirley, 13th Earl Ferrers, and Susan Hill (whose writing is amongst the very best of contemporary authors; her brilliant ghost stories haunt me still -- they're as good as MR James or Daphne du Maurier. Her novel, 'In the Springtime of the Year' is also close to hand on my bookshelf, ever since I read it after my sister's death). Very pleased to be going to Jarrolds, an excellent department store that first opened in 1820 as a bookseller and lending library (for more about Jarrolds and other independents, read the Guardian guide here). Rather thrillingly, lunch is being held at Delia Smith's restaurant on the top floor of her Norwich City Football Club. Regular readers of this blog will know that I consider Delia's apple crumble recipe to be the best ever. And I'm also feeling inclined to try her autumn lamb recipe, now that it's colder outside...
PS. Later today. Inspired by Delia to have a baking afternoon: have made lemon cheesecake and a very dark gingerbread. The latter is my own recipe, adapted over the years, so I have no one to blame but myself if it isn't sufficiently gooey (I use black treacle, crystallised ginger, and spelt flour). If the lemon cheesecake works, then I'll post the recipe tomorrow; it has to be refrigerated overnight after baking, so the test will be in the tasting...
PPS. Just had the first slice of cheesecake -- delicious. Here is the recipe. I added far more lemon juice than suggested (the juice of two lemons, rather than a teaspoonful, as I like a properly lemony flavour; I also doubled the quantities for the biscuit base -- 85g of digestives, plus 85g ginger biscuits -- and substituted 150 grams of Greek yoghurt and 150 grams of half-fat creme fraiche for 300 grams of Philadelphia cheese, because I already had them in the fridge; in other words:
300g light soft cheese.
150g Greek yoghurt.
150g half-fat creme fraiche
175g golden caster sugar
3 tbsp cornflour
1½ tsp finely grated lemon zest
Juice from two lemons
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 eggs , room temperature, beaten
150g fromage frais

My cheesecake took twice as long to cook at the low temperature than in the recipe, but then everyone's oven is different... you'll know by the slight wobble!

Paris diary...

A brief, yet magical trip to Paris on Tuesday for the Chanel spring/summer 2012 show, which I loved. (Both the collection, and Paris.) Firstly, apologies for the dismal qualities of the pictures, which do no justice to the glorious scenes I saw; but I thought better to have snapshots than nothing at all. (For more professional pictures, look at This is what I loved most:
1. The pearls in the Chanel show; taken back to their underwater origins, as shimmering leit-motifs in the pale dreamscape of the vast Grand Palais. Pearls are, of course, as essential to the Chanel iconography as the little black dress (indeed, they are the clues to Gabrielle's childhood in the convent at Aubazine, where the nuns' rosaries look like the religious originals of the ropes of pearls that were to become an integral element of her codes as a couturiere). In Lagerfeld's hands, they were scattered through the models' hair, dotted in a graceful line descending from their necks, threaded into belts and buttons, embellishing bags and dresses and cardigans.
2. Place Vendome on a balmy evening in October; the last warm breath of a late Indian summer. Walking across the cobbles to the Ritz, and looking up in the darkness to the suite on the top floor, where Chanel lived in the 1930s -- imagining the nights when she entertained the Duke of Westminster, Winston Churchill, Dali, Picasso, et al. Wondering who slept there now, in the grandeur of the Coco Chanel suite...
3. Following Mademoiselle's footsteps to the discreet lift at the back of the Ritz, beside the Rue Cambon entrance, and up to the sixth floor, to the smaller room where she slept for three decades, until her death in January 1971. Stepping into that room, not for the first time, but perhaps for the last; savouring the moment, wanting it to last forever, yet knowing that nothing lasts, but it can evolve and change into something even more unexpected. Waiting for the next chapter to unfold...