Tuesday, 27 January 2015

S.J.Watson at The Books That Built Me

My next guest at The Books That Built Me is SJ Watson, author of the smash hit, Before I Go To Sleep, to celebrate the publication of his second novel, Second Life.

Every bit as gripping as his first, Second Life tells the story of Julia, a woman  whose obsession with tracking down her beloved sister's killer leads her to put the comfortable life she's built  at enormous risk. I can't possibly say more without plot spoilers, but I read Second Life through in a single sitting, desperate to find out how Julia will navigate the many twists and turns of the plot, and I'm sure i won't be alone in finding it utterly compelling.

Watson has quickly established himself as a major player in the art of the psychological thriller, but came to writing later in life, having first had a successful career as an audiologist. The game-changer was being accepted onto the Faber and Faber writing course in 2009 where he honed the book that would become Before I Go To Sleep. His success is not only utterly well-deserved, he is also a huge inspiration to all aspiring authors.

I have had a sneak peek at his book choices for the salon, and they're every bit as original and fascinating as his novels - he promises to be a wonderful guest.

To book for the salon on 24th February, click the big blue 'Books that Built Me' logo on the right to take you to the eventbrite page. 

Sunday, 25 January 2015


I'm in Paris on business. I'm reminded of the first time I came here, whilst at university, on a kind of field trip to discover the Paris of Baudelaire and Proust.  I took the train then, too, but it was long before Eurostar. 
When we arrived, I became separated from my friends and sat down on my bag in the middle of the station and, like Linda in The Pursuit of Love, had a bit of a cry: it was very early and we'd traveled all night. Fabrice de Sauveterre did not find me before my friends, probably just as well, or I'd have been too busy having fittings at Dior to bother graduating.

Anyway, more of this tomorrow. 

Friday, 23 January 2015


I had breakfast today with Ed Warren, ad guru and founding partner at hip creative shop, Creature, to talk about an extraordinary immersive theatre experience he's producing - Alice Underground is Alice in Wonderland as you've never seen (heard it/smelled it/touched it) before. It's on in April, and sounds utterly magical - it's mainly for grown-ups, but there's a special version for younger children too. And of course 2015 is the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland, so this promises to be the buzziest thing in all the anniversary buzz.

Anyway, whilst we were chatting, the subject of native advertising came up, and how it's hardly a new thing, despite being vaunted as digital's new black.

Did I actually know quite how ancient a practice native advertising really was, asked Ed. Could I name him any early examples?

I took a stab at the Michelin Guide - still a pretty cool way of creating engaging content around the incredibly dull subject of tyres - but I was wrong. It's Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne, commissioned around 1522 for one of the great patrons of Renaissance art, Alfonso D'Este, Duke of Ferrara.

The gold urn in the foreground was famously one of D'Este's most treasured possessions. Who knows if it was Titian who cannily chose to include it, knowing which side his bread was buttered, much like magazines make sure the big watch and fashion advertisers are credited, or Alfonso D'Este insisting on a spot of product placement - inserting the D'Este 'brand' into the editorial content of the picture. Either way, the story goes that every time Titian painted it, D'Este said he wanted the urn to be more prominent.

Titian, I can sympathise: I've never known a client who didn't want their logo bigger....

Thursday, 22 January 2015


Samantha Ellis, author of How to Be A Heroine

If, like me, you have an incorrigible book habit, I must counsel you not to buy How To Be A Heroine: Samantha Ellis writes so winningly and persuasively about her literary heroines, that you immediately feel you must own the full 153 books in its bibliography. It's a magnificent reading list, and it also makes you aware how lightly Sam wears her considerable scholarship.

Anyway, she and I had a glorious time chatting about books and heroines at last night's event at The Club at Cafe Royal: over a glass of Nyetimber (always encourages a sparkling conversation I find), we talked about quests and journeys, active resistance, learning to save oneself, and the necessity of writing one's own life. 
As I crawled into bed last night, I wondered if we all, like Northanger Abbey's Catherine Morland, are "in training for a heroine", even if that means we have to determine our own individual brand of heroine-ism?

Henny Penny, Anne of Green Gables, Lace, Wuthering Heights, Lolly Willowes, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall


1. Henry Penny

Henny Penny was Sam's "most tattered and destroyed book, a read-along picture book of The Story of Henny Penny, a heroine on a mission, a heroine who does something, a heroine with a social conscience, a heroine who knows fear. And she's not a princess"
For anyone unfamiliar with Henny Penny, it's the story of a chicken who thinks the sky is falling in when an acorn falls on her head so she goes off on a quest to tell the king, taking along a whole gaggle of feathered friends with her. She has a narrow escape from a fox. Her friends are less fortunate.

2. Anne of Green Gables - L.M. Montgomery 

"Anne Shirley is a heroine with an imagination...it's not only that Anne can imagine stories, she's also able to imagine what it's like to be in someone else's shoes - reading Anne taught me that a heroine should have both imagination and empathy"

3. Lace - Shirley Conran

Let's not be distracted by the goldfish and other sexual shenanigans in Conran's 1982 best seller, Lace is actually "a career-woman's handbook" 

4. Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte

"I've read Wuthering Heights every year since first finding it at twelve....At 29 I decided to live by it...It's not really about Heathcliff as a hero or Cathy as a heroine, it's about love - transcendent love, operatic, excessive, abandoned and unreasonable". 
Is Heathcliff husband material? I really don't think so...

5. Lolly Willowes - Sylvia Townsend Warner

Lolly Willowes is the magnificently original story of Lolly (Laura) Willowes who doesn't see men or a relationship as her destiny at all. Instead, "at the age of 47, she finds her independence by selling her soul to the devil and becoming a witch". 
Before the rather cosy satanic pact, Lolly lives with her brother and sister in law where "she says she builds up a 'mental fur coat' of things to make her feel better when things get rough, things like marrons glacés, flowers and books."
lolly's epiphany about moving away from her brother and sister in law to live in the country comes when she is given a large spray of beech leaves when buying flowers, and she misses walking freely in woods and orchards as she did as a child. Penhaligon's scent the event so I chose their beautiful candle 'A Walk In The Woods' to remind us all of Lolly's quest for freedom.

6. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - Anne Bronte

"Helen [Graham, the novel's protagonist] is interesting because she's an artist, not just because she is a painter, but because she paints her own life: she takes out what she doesn't like in the picture, and puts in what she does like, and she ends up (after much struggle) with a beautiful life."

I discovered that Samantha Ellis' next book will be about Anne Bronte: I absolutely can't wait to read it, and to welcome her back to The Books That Built Me. 

Copies of How To Be A Heroine are available here.

The next Books That Built Me literary salon is with SJ Watson, author of Before I Go To Sleep for his new book, Second Life. Tickets here

Guests drank Nyetimber English Sparkling wine and took home a goody bag with chocolate from Prestat, a copy of How To Be A Heroine and a copy of Harper's Bazaar. 

Tuesday, 20 January 2015


Every month, I get together with a group of like-minded women for breakfast. 

We call it Lima Bravo Bravo, because Ladies Business Breakfast sounded really dreadful, and I couldnt think of anything catchier.

It's a wonderfully eclectic group - creatives, artists, PR's, journo's - all interesting and interested, supportive, and nourishing, and I always leave with soaring spirits, full of admiration for what each of the members has achieved in the weeks since we last met, though each will shrug it off and say 'it's nothing'. 

My former editor at Harper's Bazaar, Justine Picardie, always used to say that when you bring women together, wonderful things happen, and that's absolutely true of Lima Bravo Bravo. 

This morning we were hosted by the Institute of Directors at their glorious HQ in Pall Mall. I have it in my head that the IOD was founded by a woman: I hope I haven't made that up, it's rather a wonderful thought. 


Monday, 19 January 2015


For a while, I thought Blue Monday was another shopping thing, like Black Friday, invented by retailers to shift the last remaining Christmas stock before Spring/Summer comes into store.

Instead, it turns out to be the day when the nation is struck down by depression, the universal comedown after Christmas; the long dark January of the soul.

Three weeks through the month, few people are awash with cash, many are stoutly carrying on their New Year's temperance pledge, and some are even eating kale. Most are cast down by work - by turns Herculean or Sisyphean, and no one can fail to be gloomy about world geo-political ghastliness - Charlie Hebdo, Boko Haran, Syria, the Swiss franc ...

We are glum, because things are a bit rubbish, but we are mostly still hopeful of improvement. We know spring will come. We find the strength to change the things we can, and the courage to accept those we cannot. We are not depressed. To be depressed means walking an endless tunnel without anticipation of a glimpse of light in the distance.

I was idly wondering why moods have colours - seeing red, feeling blue,&c. It led me to ponder on how old philosophies and long outdated theories are hard wired into the folk memory. The idea that we are made up of four 'humours' all of which must be kept in balance if we are not to fall ill only fell out of favour in the late seventeenth century: small wonder we still use some of the language. 
Anyway, it used to be thought that depression was caused by an imbalance of the humours, possibly an excess of black bile, a theory that possibly holds more credence than it just being because it's the third Monday of January. 

In 1621, the priest and scholar, Robert Burton, published a book that was for centuries the definitive work on depression. The Anatomy of Melancholy brought together two thousand years of study, articulating Hippocrates and Galen's philosophies of the Humours, and drawing from every science the seventeenth century mind had at its disposal - psychology, astronomy, astrology and even demonology to create an authoritative and exhaustive study of melancholy, and documenting in the process Burton's own attempt to understand his malady. 
It's an extraordinary work - vast yet readable, and if anyone's interest is picqued, then Google the brilliant BBC Radio 4 podcast, In Our Time, on Burton's book to hear the Anatomy of Melancholy's theories and cultural importance explored.

And as for blue Monday, well, January sucks, but I have a sanguine nature: we're already two thirds of the way through.

The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is: With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cut Up

Friday, 16 January 2015


I've only now got the children to bed. The Infant Trefusii are supposed to go to bed between half past seven and eight o'clock, which ostensibly leaves one with few hours to collapse on the sofa with exhaustion before it's time for your own bed, and so the later it goes, the more irritated one becomes at having no time to oneself at all. I want to watch an unsuitable french cop show on BBCiPlayer, and finish off some work emails and write this blog, and none of that is possible with the children zipping around the house like wakeful squirrels. The Tiniest Trefusis, in particular, has been a jack in the box - I'd only to tuck her in and trudge once more down the stairs for her to pop up in front of me, glaring balefully and telling me I had forgotten to give her a hug (blatantly untrue). Or, later, once I'd tucked her in so tightly I'd almost swaddled her, to appear in the drawing room, wailing that the tooth fairy had forgotten to collect her teeth (reader, this is true, the West London tooth fairy is good at leaving the cash but seems reluctant to take the horrid teeth in exchange. Who knows why this could be.). And if it wasn't The Tiniest Trefusis, it was Trefusis Minor, who is ten going on fourteen, shambling downstairs to mutter incomprehensibly about the 'not-fair-ness' of something. I'm not sure what. 
All of this was quite wearisome. So I was quite heartened to discover an old blogpost from 2010, when the children said funny things, and were tiny enough to stay in their beds once there, and yet old enough to sleep through the night. 


This afternoon, in an entirely unprovoked fit of idle violence, The Tiniest Trefusis took one of my chunky perspex cuffs and chucked it straight at Trefusis Minor's head. It caught him hard on the corner of his eye - unlike Trefusis Minor, the Tiniest Trefusis has quite a true aim - with an audible crack. Tears, shrieking, howls, wails ensued - you know the drill.

Anyway, since we have a firm 'No Fighting, No Biting' policy here at Trefusis Towers, Tiniest Trefusis went straight to the naughty step to consider her position, which I'm sorry to report was typically unrepentant.

After taking a couple of minutes to recover from the shock of a thwack on the head from a flying bangle, Trefusis Minor went to visit her on the naughty step. He crouched down to her level and took hold of her hands in his, saying, in his best lentil-botherer voice, 'I'm just trying to understand why you felt you needed to hurt me'.

He did his best to make eye-contact, fixing her with a look of one who is more sinned against than sinning, but the Tiniest Trefusis was having none of it, 'Go 'WAY,' she shouted, and turned her head to the wall.

'But why did you do it,' persisted TM. 'Were you trying to get some attention?'

The Tiniest Trefusis mulishly refused to be understood. Time-up on the time-out, she wriggled off the stair and sidled off, without either explanation or apology.

I'm quite interested in his response - his sister brains him, and rather than smack her back, he simply wants to get to grips with her motivation.

Trefusis Minor has always been a bit odd like that: He's not one for a textbook response to any given situation. I remember taking him to the Lyric Hammersmith to see some kind of children's theatre production consisting of a gigantic Calder-esque mobile from which various actors were suspended, calling 'Hang on' to each other at dramatic intervals. It was very striking, entirely narrative-free and popular with the entire audience of under-fives. All except Trefusis Minor who, whenever one of the actors appeared to be a little casual in the way they hung from the mobile, would leap to his feet, shouting 'Get down! It's too dangerous' at the stage, like some demented juvenile health and safety officer.

The Tiniest Trefusis was formerly known as Hunca Munca. But she's a little less destructive now she's coming up to three, so it seems unfair to stick her with the soubriquet. She's very funny and told my mother over Christmas that she liked the vicar at church because he wore curtains and a party hat.