Sunday, 30 October 2011

Laura Marling plays Birmingham Cathedral

Under a grey October sky we joined a queue stretching the length of Birmingham Cathedral and across the churchyard green.

Everyone in the line had snapped up tickets for the last day of Laura Marling’s For Whom the Bell Tolls tour (you had to be quick because they sold out in a trice) and the sense of excitement was palpable.

The tour has seen the singer play a series of gigs at cathedrals up and down the country. Whoever came up with the idea should be applauded because if the Birmingham concert was anything to go by, England’s cavernous cathedrals offer the perfect acoustics for Marling’s amazing voice and storytelling lyrics.

She played two Birmingham events, one at lunchtime and a second in the evening. We had seats near the back but it didn’t matter because Marling, a slight blonde figure playing acoustic guitar, commanded the entire place from start to finish. From the moment she arrived at the front and quietly said “I’m Laura,” we sat spellbound. There were no gimmicks, no accompanying musicians and barely any chat. Apart from a couple of anecdotes about her former days touring in a five-piece band stuffed (drum-kit and all) into a Ford KA, she kept everything simple – and just sang her heart out.

With three albums and the 2011 Brit award for best female solo artist to her name, it’s hard to believe that Marling is only 21. Just hearing her play some of my favourites, Night Terror, Goodbye England (Covered in Snow) and Sophia, made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. Every number she played was her own apart from a haunting cover of Jackson C Frank’s Blues Run the Game, which, she recalled, she used to listen to on a mix-tape driving home from concerts in the early days because she couldn’t afford to stay in a hotel.

I didn’t realise at the time but Marling never plays encores. It could be that the hundreds in the audience didn’t know either, or maybe they just couldn’t bear to accept it. As the final chords of Marling’s guitar faded away, the claps, cheers and foot-stamping sounded loud enough to raise the cathedral roof from its rafters. But with a quick shy smile and the lights catching the top of her blonde head, she was gone.

PS: Today’s Mail on Sunday reports that Pippa Middleton is close to signing a book deal on how to be the perfect party hostess. The Duchess of Cambridge’s sister already writes a blog on children’s parties for her parents’ mail-order business, Party Pieces, and apparently the book will have a tone similar to the blog. In a recent blog entry, says the MoS, Pippa advised: “The key to creating a wonderful party lies not in spending vast amounts but in planning – from choice of venue, entertainer and party theme to the selection of food, decorations and the birthday cake.” Talk about stating the blooming obvious. I’m sorry, Pippa, but you’re going to have to do a lot better than that...

Saturday, 29 October 2011

House With No Name Weekly Digest: From the dreaded dog debate to the glittering Cosmo Blog Awards

A Saturday round-up of the week at House With No Name

House With No Name Book Review: William Fiennes’s The Music Room
House With No Name Film Review: The Help
House With No Name Glamour: The party to celebrate the 2011 Cosmo Blog Awards
House With No Name Goes to the Dogs: The dreaded dog debate rears its fluffy head
House With No Name Lifestyle: Country or City? The best place to live

Friday, 28 October 2011

FRIDAY BOOK REVIEW - The Music Room by William Fiennes

I’m one of the judges for the first novel category of the Costa Book Awards this year - so I'm up to my eyes in books at the moment. For that reason, I’ve decided to steer clear of novels for this week’s Friday book recommendation and choose a non-fiction title instead.

The Music Room was published in paperback last year but I only read it a few weeks ago. I was completely bowled over by it, so bowled over in fact, that I chose it for my book club to read. The eight of us have got very different tastes and it’s not often that we all love the same book – but this was one of those rare occasions. It got the thumbs-up all round.

Two things inspired me to buy The Music Room. The first was hearing a moving interview with author William Fiennes and the second was the fact that it’s set at Broughton Castle, the Oxfordshire family home where Fiennes and his siblings grew up. I used to live a few miles from Broughton and know it well. I’ve walked from Broughton Castle across the fields to North Newington scores of times and whether it’s the height of summer or the depths of winter, the beauty of the landscape never palls.

In one sense The Music Room is the story of Fiennes’s own journey to adulthood and in another it’s the story of an ancestral home dating back 700 years. There’s a moat, gatehouse tower, woods and parkland, (the castle has featured in loads of films, from The Madness of King George to Shakespeare in Love) and it’s clear that running the place is a major undertaking. While Fiennes’s childhood friends lived in “warm, compact and efficient” houses, his home was full of historical exhibits, rattling windows and a ghostly long gallery he was scared to loiter in alone.

But the heart of the book is Fiennes’s older brother Richard, a charismatic figure with a passion for Leeds United, puns and herons. Eleven years older than William and severely epileptic, Richard was a towering presence in everyone’s life and as his mother kept repeating to them all after his death at the age of 41, “we are rich in what we have lost. We are rich.”

Beautifully written, tender and heartfelt, The Music Room is a stunning read.

The Music Room by William Fiennes (Picador, £8.99)

Thursday, 27 October 2011

The party to celebrate the Cosmo Blog Awards 2011

A pink cupcake, a gothic-looking ring, fake eyelashes, jelly beans and some blusher from the new beauty line by Nicola Roberts (aka the redhead in Girls Aloud).

It's been quite a while since my children used to bring home party bags, but I've forgotten how much fun they are - unless, of course, you're the hapless parent who has to organise them. I remember assembling healthy goody bags at my daughter's party one year, with miniature boxes of raisins, books and little jigsaws, and the guests were not impressed. But the treats listed above are just a few of the presents inside the glamorous goody bags we were given at the Cosmo Blog Awards celebration party.

I was thrilled to be shortlisted - and thank you so much to everyone who voted for House With No Name - but on the night the lifestyle award went to the talented Miss Thrifty.

The best thing about the evening though (apart from the bright pink Cosmopolitan cocktails), was the chance to meet some fantastic fellow bloggers. Kate Monro had two blogs shortlisted - BigGuySmallDog and The Virginity Project - while journalist Katie Byrne is the brains behind The Young Creatives, a blog that showcases the work of artists, writers, musicians and designers under 25. It was fantastic, too, to meet the lovely Marion Katrina from Rust and Gold Dust and the brilliant Olivia from The London Ladybird, whose blogs I subscribed to the moment I got home.

The bash, held at a club called 24 Kingly in London's West End, was glamorous, loud and lit in stylish pink. The only drawback was that I was easily the oldest blogger in town (even though I'm really not that old.) On the train home to Oxford, I texted my sister. "The party was great but I felt 103," I typed.

"I would have felt 153," she texted back.

PS: A list of all the winners can be seen here.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

The dreaded dog debate

Oh dear. The dreaded pet debate has raised its fluffy head again. My children’s young cousin is about to become the proud owner of a puppy and my usually laid-back teenagers are green with envy.

They claim they are deprived children because they’ve never owned a pet. Well, apart from a sickly goldfish in a polythene bag that my daughter won at a fair. It swam listlessly round its tank a few times, survived less than 24 hours and she never clamoured for another.

But dogs are different. Over the years they’ve come up with a host of arguments about having a puppy in the house. They’d call it Coco and promise faithfully they’d be in charge of feeding, washing and taking it for walks. My daughter’s stance isn’t at all convincing bearing in mind that we live in Oxford and she’s just moved into a student flat in Shoreditch, but still.

Deep down I know (and I reckon they do too) that there’s one person who’d end up on 24/7 dog duty - and that would be me. Several friends whose children faithfully promised to take sole charge of the family dog report the novelty wore off within weeks and then they were lumbered for life. Katie, a Lancashire pal who’s admittedly grown fond of her children’s Labrador, reckons the dog’s far more trouble than a baby. So far the puppy has chewed gaping holes in the sofa and Katie’s Nicole Farhi jacket, howls if she’s ever left on her own and as for training – hmmm, let’s just say there’s quite some way to go.

I still feel mean for not agreeing to my teenagers’ dearest wish though. And I wobbled a few years back when I discovered my son sadly herding a gang of snails (all named, of course) into a little enclosure outside the back door.

“I’m never going to have a pet so I’ve decided that these will have to do instead,” he said morosely.

Monday, 24 October 2011

The film of The Help is an out and out winner

My favourite books are the ones that make me laugh, make me cry and make me think.

I reckon the same rule can be applied to films – which is why The Help, the new film based on Kathryn Stockett’s tale of life in the American Deep South during the 1960s, is an out and out winner.

Stockett’s book, which chronicles the story of a group of black maids who look after the children of white southern families in Mississippi, spent 103 weeks on the bestseller list in the US and in three years has sold more than 12 million copies worldwide.

Film director Tate Taylor, Stockett’s best friend at school, spotted its potential and bought the film rights before the book was even published.

The Help is told from the viewpoints of three women. Two of them are maids, Aibileen, a wise and stoical black woman in her 50s who’s brought up 17 children of white women, and her feisty friend Minny, who extracts hilarious revenge on her racist employer. The third is Skeeter, a wealthy young white girl who desperately wants to be a writer. The trio form an unlikely friendship when Aibileen and Minnie agree to help Skeeter write a controversial book about the maids and their lives – a book that shakes the insular community they live in to the core.

It’s a controversial subject, and while some critics have slated the film for “sugar-coating” the civil rights struggle, it’s got heart and it mostly works. Viola Davis, as Aibileen, and newcomer Octavia Spencer, as Minny, have both been mentioned as likely Oscar contenders, as has Emma Stone as the sparky Skeeter. I managed not to cry till the scene where Aibileen is forced to say goodbye to a little girl she has looked after since she was a baby, exhorting her as always to remember she is “smart,” she is “kind” and she is “intelligent.” Then I couldn't stop.

Despite its flaws, The Help manages to be deeply moving, poignant and funny at the same time. Yes, it simplifies a violent era of modern history, but it’s a powerful, beautifully shot movie - and definitely worth seeing.

The Help, certificate 12A, opens on October 26.

PS: The preview I attended was organised by ShowFilmFirst - so thanks to them.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Why I moved from the city to the country - and back to the city

My daughter was a year old when I got obsessed with the idea of moving to the country. We lived in Camberwell, south London, at the time and even though I loved the house, with its pocket-handkerchief garden and scruffy Georgian facade, I hated the traffic and noise.

In the space of a few weeks, one neighbour was mugged in the next alley-way and another had her bag snatched while her two small children looked on. One night I glanced out of the back window to see flames soaring 20 feet into the night sky. Joyriders had stolen a car down the road and set it on fire next to our fence.

Then out of the blue my husband was offered a new job in Blackpool. Within weeks we’d let our house and rented a farmhouse in the wilds of rural Lancashire. Our friends thought we’d gone completely mad. The way most of them reacted you’d have thought we were emigrating to Siberia, not 200 miles up the M6.

But it turned out to be the very best thing. Downham is one of the loveliest villages in the country. It looks like something out of a picture book – complete with pub, church, post office, stream with ducks, even a nursery school. What more could you ask for? We were entranced by the clear air, stunning views and hearty walks up majestic Pendle Hill.

My son was born in Lancashire (and still supports Blackburn Rovers in fact) and I’m sure the lifestyle there, playing on his bike and swinging on a rubber tyre hanging from a huge oak tree near the house, gave him a lifelong passion for outdoor pursuits. When a friend came up from Manchester with her young son she marvelled at the way he hared off down the field. “I’ve never seen him run that far before,” she said. “At home I always have his hand clamped in mine. I’m terrified to let him out of my sight.”

But sadly, after a few years of living up north, we had to move south for work. With the children growing up fast, the idea of living round the corner from schools and shops seemed oddly appealing. So we decided to have a change and moved to Oxford – where even now, the novelty of being able to walk out of the house at all hours to buy bread, coffee and a bottle of Pinot Grigio still hasn’t quite worn off.

PS: My husband's finally succombed to the inevitable and bought reading glasses. I helped him choose a chic tortoiseshell pair in David Clulow and texted a picture to our daughter. "Are you trying to make him look like Bill Nighy?" she texted back. Hmm, she's got a point. Since Bill Nighy's my number one pin-up, I think I probably am.

Picture of Downham: Lancashire County Council

Saturday, 22 October 2011

House With No Name Weekly Digest: From The Hummingbird Bakery to We Need to Talk About Kevin

A new Saturday round-up of the week at House With No Name.

House With No Name Book Review: Cecelia Ahern’s The Time of My Life
House With No Name Film Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin
House With No Name Writing Tips: How to Write a Great Plot
House With No Name Cake Appreciation: The Hummingbird Bakery’s Halloween Specials
House With No Name at the Cheltenham Literature Festival: Carol Drinkwater and Michael Wright

Friday, 21 October 2011

FRIDAY BOOK REVIEW - The Time of My Life by Cecelia Ahern

The thing I like best about Cecelia Ahern’s books is that they’re different to most chick-lit. Rather than turning out classic romances she weaves magical stories that take a sideways look at life. So far, her novels have featured letters from beyond the grave, a girl with an invisible friend and a book that can predict the future.

Her new novel, The Time of My Life, is the story of Lucy Silchester, a scatty translator who lives in a grotty flat. She’s broken up with her boyfriend, hates her job and has a tricky relationship with her family.

But one day she arrives home to find an envelope on the doormat. It's embossed with a mysterious gold symbol and contains an invitation to a meeting with someone called Life. And it’s not any old life either. It’s her life.

When she comes face to face with Life in a down-at-heel office block, he turns out to be an unprepossessing man with a clammy hand-shake, bloodshot eyes and bad breath. He reveals he’s in such a state because of the careless way she’s been treating him.

The storyline sounds ridiculous but actually, Ahern pulls it off with panache. Lucy and her neglected life make an engaging, if grumpy, duo as he helps her to realise that she’s lost sight of everything important. Fed up with being overlooked, he accompanies her to the office, meets her astonished friends and even does a little matchmaking along the way.

I'm sure Ahern, the daughter of former Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern, would never claim her novels (this is the eighth) are Man Booker contenders, but The Time of My Life is one of her best. It's funny and touching and has a meaningful message at its heart.

The Time of My Life by Cecelia Ahern (HarperCollins, £16.99)

Thursday, 20 October 2011

How to write a feature that works

From Emily Carlisle to Sarah Duncan, fellow bloggers have given me loads of fantastic advice over the last few months. I’ve gleaned tips on where to go in New York from Liberty London Girl (the High Line and the Strand Book Store were just two), picked up delicious recipes from Eat Like A Girl and kept up to date with life in France from my old friend Colin Randall at Salut!

Desperate to think of something to offer in return (well apart from the best pubs in Oxford and must-read books), I’ve realised that just about the only thing I know about is journalism. So, if you’ve got an article to write, here is my five-point crash course on the basics of feature writing for newspapers, magazines and websites.

1. Structure. All publications are aimed at different readers and have their own unique style – so your piece must take account of that style. If you’re unsure about your writing, use concise sentences and short paragraphs. Be consistent when it comes to tenses and avoid clichés, waffle and long, convoluted sentences that are tricky to understand.

2. Introduction. The first paragraph of your feature is probably the most important of all. It should grip readers’ attention immediately and compel them to read on.

3. Body of the text. Although your intro is crucial, the rest of the article must fulfil the promise of your stunning first paragraph. Develop your theme, message or argument step by step and make sure, too, that each paragraph flows logically to the next.

4. Quotes. Admittedly some people are more quotable than others, but strong, accurate quotes help to bring a feature alive.

5. Ending. A good ending should tie up any loose ends. But remember that a feature isn’t an essay, so avoid simply recapping all the points you’ve mentioned before. Don’t finish the piece too abruptly or let it tail away either. If in doubt, a good quote often works well and rounds the piece off in style.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Michael Wright and Carol Drinkwater on living in France

Soon after I signed on the dotted line and the House With No Name officially became mine (help!), I wrote my first and only fan letter. Well, actually it was an email, but it was to a journalist called Michael Wright.

I’ve been reading Michael’s Saturday column in the Daily Telegraph for eight years now and I’m still as gripped as ever by his tales of leaving his safe South London life for a dilapidated French farm with only a cat, a piano and a vintage aeroplane for company. In the intervening years he’s married the lovely Alice, a childhood friend and former intensive care nurse, and they now have two little girls.

Actually, my fan letter turned into a rambling missive about how Michael’s hilarious accounts of moving to the Limousin had steadied my nerve about buying my tumbledown wreck with a dodgy roof and years of building work ahead of me.

But within hours an encouraging email from Michael pinged into my inbox, cheering me up no end with its positive talk. “The secret with your farmhouse is, I think, to make friends with some of the local French and to ask around about a good builder who is sérieux,” he wrote. “Make friends with this man, and make him feel that he wants to help you. Ask him to recommend people too, to do the things that he won't touch. One day it will be, I feel sure, a wonderful house again.”

Wise words, so when I spotted that Michael was speaking at this year’s Cheltenham Literature Festival I booked a ticket straight away. He was teamed with actress Carol Drinkwater, who played Helen Herriot in the BBC’s All Creatures Great and Small and has written a clutch of bestsellers about her olive farm in Provence. The pair hadn’t met before the event but they made a great duo. Carol told how she and her now-husband, TV producer Michel, found the olive farm (and fell in love with it and each other at the same time), while Michael recalled how moving to France on his own helped him “to become the kind of man I always hoped to be when I was a child.”

Along the way the two writers reminisced about their early years in France. Even though Carol is married to a Frenchman, she perfected her French by doing a course at Nice University. Michael, however, took a slightly different approach. As well as chatting to neighbours and poring over Balzac and Baudelaire, he found that reading photo love stories magazines helped him learn colloquial French. He also joined the local tennis club, where the art of losing with aplomb, he said, was his “contribution to international relations.”

The massive marquee was packed to the gunnels for the event and we were so entranced by the pair’s tales that afterwards scores of us queued up to buy signed copies of their new books – Michael’s Je t’aime à la Folie and Carol’s Return to the Olive Farm. I snapped up both but didn’t look at what Michael had written inside my book till I got home. “To Emma,” he’d scrawled. “Cheering you on in your dream!”

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Annie Lennox at the V&A, The Hummingbird Bakery and ghosts that say "boo"

Goodness knows why, but I was once invited to be a guest on a local radio show. In amongst the chat about books, they played four of my favourite music tracks – like an inferior sort of Desert Island Discs, I suppose. Anyway, the first song I chose was the Annie Lennox number, No More I Love Yous, which I still adore.

The memory of sitting in that dungeon-like Leeds radio studio struck me forcibly this week when I went to the Annie Lennox exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The former Eurythmics star has helped to curate a collection of her work at the V&A – and it’s well worth a visit.

Over the years, Lennox has kept cuttings, ideas for lyrics, photographs and outfits galore, and loads of them are now on view at the exhibition. She’s always been feted for her bold, theatrical look and chameleon-like image so it’s fantastic to see some of her show-stopping costumes for real. Remember that amazing Union Jack suit she wore to the Brit Awards in 1999? It’s there, along with a stunning gold lamé corset and matching fingerless gloves she sported in the late 70s when she was lead singer of The Tourists, and many more.

Standing in the museum, with black and white videos of some of Lennox’s most famous performances playing on the screen above my head, I was impressed by how prolific she is. As well as her platinum discs, awards and humanitarian work, she’s even won an Oscar for best original song – for a track she wrote for Lord of the Rings: Return of the King with Fran Walsh and Howard Shore.

The best bit of the exhibition is a desk (below) showing snatches of Lennox’s work in progress. In amongst the pens, highlighters and scraps of paper, it’s inspiring to see notes of her most famous lyrics, all scrawled in capital letters. There are also a few of Lennox’s own books dotted around, an eclectic collection with The Art of Seduction alongside I Don’t Know She Does It, Allison Pearson’s novel about working mother Kate Reddy.

PS: For years, no trip to London has been complete without a trip to The Hummingbird Bakery. Everything about this bakery is gorgeous, from the exquisitely-decorated cakes to the chic pink and brown boxes they’re packaged in. With Halloween just around the corner, the South Kensington branch has excelled itself. The windows (above) are filled with cut-out paper pumpkins and the cakes come decorated with scary witches, broomsticks and ghosts that say "boo." I brought a spider's web cupcake home for my son and as you can imagine, it was gobbled up in double-quick time. The Hummingbird Bakery now has four shops - in Notting Hill, South Kensington, Soho and Spitalfields - and look out for their two gorgeous books too, The Hummingbird Bakery Cake Book and The Hummingbird Bakery Cake Days.

The House of Annie Lennox is on at the V&A till February 26 next year (2012).

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Film of We Need to Talk About Kevin is shocking but thought-provoking

“Well, that was cheerful, wasn’t it?” muttered a middle-aged man as the credits rolled at the small basement cinema in Covent Garden where we’d just seen a preview of We Need to Talk About Kevin.

The rest of us didn’t utter a word. I, for one, felt like I’d just been run over by a ten-ton steam-roller. I’d gone to the movie with my teenage daughter but was so emotionally wrung-out by what I’d just seen that I could barely speak till we were halfway back to the tube station.

There’s no way you can feel indifferent about We Need to Talk About Kevin, the much-anticipated film of Lionel Shriver’s 2005 Orange Prize winning novel. It’s the story of Eva, a mother who puts her ambitions and career aside when she has her first child, Kevin. But far from building a warm, loving bond, the icy-cool Eva finds herself unable to love her son and can’t relate to him at all. Whether she’s throwing a ball to him, playing mini-golf or taking him for a meal at a restaurant when he’s a teenager, their relationship is brittle, artificial and chilling.

Even though the subject matter is grim, the film is beautifully shot. It moves back and forth in time, from the days when Eva was a go-getting travel writer to the aftermath of the horrific high-school massacre perpetrated by the teenage Kevin. The colour red features throughout the film, from opening images of Eva taking part in a tomato throwing festival in Spain to her house and car being daubed with red paint following Kevin’s shocking act - red paint which Eva constantly attempts to scrub off her hands.

There’s no doubt that Tilda Swinton (above), as Eva, gives the performance of her career, and Ezra Miller as the teenage Kevin, is utterly mesmerising. But for me, watching Eva grapple with her feelings of grief and responsibility for her son and his actions was just too much to bear.

Directed by Lynne Ramsay and with a 15 certificate, We Need to Talk About Kevin is released on October 21. It’s controversial, shocking and thought-provoking – but not easy to watch.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

How to write a plot - novelist MJ Hyland's advice

A staggering 150,000 books were published in the UK last year – yet thousands of us yearn to add even more to the pile.

Writing’s a long, hard, solitary business so I’m always looking for ways to escape my office. On a sunny autumn morning I came up with the perfect plan and drove 40 miles through the stunning Cotswolds countryside to attend a Writing a Good Plot workshop at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. Tickets to the three-hour event cost a hefty £25 but the session was so stuffed with good advice I reckon it’s the best money I’ve spent in a long time.

The 30 or so of us who’d signed up were an eclectic bunch, ranging from a showbiz agent to a couple of education publishers to a young A level student. Some had written novels, short stories and poetry galore, while others were just thinking about getting started.

The workshop was run by MJ (Maria) Hyland, who’s no slouch in the novel-writing stakes herself. The author of three novels – her second, Carry Me Down, was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker prize – she also teaches at the Centre for New Writing at Manchester University. I’m deadly envious because she’s got the next-door office to one of my all-time favourite writers, Colm Tóibin. If you haven’t read Brooklyn yet by the way, you’re in for a treat.

Sitting cross-legged on a chair at the front of the class, Hyland deftly led us through her tried and tested ways to plot a novel. She offered such constructive, achievable advice, particularly for procrastinators like me, that I scribbled page after page of notes. Here are some of her tips for writing that tricky first draft:

1. Turn the internet off and put a sign on the door saying “go away, I’m writing.”

2. Write as though no one will ever read it. “The best writing I have ever done is when I forget the world and forget that it’s ever going to be read,” said Hyland. “I am just sitting and telling a fictional truth.”

3. If you can bear it, try writing the first draft with a pen. Writers often faff about choosing fonts that look pretty, changing margin widths and looking at word counts. If you do use a computer, said Hyland, “choose an ugly font. Then you’ll see what’s really on the page.”

4. Begin each writing session without looking at what you wrote last time. “Don’t get bogged down by what came before.”

5. “Don’t think about the 100,000 words you’re writing. Write your novel scene by scene. Make it work as a moment of drama and move the characters through the drama scene by scene.”

6. Most writers begin with an idea that obsesses them. “It’s got to be something that you care about, something that fascinates you and will fascinate you for a long time to come.”

7. The three main components of a plot are conflict, setting and characters – although interestingly, Hyland pointed out that sometimes the setting of a book may be so strong “that it takes care of the plot.”

8. The plot must be controlled and tight. “Don’t go on about anything that doesn’t feed the story,” said Hyland. “Make sure stuff needs to be there. Avoid summarising – ask yourself how information can be enacted or shown on the page in the moment.”

9. Lots of us assume that the plot is of a novel comprises a series of events but Hyland declared a plot can be built on themes – for example, loyalty, breach of loyalty, unfaithfulness or a search for the holy grail.

10. If you’re stuck it’s a good idea to read lots of non-fiction. As Hyland said: “There’s no better place for ideas.”

PS: There's a brilliant interview with musician Noel Gallagher in today's Times. It relates how he was watching TV earlier this year when his long-term girlfriend (and mother of two of his three children) Sara MacDonald said to him: "Just so you know, I'm not getting married when I'm past 40." Gallagher glanced up and asked: "How old are you now?"

PPS: In fact MacDonald was 39 and a few months, and they duly married this summer. As Gallagher added: "... you can't keep introducing your other half as 'the girlfriend' when you get to Rod Stewart's age."

Friday, 14 October 2011

FRIDAY BOOK REVIEW - Comfort & Spice by Niamh Shields

I’m addicted to cookery books. My children make fun of the rows of brightly-coloured tomes lining the kitchen shelves and joke that I only ever cook four recipes, all of them completely made-up. But even so, just looking at my cookery book collection instantly whisks me into a world of milk and honey, where everything is perfect and nothing ever sticks to the bottom of the saucepan.

My current favourites are Ottolenghi’s Plenty and Alice’s Cook Book by Alice Hart, but another contender sneaking up the ranks is Comfort & Spice by Niamh Shields. Like thousands of other readers, I discovered Shields through her fantastic blog, Eat Like a Girl. The Times named the London-based Irish ex-pat as one of the world's top ten food bloggers and this week she won Best Food Blog in the 2011 Observer Food Monthly Awards.

I bought Comfort and Spice, her first book, the minute I spotted it in my local Waterstone’s and it’s proved every bit as good as I hoped. From relaxed weekend brunches to hearty lunches (I’m getting more vegetarian in my tastes and can’t wait to try the lentil shepherd’s pie), it features simple, unfussy recipes that look and taste absolutely delicious.

I love Shields’s unstuffy, confident approach to food and the fact that she calls herself "an enthusiastic home cook" rather than a chef. Self-taught, apart from home economics lessons at school, she insists right from the start that “food doesn’t need to be complicated, nor does it need to be fussy. Recipes can take hours, or they can take minutes. The end result can always be wonderful food.”

As I said, Shields is my kind of cook.

Comfort & Spice by Niamh Shields (Quadrille, £14.99)

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

My short-lived teaching career and Kelvin MacKenzie's explosive speech

My teenage son’s trying to decide which universities to apply to. The only trouble is that after poring over countless websites, they’re all starting to blur into one. Neither of us can remember which university boasts 22 Nobel Prize winners or which has a library with four million books.

But one thing I know for sure is that my university ambitions are over. I learned my lesson the hard way a few years back when I was mad enough to sign up for a teaching course. I can’t for the life of me think why, but on the spur of the moment I foolishly decided to ditch the day job and retrain as a college lecturer.

Within days of registering it was obvious I’d made a terrible mistake. After years of working as a solitary freelance I loved being with other students all day but I couldn’t stand the endless paperwork. We all had to practise teaching our fellow students, which seemed perfectly reasonable. But then we had to fill in reams and reams of forms – everything from what teaching principles our lessons demonstrated (I mostly didn’t have a clue) to whether the class seating plan was up to scratch.

Because we were teaching over 16s, we had to explain what we’d do if students texted, swigged alcohol, spat, swore, took drugs or even pulled a knife in our lessons. Eeek! They wouldn’t do anything like that, would they?

I lasted precisely six months before I threw in the towel. And no, I’m glad to say I never taught anyone who carried a weapon or a flask of whisky in their back pocket. But the experience wasn’t entirely wasted. I don’t get fazed at speaking in public any more, I can do a PowerPoint presentation and my admiration for teachers knows no bounds. Trust me, it's an awful lot harder than it looks.

PS: Newspapers are in the news again after an explosive speech from Kelvin MacKenzie this afternoon. The ex-editor of The Sun never minces his words (that’s putting it mildly) and sure enough, during his appearance at the Leveson inquiry he turned on everyone from David Cameron to former News International boss Rebekah Brooks. Years ago I was on the receiving end of Kelvin’s straight-talking style after I was offered a job at The Sun. I’d just joined a Sunday paper and when I pitched up at Wapping to meet Kelvin (no one ever calls him Mr MacKenzie) his first words were “you haven’t had much in the paper yet, have you?” I couldn’t argue. He was dead right.

PPS: I'm not usually a fan of herbal teas but I’ve just discovered Summerdown’s delicious peppermint tea (above). I'm so hooked that I'm on my third cup of the day.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Retail guru Mary Portas and her Pret-a-Portas code

“Avoid dressing like a teenager, edit your trends, work with your proportions, keep it low maintenance and don’t buy crap.”

These are the no-nonsense words of the inimitable style guru Mary Portas – or as she calls it, her Pret-a-Portas code to buying clothes. Mary Queen of Shops talks such retail sense that I reckon I should have her advice stamped across my wallet whenever I go shopping. If I'd done that, I might have avoided some of my worst sartorial disasters. And yes, there are quite a few lurking at the back of my wardrobe.

I’m gripped by Mary’s new TV show, Mary Queen of Frocks, which follows her progress as she designs her own range of clothes for women over 40 and sells them at House of Fraser’s flagship Oxford Street store. She embarked on her quest because middle-aged women, she reckons, only have two choices when it comes to fashion – “dress like teenagers and flash the flesh. Or it’s cream and beige, beige and cream.”

Her new fashion project makes for entertaining TV (the second part is on Channel 4 tonight) but I’m not convinced by Mary’s clothes. The trouble is that she’s a tall, stick-thin size ten and while her trademark leggings, cinched in waists and sky-high heels look fabulous on her, her style would look ridiculous if the rest of us tried it.

One of the seven key pieces she’s designed is the “no-brainer dress,” an above-the-knee tunic which costs £135. Mary calls it’s “a clean and contemporary look,” but I’m sorry, to me it looks like a shapeless overall. Her shoes, on the other hand, are divine. She’s teamed up with Clarks to create a gorgeous range of ankle boots, courts and bar shoes. Not only that, they look like shoes you could actually walk in. And watch out, too, for her Home collection, which is perfect for Christmas presents.

PS: Mary’s hit the headlines again today by castigating the women in David Cameron’s cabinet as “an ugly bunch.” She told Heat magazine that she’d love to restyle the lot of them and “put a bit of sex and glamour in there.” If you see an army of women politicians trooping into Number Ten clutching briefing papers and wearing bright purple tunics, you’ll know who's responsible.

PPS: It was my turn to host my book club last night so I rushed out to buy some non-alcoholic drinks for the drivers. When I spotted Belvoir’s new elderflower presse at the supermarket I snapped up three bottles. Why? Who could resist a bottle that says “you’re lovely” on the label?

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Working the night shift - and memories of Fleet Street

On Saturday and Sunday mornings I wake in the grey light of dawn, fretting that my student daughter has got home to her flat all right. She’s working weekends in a chic Shoreditch bar from seven pm till six am and I can’t help worrying. Actually, I didn’t even realise bars stayed open till six, but then again I don’t think I’ve been inside one since about 2002.

The upside of the job is that by the time she’s finished serving drinks, stacking glasses and clearing up, it’s daylight and she’s on her way home. The downside is that she misses half the weekend because she’s asleep.

Nurses, doctors, security guards, DJs (a big shout-out to Radio 2’s lovely Alex Lester – the only person capable of making listeners laugh at three am) all know what it’s like to work through the night. A friend of mine who worked for breakfast TV said her body clock got so mixed up that she found it difficult to eat. The answer, she found, was to live on cereal - the only food she could face eating at any time of the day or night.

Years ago I used to work night shifts as a young news reporter on the Evening Standard. For one week every three months I’d pitch up at midnight and toil till eight in the morning, manning the news desk phones, commissioning copy from foreign correspondents across the globe and sifting through the morning papers in search of stories to follow up for the first edition.

One of the worst tasks was having to ring some poor hapless reporter when a story broke unexpectedly at two am and telling them to get out of bed and drive to the other end of the country – er, like, NOW. It could be an apocryphal tale but a night reporter once answered the phone in the early hours to find a drunken hack at the other end. “I’m in a hotel overlooking a river - but I don’t know where I am,” he garbled. Slowly and patiently, the night reporter embarked on the tricky task of helping him work out where the hell he was. And more to the point, why.

The best part of doing nights was the moment the bright-eyed day staff arrived for their shifts and I could run down the office stairs, out of the door and jump straight on the bus back to Battersea. Those days are long gone now, but even today, just smelling stale coffee in a Thermos flask or strolling past the posh offices that were once home to Fleet Street’s finest, takes me back to those far-flung times.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Bicester Village - like Bond Street in the country

When I moved to Oxfordshire a few years back I was amazed to discover we had the out-of-town equivalent of Bond Street on our doorstep.

Bicester Village looks like a quaint New England street, all white clapboard shop-fronts and tasteful landscaping, but in reality it’s a shoppers’ paradise just two miles off the M40. The 130 or so shops include all the names fashionistas worth their salt dream about, from Vivienne Westwood and Anya Hindmarch (above) to Dolce & Gabbana and Versace. They stock clothes, bags, shoes, you name it, from last season at knock-down prices - perfect for these tough economic times. Reductions range between 33 and 60 per cent but eagle-eyed shoppers make a point of watching out for “further reduction” periods, when some prices drop by a staggering 70 or 80 per cent.

The place attracts more than four million bargain-hunters a year from all over the world and is virtually always packed – so much so that a couple of years back they had to build a vast second car park.

If you want to take a break from shopping and treat yourself to lunch there are loads of tempting restaurants, including Carluccio’s, Villandry and Jamie Oliver’s Fabulous Feasts, while at Christmas the Bicester Village staff organise late night shopping evenings, complete with carol singers, mince pies and mulled wine.

Armani, Gucci and Superdry have all arrived in the last couple of years but my favourite shops are Mulberry, where I bought a gorgeous Bayswater bag at half price, Jack Wills (my stylish 19-year-old daughter says it’s too preppy for her but the staff are delightful), All Saints and L’Occitane for heavenly lavender bath foam that reminds me of Provence.

Friday, 7 October 2011

FRIDAY BOOK REVIEW - Clara Button and the Magical Hat Day by Amy de la Haye and Emily Sutton

I’ve got lots of happy memories of the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington – from interviewing the Oscar-winning screenwriter Colin Welland on the front steps (see below) to visiting a Kaffe Fassett exhibition with my great aunt and watching her inspect the back of every tapestry to check how neat the stitching was.

I wasn’t planning to include children’s books in my regular Friday Book Review feature but first I discovered it’s Children’s Book Week (till October 9) and then the delightful Clara Button and the Magical Hat Day thumped on to the door mat.

The first children’s book to be published by the V&A, it’s a delight from start to finish. Charmingly illustrated by Emily Sutton and written by London College of Fashion professor Amy de la Haye, it’s the story of a little girl called Clara Button. Clara loves drawing, making things and dressing up while her big brother Ollie is more interested in skateboarding and other action boy pursuits. When a precious hat that once belonged to their granny gets torn their mother takes them to the V&A to find out how to mend it.

The pictures of some of the delights on view at the V&A – including the famous sky-high Vivienne Westwood shoes that Naomi Campbell toppled off on the catwalk – made me want to hop on the bus and revisit the museum straight away.

Best of all, the book subtly makes it clear that there’s something for everyone at the V&A. While Clara is entranced by the hats and thinks the museum looks like a palace, the more sceptical Ollie is mesmerised by hunting swords used in battle and Tipu’s Tiger, a mechanical toy made in India in 1793 which shows a tiger attacking a life-size wooden soldier.

Clara Button and the Magical Hat Day by Amy de la Haye and Emily Sutton (V&A Publishing, £10.99)

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Empty nests and the lovely new Kate Spade shop

My lovely teenage daughter’s just started her second year at university so I should be used to her being away by now.

Except I’m not. In fact I’m missing her even more this year. Why? Because she’s moved off campus, rented her own flat in gritty east London with friends and doesn’t come home much. Last year she’d hop on the Oxford Tube bus home every few weeks, but now she’s got her own place she’s busy with academic stuff all week and working in a trendy Shoreditch bar all weekend. She’s learned to make cocktails like Mojitos and Caipirinhas (eeek!), says the bouncers are lovely and hoik tricky customers out in a flash and adores working in a place that plays her favourite music till dawn.

But yesterday we went to a screening of the forthcoming film We Need To Talk About Kevin (she thought it was incredible, I found it so disturbing I could hardly bear to watch) so we had a few precious hours together. We had supper at Carluccio’s, wandered round Covent Garden and popped into the new Kate Spade shop in Langley Court. The prices are on the eye-watering side but it’s one of the loveliest shops in London. The staff were delightful, the bags gorgeous and the entrance (above) so stunning I want to move in and use it as my study. They’re planning a bloggers’ event soon so I’m keeping my fingers firmly crossed that I’ll get an invite!

PS: I’ve been a fan of Liberty London Girl since she started blogging about her very glamorous sounding life in Manhattan five years ago. Now she’s back in London, I’m still gripped by her daily blogs, which range from the glitziest shows at London Fashion Week to helping her mother move house in the wilds of Northamptonshire. This week I turned on the radio on to hear her being interviewed by Lauren Laverne on BBC 6 Music. She highlighted the fact that whether she’s writing about fashion or food, travel or dog-walking, she blogs about “things that interest me day to day” – a great message for all of us bloggers. She also had a raft of advice on the art of blogging, which I’ve pinned up on my screen.

1. Follow your passion, be authentic and stay true to yourself.
2. The words are crucial but make sure your blog looks good too.
3. Don’t be swayed by free gifts or trips. Learn to say “no.”

PPS: “It’s Saturday. It’s five past nine. It’s Rise and Shine!” If you’re looking for a book for a nine to 13 year old who loves The X Factor they might like my children’s novel, The Rise and Shine Saturday Show. It’s now available to download on Kindle for £1.09 and is the tale of five young singers competing to win a star-spotting competition.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

The house that wasn't called anything at all

This autumn it’s five long years since I first clapped eyes on the House With No Name. But even so, I can still remember every detail of that first extraordinary visit.

As the tyres of our rented car crunched up the pot-holed track I took one look and gasped in horror. I hadn’t expected to fall in love at first sight but the tumbledown farmhouse ahead of us was a bit of a shock. The place looked more like Alcatraz, California’s infamous jail, than the blurred black and white photograph on the estate agent’s particulars. It had an intimidating wire fence, a trio of satellite dishes stuck wonkily to the front and a barn with no roof tacked on the side. Most daunting of all, a scary-looking Alsatian prowled the perimeter, making me want to turn and head straight back down the track.

At the top of the drive we braked beside a pair of massive green wooden gates (above) and got out of the car. Glancing up at the side of the house, I groaned inwardly again. Ancient battered shutters dangled off their hinges at the first-floor windows and a maze of electrical wiring ran across the wall like strands of spaghetti. The garden was full of weeds and for some reason a couple of rusting car doors had been propped against the fence.

Suddenly I became aware of several pairs of eyes scrutinising me carefully. It was clear the owners were trying to gauge my reaction. But even if my French had been fluent, and it certainly wasn’t, I couldn’t have found the words to express my dismay. The long and the short of it was that the place was a wreck.

I’d first begun thinking about buying a bolt-hole in France just a few months after my mother died. The following year, still grieving and muddling through the days, I decided it was time I did something bold and life-changing. My mother had left me some money and, drawn by the idea of living by the sea, I hit on the idea of buying a two-up two-down in St Ives. We’d had a few family holidays there and I loved the thought of my children learning to surf while I wandered around the Tate St Ives gallery and lunched at the Porthminster Cafe. My husband wasn’t at all impressed. “Why don’t you do something more adventurous?” he said. “Like buy a bolt-hole in France?”

So that’s what I did... and five years on, after a lot of hard work by our fantastic building team, I'm so glad.

PS: “Why’s your blog called House With No Name?” the novelist Anita Burgh asked me at a writers' lunch in Oxford today. Good question - so for the benefit of new readers here’s why. When I first heard about the house I immediately asked what it was called, thinking that if it had a pretty name like La Villa Les Lavandes or La Maison des Roses it would be a sign I should buy it. Totally ridiculous I know, especially when I learned that the house wasn’t called anything at all. “So how does the postman know where to deliver the mail?” I asked. The estate agent shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know,” he said. “He just does.”

Monday, 3 October 2011

The art of writing a novel - Penny Vincenzi at the Henley Literary Festival

After snapping up tickets for loads of literary festivals in quick succession, I’d resolved not to blog about them for a while. But then I went to a talk by Penny Vincenzi at the Henley Literary Festival and she came up with such good advice for would-be novelists that I’m reneging on my promise.

Vincenzi is a big hitter in the novel-writing stakes. A former journalist who cut her writing teeth on the Daily Mirror (her great mentor was the legendary agony aunt and columnist Marje Proops), she writes massive tomes about love and loss, hope and despair. Her first novel, Old Sins, was published in 1989 and since then she has written 14 cracking bestsellers and sold more than seven million books. Whether she’s writing about the aftermath of a terrible motorway pile-up, as she did in The Best of Times, or about a child caught in the middle of a harrowing divorce, as she does in her latest, The Decision, her books are heartrending (they often make me cry) and utterly compelling.

A tiny figure with hair cut in a chic blonde bob and wearing an elegant cream jacket, Vincenzi charmed the audience who’d assembled in the echoey hall at Henley Town Hall on Saturday.

The Decision runs to 757 pages and took her 18 months to write, but she admitted that it had originally been 70,000 words longer. “I write too much and I talk too much – it’s all the same thing,” she said self-deprecatingly. Down-to-earth and highly disciplined, she works at her desk – either at her home in Wimbledon or her cottage on the Gower Peninsula – seven days a week and writes from nine in the morning till three in the afternoon. After lunch and perhaps some additional research, she returns to her laptop and doesn’t break off again till The Archers starts on Radio 4. When she finally gets to the end of a novel she pours herself a very large whisky – “whatever time it is” – even though she never drinks whisky at any other time.

The best bit of the talk came when interviewer Philippa Kennedy asked what advice she’d give to budding novelists. Quick as a flash, Vincenzi offered the following three suggestions:

1. “Characters are all. If you get your characters right they will sort out the plot.”

2. "Every book has an Act Three, a turning point when something happens that means nothing can ever be the same again.”

3. "The monster in the cupboard” - a secret that the readers are in on but the characters have no idea about – until, of course, the monster springs out of the cupboard, often with devastating repercussions.

PS: Vincenzi doesn’t read other people’s novels when she’s immersed in writing but her favourites are Maeve Binchy, Jilly Cooper, Joanna Trollope, PD James, Ruth Rendell and Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga. The book she first read as a teenager (and which inspired her to write) was Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.

The Decision by Penny Vincenzi (Headline Review, £19.99)

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Kay Burley and Bella Pollen at the Henley Literary Festival

I bet the organisers of the Henley Literary Festival could scarcely believe their luck. Of all the weeks to host their five-day event, they’d chosen the glorious last days of summer, when the sun shone, temperatures soared and we all bared our legs again.

Sitting on the terrace at Bix Manor, a pretty country hotel two miles up the road from Henley (above), everything seemed right with the world. I sipped afternoon tea, gazed out across the fields and listened to a journalist I vaguely recognised relating why she’d written a piece about her sex life in one of the morning papers.

I’d booked a ticket to hear Sky TV presenter Kay Burley and writer Bella Pollen discuss their new books. They’re both highly successful in their fields but I was mystified as to why they’d been teamed up. Burley’s first novel is a bonkbuster about a lothario prime minister and the women in his life, while The Summer of the Bear, Pollen’s latest, is set in the Outer Hebrides and tells of three siblings struggling to cope with the loss of their father. The women’s totally different styles were evident by the outfits they’d chosen - Burley wearing a sleeveless silk dress and heels, Pollen clad in jeans and Converse.

But despite the incongruity, it worked a treat. Burley has spent years interviewing the best known politicians and showbiz names in the world on live TV, yet was surprisingly nervous. She admitted that her hands were shaking and that she’s “a novice on the literary circuit.” Not only that, when it came to reading an excerpt from her book, First Ladies, she suddenly panicked that she’d left her glasses outside. Pollen immediately leaned over to offer hers – and Burley’s face lit up with gratitude. In a way the gesture seemed to bond them and after that the event whizzed by in a flash (brilliantly chaired by journalist Philippa Kennedy).

Burley reckoned that her thirty-year TV career was down to “ninety per cent hard work and ten per cent luck.” A single mum, she revealed that her teenage son was starting university that very day – he’s studying politics at the LSE – and that she’d often had to drop everything at the last minute to rush off on stories. She decided to write her novel after being approached to do her autobiography and said she’s “in advanced discussions with Hollywood” about a movie of First Ladies. She's already delivered her second novel, Betrayal, to her publisher. In fact she wrote much of it in the back of a van on the front line in Libya (how impressive is that?) and it’s due out in 2012.

I hadn’t read First Ladies before the talk so when I got home I downloaded it. Hmmm. I don’t want to be mean but it’s not a masterpiece. The plot seems old-hat and the prose surprisingly wooden. During the talk, Burley had talked movingly about her beloved late parents falling in love when they both worked in a cardboard box factory and her “humble beginnings” in Wigan. If she could write a novel based on all that, then I reckon she’d be on to a winner.
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