Sunday, 26 April 2015


I've lived near Askew Road for more than ten years. During that time, like most of London, it's evolved, but it has always attracted interesting, entrepreneurial, artisanal local businesses. 

Askew Wines came into being when Wine Rack went bust in the economic crisis - the manager bought the premises, and six years on has a brilliant, thriving shop built on a thoughtful edit of wines to suit all palates and pockets (you can buy something decent for about eight pounds or something spectacular for thirty, and all points between and beyond) and he also has a cabinet of oozing, unctuous, pungent French cheese, a collaboration with the french ex-pats favourite posh cheese shop in Kensington. 

Just off Askew Road is Starch Green, the studio of artist/designers Kate Fishenden and Jonathan Mercer, who create incredibly beautiful illustrations, woodcuts, prints, papers and other delights. I have a small collection of their illustrated jugs and other china, and harbour long-range ambitions to commission something from them, at a time when funds permit. 

The street also has a nice café - Laveli Bakery, previously an extremely ordinary caff which randomly made good croissants, bread and patisserie and has since slowly bettered itself and is now the café on the street: Mr Trefusis goes there daily for an americano, a pain au raisin, to read the papers and pass the time of day with his coterie of consultants and freelancers. 

The Tiniest Trefusis has a fondness for a super-hip new cake shop called 'Cake Me Baby', where you can commission fantastical birthday cakes in a range of colours and shapes I'd never previously imagined possible, they also make spectacular cupcakes and cake pops which make Hummingbird look like slackers - you can pop in for a coffee and a cake and to admire the very tiny dog (I thought he was a cake when we first popped in, but he was just asleep), or simply to gasp and marvel at their inventiveness. 

The latest addition to Askew Road is October 26 Bakery. Owner/baker/proprietor Raluca, pictured below, had always wanted to open a bakery, and jacked in the office job for a new life on the Askew Road, opening just five weeks ago. I've been walking past on my way to work, wondering why the windows are always steamed up, not realising that everything is made on the premises - isn't that a little bit marvellous?  I find it hard to believe Raluca hasn't been making bread all her life - it's the kind that would break even the most committed carb-avoider - crisp of crust, soft inside, so delicious tasting that the baguette I bought earlier hardly made it home because I kept breaking bits off and scoffing it in the street, giving little moans of greed as I walked. You have to get there early - unsurprisingly they sell out fast - once you've tasted bread from 26 October, it ruins you for lesser breads. Other sourdoughs seem like pastiche against Raluca's - like comparing prosecco to Bollinger. 

I'm imagining a summer in which long, leisurely lunches of good red wine and squidgy, stinky, wonderful cheeses from Malek's shop are accompanied by yards of Raluca's crunchy baguette or where a chilled Gewurtztraminer washes down gravadlax on slices of her rye and caraway seed loaf, or toasted sourdough tartines of goats cheese and fresh figs with a bottle of rosé.... And if the weather is rubbish, then knowing I have only to pop around the corner for amazing bread and cheese to have with hot, home-made soup will go a long way to compensate for the lack of sun. 

Friday, 24 April 2015


I can't be alone in thinking the internet is frying my brain.

More specifically, my iPhone is frying my brain - I am so appallingly addicted to it, I should have it surgically implanted: I can't seem to go more than two or three minutes without checking email, twitter, facebook, linked in, instagram (probably Periscope too, once I've worked out what on earth it's for), or googling some non-essential factoid.

In my darkest moments, I wonder if I've ever been properly productive since I first acquired one of the damn things in 2009. It has given me attention deficit disorder. It's a constant distraction. I've lost the ability to concentrate for long periods. I can't remember things as well as I used to - I don't need to, I can simply ask Mr Google.  I'm an internet bulimic, compulsively binging on vast amounts of McContent.

A brilliant friend of mine, Julia Hobsbawm, imposes 'techno Shabbat' on a Friday night. As one might expect from someone the Evening Standard called 'London's Networking Queen', for someone whose business pretty much requires her to be always on, trying to find a way of marking a division between work and family life requires a formal ritual . I'm not sure I have the discipline for twenty-four hours without the internet, but I do know that I need a digital detox. And, like tackling any addiction or compulsion, I need to put something else in its place to balance its absence.

I want my brain back.

I don't simply want it back, I want it to be as sharp and snappy as it once was. I want to take it to brain bootcamp. There's no point me trying Sudoku or some other spurious brain training thingy, it has to be something I enjoy or I'll relapse to the iPhone instantly. I need the Novel Cure...

There are some compelling studies that suggest reading literary fiction enhance brain connectivity. It's also proven to improve empathy. Perhaps reading more will rewire the damage I've done to my brain, if only I can train myself to read for long stretches of time without getting an attack of FOMO every five minutes and checking the iPhone. I also still have at least two and a half novels to read before The Books That Built Me next Tuesday.

If I had a doctor who could write me a private prescription, I'd take Modafinil (I think that's how one spells it). Modafinil it's a cognitive enhancement psychostimulant drug that sounds the absolute ticket, but it's probably like taking heroin to cure a caffeine addiction, so I'm going to support my efforts with something equally as modern but infinitely more natural. My friend Irina, who owns Purifyne, has given me her new range of juices called the Work Smart Juice Pack, which I'm going to try over the next few days. The juices come with special things to add - for instance, you pop Spirulina, a blue-green algae in a darky leafy vegetable juice to give a brain boosting shot of protein to all the vitamin C and iron to help prevent brain fatigue. It sounds like a much more nutritious espresso.

So, armed with nutritious novels, and juices with which to wash down the words, I'm switching off the internet tonight until tomorrow evening for a digital detox - do look forward to a brighter, shinier me - I feel all the zeal of the convert bubbling inside me, be warned.



A major selling exhibition of 300 cartoons and illustrations showcasing the best of America Cartoon Art from the last 100 years begins at Chris Beetles Gallery on 5th May. I particularly like this from Charles Schultz.

8 & 10 Ryder Street,
St James

Thursday, 23 April 2015


I don't like depressing books. Misery lit leaves me cold. The reason I put off reading Anna Karenina for nearly thirty years was because I assumed Russian novels would be awfully gloomy, on account of all the snow and vodka and endless numbers of characters. I had a huge Hardy binge as a teenager, when I was still blithe enough to sail past fictional tragedies unscathed but reached field level as I was about to begin Jude the Obscure and there it has glowered on the bookshelf, unread, ever since,  bleakly telegraphing a literary 'Keep Out' sign. 

Left to my own devices, I have a marked preference for books where the good end happily and the bad unhappily. Or perhaps, if the bad really can't bring themselves to end unhappily, then at least repentantly.  But above all, I like a novel that makes me laugh. Things that are simultaneously bleak and funny - like Down and Out in Paris and London - or have a peculiarly British blend of pathos and wit  - Lissa Evans' Crooked Heart and Nina Stibbe's Man at the Helm - have me at the opening page.  I like comedies of manners - Mitford and Pym and E.F Benson. I like my humour mordant too -  I love Muriel Spark no less for thinking she occasionally spills over into spite. I like the imaginative silliness of Terry Pratchett, the sharp satire of Waugh's Scoop and Decline and Fall, or Malcolm Bradbury's History Man, or Thomas Love Peacock's Nightmare Abbey. And I adore the straightforward blissful good-natured funniness of P.G Wodehouse. Real Life can be such a trudge, if one's going to escape into a novel, it ought to make the effort to be cheering. 

But, reader, it seems The Modern Novel must be gritty to have critical attention lavished upon it. Books in which terrible things happen to perfectly good people become the critic's darlings as if there's a secret points system for gloom, the literary equivalent of being selected for a free coffee at Pret A Manger. Praise is not reserved for the most-recently published - doom-love is backdatable: Stoner, written in 1965, became 2013's  'best-book-you've-never-heard-of, its author John Williams unleashes a catalogue of minor and unremitting disappointments on its hero without a glimmer of redemption. (I'll confess, despite its lack of laughs, I loved Stoner, and today is the 50th anniversary of its first publication: if you haven't read it, do, and if you have, have a listen to this excellent podcast)

Anyway, fortunately for all fans of amusing books, the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize, now in its 15th year, is determined to reward authors for being a tonic, and to celebrate the great British tradition - epitomised by Wodehouse - of comic fiction. On Monday evening, I went to a lovely party at The Goring which marked the publication of the 99th and final book in the Everyman Collected Wodehouse series, and also allowed the great and the good to raise a glass to the shortlisted authors for this year's Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize.
Sir Edward Cazelet, Wodehouse's literary executor talking about the literary legacy of his step-grandfather, here with  Everyman's David Campbell
Lovely John Franklin, Communications Director for Bollinger, resplendent in blues and greens, giving a very elegant speech about Bollinger's support for the prize for comic fiction.
Bollinger, and Wodehouse (marvellous combination) and one of Andrzej Klimowski's illustrations: all 99 books in the collection have his marvellous pictures
The six shortlisted novels are Nina Stibbe’s Man at the HelmHelen Lederer’s Losing It,Alexander McCall Smith’s Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party, Irvine Welsh’s A Decent Ride, Joseph O’Neill’s The Dog, and Caitlin Moran’s How To Build a Girl. I haven't read the Welsh, McCall Smith or O'Neill, and whilst I liked How To Build a Girl very much, I'm rooting for Nina Stibbe - Man at the Helm is as wickedly funny as the author herself, with brilliant moments of bathos, and, having met the utterly charming Helen Lederer at the party, I know Losing It is a treat in store. 
Nina Stibbe, shortlisted for the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Man at the Helm, and guest at The Books That Built Me last autumn and Rachel Johnson, whose latest novel, Fresh Hell, is published in June and who will be a guest at the Books That Built Me in the summer.
With Helen Lederer, possessor of the most exquisite turquoise eyes you've ever seen, and author of Losing It, which I'm dying to read

The winner will be announced at the Hay Literary Festival in May, and gets a lot of Bollinger and Everyman editions of Wodehouse and a Gloucester Old Spot named after them. I think it would be rather fun to host a literary salon about funny novels -perhaps in a similar format to The Books That Built Me, but with three authors of comic fiction, each talking about the book that makes them laugh the most.

 Let me know what you think of that idea, and in the meantime, there are just two tickets left for The Books That Built Me with Lissa Evans, herself shortlisted for the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Their Finest Hour and A Half and it won't be giving too much away to say that comic fiction will play its part in our discussion about her favourite books.  

Monday, 20 April 2015

Down And Out In Paris And London

Fortunately for me, I'm neither down nor out in London, and nor was I earlier this month when in Paris on business. And one can hardly call reading a book over coffee in The Wolseley slumming it. I'm counting my blessings and frantically swotting for next week's The Books That Built Me with marvellous Lissa Evans, author of Crooked HeartI don't think it will spoil anything to tell you one of the books she's chosen is George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London. 

'Poverty is what I'm writing about,' says Orwell, describing the people he meets in Paris, 'the slum, with its dirt and queer lives, was first an object lesson in poverty, and then the background of my own experiences... For, when you are approaching poverty, you make one discovery which outweighs some of the others.  You discover boredom and mean complications and the beginnings of hunger, but you also discover the great redeeming feature of poverty: the fact it annihilates the future.'

Down and Out in Paris and London is an object lesson in poverty and it's full of vivid, Rabelasian characters - there's an extraordinary Russian called Boris for whom 'war and soldiering were his passion' so much so that he favours a particular cafe simply because there's a statue of Marshal Ney outside, and he prefers to get out of the Métro at Cambronne - 'though Commerce was nearer, he liked the association with General Cambronne, who was called upon to surrender at Waterloo, and answered simply, 'Merde!''

Orwell's first book is a memoir rather than autobiography, 'faction' rather than roman à clef in that it's a much tidied up, novelistic account of his time in Paris - working as a plongeur at Hotel X and down but probably not out - and in London living as a tramp. Orwell's experiences help develop his political focus and give him a keen appreciation of the precariousness of life on and below the bread-line

'At present I do not feel that I have seen more than the fringe of poverty. Still, I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning.'

Rejected first by Jonathan Cape and then by T.S Eliot at Faber, it was published by Victor Gollancz who gave Orwell an advance of £40. Critical reactions were slightly mixed - Cyril Connolly's 'I don't think Down and Out in London and Paris is more than agreeable journalism' is particularly sniffy, and it may not be Orwell in his pomp, but it's a brilliant, radical, and by turns painful and funny account that takes the lid off the life of people who are usually without a voice, those at the outer fringes of society, dispossessed by poverty. It should be required reading for anyone who uses the expression 'hard-working families' to perpetrate the pernicious myth that the poor is divided into 'deserving' and 'undeserving'.

To discover why Down and Out in Paris and London is one of the Books That Built Lissa Evans, join us at the Club at Cafe Royal on 28th April. Tickets available here or by clicking the BooksThat Built Me logo to the right of this page. 

Sunday, 12 April 2015


The Books That Built Andrew O'Hagan: pictured here with Penhaligon's Nyetimber English sparkling wine, 
'If my writing is about any one single thing,' said Andrew O'Hagan at The Books That Built Me, 'It's about the precariousness of identity'.

The Illuminations, O'Hagan's latest novel (Faber £17.99), deftly and movingly explores themes of identity in the combined narratives of former photographer, Anne Quirk, and her ex-soldier grandson, Luke Campbell. It articulates brilliantly the sense that no one is only one thing, in the way that Woolf, and Stevenson and Dostoevsky - Luke is a rare soldier 'who knows that Browning is not just a small arms weapon', Anne is the alzheimer-suffering occupant of an old people's home whose past life comes back to her in increasingly illuminating flashes. We are about the omissions and the yearnings and the latent desires and the ways in which others see us, at the same time as we say 'That's not me,' or 'I'd never do that', as if our identities are somehow a fixed point.  And if selfhood and the way identity is constructed is the thread that runs neatly through O'Hagan's writing life, whether fiction or non-fiction, then so too are the books he selected to show what has inspired and delighted him along the way.

The books that built Andrew O'Hagan

1. The Penguin Book of First World War poetry
The first job O'Hagan had after graduating and leaving Scotland for London was at St Dunstan's, a charity for blind ex-servicemen, some of whom had fought in the First World War -  'Sassoon's men called by bugles from the sad shires'. Their voices echo down the years through the poetry.

2. I am David, Anne Holm
I can't believe I'd never read I Am David as a child - it's an atmospheric and moving story of a boy who escapes the prison camp where he's lived all his life - he has no idea who he is, he has no idea of his origins, all he has is his name, yet he has a strong and immediate sense of self.  Andrew O'H and I grew up in a world dominated by the Iron Curtain, and it's almost impossible to imagine the how divided the world was until relatively recently.

3. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde offers an extraordinary metaphor for the power an author has to reveal the hidden lives and desires of their characters to readers, the things that can't be seen by the people around them.

4. Norma Jean, A Biography of Marilyn Monroe, Fred Lawrence Guiles
If Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is about the divided self, the same is true of the myth of the divided Marilyn - Guiles is responsible for concreting into the popular imagination that the 'real' Marilyn Monroe is Norma Jean. I adored Andrew O'Hagan's last novel, The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, And Of His Friend, Marilyn Monroe, in which we get Monroe through yet a further lens, that of the imagined opinions of her maltese terrier and I remember reading an interview in which A O'H wrote she was 'a woman who had somehow been erased as a woman and replaced with mythology', but Norma Jean is in the list less as a way of illuminating that novel, though it does, or so that we can talk about the role of writers in constructing a public identity for their subjects, though we do, but because it's the only book A O'H remembers his father giving to him. A bookish child in a resolutely un-bookish family, it's an oddly touching and tender gift (and who knows, without it, would Maf the Dog have ever been written?)

5. The Executioner's Song, Norman Mailer
Mailer, of course, was famously accused of cribbing vast swathes of Guiles' Norma Jean for his own Monroe book, a work he called 'a species of novel', or 'a novel biography'.  A O'H got to know Mailer well when interviewing him for The Paris Review [wonderful, read here], and like A O'H, Mailer is that rare breed of writer who moves adroitly between fiction and journalism - we talked a lot about A O'H's work for the LRB, particularly the brilliant account of his aborted attempt to ghost-write Julian Assange's autobiography.

6. The Girls of Slender Means, Muriel Spark
Set in 1945 in a shabbily genteel boarding house for young ladies, in the same part of Kensington that A O'H lived in when he first moved to London, The Girls of Slender Means is one of Spark's finest novels. She's savagely brilliant in the economy of her prose, and no character emerges unscathed - some are literally not slender enough to live. If you've never read Spark, or are only vaguely aware of her from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, do please immediately get hold of a copy of The Girls of Slender Means. Stylistically, A O'H has been compared to Spark, though if this is the case he's infinitely kinder to his creations.

The next Books That Built Me is with Lissa Evans, author of the Bailey's Prize long-listed Crooked Heart, on 28th April. Do join us.

Thank you to Prestat once again for the delicious goodybag chocolate.

Sunday, 5 April 2015


I took the Tiniest Trefusis and her friend to the Rubens exhibition at the Royal Academy today, on the pretext that it's terribly important for children to experience High Culture at an early age, but really because I couldn't face another morning confiscating all the screens in the house to try to prevent the Infant Trefusii from watching yet more Mermaid rubbish on Netflix. 
The Rubens is quite wonderful, and even if you're there on your own I recommend acquiring the children's Art Detective leaflet, much more entertaining a way of looking at Ruben's paintings than the grown up equivalent, I'll bet. The infants were quite agonisingly well behaved, sitting quietly for ages in the room about Ruben's ceiling paintings (reminded me of what a complete treasure the Banqueting House is), drawing their own designs for a decorative ceiling on their leaflets - the TT's of an apotheosis of Ninja Cats were unorthodox but inventive. 
There were only two slightly dodgy moments - right at the beginning when The TT ran towards the sculpture in the courtyard (pictured) shrieking 'climbing frame' (I moved fast), and then later, when her friend thoughtfully stuck her finger into the middle of one of the fried eggs on Sarah Lucas' 'Two fried eggs and a kebab' ... I had visions of running across the road to The Wolseley to beg for a well done fried egg to replace it, and smuggling it in under my coat and onto the Sarah Lucas table before the RA realised the original had a hole the size of a seven year old's finger in it. Fortunately, on closer inspection, it seemed no harm was done, and I hurried them back into the room of Ruben's fleshy naked ladies before questions could be asked.