MY NIGHT OUT WITH A FAILED FESTISH-CLUB OWNER
When my American publisher came over to London a few weeks ago and invited their British authors to a slap-up dinner in the swanky Reform Club, I was hardly going to say no. The venue is amazing enough &ndash, all gold ceilings, marble pillars, buttoned leather sofas, portraits in gold frames and that weighty Pall Mall club atmosphere. Plus plenty of good weighty red wine to go with it. While it was great to meet my US publisher Dominique &ndash, a human dynamo if ever there was one &ndash, it was enormous fun to catch up with a gang of fellow authors I haven't seen for ages. Present: Freya North, Catherine Alliot, Erica James and Jill Mansell, plus a couple of others. After dinner some of us piled in cabs, went to the Groucho and became very indiscreet. One author, who shall remain nameless, told of being pursued by rich types offering jewels; another, even more anonymous, sketched out an extraordinary early career running a fetish club. The venture failed for many reasons, including the rubber paint on the ceiling melting in the heat and raining sticky and black on the guests below. My own career in glossy magazines (see ABOUT ME) among crazed Ab Fab types seemed suddenly rather tame by comparison.
When I'm not writing my own books, I help other people to write theirs; children, specifically. I run a voluntary weekly creative writing class at a local primary school and our first effort, a Dickensian drama about cruel mill overseers and oppressed-but-plucky children (as well as a drunken nanny and a cat!) has been bought by the local library service! How. Cool. Is. That? Spurred on by our dizzying success, me and my gang of nine and ten year olds are branching out into another genre, a ghost story written in the style of Roald Dahl. Wooohhh!
I'll be starting work on my own new novel soon, which is a comedy about a pushy parent. If anyone has any funny stories about pushy parents and precocious children, I'd love to hear them. Or funny stories about children generally, especially about awful competitive children's parties. I'm always on the lookout, always collecting; the other day, as I was having my Writer's Back seen to (there aren't many parts of my anatomy undecrepit at the moment), the physio told me about a twelve-year old girl she knew who insisted on putting on full make-up whenever she left the house, even if it was only to get the guinea pigs in from the garden. Obviously guinea pigs with very high standards. E mail me through my website, anyway, I'd love to hear from you.
JAGGER! CLAPTON! TRUNCHEONS!
I always thought I was an incorrigible punster &ndash, one of my early reviewers said I raised punning to an art form &ndash, but I have a lot to learn from Sotheby's auctioneers. At the Chatsworth Attic Sale, very possibly the biggest and grandest car boot sale in history, the many weird and wonderful things up for auction included lots of those stuffed animals which no self-respecting stately home could be without at one time. It was pulling in the bids, however, and the punning was at its worst as a female deer in a glass case shot (as it were) way over its estimate. “£800 - a lot of doe,” the auctioneer quipped after bringing the hammer down.
This set me off something rotten. I was there myself to catch a huge and rather mournful pike suspended in reeds in the middle of a vast glass box. The estimate was up to £150, but the bids soon went over the thousand mark and were heading towards two when the hammer finally came down. Stuffed pike prices, I remarked to my husband, had gone off the scale. As the Georgian night commodes came up, I was simply longing for one of the many brogue-shod, mustard-cords-wearing antiques dealers to mutter to one another that the bottom had fallen out of the market.
The auctioneers, meanwhile, could not be stopped. “Some serious mouse on mouse violence here,” one said as rival internet bidders slogged it out for a Georgian hatbox. I didn't stick around long enough to see who bought the bucketful of monogrammed Victorian policemen's truncheons, surely the strangest items of all for sale. Presumably they dated from the time when estate security was hands on in every sense of the word, but one struggles to imagine a use for them now. A remake of the Keystone Kops? A fetish club (my friend from the Groucho might have fared better).
When I went to the viewing on the Saturday afternoon, there were several helicopters parked outside the auction marquee. According to my sources, both Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton choppered up to give the ducal clobber a once-over, although they slipped below the press radar if so because neither were mentioned in the reports. There were some seriously vast carved stone doorframes for sale that Jagger in particular would have been best avoiding; I met him once and he was unbelievably tidgy.
Not that you needed celebrities; the people there were diverting enough. The loud tweeds, the softly-spoken cashmere, the signet rings, the pearls! Everyone was dressed as if they were actually staying at Chatsworth, not sitting in a large marquee some way off trying to buy various cast-offs. “Laura!” bellowed a frog-faced banker type at his blonde racehorse of a wife. “How do you feel about taxidermy?”
Bidding is like gambling, there's that pounding of the heart as your lot number comes up, the crazed adrenalin rush in whose grip you feel a grand for a large stuffed fish is perfectly reasonable, and then the appalling emptiness when you fail to get what you want. Beside the One That Got Away, I missed out on a painting of Newstead Abbey, Nottinghamshire, one-time home of Lord Byron. There was a large hole near the bottom, but, being a bit of a Byronista (he's so much funnier than people imagine) I still wanted it. But someone else, alas, wanted it more. Never mind, living where I do, the actual place is only 40 mins away. So we took the family there the next Sunday and bought engravings of the same view from the gift shop instead (thus helping the West Front restoration into the bargain).
It's always hard not to feel back-to-schoolish this month isn't it, especially if, like me, your children are actually going back to school. Those bright autumn days with the brilliant leaves and slanting sunshine have a delicious mournfulness appealing particularly to those of a mawkish disposition such as myself. It's a very literary month of course; all the great poets write about autumn, from Shelley and his Wild West Wind through Keats and his mellow fruitfulness to Yeats and his trees in their autumn glory. Perhaps autumn makes such an impression on us because it looks so like it should, reliably and eternally, the only season which truly does. Summers can be cold and wet, winter disquieteningly mild, springs sluggish and ho-hum, but autumn always produces brilliant leaves and earthy scents and the blue drift of bonfires.
I've been working mostly this month, pressing to finish my new novel before I go to Rome in October (can't wait!) But I have been let out of the hut every now and then, most recently to go to Jilly Cooper's launch party. As befits a novel about horses, the party was held at the Royal Horseguards Museum on Horseguards Parade, which was very glamorous. Two Horseguards in polished breastplate, tight white trousers, shiny boots and the lot had to stand there and listen with straight faces as Jilly told rude jokes. She looked amazing in a glittering leopardskin kaftan by Elizabeth Hurley Beach; the cocktails, which had apple brandy in them, were also pretty amazing. I wore my new killer heels &ndash, six inches of spiked steel with diamante trimmings &ndash, that I had worn to the launch of Gallery Girl. After the cocktails and on the cobbles of the stables it was all I could do to keep upright.
Just back from a wonderful holiday in Scotland where the sun shone almost the entire week! It's almost twenty years since I saw the stunning views over the blue sea to Skye from the Torridon mountains, and I've been up those mountains every year since! But last Wednesday it could not have been clearer or more beautiful, with the sea like wrinkled satin and the fluffy white clouds formed above the jagged peaks of the Coolins in shapes that ranged from an ostrich to an anteater.
We stayed in a lovely holiday cottage on the Attadale Estate. We had a great time! Langoustines! Beachcombing! Eating shortbread and scallops! We also made our annual visit to Dunvegan Castle at the top of Skye. This is the home of the chief of Clan MacLeod (my husband is a McLeod) and there are some wonderful things to see including Flora Macdonald's corsets (how appalled she would be to think her underwear was on display) and a waistcoat once belonging to Bonnie Prince Charlie. I saw another waistcoat of his a few days later; he seemed to part with them regularly. Lots of locks of BPC's hair too; the poor man must have been bald as well as cold once he'd stopped handing out the momentoes. The only disappointment at Dunvegan was that the gift shop, which for many years has been amusingly tasteless, selling singing tartan underpants and the like, has now become much more sobersides, with artisanal soap, tartan rugs and candles. The only trace of old times was someone playing We Will Rock You on the bagpipes!
MY AFTERNOON WITH A CAGE FIGHTER
He was big and muscular. He bared his teeth and told me that they had been recently broken by the world middleweight champion. He rolled his eyes in a terrifying manner. He was on the next stall to me at the school fete.
Yes! I was running the bookstall and the cage-fighter and his very nice wife were running the Auction of Promises. In everyday life he is one of the school dads and when he isn't scrapping in cages wearing star-pattern silk shorts he is a respectable company director. It's funny the things you find out about people when you're both sitting for hours under an awning in an English country garden trying to extract money from passers-by for charitable purposes.
As it happened my bookstall was a great success and I hugely enjoyed myself making recommendations about the ones I had read. Interestingly, the novels about affairs, adultery and murder were the last to sell — the more morally upright in tone went first. Perhaps, in full daylight and under the eyes of everyone else, people didn't want to be seen indulging their dark side (they saved all that for the Pimms tent!)
MY EVENING WITH A BULLFIGHTER
He wore a glittering costume and got the ladies screaming. This is a bit of a copout too, I'm afraid — the bullfighter was the dashing Escamillo in Carmen at Covent Garden. I absolutely love opera and this was a big fat treat, especially if there's a visit to the champagne bar at the interval. Last year, by mistake, I took my mother to see what I thought was a production of Carmen but which turned out to be a modernist riff on the Bizet original. I hadn't read the opera house programme properly and instead of the atmospheric bar 'near the ramparts of Sevilla' full of outlaws and hot gypsy women stamping their feet and clacking their castanets there was a bleak concrete bunker with a single lightbulb and people standing on ladders. Still, I expect even wild bands of smuggling gypsies had to decorate sometimes.
I'll be back to Covent Garden in August to see Eugene Onegin, that stirring tale of passionate love, missed opportunities, rampant snobbery and live gunfire! Not to mention very tight white trousers and thigh-length black shiny boots. How unlike one's home life in Derbyshire.
MY LUNCH WITH THE WOMAN WHO PAINTS WITH HER BREASTS
I was asked by the Sunday Times to interview an artist called Meredith Ostrom, whose claim to fame was to rub her torso with paint, roll it in diamond dust and press it on to canvas. Welcome to the crazy world of contemporary art, ladies and gentlemen! Of course for me it was the perfect fit, interview-wise, as I'd just finished Gallery Girl, my comedy about the loot, lust and giant egoes of the art world. I picked up lots of useful tips about paintings with one's assets, including the fact that Fairy Liquid is the best thing to get it off with and that one should always use plastic surgical gloves. So now you know. See the full interview in the 'I Love' section of my website.
Otherwise, I've been spending a great deal of time this month in Writer's Block, which is what I call my writing hut in the garden. Here, I am working on my next novel, provisionally titled Upwardly Mobile. It's a comedy about a social climber, set among the stately homes of England and the palaces of the Riviera. And, for all I live in the middle of the Peak District, it's been easier than usual to visualise those sunlit scenes in the South of France as the weather up here in the north has been amazingly good. Whenever I've looked up from my keyboard it is to view blazing vistas of glossy grass beneath a sky as blue as a Madonna's cloak.
MY NIGHT WITH DR WHO
My children are obsessed with this TV programme, so earlier in the year I went online to try and book tickets to the Dr Who Prom at the Albert Hall. Fat chance; they had all gone in a flash, but my clever husband managed to get us weekend Promming Passes which included the Dr Who concert. On the morning of the great day, last Saturday, my son (7) was dressed up before 9am in braces, a bow tie, school trousers and a checked shirt in emulation of his hero Matt Smith (Eleventh Doctor) and remained thus until it started twelve hours later. We were in the arena, the bit where they wave the flags on the Last Night, and therefore fair game for all manner of Cybermen, Silurians, vampires and some rhino-like monsters etc. The concert was filmed for TV so if you catch it you might see me a few rows back from the conductor protecting the children from various aliens at the same time as trying to work out where Karen Gillan, the glam Scots redhead who plays Amy Pond, had got her concert-hosting clothes from!
The next day found us bowling down the Westway en route for a week's holiday in Cornwall, the land where everything most enjoyable begins with C. Cliffs and crashing waves, yes but also cream teas, crab sandwiches, chips, crisps...
READ THE FIRST CHAPTER OF MY NEW NOVEL!
The opening chapter of Gallery Girl can now be read online — go to the My Books section of the website and follow the links. Meet Zeb Spaw, the naughtiest bad boy artist who ever picked up a paintbrush (and then promptly put it down again because he got more headlines nailing knickers to chopping boards). It's out in bookshops from August 19. I do hope you enjoy it — let me know what you think.
Back from the South of France, where the helicopter count is down on Billionaire's Row. Most of the superyachts in Antibes' Port Vauban had at least two last year, but I spotted none in 2010. Obviously the recession is hitting the oligarchs just as hard as the rest of us. Or perhaps they've suddenly realised that the richer you are, the less you should flaunt it. The shining example of this approach to life is our own dear Queen, well-known for switching off lights on leaving rooms and shaking her cereal out of those sensible Lakeland plastics containers that ensure their contents never go stale. But how many people know what she keeps in her bedside drawers? Some years ago I had an assistant who used to work for HM and who had, somehow or other, managed to find out. The answer was corks — a small bag of them to draw out cramp in her feet. Or so I'm told.
A visit to Monte Carlo made the children curious about card games and so I spent a good deal of the holiday playing Beggar My Neighbour, Old Maid and the Memory Game. This was the most enormous fun; hysterically so at times. The cards were extremely useful for the homeward journey — twelve hours on various trains. Trains in France, as you may know, are completely unlike those in England. People do not shout into their mobiles, nor do they drone nasally on about spreadsheets to some invisible head office or widget client. They do not avail themselves of personal stereos that are not very personal.
And while this silence is pleasant, it presents certain problems when you are with two small and very wriggly children who need immobile entertainment for the best part of an entire day. We sat from Antibes to Lille across the aisle from an elderly couple who silently did wordsearches for seven solid hours. Thank goodness for the Memory Game, even if in my case it only illustrated my absolute lack of the necessary commodity.
Returning from holiday means lots of unwelcome encounters. With junk mail, with garden weeds, with work left unfinished in the giddy moment of release. Most of all, with the bathroom scales. I'd gone away with loose clothes and came back with tight ones — and all in a week! Those heavenly visits to favourite spots such as the Colombe d'Or in St Paul de Vence and the darling Restaurant des Arcades in Biot had taken their toll — and added rolls. Two three-course meals a day — lunch and dinner, with wine — and I feel an entirely different shape.
But there are compensations. It's heaven to be in the countryside at this time of year. The sky is blue, the air is warm and sweet, the last of the hawthorn blossom still lingers on the hedgerows and the fields are full of glossy green grass sprinkled with yellow buttercups. There's nary a rugged and stately oak tree without a picturesque cow standing under its leafy canopy, enjoying the shade, its little calves frisking merrily about nearby. Listen! What is that whistling? Why, it's the flaxen-headed ploughboy a-coming over the lea...yes, I know I'm going on a bit. But you get the picture.
I have now completed all the post-production on my new novel, Gallery Girl (a comedy about contemporary art which will come out in August) I have also almost finished the work for my spoof contemporary art exhibition which is to help launch it. I'm hiding behind the persona of bad-boy contemporary artist Zeb Spaw (the impossibly big-headed villain of Gallery Girl). His 'Art is Pants' is one of the latest additions to the canon, featuring a pair of large Y-fronts nailed to a canvas. Readers of the last newsletter may recall me mentioning a few of my other masterpieces, among them my searing comment on celebrity culture 'Fifteen Metres of Fame' (a rope hung with cut-outs of slebs; it's a combination of Hello! and All Bran packets) and 'Hunter Gatherer' — rows of framed shopping lists found in baskets in the local Waitrose. Look out for the exhibition catalogue on the site soon, along with the first chapter of Gallery Girl.
The role of Waitrose both as artistic inspiration and bringer-together of nations cannot be underestimated. In Antibes, I was sitting in one of the playgrounds, watching my children falling off everything, a Waitrose bag at my feet filled with the usual holiday clutter. Then the woman sitting next to me, who I had assumed was French, suddenly struck up a long conversation. She turned out to be from Guildford and had, it turned out, decided I was a safe bet to talk to entirely because of the name on my reuseable shopper.
I'm hugely looking forward to the publication of Gallery Girl because it means I get let out of my writing hut for a few days to go on a book-signing tour. This is a great treat as I meet lots of lovely booksellers and get taken for my favourite lunch — sushi. Booksellers have surprising secret lives — one I know not only keeps kestrels but is the second best crazy-golf player in the country! Signing books is great fun — I always make sure I write a legible signature as many authors just do squiggly lines which seems rather short-changing it to me. And I'll write reams of dedication if required, although not quite in the manner of crazy Hunter S Thompson, who wrote in a fan's copy of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas "To Dave. Thanks for getting me all that crack cocaine. Your friend, Hunter".
Naughty Hunter! But I have got some thanks to dish out here, to all the people who've been writing to me through the Get In Touch facility on my website. It's great to hear from you, do please keep them coming. If you haven't had a look at my website, do please check it out, I've been putting lots of new pictures up lately. And have a lovely rest of June, I'll see you in July.
Wendworld this month has been a frenzy of gardening as I rush outside and embrace Nature once again after all those months cooped up in my writing hut eating biscuits – sorry, working on my new novel. It's been a bit hit and miss weatherwise (mostly hit, if you're a raindrop) but this hasn't stopped me planting miles of rocket from seed, possibly slightly unwisely given how freezing it is. Will it ever come up and save me a small fortune in bagged salad from the supermarket? Watch this space – I'm watching mine, I tell you! In my role as born-again gardener, I've also put in some potatoes, which was a back-breaking business, requiring that I dug, with the 'help' of my five-year-old daughter, six deep trenches to stick the chittings in. I could hardly walk the next day and now view crisps, chips and all other tuber-related products with even more respect than I did formerly.
Outside the garden I've been reading Madame Bovary, watching the brilliant Story of Science on the telly and terrorising the countryside in the Red Baron (our new Land Rover Defender), which has many advantages, not least being able to stick up to nine people in it and being able to see over walls that lower cars simply cannot reach. It's the ultimate vehicle for nosy people. I've also been working on my spoof modern art exhibition angry_with_britain, which I'm preparing for the launch in August of Gallery Girl, my new novel. Gallery Girl's a sexy comic romp through the crazy world of contemporary art, and I saw so much ludicrous 'art' during my research that I thought I may as well have a go myself, just for fun. Completed works so far include '15 Metres of Fame', a 15m-long rope hung with cardboard cut-outs of hundreds of celebrities. When I've done a few more I'll hang them up on the website for everyone to laugh at, sorry, admire!
I've started a new novel, a comedy about social climbing, which is going very well and for which there is lots of inspiration. People always seem to imagine that it doesn't happen any more but they couldn't be more wrong. My heroine is desperate to bag an eligible prince; she's the sort who swaps place-cards at dinner parties in order to sit next to more important people and views society weddings as a free-for-all to make a move on her man. More on this later!
My more immediate concern is organising my daughter's sixth birthday party. She initially wanted a worm party, which I think is that El Dorado in children's party-giving circles, a completely original concept. Unfortunately it's also a concept that involves giving each child a small plant pot on arrival and sending them down to the vegetable garden to dig up worms and put them in their pot. And while it's very eco, I can just see what a hit with the other mums that would be. She's moved on now, fortunately, to a Teddy Bear's Picnic with a Beatrix Potter cake, so we just need some good weather in June. My son is eight in December and had originally (already) planned a swimming party, an even more hideous prospect than worms; all us shivering, half-naked parents being forced into the freezing water after one too many pre-Christmas mince pies! However he is now crazy about Airfix, and in particular building various World War II planes; we're all dizzy with glue fumes in our house. His Battle of Britain interests mean that he now views Hendon (home of the RAF museum) as simply the most romantic spot on the globe and dreams about returning to it as Chekhov's Three Sisters dreamt about Moscow. So we might be looking at a Lancaster Bomber cake, which will be a challenge, especially as I can't manage much beyond butterfly buns.
I will, however, have been to one of my favourite romantic spots on the globe when I see you next – the south of France. I first went there with my husband (then boyfriend) in the mid-1980s. I'd just left university; he was still there, studying Russian and French. Given the choice between Cannes and Vladivostock for his teaching year off, you can guess where he chose! We've been back every year since, and I can't wait to go again. Sun, food, sea, art and lots and lots of glamour. Just what a girl needs!
Have a great rest of May
I celebrated the completion of my new novel Gallery Girl with a holiday in Cornwall, one of my absolute favourite places. It's so romantic - all that buffeting wind, those wild seascapes, those lashing waves and of course all that ice-cream and fish and chips! The weather, as usual, was pretty mixed but living in Derbyshire we're used to amusing ourselves in the rain – you'd never go outside otherwise. So there we were, rockpooling on otherwise empty beaches and having a wonderful time. Cornwall also contains some of my favourite restaurants including 2 Fore Street in the picturesque little town of Mousehole – where I indulged my passion for scallops and chips - and the Porthminster Beach Café at St Ives, where I had a truly historic fish curry. We also entertained a big party of friends to Easter Monday lunch at the Gurnard's Head, Zennor.
Needless to say I returned to Derbyshire a sadder and wider woman; barely able to fit into the passenger seat of the car, in fact. But hey, it was sunny when we got back, and what flowers the rabbits hadn't eaten had started to come out in the garden. My husband has also recently bought an enormous red LandRover Defender which is great fun to drive, even if it roars like a T Rex, feels like a bus and rattles all your fillings. I'm afraid this might mean more camping trips in the summer but at least the Red Baron is so big we could camp in that if necessary!
Portraits of me done my my children, Andrew 7 and Isabella 5. As I'm an assisted blonde, I'm not sure why the black hair - possibly because only one could have the yellow pencil at once. They have also insisted on adding my birthday details and the suggested price (2p) for the works!
We are visited by a celebrity chef! Much excitement in the Holden household as Michelin-starred chef Andrew Pern of the super-soaraway Star Inn, Harome, North Yorkshire, materialised in our humble kitchen to cook Sunday lunch. Not the sort of thing that happens every week, you understand; the Pernster was here for a Sainsbury's Magazine shoot for a feature which also stars Alexander McCall Smith, so I find myself in good company in every sense. I had invited a few friends up, and after the shoot we all tucked in to the most heavenly pork roast imaginable. It was all worth the fact that I'd had the kitchen repainted, the oven deconstructed, blast-cleaned and entirely rebuilt and also spent a fortune on a host of new glassware. Look out for the feature in the June issue of the aforementioned supermarket glossy.
Otherwise, I've been working head down for the last few months, but spring is now here and looking forward to various events over the next few weeks, such as Easter holidays in Cornwall, May in Antibes and a huge June treat - Carmen at the Royal Opera House for my birthday! I have almost finished the editing for Gallery Girl, so am looking forward to a break before starting on my new novel, Gifted and Talented. Of which more soon!