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.


Jason Hewitt, author of Devastation Road

Say 'road novel' or 'road movie' to anyone, and you'll likely get Kerouac's 'On the Road' or 'Thelma and Louise' or 'Easy Rider', or even 'The Grapes of Wrath' as an answer, or some other example which makes the genre seem uniquely American. But the road or journey as a narrative form has its roots much earlier than that, in Homer's Odyssey, or Virgil's Aeneid - a hero sets out on an often perilous journey, survival by no means guaranteed, but when the destination is finally attained, he will have learned something about himself and the world he lives in.

Devastation Road is such a Bildungsroman: an Englishman wakes up in a field somewhere in Europe in the last days of World War II.  He doesn't know who or where he is, only that he is lost, and has lost his memory. He meets Janek, a Czech teenager, and despite not speaking the other's language, they manage to piece together enough to discover they share a common cause: the urge to learn the fate of their respective brothers. They start walking, like the millions of other displaced persons in 1945 - which feels incredibly potent in the context of the current refugee crisis - in search of safety, and in Owen's case particularly, in search of identity. 

It's a meticulously researched novel - Hewitt took the physical journey his protagonists take in the novel and also learned to speak Czech - but it's Hewitt's ability to conjure the intense, vivid, claustrophobic confusion of a Europe broken apart by war and to deftly explore themes of identity, nationhood, and the extremes to which desperate people are driven in a bid to survive, that gives Devastation Road its narrative impact. 

Jason Hewitt will be my guest at The Books That Built Me at the Club at Cafe Royal on 6th October. Tickets are £26.99 (plus eventbrite fees) and include a copy of Devastation Road, a glass of Bollinger, a bar of Prestat chocolate and a 6 month subscription to Tatler (at the special price of £12 for 6 issues)

The podcast below is a brilliant conversation between Scribner's Elizabeth Preston and Jason Hewitt about Devastation Road - and it's really worth a listen


The bar at The Ivy

I like eating at the bar in elegant restaurants - it feels less formal and so infinitely chicer, it's always quicker if under time pressure, and if one wants to eat alone, it's the best place in the house to be. I haven't been to The Ivy in eons, not since my sister had her wedding reception there - but it recently had a refurb, and has emerged from its second cocoon as an even more beautiful butterfly than it ever was. The addition of a bar in the centre offers a perfect vantage point for people watching: Go early, or late, and you'll always be able to get a place. I was lunching there with a friend, and my preceding meeting finished early, so I took my place at the bar, ordered a very nice glass of a white burgundy, and finished the last few pages of Scoop. Julia Stitch would have approved.
The Ivy 1-5 West Street, London WC2

Saturday, 19 September 2015


When John Updike wrote, 'a writer is just a reader turned inside out', he distilled the essence of The Books That Built Me: as an author, how do the books you cherish set an unconscious agenda for the books you write? 

All writers have a magic library within them, and all writers are necessarily great readers. One of the great privileges of hosting The Books That Built Me is to read the books an author has chosen and then to try to follow a golden thread back into the books they write, to scratch gently at the connections, to peek inside the writerly mind, part literary detective, part psychologist, delving into their readerly selves. 
My guest at Annabel's this week for The Books That Built Me was Hannah Rothschild, documentary film maker, writer and Chair of the National Gallery. Her first novel, The Improbability of Love, is a vivid satire of the art world, where the stakes are so high, people are inevitably compelled to behave in an unbecoming manner. It tells the story of Annie McDee, sweet, single and skint, recovering from the disappointment of a  failed relationship, who buys a grimy, unprepossessing painting in a junk shop. Little does she know it's 'The Improbability of Love' a lost masterpiece by Antoine Watteau, one of the greatest painters of the 18th Century. We're drawn immediately into a cut-throat and deeply glamorous world, peopled by exiled oligarchs, billionaire collectors and unscrupulous dealers, the super wealthy and the avaricious, all of whom would do anything to possess the painting. Guests from Tatler drank Bollinger and nibbled on Prestat's Cardamon and Orange milk chocolate, because at Annabel's, one can't survive on literary chat alone.

1. Black Beauty Anna Sewell 
2. Love in a Cold Climate, Nancy Mitford
3. Scoop, Evelyn Waugh
4. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
5. Essays, Hugh Trevor-Roper
6. Just Kids, Patti Smith

The Improbability of Love is part-narrated by the painting itself - which brought us immediately into Black Beauty [1], whose first person equine narrator never strikes one as in any way odd as a child. I can think of a few books narrated by animals (Andrew O'Hagan's Maf the Dog, White Fang etc), but a book narrated by a painting has to be a literary first. The idea that a painting could tell a story if only it could speak came to Hannah when she was quite a small child, being taken to art galleries by her father.
Who hasn't read Black Beauty through buckets of tears? In Love in a Cold Climate [2], Fanny - who Mitford fans first meet in the preceding novel, The Pursuit of Love - is told by the Lord Montdore that she used to weep over the Little Match Girl 'Perfectly untrue,' thinks Fanny, 'Nothing about human beings ever had the power to move me as a child. Black Beauty now - !' Love in a Cold Climate is one of my favourite of Nancy Mitford novels (so satisfying, even on the fiftieth re-read), possibly because of the glorious and improbable love affair that kicks off between grand Lady Montdore and Cedric, the long-dreaded Nova Scotian heir, who turns out to be a beacon of charm and apotheosis of glamour, with his blue goggles ('made for me by Van Cleef and Arpels') and ritzy suits piped in contrasting colours. On re-reading LIACC in the context of TIOL, Cedric reminds me hugely of Barty, equally glamorous. Barty is one of my favourite characters in Hannah's book, not least because he is so redolent of delicious Nicky Haslam, without whom no party is complete, and who was the subject of one of Hannah's television documentaries
Barty is quite Nicky Haslam, says Hannah, but, whilst the book is rooted in a world with which she is very familiar, it's not a roman a clef - though much like readers of Evelyn Waugh's Scoop [3] wondering whether Lord Copper is based on Lord Beaverbrook or Lord Rothermere, it's almost impossible to read it without trying to match characters to Real People. TIOL is not without its autobiographical elements - Annie has moved to London to try to mend a broken heart as Hannah herself once did, recording her thoughts and feelings in a notebook with a canary yellow cover to which she returned many years later when writing the novel to recapture the sense of being lost, lonely and unloved in her portrait of Annie. Anna Karenina [4] is a book that captures the desperation of love so perfectly one can hardly bear to re-read it. But, as Hannah discovered, some books are entirely different on a later reading, and second time around what came out of Anna Karenina for her was less the central tragedy of Anna's love for Vronsky, but the portrait of a society in the middle of enormous social change. 
Hugh Trevor-Roper's essays [5] remind Hannah of her father, himself an extraordinary polymath, who read History under Trevor Roper at Christ's College Oxford. The essays are short, precise, and combine extraordinary erudition with beautiful simplicity - what an astonishing talent to be able to express complexity with perfect economy. Hugh Trevor-Roper's reputation as a great historian of Nazi Germany (amongst many other areas of expertise) lead us to explore the dark secret at the heart of The Improbability of Love, the subject of Nazi looted art. Hannah's family had more artworks stolen by the Nazis than any other - over 5000 individual pieces were taken from the French Rothschilds alone. Our discussion about art, its value, its collectors and its makers brought us to Just Kids [6], Patti Smith's memoir about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. Just Kids is important to Hannah because it's a book that she and her daughter connect over, but I suggested if it might not also be because of what Smith has to say about artists and the creative process - Smith, like Hannah, is taken by her parents to an art gallery as a young child, where she is transfixed by the Picassos - 'Secretly, I knew I had been transformed, moved by the revelation that human beings create art, that to be an artists was to see what others could not'. Smith and Mapplethorpe are intensely in love, a devotion that transcends his homosexuality and their relationships with other people, and is the bedrock of their development as artists - a beautiful paradigm of the improbability of love.

We drank  Bollinger Special Cuvee, the purest expression of Bollinger's house style, and ate Prestat's Cardamom and Orange chocolate

With huge thanks to Annabel's and to Tatler for supporting The Books That Built Me

A Rothschild, Bollinger, Annabel's, Tatler, Prestat chocolate, brilliant novels - I think we unlocked ultimate level luxury on a Tuesday night

Friday, 11 September 2015


I'm still learning the ropes when it comes to recording the Books That Built Me (all tips gratefully received) - I've managed to miss off the introduction here, but fortunately captured Helen's cracking standup that preceded the BTBM itself.
Right, off to do some swotting for tomorrow's Chiswick Book Festival - I'm properly interviewing Helen Lederer at 5.15, not just having a cosy chat about books and I'm really quite terrified...

Saturday, 5 September 2015


In 'Love in a Cold Climate', Nancy Mitford's sharp, witty, glorious satire, Lady Montdore advises Fanny on her trousseau "The important thing, dear,' she said, 'is to have a really good fur coat, I mean a proper, dark one.' To Lady Montdore, fur meant mink; she could imaging no other kind except sable, but that would be specified. 'Not only will it make all the rest of your clothes look better than they are, but you really needn't bother much about anything else as you need never take it off. Above all, don't go wasting money on underclothes, there is nothing stupider - I always borrow Montdore's myself.
Lady Montdore is one of the great comic creations - appallingly, horribly snobbish, monstrously self-obsessed, she never fails to make me roar with laughter. The character was apparently inspired by Violet Trefusis, about whom I really should know more, since I appropriated her name for this blog. 

Anyway, I mention 'Love in a Cold Climate' because I've been trying to compile a list of the books that make me laugh in preparation for interviewing the wonderfully funny Helen Lederer at Chiswick Book Festival next Saturday, where we'll be talking about her career, her latest novel, and comic fiction.  It's oddly more difficult than I thought it would be.  I love Mitford, of course, and Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm, and the acid satire of Waugh's Vile Bodies and Scoop. Martin Amis in Money is much funnier than Amis Senior's Old Devils. My taste for Terry Pratchett is validated by discovering my literary heroine, A.S.Byatt, is a fan. Diary of a Nobody is funny (and funnier now that I know it inspired another marvellously witty writer, Nina Stibbe - her Man at the Helm is a masterclass in tragicomedy), and Jilly Cooper and E.F Benson and Sue Townsend and Helen Fielding and Malcolm Bradbury and Molesworth (Geoffrey Searle?) and heaps more. 

Comic writing seems to be too pleasurable to be garlanded with laurel wreaths, despite its consolations for a reader. Only two comic novels have won the Booker in forty-six years; Kingsley Amis for Old Devils, which I can only think was a kind of 'lifetime achievement award' - because Old Devils is by no means his funniest - and Howard Jacobson for The Finkler Question. There is a literary prize for comic fiction - The Bollinger Wodehouse Prize - but it's the only one of its kind: Howard Jacobson is clearly an incorrigible over-achiever in the comic category - he's added two Bollinger Wodehouse gongs to his Booker...

The Bollinger Wodehouse prize introduced me to Helen Lederer, shortlisted for this year's prize. I quickly cornered her at the shortlist party, buoyed up by a glass of Bollinger, and persuaded her to be my guest at The Books That Built Me, and in getting to know Helen better, I've learned that she's establishing her own prize celebrating women's comic writing; CWIP, or Comedy Women in Print. Having had a long and successful career in comedy herself, performing and writing (and her first novel, Losing It, is very funny indeed, Helen's mission is to showcase female writing talent, fiction and non-fiction, - think Bailey's Prize for comic writing - and to show how wonderfully life-affirming and confidence building and empowering comedy can be for women. 

Anyway, we shall talk about all of that, about her novel (and the one she's writing now), about her forthcoming role in the film of Absolutely Fabulous, and much more at The Chiswick Book Festival next Saturday - tickets for the whole day only cost £10.  - it would be wonderful to see you there

In the meantime, tell me which novels have made you chortle, or snigger, or split your sides, and why?