Sunday, 29 November 2015


"Books help to form us." says Susan Hill in her memoir, Howards End is on the Landing, "If you cut me open, will you find volume after volume, page after page, the contents of every one I have ever read, somehow transmuted and transformed into me? Alice in Wonderland, The Magic Faraway Tree. The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Book of Job. Bleak House. Wuthering Heights. The Complete Poems of W.H.Auden. The Tale of Mr Tod. Howards End. What a strange person I must be. But if the books I have read have helped to form me, then probably nobody else who ever lived has read exactly the same books, all the same books and only the same books, as me. So just as my genes and the soul within me make me uniquely me, so I am the unique sum of the books I have read. I am my literary DNA".

Howards End is on the Landing is a marvellous memoir, not only for the insights it gives into Hill's 'literary DNA', but also for the people she's met: E.M Forster is a 'small man with thinning hair and a melancholy moustache' who drops a book on her foot in the London Library, there's kind Sacheverall Sitwell and his terrifying sister, Edith, with her extraordinary eyes, 'huge, heavily lidded, mesmerising, half-closed like the eyes of an apparently sleeping but terribly watchful crocodile' and asks a young Hill which poetry she has by heart. There's T.S Eliot, at a party, Elizabeth Jane Howard, W.H.Auden, Roald Dahl, Benjamin Britten, Ian Fleming, Iris Murdoch - I can't think of a more beguiling and breathtaking list of cultural greats. Only V.S Naipaul sounds less than a treat: they meet at Radio 4, Susan Hill is to interview him on Bookshelf.
"When he comes up to me and takes my hand in his silken ones, he bows.'I am most honoured to meet...' a pause. Then '...the wife of the distinguished Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells.'
Typically generous, Hill goes on to say 'there is surely no novelist writing since the 1950's who is greater than Naipaul'.

Re-reading Howards End is on the Landing, those words - 'I am the unique sum of the books I have read' - spring out at me. I first read it in 2009, and somehow, the fascinating idea of a writer's literary DNA must have tucked itself away into my unconscious. When I conceived The Books That Built Me, I thought it was the exchange between Elizabeth Jane Howard and Martin Amis that had inspired the salon's conceit, but perhaps my preoccupation with exploring the relationship between the books an author reads and the books they write owes a greater debt to Susan Hill: Howards End is on the Landing grafted itself into my own literary DNA, and the result is The Books That Built Me.

 I love her work - I'm the King of the Castle, Strange Meeting and The Woman in Black are a masterclass in characterisation, deft plotting and a vivid sense of place underpinned by supple, lucid, evocative prose. I loved going through her 'Final Forty' list of books at the back of Howards End is on the Landing and seeing so many of the books I also love there. And I've loved re-reading the five books she has chosen for her Books That Built Me, and tracing a line back into her writing.

Eventbrite - THE BOOKS THAT BUILT ME: SUSAN HILL, DECEMBER 2015So, on 8th December, at the Club at Cafe Royal, I will touch the hand that's touched the hand of E.M Forster and T.S Eliot, and have the great privilege of talking to an author I admire enormously. Do join me, Tatler, Champagne Bollinger and Prestat chocolate for The Books That Built Susan Hill.

Buy Strange Meeting for £5.99

Howards End is on the Landing: A year of reading from home

Friday, 20 November 2015


'Confidence is the key to success,' said Deborah Meaden when I interviewed her at an event at Annabel's last week, 'And it's what I always try to instill in my people'. 
And it's true, no matter how talented you are, if you're unable to squash the insidious voice in your head that tells you you're not good enough, you won't succeed. You need to believe in yourself.
You can if you think you can. 

Clockwise from top left: Astley Clarke Kula bracelets; my place setting at The Arts Club; selection of Astley Clarke Biography pins

It's easier said than done - over the years, I've become practised at oozing a veneer of self-belief. The truth is, I'm always quaking inside, convinced I'll be unmasked. I was particularly quakey about interviewing Deborah Meaden for Annabel's - I know about books, so talking to authors at The Books That Built Me every month is well-within my comfort zone, but steering a conversation about someone's life and successes for a large audience felt very daunting. Try as I might, I was failing to psych myself up: I couldn't find my confidence mojo. 

The morning of the interview, my consciously incompetent self was crying out for something tangible to prompt my self-belief. The universe has a way of giving you what you need, when you need it, albeit in unexpected ways, and I found it at a press breakfast given by Astley Clarke.

Astley Clarke is one of the great success stories of online retailing. Founded by Bec Astley Clarke in 2006 to celebrate the best in fine jewellery design, the company grew quickly and began to create their own collections with an ethos to inspire intelligent modern women to wear relaxed fashionable jewellery. One of Astley Clarke's signatures is the Biography Collection, and the purpose of the breakfast was to launch a new iteration of their famous friendship bracelet - the Kula collection (pictured above) -and to introduce Biography Pins: a clever new take on brooches, a selection of fourteen of Astley Clarke's favourite charms, each of which has a symbolic meaning, and can be worn on lapels, or on a scarf or hat, or anywhere and in any combination. 

It's a fun, accessible way to jazz up an outfit, but more than that, it struck me at once that you could edit your selection to act as a little aide memoire, to remind you that 'you can if you think you can'. I've never really been one for talismans, but with my nerves jangling about the interview, I knew I could really use a lucky charm. I opened my Astley Clarke box and there, in some gorgeously karmic coincidence,  was a Hamsa pin - a symbol of protection that brings blessings, power and strength, and a lightning bolt, to symbolise creativity and inspiration: Sometimes, things do come into your life at exactly the moment you need them.
I'm wearing the Hamsa the wrong way up, don't judge me.

Later that evening, in the taxi back home after the Annabel's event with the brilliant, witty, inspiring Deborah Meaden, I was fiddling with the pins I'd stuck to my lapel and I was reminded of Glinda in the Wizard of Oz when she says to Dorothy, 'You always had the power, my dear, you just had to learn it for yourself' and I thought, thank you, Astley Clarke for providing me with the perfect study aid.

Astley Clarke Biography pins from £45

Astley Clarke, 6 Junction Mews London W2 (also stocked in Selfridges, Liberty, and other stores nationwide)

For US Stockists, please click here

Confidence also comes from putting your best face forward, of course: it helps if there's no distracting voice in your head telling you your hair is a mess, your eye makeup makes you look tired and your shirt gaps at the bosom. Skincare and cosmetics brand, Eve Lom, partnered Astley Clarke at the breakfast to show off a lovely new product, Illuminating Radiance Powder, a very finely milled golden powder with rose shaped particles and mother of pearl extract. It comes complete with brush, so all you need to do is to shake it gently and sweep on subtle, light-reflecting highlights for instant desk-to-dinner glamour. Or if you're all over the strobing lark (I'm no expert selfie-ist, so it's safe to say that strobing is a completely new word for me) you can unscrew the bottom and use a finger tip to stroke the powder directly onto cheekbones and so on. 
Eve Lom Illuminating Radiance Powder inexpertly yet joyously applied

I really love the way it bounces light away from one's face, which has an excellent anti-ageing effect (see below for a picture of me in the harsh winter daylight - can you see my wrinkles? No, you cannot. I call that a result.)

 I daresay, if you're good at instagram and contouring, you'd be able to give yourself the cheekbones of Ursula Andress. 
It smells delicious and it's now an essential in my 'Tube to Party' makeup bag (other marvellous insta-glam discoveries include Charlotte Tilbury's utterly foolproof Colour Chameleon eye pencil - crayon it on and smudge with a finger for smokey eyes in a trice and Tom Ford lipstick in Wilful, a subtle, glossy red which looks chic rather than disco)

Eve Lom Illuminating Radiance Powder £50 Available from Space NK and other Eve Lom stockists.

Sunday, 15 November 2015


Wuthering Heights feels like a much darker book now than the one I read at university. Then, it was rich pickings for a cynical student looking for decent marks - one could pick out its psychoanalytic aspects to please a Freud obsessed lecturer, scribbling reams of half-baked thoughts about Penistone Crag and the fairy cave beneath, or about virginity myths and menstruation taboos when the Linton's dog bites Catherine's ankle, about Heathcliff being Catherine's id and Edgar Linton her super-ego. I wrote yet another essay about ghosts, doubling and the Untheimlich (the uncanny) for a professor whose special focus was The Gothic, and another which took a structuralist approach for a third lecturer whose obsession was Derrida (though rereading it, I've no idea how I pulled that off).

Cafe Colbert, Sloane Square. Warm and civilised, unlike Wuthering Heights.
Narratives are never fixed. The plot stays the same yet the reader's perspective is all - what you bring to a book changes it, you inscribe yourself on a novel. My Wuthering Heights was different every time I read it, either in harness to my degree, or because Kate Bush was a powerful cultural influence (not joking - I'd never have come across Bronte, Delius, Hammer Horror, or Kierkegaard if Kate hadn't sung about them and made them sound sexy and mysterious), or because, like now, I'm reading it because Jason Hewitt chose it as one of his 'Books That Built Me', so yet again the story is filtered through a new lens. This time, I'm reading it to locate how Bronte builds the dark, unsettling, claustrophobic texture of the novel - like the moors, Catherine and Heathcliff and Wuthering Heights are savage and uncivilisable - they are part of it, unlike the Thrushcross Grange, Lintons and Lockwood. In death, it's as if the moor reclaims her; Catherine is buried in a corner of the graveyard where 'the wall is so low that heath and bilberry plants have climbed over it from the moor; and peat mould almost buries it'. This sense of a power struggle between the passionate wildness of nature and the controlled, civilising effects of man is also in the house itself - Isabella arrives at Wuthering Heights after marrying Heathcliff to find once expensive furniture thick with dust, once bright pewter dark with tarnish, rich curtains in tatters, torn from their fastenings.
In Hewitt's Dynamite Room and Devastation Road you can see traces of this - part of the success of his writing is that he inscribes the powerless of the individual by embuing a house, a road, a river, an empty field with a dark sense of menace.

 I like Wuthering Heights less and less every time I read it - it feels overwrought, self-absorbed, childish now; perhaps I've had a surfeit of it. The fault is in me, of course, because it's one of the Great Books, but four essays and two Books That Built Me later, I can't say I haven't mined its depths. For me, civilisation has triumphed over savagery, and I'm glad to be here in Cafe Colbert, the Thrushcross Grange of the Corbin and King empire, drinking a decent capuccino, surrounded by efficient, unobtrusive and beautifully courteous service, a world away from the belligerent, pious slovenliness of Joseph, amongst ladies waiting politely for Peter Jones to open.

Sunday, 8 November 2015


I have never written a ghost story merely to evoke a shudder. I cannot see the point in simply making people afraid. I want to do more. I want the reader to ask questions, to ponder, to be intrigued and to create an atmosphere from which the story will emerge.

Susan Hill is one of Britain's most celebrated writers. The author of more than twenty-six novels, and many works of non-fiction, children's books, plays and short-stories, she is not only a prodigious literary talent, but also pleasingly prolific ; small wonder she was made CBE for services to literature.
Recently, her Simon Serrailler series of crime novels has brought her huge success in a new genre, but it's as a writer of ghost stories many of us know her best, not least because of the extraordinary success of The Woman In Black.
Having read many of her books over the years - my first was the chilling and moving first world war novella Strange Meeting - I'm a lifelong fan, and Susan Hill's Books That Built Me will be an enormous treat. I'm very much looking forward to seeing you there.

Thursday, 29 October 2015


When last I went to Daphne's, towards the end of the last century, it was the haunt of well-heeled euro-sloanes, reasonably chic in the way that a private doctor's waiting room on Harley Street is chic - not much going on in the way of conversation but reassuringly expensive.

Brompton Cross was always the no-man's land of the monied - entirely populated by under occupied flicky-haired women, legs like gazelles, engaged in a desultory wander round Joseph to kill the time between a blow dry at Hari's and lunch at Daphne's with her doppelgänger. Despite being a lifelong WestLondoner, I could never see the point of Brompton Cross: it seemed so determined to emphasise how out of place I was there. So I stopped going.

Anyway, it has changed. Or at least Daphne's has. Joseph, Hari's and Chanel are hardy perennials, but Daphne's has improved dramatically. Now part of Caprice Holdings (Ivy, Sheekeys, Sexy Fish etc), it has gone all Italian. Out has gone the screamingly nineties inferior decoration, and it is now Milan by way of Sloane Avenue, self assured, elegant, closer to the Caprice than to the Ivy in style and with a set lunch menu priced attractively enough to bring in the frequent luncher, not just the hedge fund crowd. Good bread, good olive oil, chilled Eau de Robinet, and there I sat waiting for my lunch guest reading the new Faber edition of The Bell Jar, and leafing through a book of Sylvia Plath's exqusite pencil drawings and marvelling at her prodigious talent. She would have been eighty three on Tuesday. Happy Birthday Sylvia Plath.

Monday, 28 September 2015


Something To Hide is Deborah Moggach's eighteenth novel. Whilst it has all her trademark wit, warmth and wisdom, it's undercut with a darker edge - the things we have to hide may be more troubling than a few weathered skeletons clanking in the closet.

It begins with Petra, whose love life has always been catastrophic. In her sixties, she's older, but no wiser about men - she entertains her best friend's husband with tales of her 'romantic disasters. From the safety of the marital bed, couples like to hear about the hurly-burly of the chaise longue' but the marital bed is far from safe, and they fall in love. Untroubled by guilt - after all, Petra reasons, Bev's had Jeremy for thirty five years and perhaps it's her turn - their affair trundles along as one might expect in a comedy of manners, until Petra is called to West Africa by Bev, right to the heart of darkness. 
Moggach weaves the lives of three other women into the story, all of whom struggle with secrets and betrayals in their own way - Petra's best friend, Bev, whose husband she's been borrowing, and American Lorrie, cheated of her life savings and with her soldier husband away in the Middle East, she embarks on a vast deception rather than confess to the loss of the money.  In China Li-Jing is struggling with infertility and trying to understand exactly what it is her husband does on his West African business trips. No matter where you are in the world, it seems everyone has something to hide. 
I first came across Deborah Moggach's work in Tulip Fever, set in Amsterdam at the height of the tulip mania that gripped the Dutch in the early seventeenth century, in which a painter and his sitter fall in love, and have always loved her writing. She's best known for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, but has also written many screenplays, including my favourite Pride and Prejudice (the one with Kiera Knightley - don't hate me) and television adaptations. I'm enormously excited that she will be November's guest at The Books That Built Me - tickets are available here

Sunday, 20 September 2015


I'm not quite sure how to describe Max Porter's Grief is the Thing with Feathers, other than to say it's breathtaking, original, experimental, heartrending  and is inspired by Ted Hughes Crow, which Hughes wrote in the aftermath of Plath's death.  It's part prose poem, part novel - a spare, poetic story of a widowed father and his two sons, who are visited by Crow, babysitter, trickster, healer, antagonist, who threatens to stay until they no longer need him. 
I have stolen (please let me know if this is highly illegal) an excerpt from Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, originally printed in The Guardian a few days ago, and appended it below. No review I could write would show the extraordinary power of Porter's prose better than this extended quotation could. 

Extract from Grief is the Thing With Feathers

Once upon a time there was a demon who fed on grief. The delicious aroma of raw shock and unexpected loss came wafting from the doors and windows of a widower’s sad home.
Therefore the demon set about finding his way in.
One evening the babes were freshly washed and the husband was telling them tales when there was a knock on the door.
Rat-a-tat-tat. “Open up, open up, it’s me from 56. It’s … Keith. Keith Coleridge. I need to borrow some milk.”
But the sensible father knew there was no number 56 on the quiet little street, so he did not open the door.
The next night the demon tried again.
Rat-a-tat-tat. “Open up, open up, I’m from Parenthesis Press. It’s Paul. Paul … Graves. I heard the news. I’m truly gutted it’s taken me this long to come over. I’ve brought a pizza and some toys for the boys. 
But the attentive father knew there had been a Pete from Parenthesis and a Phil from Parenthesis, but never a Paul from Parenthesis, so he did not open the door.
The next night the demon ran at the door, flashing blue and crackling.
Rat-a-tat-tat. BANG. BANG. “Open up! Police! We know you’re in there, this is an emergency, you have five seconds to open the door or we will smash our way in.”
But the worldly grieving man knew a bit about the law and sensed a lie.
The demon went away and wondered what to do next. He was tabloid-despicable, so a powerful plan came to him.
Rat-a-tat-tat-tat. Knock. Knock. Knock. “Boys? It’s me. It’s Mum. Darling? Are you there? Boys, open the door, it’s me. I’m back. Sweetheart? Boys? Let me in.”
And the babes flung their duvets back in abandon, swung their little legs over the edge of the bed and scampered down the stairs. The chambers of their baffled baby hearts filled with yearning and they tingled, they bounded down towards before, before, before all this. The father, drunk on the voice of his beloved, raced down after them. The sound of her voice was stinging, like a moon-dragged starvation surging into every hopeless raw vacant pore, undoing, exquisite undoing.
“We are coming, Mum!”
Their friend and houseguest, who was a crow, stopped them at the door.
My loves, he said.
My dear, sorry loves. It isn’t her. Go back to bed and let me deal with this. It isn’t her.
The boys floated their crumpled crêpe-paper dad back up, one under each arm steering his weightlessness, and they laid him down to sleep. Then they sat at the window looking down and watching what happened and they liked it very much, for boys will be boys.
Crow went out, smiled, sniffed the air, nodded good evening and back-kicked the door shut behind him.
Then Crow demonstrated to the demon what happens when a crow repels an intruder to the nest, if there are babies in that nest:
One loud KRONK, a hop, a tap on the floor, a little distracted dance, a HONK, swivel and lift, as a discus swung up but not released but driven down atomically fixed and explosive, the beak hurled down hammer-hard into the demon’s skull with a crack and a spurt then smashed onwards down through bone, brain, fluid and membrane, into squirting spine, vertebra snap, vertebra crunch, vertebra nibbled and spat and one-two-three-four-five all the way down quick as a piranha, nipping, cutting, disassembling the material of the demon, splashing in blood and spinal gunk and shit and piss, unravelling innards, whipping ligaments and nerves about joyous spaghetti tangled wool hammering, clawing, ripping, snipping, slurping, burping, frankly loving the journey of hurting, hurting-hurting and for Crow it was like a lovely bin full of chip papers and ice cream and currywurst and baby robins and every nasty treat, physically invigorating like a westerly above the moor, like a bouncy castle elm in the wind, like old family pleasures of the deep species. And Crow stands thrilled in a pool of filth, patiently sweeping and toeing remains of demon into a drain-hole.
His work done, Crow struts and leaps up and down the street issuing warnings while the pyjama-clad boys clap and cheer – behind-glass-silent – from the bedroom window. Crow issues warnings to the wide city, warnings in verse, warnings in many languages, warnings with bleeding edges, warnings with humour, warnings with dance and sub-low threats and voodoo and puns and spectacular ancient ugliness.
Satisfied with his defence of the nest, Crow wanders in to find some food.