Friday, 30 September 2011

FRIDAY BOOK REVIEW: The Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen

The first of my regular Friday book reviews. There'll be a mix of paperbacks and hardbacks, old and new, grown-ups and children's reads - so watch this space every Friday.

Back in the 1980s Bella Pollen was one of Princess Diana’s favourite designers, famed for her sharply-cut jackets in jewel-bright colours.

Then she decided fashion wasn’t for her and switched to writing novels instead. Over the years she’s written about everything from aristocrats to the Arizona desert, but her fifth novel is the compelling story of a family rocked by loss and bereavement during the Cold War.

The Summer of the Bear begins in the summer of 1979, when diplomat Nicky Fleming falls to his death from the roof of the British embassy in Bonn. Struggling to come to terms with her loss and unable to believe whispers that he killed himself after betraying his country, his widow Letty takes their three children back to the desolate Hebridean island where she grew up.

But as Letty seeks to unravel the secrets behind Nicky’s death she’s oblivious to her children’s anguish. At one point she observes that they don’t seem like a family any more – “more like a collection of damaged souls.”

Pollen is brilliant at portraying the bewilderment of the Fleming children. First they have to cope with losing their father, then they’re uprooted to a windswept isle where locals serve up a delicacy of seaweed and boiled milk (ugh) and electricity is considered “a mysterious foreign game recently adopted as the island’s national sport.”

Bookish 17-year-old Georgie is preoccupied with trying to uncover the truth behind her father’s puzzling last trip to East Berlin while her younger sister Alba has become a prickly 14-year-old who’s shockingly spiteful to her siblings.

But it’s eight-year-old Jamie who’s the emotional heart of the book. An adorable little boy who takes everything literally, he believes the father he worshipped is “lost,” not dead, and will eventually return. On the day he died his father had promised to take him to the circus so when a tame grizzly bear escapes from his wrestler owner on the island, Jamie is inextricably drawn to the beast – with calamitous results.

The novel shifts back and forth between East and West Germany and the Outer Hebrides, where Pollen spent her childhood summers. Narrated by each character in turn, including the bear himself, it’s a gentle, haunting tale and highly recommended.

The Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen (Pan, £7.99)

PS: I’ve just got back from a great talk by Bella Pollen and Kay Burley at the Henley Literary Festival so will blog all about it soon.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Pining for France – and worrying about the dormouse in the attic

Six weeks after leaving the House With No Name in friends' capable hands, I’m pining for my tumbledown farmhouse in the middle of rural France.

I’m worried about the fate of the loir, the sweet-looking dormouse that kept us awake scratching in the attic all night. Will it have outwitted Monsieur Noel, the charming pest man, or will it have departed this world once and for all? I’m anxious that our neighbours might have taken offence because I dropped a canapé they gave me in a plant pot when they weren’t looking and I'm fretting that the dodgy roof of the adjoining barn might have collapsed.

But most of all I’m missing the way of life in the Drôme, the unspoiled region between the Rhône Valley and the foothills of the Alps I fell in love with six years ago. It isn’t half as famous as Provence, its southern neighbour, but the countryside is far greener and more lush, with majestic crags and limestone cliffs that tower over the landscape.

If I was there now I'd be looking forward to the bustling Friday morning market at Dieulefit, where we buy freshly-baked bread, fruit and vegetables. The name Dieulefit comes from the saying Dieu l’a fait (God made it) and the area's known for its clean air and artistic connections. Artists and ceramicists flock to sell their work at the market – from pretty watercolours to hand-thrown plates the Conran Shop would give its eye-teeth for.

My other favourite places are the village of Saou (above), with its shady square and restaurant under the trees, and the ski resort of Col de Rousset. Not because I like skiing, mind you, but because in the summer months you can take the chairlift to the top, hire mini-scooters and helmets and whiz down the mountainside. Typically, my daredevil teenage son loves zooming down the red run at breakneck speed so much that he does it four times on the trot.

Then there are the villages perchés, the tiny hilltop villages perched high above the surrounding countryside. Le Poët-Laval, where an order of 12th Century knights kept watch from their fortified keep, is one of the most beautiful. After climbing to the top to admire the view across sunlit fields of lavender we stop for tea and homemade lemon cake at La Bouquinnerie, the charming café and second-hand bookshop halfway down.

I need to go back...

PS: If you would like to subscribe to House With No Name and have the blog wirelessly delivered to your Kindle, it's now available here.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Forget happiness lessons - five things that make me happy

The news that children are being taught how to be happy made me unutterably depressed. Lots of schools across the country (Wellington College in Berkshire for one) are already giving happiness lessons – to help pupils banish pessimistic thoughts and cope with whatever life throws at them.

I know the summer's nearly over (apart from the current mini heatwave) and the economy's a mess – but surely things aren’t so dire that we need happiness lessons? At the risk of sounding like Pollyanna, the little girl in the children’s story who melted the heart of her embittered old aunt by finding a silver lining in every cloud, I’ve come up with a list of five things that have made me smile recently:

1. My daughter’s face when the publicists at Lauren Kate’s book launch asked her to pose with two bare-chested waiters wearing bow-ties and wings.

2. My son’s face when I promised to take him biking again in Gloucestershire at the weekend. The downside is that while he leaps off sky-high ramps, I’ll sit in the car and try not to look.

3. Nails Inc's divine Porchester Square nail polish. It's a sort of beigy grey and makes even my nails look good. Which after a lifetime of typing is quite a feat.

4. The prospect of reading The Affair, Lee Child’s new Jack Reacher book. It’s out tomorrow (Thursday September 29) and I can’t wait... By the way, can you believe that Tom Cruise is going to be playing the maverick ex-army cop in One Shot, the forthcoming movie of the ninth Jack Reacher novel? No, me neither.

5. The news that House With No Name has been nominated for the Cosmo Blog Awards 2011. There’s still time to vote here – and I’d be thrilled if you would. Enter your email address and then select the Lifestyle Blog with Handpicked Media category. Click on House With No Name, then on Vote. Thank you so so much.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

A party to celebrate novelist Lauren Kate's mega-selling Fallen series

Lauren Kate with two winged waiters. Image by Emma Davies.

The party to celebrate the success of Lauren Kate’s mega-selling Fallen series was never going to be just any old Monday night bash. Hosted at Proud in Camden (my teenage daughter says it's one of the coolest clubs in London) – it boasted winged waiters, scarlet petals strewn across the floor and a mannequin adorned in a gothic floor-length black satin gown.

With sales of Fallen, Torment and Passion, the first three books in the series, approaching a million copies in the UK, Australia and New Zealand alone, the mood was upbeat. Lauren Kate, a tall, slender American in a short strapless dress, made the evening even more memorable by reading an extract from the prologue of the fourth and final book, Rapture, which is due out in June next year (2012). Lauren has just finished the first draft and the contents are so top secret that all the guests – bloggers, hacks and publishers alike – were sworn to secrecy.

If you’re one of the few who haven’t discovered the Fallen series yet, they make a refreshing change in a genre dominated by Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books. Aimed at teenagers but read by loads of older readers too, the darkly compelling series follows the passionate love story of Luce and her fallen angel boyfriend Daniel back and forth across five thousand years of history.

When I got the chance to talk to Lauren I asked if she’d been surprised by the books’ massive success. “It’s insane,” she smiled. “I’m surprised every day. I really wasn’t expecting it. But pretty quickly after they were published I was getting emails from people all around the world saying how much they were loving the books.”

After her current UK tour, Lauren will fly home to Los Angeles to put the final touches to Rapture. Then in January she will start a brand-new trilogy – again top secret, but which she revealed will have “no angels and no vampires.”

“The first chapter is always hard to do,” she admitted. “But I sit down and write half a chapter a day and don’t worry about it or let myself revise it all until the end.”

Like millions of fans across the world, I can't wait.

STOP PRESS: Random House Children's Books have just announced that an additional new novel set in the world of the Fallen series will be published on February 2 next year (2012), just in time for Valentine's Day. Titled Fallen in Love, it is described as "a riveting collection of four intertwined love stories featuring the Fallen characters that fans have grown to know and love - Miles, Shelby, Roland, Arriane and Luce and Daniel."

Sunday, 25 September 2011

The gym is as boring as I thought it would be

Sport is like Marmite. You either love it or hate it. I won a running race at primary school once and reached the heady heights of the netball team a few times but that’s the extent of my sporting prowess. Until recently, that is. My teenage daughter suddenly decided to join the local gym – run by the council, incidentally, and far better value than a posh one. After a few sessions though, she declared it would be much more fun if we went together. I was horrified and refused point-blank - except that she went on and on about it so much that eventually I gave in.

The gym staff insisted I had an induction session to discuss what I wanted to achieve (their words not mine). “Not that much” was my response. As they explained the minutiae of the treadmill, exercise bike, cross-trainer and other scary-looking machines, I glanced around at the other members, all honed and bronzed and with legs up to their armpits. “I’m worried that I’m going to be the oldest person here,” I told the instructor, who looked about twelve. “Oh, don’t worry about that,” he said airily. “Our oldest member is eighty-five.”

What to wear was the next problem. I picked out an old T-shirt, some £5 jogging bottoms from Sainsbury’s that I bought for my son years ago and he refused to wear - and a pair of plimsolls that had seen better days. “You look completely ridiculous,” said my daughter. She was so embarrassed to be seen with me that she frogmarched me straight to a sports shop and made me buy some proper trainers. Next she persuaded me to order some chic Sweaty Betty trousers. The only trouble is that the dreadful joggers are far more comfy.

So what have I learned after two weeks of my new keep-fit regime? Mainly that the gym is just as boring as I thought it would be. In fact it is so tedious that I’ve resorted to planning it around TV programmes I want to watch. The upshot is that I’m no fitter than when I started (mainly, says my daughter, because, I don’t “push myself enough”), but I’m very well up on the news.

PS: I haven’t spotted any eighty-five year olds pounding away on the treadmill. Either the instructor was fibbing or the gym has had such a stupendous effect that the eighty-five year old looks twenty-five.

PPS: COMING SOON - Starting this week, I’m featuring a book review on House With No Name every Friday. So if you love books and are looking for new reads – or if you’ve read something fantastic and want to recommend it – I’d love to hear from you.

Friday, 23 September 2011

How to write a novel - tips from Daisy Goodwin

“If you want to write a novel, it’s never too late...”

Those were the inspiring words from TV producer and novelist Daisy Goodwin when she gave the annual (and free) creative writing lecture at Oxford Brookes University last night (September 22). It was the first day of term for the university's new creative writing students, who scribbled frantically in their notebooks and tapped away on laptops as she spoke.

Over the next hour Daisy proceeded to give such great advice to the scores of would-be novelists in the audience that she should probably turn it into a book. Or, considering she’s the creative genius behind a string of hit TV shows (from Grand Designs to The Nation’s Favourite Poems), make it into a TV series.

Daisy started her writing career at the age of 43 with Silver River, a family memoir, before turning out her bestselling novel, My Last Duchess. She’s now in the throes of writing her second novel and admitted she feels “very much a novice” in the writing stakes. But many of the lessons she learned from working in TV are applicable to the art of novel writing too. She’s learned, for instance, that “the audience is king. You have to grab them and make sure they don’t go anywhere else. Your first chapter is all-important and you have to sell your book on the quality of your prose.”

She also reckoned that series like Grand Designs have a “novelistic format,” which she gleaned a lot from. The Grand Designs programmes start in a muddy field with people talking about their hopes and dreams. Midway through, the protagonists are still standing in a muddy field and at each other’s throats, but by the end of it all they have a wonderful house. “Along the way they have risk, drama, jeopardy, caravans and screaming kids,” she said, “but people watch the programme for the fairy tale ending, the moment when it’s clear that all the suffering has been worthwhile.”

At the end of the talk, Daisy, resplendent in a scarlet dress and mostly speaking without notes, reeled off a list of valuable tips on writing fiction.

1. Read, read, read. You can’t read too much.

2. Find a subject that fascinates you and that you are excited about.

3. Hard work and stamina are essential. Write 1,000 words a day. “That is the minimum,” she said. “If I can do it, you can. It’s tough but it’s true.”

4. Don’t give up the day job (or certainly not until you’ve had at least three books published.)

5. Don’t immediately show what you’ve written to “your partner, spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend or dog.”

6. Don’t worry that your novel isn’t all plotted out. Just keep going. Get to the end - and then go back and write a second draft.

7. Remember a book is never going to be perfect or finished. Even now, she said, when she gives readings, she pulls out adverbs and tightens up construction as she goes along.

8. Most importantly, she concluded, “if you want to do something, you can. You can realise your creative dreams.”

Thursday, 22 September 2011

The day my daughter admired Cheryl Cole's shoes

“Good for Cheryl.” That was my instant reaction to the news that TV critics have given Cheryl Cole’s fleeting performance in The X Factor USA the thumbs-up.

US reviewers saw previews of the opening episode before it aired this week and reckoned she was a better judge than her replacement, Pussycat Dolls singer Nicole Scherzinger.

After her bout of malaria, her marriage break-up and then her ignominious exit from the American version of the X Factor, it’s about time something went right for Cheryl. The US critics’ verdict might be small comfort but at least their reviews show Simon Cowell was wrong to ditch her. And definitely wrong to ditch her in such a humiliatingly public way.

Here in the UK, Cheryl always seemed the most genuine X Factor judge – the only one who knew what it was like to go from Geordie wannabe to global superstar in the space of a few years. My daughter queued for two hours in the rain to be in the X Factor audience last year and said that Cheryl was by far the nicest judge. When the judging panel swept out of the tiny studio during the ad breaks, it was Cheryl who smiled and bantered with the audience. “Dannii and Louis completely ignored us,” my young mole told me. “Simon winked at us and when my friend said to Cheryl ‘I love your shoes,’ Cheryl stopped and said ‘thank you.’”

PS: I still haven't recovered from the excitement of being shortlisted for the Cosmo Blog Awards (please vote for House With No Name!) I had a fantastic evening last night reading lots of the other contenders and thanks to Miss Thrifty’s blog discovered that George at ASDA has a new Barbara Hulanicki collection. The clothes look great and made me reminisce about my childhood, when no trip to London was complete without a trip to Biba, Barbara Hulanicki’s amazing shop in Kensington. Stepping inside Biba was like being transported into an Aladdin’s cave full of sludgy-coloured T-shirts, suede over-the-knee boots, little cloche hats and tiny pots of eye shadow stamped with Barbara Hulanicki’s swirly gold logo. It was my favourite shop ever.

PPS: Twitter is brilliant for seeking expert advice. I’m the world’s worst photographer and needed to buy a camera that was good value and idiot-proof. When I appealed for help on Twitter, several people recommended the Nikon Coolpix S3100. I headed straight round to Curry’s and da-da, the picture above, taken on a walk in the Oxfordshire countryside, is my first effort.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Book review - The Ugly Sister by Jane Fallon

If you haven’t discovered Jane Fallon’s books yet, then trust me, you’re in for a treat.

Her first, Getting Rid of Matthew, was touching, pacy and made me laugh out loud. While many heroines have a burning ambition to find a man, this one featured a woman who is desperate to ditch hers. She tries everything to convince her married lover that she’s had enough of him and his dirty laundry, from not brushing her teeth (eek!) to (double eek!) leaving incontinence pads scattered around the bathroom.

Fallon’s fourth novel, The Ugly Sister, is out next week and tackles the thorny issues of beauty and ageing. It tells the tale of two sisters who were once close but have drifted apart. Cleo, the elder, is one of those annoying women who seems to have it all. She’s a stunning supermodel who was spotted by a model agency scout at the age of 16 and has never looked back. She’s got a lovely husband, two daughters and a luxurious, four-storey house in Primrose Hill.

Younger sister Abi, on the other hand, has spent her entire life in Cleo’s shadow. A single mum who works as a librarian and struggles to make ends meet, she’s astonished when out of the blue Cleo invites her to stay for the summer. The sisters have led separate lives for 20 years and Abi, whose daughter has just set off on her gap year, reckons this may be the chance to rebuild their once close relationship.

But as Fallon reveals, Cleo’s life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Her career’s on the slide, her marriage is far from love’s young dream and her children are spoiled rotten. So much so that the ten year old refuses to travel on the tube and expects to be waited on hand and foot.

Jane Fallon's partner is Ricky Gervais, and before turning to novels, she was the award-winning producer behind TV shows like This Life, Teachers and 20 Things To Do Before You’re 30. The Ugly Sister isn’t quite as sharp and witty as her first novel, but it’s an entertaining read all the same. It zips along and has some perceptive insights into sibling rivalry. As Fallon herself says: "Sibling rivalry is a classic forum for drama and storytelling. We all have such conflicted and complex feelings about our families, even those of us who have grown up in a happy, loving nuclear set-up."

The Ugly Sister by Jane Fallon is published by Penguin at £7.99

PS: The film of I Don’t Know How She Does It has managed to irritate virtually every woman I know. Stay-at-home mums are furious at being portrayed as smug know-it-alls who bake cakes and spend their days at the gym. Working mums are livid at the way Sarah Jessica Parker (aka hot-shot financier Kate Reddy) arrives at the office with porridge on her lapel, nits in her hair and reminders for her son’s birthday party scrawled across her hand. And career women are fed up at being stereotyped as humourless workaholics who insist they don’t want children. In fact the only thing I liked about the adaptation of Allison Pearson’s 2002 novel was SJP’s divine Mulberry handbag.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Cosmo Blog Awards 2011 - House With No Name is shortlisted!

Today started off like any other day. Morning traffic trundling past the window at a snail’s pace. Son crunching his way through a bowl of Golden Grahams before school. Me trying to think of 101 reasons not to go to the gym – I signed up at a new one last week, nodded enthusiastically through my induction session and, er, haven’t set foot in the place since.

Then something brilliant happened. I discovered that House With No Name has been shortlisted for the Cosmopolitan Blog Awards 2011!

I’m still in shock but thank you so much to everyone who nominated me. I love blogging and am completely over the moon to have been shortlisted.

House With No Name is in the Lifestyle category – alongside some fantastic blogs. If you’d like to vote for me, I’d be very thrilled and incredibly grateful. To vote please click here. You need to enter your email address, then select the Lifestyle Blog with Handpicked Media category. Click on House With No Name and then on Vote.

A big thank you again – and good luck to all the shortlisted blogs!

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Romantic novelists Katie Fforde and Kate Lace at the Chiswick Book Festival

I adore literary festivals. So I was over the moon when the organisers of the Chiswick Book Festival asked me to chair a talk on romantic fiction by bestselling writers Katie Fforde and Kate Lace. The session was called My Big Fat Summer of Love (an amalgam of their two latest titles – Summer of Love by Katie Fforde and Gypsy Wedding by Kate Lace) and covered everything from how they began their illustrious careers to their own favourite romantic novels.

The pair, who are great friends, were fun, informative and inspiring. They’ve both chaired the Romantic Novelists’ Association in the past (indeed, Katie is now president), and several members of the audience were so enthused that they came up at the end and asked how they could join.

The writers began the afternoon by telling the audience about their roads to publication. Kate Fforde said that when her children were little she had a “serious Mills & Boon addiction" – one book a day in fact – and decided to have a go at writing one herself. In the end she wasn’t published by Mills & Boon but it was a fantastic way to learn her craft. She hasn’t looked back since her first novel, Living Dangerously, was published in 1995. She also praised the “hugely supportive” RNA. Meanwhile Kate Lace began writing as a young army wife with three small children, first writing for an magazine for army wives, then non-fiction, including Gumboots and Pearls about life as an army wife, before turning to fiction.

They also discussed exactly what makes a good romantic novel. Katie reckons that the key is to create “a believable love story,” and stressed that the happy ending must be “credible,” while Kate said that there must be some “grit in the oyster.” When it comes to planning novels, Kate said she knows where her books are going to start and finish, but doesn’t tend to plot everything in advance. Katie reckoned that if you plan too much, you’ve already told the story and “sort of lose interest.”

They both start work early – Katie is on Twitter at the crack of dawn but then concentrates on writing for the rest of the day. Kate works from 9am till The Archers starts at five past seven. Kate said that “scary deadlines” keep her nose to the grindstone, but Katie emphasised that it's important to take time to think about her characters and where they are going. Sometimes her best ideas emerge when she’s gardening or cooking.

They’re both voracious readers, but asked about their own favourite romantic novels, chose utterly different titles. Katie adores Georgette Heyer while Kate reckons Tolstoy’s War and Peace is the “absolute best love story” she’s ever read.

Finally, the two writers gave us a tantalising hint of the treats we’ve got in store. Katie’s next book is called Recipe for Love and is set in a TV cookery competition (it will be out next year) and she’s currently researching another one set in the world of antiques. Meanwhile Kate is busy writing about the glamorous world of rowing. Watching handsome, Lycra-clad rowers in action, she added, is no hardship at all.

PS: Actress Isla Blair is one of the loveliest people I’ve ever interviewed. I spent a day at her house years ago with a stylist and photographer for a Country Homes & Interiors profile. The following session at the Chiswick Book Festival featured Isla talking to her son Jamie Glover, the actor and director, about her new book. A Tiger’s Wedding tells of her childhood in India during the last days of the Raj and I can’t wait to read it.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Oxford - my favourite city

I’ve got a serious moving house habit. One that dates back to my childhood, when my father was in the RAF and we moved houses (sometimes countries) every year. I was always the new girl at school – the Billy No Mates who didn’t have a clue who to give my dinner money to or where to hang my PE bag.

It's a habit that's stuck. We’ve moved house an embarrassing 12 times in the last 25 years, and just like me, my children have been to a ridiculous number of schools. Friends who still use antiquated address books grumble that our page is a mess of crossings-out and ask why we can’t stay in one place for a while.

But now we live in Oxford, we might just do that. Samuel Johnson wrote that “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life” and I feel the same about Oxford. One of the most beguiling cities in the world, it’s got everything – fine architecture, breathtaking views and a reputation for academic excellence second to none.

It’s a city that’s always been associated with creativity, ideas and innovation. The best-known architects of their age designed some of the country’s most inspiring buildings here – from Sir Christopher Wren’s magnificent Sheldonian Theatre (above) to James Gibbs’s Radcliffe Camera, a domed library built to house medical and scientific books. Oxford has also inspired some of our greatest writers. Lewis Carroll, creator of Alice in Wonderland, was a mathematics don at Christ Church, the Inklings, a group of writers that included CS Lewis and JRR Tolkein, used to discuss their work in the Eagle and Child pub in St Giles and Matthew Arnold immortalised the city’s “dreaming spires.”

Oxford is renowned for doing things first. It boasts the UK’s oldest botanic garden, as well as the exquisitely-restored Ashmolean, the first public museum in the world. William Morris launched the UK’s first mass-produced car here in the 1920s and it was at Oxford’s Radcliffe Infirmary in 1941 that penicillin was first used on a patient, founding the science of antibiotics.

The city’s moved with the times too. Once renowned for its Brideshead Revisited image, it’s probably just as famous these days for Inspector Morse and BMW’s stylish Mini, which is manufactured at the company’s Cowley plant.

Perhaps the best thing about Oxford is the passion it inspires in tourists and residents alike. Crime doyenne PD James said that “the air buzzes with intellectual argument and laughter.” What more could you ask of a city?

My favourite restaurant - Quod, 92-94 High Street, Oxford.
My favourite cinema - Phoenix Picturehouse, 57 Walton Street, Oxford.
My favourite pub - The Trout, Godstow Road, Wolvercote, Oxford.
My favourite bookshop - Blackwell's, 48-51 Broad Street, Oxford.
My favourite place for coffee - The Grand Cafe, 84 High Street, Oxford.
My favourite walk - A stroll through University Parks or across Port Meadow.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Baking, learning Welsh and hill-walking - the Duchess of Cambridge's new life

“Lonely Kate moves Pippa in.” That’s the headline emblazoned in pink and white lettering across the cover of this week’s Grazia magazine. The story inside claims that while Prince William works all hours as an RAF search and rescue pilot, his bride is becoming “increasingly isolated and bored” at home in remote North Wales.

I’ve no idea how accurate the report is but if it’s true then I’m not surprised she’s fed up. Apparently she fills the lonely hours by baking, learning Welsh and hill-walking. Not the most scintillating pastimes for a 49-year-old, let alone a young woman of 29.

Palace aides are reportedly so concerned that Kate’s lifestyle is too middle-aged that the magazine says the royal couple have decided she’ll spend every other week in London – with her sister Pippa by her side.

Marrying into the Royal Family can’t be easy but since Kate is talented, clever (she’s got a 2:1 art history degree from St Andrew’s University) and personable I don’t understand why she doesn’t work. As Noel Coward once said, work is “more fun than fun,” and if Kate had more to occupy her days I bet she’d be more fulfilled.

Seasoned royal watchers often remark that it’s impossible to combine a royal role with a career, but William and Harry seem to manage just fine. And Princess Anne’s children, Peter and Zara Phillips, too. But if Kate really can’t find a career that uses her skills, then why doesn’t she roll up her sleeves and throw herself into full-time charity work? She wouldn’t have time to be bored.

PS: The new film of Jane Eyre (above) is a triumph from start to finish. Australian actress Mia Wasikowska is brilliant as Charlotte Bronte’s eponymous heroine, plain and mouse-like one minute, passionate and brave the next, while Michael Fassbender is the best Mr Rochester I’ve seen in years. The real star of the show, however, is the wild, windswept Derbyshire landscape. Gazing at the majestic moors and high stone crags made me want to move north on the spot.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Life and Fate on Radio 4's Start the Week - and bumping into an old friend

Another upside of working from home (see previous blog), is that every now and again you can escape from work without a grumpy boss raising an eyebrow.

So yesterday I walked to St Peter’s College in Oxford to listen to a special recording of Andrew Marr’s Start the Week. The beautiful Victorian chapel was packed to the gunnels for the event, one of a series of discussions to mark Radio 4’s forthcoming dramatisation of Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman. It promises to be one of the must-listens of the year, with Kenneth Branagh and David Tennant starring, yet I’m ashamed to admit that until this week I barely knew anything about Grossman.

But as Marr (shorter and more dapper in real life than I’d expected) and his guests – historian Antony Beevor and writers Linda Grant and Andrey Kurkov – revealed, Grossman’s story is a tragic, but fascinating one.

Scientist turned writer Grossman was a formidable journalist. Writing for Red Star, the Red Army’s newspaper, he wrote eyewitness accounts of the Soviet retreat, the defence of Stalingrad and the fall of Berlin. He was also the first journalist to reach the hideous Nazi concentration camp of Treblinka.

After the Second World War, he became increasingly critical of the Stalinist regime. In the early 1960s, after he submitted Life and Fate for publication, Politburo ideology chief Mikhail Suslov decided it could be published – but not for 200 years. KGB officers raided Grossman’s flat and seized the manuscript, copying paper and even his typewriter ribbons. Grossman died in 1964 assuming that nobody would ever read his novel. Actually, it turned out later that he’d given a copy to a friend and a network of dissidents managed to smuggle it out of the country.

Many critics now compare Life and Fate, the history of a nation told through one family’s eyes, to War and Peace. In fact Linda Grant told the Oxford audience that she’d not only failed to finish War and Peace but that she reckons Life and Fate is a better novel. That was enough for me. After the talk I dashed straight round to Blackwell’s in Broad Street to buy a copy. Not only that, when the Radio 4 dramatisation starts on September 18 I’m going to be glued to the radio. Meanwhile you can hear the Start the Week debate on Monday at 9am.

PS: “That’s funny,” I thought as I headed home along a packed Cornmarket. “From the back that man walks just like my old friend Pete Davies. He’s got exactly the same long stride and laid-back manner.” Pete and I were at school together but he lives 200 miles away in Yorkshire and I haven’t seen him for 15 years. The closer I got the more extraordinary the likeness of his walk seemed. I shouted “Pete” in a discreet way, just in case the man turned out to be a complete stranger. And guess what? The man turned round in puzzlement, glanced at me and glanced again. Slowly recognition dawned on his face. It was Pete!

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Working from home, Brora and memories of Lancashire

Sitting in my study watching the Oxford traffic trundle past my window (above), I yearn to work in a sleek sky-scraper, with a state-of-the-art coffee machine, decent photocopier and the buzz of working alongside other people. There are lots of brilliant things about working from home – no commuting, no boss breathing down my neck and, until my children turned into ultra-independent teenagers, no last-minute panics when they were off school.

But I hate the solitude, the people who assume that just because you’re at home you’re lolling around doing nothing all day and in the winter months, the cold. Even though it’s only September, I’ve been so freezing this week that I’ve already started wearing my cosy Brora fingerless gloves in my office every day.

Even so, it’s nothing compared to the three years we spent living in a draughty farmhouse in the wilds of Lancashire. Our north-facing house was perched on the side of a hill and all we could see were fields and sheep. It was stunning but even in summer the temperature was always a few degrees lower than anywhere else. I frequently set off to collect my daughter from school wrapped in a thick coat and scarf to find everyone else basking in bright sunshine. The gales that whistled round the side of the house sounded like someone was being murdered and had to be heard to be believed. The sheep had to be stark, raving desperate to venture as far as the field next to us.

The house, which we rented from an aristocratic landowner, didn’t have any central heating at all so we had to light open fires all year round. We got through so much coal that Mr Wilkinson, the tough, no-nonsense driver who battled the wind, rain and snow to deliver our fuel, declared we were his very best customers. When I rang one Christmas to order yet more coal, I asked his wife how much we’d need to see us through until the New Year. “Tell her a wagon-load,” chuckled Mr Wilkinson from the background.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Sam Cam's shoes

Samantha Cameron always looks stylish, even when she’s watching the Highland Games at Braemar. She has glossy hair that’s never out of place, a high-flying career at Smythson and has transformed Number Ten into a house that looks straight out of The World of Interiors.

Now, if that wasn’t enough, she’s proved she really is Superwoman. Striding along the pavement on a mile-long walk from Downing Street in aid of Save the Children yesterday, she sported a pair of Topshop stilettos. Stilettos. With four and a half inch heels. On a walk. My admiration shows no bounds. In her shoes (no pun intended), I would have ditched the heels and plucked a pair of Converse or ballet pumps out of my bag.

I’m a complete failure in the high heel stakes. After a summer of wearing espadrilles and pumps I tried wearing my favourite (and usually blissfully comfortable) platforms. When I got out of the car I had to walk at such a snail’s pace that my husband got fed up with waiting and strode in without me. At the end of the evening I gave up the battle and walked back to the car park in bare feet. I’m worried I’ll never wear heels again. And at my height, that’s not a good look.

PS: Back in May, David Cameron asked Mary Queen of Shops, alias the wonderful Mary Portas, to carry out an independent review of the nation’s high streets – with a view to bringing back “the bustle” to our town centres.

If anyone can do it, Mary can, but I wish she’d persuade all shops to match the amazing customer service offered by John Lewis. Working from home, I look forward to a skinny latte every morning. So I was thrilled to discover a new Dualit gadget called a Lattecino to heat and froth the skimmed milk. It’s a great idea, except I’m now on my fifth. The first, bought from John Lewis in High Wycombe, stopped working after a few weeks. I took it back to John Lewis and they changed it without a murmur. And again. And again. And again. Four times in fact. How impressive is that?

I didn’t get such exemplary treatment at River Island today. The strap of my son’s bag snapped for no reason so I returned it to River Island, along with the receipt. The assistant took it to the manager’s office (he didn’t deign to talk to me) and told me there was nothing they could do. “It’s obviously had some wear and tear,” she said. Well yes. It’s a teenage boy’s school bag. Surely that doesn’t mean the strap should break without reason?

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Is four too young to start school?

September is the month of new school uniform, sharpened pencils, and melancholy that the long summer holidays are over for another year. With my son starting year 13 tomorrow, his last year of school, I’m feeling extra nostalgic. It seems no time at all since his very first day, when he was a small boy with white-blond hair, a uniform that was far too big for him and a wide grin.

Actually, looking back, I’m sure he started school far too young. His birthday is in August and he was exactly four years and three weeks old when he pitched up in the reception class of a primary school in North Yorkshire, where we lived at the time.

He was utterly bewildered to be plunged into the classroom when all he wanted to do was play outside. At play school in the village hall he’d resolutely refuse to sit still and write or draw, always rushing to ride around on toy cars or play in the sandpit. It would have suited him much better if we'd lived somehwre like Sweden, Denmark or Finland (a superstar performer when it comes to education), where formal school is delayed till the age of seven. Up until then, young children focus on “play-based” learning and spend as much time as possible outdoors.

A primary school teacher friend of mine has been telling me for years that children start school too young here. She reckons school is especially difficult for boys between the ages of four and six. They hate sitting still for long stretches, loathe colouring in endless worksheets (girls love it!) and would far rather be charging around the playground. She always makes sure her lot get plenty of time outside. Even on rainy days she sticks on her coat at the small primary where she teaches and everyone goes outside for 20 minutes to run off steam.

At 17, my son’s had more than enough time to get used to the notion of school – but as a boy who prefers action, he’s still not ultra-keen. Even now he’d rather be whizzing down hills on his bike than sitting in a classroom learning about protons and neutrons and memorising French verbs.

PS: The picture above shows him with his big sister at the age of seven, on a hearty Lake District climb.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Madonna and the secret of youth

From facelifts to Botox, we’re all preoccupied with capturing the smooth brows and wrinkle-free skin of our youth. None more so than Madonna, who appeared at the Venice Film Festival yesterday looking barely a year older than her Papa Don’t Preach days. Wearing a gorgeous butterfly Vionnet dress, sky-high scarlet stilettos and a slash of red lipstick, she could have passed for a decade younger than her 53 years. She swears blind it’s all down to her religion, Kabbalah, strict macrobiotic diet and even stricter exercise regime but I have my doubts. How many other 50-somethings have a complexion so silky, skin so unwrinkled and eyes so clear and bright?

I’m as obsessed about how I look as most women I know. I’m forever asking the lovely assistants at Space NK in Leamington Spa about new products to try, booking teeth-whitening and eyebrow-shaping sessions and seeking my teenage daughter’s advice on whether I look “old.”

But the one thing I draw the line at (metaphorically speaking) is cosmetic surgery. Why? Because after three scary eye operations there’s no way in a million years that I’d go under the knife just to look younger. At the risk of sounding “preachy,” surgery is intimidating enough when you need it – without going through the experience when you don’t have to.

Whether it’s actress Leslie Ash and her “trout pout” or the terrifying-looking Bride of Wittgenstein, the newspapers love reporting cosmetic surgery that hasn’t gone according to plan.

And it’s not just facelifts either. Botox terrifies me - even more so after a highly-respected beauty journalist wrote about a bad Botox experience that left her with terrible headaches, swollen eyelids and looking “like a train wreck.” When the effects finally wore off five months later, she said it was such a relief to get her smile back that she’d never have Botox again. I’d rather put up with a few wrinkles and lines than go through that.

PS: Madonna was in Venice for the premiere of WE, her second film as a director. And just to show you can’t have everything, the word from the critics is that, Andrea Riseborough’s superb performance as Wallis Simpson aside, it’s awful.

PPS: “I have been having a nostalgic day and am looking at some old photos tonight. You probably have the attached but they bring back lots of lovely memories so I thought you might like to see them again.” That’s the email that pinged into my inbox yesterday from my old friend (and my son’s adored godmother) Wendy Holden. The 80s picture above (showing me with fellow Evening Standard reporter Peter Gruner) was one of them and I laughed like a drain when I saw it. What on earth did I think I was wearing?

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