Friday, 30 March 2012

Elizabeth Noble, Jane Fallon and Fiona Neill at The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival


Three bestselling writers. Three great novels. And three very different pairs of shoes. Those were the first things I spotted when I went to an enthralling Oxford Literary Festival talk by Elizabeth Noble, Jane Fallon and Fiona Neill yesterday.

So, just for the record, Noble wore beige ballet pumps, Fallon sported strappy Louboutins (the distinctive red sole was a bit of a giveaway) and Neill was in Converse.

The trio have given talks together before and this one, chaired by Oxford academic Sally Bayley and titled Emotional Flashpoints in Women’s Lives) was a cracker. I’ve read novels by all three novelists and they really are at the top of their game. Fallon was there to promote The Ugly Sister, her book about sibling rivalry, Neill spoke about What the Nanny Saw, set during the banking crisis, while Noble’s latest, Between a Mother and her Child, explores the impact of grief on a family.

The conversation flowed easily as the writers talked about the backgrounds to their novels, how much research they do and how they write. “I write erratically,” admitted Noble. “I am more productive in panic - I have very tidy drawers towards the end of the writing process.”  Ex-journalist Neill sits down to write once she’s taken her children to school and says she “bores” friends by talking about her plot-lines (I’m sure she doesn’t). Meanwhile Fallon, whose partner is Ricky Gervais, doesn’t show anyone a word till it’s finished. “At the very end I give it to my best friend Anna,” she revealed, “because I know she’ll never criticise anything I’ve written.”

Fallon writes in complete silence, Neill sometimes writes in a local café (a la JK Rowling) and Noble often switches on the TV and works with her back to it because she likes “ambient noise.” 

When it comes to planning their novels, all three women write a synopsis before they start and know what their endings will be. Asked for tips by a wannabe writer, they came up with the following insights:

Neill: “Write a five-page plot synopsis and make sure there is a beginning, a middle and an end. Write three chapters and then start getting feedback.”

Fallon: “Keep writing. I spent years saying I wanted to be a novelist and writing bits of novels. There came a point when I just had to keep going.”

Noble: “Let your work be read. It’s not going to get published if you leave it in your knicker drawer. Come up with a clever idea of explaining your book and find an agent.”

Thursday, 29 March 2012

From intrepid reporter to chronic worrier


What on earth has happened to me? I’ve trekked across the Masai Mara to discover who murdered a beautiful young woman in the prime of her life, stood on the doorsteps of drugs barons and murderers and covered court cases that gave me nightmares. Yet, here I am having sleepless nights over the slightest things.

The bottom line is that I need to give myself a firm talking to – and stop all this worrying nonsense. I was thrilled a couple of weeks ago when Yummy Mummy? Really? asked me to write a Mother’s Day meme. As I said at the time, I didn’t have a clue what a meme actually was but once I’d worked it all out I jumped at the chance. Anyway, one of the questions was “what's the hardest thing about being a mum?”

Without even thinking I wrote the following. “Worrying. I always reckoned being a mum would get easier as my children got older, but now they’re almost grown up I worry about them even more.”

I didn’t bat an eyelid as I typed the words but reflecting in the cold light of day I realised I was on to something. The carefree girl I once was has turned into a worrier of the first order. For goodness sake, I worry about everything – from my teenage son’s scary bike antics to his dreaded exams to the fact that my daughter’s currently living it up in Berlin with friends. It all sounds wonderful, except she’s staying in a youth hostel dormitory with people she doesn’t know.

I’ve met lots of fantastic bloggers online recently, most of them years younger than me and many with babies and toddlers to look after. As I read about their chronic lack of sleep and how on earth you ever find time for yourself and looking chic on the school run I’m torn in two. I feel half relieved that my 24/7 parenting days are over and half nostalgic for those far-flung times. I made a right meal of them but the truth is that I don’t think I worried quite as much then as I do now.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Ian Rankin at The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival

The sun’s shining, the blossom’s out and one of my favourite literary events of the year is underway.

The Oxford Literary Festival always attracts a galaxy of writing superstars and this year is no exception. Last night I hurried down to Christ Church to hear bestselling crime writer Ian Rankin in action. He was there to talk about The Impossible Dead, the second in his gripping new series featuring Inspector Malcolm Fox, a cop who investigates other cops. But he also spoke about Inspector Rebus’s retirement, his view that “a cop is a good tool for dissecting society” and his long abandoned PhD on the novels of Muriel Spark.

Like me, several members of the audience did a double-take when they walked into the grandly-named Master’s Garden Marquee. Ian Rankin was already ensconced onstage but instead of looking at notes he was busy filming us lot. The reason, he explained later on, was that Alan Yentob is featuring him in a forthcoming edition of BBC2’s Imagine series and has given him a video camera to capture his writing life. Considering that novelists spend most of their time shut away by themselves, Rankin reckoned that a film of him out and about in Oxford would make more interesting footage.

Tantalisingly, Rankin waved around the first draft of his new novel, due out in November. The contents are so top secret, he said, that he’s not even allowed to reveal the title yet. But he lessened the blow by giving us a different exclusive. He read an extract from a short story set in 1930s America, the first draft of which he’d finished the night before. “I loved doing it,” he said. “I didn’t realise what fun it was writing American PI (private investigator) stuff.”

Other revelations along the way included the fact that he chose the name Rebus because it means puzzle – after all, if Inspector Morse’s name is inspired by a code, why shouldn’t Rebus come from a puzzle? He revealed that his new protagonist, Malcolm Fox, is far more like him than Rebus. “I like writing about his family – his dad and his sister,” said Rankin. “And Fox is open to seeing Edinburgh as a beautiful city whereas Rebus sees it as a series of crime scenes.” Most telling of all, Rankin admitted that he feels a sense of unfinished business about characters like Rebus, his sidekick Siobhan and the notorious Edinburgh gangster Cafferty. Does that mean they might one day reappear in his work? Like millions of Rankin fans, I do hope so.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Getting dressed for breakfast

The world is divided into those who get dressed for breakfast and those who don’t.

A few years back I remember reading a story about students at an Oxford college being ordered to dress properly for breakfast. Apparently – shock, horror – the undergraduates had been turning up for their morning brew and cornflakes wearing skimpy nighties and no dressing gowns. Some appeared clad only in bath towels, prompting the dean to send out stern letters asking them to “dress appropriately.”

The dean’s words would be like water off a duck’s back as far as my lot are concerned. I can’t speak in the mornings till I’ve made myself a strong cup of Earl Grey so I certainly couldn’t cope with getting dressed first – or heaven forbid, putting on any make-up. And my children are pretty much the same. In fact my night owl daughter would quite happily drift around all day in her pyjamas (non-matching of course) while our former neighbours were perfectly used to seeing my son bouncing on the trampoline at dawn in his PJs.

My husband, however, is the complete opposite. He wandered into the kitchen this morning looking immaculate in a charcoal suit and pristine shirt (no tie, he says he’s never wearing one again) and stared in astonishment at the motley crew slumped at the table. And yes, by motley crew, I mean the rest of us!

Sunday, 25 March 2012

My favourite Emma Bridgewater mug



My son gazed at the kitchen shelves, silently counting the rows and rows of colourful mugs. “Do you know?” he said finally. “We could invite 100 people to tea and not have to borrow any cups.”

Most of the cups he’s talking about are from Emma Bridgewater, the eponymous potter whose china adorns kitchens the length and breadth of  the country. Manufactured in Stoke-on-Trent and sold all over the world, Emma’s china is decorated with everything from those famous multi-coloured spots to flowers, birds and Union Jacks. My own favourite, produced in the nineties, is a mug printed with purple houses, keys, hearts and stars (below). It’s been used so much that it’s got a hairline crack down the side but I can’t bear to throw it away. I’m so addicted that I can’t walk past the Bridgewater shop in Marylebone High Street, currently decked out in patriotic red, white and blue designs to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, without buying something.

I first interviewed Emma and her husband Matthew Rice back in the early days, when they lived in a house on the Fulham Road crammed with old china, architectural drawings and assorted animals – both live and stuffed. 

It’s a huge success story, which started in 1985 when Emma was looking for a cup and saucer as a birthday present for her mother but couldn’t find anything she liked. Even though she didn’t have any formal art training, she hit on the idea of producing her own designs.

“I knew before I started my business that it was going to take off,” Emma told me all those years ago. “If you’re going to do something successfully, you have to believe in it 100 per cent. It’s never an accident. You’ve got to wake up every morning with a powerful conviction of what’s going to happen today, what it is you’re trying to achieve.

“Mind you,” she added, “there were days when I got up with no conviction at all and went straight back to bed with a novel.”



Friday, 23 March 2012

Friday book review - Blue Monday by Nicci French




My admiration for husband and wife writing team Nicci Gerrard and Sean French knows no bounds. Just before my husband took up a new post in France we spent a month working in the same office at home. It did not work. He drove me mad pacing about and talking at top volume on the phone, while he couldn’t stand my cluttered workspace (he’s a fan of the clean desk policy) and leaning towers of books.

But Gerrard and French are an inspiration to working couples everywhere. They’ve been married for more than 20 years and in that time, as well as writing separately, they’ve turned out a cracking run of stand-alone thrillers under the pseudonym of Nicci French. Gerrard writes in the attic of their Suffolk home while French works in a shed in the garden. Most of the time they write alternate chapters and email them back and forth until they’re happy with them.

I’ve read quite a few of their books but I reckon their latest is the best. Blue Monday, now out in paperback, is a completely new departure - the first in a series of eight crime novels starring psychotherapist Frieda Klein.

In her late 30s, Frieda is 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 first book of the series focuses on a child abduction case and isn’t for the faint-hearted. But it’s a classy, nerve-jangling and addictive read, with the promise of more Frieda Klein stories to come. The second, Tuesday’s Gone, is out in July and I can’t wait.

Blue Monday by Nicci French (Penguin, £6.99)

Thursday, 22 March 2012

The five most annoying phrases in the English language


“I truly am the reflection of perfection.” “In order to be the best you’ve got to beat the best.” “Enthusiasm is a huge asset of mine and I believe it’s caught not taught.”

Lines as dire as these can only mean one thing. Yes, you’ve guessed it. The Apprentice is back, with a new batch of entrepreneurial hopefuls (and hopeless cases) battling it out for the chance to go into business with the redoubtable Lord Sugar.

“This is not about a job anymore and I’m not looking for a friend,” the gruff tycoon told them last night (the bearded guy at the back looked like he was quaking in his boots). “If I wanted a friend I’d get a dog. I’m looking for a partner, the Marks to my Spencer, the Lennon to my McCartney. This is about me investing £250,000 into a business with one of you and I’m expecting you, as the so-called entrepreneurs, to make the money for me.”

I’m not sure if 2011 winner Tom Pellereau, who recently launched a curved S-shaped nail file called the Stylfile, is going to make shed-loads of cash for Lord Sugar or not. But the start of the eighth series of The Apprentice got me to thinking about some of the most infuriating phrases in the English language today. I’ve used the phrase “got me to thinking” on purpose. Sarah Jessica Parker (aka Carrie Bradshaw) uses it all the time in Sex and the City and it drives me and my daughter bonkers.

Anyway, here are my current top five annoying phrases:

1. “The fact of the matter is…” Politicians love this one but it doesn’t mean anything at all.

2. “Don’t get me wrong but…” Columnists use this phrase way too much.  

3. “At the end of the day…” Surely there must be a more original summing-up phrase than this?

4. “With all due respect…” It  means the opposite.

5. “Absolutely.” Why can’t interviewees just say “yes” to a question these days?

I'd love to hear about your most loathed words and phrases. I have a feeling that Lord Sugar’s Apprentice happy band of wannabes might inspire a few.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

1976 - the best year to be a child

1976. The year of Raleigh Chopper bikes, Abba and the longest, hottest summer in living memory.

I remember it like yesterday. But even so, it was a surprise to discover that 1976 has been voted the best year to be a child. Apparently children spent an average of 810 hours outside, went on ten weekend family trips and unlike today, 90 per cent of us felt safe. In contrast, 2011 was the worst year to be a child, with a staggering one in seven youngsters spending just 26 hours playing outside during the entire year.

So what was life like in 1976? I was a teenager and even though I was supposed to be revising for exams I spent most of that glorious summer lying on a Dorset riverbank with my school pals. A friend called Larry bought hundreds of old copies of Jackie magazine for a pound at the village fete and we spent virtually every afternoon reading soppy love stories and pouring over Cathy and Claire’s problem page. Not surprisingly, my exam results were utterly dire.

The girls all wore floaty Laura Ashley dresses and lace-up espadrilles while the boys had long hair and side burns. Me and my best friend Angie listened to Eric Clapton and Jim Capaldi on an old-fashioned record player and lived on toast and homemade biscuits. One afternoon I burned the toast and set the school fire alarm off. The whole place had to be evacuated midway through exams. Not surprisingly, I was the heroine of the hour…

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

My dream office - and jackets on the backs of chairs

Tyler Brûlé is a publishing phenomenon. A war reporter turned fashion editor, he launched the ultra-hip style magazine Wallpaper* in 1996 and the following year Times Inc bought it for a cool $1.7 million. He writes the Fast Lane column in the Financial Times and has also founded an upmarket monthly magazine called Monocle. His latest venture is based at chic headquarters in Marylebone, where everything is so stylish that if you ask for a coffee it comes in “a minimalist white cup on its own limed-oak board, with a single brown sugar cube and modernist zinc teaspoon.” Wow. I want an office like that.

Brûlé featured in a Guardian interview at the weekend and the thing that really stuck in my mind was his insistence on an immaculate office. “People need to attend to details,” he said. “I believe in a tidy ship. No jackets on the backs of chairs.”

Jackets on the backs of chairs. The offices I’ve worked have been full of them. If you walked through a news room in the 80s and 90s you’d see rows and rows of chairs with jackets slung over the back. Mainly because their owners wanted it to look like they’d just popped to the canteen to grab a quick coffee and would be back toiling away at their desks within a couple of minutes. The truth was that they’d actually slunk down the back stairs for a pint or two at the pub.

Newspapers are very different places now. The rambling Fleet Street rabbit warrens have given way to sleek modern towers, with airy, plant-filled atriums and state-of-the-art technology. I’m pretty sure, though, that there are still quite a few jackets tossed over the backs of chairs… 

Monday, 19 March 2012

The days when everyone had their own train

Travelling is an expensive, stressful business these days. Fuel costs are sky high, train fares prohibitively expensive and I was stunned when I drove to Manchester recently to find that using the M6 toll costs £5.50 each way. That seems an awful lot for just 27 miles of road…

The news didn’t get any better this morning when I opened The Times to discover that David Cameron wants to kickstart the economy by allowing private companies to build, operate and maintain motorways and trunk roads. Hard-pressed motorists apparently won’t have to pay to use existing roads but firms could charge for new routes or new pay-as-you go lanes.

As I read all this doom and gloom I wondered what Princess Alice, the Queen’s late aunt, would have made of it all. Over the weekend I was sorting out my embarrassingly cluttered office and discovered the transcript of a speech my mum once made.  She’d interviewed Princess Alice at her Kensington Palace home and they talked a lot about her childhood.

“As the daughter of the Duke of Buccleuch Princess Alice spent a childhood travelling from one ancestral home to another,” wrote my mum. “Whenever a journey was imminent, the children, servants, horses and luggage would be loaded on to the family train. ‘How extraordinary, Ma’am,’ I said, ‘to have your own train.’ ‘Oh, in those days,’ she said, ‘everybody did.’”

PS. I spotted this leopard-print Beetle in east London recently and still can’t decide whether it’s super-hideous or super-chic!

Saturday, 17 March 2012

A Mother's Day meme

It’s nearly a year since I started House With No Name and I’ve learned so much about blogging in that time. Twelve months ago I was utterly clueless about guest posts and tags and SEO and Stumbleupon, so it’s been a massive (but fun) learning curve. And today I’ve discovered yet another blogging term I didn’t know anything about – the meme. I had to look it up and it turns out that a meme is an idea spread across blog posts, where you answer a few questions and then ask another blogger to answer them too. 

Anyway, I feel very honoured because the lovely Yummy Mummy? Really? has asked me to join in a Mother’s Day meme. The challenge is to answer a thorny set of questions about being a mum. So Happy Mother’s Day to mums everywhere, and here goes:


Describe motherhood in three words

Brilliant. Tricky. Fun.

Does your experience differ from your mother's?  How?

My mum died eight years ago. We used to talk endlessly about everything and there are still days when I reach for the phone to ask her advice and then suddenly remember I can’t. She had me when she was in her early twenties and went on to build a hugely successful career later on. I concentrated on my career in my twenties and went freelance after my two children were born. But even so, I think we had the same ideas about being a parent. Maybe she was ahead of her time but unlike some of her generation she never left us to cry when we were little and when I was older she always said “ring me any time if you need to talk – even if it’s three in the morning.”

What's the hardest thing about being a mum?

Worrying about my children. I always reckoned being a mum would get easier as they got older, but now they’re almost grown up I worry about them even more. I worry about my independent student daughter whizzing around London by herself and about my son doing scary stunts on his bike.

What's the best thing?

The moments when we’re all sitting round the kitchen table at home, reminiscing about their childhoods and laughing hysterically about something ridiculous.

How has it changed you?

On the upside I’m far less selfish, but on the downside I’ve turned into a worrier (see question 2!)

What do you hope for your children?

That they will be happy, fulfilled and realise as many ambitions as they possibly can. My mum once wrote: “I don’t think my children owe me anything… As long as they’re doing what fulfils them I don’t think they owe me a letter, kindly or otherwise, a phone call, a card come Mother’s Day or Christmas, or even a hand-crocheted shawl, if ever I should come on hard times.” Hmmm. I’d really like my two to come home now and again!

What do you fear for them?

That’s a tough one. It’s so hard to imagine what the world will be like in 25 years time so I just want them to be as all right as they can possibly be.

What makes it all worthwhile?

Every second of it (apart from the odd squabble about messy bedrooms and staying out till all hours).

So that’s what I came up with. Now it’s my turn to tag five fellow bloggers, so I’m asking:

Here Come the Girls


I’d love to hear how you all get on.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Friday book review - The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year by Sue Townsend

It’s hard to believe that this year marks the 30th anniversary of Sue Townsend’s bestselling The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾. It seems no time at all since I first read it and so many details, from Adrian’s spots to his obsession with Pandora Braithwaite, have stayed in my head to this day.

Penguin has just brought out a special edition of the book to celebrate (with a foreword by mega-Mole fan David Walliams). And if that’s not enough, Townsend’s new novel has just been published in hardback.

The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year is the story of Eva Beaver, a 50-year-old wife and mother who reacts in a very extreme way when her teenage twins leave home for university. Eva disconnects the phone, chucks tomato soup over her favourite armchair and goes to bed, not for a quick kip, but for a whole year.

After spending her entire married life looking after her astronomer husband Brian and their gifted but distinctly odd children, she wants some time to think.

As word spreads about Eva’s bizarre behaviour, an army of onlookers gathers outside the house. Some are convinced she’s an angel with special powers, while others swamp her with fan mail and set up a ”Woman in Bed” Facebook page in her name.

With her own family utterly wrapped up in themselves, the only kindness comes from two strangers – the window cleaner and a dreadlocked white van man who helps her empty her bedroom of everything except her bed and paints the whole room white. Her mother is as mystified as everyone else and tells a local TV news team that Eva’s always been “a bit strange.”

The Woman Who Went To Bed for a Year is a patchy read and it’s occasionally hard to keep track of all the walk-on characters, but it’s also a funny, poignant and often bleak look at modern family life. One moment you’re chuckling at Eva’s tortuous instructions to her inept husband on how to “do” Christmas. The next you’ve got a lump in your throat at the ghastliness of being married to a two-timing husband who’s more interested in who’s going to cook his dinner than in talking to his wife. Actually, I reckon Brian’s bedtime routine – which involves gargling, spitting and hunting for spiders under the bed with a fishing net  - would be grounds for divorce. Let alone his affairs, sludge-coloured clothes and dreadful mother.

The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year by Sue Townsend (Michael Joseph, £18.99)

Thursday, 15 March 2012

My Supertramp scoop


The interview Prince Harry gave to CBS News at the end of his super-successful Latin America tour didn’t exactly tell us anything we didn’t know already – but it did remind me of my one and only conversation with Princess Diana.

In 1984 I was a feature writer on Woman’s Own magazine, covering everything from stories we thoughtlessly called TOTs (short for Triumph over Tragedy) to pop interviews. Now and again I try and impress my teenagers with stories about the days when I rubbed shoulders with George Michael and Morrissey but they roll their eyes with boredom and change the subject.

Anyway, for some reason Princess Diana asked to visit Woman’s Own one wintery afternoon. She was expecting Prince Harry at the time and when she walked into the features department on the fourth floor she looked incredibly thin and drawn - in a grey coat-dress that drained all the colour from her face.

The editor had instructed all the feature writers to sit at our desks and look like we were working – which was difficult, of course, with a royal superstar in our midst. By the time Diana got to my desk I was so nervous that I said the first thing that popped into my head. “Which is your favourite rock group?” I asked.

She replied with charming alacrity. “All the papers say Duran Duran are my favourites but that’s not right,” she said. “I like Supertramp best.”

Supertramp weren't exactly cutting edge at the time and it was hardly the scoop of the century – but I was thrilled to hear Prince William list his mum’s favourite music in an interview with Fearne Cotton a few years back. Elton John, George Michael, Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, Bryan Adams – and yes, SUPERTRAMP!

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Eating toast and listening to Sade

A pair of size 11 trainers came thundering down the stairs at top speed. “What is THAT?” said my teenage son, gesticulating at my iPod speakers.

THAT,” I replied happily, “is one of my old Sade albums. I haven’t played it in years.” “I’m not surprised,” he said. “It sounds like the sort of thing they’d play at an 1980s night club.”

I could have taken offence at my son's scathing tone but actually, he had a point. It’s exactly the sort of thing I listened to in the 1980s. That’s why I like it.

Twenty-five years ago Sade was the girl we all wanted to be. I once interviewed her for Woman’s Own at her flat in a disused London fire station and she was stylish and stunning, with the most gorgeous, sultry voice. 

Just listening to her sing Your Love is King transports me straight back to my tiny studio flat off Clapham Common. I’d stagger home from a hard day door-stepping Fergie for the Evening Standard (she lived round the corner in Lavender Gardens so it was always me who got sent to knock on her door and ask when she was getting married). I’d pour myself a glass of Chardonnay, make a piece of toast (I didn’t possess a cooker) and if it wasn’t Sade playing on my ropey old cassette recorder it’d be Human League or Paul Weller. One of Peter Gabriel's guitarists lived in the flat below so I had to play my music extra loud to drown his out. 

I’d completely forgotten about Sade until I spotted a story this week saying that she’s trumped the amazing Adele in Billboard’s 2012 list of high-earning musicians. Now 53, Sade apparently earned a staggering £10.5m last year after her first North American tour for a decade and the release of an album called The Ultimate Collection. She was the sixth top earner (Taylor Swift came top and Adele tenth) – proof that even if you haven’t had a number one record for a while you can still be a superstar.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Primary school children ask the trickiest questions


My sophisticated student daughter hates to admit it but she liked everything about her North Yorkshire primary school, from the home corner and golden time to skipping in the playground and dressing up as her favourite book character.

I loved taking her into the classroom every morning (she banned me from venturing past the school gate once she reached the heady heights of year 2), having a chat with her teacher and admiring the works of art festooning the walls.

But now, 15 years later, I’m visiting primary schools again – sometimes to interview heads and teachers, but often to talk about writing books. I’ve visited loads in the last 12 months and the sessions are always lively, fun and utterly unpredictable. You can prepare your talk as precisely as a military campaign but you always get a couple of questions that completely floor you.

I recently pitched up at a local primary school clutching a copy of my novel, The Rise and Shine Saturday Show, and several of my favourite children’s books (Madeline, The Swish of the Curtain and Clarice Bean.) After half an hour of talking to the four to seven year olds (and them talking to me about their Batman and Barbie books), the eight to 11 year olds were led into the school hall by their teachers.

I told them a bit about my newspaper days, read the opening chapter of my book and then turned things over to them. Scores of small hands shot up. That was great – you don’t want a hall full of bored, silent children. Their questions were searching and incisive, ranging from where writers get their ideas from to what were my favourite children’s books. That was easy – I thrust my battered copies of Madeline and The Swish of the Curtain in the air.

But then like a bunch of seasoned newspaper hacks, the children began lobbing in a few trickier questions. Did I spend more time writing than looking after my children? How many books will I write in my lifetime? And finally they cut to the chase with a belter – how much do I earn? Cue a long silence. For once in my life, I was completely stuck for words.

Monday, 12 March 2012

The Little Paris Kitchen - book and TV series

My favourite piece from yesterday’s Sunday Times was an interview with new cookery sensation Rachel Khoo in Style magazine.

Rachel is the hotly-tipped young chef whose gorgeous-looking cookery book, The Little Paris Kitchen, hits the bookshops this week. Not only that, from March 19 we’ll be able to see her in a six-part BBC2 series of the same name.

But the reason the feature caught my eye in the first place was that Khoo’s career took off after she moved to Paris from Croydon six years ago to work as an au pair. When the art and design graduate arrived in Paris she couldn’t speak a word of French and didn’t have any culinary expertise. Now look at her. She used her earnings from her au pair job to pay for her cordon bleu training and at 31 is an established food stylist, writer and cook. From her tiny Parisian kitchen she whisks up delicious delicacies like potato and pear gallette with Roquefort and cassoulet soup with duck and Toulouse sausage dumplings.

It can’t have been easy starting a career from scratch in an unfamiliar city, and she admits that it was “difficult and lonely” for the first two years. I can well imagine. I was an au pair in Paris for a few months when I was 18 and even though the family I worked for was lovely, it was tough. I remember wandering around Ile de la Cité and Notre Dame on my day off, not knowing a soul and having to fend off leery old men who said they wanted to paint my picture. Hmmm. A likely story.

Now I’m worrying about my daughter, who’s studying French at university and will be off to live in Paris soon. But if I got by with my hopeless French and Rachel Khoo made such a stunning success of her move, then I’m sure she’ll have an amazing time. And return with impeccable French too…

Sunday, 11 March 2012

What are eyebrows for?

“I’m just off to have my eyebrows shaped,” I told my teenage son.

He looked up momentarily from his Xbox game, an astonished look on his face. “You’re having your eyebrows shaved?” he said. “Isn’t that what happens when people get drunk at parties?”

Well not at the parties I go to, it doesn’t. But when I quizzed my son he told me about a friend of his who’d fallen asleep at an all-night do and woke up a few hours later to discover some mean person had shaved his eyebrows off. The effect was so dire that the poor boy resorted to drawing them back on in black felt-tip pen, which of course looked a million times worse.

Anyway, that unfortunate incident got us to discussing a thorny issue. What exactly are eyebrows for? Whether they’re bushy (à la Denis Healy) or sleek (à la Madonna) they’re pretty odd things really. Whatever beauty writers say about them framing your face I’m not at all convinced.

My son quickly got on the case and came up with the following answer. Apparently eyebrows are there to keep water, sweat, dirt and debris (yuk!) out of our eyes. So when we sweat or get caught in a downpour the arch shape of our eyebrows cleverly diverts the rain to the sides of our faces. How smart is that?

My son is the finest finder-outer I know. He troubleshoots my regular computer crises, suggests new music I might like (Lulu and the Lampshades for one) and can give an hour-long lecture about the origins of Aerogel.

Even more useful, his IT know-how is second to none.  When I got a new computer recently I didn’t have to lift a finger. He and my daughter unpacked the box, set it up in ten minutes flat and then typed out an idiot’s guide for their techno-dinosaur mum to follow. The way things are going they’ll be running the entire household single-handed in no time at all.

PS. After my recent post about London's Big Egg Hunt I've just spotted my second giant egg. Only 198 to go!

Friday, 9 March 2012

Friday book review - The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

The two books that have made the biggest impression on me so far this year are the Costa prizewinning Pure, by Andrew Miller, and Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child.

Coincidentally, I read The Snow Child at the end of January, when most of the UK was blanketed in snow. As I watched snowflakes drift gently past my Oxford window the view looked tame in comparison to the desolate Alaskan landscape where Ivey’s novel is set.

Alaskan born and bred, she knows the place like the back of her hand and excels at describing a magical world where wild animals appear out of hidden crevasses, waterfalls of ice cascade off the mountainside and the snow is so deep that you can get lost just a few minutes from home.

Ivey’s first novel is set in the 1920s and tells the story of Jack and Mabel, a middle-aged couple who move to the wilds of Alaska to start a new life.

They expect “a land of milk and honey” but are in for a rude awakening. Winters are harsh and food is scarce. Jack finds working on the land backbreaking, while Mabel experiences acute loneliness and despair. To add to their plight, they’re both struggling  to cope with the loss of their only child, who was stillborn ten years earlier.

But one winter’s night, their mood lifts when they make a little girl out of snow, complete with red scarf and mittens. The next morning the snow child has completely vanished. But all of a sudden, Jack glimpses a small blonde figure dashing through the trees, red scarf at her neck.

As the child comes and goes as she pleases, often with a red fox at her heels, the couple start to love her as their own daughter. But is the little girl real or a figment of their imagination? Cooped up in their remote homestead, could their minds be playing tricks on them?

Ivey was inspired to write The Snow Child after discovering an old Russian folk tale about a couple who see the little snow girl they sculpt turn into a real-life child. The result is a touching and truly exceptional portrayal of heartbreak and hope.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (Headline Review, £14.99)

Thursday, 8 March 2012

The Big Egg Hunt in London

I’ve loathed eggs since I was seven years old. In those far-flung days I used to take a packed lunch to Halton Primary School, just down the hill from the RAF base where my father worked. 

My mum had read somewhere that it was good for children to eat an egg a day (times have changed), so every morning she lovingly put a hard-boiled egg in my lunch box. I obediently ate them but suddenly the day dawned when I just couldn’t face another. Not ever. And I haven’t eaten an egg, boiled, fried or scrambled, since. I cook with them but when it comes to eating them by themselves, no. I  buy them so rarely that my children regard them as rare delicacies and savour every precious mouthful.

But despite my dislike of eggs I was entranced by the giant eggs I spotted in London this week. With Easter on the horizon, two charities, Elephant Family and Action for Children, have launched The Fabergé Big Egg Hunt. More than 200 beautifully crafted eggs, created by artists, designers, architects and jewellers, have been hidden around the capital.

The idea is that egg hunters can enter a competition to win a diamond jubilee rose gold egg, worth £100,000 and decorated with 60 gemstones (one for each year of the Queen’s reign), by texting a keyword from each egg to 80001. Entries are open till April 3.

Not only that, the decorated eggs, 2ft 6in (74cm) tall and made of fibre glass, will be auctioned for the charities at the end of the hunt.

Anyway, walking through Mayfair with my daughter before the RNA awards on Monday, we came across this beauty. Egg number 126 is the creation of fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg. It's called Love is Life and is perched high above the doorway of the bar at Claridge’s. I still haven’t been converted to eating eggs but finally I've found an egg I like.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

The day I was mistaken for a dirt jumper

My eyes nearly popped out of my head when I saw the email.

“Hi Emma,” it read. “We know quite a few places to do dirt jumping. Are you an experienced rider or are you just beginning to get into the sport?”

For the uninitiated, dirt jumping is a sport that involves cycling at top speed down a ramp, leaping high into the air, maybe doing a couple of twirls on the way down and then landing (hopefully the right way up) on a pile of soil. In other words, it’s a completely mad thing to do. The very thought that a fairly sane, middle-aged city-dweller who prefers to keep her feet firmly on the ground at all times would contemplate taking up dirt jumping made me laugh out loud.

But after a few seconds of puzzling over the email, everything fell into place. I’d been trying to help my bike-crazy son find some new places to pursue his hobby and had emailed a shop up north for advice. And for some reason, they’d assumed that it was me who was the dirt jumper.

Funnily enough, the email arrived soon after I read an interview with Dame Fiona Reynolds, director-general of the National Trust (she's just announced that she's stepping down to become Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge). She told The Times this week that children’s freedom to roam unsupervised has shrunk massively since the 1970s. “Children are missing out on the sheer joy and physical and mental well-being of being able to play outside and experience nature in all its messiness,” she said.

Well, not in this house they aren’t. We’ve lived in towns and cities since my son was five but he’s had more fresh air than any child I know. Not because of anything I’ve done but because as soon as he was old enough to ride a bike he grew obsessed with performing cycling tricks. The higher and scarier the better. In fact one summer he leapt merrily off a local hill on his bike, came adrift in mid-air and crashed down on to his handlebars with a horrendous thud. Result – a collar bone broken in three places and two months off bikes.

So, even though I’m forever worrying about him, my son definitely hasn’t missed out on “the sheer joy and physical and mental well-being of being able to play outside.” If only…

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The RNA Awards - winners include Katie Fforde and Rosie Thomas

The Romantic Novelists’ Association sure knows how to throw a party. I was thrilled when my invitation to the RNA’s RoNA annual awards dropped into my inbox. For a start, the awards celebrate the very best in romantic fiction, but secondly, the RNA’s bashes are brilliant fun and ultra-glamorous. The (pink) champagne flows, waiters whizz round with elegant canapés and you get to meet some of the best writers, publishers and agents in the business.

This year’s party was held at One Whitehall Place in Westminster. Author Jane Wenham-Jones, resplendent in a sparkling silver dress and pink hair, hosted the awards ceremony, while bestselling crime writer Peter James (he’s sold 11 million books and been translated into 33 languages – wow) presented the prizes. As Jane told the packed audience, Peter’s books are “not so much ‘then he kissed her,’ more ‘then he bashed her head with a blunt instrument.’”

Peter James declared right at the outset that he was very fond of the RNA. An RNA awards judge 20 years ago, he’d been struck by the “terrifically compelling” stories he came across then and had been hooked ever since. He also pointed that romantic fiction and crime fiction account for more than half the book sales in the UK today. And not only that, he reckoned most of the great writers of the past wrote books that would now be classed either as romantic novels or crime novels – War and Peace, Madame Bovary, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Rebecca, The Great Gatsby and more.

Then came the big moment – the awards themselves. To tumultuous applause, Katie Fforde stepped up to receive the Contemporary Romantic Novel award for Summer of Love. Katie saw off stiff competition from fellow big hitters Jill Mansell, Freya North, Miranda Dickinson, Karen Swan and Kate Johnson.

The Epic Romantic Novel award was won by Rosie Thomas for The Kashmir Shawl, reviewed on House With No Name last month. She beat Michael Arditti (the only man on the RoNAs shortlist), Betsy Tobin, Deborah Lawrenson and Ruth Hamilton.

The Historical Romantic Novel award went to Christina Courtenay, for Highland Storms, while Jane Lovering scooped the Romantic Comedy category for Please Don’t Stop the Music. When Jane climbed onstage to receive her award, she gave hope to budding writers everywhere. “It’s taken me 25 years of writing to publish a book,” she told the audience. “If I can do it, anybody can. So go for it, girls!”

Finally, the first-ever Young Adult Romantic Novel award went to Caroline Green for Dark Ride. “I’m completely in shock,” she admitted.

The excitement isn’t over yet though. All five winners now go forward to the prized Romantic Novel of the Year award, which will be announced on May 17.

Judging by yesterday’s ceremony, romantic fiction is in very good heart right now. As RNA chair Annie Ashurst (aka highly successful Mills and Boon author Sara Craven) said: “In the big sky of romantic fiction today’s winners are among the brightest stars. Their talent, diversity and commitment are awe-inspiring and we congratulate them all on their success.”

We certainly do.
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