Friday, 27 May 2011

The day that changed their lives

The sense of excitement in Oxford on Wednesday afternoon was palpable.

Police in fluorescent jackets lined St Aldate’s, a helicopter hovered overhead and an acrobat walked across a tight rope on Cornmarket. Oh yes, and just down the road at Christ Church, Michelle Obama was encouraging a generation of schoolgirls to aim high and achieve their potential.

The First Lady’s connection with girls from Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Language College in Islington dates back two years. She first visited the school in 2009 and stayed in touch afterwards, an impressive feat in itself considering her whirlwind, and worldwide, schedule. This time round she met 37 girls from the school during their day-trip to Oxford to learn about the university experience and higher education. After meeting academics, talking to students and visiting Oxford landmarks like the Bodleian Library and Sheldonian Theatre (pictured above), the teenagers rounded the day off by filing into the dining hall at Christ Church (now famed as the Hogwarts dining room in the Harry Potter films) to hear Michelle Obama speak to them.

As she recalled her own path from a modest Chicago background to studying at Princeton, she told them: “I realised that if I worked hard enough I could do just as well as anyone else. I realised that success is not about the background you’re from. It’s about the confidence that you have and the effort you’re willing to invest.”

Michelle Obama was inspiring, wise and warm. She answered the girls’ questions – from how long before the US has a female President to how to pick a good husband – and gave each of them a heartfelt hug. As one 15 year old wrote in The Times afterwards: “My name is Aneesah Siddiqui. If I hadn’t met Michelle Obama, you would probably have never heard it. But now – watch this space!”

After an hour and a bit, the police stopped the traffic once more, the First Lady’s cavalcade swept past in a flash and the First Lady, resplendent in white, smiled and waved from the window. The crowd waved back and seconds later the centre of Oxford looked the same again. But girls listening to Michelle Obama that afternoon will remember it as the day that changed their lives.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

The fabulous RNA

Romantic fiction often gets slated – largely due, as Joanna Trollope once said, to snobbery and the genre’s pink covers, embossed lettering and “cartoon drawings of cocktail glasses and handbags and ditsy girls falling off their designer heels.”

But so much of the criticism is downright unfair. A total of 25 million romantic novels are bought by readers in the UK every year and romantic fiction boasts some of the most talented writers around. Marian Keyes, for instance, is a wonderful novelist and has covered everything from domestic violence and depression to alcoholism and dementia in her ten bestselling books. If you haven’t read Last Chance Saloon or The Other Side of the Story by the way, you are in for a treat.

But I digress. I had to write this blog after reading Claudia Connell’s sneery piece about the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s summer party in today’s Daily Mail. She claimed it made her feel as though she’d “accidentally stumbled into the Annual General Meeting of the Jam Makers and Knitted Toy Association” and described the guests as “the kind of ladies you’d find working in charity shops or arranging the church flowers.”

RNA members were outraged by her remarks. And I’m not surprised. I’m not an RNA member but I’ve been to lots of their parties and they’re a fabulous group of novelists, not at all the type she describes.

They’re impossible to pigeon-hole either. They range from young to old, from ultra-glam to not-so-glam and from writers just starting out to novelists whose books fly into the bestseller lists the minute they’re published.

New chair Annie Ashurst, for instance, is not only a highly successful Mills and Boon author (she writes as Sara Craven) but also a former Mastermind champion and member of the RNA team that stormed through to the final of University Challenge – the Professionals a few years back. Outgoing chair Katie Fforde has just had her 16th novel, Summer of Love, published to great acclaim while press officer Catherine Jones, aka Kate Lace, will see her 15th book, Gypsy Wedding, hit the book shops in August. Between them they’ve shifted loads of books over the years – and helped countless RNA members along the tricky road to publication too.

The image shows the cover of Fabulous at Fifty, a history of the RNA's first 50 years.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

The press pack

Working from home is a double-edged sword. I can start work when I want, wear what I please, chat to my son when he gets in from school and fix coffee with friends without a clock-watching news editor yelling at me for being late back.

All good, but I still hanker after office life – the gossip, the banter, the buzz. The best place I ever worked was the Evening Standard, where I spent five years as a hard news reporter. London’s evening paper was based in Fleet Street back then and it was a different world – a world dominated by clattering typewriters, larger than life characters and eye-wateringly tight deadlines.

The vast newsroom was so noisy that we had to yell at top volume to make ourselves heard above the din. My friend Diane used to sit underneath her desk to do phone interviews because it was the only place she could get a bit of peace and quiet.

Few of us had mobile phones so when we were sent out of the office on a job we had to find a phone box (tricky in the middle of Saddleworth Moor) and dictate our stories straight from our notebooks to the army of copy-takers. “Is there much more of this?” they’d ask crushingly while we were in full, creative flow.

Best of all was the fantastic team of reporters. I’ve never worked with better. Newsmen like the late great John McLeod could calmly turn out the most exquisitely-written copy in ten minutes flat before the first edition deadline at 9.30am. Despite the early starts, John, who made his name covering the Great Train Robbery of 1963, was definitely a night owl. He lived and breathed newspapers and could often be found catching forty winks in the office in the early hours of the morning. His shorthand was immaculate, his knowledge of court reporting second to none and yet he was the most generous man, always happy to help out the younger, less experienced journalists in the press pack.

The move to swanky riverside offices and the advent of new technology transformed newspapers beyond all recognition. But do you know, I wouldn’t have missed Fleet Street for anything.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Chocolate biscuits, nagging and getting through exams

Revision fever is rife at House with No Name towers. With two teenagers working towards exams, you could cut the atmosphere with a knife. Desperate to help (something they don’t want at all!), I appealed for advice on Twitter. Answers came back thick and fast, ranging from “nag them about tidying their rooms - they'll prefer to revise” to “don’t insist that they can revise continuously - build in plenty of proper breaks” to “stock up with chocolate biscuits and other treats.”

I also looked back at my files and found a dreaded exams piece I wrote this time last year. It cheered me up no end so I've reprinted it here.

Teenager Ned gazes unhappily at the bright sunshine and blue sky and says for the umpteenth time: "I can’t wait for two weeks on Thursday."

Yes, the dreaded exams have begun and the house is filled with dog-eared files, text books and timetables. Ned’s at the top of the house, where no one can monitor precisely how much work he’s doing, while Lottie’s working in the kitchen to escape the temptations of Facebook and Twitter. The only trouble is that every time I tiptoe in to make cups of tea she asks me to test her on the radicalisation of the army in 1647. You what?

Then an email from pops into my inbox. It’s an excellent website, aimed at giving information and advice on “raising and educating happy, fulfilled girls.” With the exam season in full swing, the latest edition includes a raft of advice from leading headteachers on exam stress and how parents can help their daughters revise. There’s just one problem. If I dared try any of the heads’ suggestions in our house Lottie would soon tell me where to go.

"Rather than banning her use of the computer and mobile," reads one tip, "encourage her to negotiate a communication contract with her friends where they all agree which 20 minutes they will all go online/communicate with each other .... and make her stick to it."

I’m obviously a completely ineffectual parent but if I dared to mention the idea of drawing up a "communication contract" Lottie would laugh hysterically. The moment I offer any advice at all, she says "I’ll sort myself out" or, more crushingly, "that’s the last thing I’d do." And do you know what? She’s absolutely right. Her exams are her business, and she’ll do them her way.

PS: If your children are revising for GCSEs, take a look at some of the innovative ideas devised by the seven winners of Britain’s Dream Teachers, a competition launched by YouTube and TV chef Jamie Oliver to find the most inspiring teachers in the country. See

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Vast skies and searing heat

Amazingly, it’s nearly 30 years since Barbara Trapido's first novel, Brother of the More Famous Jack, was published to huge acclaim. Since then she’s produced just six more.

But trust me, her latest, Sex and Stravinsky, is well worth the wait.

At first glance, Oxford headteacher Caroline Silver is one of those annoying women who’s clever, beautiful and selfless. She’s an amazing cook, makes her own clothes (for goodness sake!) and even transforms an old double-decker bus into a family home for husband Josh and their ballet-obsessed daughter Zoe. Poor Zoe provides a memorable comic interlude when she’s forced to endure the French exchange trip from hell.

But Caroline’s life is far from perfect. She’s saddled with a ghastly mother (Josh dubs her “the witch woman”) who favours Caroline’s self-centred sister, derides her efforts to please and bleeds her dry.

Meanwhile in South Africa, Josh Silver’s first love has problems of her own. Hattie Thomas is a children’s author who spends her days writing in the minimalist house designed by her forceful architect husband. Their sulky teenage daughter wishes her mother would “literally drop dead,” there’s a mysterious new lodger in the cottage at the end of the garden and Hattie's dissolute brother has vanished off the face of the earth.

The novel steps up a gear when the narrative switches to South Africa, where Trapido was born and brought up. Her account of Josh’s adoption by two generous-hearted human rights activists is deeply moving, while her description of the vast South African skies and searing heat made me want to leap straight on a plane to Cape Town. It's a dazzling read.

Sex and Stravinsky by Barbara Trapido is published by Bloomsbury at £7.99.

Friday, 6 May 2011

How it all began

I'm so excited. Five years after I bought the House with No Name, the first phase of the renovation is almost complete and we'll be staying there this summer. Our architect and builder friends have worked miracles, keeping its character while transforming it into a place of charm. Lots of readers have asked how I came to buy it in the first place so I've gone back to my old diaries and reprint the story here.

With the pound sinking like a stone and endless press reports about the British selling up in France and hurrying back across the Channel, what possessed me to buy a derelict farmhouse near Avignon? It’s got a dodgy roof, a major damp problem and a garden littered with old scrap – and two years after I signed on the dotted line the place is still completely uninhabitable.

I first began thinking about buying a small house in France when I met friends who’d sold up in rain-soaked Cumbria and moved lock, stock and barrel to a rambling house halfway up a stunning hillside in the Drôme, a little-known region sandwiched between the Rhône Valley and the foothills of the Alps.

Next I became transfixed by Matthew Parris’s A Castle in Spain, the story of his spur of the moment decision to buy a ruined castle in the wilds of Catalonia. Parris called it “one of those foolish challenges that grip us in middle life.” How true.

Then I was enthralled by C’est La Folie, Michael Wright’s uplifting Daily Telegraph column of how he bade farewell to his safe south London existence and moved to a farm in the Dordogne with only a cat, a piano and a vintage aeroplane for company.

Within months – and without giving the matter nearly enough thought – I’d thrown caution to the wind and done exactly the same thing. Well, without the aeroplane or the cat.

I’d vaguely asked a friend who’s lived in the Drôme for 35 years to look out for a holiday bolthole and out of the blue she sent me an email about a farmhouse for sale. “Beautiful place,” she said. “Great potential. South-facing, with its back up against a wooded hillside with ancient oaks. Very old farm with heaps of charm. It has a very good feel to it.”

Much to my horror, and before I’d even set eyes on the place, my husband rashly put an offer in on my behalf. The offer was far lower than the asking price so I naively assumed it would be rejected out of hand by the 80-year-old owner and her four grown-up children. Only it wasn’t.

By the time I pitched up two weeks later to see it, accompanied by my two teenage children, the estate agent and the notaire, the vendors were excitedly making plans to move into a new house with all mod cons in a nearby town.

I took one look at the house and wanted to scarper. I’d envisaged buying a low-maintenance, two-up two-down with a sunny terrace and here I was, halfway to buying a tumbledown six-bedroom wreck with half a roof, water seeping through the walls and a bathroom inhabited by a plague of rats. The garden was a three-acre jungle and the whole place needed, as the estate agent so delicately put it, “bringing back to life.” The notaire, immaculate in a pinstripe suit and snazzy black polo neck, was visibly shocked. He wrinkled his nose at the damp and scuttled back to his car at the first opportunity.

But despite all this, I somehow couldn’t bring myself to wreck the owners’ plans by saying “sorry, it’s all a horrendous mistake. I’m not touching this dump with a bargepole.”

The following day I pitched up to the lawyer’s office in the sleepy nearby village of Puy St Martin and signed the compromis de vente.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

From Rory Balniel to Rupert Campbell-Black

I’ve loved Jilly Cooper’s books since I was a teenager. Emily, her very first novel, started life as a serial called Circles that she wrote for 19 magazine. She later completely rewrote it, and like every other reader I was hooked from the memorable first line – “If Nina hadn’t bugged me, I’d never have gone to Annie Richmond’s party.” And if that hadn’t happened, as you’ll no doubt remember, heroine Emily would never have met the wild, irresistible artist Rory Balniel and been whisked off to his ancestral home on a windswept Scottish island.

Jilly Cooper has written a multitude of bestsellers since and the great news is that her sparkling new novel is just out in paperback. Jump! is set in the glamorous world of jump racing and like Riders, Polo and Wicked before, it features all the favourite Cooper hallmarks – witty one-liners, a massive cast of characters (the devastating Rupert Campbell-Black makes a welcome return), gorgeous countryside and lots of steamy sex.

This time round, Cooper’s heroine is sweet-natured Etta Bancroft, a widow in her sixties who’s spent her life waiting hand and foot on her domineering philanderer husband. When he dies, her dreadful children force her to move into a “blot on the landscape” bungalow near them. They not only expect her to work as an unpaid nanny for their tricky offspring but purloin her precious paintings, ban her from having pets and tick her off for drinking with locals at the village pub.

But Etta is not to be crushed. One night, on the way back from babysitting duties, she stumbles across a mutilated filly in the snow and lovingly nurses her back to life. Christened Mrs Wilkinson, the tiny creature turns out to be a well-bred racehorse and, cheered on by the rest of the village, embarks on a dazzling racing career. Heroic, brave and devoted to Etta, the filly becomes, as one race-goer puts it, “the People’s Pony.”

The plot rattles along at break-neck speed and while I had to keep my wits about me to remember exactly who’s who (luckily there’s a helpful cast list at the front ), Jump! is impossible to put down.

Cooper meticulously researched the tough world of jump racing and her sheer love of the sport shines through. There are lots of human villains in the book but the horses are noble to a fault - fiercely loyal creatures who race their hearts out for their owners, jockeys and grooms. Jump! is hugely entertaining, touching and funny. I loved it so much that I’ve now gone and bought the audiobook too.

Jump! by Jilly Cooper is published by Corgi at £7.99.
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