Friday, 30 May 2014


'High Fidelity for bookworms' The Telegraph
The next Books That Built Me Salon will be on 1st July at 18.30 with Andy Miller, author of The Year of Reading Dangerously.  

Infinitely more than 'High Fidelity for bookworms', catchy as that Telegraph pull-quote is, The Year of Reading Dangerously is an irreverent, witty and inspiring memoir in which Andy Miller, editor, writer and former bookseller, sets out to read the books he's claimed to have read, but never has. He prescribes himself a 'List of Betterment' of thirteen books, which soon swells to fifty-two, and creates a heroically methodical approach to getting through them - fifty pages a day, one word in front of the other, a sensible discipline designed to get one to the end of books which are far from readerly - Beckett's The Unnameables, The Communist Manifesto, The Ragged Trousered Philanthopists - as well as those which have a more conventional narrative pull - Anna Karenin, Middlemarch, for example. 

What I love about The Year of Reading Dangerously is that it's a thoughtful, engaging meditation on the nourishing pleasures of really great books, yet it's no Leavisite canon. It's true that what we might call classics form the backbone of the List of Betterment, but Miller's reading is eclectic and unashamedly no-brow: he explores Tolstoy and Austen in the same breath as Judith Kerr and Douglas Adams, and, in one of the book's triumphant set-pieces, there's a deftly written and vastly entertaining comparative reading of Moby Dick and Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code

The sub-title of The Year of Reading Dangerously is 'how fifty great books saved my life': one might argue that 'life-saving' is going a little far, but it's certainly life-changing: contained in its three hundred or so pages is its own complex and powerful theory of bibliotherapy. Good books come with the promise of metamorphosis, but in A Year of Reading Dangerously, it's not only books that have the power to change one, but the action of reading itself that effects the transformation. 

Inspired by The Year of Reading Dangerously, I've begun Anna Karenin, one of the many books whose presence on my bookshelf implies, quite wrongly, that I've read it already. Three days and one hundred and fifty pages in (see, sticking to the formula works), I'm already in thrall to what Miller describes as a book with "the perfect balance of art and entertainment - no, not a balance, a union of the two". For prompting me to read this extraordinary book, and his own, I'm very much looking forward to discussing with Andy Miller the Books That Built him. 

The Books That Built Me. 1st July, 18.30 to 20.30 at The Club at Café Royal. Tickets include a pre-event cocktail reception, a signed copy of the hardback edition, a copy of Harper's Bazaar and a Penhaligon's gift. 


By way of an addendum, I must confess that I have been at various points in my life an incorrigible liar about the books that I've read - I even wrote several excellent essays at university on books with which I had a less than intimate relationship, armed only with the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations and a cursory flick through the first and last hundred pages. I'm no slouch when it comes to reading, but I have managed to convince myself, and others, that I have read more widely than I have: here are a few I'll readily admit to (yes, yes I know, great works of fiction in Playmobil - I was once bored in charge of  a tiny Trefusis Minor and these tableaux were the result)....

I've read the first fifty pages of the first book of A La Récherche du Temps Perdu, yet I can talk very intensely and, I feel, convincingly, about hawthorn, madeleines, memory, the kiss not given, Odette, Baron du Charlus etc etc. Here is Proust reading a copy of his own book and eating a giant madeleine in his famous cork-lined room.
Paradise Lost. Despite Milton being the subject of one of my greatest friend's books (Milton's Angels by Professor Joad Raymond), I've read the good bit with Satan in it and that's it. Do I need to read it? Probably. Am I dogged by guilt about not having read it? Definitely.

Julius Caesar. I can quote quite a lot of it. Not sure I feel I must read, rather than watch, Shakespeare, but you know, Et tu, Brute.....

Actually, I jolly well have read Beowulf. I've read it on several occasions and in several translations - the one to read is the blissful Seamus Heaney, rich and delicious with Heaney's ear for cadence and his love of the  'word hoard'.

Saturday, 24 May 2014


Last Thursday evening, in the elegant setting of The Club at Café Royal, I played literary hostess to Sarah Churchwell, author of Careless People, Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby, in the first of a series of salons called  The Books That Built Me.

The Books That Built Me is an idea borne of the belief that inside every book-lover is a memory-palace full of stories – tales of enchanted princesses and magical beasts, of smugglers, spies and buried treasure, stepmothers and boarding schools, something nasty in the woodshed, loves lost and found, vanquished enemies – perpetual summer holidays in other people’s imaginations. None of us is the book we’ve just read, we’re the sum of all the novels in our lives – the books that built us.

In a sense, that's is the inspiration for The Books That Built Me, but its catalyst was something I read in Elizabeth Jane Howard’s autobiography, Slipstream. She reminded me it’s not only readers who are built of books, but authors. Howard was, by virtue of her marriage to Kingsley Amis, stepmother to a teenage Martin Amis, who apparently read nothing but comics, Harold Robbins and ‘the dirty bits in Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. He's about sixteen, I think, when she asks him what he wants to do when he’s older. ‘I'm going to be a writer, Jane’ he says. Howard stares at him, askance,

" ‘You – a writer? But you’ve never read anything. If you’re so interested in writing, why don’t you read? He looked at me and said ‘give me a book to read then.’ And I gave him Pride and Prejudice. " 

Howard goes onto give him a reading list that adds Dickens, Scott Fitzgerald, Waugh, Green and Golding to Austen, and these are the books that built Amis into the author he aspired to be. 

So the purpose of The Books that Built Me is to bring to life a writer’s reading list, not an exhaustive one, but a sample of the books that have stayed with them, comforted or nourished them or informed them as a writer.  It's also a literary desert island discs, or as Sarah Churchwell put it so beautifully, 'how the books you love meet the books you write'.

The Club at Café Royal is an exceptionally chic and appropriate place in which to host a literary salon - the Café Royal’s reputation could be said to have been built on books, counting many literary greats as frequent visitors, Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf amongst them. Virginia Woolf links the Café Royal to Harper’s Bazaar, for whose support I’m very grateful – Woolf wrote a number of short stories for Bazaar, never published outside the pages of the magazine until after her death. I’d also like to thank Penhaligons for scenting the room with their Juniper Sling, in homage to F Scott Fitzgerald’s favorite tipple, The Gin Rickey, and to Prestat for the delicious 'Art Deco' chocolate in the goody-bags, and to Carat* for lending me diamonds so I could feel properly swanky when up on stage.

The Club at Café Royal created a delicious Careless People cocktail for the evening -  a beautiful, jewel-coloured blend of vodka, plum sake, pomegranate juice and fresh lime juice, served in a cocktail coupe with a curl of orange zest: 'suddenly one of these gypsies in trembling opal, seizes a cocktail out of the air, dumps it down for courage and moving her hands like Frisco dances out alone on the canvas platform....The party has begun'. 
F Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, quoted in Careless People in a chapter that so glitters with detail you step straight through a magic door into one of the real jazz-age parties that inspired those in Gatsby.

The Club at Café Royal is ordinarily only open to members. For enquiries please email or telephone +44(0)207 406 3370

The Books That Built Sarah Churchwell
1.F Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby: subject of Careless People, her 'histoire trouvé'. Gatsby is, she tells us, the book that 'taught her how to read as a writer', a 'litmus test'
2.Andrew Lang's Fairy Books: Andrew Lang's fairy books are a compendium of every familiar and unfamiliar fairy story. 
3.Georgette Heyer, The Grand Sophy: screwball comedy meets Jane Austen. 
4. Willa Cather, My Antonia.
5. Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises (with a nod to Eliot along the way, not so much for his being one of Sarah's desert island books, but because like Cather, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Eliot is another extraordinary writer that bubbled from the literary wellspring of the American Midwest: I'd add Sarah Churchwell to that list. Interestingly, Eliot, Hemingway and Fitzgerald all, like Sarah, migrated to Europe - only as expatriates were they able to write so eloquently about America. 
6. Careless People - the book, which as Harper's Bazaar wrote, 'will make you rethink everything you thought you knew about The Great Gatsby.' It's an exhilarating read and a stunning piece of scholarship, a unique literary biography which reconstructs in exquisite detail the year in which Fitzgerald set his finest novel. 

Careless People, Murder, Mayhem and The Invention of the Great Gatsby is published by Virago.
Follow Sarah Churchwell on twitter @sarahchurchwell - she is giving the London Library Lecture at the Hay Literary Festival on The American Dream - do go.

The next Books That Built Me will be on Tuesday 1st July. Details will be published next Wednesday, 28th May.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014


I should start with a warning: whilst blogging is by definition a solipsistic activity, this is a more than usually narcissistic post. Possibly, this is immediately obvious from the inclusion of a selfie: I'm not too proud to jump on the bandwagon, even though the iPhone camera gives me a wonky nose and makes me look as if I'm reflected in the back of a spoon.

The selfie came about because I had been trying out Clarin's Five Minute Face, which I think launches properly on counter in the UK at the end of June, but the four products I've used here are already  available. I don't really hold with the five minute face as a rule - I much prefer the forty-five minute face, using twenty four products and about seven brushes. I'm not sure it makes me look any better, but being a disciple of Joan Collins in all things, I do like to trowel it on. However, Harper's Bazaar's esteemed Beauty Director At Large Newby Hands says that over forty, less make up rather than more makes for a more ageless look, so here I am with as naked a skin as you will ever see me.

The Clarins Five Minute Face involves a BB Cream, a cream blush (shade 01), a black mascara and a lip gloss (Instant Light, Natural Lip Perfector in shade 01- is this a lip gloss? The blurb says 'lip gel' - it's somewhere between a mildly coloured lip balm and a lip gloss - nice to wear, at any rate). It took much less than five minutes. I managed it for a whole day before going back to the kind of natural look that requires hours. However, if you're the kind of person who likes to simply gild the lily before rushing out of the house, the products are most excellent, and the point of the range is to add a light dusting of cosmetic perfection on the Clarin's skin-care promise: 'you, only better'.

I digress. The other reason for posting the selfie was to show the results of December's Fraxel Dual, four months on. Fraxel's main purpose is to remove sun damage, which tends to give one the uneven, tired complexion associated with middle age, but it also stimulates the production of collagen and elastin, responsible for the texture and plumpness of one's skin, and which diminishes after a certain age, leading inevitably as shadows pass across sundials, to the old sagging and wrinkling.

Whilst Fraxel's effect on sun-damage is fairly immediate, the effect on collagen production beneath the skin takes about three months to show, so here I am after four.

 I know interventions from a cosmetic doctor are not for everyone, but frankly it's done me the power of good: it's not about chasing the chimera of eternal youth, it's my version of 'you, only better'.

I asked Dr Luca Russo (who Fraxeled me) for his five anti-ageing secrets - the things that really will make a difference at every age. Here's what he told me, and none of them require lasers or needles.

1. Cleansing: remove any excess sebum/make-up.
Serums and so on work much better on super-clean skin, and it contributes enormously to a fresher, brighter look. Bazaar's Newby Hands backs this up - she is a huge fan of Clarisonic. I use a cleansing oil, but then I'm a bit sloppy.

2. Use a Vitamin C serum morning and evening.
Vitamin C is the most powerful of all the anti-oxidants: I have had a very good experience of Prevage, which is Vitamin C based, and have read promising things about Skinceuticals CE Ferulic Serum

3. Use a daily SPF 30 as soon as you wake up.
I assume this means as soon as you've cleansed your face and slapped on the Vitamin C serum, but the principle of getting a sunblock on as soon as you can is important. As Dr Russo is wont to say, 80% of skin ageing is preventable because it's caused by exposure to the sun. Sun is the enemy of the face: Joan Collins always swears by a large hat (I've seen her close up, she's eighty and marvellous), and my grandmother, who was born before the first world war and thought suntans very infra-dig, always told me to stay out of the sun. However, those pesky UVA's are everywhere, trying to make you get wrinkles, so put on the factor 30. I use Clinique's Even Better Dark Spot Defence SPF45.

4. Exfoliate every night.
[damn, I knew there was something I was neglecting. I'll start exfoliating and come back to you]

5. Use a retinol-based cream twice-weekly.
Retinol is a proven anti-ager - the best creams are prescription only, but I have heard good things of La Roche-Posay's Redermic and of Skinceuticals Retinol 1.0.

Dr Luca Russo, The Rejuvenation Clinic

A commenter a few months ago asked if Fraxel was suitable for rosacea - I asked Dr  Russo for his advice: he told me IPL was still the gold standard for rosacea, rather than Fraxel. I was also asked for recommendations on serums - of the department store brands products Estee Lauder's Advanced Night Repair has a well-deserved reputation or follow Dr Russo's recommendations and look for a product that's high in Vitamin C. At the moment I'm using Dr Sebagh's Rose de Vie serum, a soothing, super-moisturising, non-greasy anti-oxidant oil, designed for grown-up skin. 

Monday, 7 April 2014


I'm delighted to announce the launch of a new literary salon, with its first public event on 15th May. 
Behind every great writer is a library full of beloved books - from childhood favourites to grown-up classics. The Books That Built Me will explore the novels that have most influenced and inspired an author’s life and work.

Supported by Harper’s Bazaar, the first Books That Built Me salon is with author, broadcaster and academic, Sarah Churchwell.  Sarah and I will discuss her life in books, and the journey that led her to write the critically acclaimed Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and The Invention of The Great Gatsby.

Careless People tells the true story behind F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece, carefully reconstructing the crucial months during which Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald returned to New York in the autumn of 1922 - parties, jazz clubs and speakeasies, high society and organized crime, and the celebrity culture that surrounded the Fitzgeralds. As Sarah says, ‘Gatsby exemplifies everything that shaped my career: understanding why we love the books that we love, and sharing not only the love, but the explanation, with others.’

The Books That Built Me is on 15th May 2014, 6.30pm until 8.30pm, at The Club at The Café Royal. Tickets are priced at £12 and include a signed copy of Careless People and a pre-talk cocktail reception or £22 which includes a 12 month subscription to Harper's Bazaar in addition to a copy of  Careless People (not to forget the pre-talk cocktail...the spirit of Fitzgerald runs strong in me...). The Club at the Cafe Royal is super-chic, and has long been a bolthole for authors of books that built me, of which more in a later post.
 For tickets, please click here.  Capacity is limited so do reserve your spot early.
“Part memoir, part painstaking historical research, Careless People brings to vivid life prohibition era New York and will make you rethink almost everything you thought you knew about F.Scott Fitzgerald and his most famous work.”
Harper’s Bazaar.


Thursday, 3 April 2014


Yes, yes, the usual apologies apply - after a decent start to the year, I've reverted to my old ways, and have failed to post anything of note. Work has eaten my soul, and the tiny amount of discretionary time I have, I've devoted to the pursuit of narcissism, dressed up as health, and thrown myself hell for leather into the ETC programme at a gratifyingly upscale gym, Equinox.

Although I think my enthusiasm may have resulted in something rather unfortunate happening with my left knee (hoping this is simply rampant hypochondria), the programme overall has been completely transforming - in fourteen hours of exercise, I've dropped an entire dress size, and have proper arm muscles. Rome not built in a day and all that, but it's interesting to see what can be achieved just with three hours of exercise a week. Anyway, I'm still writing it all up for Harper's Bazaar - you can read part three here and then part four, in which I'm rather dreading the end of the programme

Saturday, 15 March 2014


Week two of the Equinox Training Camp is over, four weeks to go. I'm almost certainly stronger and fitter, but Rome wasn't built in a day. You can't undo seven years of inactivity in a fortnight, though I do hope I can make up for lost time during the six intense weeks of ETC.  Here is part two of the piece I'm writing about the exercise odyssey with my very fit colleague for Harper's Bazaar.

Friday, 28 February 2014


I have a great admiration for people who enjoy a good excel spreadsheet and get pleasure out of serious exercise, possibly because I am hopeless at both those things. My attempts at excel  look like the Tiniest T's attempts at knitting, and have to be unpicked and reworked by someone more competent, and my idea of exercise is walking a little faster than usual to the tube whilst listening to another installment of The Forsyte Saga (still going, it's a jolly long book).

So I'm not at all sure how I've managed to get myself signed up for six weeks of a thrice-weekly state-of-the-art 'training camp' at uber-luxe gym, Equinox, on High Street Ken. It must have seemed like a jolly good idea at the time and now my main objective is surviving the experience. 

It is something of an experiment: I'm curious to find out if exercise is as addictive as they say. I'm also interested to discover what might be accomplished in just six weeks - the programme has apparently worked marvels for many a high-profile US celeb, although I suspect they're probably in better shape than me to start with. It's certainly not for the faint-hearted. What it is, is highly-scientific: it's all metabolic cardio whatsit, designed for super-demanding Manhattanites and professional athletes. Fitness was never this sophisticated in the days of step-aerobics and I will confess to being a bit daunted by the prospect - everyone else in the class seemed awfully fit and lissome - I felt like a rescue donkey that's accidentally wandered into the Epsom Derby.

Fortunately, ETC requires determination rather than self-motivation: all you need to do is show up at 6.45 am, Monday, Wednesday & Friday, and do exactly what you're told. Or a version of what you're told, since there's no way on earth I can do two minutes of press-ups. Or even one press-up. At least not yet. I am planning to win the 'most improved' prize, or failing that, the prize for pluck.

Anyway, my lovely friend Henry and I are keeping an online diary to track our progress at this is our first piece:

Visit; 0207 666 6000 99; Kensington High Street, London, W8 5SA