Saturday, 30 June 2012

The long-lost days of City Wife and Country Wife

The best bit of BritMums Live last weekend was meeting writer Kate Morris for the first time.

Actually, I felt I already knew her, because five years ago Easy Living magazine asked us to write a pair of blogs. Kate, a sassy journalist living in trendy west London, was City Wife, while I, then living in the depths of Oxfordshire, was Country Wife. I was a bit of a fraud because I didn’t keep hens or grow my own vegetables or do any of the things you’re supposed to do in the country, but for the next two years we posted our blogs a couple of times a week.

I really looked forward to reading Kate’s accounts of life with her two young children and photographer husband.

As she described trips to the park, children’s birthday parties and dressing up for book days at school, I felt a wave of nostalgia for the past. My children were teenagers by then and I seemed to spend most of my time watching my son doing scary bike stunts at the skate park and marvelling at my daughter’s newfound passion for black nail varnish, make-up and Topshop. Every time I read Kate’s blog I marvelled at how the years had whizzed by in a flash.

Fast forward a couple of years and Kate has written her third novel, the insightful Seven Days One Summer, and started a new blog. We’ve stayed in touch by email and on Twitter over the years but we’d never actually met in person. Then last weekend, a dark-haired woman I didn't know tapped me on the shoulder and said tentatively “Emma?” It was Kate!

We both grabbed a cup of tea and didn’t stop talking for the next 45 minutes. Our City Wife and Country Wife days may be over but there was an awful lot to catch up on.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Friday book review - Black Heart Blue by Louisa Reid

From the first haunting line – “They tried to make me go to my sister’s funeral today” – to the shocking denouement, Black Heart Blue is one of those books that you simply have to keep reading.

I tore through Louisa Reid’s debut novel in one sitting, horrified by the cruelty that twin sisters Hephzibah and Rebecca are forced to endure at the hands of their parents, and moved by their brave attempts to find freedom.

Black Heart Blue is billed as a young adult (YA) novel but I reckon teenagers and adults alike will be gripped by the story. Reid, an English teacher at a girls’ school in Cambridge, wrote it in five months and has produced an absorbing, pacy tale about horrific family secrets and what really goes on behind closed doors.

Hephzi and Rebecca are 16 when the novel begins. After a lifetime of being educated at home and not allowed to mix with other children, they’ve persuaded their father, an outwardly respectable vicar, to let them go to sixth-form college.  But while Hephzi is beautiful, daring and determined to lead a normal life with her friends, Rebecca, who’s been disfigured since birth, is very much in her shadow. Until, that is, Rebecca loses her twin in terrible circumstances and starts fighting back.   

The novel shifts back and forth in time as the two girls take it in turns to tell their stories, buttit’s so skilfully done that the narrative never loses its way. This gritty, dark tale isn’t for the faint-hearted but it’s astonishingly, breathtakingly good.

Black Heart Blue by Louisa Reid (Penguin, £6.99)

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Hankering after my old job...

Tony Blair reckons he’s better equipped to be PM now than he was during his Downing Street years. He says he’s learned “an immense amount” and would love to have another go, even though it’s unlikely to ever happen.

I was never a Blair devotee, but his words – during an interview with Evening Standard editor Sarah Sands – made me think. 

In my 20s I worked as a news reporter in Fleet Street, haring around on the stories of the moment. I could be covering a grim murder trial at the Old Bailey one week (they often gave me nightmares) and sitting in a Bedouin tent in the middle of the Saudi desert with Prince Charles and Princess Diana the next. The deadlines were eye-wateringly tight, the bosses scary and the pressure intense, but life was never boring.

A quarter of a century on, I wouldn’t stand a chance in hell of being hired as a news reporter (in a profession that’s getting younger by the minute, I’m far too old).

But the ridiculous thing is that I’d actually be a far better reporter now than I was then. I’ve lived a hell of a lot more, had children, lost people I love – and understand so much more about everything (well, except for polymers, the offside rule and the ins and outs of the West Lothian question. Deadlines don’t scare me  and nor do tough news editors. When I’m working I focus 100 per cent on what I’m doing, rather than planning nights out with my pals or worrying about my love life. My children are almost grown-ups themselves so I don’t even have to fix childcare.

So, yes, like Tony Blair, I’d love to have a go at my old job. And yes, like him, I know it’s unlikely to ever happen.

PS. The picture shows a cutting from my reporting days. My writer friend Jane Gordon-Cumming found it in a pile of papers when she was moving house. We only met two years ago so she was stunned to find she had an article of mine dating back to the 1980s!

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Viva Forever! - Reliving the Spice Girls years

Seeing the Spice Girls reunited to promote the new musical based on their songs was like stepping back in time.

In the mid-1990s, when Posh, Scary, Sporty, Ginger and Baby were at the height of their fame, my daughter and her friends were captivated by them. No party was complete without Wannabe and Spice Up Your Life belting out of the CD player (I know, it was a long time ago) and the primary school playground was full of little girls discussing which Spice Girl was their favourite. Sadly, Melanie Chisholm (aka Sporty) never featured because she wore boring tracksuits whereas the others all got glitter, sparkles and Union Jack dresses.

But when the Spice Girls assembled yesterday I reckoned Melanie C and Emma Bunton looked the happiest by a long chalk. Melanie Brown and Geri Halliwell were still trying to be the stars of the show, while Victoria Beckham, now a hot-shot fashion designer who counts Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes among her best pals, looked like she didn’t want to be there at all. Once the launch was over she headed straight back to LA to tuck her baby daughter Harper in. “I’d love to stay and hang out with the girls but I’m desperate to see her before she goes to bed,” she said. 

The Spice Girls are all in their late 30s now and won’t actually feature in Viva Forever!, the musical that’s been created by producer Judy Craymer and written by comedienne Jennifer Saunders. The show, which Saunders wanted to do because her three daughters loved the Spice Girls when they were growing up, weaves the band’s songs into a drama about a girl called Viva who is swept into the world of instant celebrity.

Actually, if I got my way I’d give Melanie C a part in it straight away. I saw her in Blood Brothers a few years ago and she was sensational. Aside from her sporty tracksuits, jaunty pony-tail and onstage back flips, Melanie C was best known for being the only Spice Girl who could actually sing. Well, she can act too. She grew up on Merseyside and was utterly compelling as Mrs Johnstone, the hard-pressed Liverpudlian mum who agrees to give one of her twin sons away.

I’ve seen Willy Russell’s wonderful play several times during its 29-year history but Melanie C knocked spots off the other actresses I’ve seen in the part. Her voice was stunning and she had exactly the right blend of toughness and vulnerability to make the character believable.

Viva Forever! opens in London in December and is set to be a smash hit. I’m definitely going to book tickets and take my daughter with me…

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Fifty Shades trilogy sells more than a million on Kindle in the UK

My first romantic novella, Olympic Flames, has just been published as an ebook and like every writer I know, I check every other hour to see how many copies it has sold.

But my jaw dropped this morning when a press release from Amazon dropped into my in-box. EL James, the London-based mother-of-two who created the hit Fifty Shades trilogy, has just become the first author to sell more than one million books at the Kindle store.

Gulp. The trilogy only came out in March and the first of the three, Fifty Shades of Grey, is now the best-selling Kindle book of all time on The movie rights have been sold and the Kindle edition is outselling the print book at a rate of more than two to one (call me a cynic but it could be because when you’re sitting on a jam-packed train into work, your fellow passengers can’t spot you’re reading a steamy bestseller on a Kindle).

“EL James’s books have become the fastest-selling and the best-selling series ever on Kindle,” says Gordon Willoughby, director of EU Kindle. “That’s an exceptional achievement for a debut novelist and we’re excited to see her pass the one million sales milestone.”

In gloomy times, when the publishing business is tougher than ever, EL James’s story is certainly an inspiring one. For debut novelists and old-timers alike…

Hopelessly addicted to tea - and my own special Teapigs blend

From PG Tips to M&S’s Empress Grey, I’m hopelessly addicted to tea.

I drink about eight cups a day, and very often have two on the go at once. When we cross the Channel to France I make sure I’ve got a few packets of tea stashed in my luggage because French tea just doesn’t taste the same at all. And when I gave up alcohol in the New Year, the only drink I didn’t get sick of was tea.

So you can imagine my excitement last week when I got an email from a fantastic tea company called Teapigs. I’d entered a competition to write a 60-word paragraph about my passion for tea and guess what? I was one of the lucky winners. The prize? My very own special blend created by tea taster Louise (above).

And sure enough, on Saturday morning a packet of “Emma’s special blend” arrived in the post. It’s called Super Power Earl Grey and it’s delicious. I’m rationing myself to one pot a day – and when I get to the end of the packet I’m going to be utterly bereft. Forget haute couture fashion, I’m now a devotee of haute couture tea…

Monday, 25 June 2012

BritMums Live - Is blogging a bit, um, 2009?

Five hundred bloggers, star-studded speakers, babies in arms and a glamorous venue in the heart of the City. BritMums Live promised all that, and delivered all that. Where else could you have your nails painted, learn the ins and outs of Google+, pick up some great tips on blogging and hear a speech by the hilarious Ruby Wax – all within the space of a few hours?

The two-day event kicked off at The Brewery, a five-minute walk from Moorgate tube station, on Friday with an introduction by founders Jennifer Howse and Susanna Scott. Susanna gave a sense of the power of BritMums when she told us that it boasts 4,000 members, 7,000 blogs and a staggering 20 million page views a month.

Then it was on with the first speaker – the incomparable Ruby Wax, author, comedian and founder of Black Dog Tribe, her website for people affected by mental illness. “I have become the poster girl for mental illness,” she declared, before launching into a brave, funny and very honest session entitled Prevailing Through Adversity – How I Beat the Tsunami of All Depressions. One blogger spoke for the whole audience when she stood up and said: “I applaud you for speaking out. It’s a big help to everyone.” Quick as a flash, the spiky Ruby shot back: “I had to. They outed me. Depression loves everyone.”

A panel of five high-flying journalists and bloggers then led a session entitled British Blogging Now. With Carla Buzasi, editor-in-chief of Huffington Post UK and 2012 online editor of the year, chairing the 50-minute debate, the stand-out discussion for me covered what the panel look for in a blog.

Steve Keenan, co-founder of Travel Perspective and an expert in travel social media, told us: “My current passion is video. It’s become more mainstream for bloggers – if you have video on your site, people stay on the page for much longer.”

Jeanne Horak-Druiff of Cook Sister said she wanted to see “good writing,” while Dan Elton of political blog Left Foot Forward said he looked for blogs that grabbed his attention. When a member of the audience suggested that younger people don’t see the point of blogs and asked if “blogging is a bit 2009,” Sarah Ebner, who writes The Times's School Gate blog, gave a spirited defence. She also mentioned the 100 Word Challenge, a brilliant idea where children write a creative piece of exactly 100 words and then post it to their school blog.

The day ended with bloggers gathering for the Brilliance in Blogging party, where we were treated to a glass or two of prosecco, some chic-looking canapés and a toast to blogging. I’m still mulling over the question of whether blogging is “a bit 2009” though. Is blogging really over? Is Twitter the new blogosphere? I’d love to hear what you think…

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Reading an Alastair Sawday guide changed my life

The arrival of Alastair Sawday’s newsletter in my inbox always brings a wry smile to my face. The founder of Sawday’s Special Places to Stay will be completely oblivious to this fact but reading one of his guidebooks completely changed my life.

I’m not joking. Nine years ago, desperate to book a last-minute summer holiday, I bought a copy of his guide to self-catering properties in my local WH Smith’s and began ringing some of the places he recommended. I’d left it far too late and virtually everywhere was booked up, but the owner of a gite in the south of France said she’d suddenly had a cancellation and could offer us one week. We snapped it up like a shot and a couple of weeks later were en route to the Drôme, a wonderfully unspoilt region sandwiched between the Rhône Valley and the foothills of the Alps. As we drove halfway down a remote French hillside to our destination I had no idea that this place was going to have a major impact on all our lives.

In the following years we returned time and time again to the Drôme, enchanted by its lush, green landscape and majestic mountains. For some unfathomable reason it’s far less famous than Provence, its tourist-run southern neighbour, but just as beautiful. Lots of people have never even heard of it – and those who have discovered it want to keep it that way.

But more importantly, the owner of the farmhouse where we originally stayed became a dear friend. So much so that when we bade farewell to her after yet another blissful holiday I suddenly heard myself saying “I’d love to buy a small place here. Please will you keep a look-out for us?” Within months she’d spotted a rundown farmhouse for sale 20 miles away and sent me an email saying ““Beautiful place. Great potential. South-facing, with its back up against a wooded hillside. Very old farm with heaps of charm.”

So that was it. The next year I bought the House With No Name - a rambling 16th century house with a tumbledown roof, a plague of rats and a heap of rusting cars 12 feet deep in the barn (I’m not exaggerating). And it all began with Alastair Sawday.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

BritMums Live - The Path to Getting Published

If you’ve been reading House With No Name for a while, you’ll know that I’m a writing workshop addict. Hearing other writers speak about their work and picking up advice and guidance along the way is one of my favourite pastimes.

So yesterday I jumped at the chance to hear five bloggers present a workshop entitled The Path to Getting Published – Bloggers Who Have Done It. The session was part of BritMums Live, a massive two-day event in London attended by 500 bloggers that I’ll be writing about soon.

The publishing workshop was chaired by US-based writer Toni Hargis, author of the Expat Mum blog, and as she astutely said at the start “there is no right way to publish - but the one thing you do need is a product.”

First up was writer Kate Morris, author of three novels, including Seven Days One Summer. It was fascinating to meet Kate at last because we once wrote a pair of blogs called Country Wife and City Wife for Easy Living magazine. Even though it felt like we know each other well we’d never actually met in person before. 

Kate admitted that writing a novel is “a long, lonely journey and a scary process,” and advised budding novelists to make sure they send out “a very polished product that’s as tight and compelling as possible.” Rather than submitting a book too soon, she reckons it’s a good idea to ask people you trust to read your work and give an objective view. They could be close friends or fellow writers or members of a writing group, but make sure they give “constructive and truthful criticism” and then take on board “what resonates with you.”

Next came the dynamic Emily Carlisle, who writes the ultra-successful More Than Just a Mother blog. She said she felt like “a complete fraud” because she hasn’t had a book published yet, but thanks to the success of her blog she has been approached by three agents who love her work. She's now signed up with one of them and is working on a novel.

“All three told me that having an online presence and a solid platform is absolutely crucial,” said Emily. “It means you have a group of readers who are coming back for more and it means you are marketable.”

She also came up with a list of five tips for bloggers who want to write books: 
  1. Keep your blog fresh, original and professional.
  2. Make sure you have an About Me section on your page (so agents and publishers can find out more about you).
  3. Make sure your contact details are on there.
  4. Include a page about your writing aspirations. Agents want to know you are in "for the long haul.”
  5. If you have done interviews for radio or TV, then put them on your blog. It shows that you can hold your own in conversation and that you are marketable.

Meanwhile American agent Erin Niumata, senior vice president at Folio Literary Management, added some practical advice on submitting work to agents. She advised writers to send a query letter, a synopsis of three to five pages (including the ending) and the first three chapters or 50 pages. “Send them something they can actually read,” she quipped. “And don’t put glitter inside, don’t send gifts and don’t call to follow up. Don’t do any of that.”

Erin pointed out that agents frequently look at blogs – “we are out there, lurking in the dark, looking at you,” she said. “The bigger your platform, the better. So be clever, be smart and write something that is original.”

Last, but not least, came writer Cari Rosen, a former TV producer whose first book was published last year. The Secret Diary of a New Mum (Aged 43 ¾) is the story of “one woman, one baby, a slipped disc and rather too many wrinkles,” and as Cari explained, she wrote it in five months, sitting on the sofa in her pyjamas with a bag of M&Ms. The TV rights have now been sold in the US, so watch this space...

Thursday, 21 June 2012

David Beckham's top ten tourist tips

David Beckham would be the last person to claim that culture is his speciality.

But with London 2012 fast approaching, the list of top ten places to visit in the UK he has compiled for tourism agency VisitBritain is lacklustre to say the least. Despite having a host of cultural treats to choose from, he unimaginatively suggests taking a tour of Buckingham Palace, eating at Tony Lane’s Pie & Mash shop in London’s East End, taking the kids to Thorpe Park and playing a round of golf at St Andrews.

Could you come up with a better list for this summer's visitors? I've given it a go and here are my top ten suggestions:
  1. Take a tour of the newly restored Cutty Sark (and explore Greenwich afterwards).
  2. Buy a bunch of flowers at the Columbia Road flower market in Bethnal Green.
  3. Visit the Damien Hirst exhibition at the Tate Modern (and admire the views across the Thames to the City too).
  4. Watch the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace.
  5. See Tower Bridge rise up (it happens about 1,000 times a year and you can check times on the Tower Bridge website).
  6. Take afternoon tea at the Ritz (the prettiest restaurant in London).
  7. Listen to a free lunchtime concert at St Martin-in-the Fields in Trafalgar Square.
  8. Go and see a play at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.
  9. Have lunch at the Porthminster Café in St Ives. It looks out across the sea and you can pop into the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden afterwards).
  10. Walk up Catbells in the Lake District. It’s a bracing climb but the stunning views across Derwentwater are worth it when you get to the top. 

PS. If you’re looking for a present for a girl who adores trying new beauty products then a subscription to GlossyBox could be just the ticket. It’s such a smart idea. You sign up, pay £10 per month (plus p&p) and you receive a chic box containing a selection of five luxury beauty samples from exclusive brands and tips, offers and tricks about beauty and style. I received the April box (above) and it was a real treat. It included an Inika Cosmetics organic eyeliner, a divine peppermint-scented Ayuuri bodywash, Figs & Rouge lip balm and more besides. The June box looks even better, with MeMeMe nail varnish, a mini mascara by Yves Rocher and a pair of precision tweezers.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Afternoon tea at the Old Parsonage in Oxford

It was my birthday yesterday and the last day of my son’s exams – so what better way to celebrate than afternoon tea in Oxford?

And what better place to choose than the Old Parsonage? One of the best-known hotels in Oxford, it’s housed in a pretty 17th century building and boasts a shady stone terrace that’s just perfect for afternoon tea. No wonder the place is so popular with newly-graduated students. There were loads of them there yesterday, resplendent in their mortar boards and gowns, taking tea with their proud parents.

The three of us went for broke and chose what the Old Parsonage calls its “very high tea.” Actually, it was a “very big tea” – a mix of smoked salmon and cucumber sandwiches (with their crusts cut off of course), scones and cream and divine-looking cakes, all washed down by a special blend of tea named after the Old Parsonage. We tucked in with alacrity, although we couldn’t quite manage the cakes. “No problem,” said the charming waiter. He hurried inside and reappeared a few minutes later with the cakes packed into neat brown boxes.

At £16.95 a head, afternoon tea at the Old Parsonage wasn’t exactly cheap but it was a special occasion after all. Not only that, we were so full by the time we got home that none of us could possibly manage supper later on. And even better, we’ve got these luscious cakes (below) to look forward to for tea today…

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Crying at the cinema - and my low-brow tastes

As the credits rolled my daughter took a long sideways glance at me and groaned. “I can’t take you anywhere,” she joked. “Why do you always cry at films?”

I tried to deny it but my red eyes and tear-stained cheeks gave the game away. I’d nearly made it to the end of the Brideshead Revisited DVD without shedding a tear, then stumbled at the very last hurdle.

“I can’t help it,” I told her. “It was so sad. You know, when Lord Marchmain was on his death bed and Julia...” “But that didn’t mean you had to burst into tears,” she retorted. “You even cried at Definitely, Maybe. And Madeline.”

At this rate she’s going to put her foot down and refuse to watch anything with me. I rarely go to the movies with my husband because his taste in films and mine are as poles apart as our hobbies. Crazy mid-air loop-the-loop stunts and obscure French films without sub-titles – him. Bracing country walks and Hollywood blockbusters – me.

My low-brow tastes have been a big shock to him over the years. I don’t know why but when we first met he clearly thought I was far more intellectual than I actually am. One of his first presents to me was a set of Mervyn Peake’s three Gormenghast novels. A lovely thought, but I found the books, which are set in a weird, crumbling castle owned by the 77th Earl of Groan, utterly unreadable. He was similarly unimpressed when I gave him Ogden Nash’s collected poems. Far too light and trite, he reckoned. It’s the same with music. Whenever we drive anywhere together he wants to listen to Wagner at top volume while I surreptitiously try and substitute my Laura Marling CD without him noticing.

I can’t even rely on my son as a cinema companion because he only likes movies with car chases and scary stunt-work. I persuaded him to go to Pride and Prejudice with me a few years ago and instantly regretted it. He spent half the film muttering “this is the worst film I’ve ever seen” under his breath and the other half threatening to walk out.

It looks like I’ll be sitting in the stalls, tears streaming down my face, all by myself from now on.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Why shouldn't teenagers be able to re-sit their exams?

When I’m not reviewing books, writing novels or blogging, I have a day job as an education journalist. My children have never been keen on me being clued up about key stage 3, phonics and schemes of work, but they’ve had to put up with it. And it’s endlessly fascinating. One week I’m writing about apprenticeships, the next I’m interviewing the head master of Eton (one of the most impressive heads I’ve ever met).

But with A levels still in full swing, I opened The Times this morning to read that education secretary Michael Gove is planning to divide them into two courses, each lasting a year and ending with a set of exams in the summer term. He is convinced that dropping the system of modules would halve the number of exams pupils take in the sixth form and cut the culture of multiple re-sits.

Mr Gove clearly hates the fact that students are currently able to re-sit their A level modules several times in order to improve their grades. But I don’t understand why. I thought that education was supposed to be all about lifelong learning, about striving to improve and enhance our knowledge.

So why shouldn’t students learn from their exam mistakes and try again? Teenagers who don’t find exams easy but keep trying to better their grades should be encouraged. Not slapped down and told “tough luck, you’ve had your chance. You’re not having another go.”

Sunday, 17 June 2012

The first and last time I cut someone's hair

Caitlin Moran is the most talented columnist of her generation – and the funniest too. When I heard her interview Ab Fab creator Jennifer Saunders recently, she was just as funny in real life as she is on the page.

She’s won just about every journalistic prize going and now it looks as though she’s moving into a different stratosphere. The Guardian reported this weekend that she’s written the pilot for a Channel 4 sitcom about an overweight 16 year old looking for a boyfriend. If it’s successful, it could be followed by a six-part series.

As usual, Moran has chosen a subject that every woman, whether they’re 16 or 60, can identify with. There’s no doubt about it, 16 is a tricky age for girls. They’re not children any more, but they’re not really adults either.

When I was 16 I left my ultra-strict girls’ school to go to a boys’ school that had just started taking girls. Tucked away in the wilds of Dorset, there were 30 girls and 450 boys. The girls were considered such an exotic species that 450 pairs of eyes followed us wherever we went, clocking what we were wearing, who our friends were and which boys we liked. It’s hard to believe now but some boys were so insensitive that they’d even comment on who’d put on weight and who’d lost it. One day I was about to take a bite out of a doughnut when a boy of about 14 whizzed past and plucked it from my plate. “You won’t want that,” he said. “It’ll make you fat…”

Actually, without meaning to, I got my revenge a few months later. I’m the most cack-handed person on the planet and for some reason the same boy asked me to cut his hair. I tried my best, I really did, but the result was a complete disaster – wonky fringe, too short one side and too long the other. He never asked me again…

Friday, 15 June 2012

Friday book review - I Heart London by Lindsey Kelk

I sometimes wonder if I’m too old to be reading Lindsey Kelk’s I Heart books. They’re all about a chaotic 20-something called Angela Clark who flees to New York after discovering her boyfriend in flagrante with his mistress at her best friend’s wedding.

But former children’s book editor Kelk has a hilarious turn of phrase and a writing style that whizzes along at top speed. I read her first book, I Heart New York, before I’d ever visited the city and her enthusiasm for the Big Apple made me want to jump on a transatlantic flight plane straight away. The irrepressible Angela is an endearing character too, a sort of junior Bridget Jones, only without Mark Darcy and the big knickers, who puts the drizzle, warm beer and bad memories of London behind her and starts an exciting new life.

Now the fifth in the series, I Heart London, is out (Kelk cleverly brings new readers up to speed with the story so you don’t need to have read the earlier ones to enjoy it). It opens in New York but quickly sees the newly-engaged Angela summoned back to the UK by her very bossy mum, who’s desperate to meet her rock musician fiancé.

Kelk herself lives in New York these days and clearly loves it, apart from missing sherbert fountains, London and drinking gin and elderflower cocktails with her pals. But she regularly flits between the US and the UK and in her new book she makes Angela’s return to London authentic and real. From her first sight of the Thames from the plane (“the opening titles of EastEnders”) to her excitement at being able to buy Percy Pigs sweets at M&S, she’s clearly writing from the heart.

Publishing house Harper recently signed up three more books from Kelk, so I’ll be interested to see what she comes up with next. But if you’re looking for a great summer read that’s light as the summer breeze (I know, what summer?), then try I Heart London

PS. For more information on I Heart London and some great ideas about places to visit in London take a look at the I Heart London website, from bars and clubs to clothes and accessories.  

I Heart London by Lindsey Kelk (Harper, £7.99)

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Women face a "nappy wall" - not a "glass ceiling"

The head of a leading girls' schools association has called for girls to be “ambitious” in their relationships and to choose husbands who’ll “share the load” at home.

Helen Fraser, chief executive of the Girls’ Day School Trust, told the trust’s annual conference yesterday: “I was intrigued by Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s comment in a speech last year that ‘the most important career choice you’ll make is who you marry.’

“Is this what we should be making space for our girls to learn? That what too many women face nowadays isn’t a ‘glass ceiling’ because of their sex, but a ‘nappy wall’ if they choose to have a child as well as a career? That if you want children and a career, a partner who shares the load at home really, really matters?”

Helen Fraser’s words make sense in theory – but the trouble is that they don’t necessarily make sense in practice. In the first heady days of a relationship who on earth quizzes their partner about how they’re going to juggle careers and children several years down the line? Not me, anyway.

When we got married, me and my husband couldn’t even agree on the logistics of where we were going to live, let alone whose turn it was to cook supper. He’d just started his own business near Manchester and I was a news reporter in London. He couldn’t move his company and I couldn’t find a comparable job, so we spent the first years of our marriage shuttling back and forth to see each other at weekends.

And as for sharing the load at home, my husband’s always been very happy to do his bit. But the only problem is that he’s hardly ever here. In the depths of the economic downturn his business takes him to the Far East virtually every month, so he’s thousands of miles away more often than not. And sadly, despite the wonders of modern technology, he can’t do the laundry or take the rubbish out on Skype.  

PS. With the shops still full of red, white and blue bunting to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, fashion chain Oasis has the wittiest windows of all (see above). Check the Grenadier Guard in a bearskin!

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The night I left my son behind

I’m not David Cameron’s number one fan but I do feel a bit sorry for him and his wife Samantha right now.

The papers are full of the day the couple left their eight year old daughter Nancy behind at a Buckinghamshire pub. Speaking of which, take a look at the brilliant Matt Pritchett’s cartoon in today’s Daily Telegraph.

Actually loads of parents have made similar mistakes – me for one. In fact I did it just two years ago, after a party at my sister’s one snowy night in December.

My husband had driven to the bash straight from his office and, tired after a long week, left earlier than me, saying he’d give our two children a lift back with him. So at 11 pm, I said my farewells and drove the 45 minutes home through the ice and snow.

As I tiptoed into our sleeping house, a text lit up my phone. Puzzled, I glanced down and smiled. It was from my son, who was then 15. “You have forgotten me!” he’d typed. Very funny, I thought, and began making my way upstairs to bed. Then suddenly the awful truth dawned. What if he wasn’t joking?

Sure enough, when I woke my husband he muttered that he had brought our daughter home, but not our son. So yes, he was stranded at the party forty miles away. He’d apparently decided to go and watch YouTube videos with his cousin – but no one had thought to tell me. There was only one thing for it. I wearily swapped my high heels for a pair of comfy Converse, shoved my coat back on and grabbed a bottle of water in case I broke down in the middle of the snowy Oxfordshire countryside. Then I set off across the county to collect him.

The upshot was that our son got loads of mileage out of the night his parents went home without him. I couldn’t help laughing when I logged on to Facebook the next morning and saw his new status. “Can’t believe my mum left me behind. Top parenting job there...”

Monday, 11 June 2012

Interview with Kate Lace - author of Cox

The writer Kate Lace (aka Catherine Jones) is a great friend of mine. We met years ago at a drinks party thrown by Piatkus Books (who’d just published our first novels). We talked 19 to the dozen all evening, and 15 years later, we do exactly the same every time we meet.

Kate has now written 14 novels (including The Chalet Girl and Gypsy Wedding) and two non-fiction books. She’s a former chairman of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, a quiz supremo and the best company I know. Her latest book, Cox, is a scintillating summer read about two rival rowers and is out on July 5 (review coming next month). The book promises “hot men in Lycra, thrilling races and plenty of steamy sex” – and yes, it delivers all three in classic Kate Lace style.

Kate kindly agreed to talk to House With No Name about writing, her favourite books and Cox.

Did you write as a child and did you always want to write novels?

Kate: Absolutely not! Never had any idea I could write and thought all creative writing at school was intensely boring and pointless. I did keep an excruciatingly awful teenage diary, which thankfully got lost in a house move.

You were a captain in the army before becoming a novelist. Did your army training give you the discipline to write?

Kate: I don’t know about the army giving me discipline but it gave me a huge fund of experiences and stories. I lived in loads of different places, including Cyprus and Germany and I learned how to do a bunch of weird and wonderful things from firing a heavy artillery piece to flying gliders. But I’ve always been quite self-disciplined. I was a terrible swot at school so parking my bum on a chair and just doing the work is something I’ve always be able to do.

Your first novel, Army Wives, was published in 1998. Can you tell me about the road to publication?

Kate: Actually, Army Wives was my third book although it was my first novel. I co-wrote my first book, about being a career officer’s wife, with a fellow army wife. For a self-published book, before the days of viral-marketing, Kindle and the internet, it did extraordinarily well. My co-author and I then co-edited a book all about getting on in other professions. It was all going terribly well but then the army posted her husband to Alabama and mine to Northern Ireland, and that was the end of that. So I decided to write a novel about army wives. It took me over a year to write and almost another two to find a publisher, but in this industry, luck plays an awfully big part. My book just happened to land up with an independent publisher starting a new mass-market paperback line. Right desk, right day, right book. 

Your new book, Cox, is a brilliant portrayal of the rowing world. How did you go about researching the novel?

Kate: Again, luck played a huge role. I’m friends with a family whose son rowed for Cambridge and I also happened to know a whole heap of army rowers. And even luckier, one guy used to cox for the army eight and is now a rowing coach. Between them they managed to straighten me out about the wonderful world of rowing. I expect I’ve still managed to get stuff wrong – but if I have, it wasn’t their fault

Cox has got a racy title and an even racier cover. What reaction have you had so far?

Kate: My mother is scandalised. (Wait till she reads it!) Almost everyone else thinks the whole thing is a hoot and most of my female friends seem to spend a rather long time staring at the cover model. I can’t imagine why. But I think I am sensationally lucky to have such a fab cover. I absolutely adore it.

How and where do you write?

Kate: It depends how hard I’m finding the writing. On days when it isn’t going well, the gardening beckons, the ironing pile looks inviting, I’ll even resort to housework. But on really good days I start at about nine and work through to five quite easily with just the odd pitstop for food, tea, emails and Twitter. When I have a deadline I try to do a minimum of at least 1,000 words a day and hope to achieve 1,500. My writing space is a revoltingly messy study – it’s total chaos – but I look out of a big window on to the front garden so I can see what’s going on. Now the kids are grown up I’m quite often alone in the house, which is bliss. When I started my first novel, I was having to move house six times in five years, with three children under five.  Life is much calmer these days.

Do you have any tips for writers working on their debut novels right  now? 

Kate: Yes, write it, put it in a drawer for several months, leave it completely alone and then read it. All the continuity errors, all those cups of coffee, pointless conversations, boring bits, plot flaws will shout at you.

What is your favourite novel? And are there any particular novelists who have inspired you?

Kate: Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford. There are some spooky similarities with my upbringing (mainly a totally barking family background) and it makes me laugh and cry. If I ever get picked for Desert Island Discs, that’s my choice. As for inspirational novelists – I am totally in awe of Jojo Moyes.

Cox by Kate Lace (Arrow, £6.99)

Sunday, 10 June 2012

A country wedding in Dorset

Whenever someone asks me where I come from I look vague and say I’m not sure. My father was in the RAF when I was little and we moved house so many times I lost count. Actually, thinking back, nowhere really felt like home till we arrived in Dorset when I was 11.

This weekend we were invited to a wedding in the wilds of Dorset and as we drove through country lanes filled with cow parsley, foxgloves and buttercups, it suddenly struck me that if I come from anywhere at all, it’s there.

Once we’d passed the suburban sprawl of Bournemouth, where I went to school, every village signpost brought memories of the past flooding back. The pub where we had lunch with my mother every Saturday for years, the fields where we’d picnic, the beach I took my husband to the first time he visited our house, the hill my children used to roll down, laughing hysterically as they gathered speed and ending up in a heap at the bottom.

The other striking thing about Dorset is the weather. The sky was a murky shade of grey when we left Oxford at the crack of dawn but when we arrived in Dorset, the clouds lifted and the sun came out. The fields were so lush and green after last week’s torrential rain that the landscape looked like something straight out of a Thomas Hardy novel. Speaking of which, I’ve just heard that Radio 4 is recording a new version of my favourite Hardy book, Far From the Madding Crowd, to be broadcast in the autumn.

Finally we arrived at Minterne House in the village of Minterne Magna, where the wedding was held.  A stunning Edwardian manor house that’s been used for scores of films (Far From the Madding Crowd among them), it was the perfect setting for such a happy day. A choir from nearby Beaminster sang, the bride and groom made their vows beneath a painting of the Battle of Trafalgar and when it was all over they roared off down the drive in the bridegroom’s gleaming classic Morgan. In his book, England’s Thousand Best Houses, Simon Jenkins called Minterne House “a corner of paradise” – and he was right.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Friday book review - Charlotte Street by Danny Wallace

Jason Priestley (the disillusioned teacher and struggling freelance journalist, not the star of Beverly Hills 90210) is standing on a London street one evening when a girl drops half her belongings as she gets into a cab. He helps her to pick them up, but before he knows it the taxi roars off and she’s gone. Then it dawns on him that she’s left something behind – a small disposable camera.

Writer and broadcaster Danny Wallace has come up with a sensational starting point for his debut novel. It grabbed my attention immediately and I was desperate to discover what happened to the pair.

But oddly enough, even though I couldn’t wait to find out if Jason tracked the girl down or not, I wasn’t quite as gripped by Charlotte Street as I’d thought. The problem could well be that I expected too much. One critic has predicted that Charlotte Street will be this year’s One Day, while another marked it out as his top tip for 2012.

Even so, it’s an entertaining read and Wallace’s portrayal of 21st century London is spot on. As Jason hares around the capital (and on a jaunt up north) trying to discover who the girl is, I felt I was on the trail with him. Not only that, Wallace’s supporting characters are an eclectic and wonderfully portrayed mix – including Dev, Jason’s over-excitable, computer game-obsessed flatmate, Sarah, his slightly po-faced ex-girlfriend, and Abbey, a young singer who causes havoc at Sarah’s engagement party.

Charlotte Street would make a great movie and I’m not surprised that Working Title has snapped up the film rights. This is a fun, feel-good story, with a self-deprecating, likeable hero and an intriguing storyline. It augers well for Wallace’s next novel.

Charlotte Street by Danny Wallace (Ebury Press, £12.99)

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Corgis, snakes and ladders

It’s 20 years since I threw caution to the wind and swapped a steady (ish) job and salary for the precarious life of a freelance. But right at the start, I made a solemn promise – and it’s one I’ve never broken. I would not, I told myself, ever sneak out of my office to watch daytime TV. If I did it once, I knew I’d be doomed.

But daytime radio is a different matter – which is how I came to hear Jeremy Vine talking to Richard Bacon about his new book, It's All News to Me, on BBC Five Live yesterday.

I was glad I did because Vine (who’d just finished his lunchtime show on Radio 2) told Bacon of his firm belief that “there is still a place for the analogue newspaper.” He described how he'd spread that morning’s newspapers across the kitchen floor to show his eight-year-old daughter Martha their impressive coverage of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. “It’s just not the same on a screen,” he told listeners.

I completely agree. The last year has been a shameful one for newspapers but their coverage of the four-day jubilee has shown them at their stupendous best. While the BBC was castigated for its inane reporting of the flotilla, newspapers rose to the challenge in admirable style. The pictures were stunning, the reporting extensive and knowledgeable and The Times cleverly hit on the idea of creating a new game called Corgis, Snakes and Ladders (above) to mark the event. I stuck it on the kitchen wall – with the result that my staunchly republican husband and son can now quote everything from the date the Queen’s first corgi, Susan, died (1959) to the year Prince Harry was born (1984).

PS. Never mind calling for Gary Barlow to be knighted, the people who should be honoured in double-quick time are the team who dreamed up the stunning montage beamed across Buckingham Palace on Monday night. As Madness belted out Our House from the roof (lead singer Suggs confessed later that he suffered from vertigo), the front of the palace was transformed into a row of terraced houses with a double-decker bus and taxi trundling past, a block of high-rise flats and much, much more. It was the best moment of the night.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Exam time in Oxford, carnations and Inspector Rebus

Just before nine each morning I spot hordes of anxious-looking students hurrying along the pavement below my office.

It’s exam time in Oxford and the undergraduates are on their way to the exam hall up the road. The Starbucks round the corner is full of them, all drinking endless cups of black coffee and poring over closely-typed revision notes. Forget the old saying about policemen seeming absurdly young as you get older. As far as I’m concerned, these students look about 12.

While students at other universities (my daughter included) can wear whatever they like to sit their exams, it’s different in Oxford. Here they look like they’ve come straight off the film set of Brideshead Revisited. They all wear distinguished black academic gowns, the men in dark suits and white bow ties, the women in short black skirts and white shirts. For some reason, I’m not sure why, they sport carnations in their buttonholes – white for their first exams, red for their last and pink for all exams in between. I’m not a huge fan of carnations as a rule but the students cut a real dash in them. And one thing’s for sure, the local florist must be doing a roaring trade.

PS. The best news to come out of the Hay Festival this weekend was Ian Rankin’s revelation that a new Rebus novel, Standing in Another Man’s Grave, will be out in November. Rankin had hinted as much at the Oxford Literary Festival earlier in the year when he said he felt a sense of “unfinished business” about Rebus. But to have it confirmed is a treat. Like millions of loyal Rebus fans, I can’t wait to read it.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

The Famous Five's Sapphire Jubilee

The Queen isn’t the only one celebrating a major anniversary this year. The Famous Five are too. Did you know that Enid Blyton’s classic stories of Julian, Dick, Anne, George and George’s mongrel Timmy have been entrancing generations of children for a magnificent 70 years?

I was one of them. I loved Enid Blyton books so much that every Saturday morning I’d spend the whole of my two shillings and sixpence a week pocket money on a new story. Some weeks I’d go for a Malory Towers or St Clare’s tale, but more often than not it would be the Famous Five.

The first story to be published was Five on a Treasure Island, which came out in 1942. It was one of my absolute favourites - so much so that I recently downloaded it as an audiobook to listen to in the car. And guess what? I was as captivated as ever. The story sounds ridiculously old-fashioned, with children who spend their days swimming at a Dorset cove, taking Timmy for long walks and solving the mystery of an ancient shipwreck, but it’s still completely gripping.

These days some critics knock Enid Blyton for her simplistic language, while others accuse her of being elitist, racist and sexist. I know prissy Anne and her fondness for party frocks and dolls are a bit hard to take but the best thing about Blyton was that she could spin a great yarn. The fact that her stories have sold a mega 600 million copies is proof of that.

What struck me as I listened to Five on a Treasure Island was the freedom children used to have. Julian, Dick, Anne and George are all aged between 11 and 13 but they leave the house after breakfast and don’t come back till tea-time. They’re allowed to row out to Kirrin Island by themselves and camp there alone for two whole days.    

To mark the 70th anniversary, Hodder Children's Books have reissued five Famous Five stories, complete with drawings by some of the best children’s illustrators around, like Quentin Blake and Emma Chichester Clark. Not only that, from this month (June) you can download the Famous Five Adventure Trail, which takes you to some of the Dorset locations that feature in the Famous Five books. I’m half tempted to try it myself…

PS. Did you know that a 70th anniversary is a sapphire jubilee? No, me neither.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Interview with Jane Lovering - author of Please Don't Stop the Music

Jane Lovering is a literary tour de force. A mother of five, she works as a science technician at a north Yorkshire secondary school and has written a string of romantic comedies. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, she recently scooped the Romantic Novel of the Year award for Please Don’t Stop the Music, her first novel to be published in the UK. It’s been shortlisted for the Melissa Nathan Award for Comedy Romance too, which will be announced on June 12. Jane’s been writing for 25 years and her next novel, Vampire State of Mind, is out in August, so I jumped at the chance to ask about her work.

You've said it took 25 years to get published. Can you talk about the road to publication?

Jane: I wrote rather sporadically in the early years, convinced my genius would somehow be recognised. When this failed to happen, I worked my way up to entering competitions and had a few successes. I wrote several truly awful novels, the details of which I have removed from my memory and submitted these to publishers, with predictable results. Eventually, however, I decided to sign up for a creative writing degree, where I was introduced to the Romantic Novelists’ Association, which I joined on the New Writers’ Scheme.

How did you come up with the idea for Please Don’t Stop the Music?

Jane: I was at an RNA convention, listening to a publisher talk about requirements for heroes in the line of books she published. She was talking about heroes being allowed, these days, to have a “darker" side, not having to be picture-perfect. I had a blinding flash of light (although that could have been the excessive alcohol consumption the night before) and thought “I know who he is.  I know what he’s been through.” My own financial situation was (and continues to be) somewhat precarious, so the impecunious existence of my heroine was a natural thing to write about.  I always hated reading about Mr Perfect falling in love with Miss Perfect and living happily ever after – so I decided to redress the balance in favour of the rest of the human race.

The novel is a captivating mix of comedy and quite a dark storyline. How do you weave these two elements together?

Jane: I think comedy is a natural counterpoint to darkness. The comedy makes the darkness somehow easier to relate to. It is only by laughing at truly terrible situations that humans can survive them, after all. The humour in the novel is mainly conversational, witty come-backs - all those comments that you wish you’d made at the time (the ones you only come up with in the middle of the night), and observational.  I think I might be a frustrated stand-up comedian.

You work as a school science technician. How do you combine your job and family life with writing novels?

Jane: Firstly, I trained my children to believe that dust is a natural substance, that clothes are meant to be wrinkly, cooked food is black and tastes of charcoal and if you can see the carpet under the dog hair you are doing something wrong.  This helps greatly. I work from 8.30 until 12.30 at school. This is a “proper job,” which gives me something respectable to say when people ask what I do for a living. Being a writer isn’t what I do, it’s what I am.  It does mean getting up early to make sure the dogs are walked, chickens are fed and let out and everybody is up, dressed and pointing in the right direction by 8am, though.  When I get in from work I walk the dogs again, rummage feebly in the freezer for something suitable to burn for dinner, perform such tasks as prevent the environmental health office descending, and then sit at my laptop from 1.30 until called upon to fetch, carry or ferry children.  If I am deep in editing or first-draft territory I will write again once everyone is fed, until bedtime – with a break to walk the dogs again, because they are demanding little so-and-sos, feed the cats, and lock the chickens away.

Are you a very disciplined writer? How and where do you write?

Jane: For one so lackadaisical about housework, I am quite disciplined in my writing. I work in my bedroom (where there are no distractions in the form of Jeremy Kyle and cake) on my laptop.  Usually sitting in bed, because the heating in this house is a bit hit and miss, and for nine months of the year I am FREEZING, so I have the duvet up to my chin and the mouse under the covers with me. Sometimes I pile a cat or two on as well, but they often try to sit on the laptop and have to be ejected. I don’t believe in setting myself targets. I am easily enough discouraged as it is, and if I missed my target I should be convinced that it was hardly worth getting on with the project at all, and spend the next six months on the sofa with a pile of walnut whips and Good Housekeeping. 

Do you have any tips for writers working on their debut novels right now?

Jane: Write it. Finish it. Then put it in a cupboard, and get on with the next one. Eventually, round about the six-month mark, curiosity will get the better of you and you will pull that first novel out of storage and re-read it. If, after those six months, you still think it’s a good story, make the changes you will certainly find necessary, put it away for another month, then re-read. Repeat as necessary until you cannot find anything more to change, or you are making changes for the sake of it, then send it out. Then forget it. Write another one. If, as often happens, after those six months you feel you have written the biggest pile of poo ever to fall upon the planet, put it away again. The next one will be better. And the next.

What is your own favourite novel? And are there any particular novelists who have inspired you?

Jane: I have too many favourites.  There is no one ultimate novel, although, if cast away on a desert island, I should probably ask for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to come with me.  Zaphod Beeblebrox is my all time hero, beta male, largely insane and completely amoral, my kinda guy. So I’d have to say that Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett have been huge influences on me, although in the romantic comedy field it’s been mostly Jenny Colgan and Marian Keyes. In the interests of full disclosure, I also love Justina Robson’s Quantum Gravity series, Jasper Fforde and Diana Wynne-Jones.

Please Don’t Stop the Music by Jane Lovering (Choc Lit, £7.99)
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