Sunday, 24 May 2015


 Writing requires great selfishness and great focus - it helps if you're so burned up by the words trying to burst out of you that you can do nothing else but sit and write. I am not like that. I have no self-discipline at all.  I started writing a book in 2009 and I'm still writing it, not because I've endlessly tinkered with every line in pursuit of some Flaubertian marvellousness, but because I've had to prioritise the business of earning a living - not so much the pram in the hall as the spectre of the bailiffs in the street.

 Anyway, six years have gone past and every day I don't finish it I berate myself more for my failure to finish anything, it becomes a symbol of a wider laziness, of failure.  It's also, partly, because whilst I'm still writing it, it could still be brilliant - I'm still a contender - and I'm scared of the spirit-crushing defeat if I gaily write 'The End' only for everyone to find it so terribly wanting. 

The longer I spend writing it, the more the fear grows. The more time I invest in it, the more afraid I am of it coming to nothing. 

Various things have happened over the last few weeks that have made me think it's time to get over myself and just bloody finish it. I lost a big piece of business, and the sensible thing would be to fire up the selling cylinders and get on with replacing it at once. But, Mercury being retrograde, I'm committing to a different approach - I will give myself until August to write the rest of the book. A writer isn't a writer unless they write. I'm not trying to write a whole book in ten weeks, but a quarter of one. I must try to be more scared of not finishing it than of finishing it. I must allow myself some ambition. 

Anyway, I'm reading Hemingway's A Moveable Feast - I'm making slow progress because there is something so apposite on each page, I keep stopping to write it down. Maybe it's the iChing for writers ...

"I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day. but sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, 'Do not worry. you have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. write the truest sentence you know.'."

Thursday, 21 May 2015


Reading is an intensely pleasurable activity. 

At least, it should be - I suppose if one is cramming for exams or ploughing one's way through a book one hates out of a sense of duty, then it's less of a treat and more of a chore. I remember trying to cram A La RecherchĂ© du Temps Perdu and a pile of other massive 19th century novels for my finals and it so ruined reading for me, I don't think I read anything but Jilly Cooper and spy thrillers for a whole year after graduating.  Contrarily, if someone presses a novel on me, earnestly or otherwise, it can set me against the book forever.  My refusal to read The Sheltering Sky was once the straw that broke the camels back of a relationship - apparently, it was a potent metaphor for my habitual privileging of my own tastes, and my disengagement with his. Its also tricky when someone gives you a book because it 'will tell you everything you need to know' about them. A boyfriend of mine once gave me a copy of I Heard The Owl Call My Name  and to this day I have no idea what a story about a terminally ill vicar living with native Americans in a village in British Columbia had to say about an actor from East London. I'm not saying that people's favourite books say nothing about them - that would make a nonsense of The Books That Built Me - but I do think that the book one generally believes to reveal great truths about oneself probably doesn't. Books are more of a window into one's bookshelf than into one's soul.

Ive taken myself right off topic - this was supposed to be a post about self indulgence being good for one. I read lots of books that are recommended to me -  and love them and recommend them to others. At the moment I'm reading Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, on Alex Preston's recommendation. And it's an intensely pleasurable read - in a world driven by social media, of digital overload, the act of reading books needs to be fetishised a bit, one should wallow in the luxury of time spent in someone else's imagination, treat it as a mini holiday, revel in the pleasure of print in a digital world. When I conceived the idea for the salon, I wanted to make it as hedonistic as I possibly could- so, there is champagne,  a beautiful setting, and there is chocolate, possibly my second favourite thing after books - and delicious Prestat has been an essential part of the salon since it began. Prestat and I always try to pick up something from the author's books, even if it's very oblique, and match the choice of the chocolate the guests are given. So on 2nd June, for Alex Preston's salon, we have chosen an Earl Grey flavoured milk chocolate from the Art Deco collection - Esmond Lowndes, the hero in Alex's book In Love And War, is British in rather a Rupert Brooke kind of way, and he mixes with an aristocratic bunch of British ex-pats in Florence - at least in the first part of the novel - and one can imagine them having Earl Grey sent from Fortnum's   In Love and War begins in 1937, hence the Art Deco bit. 

So you see, there is rhyme and reason. 

The Books That Built Me - for literary sybarites....

Tuesday, 19 May 2015


“I drink my Champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it — unless I’m thirsty.”
Madame Bollinger 

Today is the first anniversary of The Books That Built Me - what better way to celebrate the salon's birthday than to announce Champagne Bollinger as its official drinks partner. Is there any finer accompaniment to a literary conversation, I wonder?

Champagne Bollinger has form when it comes to fiction: there's Bond of course - Bollinger first makes an appearance in Diamonds are Forever - but it's in the sponsorship of Britain's only prize for comic fiction, The Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize, that the link between Bollinger and books really comes into its own. I had a delightful time at a party with some of the shortlisted authors a few weeks ago, and the winner - Alexander McCall Smith for Fatty O'Leary's Dinner Party - joins an august list of previous prize winners - Hanif Kureshi, Howard Jacobson and Terry Pratchett to name but three.

The first year of The Books That Built Me has been wonderful - I'm enormously grateful to my first guest, Sarah Churchwell, author of Careless People, whose tireless support and encouragement got me off the starting blocks and I'm looking forward very much to the second year and beyond. 

Year two kicks off with marvellous Alex Preston - I look forward to sharing a glass of Bollinger with him, and with all the guests at his salon on 2nd June. 

For tickets to Alex Preston's Books That Built Me at the Club at Cafe Royal, click here. Ticket includes a signed hardback copy of Alex Preston's In Love and War, a glass of Bollinger, delicious Prestat chocolate to take home, a copy of the latest Tatler and a six month subscription to Tatler for you or to give to a friend. 

Friday, 15 May 2015


I write this sitting, not in the kitchen sink, but in 9F of a British Airways flight back from a business trip to Italy, trying to not to let the passengers either side of me see that the last pages of Alex Preston’s ‘In Love And War’ are making me cry.

Quite by chance, an appointment with Salvatore Ferragamo took me down the Via Tornabuoni in Florence, where so much of the first part of the book is set, I walked past St Gaetano, 'ugliest church in Florence' and longed to have the time to pop into Procacci, where raffish Gerald promises to take Esmond, In Love and War’s protagonist, for 'milk rolls and jam'. There's something magical about a literary itinerary, particularly an unintended one: it gives you a sense of complicity with the text, of seeing what it has seen.

In Love and War is the moving, exactingly researched, exquisitely written story of Esmond Lowndes, son of a leading light in Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. Caught in flagrante, he is sent down from Cambridge and despatched to Florence to set up a commercial wireless station for the British Union of Facists, to raise money from advertising and to promote the relationship between Italian and British Black Shirts. His first days in Florence, living at the British Institute on Via Tornabuoni, are idyllic, all very Brideshead-in-Italy, but when a party to celebrate the coronation of George VI is violently broken up by fascists, the brutal realities of Mussolini's Italy start to make themselves felt. As war comes, Esmond is drawn into the resistance, and falls for Ada, his aide de camp at Radio Firenze; their love becomes a courageous counterpoint to the terrifying weight of war.

I don't want to talk too much about plot, it's there, and it's gripping and marvellous and has all the right kind of narrative arc and drive and so on. It's more than plot that marks this book out as the work of a stunningly accomplished writer: In Love and War is about ideas and ideologies and how both are compromised by the realities of love and war. It's also a novel that's deeply engaged in the business of writing: all of its characters with the exception of Esmond and Ada are real people, which brings its own challenges, and it uses letters, telegrams, and transcripts of recordings alongside more conventional narrative techniques as an original and effective story-telling devices.

Preston has been compared to Hollinghurst and to Forster, and I think, with In Love and War, the comparisons are justified. He is a writer whose literary skill builds with each book he publishes, and we have yet to see the best he is capable of.

Hear Alex Preston discuss the books that made him a writer at The Books That Built Me on 2nd June at the Club at Cafe Royal. Tickets are £26.99 (plus eventbrite fee) and include a copy of In Love and War, a glass of Bollinger, Prestat chocolate, and a six month subscription to Tatler. 

In Love And War is published by Faber, price £14.99 

Thursday, 7 May 2015


I first read Brideshead Revisited when quite a young teenager, in love with Waugh's floppy haired bright young things, up at Oxford seemingly for nothing more arduous than to be sick through each other's windows, or recite The Waste Land from balconies,  or carry around bears called Aloysius. The television programme was on ITV but I was away at school so was only ever allowed to stay up for half of each programme, so had to read the book to find out what was going on.

Now, that summer term with Sebastian, it seemed as though I was being given a brief spell of what I had never known, a happy childhood, and though its toys were silk shirts and liqueurs and cigars and its naughtiness high in the catalogue of grave sins, there was something of nursery freshness about us that fell little short of the joy of innocence.

Anyway, my Pollyanna-ish teenage self, combined with watching half of the dramatisation gave me quite the wrong impression of Waugh's novel.

 I've read it several times since, and each time I read it it's a different book: it wasn't until I read it at around the same age Charles Ryder is at the beginning of the novel that its melancholy genius really hit me. 

Anyway, Brideshead Revisited was only thirty seven years old when I first read it. This year it celebrates its seventieth birthday, and I think it truly is Waugh's triumph. Don't be distracted by the dreaming spires and the decadent beautiful aristos, it's about lost innocence and loss, about disappointment and not fulfilling one's potential. Forget all that stuff I always write about the good ending happily and the bad unhappily, I think Brideshead is alluringly tragic. But I've just been mending my copy with sellotape (I'm a terrible breaker of spines and once the glue goes brittle, pages fly out like moths when you open them) ready to start re-reading it in preparation for Alex Preston's Books That Built Me on 2nd June, and perhaps I'll discover it has transformed itself yet again into quite a different book from the one I think it is.  


‘The Books That Built Me - where the books you love meet the books you write’
Sarah Churchwell, author of Careless People, Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of the Great Gatsby
London’s most luxurious literary salon’ Tatler

The Books That Built Me is an elegant, intimate literary salon for 50 guests, hosted at The Club at CafĂ© Royal.  In conversation with literary hostess and Times 100 blogger, Mrs Trefusis, AKA Helen Brocklebank, authors discuss six books that have inspired and informed their writing lives – from childhood favourites to grown-up classics and everything in between.

 Launched in May 2014, Books That Built Me guests have included India Knight, Nina Stibbe, Sarah Churchwell, Sasha Wilkins (Liberty London Girl), Justine Picardie, Andrew O’Hagan, Lissa Evans and Samantha Ellis, author of ‘How to Be a Heroine’.

Tickets include a copy of the author's book, a glass of Bollinger, Prestat chocolate, a copy of the latest Tatler and a six month subscription to Tatler. 


Sunday, 3 May 2015


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 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."