Monday, 4 May 2015

THE BOOKS THAT BUILT LISSA EVANS


The Books That Built Lissa Evans, sandwiched between a copy of her latest novel, Crooked Heart, and Prestat chocolate

The marvellous, clever, hysterically funny, utterly delightful Lissa Evans had guests eating out of the the palm of her hand at last Tuesday night's Books That Built Me. 


After leaving medicine for a stint in stand-up, Lissa made her name in radio and television comedy, winning a BAFTA for Father Ted, creating the format for Room 101 and producing/directing hit shows  - The Kumars and Have I Got News for You, amongst others. Like so many brilliant women writers, she came to writing novels after having done all sorts of other things first, which I always find tremendously heartening: I have a theory that women do their best work later in life, which quite contradicts Kazuo Ishiguro's conviction - or is it Martin Amis' - that 'most literary masterpieces are written people under forty') . Her first novel, Spencer's List, was published in 2002 and she has since published three other novels for adults and two for children.  

The latest, Crooked Heart is set in and around London during the Blitz and tells the 'odd-couple' story of the unlikely relationship between ten year old evacuee Noel -a precocious 'walking-dictionary', orphaned, raised in wealthy Hampstead by his ex-suffragette godmother Mattie - and the impoverished hustler, Vera Sedge, who takes him into her shabby St Alban's home more as one of her rather unscrupulous money-making schemes than from a sense of civic duty.
As one might expect from an author with a background in film and television, Evans' deft, precise prose, engaging plotting and vivid evocation of life on the home-front firmly grounds Crooked Heart in its time whilst allowing the friendship between two lost and lonely souls to develop with great warmth, humour and poignancy. It's their need for each other that gives the novel its glorious heart. 

The Books That Built Lissa Evans


'I can pinpoint the exact day I read it,' said Lissa, of her first book. 'It became my world...you can quiz me about any page.' 
One of the things I particularly love about Crooked Heart is how perfectly it nails the character of Noel, a bookish, precocious child of ten whose life changes utterly, almost overnight. My Family and Other Animals is Durrell's marvellous autobiographical story of how, when he was ten, his family left dreary Bournemouth for Corfu, as if on a whim. At about the same age, Lissa's family moved house and she had to start again in a new school in a new part of the country, so she intimately understands the nimble strategies a child employs to survive in a new environment. Yet it's not only this that connects Lissa so strongly to My Family and Other Animals, or the wet camping holiday in Wales during which she first discovered it, it's that Durrell's novel taught her 'the precision of being funny'


 Lissa's parents were great readers, with bookcases full of Penguin Originals - crime novels in green covers, and Penguin's eclectic mix of fiction in its distinctive orange livery. It's in her parent's shelves she found Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London when she was about twelve, and loved it so much she gave it to her best friend fr her birthday, sneaked in alongside the Trojan Horse of a copy of Eric Segal's Love Story. 
Orwell's first book is an account of his time on the breadline, first in Paris where he works as a plongeur in the horribly filthy kitchen of a very posh hotel, and then in London, when, left destitute when a job falls through, and discovers what it is to be a tramp, living entirely without income in the London of the late 1920's. As Lissa says, Orwell 'said good prose should be like a window-pane: that sort of vivid clarity is what I'm always aiming for', and more than that, his descriptions of the exhausting, boring, chaotic struggle just to survive that the very poor have, gave birth to Crooked Heart's other protagonist, Vee.

Betty McDonald's mother impresses on her from an early age that one must always allow one's husband to follow his career passions, which in McDonald's case leads her to an isolated, broken down chicken farm in the Olympic Mountains in Western Washington where the nearest neighbours -can only be described as a very mixed blessing- arefour miles away. Like a less refined 'Diary of a Provincial Lady', The Egg and I chronicles its heroine's struggles with the relentlessness of farm life with a wry, precise humour. If, as Lissa says, it's occasionally like 'being buttonholed by a raconteur', it's an immensely funny book full of extraordinary characters-'I owe her a great deal: I wish I'd met her'

The Leopard is 'a truly immersive book about someone you don't imagine having anything in common with....it's a little like Buddenbrooks [and] intensely beautiful. '
Set in Sicily, mostly in the summer of 1860, against a backdrop of Garibaldi's invasion, The Leopard is the story of the decline and fall of the house of Salina, a family of Sicilian aristocrats. It first appeared in 1958, but its perfect evocation of a lost world suggests a 19th, rather than 20th, century novel. Lampedusa is an exquisitely precise writer - when she's writing, Lissa prefers to hone and pare each sentence til it passes muster, and build sentence on sentence, rather than press on with a first draft and then go back and draft again. 'I hate being given notes' she says.


Lissa first came across Oliver Sacks as a medical student and read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for A Hat to the night porter and sister during one long casualty night shift. 'It's what medicine should be about ...he tilts the prism to see people find themselves again'. 


'This is where it all began- hymns were entertainment during assembly'. If, like Lissa and I, your school day invariably began with an interminable assembly, you'll know Hymns Ancient and Modern, or the New English Hymnal, and if, like us, you found assembly utterly tedious, you may also have lost yourself in the rich poetry of hymns. 'The language is wonderful for seven year olds - there are words to ponder, rich vocabulary and imagery.... hymns gave a vocabulary that transcended class.' Anyone who has read Crooked Heart, and grown to love Mattie, the former suffragette, will understand why Jerusalem, hymn of the suffragettes long before it became the W.I's theme tune, is Lissa's favourite. I'm enormously excited to hear that Lissa's next book may be a Crooked Heart prequel, giving us more of Mattie and the Suffragettes.




With many thanks to the Club at Cafe Royal for hosting The Books That Built Me [click here for membership enquiries] and to Claire Masters for all her help, gratefully appreciated.

Lissa signs copies of Crooked Heart after her salon
Guests took home a copy of Crooked Heart and a bar of Prestat's Maple & Pecan Dream chocolate

Sunday, 3 May 2015

TREFUSIS MINOR & THE FOOTBALL MATCH

Trefusis Minor went to see Chelsea play Crystal Palace today. It was an important father/son bonding moment: Mr Trefusis is an ardent Chelsea fan, and Trefusis Minor has never been to a match before, his mother always having been keen to shield his tender ears from the, erm, 'songs' football fans are wont to chant.

'How was it?' I ask Trefusis Minor on his return. 
'Loud and rude.' Says Trefusis Minor, loftily. 'I'm more of a rugby man. Rugby is a hooligan's game played by gentleman. Football is a gentlemen's game played by hooligans.' 


THE TT'S SUGGESTS NAMES FOR THE NEW PRINCESS

"The new Princess should have a summery name." Says the Tiniest Trefusis to me over lunch, "May would be good, Or Belle. Or Liberty. Or Daffodil. Or Honey. Or Iris or Rose. Or Grace. Grace is my most-wanted name".

HRH the Princess Grace Honey Daffodil. It breaks with Royal tradition, but The TT is all for moving with the times.

"can the Royal Family read this?' Asks TT "I want them to read it."

"Well," I say, "theoretically they could read it, I suppose - it's a public website."




Sunday, 26 April 2015

26th OCTOBER BAKERY LONDON, W12

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

THE DIGITAL DETOX - or - PAVLOV'S IPHONE

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.


SNOOPY AT CHRIS BEETLES GALLERY



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

THE 2015 BOLLINGER EVERYMAN WODEHOUSE PRIZE FOR COMIC FICTION

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.