Sunday, 31 July 2011
Thursday, 28 July 2011
Then the amazing truth dawned. Nearly six years after we first set eyes on the House With No Name, we'd just spent our first night there. After a ten-hour drive from Calais, we'd arrived the night before to find the tumbledown farmhouse we bought on a whim all that time ago utterly transformed. It now has a kitchen, bathroom with views over the rolling French countryside and a beautifully restored stone staircase. Er, and apart from two beds and some gorgeous Cologne and Cotton linen, no furniture.
But with the middle part of the house habitable, a removal van from the UK will shortly trundle up the overgrown track to deposit a table, chairs, two sofas and a stack of books. What Jamie Briggs and his no-nonsense removal team will make of the House With No Name is anyone's guess. That's if they can even find the place. We couldn't give them a proper address because there isn't one.
But for a few days we've simply enjoyed the space, the peace and the quiet. We've each got a mug, a plate and, very importantly in this part of the world, a corkscrew. The fields are full of sunflowers, the sun's come out after a few stormy days and we're playing Amy Winehouse's stunning Back to Black album on my son's speakers. Like so many people, I'd never realised quite how brilliant she was before.
Sunday, 24 July 2011
Many of them will no doubt be taking Mehdi Hasan and James MacIntyre’s biography of Ed Miliband, along with a couple of rising political star Louise Bagshawe/Mensch’s chick lit titles for light relief.
But if anyone, politician or otherwise, is looking for recommendations, here are five reads I’ve enjoyed hugely this summer. I’ve already raved about Alan Hollinghurst’s brilliant The Stranger’s Child, but these are some of my other favourites.
The nanny diaries: Best-known for her hilarious “Slummy Mummy” columns, Fiona Neill has now turned her attention to the trials and tribulations of the modern-day nanny. WHAT THE NANNY SAW (Penguin, £7.99) sees penniless student Ali Sparrow hired to look after a super-rich (and ultra-demanding) banking family. Charged with caring for five year old twins who speak their own private language, an anorexic teenage girl and a boy almost her own age, Ali’s on a steep learning curve – especially when a financial scandal erupts in their midst.
The tear jerker: Elizabeth Noble’s THE WAY WE WERE (Penguin, £7.99) is the story of childhood sweethearts Susannah and Rob, who break up when Susannah goes to university and Rob joins the RAF. The pair, caught up in different lives, completely lose touch. But there’s a sense of unfinished business and when they meet by chance at a wedding 20 years later, lawyer Susannah is stunned by the intensity of her feelings for Rob. What makes Noble stand out from the crowd is the quality of her writing, the deftness of her plotting and her recognition that life rarely goes according to plan.
The crime novel: Husband and wife writing team Nicci Gerrard and Sean French have turned out a cracking run of stand-alone thrillers under the name of Nicci French. But their new book, BLUE MONDAY (Michael Joseph, £12.99), is the first in a series of eight crime novels starring psychotherapist Frieda Klein. In her late 30s, Frieda’s an insomniac who walks the streets of London in the dead of night, drinks whisky and much to the irritation of her office, doesn’t own a mobile phone.
The haunting thriller: Rosamund Lupton’s first book, Sister, was snapped up by thousands of readers in 2010. She’s now followed it with AFTERWARDS (Piatkus, £7.99), the story of Grace Covey and her teenage daughter Jenny, who are both catastrophically injured in a school fire. Original and heartrending, Lupton’s second book definitely lives up to her first.
The classy read: Anne Enright’s prose flows so smoothly and eloquently that she makes writing look effortless. In THE FORGOTTEN WALTZ (Jonathan Cape, £16.99), the 2007 Man Booker winner chronicles a love affair that wrecks two marriages in modern-day Dublin. Narrated by Gina, who’s married to steady Conor but in love with the more complicated Seán, it’s a pleasure from start to finish.
PS: With its beach huts, seagulls and zingy sun umbrellas my new Emma Bridgewater mug (above) reminds me of summer. But more importantly, the story behind it is an intensely moving one. Alice Pyne, a 15 year old girl who is terminally ill, put together a “bucket list” of things she wanted to do with her life - a list read by millions around the world when it was posted on Facebook earlier this year. One of Alice’s wishes was to design an Emma Bridgewater mug – and this is the stunning result. It’s inspired by Alice’s summer holiday last year in Torquay, organised by Torbay Holiday Helpers Network (an organisation committed to running free, action-packed holidays for seriously ill children). Emma Bridgewater is donating the £10 profit from each £19.95 mug to THHN.
Friday, 22 July 2011
We were in wet, grey Paris for a whistlestop weekend but the fact that the clouds had turned black the minute we stepped off the Eurostar didn’t matter a jot. We bought our first umbrella for eight euros at a tacky-looking tourist shop off the Champs Elysées. Big mistake. The shopkeeper warned us it wasn’t “très solide” and sure enough, the blooming thing snapped within half an hour. So we dashed into H&M and snapped up two garish brollies for just under ten euros. A much better move.
The great thing about being in Paris with my daughter was that we were keen to do pretty much the same things. We walked everywhere, lunched at the Rose Bakery, discovered that the ultra-chic Colette on the Rue Saint-Honoré now sells Topshop make-up and wandered round the Musée Rodin garden in the rain.
We stayed at La Maison Champs Elysées, a lovely hotel that’s been done up to the nines by Maison Martin Margiela, the avant-garde Belgian design house. We didn’t get an MMM room but the hotel is amazing, with a silver corridor, trompe l’oeil wallpaper and a pretty white drawing room where a waiter was playing jazz at the piano as we arrived. More to the point, it’s relatively affordable compared to other Paris hotels.
Our best discovery of the weekend though was a tiny shop called Popelini in the Marais (see above). Launched by Lauren Koumetz, who grew up in the Marais, and with a chef who used to work at Ladurée, it sells exquisite iced choux buns. Flavours range from cherry and pistachio to vanilla and strawberry and they’re so light and tiny you don’t feel guilty afterwards. You can buy just one or get a selection wrapped up in an elegant cerise box. Forget cupcakes and macaroons. Popelini makes them look completely old hat.
Mark my words, these choux buns will catch on in the UK faster than you can say Popelini.
29 rue Debelleyme
Wednesday, 20 July 2011
If I am going to buy a car in France then the only one that will do is a Citroën 2CV. They’re cheap, chic and well, not 100 per cent reliable, but I don’t care.
When I was little my mother had a bright green 2CV, which we drove through the Dorset lanes with the wind in our hair and Dory Previn singing Lemon Haired Ladies on the ropey old tape machine. My dad loathed the car because it was noisy and shockingly slow and my mum went off it after the canvas roof came adrift and knocked her half-unconscious as she drove along.
But my sister and I adored it and once my mother got a swankier car she gave it to us. I’d just started training as a reporter on the Mid-Devon Advertiser and when I set off for work at the crack of dawn every Monday morning me and my mum had to push it down the road for a quarter of a mile to get it started. My friends likened the car to “a deckchair on wheels,” but within a few weeks my fellow trainee and spin-doctor-to-be Alastair Campbell bought a Citroën Dyane (the slightly more sophisticated version of the 2CV) in exactly the same colour.
On a good day my top speed was 60mph but on bad days lorries and caravans whizzed past me with ease. I was still so entranced that when it finally gave up the ghost I bought an identical Deux Chevaux in a shade of pale blue Cath Kidston would give her eye-teeth for.
Twenty-five years on I’m still hankering after another 2CV – and my teenagers are egging me on in my quest. Even though 2CVs went out of production in 1990, you can still pick them up for a song in France. Last summer my daughter spotted a beaten-up turquoise 2CV for sale for three hundred euros outside a garage in Dieulefit and campaigned for days to make me buy it. I admit I was half-tempted but luckily someone else snapped it up before I could do something even sillier than usual.
But hmmm, this year I just might...
Monday, 18 July 2011
But the minute I arrived back on Sunday night I sneaked a quick look at the latest tweets and discovered the story hadn’t let up for a second. Not only had Rebekah Brooks been arrested and questioned for nine hours but Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson had just resigned. By Monday the story looked set to run and run, with Rupert Murdoch, James Murdoch and Brooks all set to appear before the Parliamentary select committee for Culture, Media and Sport on Tuesday and MPs meeting in emergency session on Wednesday to discuss the latest developments.
One point that’s struck me forcibly in recent days though is the importance of journalism training. When I started out as a reporter 25 years ago virtually everyone cut their journalistic teeth on local newspapers. I trained with Mirror Group Newspapers alongside spin-doctor-to-be Alastair Campbell, his partner Fiona Millar and a host of other ambitious young trainees. We spent eight weeks in a tatty-looking Portakabin on a Plymouth industrial estate getting up to speed with shorthand (Alastair cracked 100 wpm way before anyone else), law, local government and how to report fairly and accurately, before being dispatched off to weekly newspapers across the West Country for two years.
During my days on the Mid-Devon Advertiser, a newspaper based in Newton Abbot and edited with great panache by former Morning Star journalist Lance Samson, I learned how to write a news story, how to cover a court case and how to interview and quote people correctly. It wasn’t glamorous or ultra-exciting but it taught me the journalistic skills I needed - and still use a quarter of a century later. It also meant that by the time we made it to Fleet Street we were professional reporters who knew what we were doing.
Lance (father of novelist Polly Samson) could easily have thrown up his hands in horror at the inexperienced trainees thrust into his news room. But he was generous with his time, encouragement and support. He was a stickler for doing things by the book too. One day my fellow trainee Keith was sent home from the office for wearing a polo-neck instead of a shirt and tie. “What would happen if I had to send you out to interview the Archbishop of Canterbury?” demanded Lance (slightly unlikely considering we were based in a sleepy mid-Devon town where the most exciting thing to happen most weeks was the planning committee meeting, but still.)
In the second year of our training we progressed from our weekly papers to the heady heights of the Sunday Independent, which covered the whole of the South West. It was the era of the Falklands War and while we spent much of our time writing stories about golden weddings and village fetes, Alastair showed his star quality by scooping Fleet Street's finest on a story about Prince Andrew. It was obvious he was going places even then.
Wednesday, 13 July 2011
But how on earth did they come up with Harper Seven? I know her name had to match up to Brooklyn, Romeo and Cruz, her three big brothers, but Harper Seven sounds like an upmarket washing liquid. Even though the Beckhams themselves say they named their little girl after a character in the Disney TV series The Wizards of Waverly Place, other theories have been flying around thick and fast. Some reckon her moniker comes from Harper’s Bazaar magazine, while others claim it’s inspired by Harper Lee, the novelist who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird (I really don’t think so!)
Choosing children’s names is always fraught with difficulty, with relations quick to take offence if the baby is named after one side of the family and not the other. “Where did that come from?” asked my mother-in-law when I first told her Ned’s name. “Don’t you mean Edward?” Ahem. No, we didn’t. Ned is just Ned.
It’s also a good idea to check the baby’s initials don’t spell something dire and that the names don’t rhyme embarrassingly. On the day Lottie was born we were about to tell everyone that our darling daughter was called Lottie Rose when I stopped in my tracks. Fast-forwarding a few years, I could suddenly hear classmates shouting “Snotty Nose” at her the minute she started school. We had a quick rethink and came up with Clementine – which nearly 20 years on, she absolutely hates.
The best tip I’ve ever heard on choosing names was from my glamorous Lancashire grandmother. Her advice was to fling open the back door and yell the name you’ve set your heart on at the top of your voice.
If “Harper Seven – it’s tea-time,” sounds completely ridiculous, then it’s back to the drawing board.
Monday, 11 July 2011
Until recently, Chipping Norton’s main claim to fame was that it’s the highest town in Oxfordshire. Oh, and that Jeremy Clarkson can often be spotted shopping in the high street.
But that’s all changed in recent times. Chipping Norton, known fondly to locals as Chippy, has suddenly hit the headlines for the powerful people who have weekend places in its environs. Dubbed the Chipping Norton Set, they live in stunning Cotswold villages, where front doors are painted that chic sludgy green colour and pubs have gastronomic menus to rival the very best London restaurants.
David Cameron has a farmhouse five miles from Chippy, Rupert Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth and her PR husband Matthew Freud own the gorgeous Burford Priory and controversial News International boss Rebekah Brooks and her racehorse trainer husband Charlie have a converted barn somewhere near Churchill. Meanwhile Blur’s bass guitarist, Alex James, has a farm at Kingham and Kate Moss is a bit further afield in Southrop.
I know Chippy well and apart from its brilliant independent bookshop, Jaffe and Neale, it’s a perfectly ordinary market town. It’s got a small Sainsbury’s, a WH Smith’s and lots of antique shops, but nothing very exciting to write home about. Venture a few miles into the wilds of the countryside (see above) though and you’re in a different world. Driving between villages, along sun-lit lanes lined with clouds of cow parsley and immaculately kept dry stone walls, you suddenly spot huge gates opening on to leafy, gravelled drives. Occasionally the gates will open and a sleek four by four will whoosh past.
The smart crowd do their shopping at Daylesford Organic Farmshop, just off the road to Stow-on-the-Wold. With its yoga studio, spa and stylish restaurant, some critics reckon it’s a bit like stumbling across Harvey Nichols in the middle of the Cotswolds. Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Moss and Kate Winslet are all said to be fans, though along with the superstars in dark glasses you see locals picking up a loaf of freshly-made soda bread or a modest wedge of organic cheddar. When I pop in I buy a takeaway latte in a recycled paper cup for £2 and some chilled pea and mint soup for £3.95 – all absolutely delicious. If I was a member of the Chipping Norton Set, I reckon I’d be there all the time.
PS: If anyone offers you a ticket to see Betrayal at London’s Comedy Theatre, don’t think twice about it. The new production of Harold Pinter’s classic play, starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Douglas Henshall and Ben Miles, is touching, witty and brilliantly acted. Written 33 years ago, it still seems fresh and insightful.
Friday, 8 July 2011
I stopped and did a double-take when I spotted the news on Twitter. Halfway down Oxford Street to meet my teenage daughter from work, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. After 168 years, the News of the World was being shut down following the appalling phone hacking scandal.
The death of one of our oldest newspapers was still buzzing around my mind when we walked into Sadler’s Wells a couple of hours later. We’d booked seats months ago to attend a special gala performance of 6000 Miles Away, Sylvie Guillem’s new ballet, and couldn't wait to see the 46-year-old legend onstage. The tickets cost a staggering £75 each but with proceeds going to the British Red Cross Japan Tsunami Appeal and the knowledge that we were truly privileged to see one of the world's finest dancers in action, I didn’t begrudge a penny of it.
As soon as the curtain rose and the lights went down, everything else - newspapers, work, exams - was forgotten. When Guillem dances, you can’t take your eyes off her. Her long, sinuous limbs perform moves that simply don’t seem possible and her sheer confidence and charisma are breathtaking.
Guillem clearly lives and breathes dance. When Sarah Crompton, the Daily Telegraph’s arts editor, asked in a recent interview if she ever thought of stopping, the star was astonished. “...sometimes you think, why do I do all of this?" she replied. "Because you feel a little bit lost, a bit tired. But then you wake up a bit more and you go and you are excited by what you do.”
The other thing that struck me at the end was how graciously Guillem responded to the audience's rapture. As she took bow after bow with a neat nod of her head , the clapping showed no sign of abating. Her performance had been so magical that none of us wanted it to be over.
Monday, 4 July 2011
Sitting in the wood-panelled Assembly Room at Oxford Town Hall, we all hung on his every gravelly-voiced word. Everyone, from the Waterstone’s chap charged with interviewing him (who'd read the book twice) to the two students sitting next to me, knew that we were hearing something special.
The Stranger’s Child, a vast tome stretching to nearly 600 pages, follows the lives of two families from the eve of the First World War, when aristocratic young poet Cecil Valance visits his Cambridge friend George Sawle, to the end of the 20th century. It was only published last week but it’s already been dubbed “the book of the year.” Every book reviewer worth their salt has put it on their summer reads recommendations, me included.
Hollinghurst, who won the Man Booker prize seven years ago for The Line of Beauty, told us that he began working on A Stranger’s Child in the summer of 2006 and it took him four and a half years to complete. He said he likes to get a “pretty clear architecture” of a book before he begins writing and never shows anyone a word till he’s finished. “I’ve never been a great one for research,” he added, although he spent a freezing cold afternoon stomping around Stanmore to get a feel for Two Acres, the country house that features in the book.
When Hollinghurst began his career as a novelist he had a day job at the TLS and wrote The Swimming Pool Library in the evenings. “There was a joy in writing it that I don’t always feel now,” he said. “I felt that I had a very good idea and that kept me going during the two and a half years of writing. My old friend Andrew Motion was an editor at Chatto & Windus so I showed it to him when I’d finished. He rang the next morning and said he wanted to publish it.”
Asked where his elegant writing style came from he admitted modestly: “It’s awfully difficult for a writer to say anything about their own style. I am not conscious of having a style. I try to write as well as I can, to write precisely and musically. To be too self-conscious about one’s own style would be fatal.”
PS: The festival season is well underway and my teenage son’s just got back from Cornbury (see above). He managed three hours’ sleep in three days, lived off a diet of burgers and pancakes (definitely nothing green) and arrived home looking exhausted and distinctly muddy. He wasn’t convinced about Cornbury’s headline acts before he went but has now turned into a firm fan of Status Quo. “Except they did sort of shuffle up and down the stage like old men,” he said. Which, I suppose, is precisely what they are these days.
Saturday, 2 July 2011
Apparently more than 1,300 journalists are covering Kate and Will’s visit, including hacks from as far afield as China and India. My sympathies are with them. For a start, they’re having to be more fashion writers than newshounds. Knowing their Issa from their Erdem and their Mulberry handbag from their Anya Hindmarch clutch is absolutely key. But not only that, with the media showing endless images of cheering Canadians and beams from Will and Kate (see above), it’s tricky to fulfil the demands of rolling 24 hour news and be fascinating at the same time.
I spent a couple of years following the royals for the Evening Standard back in the 80s. Princess Diana was splashed across the tabloid front pages virtually every day – for dancing onstage with Wayne Sleep as a birthday surprise for Charles (he clearly wasn’t impressed), dressing up as a policewoman for Fergie’s hen night and taking William to his Notting Hill nursery school for the first time.
But my most vivid memories are from Charles and Diana’s Middle East tour of 1986. As the royal couple progressed through Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, lunching in the desert, going to the races and attending endless banquets, it was hard to come up with new stories to file. Daily Express columnist Jean Rook (the only other woman reporter in the press pack) even resorted to dressing up in a burka to see what women’s lives in Saudi Arabia were like. Meanwhile the rest of us got worked up about whether the Saudis had been offended by Diana wearing a dress that showed her ankles when they flew into Riyadh.
For a lot of the tour they both looked utterly miserable. But at that stage even seasoned royal-watchers didn’t realise the rot had set in. Most of us simply assumed the tour was too long and gruelling, that Diana was missing William and Harry and that once you’ve seen one falconry display you’ve probably seen them all.
Friday, 1 July 2011
But over the last three years I’ve become hooked on Lynda La Plante’s compelling Anna Travis stories. I was gripped the moment I read the first one, Above Suspicion, and have snapped up the rest the instant they’re out.
I’m in luck because the seventh in the series, Blood Line, was published last week and soared straight to the top of the hardback fiction charts. And yet again, despite the gruesome crime scenes, I can’t put it down.
This time round, Anna Travis has been promoted to DCI and is taking charge of an investigation into the case of a clean-cut young man who’s been reported missing. On the surface Alan Rawlins sounds like a loving son, dutiful boyfriend and kind-hearted friend, but when Travis begins to investigate she discovers a sinister web of lies and secrets. Blood Line is chilling, scary – and like the rest of the series, utterly compelling. I’m not always convinced by her dialogue but La Plante is a consummate story-teller.
La Plante made her name with ITV’s highly-acclaimed Prime Suspect, starring Dame Helen Mirren, but she’s also a highly-skilled novelist who weaves the horror of Travis’s day-to-day work with the machinations of her tangled love life.
Much of the success of the Anna Travis series hinges on the on-off relationship between the young copper and her charismatic boss, Detective Chief Superintendent James Langton. The two were briefly an item, but now Langton’s remarried, with two children, and Travis is mourning the devastating loss of her fiancé. Even so, there’s still a spark between them (Langton secretly admits he’d rekindle their affair like a shot) and their scenes are the best in the book.
It’s a mark of the Anna Travis books’ success that three of them have been adapted for ITV, with Kelly Reilly starring as Travis and Ciaran Hinds as Langton, and a fourth has been commissioned. The TV dramas aren’t half as good as the novels but they’re a sure-fire sign that La Plante is on to a winner with Travis and Langton. Hopefully there'll be more on the way.
PS: I don’t want to be a spoilsport about this but why is everyone being so ridiculous about the Duchess of Cambridge’s arrival in Canada? Today’s Daily Mail talks about how she’s “won the hearts of a nation” while a 14-year-old girl who turned out to see her said “this is a moment that will never be erased from my memory – not ever.” All Kate has done is look stylish (in three designer dresses) and smile charmingly. Surely our heroines in life should be women who have achieved a little bit more than this?