Saturday 30 April 2011

Three cheers for newspapers

From The Times’s wrap-around picture of the newly-weds in Prince Charles’s dashing sports car to the Daily Telegraph’s shot of the first (or was it second) balcony kiss, the newspapers did us proud today. I’m not sure what the Independent was playing at with Tracey Emin’s dreadful sketch of the bride and groom on its front page but we’ll gloss over that one.

Newspapers come in for an awful lot of stick these days but when it comes to covering massive events with style and panache they’re pretty impressive. Even more so considering the huge number of finely-honed words– “history’s first draft,” as American writer Geoffrey Ward so neatly put it - they produce in double-quick time. Today’s papers contain details of the best-dressed, the worst-dressed (no contest there), the canapés, the crowds, the street parties - everything we could possibly want to know about the royal wedding, and a lot more besides. Some papers even got professional lip-readers to decipher what the royals said to each other while others relayed the wittiest tweets of the day. “Do not even think of letting Fearne Cotton into the Palace,” was my favourite, from the brilliant @Queen_UK, while @VanityFair reckoned “This is probably the only time that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s hat has felt inadequate.”

The pressure to encapsulate the occasion in a few salient paragraphs, then file them to the office before your deadline, is one I remember only too well. Working for the Evening Standard, I was one of the reporters invited into Westminster Abbey for Andrew and Fergie’s wedding. The only trouble was that we were seated so high above the bride and groom, and at such a neck-breaking angle, that it was impossible to see much at all. From our lofty vantage points we certainly didn’t spot four year-old pageboy Prince William fidgeting and making faces. The hacks glued to TV screens back in the newsroom, however, did.

PS: The Sunday Times must be feeling pretty pleased with itself. It scooped the world’s fashion press back in March with the news that Kate Middleton had chosen Sarah Burton, creative director of Alexander McQueen, to design her dress. Many poured cold water on the revelation at the time but well done Rosie Kinchen and Tiffanie Darke. You were dead right.

PPS: Thank you Grazia, for my fabulous Anya Hindmarch and Basso & Brooke royal wedding flags. The only downside is that they arrived in today’s post. But what the hell. I’ve put them up anyway..

Thursday 21 April 2011

How I came to buy the house with no name

Sitting in Oxford, with the number 7 bus trundling past and Marks & Spencer just up the road, I sometimes think the house with no name must be a figment of my imagination. Am I going to wake up one day and discover that the tumbledown French farmhouse that inspired this blog was just a dream?

Definitely not. It all looked splendidly real when we sat in the courtyard in the scorching sun last week, drinking Clairette de Die, the local sparkling white wine, and admiring how far the renovation process has come.

When I first clapped eyes on it, the place was a wreck. But two things convinced me to throw caution to the wind and buy it. One was the terrace, where generations of farmers had sat under the old plane tree and put the world to rights over a glass or two of pastis. The other was a pretty sunlit field, bordered at one end by a coppice of distinguished-looking oak trees. I could just imagine long summer lunches there, with my daughter reading and my son whizzing about on his mountain bike.

Now the builders have worked wonders, ripping out the hardwood partitions that divided many of the rooms and replacing the dodgy floors and ceilings. I only wish I’d been there when one of them stopped everyone in their tracks by walking jauntily across the joists like the tightrope walker he used to be.

The adjoining barn has been utterly transformed too. Once full of discarded car doors, rusty bits of tractor and several lifetimes of junk, it now boasts two floors and a state-of-the art new roof which cost nearly as much as the house itself. The vast first floor is so breathtaking that we’re all arguing about what it should be used for. It’s the size of a tennis court and I’m secretly harbouring plans to make it my office.

Both my children have been involved in the project right from the start, from the day I signed the compromis de vente at the lawyer’s office to rolling up their sleeves and helping with heavy-duty building work. Two years ago, in blistering heat, my daughter painted the huge gates that open into the courtyard a tasteful shade of pale grey. She liked the colour so much she persuaded the builders to paint the beams inside the house the same hue. Meanwhile my son’s triumphs include demolishing an entire first-floor ceiling. It wasn’t the ideal convalescence for someone who’d recently broken his collar bone in three places, but he was adamant he wanted to do his bit.

PS: Several readers have asked whereabouts in France the house with no name actually is. It’s a tricky one because when I say it’s in the Drôme most people look blank. Even Anne-Marie, our sophisticated Parisian friend, didn’t know it. So, just to clarify. The Drôme is north of Provence, west of the Alps and east of the busy route de soleil that runs from Paris to the Côte d’Azur. The countryside is lush and green, with small farms, olive groves and majestic crags that tower over the landscape. A bit like Provence crossed with the Lake District in fact.

Tuesday 19 April 2011

Dreaming of a second-hand 2CV

Slowly, slowly, the French farmhouse I bought on a mad whim back in 2006 is coming back to life. My husband and children always promised it would but, being a wimp, I had my doubts. We still haven’t managed to sleep a night there yet, but the tumbledown six-bedroom wreck with half a roof, terrible damp problem and bathroom inhabited by a plague of rats is looking – and I never thought I’d say this – well, rather beautiful.

The rats are long gone and the clever architect friends who are renovating the house have replaced the hotch-potch of windows with elegant pale grey ones. They’ve designed a new roof, built steps from the terrace to the front door, restored the stone staircase from the ground to the first floor and transformed the dingy downstairs kitchen and salon into stunning, light-filled rooms with domed ceilings.

Instead of wanting to run a mile from the place, I now want to spend as much time there as possible. My student daughter, keen to perfect her French, is even making plans to buy a second-hand 2CV and decamp there for the whole summer.

Progress is coming along at such a pace that when we visited the house last week, we decided to brave the new Avignon branch of IKEA to buy a kitchen and bathroom. I can report, by the way, that shopping in a French IKEA is just as horrendous as visiting a UK one. The upside is that we’ve added an impressive number of new words, from poignets and robinets to lave-vaisselle, to our French vocabulary. The downside is that we've got to go back again in the summer to buy a fridge.

Thursday 7 April 2011

Twenty tricky teenagers

My must-see TV of the week is Channel 4’s Jamie’s Dream School – the series where Jamie Oliver gets a host of celebrities to teach 20 tricky teenagers who’ve left school with barely any qualifications.

The science teacher is fertility expert Lord Winston (who’s already hit the headlines for getting the boys in the class to study their own sperm). History is taught by Dr David Starkey, politics by spin doctor Alastair Campbell, drama by Simon Callow, music by Jazzie B (the best teacher by a mile, I reckon), art by Rolf Harris and maths by economist Alvin Hall. Other experts helping out include barrister Cherie Booth, sailor Ellen MacArthur, rapper Tinchy Stryder and former poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion.

Over two months the teachers have attempted to inspire the 16 to 18 year olds and (hopefully) persuade them to return to education. On the whole, the celebs have been utterly useless, especially the ones who blithely assumed they could stand at the front, talk about themselves and instantly command the students’ attention. They couldn’t of course. Most lessons have seen pupils walking out, yelling at the teacher, even picking fights.

The truth is, as the celebs have discovered to their cost, that teaching is an awful lot harder than it looks. I’m speaking from experience on this one. I tried my hand at teaching the same age group a few years ago and it’s one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done.

Looking back, I’m not sure I taught my lot very much at all. One girl fell asleep every lesson, a boy whizzed his skateboard along the classroom floor, others chatted and texted pals when I wasn’t looking and as for handing their work on time – sorry, it rarely happened.

Now Jamie has experienced what life in the 21st century classroom is really like he’s been quick to praise the teachers who do it day in day out. “I have to say that I’ve never admired teachers more than I do now,” he said. “Until you’ve tried it, you can’t possibly know what it’s like standing in front of a group of young people who aren’t interested in what you’re saying.”

If only a few of our politicians would give it a go too.

Tuesday 5 April 2011

A brilliantly-written love story

“If you’re after a brilliantly-written love story that never slides into sentimentality, David Nicholls’s One Day is just the ticket. Nicholls trained as an actor before switching to writing - his first novel, Starter for Ten, was made into a film starring James McAvoy and Rebecca Hall and he wrote the recent TV adaptation of Tess of the D’Urbervilles. His third novel is a funny ‘“will they, won’t they?’” romance tracing the relationship between university friends Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew on the same day each year for 20 years. I read this book in one delicious go and it did everything a novel should do. It made me laugh, it made me cry and it made me think. Don’t miss it.”

That’s what I wrote when I reviewed the hardback of One Day soon after it was published in 2009 – and I stand by every word. In the intervening years, the book has become a bestseller, largely through word of mouth. It’s sold 650,000 copies in the UK alone, been translated into 37 languages and the film version, adapted by Nicholls himself and starring Anne Hathaway (some One Day devotees aren’t convinced by her casting as the awkward, insecure Emma) and Jim Sturgess, is due out in the autumn.

In a giant, wind-buffeted marquee at the Oxford Literary Festival this week David Nicholls told a packed audience how he came to write One Day. He attended the same sixth form college as Colin Firth before going on to study English and drama at Bristol University. After eight years in the theatre, largely, he said, working as an understudy, he switched to writing screenplays and novels. Modest and self-deprecating, he claimed he wasn’t sure if “I gave up acting or it gave me up” and that the success of One Day, his third book, had come as a “huge surprise.” He found inspiration, he revealed, in a passage from Tess of the D'Urbervilles, an interest in looking at the way our lives change between the ages of 20 and 40 and a determination to write a "different" kind of love story.

More recently he’s been writing a screenplay of Great Expectations, his favourite novel, but he’s now begun to work on ideas for his eagerly-awaited fourth book. I, like thousands of other One Day fans, can’t wait.

Monday 4 April 2011

Behind the black door

As book clubs go, Grazia’s must be one of the starriest. The event, held at Waterstone's in Piccadilly, boasts champagne, cup cakes, goody bags and celebrity guests.

When Emma Freud interviewed Sarah Brown about her newly-published Behind the Black Door this month, the audience included the likes of actor Bill Nighy, Four Weddings and a Funeral creator Richard Curtis and Grazia editor Jane Bruton. I was mesmerised by Nighy, chic in his thick-rimmed black specs and far taller than I expected, while my teenage daughter only had eyes for Jane Bruton’s sky-high leopard-print heels.

Many of Sarah Brown’s revelations – from how she got a rabbit belonging to the children’s entertainer she booked for her son Fraser’s birthday party into Number 10 without having to go through the security scanners to her wry comment that it didn’t really matter what she wore when she stood next to supermodel Carla Bruni - have been widely reported already. But it was fascinating to hear her talk about the book – and hard to believe that she used to be terrified of public speaking. Consummate PR professional that she is (she ran her own PR outfit for years before marrying Gordon), she came across as cool, unflappable and ultra-discreet. The sort of best friend we'd all like to have really.

Tall and statuesque in a stylish brown dress, she admitted she’s not a “shout-ty” person, that her favourite book is Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows, her favourite film The Social Network and her guilty pleasures “a glass of wine, chocolate and Glee.” Oh, and I’m not sure how convincing this is, but her favourite rapper is P. Diddy!

Behind the Black Door is published by Ebury Press, price £18.99.

Sunday 3 April 2011

White hyacinths and pink tulips

Walking past the florist’s shop at this time of year makes me sad. They’re getting ready for Mother’s Day and the pavement outside is filled with baskets of fragrant white hyacinths and delicate pink tulips that are still in bud.

Mother’s Day is bitter-sweet these days. I long to send my mum flowers wrapped in brown paper and tied with ribbon, fix lunch and catch up with all the gossip over a glass of champagne. But she died nearly seven years ago and instead of dwelling on what might have been I’m going to make the most of being with Lottie and Ned, my lovely teenage children.

The trouble is that even though she’s not here I still want to tell my mum everything. She’d be enthralled to hear I’ve recklessly bought a tumbledown farmhouse in the south of France. And she’d be appalled that it’s damp, derelict and only has half a roof. She’d be staggered by how tall Ned’s grown and how scary he is when he’s whizzing down hills at full pelt on his bike. She’d be so proud of Lottie’s place at university and fierce independence.

My grandmother died at the age of 62 and after that my mum always dreaded Mother’s Day. One year she wrote in her newspaper column: “Don’t say it’s sentimental rubbish, emotional blackmail, commercial exploitation and that your mother knows you love her anyway. I’m sure she does, but the joy she’ll get from a tangible expression of your feelings is more than worth the effort. There were times when I forgot to mark the day for my brilliant mother and what I’d give now to be able to send her flowers by the lorry load.”

As always she was completely right. So today I'm thinking about her and remembering all the wonderful times we had...
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