Thursday, 30 August 2012

Interview with Eowyn Ivey - author of The Snow Child

“…a touching and truly exceptional portrayal of heartbreak and hope.” Those were my words in March, after I'd read Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child for the first time. Six months on, Eowyn’s debut novel is still one of the most memorable books I’ve read all year. It’s out in paperback in the UK today - and I was lucky enough to get the chance to interview her about it.

I understand you were named after a character in The Lord of the Rings. Did you read JRR Tolkein’s books as a child and what did you think of them?

Eowyn: I have to confess, I’ve never read The Lord of the Rings in its entirety. I tried several times when I was younger. After a chapter or two, I would lose interest, skip ahead until I found my name in the text and then put it down. Somehow I could never get past all the complexities of the world and battles. However, I did read The Hobbit when I was a child, and have read it several times since. It’s one of my favourite stories. I love the characters and the simplicity of the quest. It’s very endearing.

Did you enjoy writing as a child? And if so, what did you write?

Eowyn: I read a lot when I was a little girl. And occasionally I would get in a certain mood, often on a rainy, boring day, or when I was feeling thoughtful and melancholy, and I would write stories. I once wrote a story about a planet inhabited by talking cats, and another about a little boy who disappears into the reflection in a puddle. In high school, English literature and writing classes were my favourites and I realised I wanted to find a way to earn a living with words. But never did I imagine I would someday have a career as a novelist.

You have worked as a journalist and a bookseller. What impact did these jobs have on you as a writer?

Eowyn: I would like to think they helped shape me both as a reader and a writer. As a newspaper journalist, I often wrote 10 or 12 articles in a week. I strove for clarity and conciseness and making each word do as much work as possible. I worked with editors and did a lot of editing myself, which is tremendously useful in learning the basics of the English language. But the downside is that the job was demanding, and I had no energy or time for writing fiction. My work at Fireside Books has been the opposite – it’s a source of inspiration and creative rejuvenation. I’m surrounded by books and ideas and people who love both. As a bookseller, I’m constantly discovering new books and authors and seeing how people have broken the very rules I spent years learning as a journalist.

Could you tell me about how and where you found the inspiration for The Snow Child. Was the book straightforward to write and how long did it take you?

This is a perfect example of how Fireside Books has been quite literally a source for my inspiration. Several years ago I was working an evening shift when I discovered a little paperback children’s book that retold the Snegurochka fairy tale. I had never come across the story before, and I quickly read it standing there among the shelves. It was an incredible experience – I just knew this was the storyline I had been seeking. For nearly five years I had been working on a different novel, and I abandoned it to begin The Snow Child. In less than a year, I had a first draft. I felt inspired in a way I had never been before as a writer. As quickly as it came, though, I never knew exactly where the story was going until I wrote it.

The Alaskan landscape is beautifully portrayed in The Snow Child. What are the main characteristics of Alaska that you wanted to convey in the book?

Eowyn: I think like a lot of extreme locations, Alaska has become somewhat mythologised and romanticised. But what I love about this place is its complexity and contradictions, and that’s what I hoped to bring to the page. The northern wilderness is both awesome and delicate, beautiful and frightening.
The winter is so hard for Jack and Mabel, the two main characters. When you were growing up did you experience a similar sense of isolation during the winter months?

Eowyn: That was one aspect of writing The Snow Child that I really enjoyed as a writer – the challenge of seeing Alaska through eyes so different than my own. I have always loved the extremes here, the wind and snow and dark of winter, the lush green and midnight sun of the summer. And there is a sense of loneliness and isolation, but for me that has always made the camaraderie of neighbours and friends somehow all the sweeter. As a child, I found it exciting, and I still do. But I have always wondered what it would be like to come here for the first time as an adult and to not immediately love it. That’s what I had to imagine as I told Jack and Mabel’s story.

Do you live in a remote part of Alaska now and is it in any way similar to Jack and Mabel’s homestead?

Eowyn: Like a lot of Alaskans, we straddle two worlds. We live along the road system, so can drive easily to Anchorage and all its urban opportunities. We live near a small town, where we work, shop for groceries, go to the movies. But our home is in a relatively rural area, and we share some similarities with Jack and Mabel – we hunt moose, caribou and bear for meat, raise a vegetable garden and chickens, fill our freezer with salmon and heat our home with a wood-burning stove. There is an independent spirit here, and a lot of us strive for a certain amount of self-sufficiency.

Where do you write now?

Eowyn: Wherever I can find a quiet spot in my home. Right now I’m at a little sewing table in my bedroom where I can look out our back window toward Castle Mountain. Usually I am easily irritated and distracted by noises, like my daughters arguing or my husband talking on the telephone, so I’ll sometimes even put in earplugs. Then, once I’m particularly engaged with a project, I can write standing at our kitchen counter with the radio blaring, the phone ringing, and everyone talking at once and it doesn’t faze me.

Are you working on your second novel? Is it set in Alaska and can you give any hints as to what it is about?

Eowyn: Thank you for asking! I am working on another novel, although it is still early in the process. It will share some similarities with The Snow Child – set in historical Alaska with some mythological, magical elements. But I also want to continue to stretch my wings as a writer, to break some of those rules I learned, and try something new. I’m having a lot of fun.

Thank you so much to Eowyn for a fascinating and illuminating interview - and to Sam Eades at Headline for organising it. And for those of you about to read The Snow Child, trust me, you are in for a treat.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (Headline Review, £7.99)

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Shadow Dancer - an outstanding film

“If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it. The more things you do, the more you can do.”

Lucille Ball’s famous quote has always been one of my favourites – and it's certainly true in Tom Bradby’s case.

Bradby is now political editor of ITN News but as well as his day job he’s also carved out a successful career as a thriller writer. And along the way, he’s found time (how?) to write the screenplay for his first novel, Shadow Dancer.

Shadow Dancer opened in the UK last week – and is one of the best films I’ve seen in ages. Set in Belfast in the early 1990s, it’s the story of Colette McVeigh, a young IRA woman who is offered a stark choice. She can either agree to work as an MI5 informer or go to prison for the rest of her life and see her young son taken into care. The trouble is, if she decides to betray her family and comrades, she’s pretty sure she’ll be dead in no time.

Bradby has said that writing the script for Shadow Dancer combined the skills he has learned as a novelist (structure and characterisation) and as a TV reporter (brevity, fluency and writing as people speak) – and he’s done a superb job. The film is taut, tense and beautifully shot. It also gives a compelling insight into the deeply divided world of pre-peace process Belfast.

Directed by James Marsh (whose Man on Wire won an Oscar in 2009), the film features some stand-out acting. As Colette, the luminous Andrea Riseborough is by turns anxious, protective parent and steely Republican, while Brid Brennan, who plays her sad, careworn mother, gives a performance that breaks your heart. Clive Owen, as Colette’s MI5 handler, is slightly marginalised, but even so, he’s as watchable as ever.

PS. As well as writing the script, Tom Bradby appears in the film as a news reporter covering the troubles in Northern Ireland. It’s a neat twist, as Brady was a young reporter there in the 1990s.

Shadow Dancer, certificate 15, is showing in UK cinemas now.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

What should freshers take to university?

Like thousands of other teenagers, my son is counting the days till he starts university. He’s bought the Freshers' Week wristband (it gets him into every Freshers' event – alarming for me, thrilling for him), has worked out which student block he’ll be in and has “met” most of his new flatmates on Facebook.

But what should he take with him? I mean, apart from the obvious things like his beloved road bike, tea bags and industrial-sized packets of pasta. His list comprises essentials like a bike pump, puncture repair kit and iPod dock, while I’m more worried about how many saucepans he'll need and whether he should buy a mini fridge for his room.

A blog I’ve just read has got a host of other ideas. Key recommendations include a cake tin (because “everyone loves cake”), a laundry bag (he’s not convinced), a clothes horse (he’s definitely not convinced) and a sewing kit.

If anyone can offer any suggestions, I’d love to hear them…

PS. He’s off in three weeks’ time and even though I’ll be bereft I’m not going to cry. And I’m not going to be the sort of parent (apparently increasingly common) who muscles in on his university life. Apparently parents have been known to move into their children’s student halls, bedding down next to them while they settle in. I just hope they don’t snap up a Freshers' Week wristband while they’re at it.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Friday book review - Monday to Friday Man by Alice Peterson

Alice Peterson must have been stunned when her sweet romantic novel about a group of dog walkers soared to the top of the Kindle charts in the UK this week. And she was probably even more flabbergasted to learn that her book, Monday to Friday Man, had knocked the third instalment of Fifty Shades of Grey into second place.

I was so intrigued by her feat (echoes of David and Goliath) that I immediately downloaded Monday to Friday Man to my Kindle. It’s available in book form, but the e-book is currently selling on Amazon for 20p.

Monday to Friday Man is Peterson’s third novel and tells the story of 30-something Gilly Brown, whose fiancé jilts her two weeks before their wedding. Devastated by his rejection and struggling to make ends meet, Gilly fleetingly considers moving to the wilds of Dorset, then hits on the idea of renting out her spare room during the week. It works a treat when the glamorous Jack Baker turns up on her doorstep.

Jack is a hotshot TV producer working on an X Factor-type show called Stargazer and most of Gilly’s friends think he’s a real catch. Except, that is, her dog Ruskin, who is deeply suspicious, and the enigmatic Guy, the newest member of Gilly’s dog-walking group.

Peterson, whose promising career as a tennis player was ended by rheumatoid arthritis at 18, was inspired to write her book by Darcy, her beloved terrier. She walks him in London’s leafy Ravenscourt Park with friends – many of whom are name-checked in her acknowledgements.

If you’re after a literary tome, then Monday to Friday Man isn’t the book for you. But as an antidote to the torrent of erotic novels being published in the wake of Fifty Shades of Grey, it’s an easy and at times touching read. Even though the romantic storyline is predictable, Gilly’s fractured family background and childhood loss are moving and convincingly told.

Monday to Friday Man has sold more than 500,000 copies since the novel was published on July 21 and looks set to sell many more. Peterson will be hard pressed to match EL James’s 40 million global sales, but all the same, she’s doing pretty well…

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Jilly Cooper's verdict on Fifty Shades of Grey

My children still haven’t got over the embarrassment of walking into my office last week and seeing my desk covered with erotic novels. From Jane Eyre Laid Bare to Eighty Days Yellow, they were piled up all over the place.

I was reading them for a newspaper review (really) but even so, my son and daughter shut the door hurriedly and scuttled off to laugh about it with their friends.

Scores of erotic novels have been published following the massive success of Fifty Shades of Grey (now the bestselling book of all time in the UK) and judging by the ones I’ve read they vary hugely in quality. Some are sassy and entertaining, while others are absurd and downright degrading to women.

But as I read through the torrent of erotica I kept thinking one thing - “actually, I’d far rather be reading a Jilly Cooper novel.”

I’ve been a fan of Jilly’s books since Emily was published in 1975 and have read every single one since. Her novels are full of sex too (though thankfully not so graphic as the ones I’ve been reading) but what sets them apart is that they’re also witty, funny, poignant and above all, well written.

I’d been wondering what Jilly Cooper would make of Fifty Shades of Grey and the rest – and now I know. Not a lot. In an interview with Stefanie Marsh in The Times today she describes Christian Grey (EL James’s lead character) as a “terrible, terribly silly man” and reckons “you would hate him in real life.”

She also stresses the importance of plot and characterisation in novels – whatever their genre. “…If you have a terrific plot and terrific characters,” she says, “it doesn’t really matter what they do, because you want to know what happens to them. You’re biting your nails to discover whether they do get into bed or they have a fight or they fall in love. I haven’t read any of the new genre of books but they don’t seem to have any proper characterisation, and what they do have is from books or screenplays written by other people. So it’s not writing in that sense, or even a reimagination of a text.”

Jilly adds that she’s a huge fan of writers like Shirley Conran, Jackie Collins, Penny Vincenzi and Barbara Taylor Bradford – because, like her, their key aim is to tell a good story.

She loves writing about horses, dogs, the countryside, laughter” and reckons that “for sex to really work in a book it has to be funny and it has to be loving.”

“There is always a massive amount of research that goes into writing a bonkbuster, “ she says, “and there’s less sex in it than you would imagine. My books are usually about one-50th actual sex scenes, if that. But Christian Grey is at it most of the time, isn’t he?”

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

If teenagers don't like camping, why do they go to festivals?

Tent – check. Sleeping bag – check. Wellies – check. Fancy dress outfit – check. Yes, it can only mean one thing. Like thousands of people her age, my daughter’s off to a music festival and is busy packing a rucksack the size of a house. At this time of year you can spot young festival-goers at railway stations up and down the country, waiting for trains to muddy fields in the middle of nowhere.

My daughter’s going to Shambala and I'll spend the next five days worrying about her. At one festival she went to, scores of tents were set on fire and the riot police were called in, while at another her tent was flooded. Mind you, she has seen some amazing acts over the years – like Prodigy, Crystal Castles, Patrick Wolf and Florence and the Machine singing upside down on a trapeze.

It’s ironic that just as they all set off, a new survey has been published claiming that more than a third of teenagers don’t actually like camping. Why? Because they can’t recharge their phones and iPods.

Actually, I’ve never been enamoured of camping either. Not because I worry about my phone running out of battery, but because living in a tent for a week is cold, wet, miserable and uncomfortable. Oscar Wilde was right when he said: “If nature had been comfortable, mankind would never have invented architecture.”

I love the idea of cooking on a campfire and going to sleep under the stars but my one and only camping holiday wasn’t like that at all. Along with about 30 other Girl Guides, I was dropped off by coach at the side of a road in deepest Sussex. We then trudged a mile across the fields to find – well, nothing. Before we could even think about campfires and singing jolly songs like Quartermaster’s Store, we had to work out how to pitch our tents and worse still, dig trenches for the “latrines.” It took hours and hours, and yes, it was enough to put me off camping for life. Glamping maybe, but camping – never again.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

The inspiring story of Paralympic contenders Adam and David Knott

It’s a week since the London 2012 Closing Ceremony, so we’ve had seven days to recover from Boris Johnson’s alarming “dad dancing” and gradually come down to earth after our euphoria about Jessica, Mo, Tom and co.

But the Paralympics are just round the corner and I reckon they’re going to be every bit as uplifting as the Olympics. Actually, if the story of two partially sighted brothers in The Times yesterday is anything to go by, they’ll probably be even more uplifting.

Adam Knott, 17, and his brother David, 15, are both members of Paralympics GB’s six-man goalball squad.

I didn’t know this before either, but goalball is a game where two teams of three players (all blindfolded to ensure a level playing field for differently-sighted players) throw a hard ball with a bell inside at the other team’s goal. It sounds completely terrifying, especially as the ball can fly at you from 18 metres away at 60mph – and you can’t see it.

Hampshire-based Adam and David were born with a condition called oculocutaneous albinism, which means they have only ten per cent of the vision of a normally sighted person. I loved Adam’s brave description of what this actually means. “You know when you go for an eye test and they have that big A on top?” he told interviewer Hilary Rose. “That’s for us. That’s why the big A is there.”

Amazingly, the boys only started playing goalball two years ago, after their dad saw the sport on TV.  Adam was talent-spotted at a Paralympic potential day at Brunel University in 2010, and began training for competition immediately. His younger brother joined him soon after.

They both seem like incredibly level-headed boys, with ultra-supportive parents. In fact their mum Bridget sounds positively heroic. The goalball squad has been training in Winchester, not far from where the family lives, so everyone, even the coach, has been bedding down on mattresses at the Knotts’ house. Asked how many she was cooking for on the night of the interview, Bridget Knott replied airily: “Only ten… not too bad.”

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Clara Button and the Magical Hat Day - the app

It’s A level results day – the moment that will decide the future of thousands of 18 year olds in the UK. If the youngsters get the results they’re after, many will be off to university in the autumn. If they don’t, they’ve got the agony of deciding what to do next – resitting their exams, looking for a job or perhaps taking a gap year.

Tensions have been running high in our house while all this has been going on – but I’ve found the perfect way to relax. Earlier this year I reviewed an enchanting picture book called Clara Button and the Magical Hat Day by Amy de la Haye and Emily Sutton. It’s the story of a little girl called Clara who visits the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to get her granny’s hat mended.

I adored the book when I read it so I was thrilled to discover that a digital edition has just been launched.

If anything, the app is even more stunning than the book. Emily Sutton’s gorgeous illustrations come exhilaratingly to life on the screen. When Clara’s big brother Ollie whizzes into the room on his skateboard, thousands of buttons go flying. And the red double-decker the children catch to the museum (past famous shops like Harrods and Fortnum & Mason) actually drives down the street.

Children can read the story themselves or listen aloud. Best of all, they can tap on drawings of famous pieces on show at the V&A, gaze at photographs and hear audio descriptions. My favourite exhibits are the sky-high Vivienne Westwood shoes that Naomi Campbell was wearing when she toppled off the catwalk in 1993. Did you know that they are made of fake crocodile skin and are a whopping 30cm tall? No wonder she fell over!

Clara Button and the Magical Hat Day for iPad (Mapp Editions for the Victoria and Albert Museum, £3.99)

PS. The paperback of Clara Button and the Magical Hat Day is published on August 30.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Wish you were here - the death of the postcard

From pictures of Tower Bridge at night to images of sun-drenched Provence, the summer holidays are never complete without sending a postcard or two. I love choosing my favourite cards and mailing them to family and friends.

So I was shocked to be sent an O2 press release this morning saying that the age-old tradition of sending holiday postcards is dying out. Apparently only a sixth of us bother with them these days while more than half of youngsters under 24 have never sent one in their lives.

It's not that we don’t want to keep in touch with loved ones when we’re away. No, apparently the good old-fashioned postcard is being usurped by texting, phoning, Facebook messages and emailing. 

When O2 questioned 2,000 people about their reluctance to send postcards, more than a third claimed postcards are too slow. Another third said buying stamps and finding a postbox is too difficult (what a weedy excuse) and nearly one in ten worry about the postman reading their messages (I think they've got better things to do!)

Maybe the answer is to combine the best of both worlds and design your own postcards. A company called Cards in the Post lets you upload your own images and messages online, then creates real postcards and mails them out for you. As the company says: “We love the internet. We think it’s great. But you can’t beat receiving a real physical postcard in the post from someone.”

My thoughts exactly.

PS. The postcard above is called A Lemon from Beirut by the artist Chloe Cheese. A friend sent it to me years ago and I love it so much that it’s still propped up in the kitchen. 

Sunday, 12 August 2012

The Cambridge Satchel Company's sample sale

The only item from my daughter’s schooldays that’s stood the test of time is her beloved brown leather satchel. I bought it for her when she started school at the age of four - and she still uses it. It’s pretty bashed up these days, but the other week a young woman tapped her on the shoulder in M&S and said: “I love your satchel. Where did you get it from?”

Now an independent student on the verge of moving to Paris, my daughter’s been longing for a new satchel for ages. So when she discovered that the Cambridge Satchel Company was holding a sample sale in Cambridge this weekend we jumped in the car and hared east. Thank you to Liberty London Girl, by the way, for posting the details on Facebook.

The Cambridge Satchel Company was founded by accountant Julie Deane, who loves satchels as much as me and my daughter. “I had a satchel that stayed with me all the way through school,” says Julie, “and the more battered it got the more character it had.”

Looking to start her own business, Julie hit on the idea of selling traditional satchels in zingy colours. The rest is history. Fearne Cotton’s been spotted out and about with a fluorescent yellow satchel and Alexa Chung often sports a navy version. The UK-made satchels sell all over the world and have even appeared in Gossip Girl and Glee.

When we got to the Guildhall in Cambridge, the satchels (above) were selling like hot cakes. I spotted one girl queuing up to buy five, in hues of pale yellow, baby pink, bright green, black and orange. My daughter snapped up a gorgeous silver satchel and even though my student days are long gone I couldn’t resist getting one in navy. The sale (the satchels are selling for up to 60 per cent off) is on again today (August 12), so if you’re anywhere near Cambridge, don’t miss it.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Friday Book Review - Rush of Blood by Mark Billingham

Mark Billingham began his career as a stand-up comedian. But these days he writes crime novels and reckons the two occupations have a lot in common. “As a comedian you walk out on stage and you have a minute to hook them or they’ll start booing,” he said in a recent interview. “As a writer it’s very similar. A reader doesn’t have time to say ‘I’ll give him 50 pages as it’s not very good yet, but I hope it’ll get better.”

Billingham has built up a huge following for his addictive crime novels starring Detective Inspective Tom Thorne. And deservedly so. But he writes standalone stories too, like Rush of Blood, his latest.

Rush of Blood is the chilling account of three couples who meet on holiday in Florida and, even though they don’t have much in common, become friends. Then, on the last night of the trip, the teenage daughter of a fellow holidaymaker goes missing.

The couples return home in shock but make an effort to meet over the coming months, each pair hosting a dinner party in turn. As they get to know each other better, dark secrets and ugly obsessions emerge – especially after the young girl’s body is found and all six become murder suspects.

This is a compelling story that kept me on the edge of my seat till the very last page. If you like pacy, well written crime fiction, you’ll love this.

Rush of Blood by Mark Billingham (Little, Brown, £16.99)

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Charlotte Dujardin - from stable girl to Olympic champion

When I wrote Olympic Flames, my London 2012 inspired novella, earlier this year, I had never heard of Charlotte Dujardin.

Charlotte is the prodigiously talented young dressage rider who along with team mates Carl Hester and Laura Bechtolsheimer scooped the Olympic gold medal this week. It's the first time Britain has won the team dressage event since it became an Olympic sport 100 years ago.

Today everyone’s keeping their fingers tightly crossed that Charlotte clinches a second Olympic gold by winning the individual dressage competition.

But one of the most inspiring things about 27 year old Charlotte is that she worked her way up from stable hand to Olympic champion in just five years. Unlike many other equestrian stars, she doesn’t come from a privileged background and her family had to scrimp and save to help her make it. A keen rider, she left her comprehensive school at 16 and at 20 began working as a stable girl for her now team mate Carl Hester. He spotted her talent immediately and let her ride his new horse Valegro – the horse that has taken her to Olympic glory.

It’s a fantastic story - and testament to Charlotte’s talent and determination. But I was extra-thrilled because when I came up with the idea for Olympic Flames I was adamant that my heroine wasn’t going to be someone born with a silver spoon in her mouth. Unlike Charlotte, the star of my book, Mimi Carter, is a show jumper, not a dressage rider. But like Charlotte, she doesn’t come from a wealthy background. Mimi left school at 16, got a job as a stable girl and eventually won a place in the British show jumping team.

As I became immersed in my story I wasn’t sure how feasible Mimi’s rise from humble stable girl to Olympic star would be.

Now, having seen Charlotte Dujardin in action at Greenwich Park this week, I know that it is really is. Go Charlotte!

Monday, 6 August 2012

Louise Mensch steps down

The news that Conservative MP Louise Mensch is stepping down from her parliamentary seat will reignite the “can women have it all?” debate.

I’ve long thought that the answer is probably “no,” and I reckon that Mensch, the mother of three young children, has decided the same.

A hugely successful chick-lit author before winning the Corby and East Northamptonshire seat for the Tories in 2010, Mensch has had to juggle her family life, parliamentary work (including a prominent role on the Commons Culture Committee inquiry into phone hacking) and marriage to her second husband. He’s the New York-based manager of Metallica and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, so Mensch has spent much of her time jetting back and forth across the Atlantic to see him.

In her letter of resignation to PM David Cameron she wrote: “As you know, I have been struggling for some time to find the best outcome for my family life, and have decided, in order to keep us together, to move to New York. With the greatest regret, I am thus resigning as a Member of Parliament.

‘It is only through your personal intervention, delivered quietly and without fanfare, that I have been able to manage my duties for this long. Your allowing me to work in Corby and East Northamptonshire each Thursday and Friday has enabled me to do weekly surgeries while Parliament has been in session, and to visit many more people and places in our local area, whilst still spending time with my children. Unfortunately, it has not proved to be enough. I have been unable to make the balancing act work for our family.”

It sounds as though David Cameron did all he could to make Mensch’s juggling act possible, but most women don’t have such helpful bosses. And in the end, she found that even that wasn’t enough. She simply couldn’t have it all.

When I look around at my contemporaries the most successful women either don’t have children, have wall to wall childcare or stay at home partners.

As a lifelong feminist I hate saying this, but we still haven’t found the answer to how women can combine the best of both worlds. In lots of ways Mensch is lucky because she’s talented, feisty and has a successful second career. I’m sure that once she gets to New York she’ll write another cracking bestseller – and maybe even get snapped up by a US TV station. One thing’s for sure. We definitely haven’t heard the last of Louise Mensch.

PS. We arrived back from the sun-baked south of France (above) to encounter grey skies and torrential rain. How can this be August? 

Thursday, 2 August 2012

The Crest Jazz Festival and the amazing Charles Pasi

As the moon rose over the mountains, the sky turned from pink to mauve. Below us, stalls sold tartines and glasses of Clairette de Die (the local sparkling wine), while little children skipped hand in hand with their parents.

My daughter leaned over and whispered in my ear. ‘I’ve never seen such a well-behaved audience at a festival before,’ she said, astonished that everyone was clapping along in unison.

This was Crest Jazz Vocal, one of the highlights of my summer. We’d bought tickets to see Mountain Men, a zany Franco-Australian jazz duo, and Charles Pasi, a French blues singer and harmonica player who’s so talented I can’t believe he isn’t a superstar already. Actually, he was a finalist in the international Memphis Blues Festival in 2006 so he’s doing pretty well.

The Crest jazz festival has been going for 37 years and attracts audiences of all ages. The best moment of the night was when Charles Pasi beckoned the front few rows to join him and his band onstage. We were sitting near the back, I’m glad to say, but loads of people jumped up with alacrity. An elderly man in a dazzling white suit and jaunty hat danced wildly, a woman with a rucksack on her back jived fit to drop and even one of the Mountain Men couldn’t resist joining in. Charles Pasi and his band took it all in their good-natured stride.

At that moment something brushed the top of my head. I whirled round to see a tiny flying creature soar up, up and away. It was a bat! 

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

The Mont Ventoux chronicles

As we drove south, through olive groves, lavender fields and dusty tracks twisting up the scorched Provençal hillside, I felt more and more nervous.

My son, sitting in the back of the car with his sister, was as happy as Larry – especially as the distinctive peak of Mont Ventoux appeared above the skyline.

We’d left at dawn so he could attempt to cycle up Mont Ventoux for the first time. He only took up road biking a month ago, but he’d set his heart on doing it before his 18th birthday. A commendable ambition, I know, but I was full of trepidation.

Mont Ventoux, all 1,912 metres of it, is famed in cycling circles. There are higher mountains in France but Mont Ventoux stands on its own, right at the heart of Provence. There’s an abandoned weather station at the top, while just below the punishing peak is a shrine to the memory of Tommy Simpson, the British cyclist who died from heat exhaustion during the 1967 Tour de France. “Put me back on my bike” were his last immortal words.

We arrived in the village of Bédoin at 9.30 am, took the bike off the car roof and my son raced away. The rest of us adjourned to a cafe down the road to keep our minds off his climb.

We’d arranged to meet him two-thirds of the way up - to hand over two more water bottles. But to our astonishment he’d got a lot further than we’d expected. When we caught up with him he gave us a cheery wave, said he was feeling fine and kept on pedalling.

We met him at the summit, which looks a bit like a lunar landscape, and it turned out he’d done the whole ride in just under two hours – his goal for his first attempt.

Then came the moment he was really looking forward to – the glorious ride down, followed by a stop at the bike shop in Bédoin to buy an I conquered Mont Ventoux cycling shirt...

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