Here is a little gallery of paintings I’ve been doing over the summer holidays. My husband bought me a tiny paintbox and tiny watercolour album and so I've been unleashing my inner Turner the length and breadth of the British Isles. Here are pics of Plas Newydd in Wales, our local stately home of Chatsworth, a corner of a tower at Beaumaris Castle (the water really was that green!), a beach in Scotland, a (very windy) headland in Wales, a church and my parents-in-law’s cottage in Cornwall! Not all of them are finished but probably as finished as they’re going to get at the moment!
My perfect holiday
I love a hot holiday, but it’s the food that really makes the break for me. A hot holiday with great food is heaven on earth and the heaven on earth that I have been going to for the past twenty years is the South of France. No matter that, in the two decades since I first went there, Nice Airport has grown from being a dinky little box to which you walked across the tarmac, swinging your valise like Doris Day, to the vast concrete monster it is now. No matter either than the road along the coast is now so choked in traffic in August that you are more likely to be sitting among the cross people in their cars than watching, from your beach towel, the beautiful people on their yachts. For me, the romance of the place is still there; it is, under all the new growth, the same South of France that I discovered in the mid-Eighties with my husband.
He was a student, and I had just stopped being one. He was studying French and Russian and the choice for the obligatory teaching year out had been between Vladivostock and Cannes. Guess what, he chose Cannes, and with the very first trip, the love of a lifetime was born.
We adored the sea, of course, an impossible blue, with fantasy yellow sand. And the heat; I vividly remember being in the ocean at Cannes in November, up to my neck in the warm water and gazing in amazement at the snow-covered Alps over towards Italy. We admired the glamorous Belle Epoque and Art Nouveau hotels, with their shades of Fitzgerald and Gatsby. But most of all we loved the food.
Gastronomic revelations were, quite literally, around every corner. Being students, we started on a budget; an early favourite was Rene Socca, down the shady, winding streets of Nice Old Town, a snack bar specialising in the chickpea pancake known to the Nicois as socca; a soft yellow mass with a crisp brown coating that, freshly-cooked and hot, is transportingly wonderful sprinkled with plenty of salt and washed down with a glass of chilled, slightly rough, rose. In Antibes, you could always find The Brulot by the bursts of laughter and chat emanating from its wide-flung wooden doors. We went there for our birthdays and had the bouillabaisse – a great vat of tomatoey fish soup, with the great pile of fish that had been cooked in it arranged ceremonially beside it on a great oval platter.
In Biot, the Restaurant des Arcades was Provencal heaven – wooden tables covered with bright checked cloths and great vases of colourful flowers, all set out under the mediaeval arches of the perfect fantasy village square with ivy, shutters and higgledy-piggledy roofs.
The food here was (is – all these places are very much still up and running; more so, if anything) as matchless as the setting. Garlic lamb with ratatouille, melting roast peppers, fried courgette flowers stuffed with mince, courgettes in a cream tarragon sauce; the excitingly-named ‘nude ravioli’, which was balls of spinach served with a meat sauce. All eaten under the thick-walled arches as the sunny evening deepened to cool dusk and strings of coloured lights came on. All washed down with that dry, thin, perfect rose gris which you just can't get anywhere else, at least not without paying champagne prices for it.
Did I mention champagne? That brings me neatly to the Colombe d'Or, another great favourite restaurant of ours, and terribly celebby of course, but, like all truly wonderful places, not in the least conceited. To sit, on a hot day, under one of the vast white parasols in its yellow stone courtyard and order from that menu where each dish is written in a different colour is fun in itself. But to watch, sipping champagne, while the impeccably polite and friendly waiters bring out the epic hors d'oeuvres – about fourteen different dishes (the black pudding's the best)– and follow it up with a classic local aioli – steamed vegetables, cod and a tastebud-exploding garlic mayonnaise – is to experience the ultimate bliss. Frankly, if Brangelina walked right by me, I wouldn't even notice.
This below was one of the many articles I wrote for the launch of Gallery Girl.
I love art, but my children hate it!
(Published Daily Express, August 2010)
How do you make your children like art? Many parents, these school holidays, will take the most obvious route. They will lovingly transport their offspring to museums and galleries and dutifully park them before famous works. They will then feel miffed and resentful as said offspring yawns, wriggles and exhibits interest in only one aspect of the institution – the shop.
It can seem sometimes as if an anti-cultural firewall exists between children and their senior relatives' efforts to educate. And yet we parents persevere, driven by the knowledge – perhaps the dread – that a working familiarity with art, both contemporary and classical, is essential for anyone educated.
Especially these days. Never has art been so huge. Visitor numbers are up on all the major galleries, auction prices regularly go through the roof and contemporary artists constantly hit the headlines for reasons both personal and professional. And yet, for all the hoo ha, despite the obviously enormous public interest in and appetite for art amongst grown-ups, it can be difficult to light the blue touchpaper when it comes to small children.
Not for lack of trying among the galleries themselves, most of whom, these days, have children's corners, quizzes and craft tables in an attempt to draw in, as it were, young art lovers. But sometimes these praiseworthy efforts seem merely a distraction while the adults apply themselves to the real business of the place.
Recently, I had this problem in spades; I had endless galleries to visit for professional reasons. My latest novel, Gallery Girl, is a comedy about the lust, loot and lunacy of the art world. The research took well over a year, encompassing many school holidays, and so the children (6 and 7) had to come with me, whether they liked it or not.
At first, they didn't. But I'm happy to report that by the end the initial horror that struck whenever a picture frame was spotted had settled down into something definitely approaching enjoyment. My son, the seven-year-old, now actually wants to be an artist.
How was this miracle achieved? Quite simply, death and gore. Children love nothing better than staring at highly-coloured scenes of terrifying violence and presenting them with a couple of martyrdoms in action is so much more intellectually satisfying than something on the X box. During a trip round Venice's flagship art collection at the city's Accademia galleries, my children gasped at St Sebastian full of arrows (but always with salon-fresh hair), St Mark bound and dragged in chains through mocking crowds and St Laurence bound for the grill. The agonising variations on the Crucifixion, meanwhile, were endless and thrilling. All painted hundreds of years ago to instill fear into the faithful – the faithless, even more - and having much the same effect now.
But you don't have to go to Venice to do this. Most British settlements of any size have a large nineteenth-century art gallery whose collection (literally) groans with visceral scenes from history and myth. Most have free admission. In London's National Gallery, to start with the obvious, you can see, among much else, the blinded St Lucy with her eyes on a plate, while the mediaeval galleries of the British Museum have some stomach-churning predictions of what awaits the godless in Hell. Birmingham's wonderful art gallery, one of the nearest to where I live, has a truly spine-chilling series of Perseus in jet-black armour rescuing the terrified Andromeda from the rock to which she is chained, and subsequently fighting the huge and ghastly sea monster.
Of course, making all this come alive depends on the parent knowing the story behind it. And boning up on, say, Greek myth may seem burdensome to mums and dads already faced with six solid weeks (four now!) of entertaining their children. Which is where contemporary art comes in. People often ask what the point of all these unmade beds, pools of wax and knickers nailed to chopping boards really is; ladies and gentlemen, it's to entertain the kiddies. Seriously, however rubbish you think it is, however it might annoy you, children think it's truly hilarious. They love it.
Recently, on a trip to the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco, I was muttering darkly about the pickled menagerie by Damien Hirst on display in the upstairs rooms; my son, however, told me to lighten up. 'Oh, come on Mum,” he said, walking between two halves of a sheep, 'it's funny, isn't it?” I'm still not so sure how funny, but I'm prepared to cut Hirst a bit of slack now.
And if you walk away from a contemporary art exhibition thinking that you could do it just as well (or badly), well, why don't you? I recently whiled away a number of happy weekends creating an entire spoof art show with the children's help. The anti-hero of my novel Gallery Girl is a bighead bad-boy artist called Zeb Spaw, and I thought it would be fun to pretend to be him and create some actual works in his style. I called the exhibition angry_with_britain; it features, among many others, 'Flash In the Pan', a meditation on celebrity culture in the shape of a gold-sprayed loo. 'Pants' is another thought-provoking piece, a contemplation of the human condition through the means of a large white pair of Y-fronts. You can see it all on my website, www.wendyholden.net/angry_with_britain
The other thing about children and art is that they love making it. They adore drawing. The other day I bought mine some coloured chalks and they didn't come inside the house for hours – the outside, mind you, looks like an accident in an ice-cream factory. It's not very far from this to showing them a Howard Hodgkin, although it helps to have the reference books to hand. To this end, I've recently bought quite a useful manual called '1000 Paintings To See Before You Die', although my small daughter, who thought the title a little doomy, has corrected it (in wobbly metallic pen handwriting) to '1000 Paintings To See Becorse They Are Nice'.
It is possible for parents to get small children interested in art. But it does have consequences. Once they know about Tracey Emin, it's downhill all the way on the getting-them-to-make-their-bed front.
Latest Artwork from House of Holden. The first on the left is by my son Andrew, a dino obsessive. The middle drawing is a self-portrait by my daughter Isabella who is a keen Brownie. She also did the orchestra pic while watching the Proms in the summer. My favourite detail is the bust of Sir Henry Wood up on the right hand side!
When Wendy Met Jilly
There’s a lot of love in the room as popular novelists Jilly Cooper and Wendy Holden meet for the first time. As Lucy Moore discovers, they have lots in common, despite being a generation apart.
Amazingly, Wendy Holden and Jilly Cooper have never met before. Yet both are doyennes of humorous romantic fiction and have recently written novels with a 'back to school' theme. In Jilly's Wicked!, headmaster Hengist Brett-Taylor hatches a plan to share his posh school's facilities with a down-at-heel comp. Wendy’s The School For Husbands tells the story of a man so desperate to save his marriage that he enrols on a course for hopeless spouses. They're going to have a lot to talk about…
GH: How would you describe what you write?
JILLY; Someone once said I was Barbara Cartland without the iron knickers! Wendy and I both like to make people laugh but we’re also journalists, so we take the subject by the throat.
WENDY; Exactly, it’s not just 'woman in a bedsit waiting for Mr Right'. It’s entertainment, but there has to be something at the core to keep you going.
GH: You both specialise in larger-than-life, colourful characters. How do you create them?
W: Anything can set me off. I was reading an interiors magazine the other day – they are always a total joy. One article said; Camilla urges you to look outside the obvious when researching your home fabrics – her curtains are made from Hungarian linen-.cart covers.' Does that mean that Hungarians have their linen delivered in carts. I trawl the papers on a Sunday evening and there is always an absolute gem. The weddings in Hello and OK magazines are another rich source of fodder, as the celebs are encouraged to say the most unbelievably intimate things. An actor was asked ‘What’s the secret of your marriage?’ and he said ‘Learning to endure the hard times.’ And you can imagine his wife reading it and thinking; What hard times?
J: Wendy’s writing is brilliant because she is so contemporary. Because I didn't know her, I had a vision of her living right in the middle of Chelsea.
W: It’s funny… I thought I wouldn't be able to write about glamorous things as I’d moved to the country, but it has its own glamour. Unlike Jilly, though, I'm alone all day at home and don’t see anyone.
J: I don’t see anyone for months!
W: Oh, I can imagine you surrounded by a coterie of terribly glamorous people. Walking down to your study, flanked by admirers…
J: No, just dogs and cats!
W: I have to say that if it wasn’t for Jilly, I'd never be writing now. She was the first person who wrote funny romances – there were an awful lot of turgid authors out there at the time. When I was a girl I was obsessed with historical novels but all that ended when I discovered Jilly. It’s not just one generation of novelists she's inspired, it’s two.
GH: Where do you get all the juicy plots that you use in your novels from?
J: We make them up! At Wendy's age you have all your girlfriends who are always doing the wildest things – you get your inspiration from them.
W: Well, yes, but that can get a bit tedious sometimes. People tend to think that you are always going to write about them in a book. I used to pretend that I wasn’t doing it but now I say: ‘I have a character that does your job and I want to talk to you about it, but I’ll make sure you see everything I've written.’
GH: Your books contain a healthy smattering of sex. How easy is it to write saucy scenes?
W: Well – increasingly in my case – less is more. But, of course, that was one of the great appeals to me of Jilly’s books as a teenager. The sex keeps you there the whole time.
J: I know Riders was outrageous – I read it again recently and shocked myself! My children read it and they were absolutely sweet but said ‘Mummy!’ in an '‘Oh my goodness!’ way.
W: Someone I know has a very shy husband. When they slept together for the first time she was really surprised that he was so good in bed because she thought he was going to be a bit… shall we say, rustic. Later he confessed that he had learnt everything he knew from reading Jilly.
J: That's so nice I think the best sexual line I ever wrote was from my book Apassionata. Marcus was gay but went to bed with Abby anyway and they had terrific sex together. Afterwards he was so pleased he said: ‘I felt the clitoris was like one of those lovely French restaurants one discovered on holiday and could never find the way back to’! The thing about the sex is that it is so different these days – I just can't imagine it with anyone else but my husband Leo and I can't imagine it with him, I'm sooooo old! It gets more difficult to write about as those experiences get further away.
W: I find that if you're really stuck for inspiration, the News of the World generally refreshes your memory.
J: I had a scene in Wicked that didn't work. A beautiful boy and girl were having sex and it didn't work because the editor said I must mention condoms.
W: Yes, you have to say: ‘Writhing around, she reached for the…’ and that kills it. There should be a foreword at the front of the book saying ‘All men having sex in this book will be wearing a condom’!
GH: Any stories behind your new novels?
J: One day my secretary said to me, ‘What’s going to happen to the children in your books when they’re teenagers?’ So I decided to send them to boarding school in Wicked! My daughter, Emily, went to a very respectable school – but the stories that came back! I’ve put most of them in. It’s marvellous having children because they’re always an inspiration.
W: My book came about, ironically, because my husband is very good. I had some friends round when he came in with this delicious, steaming, hot casserole. One said, ‘Jon, you’re marvellous, you should start a school for husbands’. I’d been looking desperately for an idea, and there it was! The difficult bit came next – creating characters that you would care for. It’s a romantic comedy but also a sad story about a marriage breaking down. I wanted to show that most marriages don’t fail for spectacular reasons – they crumble because of lots of small grievances. Couples who are working and raising children are tired and, crucially, they don’t always see the other person’s point of view. I know that because I’ve felt it myself.
GH: You both invent marvellous names for characters – how do these come about?
W: Sometimes I find names, or parts of names, in newspapers. You also sometimes see a photograph and think ‘That’s what the character looks like’.
J: I have to admit, I like beautiful people! Everybody says there are far too many in my books and the only thing I’ll say in my defence is look at Tolstoy and Homer. All their characters were delicious. I’m obsessed with heroism. Hengist was heroic but I really can’t decided whether or not to bring him back again.
W: Oh you should. I love him and his wife – she’s very rude. Under her chaste Jaeger knits, she's red hot!
J: I like those sorts of women!
W: And you have to have at least one character who aspires to goodness. You can’t just have a comedic maelstrom where no one emerges with much credit. Jilly’s heroines are always fabulous too. They glow, and you're desperate when you shut the book because they’re not in your life any more.
J: The world is very frightened at the moment and people take themselves very seriously. Women of Wendy’s and Emily’s age are thinking 'I’m bringing gorgeous children into the world and what future have they got?' You need to try and cheer people up. That’s what we both want – to make people happy.
GH: Location is crucial to both your books. How do you decide where to set them?
W: For me it’s usually London or the north of England, as that’s what I know. But I want to write a book set in Gloucestershire next. I know it’s Jilly's stamping ground but there’s such a lot going on. All those rockers, actors and celebrities – Damien Hirst, Liz Hurley, Kate Moss. It's just too priceless. Jilly,you must see them hanging out all the time?
J: Never! But people can go on bus tours round Gloucestershire now past all our houses. I found out the other day that there’s even a 'Jillywood' tour. It’s rather bizarre, I must say…
By now the pair seem to have been friends for ever and have worked up a substantial appetite. They head off for lunch, arm in arm and still nattering. Don't forget to put ‘they’re friends for life’ when you come to write about us!’ Jilly says to me. ‘And Wendy, darling, when are you coming to stay?’