Sunday, 1 May 2016

BELGIAN WAFFLING HAS A PROPER HARDBACK BOOK!

About eight years ago, when I started this blog, I started to ferret around the internet for other bloggers I might like and by a very happy alignment of the stars, I fell across Belgian Waffle, a then anonymous blog written by an English ex-pat about her life in Brussels, the job she hated, 'lesonfons'; her adored small children, and a menagerie of animals, including tortoises and a morose whippet called 'Weepette'. What became immediately clear was that whoever Belgian Waffling was, she wrote utterly superbly - funny, wry, satirical, often confessional, she could turn three hundred words on house dust into the most beautiful and gripping prose, taking one from laughter to tears and back to laughter again in a single post.

She and I became proper friends in actual non-online life and have been firm friends ever since. Back then, she and I were writing novels - Emma finished hers, ditched it and wrote a brilliant memoir called 'We'll Always Have Paris' (I'm still crunching the gears on the novel I began in 2009... I may finish it one day - I'm in awe of Waffle's productivity as well as her talent.)

We'll Always Have Paris, trying and failing to be French, was published last week and you can still, I think, read the first five chapters on The Pool. I challenge you not to want to buy it the minute you've read the first paragraph.

Anyway, Emma very kindly let me interview her about the book and about writing. I distracted her terribly with a conversation about Emma Bovary, which I've mostly edited out, but you can read it here on my Books That Built Me website. And Emma is joining me for her own Books That Built Me on 21st June.  Every ticket comes complete with a copy of We'll Always Have Paris and a glass of Bollinger with which to toast Emma's continued success.

We'll Always Have Paris: Trying and Failing to Be French, Emma Beddington is published by Pan Macmillan, price £12.99

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

HOUND LODGE



Hound Lodge was once a very luxurious home for the hounds of the Charlton Hunt: long before Goodwood House had central heating, the hounds had underfloor heating and every kind of treat. I daresay they even had a canine equivalent of their own butler. 
Here are the whelping kennels. Jolly nice they are too. If I had one of those in my garden, I wouldn't let the dog live in it, I'd turn it into my office.

Now that Hound Lodge has been immaculately restored and turned into a country retreat, it's the humans who live in the lap of luxury, though visiting dogs are very welcome - there are dog beds everywhere, a special dog menu (dogs are rumoured to get dog icecream for pudding - I wonder what flavour?), and someone on hand to wash muddy paws should they have had an enthusiastic romp through The Valdoe (a very pretty wood, with the requisite bluebells, and owls hooting at night). I didn't try the dog menu, of course, but dinner for people was glorious.

Each of the ten bedrooms is named after the hounds of the 'Glorious Twenty-Three' owned by the second Duke of Richmond in 1738. Mine was named after Dido, the leader of the pack. 
What a blissfully comfortable bed, possibly due to the mattress stuffed with sheep's wool from the Goodwood flock. I could have quite happily lived in that room - it was full of beautiful flowers and books 

and elegant objets. The bathroom was equally sybaritic - after a lovely trip to Goodwood House to gawp at the extraordinary art (Van Dyke, Veronese, Lely, Sevres porcelain, rather mindblowing) I submerged myself neck deep for a bathe in a delicious essence made from the pine needles from the Duke of Richmond's Scottish estates (I may have the pine detail wrong, but the jist is there), and read Elizabeth Taylor's In a Summer Season. By the time I'd gone properly lobster pink (to match the horrid Rita Ora nails), I was late to rejoin everyone in the drawing-room for cocktails.



Butlers? Oh, I'm an old hand with butlers now, she says, with a blasé shrug; When the lovely butler asks one if one would like something to drink, one simply says, 'Oh, a glass of champagne would be perfect, thank you.' and lo it appears.

After dinner, when we came back into the drawing room for coffee, I realised that one of these dogs

was looking at me from over the fireplace, very reprovingly, as if to purse its dog lips and say, 'I saw you have a second glass of Mersault, and now you've just asked the lovely butler for whisky.'
One has to get used to dogs staring at one at Hound Lodge - they're on every surface - 


even on the bookshelves - I rather wanted to settle down with the story of Bellman the lugubrious beagle. The fox gets a look in too from time to time -

This sweet china fox was in my room, sitting daringly on top of Siegfried Sassoon's Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man.
The stone fox looks out over the whelping kennels, immortalised in stone. 


I used to see Lucien Freud breakfasting at the Wolseley. He didn't breakfast on sherry. Nor did I.

Instead,  I had vast amounts of delicious bacon from Goodwood pigs, cured on the home farm. This Wedgwood china is gorgeous. I wish I could get away with it in West London, but although there are many foxes here, and an awful lot of hounds (well, French bulldogs mostly, round here, but dogs, anyway), it wouldn't do.

I came home and was rather disappointed to discover it wasn't nearly as nice as Hound Lodge - how quickly one becomes accustomed to the good life - and spent the evening assembling flat-packed furniture. The glamour.

Hound Lodge at The Kennels, Goodwood, Chichester. Bring a dog, or borrow someone elses.


Tuesday, 5 April 2016

The Digital World is Complicated

Perhaps it's not so much complicated as hard to tidy. I switch on my iPhone every morning and the entire internet falls on my head, as if I've inadvertently opened a messy cupboard. 

It's not simply that I'm lured into trying to read the whole of the Internet before breakfast (heartwarming stories of pet rescue found on facebook, a link on Twitter to a - very long -  Paris Review interview with Norman Mailer, essential hunt for interesting British stone circles inspired by someone mentioning Julan Cope on Instagram, not to mention reading all my email and the Guardian) it's the writing too. I have developed an unhelpful sense that if I don't keep posting stuff on the plethora of social platforms I will somehow cease to be.

Looking at the last date I posted anything on Mrs Trefusis, you could be forgiven for imagining I have ceased to be. I realised earlier this year that The Books That Built Me needed its own internet home, rather than boring on here about all the novels I like. There is an awful lot of Internet to be done. I have discovered there are no half measures: it is impossible to be a little bit Internet.  Either one goes completely dark (imagine, what would one do with all the spare time?) or pushes one's sleeves up, grabs a metaphorical digital spade and gets stuck in.

Anyway, enough prologue, if you like the books stuff it can be found at TheBooksThatBuiltMe.co.uk. Mrs Trefusis had better revert to what it once was, a kind of diary of a not very provincial lady. What is the opposite of provincial? Would it be metropolitan? The Diary of a Metropolitan Lady sounds infinitely more ritzy than it ought. It sounds as if I should be sleuthing round with a cigarette holder in one hand and a cocktail in the other, solving crimes. I'm not. On one hand I have a disgusting white nail varnish like tippex (it looks pale pink in the bottle but it's unspeakably naff on the nail). On the other hand I have painted a single nail bubblegum pink from a range I discover, on closer acquaintance with the bottle, is by Rita Ora, which should have told me everything I needed to know about the unsuitability of the colour. 

I panic-bought both bottles of nail varnish in Boots on my way to Waterloo, having realised my nails were repulsive in their natural state. Poor lighting must have thwarted my quest for something unobtrusively neutral. 

I particular wanted to look better groomed than usual because I'm on my way to the Goodwood Estate, to the Hound Lodge. It sounds like the last word in luxury: one has one's own butler (what will I do with my own butler? The problem with modern metropolitan life is that it leaves one entirely unprepared for having staff, even if one only has staff very temporarily). How does one make a good impression? I don't want my butler raising his eyebrow about me below stairs, like in Downton Abbey. I have been racking my brains for literary examples - one never sees the servants in Nancy Mitford or Waugh so they're no help as a behaviour guide. I can only come up Jeeves and Wooster and am now worried that my butler might remark that my evening jacket is 'rather exuberant' and I will have nothing to offer but some excuse about the style being favoured by the chaps at Drones.

Hound Lodge has ten bedrooms and sounds heaven on earth: when I arrive I have the promise of tea (I'm assuming proper teapots and good cake and so on), followed by a potter around the Van Dykes and Rubens at Goodwood House itself, or feeding lambs at the farm. I will have to keep my unbecomingly painted hands in my pockets. 


Sunday, 17 January 2016

EVENT: THE BOOKS THAT BUILT LOUIS DE BERNIERES. 9TH FEBRUARY 2016

Louis De Bernieres

Louis de Bernieres is the best-selling author of Captain Corelli's Mandolin, The Dust that Falls from Dreams, Birds Without Wings and A Partisan's Daughter.  Throughout his life he has written about matters of the heart, and with poetry his first and greatest literary love, he is about to publish a beautiful collection of love poetry: Of Love & Desire, with influences ranging from Pablo Neruda to the classical Persian poets. I have been dipping into the collection over the Christmas and New Year break, and it's evocative, lyrical and alternately witty and poignant: I adore it - it's quite rekindled a long dormant love of poetry in me.
Here is one that particularly touched me, called A Short Night

[After Sappho]
I do remember that night that fled so fast,
When we were golden, beautiful and young,
When dawn surprised us from her yellow throne
And filled the room with gathering song.

Your face shone back at me, your lovely hair
Spread out across your breasts, your hand caressed
My face. You said, Let's always remember this.'
I said, 'I wish these nights were twice as long.'

  
Of course, Louis is best known for his novels - from the inventive magical realism of his early novels set in South America to the captivating Captain Corelli and The Dust That Falls from Dreams. His trademark wit and charm, coupled with his brilliant characterisation and great skill with language have made him one of our best-loved authors, and I can't wait to discover the books that he loves too. There's something of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts - will 100 Years of Solitude be one of the books that built him?

Join us on 9th February as we talk about how the books Louis de Bernieres loves meet the books he writes.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

LEMMY AND ME

 

'Stop. Cut. Jesus, whatever directors usually say.' The director, raking his hands through floppy, Brideshead hair, frowned wearily in the general direction of Lady Bracknell. 'Try 'A handbag.' again, and this time, less 'Kenneth Williams plays Edith Evans', more - I don't know - more bewildered.'

'A handbag?' [faintly]

'No, that won't work either. Try sounding exasperated'

'A handbag.' [plaintively]

'Christ, how many times? No sodding Edith Evans. Go again.'

'A handbag' [challengingly] 

'No.'

'A hand ... bag?' [tentatively]

'No'

'A handbag.' [wearily]

'And again.'

Rehearsals for the University Drama Society's production of The Importance of Being Earnest were not going well. It wasn't simply that the director's expectations were bafflingly high: Rehearsal Room B was right behind the main stage of the Student Union and any Lady Bracknell would struggle to make herself heard against a Motörhead sound-check - UEA being the default East Anglian concert venue in those days, the band were due on later that evening and from the sound of it were rehearsing as hard as we were.
Anyway, our director, flushed with the triumph of his 'Look Back in Anger' the previous term - some even said the cast's heroic battle with a collapsing ironing board added a symbolic dimension - was determined to put his own stamp on Wilde's classic - perhaps he hoped people might later refer to it as 'The Jonty Jones' Importance'. Jonty had updated the production to the nineteen twenties - motivated less by artistic intention than by availability of costumes, most of which had done service in last year's  Present Laughter. He cast a man as Lady Bracknell - very radical for the 1980's - and we had instructions to rehearse wearing a part of our costume, and with the odd prop so that we might better inhabit the role and collapse the artificiality of Wilde's mannered dialogue. I'm afraid, as Gwendolyn, I didn't take this terribly seriously; the best I managed at rehearsal was to fish a Letts diary and a pair of broken spectacles from my pocket ('Mama, whose views on education are remarkably strict, has brought me up to be extremely short sighted') but others of our troupe were more method. An aspididstra appeared. Miss Prism invariably brought a toaster, so we might eat muffins unrepentantly in the second act, there was a battered briefcase (barely big enough to have concealed a baby in a railway station cloakroom but still), Canon Chasuble had borrowed a chasuble from a friend at the Cathedral, Jack Worthing had taken up smoking ('a man must have an occupation of some kind') and Lady Bracknell wore a large picture hat, white gloves, a feather boa and a Cupid's bow of scarlet lipstick beneath his moustache. Our director had the added challenge of directing himself as Algenon, and wore tweed plus twos and a ritzy pair of co-respondent shoes. No one brought any cucumber, there being none available, not even for ready money.

Every term, the cool kids in DramSoc got to do a Brecht or a Beckett for an audience of about seven and to rave reviews from the university paper's drama critic, who smoked a pipe and referred to himself entirely unselfconsciously as 'channelling the late, great Kenneth Tynan'. Every term, the less cool but more commercially-minded members of the society underwrote the inevitable losses of Great Art with a play that guaranteed bums-on-seats: the people of Norwich would turn out for endless Coward or Wilde at a tenner a ticket and so we balanced the books. Credibility was sacrificed on the altar of a full-house and cash-flow traded for predictably poor notices: there was little evidence of a Tynan-shaped Spirit Guide in the critic who wrote after the first night of The Importance of Being Earnest, 'Jonty Jones' Algernon Moncrieff has all the aplomb of a wet Labrador in a production neither important nor earnest.' Fortunately, no one read the University newspaper, and as any actor will tell you, rapturous applause trumps a would-be hack's savaging any day of the week. Fortunately, as long as it was Wilde or Coward and nothing too avant-garde, and you said the lines and didn't fall over the furniture, the good people of Norwich would still come and see it, regardless of how you tinkered with the detail, and were very good at clapping, particularly if you added a strong clacque of parents to the middle of the stalls.

So there we were, less than three weeks to curtain up, full of enthusiasm, telling ourselves that saying our lines against the thrash of drum and guitar was good practice for projecting to the back of the circle, as Jonty Jones became more and more frustrated by the delivery of the play's most famous line, his tweeds bristling with artistic ill temper.

'Let me hear it again.'

'A HANDBAG' 
Lady Bracknell burst into noisy tears at the very moment the rehearsal room door was flung open by a skinny, long-haired, rather grubby looking man - be-jeaned and be-leathered. 'What the fucking fuck is this?' he said. 
'Lemmy. Blimey. I mean, gosh, Mr erm ... Lemmy,' Jonty Jones glided obsequiously towards Motorhead's lead singer, flicking back the Brideshead hair, 'How do you do?'
Lemmy ignored the outstretched hand and glared terrifyingly at the assembled company. Seen through his eyes we were a sorry sight, like refugees from the set of It Ain't Half Hot, Mum. With the exception of Lady Bracknell, who stopped sobbing and gave Lemmy a saucy, appraising look from underneath the brim of the picture hat, evidently harbouring fantasies of being carried off on the back of a Harley, we all imagined he might call the roadies in to give us a good going over with a length of bicycle chain. 'What the fuck are you doing in my Green Room?' Said Lemmy.
'This is a rehearsal of The Importance of Being Earnest - do you know Wilde? Er, no?  Well, you'll find the Green Room on the other side of the corridor - just go back out and the door is right in front of you.'
Lemmy turned on his cowboy boot heel and stalked off. As he slammed the door  behind him, the opening bars of 'Eat the Rich' came pounding through the breeze blocks that separated us from the gig.

Jonty Jones undid and re-tied his cravat in a more pleasing shape and turned back to Lady Bracknell.
'Lady Bracknell, Jack? Let's take it from "You can take a seat, Mr Worthing"' 

Monday, 4 January 2016

BOOK RESOLUTIONS 2016

The Box Set: A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell
A Dance to the Music of Time is a captivating, witty, caustic glimpse into the upper reaches of British society beginning sometime after the end of the First World War and ending in the sixties: it's somewhere between Proust A La Recherche du Temps Perdu and Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga and, like both, runs into volumes, individually of varying brilliance, but a masterpiece taken as a whole. I read the First Movement last summer - the twelve novels of the cycle are much more easily digested in four parts. Don't be tempted to set yourself a target of a book a month for twelve months: like a good telly box-sets, it's designed for bingeing on, gobbling as much of its deliciousness as one can manage in a single sitting. It's not for ekeing out into smaller portions, not least because one will lose track of the marvellous and numerous characters who wander in and out of the narrative, and whose rediscovery at different points in their lives is one of the many pleasures of this great literary treat.

The Greatest British Novel (as voted for by the rest of the world)*: Middlemarch, George Eliot
I'm ashamed to say I've read very little George Eliot: I can only think it's laziness. Middlemarch is not a short novel at nine hundred pages, and it's utterly impossible to skim read it, as I discovered when Deborah Moggach chose it as one of her Books That Built Me. I read enough to recognise why Moggach loves it so, and why Woolf described it as "a magnificent book... one of the few English novels written for grown up people.' I began it anew over the New Year break and resolved to read and savour slowly - it is a literary superfood after all.   
*the BBC recently polled 82 critics from Australia to Zimbabwe, but none from the UK, to discover the greatest British novel (from a non-British perspective) - see the list here

The Blind Spot: Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens
I didn't dare confess to Susan Hill, a Dickens devotee, that I had never read Little Dorrit. Nor did I let on that I was secretly relieved when she swapped Little Dorrit for A Christmas Carol for her Books That Built Me. However, if she feels it is Dicken's greatest novel, that's good enough for me. 

The 'Greatest comic novel of the twentieth century': Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis

Fond as I am of other members of the Amis family - Elizabeth Jane Howard, Martin Amis - I've boorishly written off Kingsley as too misanthropic and curmudgeonly to be bothered with. This breaks one of my few rules; to judge the work and not the artist and I'm rather ashamed of myself.
Christopher Hitchens believed Amis managed to 'synthesise the comic achievements of Evelyn Waugh and P.G Wodehouse' in Lucky Jim, and Amis remains one of only two comic novelists to have won the Booker Prize (the other is Howard Jacobson). So, I shall give it a go,

Saturday, 2 January 2016

TO THE LIGHTHOUSE, VIRGINIA WOOLF



I've re-read To The Lighthouse twice this year - first for Deborah Moggach's Books That Built Me, and then again for Susan Hill's. 

It's Woolf's crowning achievement, I think. As a devotee of Mrs Dalloway, it has taken me a while to see that, but it is true.  Woolf herself wrote to Vita Sackville West "the dinner party the best thing I ever wrote: the one thing that I think justifies my faults as a writer...". She also sent her a copy inscribed, 'in my opinion the best novel I have ever written'. Inside Vita found all the pages blank. 

I fell across a letter of hers to Roger Fry earlier today, written towards the end of May, 1927, a few weeks after its publication -

"My Dear Roger, 
[...] I meant nothing by The Lighthouse. One has to have a central line down the middle of the book to hold the design together. I saw that all sorts of feelings would accrue to this, but I refused to think them out, and trusted that people would make it the deposit for their own emotions - which they have done, one thinking it means one thing another another. I can't manage Symbolism except in this vague, generalised way. Whether it's right or wrong I don't know, but directly I'm told what a thing means, it becomes hateful to me. [...]
Yr
V.W"

I promise I will write in more detail about Susan Hill's Books That Built Me before this year is much older, but one of the things she and I discussed in relation to Woolf, and particularly To The Lighthouse, is that an author must learn to trust the reader, to not feel compelled to spell things out, to take them from A to B to C, but to understand that the reader is clever enough to feel their own way, to pick up the trail of clues - to 'make it the deposit for their own emotions'.