Tuesday 31 July 2012

View of the Olympics from France - and David Walliams's new book

The south of France is usually heaving with UK visitors at this time of year. But in sun-baked Avignon I didn’t spot any British tourists at all (apart from us, that is). The newsagents’ stack of English newspapers looked untouched and there wasn't a whisper of an English accent at the historic Palais des Papes.

I suspect most people are at home glued to the Olympics. And come to think of it, maybe the French are too. 

Our neighbours at the House With No Name popped across the field to say hello yesterday and told us they’d been watching the Games avidly.

“What did you think of the opening ceremony?" my daughter asked them, wondering what on earth they’d made of Mr Bean, Mary Poppins, the Queen apparently parachuting out of a helicopter and hundreds of children jumping up and down on luminous hospital beds. Serge, our neighbour smiled benignly. ‘C’etait bon, mais très bizarre,’ he said.

Good, but strange. Hmmm. I reckon that just about sums it up.

PS. My review of David Walliams’s wonderful Gangsta Granny is one of the best-read House With No Name posts. So loads of readers will be thrilled to hear that Walliams’s fifth children’s novel will be published on September 19. Ratburger, illustrated by the inimitable Tony Ross, promises to be a treat. It’s the tale of a lonely little girl called Zoe and her ice cream loving father who battle to save Zoe’s newly adopted rat, Armitage, from the clutches of a villain called Burt. Walliams is the fastest growing children’s author in the UK and publisher HarperCollins describes his new story as “packed full of zest, jeopardy and classic Walliams wit.” Walliams himself says it’s his “scariest and funniest book yet.” Watch this space for a House With No Name review.

Monday 30 July 2012

Shopping for bargains at the brocante

Sunflowers, lavender, long lunches, delicious wine – there are so many heavenly things about life in the south of France.

And browsing for bargains at vide greniers (literally, empty attics) and brocantes is yet another. Every town is full of posters advertising flea markets, car boot sales and salvage yards and when you’re renovating an old farmhouse they are the perfect places to snap up old furniture.

Last week we went to a brocante in Valence and it proved to be a real treasure trove. The first item we spotted was one of those freestanding metal lockers, the sort you find in old schools. They sell for hundreds of pounds in Shoreditch but this one cost 30 euros, an absolute steal. Sadly someone else thought so too because the locker had a sticker saying vendu. The man running the brocante told us they always get snapped up in a trice.

But despite our disappointment there were still bargains galore to be had. We bought the distressed table above, a retro dining chair, a set of shelves and a huge kitchen table. Our only problem was how on earth to get it all home in an average-sized saloon car. Then the man in charge of the brocante stepped forward – and guess what, they delivered too. 

Friday 27 July 2012

Lunch under the plane tree

I adore eating outside. My family is so hardy that we’ve been known to have lunch al fresco as early as March and as late as October - through wind, rain and freezing temperatures. And we don’t use one of those environmentally-unfriendly heaters either.

But in France, eating outdoors is even better. Breakfast is on the terrace, which has a stunning view but is currently too full of bikes, rubble, weeds and an old fridge for my liking. At lunchtime it’s too baking hot so we move round to sit under the plane tree, where all the old farmers used to drink Pastis and watch the sun go down. And then in the evening we’re back on the terrace for a glass or two of Clairette de Die, the local sparkling white wine.

Sometimes we drive to my favourite town (above) and treat ourselves to lunch at a café in the village square. The restaurant has a huge awning to shield everyone from the fierce mid-day sun and we sit there for hours, watching the world go by.

There’s also the added advantage of strolling across to my favourite shop (below) afterwards. It’s piled high with stunning china of every shape and hue. I buy a new mug or teacup there every year, and swear that drinking a café crème out of them every morning is one of the pleasures in life. Especially when it’s on the House With No Name terrace.

Pictures: Emma Lee-Potter

Thursday 26 July 2012

How self published author Nick Spalding became an Amazon bestseller

“Kindles and eBooks are changing the landscape of publishing. You can reach an audience and create a buzz online. I think publishers are still important in terms of editing, marketing and getting into bookshops, but self publishing can be another route to that.”

Those were the astute words of crime writer Stephanie Merritt (aka SJ Parris, author of detective novels like Heresy and Prophecy) at a recent Red magazine event on how to write a crime novel.

And she’s clearly right. Her views are borne out by the news from Amazon.co.uk this week that a self published novel by UK author Nick Spalding has become one of its ten bestselling items over the last three months.

Southampton-based Spalding has published a string of “comedies with adult humour” through Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). So far he’s sold 245,000 copies of his books and earned up to 70 per cent in royalties from his sales.

Spalding’s Love… From Both Sides is currently riding high in the top 25 Kindle bestsellers list while two of his other books, Love… And Sleepless Nights and Life… With No Breaks, are in the top 100.

As Spalding says: “KDP is a fantastic opportunity for writers to get their work into the hands of the people that actually count – the readers. It's never been easier to publish an ebook thanks to Amazon's progressive and forward thinking attitude. They've given many more writers a voice - writers who would otherwise have remained silent. I can't thank them enough for providing me with the means to become as popular as I am.”

Not surprisingly, Gordon Willoughby, director of Kindle EU, is delighted.

“Nick Spalding joins international bestsellers such as EL James and Suzanne Collins in our top ten bestsellers of the last quarter at Amazon.co.uk,” he says. “That’s a fantastic achievement for a KDP author. KDP enables independent authors to compete on a level playing field with the giants of the literary world and we’re excited to see it succeeding for both readers and authors.”

Nick Spalding follows in the footsteps of Kerry Wilkinson, a debut novelist from Lancashire who was the number one selling author in Amazon.co.uk’s Kindle store during the last quarter of 2011. Wilkinson didn't have an agent or publicist - just the determination to write the very best book he could. And it worked a treat.

Wednesday 25 July 2012

Even Kirsty Allsopp would be impressed

Seven years after trundling up the potholed track to view the House With No Name, we’ve just spent our second holiday there.

It’s far from luxurious but the place is definitely starting to feel like home. Take the attic. When we first climbed the steep stairs up to the top floor, one room was propped up with steel girders. Why? Because the walls were so dodgy they had to be pinned together. Literally.

The stunned notaire accompanying us kept muttering “tout à faire” as we stomped up and down. Another attic room was filled with a lifetime of rubbish, including a spooky-looking trunk covered in cobwebs. We never discovered what was inside - but at least it had gone by the time I signed on the dotted line.

Fast forward a few years and even though there’s so much work to do, the attic is now an oasis of calm. Well, by day at least. It’s slightly more raucous by night because the dormouse has crept back into the roof and scrabbles about like crazy in the early hours of the morning.

But to give an idea of the attic’s transformation, here’s what my daughter's room was like before…
And the picture at the top shows what it’s like now.

I reckon even Kirsty and Phil from Location, Location, Location would be impressed!

PS. “Why aren’t you at the Olympics?” asked the puzzled man at the garage as we filled up the car near Avignon. He blithely assumed that everyone from the UK is in London to watch the Games. But like countless others, I’ve spent hours online attempting to buy tickets and ended up with absolutely none. 

PPS. If you're keen to get into the Olympic spirit, my novella, Olympic Flames, is set at London 2012. It  follows a talented young showjumper desperate to win her first gold medal in front of her home crowd. 

Tuesday 24 July 2012

Bike fever at House With No Name

Bike fever has hit House With No Name with a vengeance. The bike rack on the car grows more sophisticated by the day, the house is full of giant tubs of carbohydrate protein and my son’s bought a bike computer that maps everything from time and speed to altitude and heart rate.

But most surprising of all is that his obsession is catching. His dad took him to Oxford’s brilliant Beeline Bicycles to buy a puncture repair kit and came home with a ton of cycling gear. For himself. Next, my daughter declared she was going to cycle to the boulangerie every morning to buy croissants so her bike was duly strapped to the roof too.

A few days later they all embarked on their first bike ride together. First up was a speedy lesson on bike cleats, then they were off. Actually they had to walk the first bit of the way, terrified that the weed-infested bumpy track might damage their precious tyres. The next-door neighbours looked stunned at the sight of les Anglais trooping down to the road in their garish Lycra and bike helmets.

My husband and daughter sensibly chose shorter routes but my son returned two and a half hours later, dripping in sweat and beaming. He’d done a round trip over the hills, cycled up a mountain my old 2CV would struggle with and got back just in time for a carb-loaded supper.  

Monday 23 July 2012

The dormouse in the attic

Lines of Cypress trees silhouetted against a pink sky, fields of golden sunflowers, ancient farmhouses with their shutters closed to keep them cool.

Those were the sights that made my heart sing as we drove south through France earlier this month. With London gearing up for the Olympics we decided to escape the mayhem and head across the Channel instead. Not surprisingly, the French were far more preoccupied with the Tour de France than London 2012. Even in the local épicerie people were talking about “le gentleman Wiggins” and his amazing triumph.

When we arrived at the House With No Name after the ten-hour drive south it was almost midnight. But it was definitely like coming home – even though there was a wilderness of weeds and the broadband was up the creek.

We weren’t totally sure if the loir in the attic was back in residence or not. My daughter says she heard scrabbling in the roof in the middle of the night but didn't know whether it was real or she was dreaming.

The most surprising thing of all, though, was seeing the sun for the first time in months. As we sat on the terrace on the first morning we all blinked in bewilderment, a bit like loirs coming out of hibernation after winter. My son, who’s spent most of the summer so far cycling in the Oxfordshire wind and rain, was so stunned that he went straight out and bought his first-ever pair of sunglasses. 

Loir – a dormouse in French.

Friday 20 July 2012

Boris Johnson booms out Olympic travel advice

My daughter nearly jumped out of her skin as the familiar voice boomed out across the packed concourse at London’s St Pancras station.

“Hi folks. This is the Mayor here. This is the greatest moment in the life of London for 50 years. We are welcoming more than a million people a day to our city. There is going to be huge pressure on the transport network. Don’t get caught out…”

Queuing to collect her Eurostar ticket to Paris, she couldn’t for the life of her think why Boris Johnson had suddenly popped up there. A group of French travellers in front of her looked completely mystified, while my daughter half expected the blond-haired bombshell to appear in person, racing through the station in cycling shorts and trailing an Olympic banner behind him.

It was only when she got back that she realised what the Big Brother-like voice was all about. For the next few weeks there’s going to be a Boris alert at all major stations – to help commuters plan their journeys during the Olympics.

I don’t know about you but I suspect Boris might carry on his chatty bulletins after the Games are over.

It’ll be “hi folks. I wouldn’t use the Circle Line this morning. It’s absolutely chocker,” or “hi folks. Avoid Oxford Street like the plague. It’s a complete dog’s dinner tonight…”

What do you think?

PS. A big thank you to Rosanna Morley for the picture of Tower Bridge by night, complete with the Olympic rings. 

Wednesday 18 July 2012

Just the ticket - the first writer-in-residence on a train

From universities and libraries to hotels and even prisons, novelists love being asked to be writers-in-residence at venerable institutions.

Well-known names like Fay Weldon, Kathy Lette and Michael Morpurgo have all leapt at the chance to do stints as writers-in-residence at London’s historic Savoy Hotel.

But crime writer Julia Crouch has gone one better. She’s become the UK’s first writer-in-residence on a train.

Rail company East Coast offered Julia the chance to write a short story, Strangeness on a Train, on the train from London’s King’s Cross to Harrogate and back again. It worked a treat. Her dark tale of a passenger who pushes a female traveller beyond her limits is published tomorrow (July 19) to coincide with the start of the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate.

“There’s something wonderful about writing on trains,” says Julia. “Working on board the train seemed like being in a bubble of concentration as I moved through time and space, only being distracted when eavesdropping on the dramas of my fellow passengers as swathes of the countryside flashed past the windows.

“Some of it was inspired by things I saw and heard on the journey, other parts by the effects a train carriage has on the twisted mind of a crime writer. Over the journey from London to Harrogate I wrote the entire first draft, whilst also managing quite a bit of window-gazing, tea-drinking and even the odd glass of wine or two.”

Tuesday 17 July 2012

Dreaded Sports Day - and the film of How I Live Now

The one thing I don’t miss from my children’s schooldays is the dreaded sports day. It was almost always one of the worst days of the year. At one school the event was competitive in every sense – from the parents’ picnics to the 100 metre sprint. The same children won everything year after year while the less sporty boys and girls were consigned to a far corner of the athletics track doing supposedly “fun” things like throwing hoops and hopping, skipping and jumping. My exuberant son didn’t think they were fun at all.

At his secondary school, I’m glad to say, the whole thing was far more relaxed. Everyone took part in three events, there were no picnics and In between races, the children wandered around in the sunshine. Everyone got a Zoom ice lolly for their efforts and instead of feeling like an abject failure by the end of the afternoon my son was on top of the world.

Some critics sneer at the “all shall have prizes” approach of some schools – but I reckon that when you're only 11 sports day should be wall-to-wall fun.

Mind you, the most competitive participants at the sports days I went to were the parents. My daughter’s first school, a tiny primary in the wilds of North Yorkshire, always held a mothers’ race.

A lovely mum who was incredibly laid-back the rest of the year was so determined to win that as soon as the whistle went she developed a competitive instinct Paula Radcliffe would be proud of. One year she came a cropper when she tripped halfway down the school field, tore a ligament and had to be carted off in an ambulance. The children – from reception right through to year 6 – were utterly gripped. It was the most dramatic finish to a sports day they’d ever seen.

PS. I’m thrilled to hear that one of my favourite books, How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff, is being filmed. It’s being directed by Kevin Macdonald (of The Last King of Scotland fame) and stars Saoirse Ronan (above) as Daisy, the teenage New Yorker sent to England to stay with her cousins. It's due out in 2013 and I'm certain it will be a must-see...

Monday 16 July 2012

Line of Duty - the only TV drama worth watching

Line of Duty is absolutely the only thing worth watching on TV right now. Jed Mercurio’s script is witty, exciting and leaves you wanting more at the end of every single episode.

The BBC2 drama has a stellar cast that includes the likes of Adrian Dunbar, Gina McKee, Lenny James, Neil Morrissey and Vicky McClure. But up-and-coming Martin Compston gives a standout performance as DC Steve Arnett, a young copper who clocks that the target of the anti-corruption case he is working on is a top detective.

Compston began his career as a footballer, before realising that acting was his true vocation. And though his character in Line of Duty speaks with a London accent, he is actually Scottish. But he was so determined to stay in character that he kept his London twang going right the way through filming, even when he wasn’t acting. His fellow actors were nonplussed when he reverted to his real-life Scottish accent at the wrap party.

Compston’s ablity to switch accents at the drop of a hat reminded me so much of my mum. She grew up in Leigh, Lancashire, and spoke with a broad Lancashire accent till the age of 18.

But she always dreamed of making it as an actress and when she left school won a highly prized place at London’s Guildhall School of Music & Drama.

One of my favourite stories from her book, Class Act, was about ditching her accent en route to drama school. “I got on the train at Warrington Bank Quay station with a Lancashire accent,” she wrote, “and got off at Euston without it, which meant I had to speak very slowly for a very long time.”

Sunday 15 July 2012

Flat-hunting in Paris

My daughter and my husband are in Paris this weekend. Their mission? To find a flatshare for her year at university there. Luckily they struck gold on the first day so they’ve spent the rest of the weekend with our dear Parisian friend Anne Marie. They've visited the Louvre, wandered along the Boulevard St Germain and watched the Bastille Day parades (complete with military jets trailing patriotic streaks of red, white and blue across the sky).

I am so envious - and plan to visit my daughter lots in the coming months. Paris, I reckon, is one of the most civilised cities on earth. Everyone looks stylish – even the pigeons seem sleeker and less down-at-heel than their ragged UK cousins.

I remember sitting with my daughter in a café at the Palais Royal (above) a couple of years ago. An elegant orchestra played Vivaldi in the square, elderly ladies walked tiny dogs on long leads ("rats on strings,” said my husband) and roller bladers whizzed past at death-defying speed. Thanks to the dire exchange rate, the prices were eye-wateringly high – eleven euros for a lunchtime baguette and a glass of bourgogne blanc. But considering we sat there for hours, enjoying the music and soaking up the atmosphere, we probably got our money’s worth. Even better, all the museums and galleries we visited let under-26s go free, so sightseeing didn’t cost us an arm and a leg. Just an arm.

Other highlights were dinner at La Coupole, the famous brasserie where Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were regulars, and a visit to an amazing emporium called Merci.

Launched by the founders of chic children’s fashion store Bonpoint, Merci is utterly gorgeous. Housed in an old factory in the fashionable Marais district, it sells furniture, flowers, clothes (new and vintage), pictures and Annick Goutal perfume. All the profits go to a children’s charity in Madagascar and there’s even a used-book cafe where you can sit in an old leather armchair, sip an espresso and peruse the books. My son called it a “do I really need it” sort of shop - and, devoted dad though he is, I can guarantee that my husband definitely won’t have set foot in the place this weekend.

PS. I adore Emma Chichester Clark’s illustrations and if you’re a fan too, take a look at her new blog. Plumdog Blog relates the adventures of a sweet little dog called Plum, with pictures and words by Emma. It’s adorable.

Friday 13 July 2012

Friday book review - Tuesday's Gone by Nicci French

My son gazed out of the car window and sighed. “If it doesn’t stop raining soon I’m going to leave Oxford and go and live somewhere hot,” he said.

I could understand his frustration. He’s just taken up road biking with a vengeance and five miles out of Oxford, lashed by wind and rain, his bike had suffered a flat tyre. He didn‘t have a puncture kit or bike pump so he did the next best thing and rang and asked me to collect him. No problem, except it was rush hour and by the time I got there he was dejected and completely drenched.

With rain forecast for the next few days (probably the next few months) I reckon there’s only one thing for it. Don’t emigrate, just batten down the hatches and get reading. As the rain pelted down, I curled up on my sofa and whizzed through Nicci French’s new novel in one go.

I’ve blogged about my admiration for Nicci French before. Nicci French is actually two writers - Suffolk-based husband and wife Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, who turn out cracking psychological thrillers. They have now launched a new eight-book crime series featuring a psychotherapist called Frieda Klein and I’m completely hooked.

The second in the series, Tuesday’s Gone, is out next week, and it’s even better than the first, Blue Monday. I’m very squeamish and the opening scene, where a social worker discovers a rotting, naked corpse in a delapidated Deptford flat, stopped me in my tracks. But I was so desperate to discover who he was and why on earth the confused woman living there kept trying to serve him afternoon tea that even if I’d wanted to, I simply couldn’t stop reading.

The copper leading the police investigation, DCI Karlsson (no one ever uses his first name), calls in Frieda Klein to help him get to the bottom of it all. And the deeper Frieda digs, the murkier the story gets.

Frieda is an intriguing character, with a complicated family history, an on-off lover and a fondness for walking the streets of London in the dead of night.

But after reading Tuesday's Gone I feel I’m getting to know her better. And with a plot that kept me on the edge of my seat and the promise of six more to come, all I can say is “ roll on book three…”

Tuesday's Gone by Nicci French (Michael Joseph, £12.99)

Thursday 12 July 2012

Dressing up to the nines for the school run

My school run days are long gone.

But even though I’m nostalgic about those mornings when my daughter and I walked hand in hand to her North Yorkshire primary school I’m relieved about one thing. There was absolutely no pressure whatsoever to look chic at the school gate. We Iived in a windswept farming village, so the most common look for mums was mud-spattered wellies, coats and scarves. None of us turned up in Made in Heaven jeans, Joseph jackets or Kurt Geiger shoes. And rather than carrying Mulberry bags, we clutched book bags, show and tell treasures and lunch boxes.

Now the trend to dress up to the nines on the school run is gathering pace. Yummy mummy superstars like Gwyneth Paltrow and Elle Macpherson get praised to the skies for their school gate style and loads of bloggers proudly post daily pictures of the outfits they’ve worn for that morning’s drop off.

The August issue of Easy Living magazine features a piece showcasing seven mums on “the school runway” in Newcastle upon Tyne.

They all have glowing skin, immaculate hair and full make-up. One wears a Missoni dress, Prada sunglasses and Nine West wedges, while another is in a Hugo Boss suit and Gucci sandals.

It’s galling to admit this, but they’ve clearly put more effort into their school gate outfits than I do for a posh wedding…

Wednesday 11 July 2012

The Tour de France and other biking matters

School’s out for my teenage son, who’s finished his scary exams and plans to spend the next six weeks on his bike. His new obsession has coincided neatly with the Tour de France so when he’s not on the road, he’s glued to Bradley Wiggins on the TV.

Every morning he appears in the kitchen, clad in his Lycra cycling gear. He fills a couple of water bottles, stuffs some flapjacks in his pockets, grabs his helmet and cycling shoes and then he’s off. If I’m lucky he’ll give me a vague idea of where he’s going and how many miles he’s planning but that’s about it.

The truth is that I’m a bit torn about his new hobby. It’s fantastic that he’s out in the fresh air every day getting tons of exercise. But he got cut up by a car in Oxford the other day (he clocked the driver’s idiocy so managed to duck out of her way at the last minute) and being a natural born worrier, I can’t help fretting.

Mind you, another plus is that he’s getting to know the countryside like the back of his hand. He hasn’t got a swanky GPS or data roaming on his phone so he tries to memorise his routes before he sets off. But his memory occasionally lets him down. Cue a phone call on Sunday afternoon saying “can you look at the map for me? I think I’ve gone the wrong way. I’m just the other side of High Wycombe.”

PS. When you’re taking the scenic route rather than the motorway, High Wycombe is a good 35 miles from Oxford…

Tuesday 10 July 2012

Not on the High Street - the best place to buy presents

Setting up your own business (and turning it into a rip-roaring success) is tough. So hats off to Sophie Cornish and Holly Tucker, who’ve turned a gem of an idea into a business with millions of customers and a cool £26 million turnover.

Sophie and Holly set up their shopping website notonthehighstreet.com six years ago. They both love browsing for the kind of unique, gorgeous things that “you might stumble across in cool urban markets, village fairs and tucked away boutiques” - and hit on the idea of launching a website where everyone can buy them.

When they started they had around 100 hand-picked small businesses on board. Now there are more than 3,000, with more joining by the day. I buy virtually all my presents from notonthehighstreet.com these days – from a More Than Words personalised bag (above) for my daughter to a stack of stunning blue and white bowls from Horsfall and Wright for my sister. The only trouble is that there are so many stunning items I can easily while away hours on the site.

It’s been a long, hard slog to build the business into the shining star it is today though. As Sophie (the daughter of bestselling novelist Penny Vincenzi) told Grazia magazine last week: “It wasn’t just us that needed to make this work, it was also the small businesses who had bought into us – they were relying on us.”

And now the duo have added a new string to their bow. They’ve learned so much over the years that they’ve written a guide for other budding entrepreneurs. Build a Business from your Kitchen Table came out last week and gives advice on everything from finance and investment to marketing and PR. So if you’re inspired by Sophie and Holly’s story and want to launch your own business, the first step could be to read their book…

Build a Business from your Kitchen Table by Sophie Cornish and Holly Tucker (Simon & Schuster, £14.99)

Monday 9 July 2012

The day my daughter made me a CD

The windscreen wipers were going at top speed as we drove home from the stupendous Laura Marling concert on Saturday night.

But the singer’s performance had been so uplifting that nothing could dampen our spirits – not even the torrential rain, nor a disagreement (I mean discussion) about which radio station to listen to. My daughter rejected Radio 4 as “boring,” while I only had to hear the first few bars of a Sean Paul dance number on Capital FM to shudder in horror.

So my daughter rummaged around the back of the car to try and find a CD we’d both like – and amazingly found THIS. She shoved it in the CD player and it was like going back eight years in time.

In the summer of 2004 my mum was gravely ill and I spent as much time in Dorset with her as I could. My daughter, who was only 12, often came with me and as we headed south down the A34 she always took charge of the music. Neither of us had an iPod back then and in an attempt to cheer me up in troubled times she played DJ. With a stack of CD cases on her lap, she’d constantly switch from one to another, playing a track off a Joan Armatrading CD, then one from a Rolling Stones album, and then one from The Stereophonics, all the way to the Purbeck hills.

That Christmas, my daughter gave me one of the loveliest presents ever. It was a compilation of all the tracks she’d played me in the car during those dark months. I played it so much that I’m surprised it didn’t wear to bits. But then I bought my first iPod and CDs became a thing of the past. Until Saturday, when she played it all over again… 

Sunday 8 July 2012

Laura Marling plays the Royal Albert Hall

Whether you’re an old-timer or a young ingenue, performing in front of 5,000 people must be pretty daunting.

But 22-year-old Laura Marling showed barely a trace of nerves when she took the stage for a one-off show at London’s Royal Albert Hall last night.

Newly returned from an American tour, she said she and her five-piece band had been away a long time and claimed they were “terrified.” You’d never have known it from her performance, which was as cool and self-assured as ever.

Marling, who despite her tender age has three bestselling albums to her name and recently finished writing her fourth, isn’t like other singers. She doesn’t do gimmicks or banter and far from looking glammed up or flashy onstage she wore a simple long black dress and trainers, tuned her guitars in between numbers and concentrated on singing her heart out. She featured two new songs (even though “it’s not what you’re supposed to do at gigs”), admitting along the way that her parents would be “quaking” and there was a possibility she might “mess up.” She didn’t, of course.

Whether she was performing the haunting Night after Night alone or the recent single Sophia with her band, Marling’s gorgeous voice stopped us all in our tracks. One fan was so pole-axed that he yelled “you’re a legend” at her, while another shouted “I want to have your babies, Laura.” “You’re making me blush,” she said quietly before launching into the next number.

Another notable thing about Laura Marling is that she doesn’t do encores. But at least she’s straight-talking and warns the audience in advance. With two songs to go, she told us: “If you wanted an encore, then this is the last number. If you didn’t want an encore, then this is the second to last.”

As ever, she was true to her word. As we rose from our seats to pay tribute to her jaw-dropping talent, she jumped off the circular stage, hurried through the stalls and was gone before we had time to blink.

Friday 6 July 2012

Friday book review - Cox by Kate Lace

My desk is piled high with review books right now. But there’s one particular novel that catches everyone’s attention. It’s Cox, Kate Lace’s latest book, which as well as the saucy title has an even saucier cover and strapline. Most important of all though, it’s a cracking story that deserves to fly off the shelves.

Fabulous magazine wittily called the book “Jilly Cooper in a boat,” and it’s the perfect description. If you like Cooper’s Riders, then you’ll love this tale of two rival rowers battling for a place in the London 2012 team.

One is the dark, brooding Dan (my favourite) while the other is the rich, arrogant Rollo (who I suspect Kate Lace secretly prefers). The pair went to the same posh school, though Dan’s mum was the dinner lady, while Rollo’s parents own a Downton Abbey-like pile with a tree-lined drive, lake, stables and scores of ancestral portraits. Dan and Rollo both won coveted places at Oxford, are both brilliant rowers and are now in fierce competition on the river too (though Rollo has a few dirty tricks up his sleeve to foil Dan).

Just to complicate matters further, they’re both keen on the same girl – Amy, a petite physiotherapist who works at Oxford’s John Radcliffe hospital and is a rowing cox in her spare time. Misunderstandings galore, Lycra-clad men, thrilling races and loads of steamy sex scenes (starting on page one) make for a fun summer read – or to quote Fabulous again, an “oar-some” one.

Cox by Kate Lace (Arrow, £6.99)

Thursday 5 July 2012

A year in France

When our children were little we took the plunge and uprooted to the French city of Orléans, on the banks of the Loire. My husband was offered a job working for a dynamic (and scary) Australian tycoon who’d snapped up a French business, so we crossed the channel, rented an old house covered in vines and enrolled our daughter at the local école maternelle

Ten months later the scary tycoon changed his mind about the project. We moved back to the UK and took up where we'd left off – older, wiser and a bit better at speaking French. But sorting my office out this week, I came across some columns I wrote in Orléans and the memories came flooding back. Here are some extracts:

“My daughter finishes school this week for the long summer holiday. Despite being the only non-French child in the whole school she’s coped brilliantly. She can now speak a few words in French, count to ten and has made firm friends with a group of five-year-olds in the next class up. One of them, a little girl called Philippine, lives near us and the pair of them kiss each other on the cheeks when they meet and hold hands all the way to school.”

“My two-year-old son’s hair, bleached even whiter by the sun, is the subject of much comment in the boulangerie. ‘That hair will keep you in your old age,’ one old man told me admiringly.”

“The French are intensely proud of their cheese. Charles de Gaulle once claimed there were more than 400 varieties of the stuff so we’re trying as many as we can. But my husband was stunned when I went to Paris for the day, stumbled across a branch of Marks & Spencer and couldn’t resist buying a packet of mature Cheddar. ‘It’s absolutely sacrilege,’ he protested when I got home. ‘How can you buy English cheese in France?’”

“I never realised how seriously the French take their holidays. Instead of staggering their time off work throughout the year, everyone goes away in August. By late July my daughter’s schoolfriends have all disappeared to the seaside, my husband’s office is virtually empty and even the local grocer has shut up shop for the month. When our neighbours realise we’ve booked our grandes vacances for September, they are absolutely astonished. 'Oh la la,' exclaims Marie Therese, our next-door neighbour. 'You’ll be the only people in the entire district in August.'”

“All the houses in Orléans, old and new, have shutters – to keep them secure and, in high summer, cool. We have seven pairs on the ground floor alone and closing them at night and opening them in the morning is quite a job. I haven’t quite got the knack of it yet. As I opened the dining room shutters this morning I almost beheaded a woman walking along the pavement.”

Wednesday 4 July 2012

Why are boys falling behind in reading?

The National Literacy Trust has revealed that boys are falling behind in reading. Sixty thousand boys aren’t reaching the required levels of reading at 11 and three out of four schools in the UK are concerned about boys’ reading. Lots of boys reckon reading is boring, girly and "geeky" and prefer watching TV or playing computer games to settling down with a good book.

It’s a perennial problem and every teacher I know is desperate to get to grips with it. Earlier this week prolific novelist and former children’s laureate Michael Morpurgo wrote an insightful piece in the Guardian suggesting strategies like introducing a “dedicated half hour” at the end of every primary school day devoted to “the simple enjoyment of reading and writing” and regular visits from storytellers, theatre groups, writers and librarians.

It’s excellent advice, but then again it’s not exactly rocket science and many schools are already doing all this. And what about older boys? At 17, my son would far rather be getting on his bike or playing on the Xbox, even though he was a voracious reader when he was younger.

Part of the reason for his early enthusiasm, I’m sure, was that we’re all mad on reading in our house and every room is piled high with books. So when he saw the rest of us reading, he simply joined in.

We had weekly trips to the library, spent loads of Saturday mornings in the bookshop and over the years reading became part of his DNA – not quite as important as biking, but nearly. He liked ripping yarns full of action, adventure and daring deeds so he worked his way through all Anthony Horowitz’s novels, as well as Robert Muchamore’s Cherub series, Charlie Higson’s Young Bond trilogy and Joe Craig’s Jimmy Coates adventure books.

So instead of handing over responsibility for boys’ reading to schools, I reckon parents should be doing their bit too. But as for keeping boys' enthusiasm for reading going in their mid-teens, I’m stuck for ideas. Any suggestions?

Monday 2 July 2012

Boy on a bike

Selfridge’s, Cos, Space NK, The Hambledon in Winchester – just a few of my favourite shops. But I reckon the emporium I’m going to be frequenting more than any other this summer is Beeline Bicycles in Oxford’s Cowley Road.

After years of being obsessed with BMX bikes and mountain bikes, my teenage son has now taken up road biking. And as always, he never does anything by halves.

But before he got pedalling we had to track down his dad’s 20-year-old road bike – a mission that involved driving halfway across a massive disused airbase in the middle of rural Oxfordshire. Our aim? To hunt down the storage container where the bike's been languishing for years. With rows of derelict buildings, pot-holed runways and security guards, the base looked like something out of an Anthony Horowitz novel. We were pretty sure that if we took a wrong turn, we’d never be seen again.

It took us a few attempts to find it, but finally the removal boss wheeled a retro-looking pink and yellow road bike into his office. My son looked appalled at the girly colours but perked up no end when he realised the bike was rideable.

Next on the agenda was a trip to Beeline to get him kitted out with pedals, cleats, shoes, bike helmet (as opposed to the tin lid he uses for dirt jumping), water bottles and a ton of Lycra. As he inspected the new kit, the dynamic leader of the local cycling club arrived and nodded approvingly at the bike. “That’s the kind of bike I started out on,” he said. “We go out cycling every Saturday morning. Why don’t you join us?”

My son nodded with alacrity, making a mental note of the time and place. “And your mum can come along too,” he added. My son’s face was a picture. It was plain what he was thinking. Biking and mums do not go together.
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