Oh, August – doesn’t it drag on?

And so, for those suffering post-Olympic blues, here are some tips from a 1940s self-help book, titled HOW TO LIVE LONG, which I came across a couple of years ago, and bought because it made me sob with laughter. I hope you will find them useful.

The book is divided into 10 chapters written by distinguished people of that time:

First up on the high bar of health is Sir William Pryke, the then Lord Mayor of London:

I am careful not to take oily fish, to avoid salmon, and indeed all cured fish. My medical advisor told me to beware the kipper, and I take his advice.

I am seventy-eight, and I enjoy a good strong Havana cigar immediately after breakfast. After lunch I take another cigar, and smoke several during the day … 

So, out go the salmon, the tuna, and the bloody sardines and in comes the strong Havana cigar!… As for kippers, they will never darken my door again.

Next up Sir William Orpen, a painter:

I believe in passing half of my life in sleep. Twelve out of the twenty-four hours I slumber peacefully away.

When I was a small boy – I suppose I was about seven years old – I began to smoke. I was not many years older when I found myself smoking the modest number of about seventy cigarettes a day. This went on until 1921 when I found I had nicotine poisoning. Consequently I reduced my consumption to about ten cigarettes …

Sometimes I walk as many as fifteen miles in a day … 

Off for a nap then … might give the walk a miss for now.

Now The Aga Khan:

I have a very strong aversion to colours when exercising. Coloured socks, coloured trousers, or coloured underclothes are, I think, unhealthy, and I am against the wearing of tweeds for the same reason.

Dump the plus-fours, Jeeves. Out with the pink pants.

Colour which is to be avoided in clothing for exercise, is a stimulant in food. A beautiful apple or peach becomes tempting because of its colouring. Fruits are adequate for breakfast; I will not even allow a piece of bread at my table for this meal.

Toaster you’re toast.

Sir Gerald Du Maurier, Daphne’s Dad and an actor manager:

At about 8 I have a foaming beaker of bromo selzer; at 9, if I feel lonely, a tiny brandy and soda; at 9.10 a cup of coffee and another cup of coffee, and round about 10 I tackle a bottle of ale – one of those that open with an instrument that looks like a primeval tooth-abstractor. Then the day begins, as it were, and that delicious glass of port is ready and waiting … 

Bloody hell! – so that’s where I’ve been going wrong.

Here is Sir Harry Lauder, singer and writer of such songs as Keep Right on to the End of the Road:

It did not take me long to realise that success means sacrifice. The way to discover the secret of success is to find what particular sacrifice is going to do you the greatest amount of good. I found I had to sacrifice peas. This may not sound very drastic, but I give you my word that it was, for me, a tremendous sacrifice. If a man can be said to love food, I loved peas. But the little beggars did not love me, and so I sacrificed them. 

Harry, dear, you must have some other suggestions, mustn’t you?

Here are my rules:

  • To eat as little as possible
  • To drink as little as possible
  • To take discrete exercise
  • To work as hard as possible
  • To eat an orange every morning



Maybe Pachmann, the world famous pianist will have some slightly less austere tips and let us keep our peas.

For diets and strict rules of feeding and living I have a monstrous contempt.

Oh, jolly good …

I never eat before I am to play, but after a concert I will have a fine supper, with champagne and all the things I like. My favourite vegetable is the giant Californian asparagus, and my favourite fruit a big juicy water-melon. I am happy to sit alone for an hour with a water-melon. I can eat it all. I smoke eight cigars a day and all the fresh air I want comes to me through the window.

So there is my life. And I am 77! But I do not exhort everyone to follow my example, for, after all, I am Pachmann, the unique.

I laugh at your doctors.

So there you have it. If you’ve been lazing on a sofa watching all the extraordinary feats that the human body is capable of while the pounds blossom at your waist, have no fear. A 12 hour sleep should see you right, not to mention a Havana cigar but most important of all whip open your freezer and you will be able to join all those magnificent Olympians in your own heroic sacrifice – ditching peas. Bye bye Birds Eye.  But above all else remember this, Beware the Kipper!

And here is Sir Harry Lauder to sing you on your way. Actually rather touching.


Occasionally my writing turns into a dangerous rabbit a bit like this one …


When this happens running and hiding seems the only sensible thing to do …


But there is only so long one can hide in a tree with those damnable, smiling rabbits waiting at the bottom. Eventually, of course, I come to realize how silly my fears are and come down …


And that’s when they strike …

The illustrations come from The Romance of Alexander, by the Flemish illuminator Jehan de Grise, 1338-1344 and are from The Bodleian Library in Oxford. It’s interesting to speculate about Jehan de Grise. Did he go out for lunch, down a few too many ales and then pick up quill and ink and think to himself. ‘What am I going to do with this lower margin? Oh, I know, The Revenge of the Rabbits. Apparently this kind of thing is known as a monde renversé.

A postcard of it fell out of a book I was pricing in the second hand bookshop I work in. On it was written:

Here I am at 6 a.m. hurtling out of Oxford towards the Belfast festival and skimming too hastily through the things I had meant to do at leisure, and in pleasure. Before Christmas I shall let you know better how good and true I found your book. Love, Seamus

What a lovely postcard to receive especially when it came from Seamus Heaney.

IMG_1294 (1)

As for me, if you don’t hear from me for a while, it’s because those damn rabbits have got the upper hand.


The Farmer’s Market:

I’ve been going to the same farmer’s market every Sunday for the last three or four years. As I stand deciding which stall to go to first, I hear The Egg Man  say something to a customer that relates to experts. Now, it could be he’s saying that stating that, ‘We’ve all had enough of experts,’ which is what Michael Gove said during the referendum campaign, is the stupidest thing he’s ever heard in his life but I don’t think that is what he is saying. I’m fond of The Egg Man, which may be because he looks like Father Christmas but has the teeth or lack of teeth you might associate with a jump jockey. He and I eye each other cautiously over the top of his eggs; he is perhaps assessing whether having a conversation about the referendum with me is a good idea. I have decided that under no circumstances must I talk to him about the referendum or I may start smashing eggs on the ground and stamping on them like a toddler. I stand there for a moment deciding which eggs to buy and then say, ‘Isn’t it amazing how well the English Rugby side have been doing in Australia.’ A look of relief passes over his face and off we go: Eddie Jones, the Under 21s, Owen Farrell, Mario Itoje, the Grand Slam, and then on to What’s The Matter with English Football and Aren’t the Welsh Doing Well. Phew! I buy my eggs and thank him.

At the bread stall a woman in front of me is wailing and gnashing her teeth. She is going on and on. The Bread Man is covered in tattoos, so while she goes on and on I gaze at them coiling and twisting around his arms in beautiful patterns. Eventually my patience snaps. Oh shut up and buy your bloody bread, I think, but then I realise that all the things she’s saying to The Bread Man are exactly the same things I have been saying to my partner for the last three days. Oh, I think, that’s why my partner told me to “FOR GOD’S SAKE STOP”. Do not talk about the referendum I say to myself. Then I overhear The Bread Man say he’s Scottish and I hear the following words come out of my mouth, ‘I’ve got a lot of sympathy with Scotland.’ And off he goes and off I go. He was not for separation but now he is. ‘Before I felt sad at the idea of Scotland leaving the Union,’ I say,  ‘but now I feel entirely sympathetic and want to move to Edinburgh.’ On and on we go until I turn and see a man with an expression on his face that could perhaps best be interpreted as, ‘Will this bloody woman shut up and buy her bloody bread.’ So I do – spelt loaf if you’re asking.

The Rocket/Lettuce Man is French and gets to the point with enviable directness. ‘Are you all idiots?’ he asks and I burst out laughing.

Finally, I buy strawberries and raspberries from an elegant zen-like Polish man with very blue eyes.  I feel a craven need to apologise for the result but I don’t. Instead I say, ‘Your strawberries are delicious, really delicious,’ in a manner that Uriah Heap might approve of and he smiles slightly.

The Bookshop:

Later in the week I’m off to the bookshop I work in. It is near the Polish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith which was vandalised with graffiti.  When I walked down here a week ago lots of people were handing out stickers for the remain campaign. In fact I’ve still got one stuck to the inside of my bag. The people I work with are affected in different ways. A is Polish and has lived in the area for a very long time and is horrified and upset by the graffiti. B is Greek and her husband’s job in this country is partly funded by the EEC. While I am weeding the Nature section, C tells me that he is looking into Irish citizenship for his children. It turns out his father came over from Ireland when he was 14 to work on building sites in Liverpool and so both C and his children can apply. ‘That’s useful,’ I say. Then a customer turns round and says, ‘I come from Yugoslavia. I know what happens when things break apart.’


At a certain point I get an unnatural (for me) craving to buy right-wing newspapers. It’s because I’m curious to know what they are saying about everything, especially the melt down in the Conservative party, so I buy  The Daily Telegraph. My God this newspaper is huge! I’d forgotten how big it is. I wrestle away with it, flapping and struggling. You need the wing-span of a golden eagle to hold it open. ‘I wonder how The Daily Mail is going to deal with the Johnson/Gove fall out,’ I say. My partner’s eyes have narrowed to slits. ‘If you’re thinking of bringing The Daily Mail in here . . .’ The sentence is left menacingly open-ended.

If you have any post brexit blues or celebrations or domestic tensions to share please be my guest. I’m getting over it slowly and will be thoroughly open minded in my responses.

If you need a good laugh take a look at the link below: Britain’s Completely Batshit Week since Brexit, Explained for Americans



This post was going to be called REASONS FOR NOT WRITING. My reason being, on this particular occasion: a giant bee has just flown into my room and struck me on the ear. When I say giant I mean . . . But then it got me thinking about a children’s book I love – HARRY’S BEE by Peter Campbell and so that’s what this post is going to be about instead. Much more interesting than reasons for not writing, which are usually as banal and pathetic as the reasons for not putting out your recycling.

Harry’s Bee

The story of HARRY’S BEE is a simple one. Harry, a man sporting a pretty groovy hat, grows the biggest rose in England and it attracts an enormous bee. They talk. Harry offers him a pot of honey. They agree they have never met anyone they like as much as each other and so Harry makes a bee basket and they set off to see the world. There is a lovely scene, which I have thought about many times in my life, when Harry lets his bee out of the basket purely in order to have the whole train carriage to himself. The bees ego is fanned by the fact that he terrifies people and he demands to be taken to the chief bee-keeper to be measured. When he is told there is no chief bee-keeper he says Number Ten will do but he is turned away from there and then the Ministry of Food and Fish. The bee then becomes furious. Sitting on a bench with his bee buzzing in a rage in his bee basket Harry gets into a conversation with a boy, who tells him to take his bee to the Natural History Museum. There he has a very warm welcome and is measured and told he is not the biggest bee in England. He is the biggest bee in the whole world. He then starts singing with delight and drinks a cup of tea. This bee is English to his wing-tips!

Peter Campbell, who wrote and illustrated HARRY’S BEE, was also the illustrator of over 400 covers of the London Review of Books. His enchanting book is out of print which seems a crying shame given how important bees are and also how threatened they are. The great thing about Harry’s bee is that he has a tremendous sense of his own importance and bees, as we are frequently being reminded, are very important. A third of all our food depends on their pollination and a world without pollinators would be devastating for food production. The book is also incidentally rather a good advertisement for the Natural History Museum since this is the only place that welcomes and admires this wonderful bee.


Here is a picture of the largest bee in the world bombus dahlbomii, also known by the technical term of “monstrous fluffy ginger beast,” which, now I come to think of it, should probably have been the title of this post. It lives or lived (it was under threat) in Tierra del Fuego, South America.

My bee, incidentally, was not a “monstrous fluffy ginger beast” it was bombus lapidarius and it was all black with a very red bottom, probably a female because they are bigger than the males. And it got me on my feet and out of the door in approximately 2 seconds flat. Unfortunately I did not have a bee basket to hand, (where are they when you need them?) so when I had plucked up my courage, the end of a rolled newspaper was used to usher it safely back into the toxic and sodden London air.

Peter Campbell died in 2011 but if you’re interested in him and his work take a look here:

If you would like to help the bumble bee here is that link:

And if you would like to read one I prepared earlier on SAM AND THE FIREFLY another children’s book I love here is that link too:



Hello, dear reader, this is a rant. So there I was last Friday settling down for a nice read of The Bookseller magazine which tells me it is ‘at the heart of publishing’. I read it mainly for the gossip. In the middle of it they have THIS WEEK’S OFFICIAL UK BESTSELLERS and I thought to myself, Oh, why don’t you take a look down that lovely list while visualizing yourself on it and in the meantime enrage yourself by seeing how many times Girl/Girls figures in the title. Now why did that unfortunate thought come into my mind? Probably because I have read a few bloggers on the subject, probably because I was having one of those self-destructive sort of days when I wanted to infuriate myself. Dear Reader, this is what I saw:

2. The Girl on the Train Oh yes, I know about that one so there it is. How old is she? 10?

19. The Girl in the Spider’s Web   Yup, know about that one too. How old is she? 8?

25. The Miner’s Girl Nope not heard of you and I’m mildly irritated now and I refuse to speculate on your age

39. The Woolworth’s Girls oh go away but in your 20s probably

But then, dear reader, hard on the heels of this one came yes, you guessed it …

40. The Girls The Girls?????? I mean that’s not even trying

44. The Girl of Ink and Stars* If this is a children’s book I forgive it. I think it must be. If it’s a children’s book this is quite a sweet title actually. 

47. Pretty Girls Pretty Girls – you’ve just got to be f*****g kidding me.

Now then, without googling, shall we speculate about which one of these is a children’s book. I would say The Girl of Ink and Stars myself and that’s it. Now then suppose I transpose the word ‘boy’ into a couple of the titles like this:

The Boy on the Train

The Boy in the Spider’s Web

Would you think they were for adults? No you wouldn’t. You’d think they were children’s books.

So here’s the thing – at what point did publishers decide that infantilizing women would make books sell? The starting point for this is, I think, the crime novel The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo by Stieg Larsson. It’s interesting that the original Swedish title was Men who Hate Women.  Ah, the W-word, at last. I wonder what Larsson would have made of the ‘dragon’ title?

The larger debating point is when does a girl become a woman? When she can first have sex? 16 in the UK. When she can first vote?  18. When she’s 21? When she brings home her first pay packet?

My mother, who was conservative and rather old-fashioned about these things, would call women in their 60s ‘girl’ but often she would attach the word ‘silly’ to the front of it. ‘She’s a silly girl,’ she would muse about someone or other, who had done something she disapproved of, usually it involved divorce. So Mum if you’re listening this is what I think. Finally, I’m with you – these are silly, silly girls.

*It’s YA it is forgiven!

So here’s the question does reading ‘Girl’ in the title of a book make you more or less likely to read it?


Author Colin Bisset

Today I’m very glad to welcome the writer, traveller and broadcaster, Colin Bisset to a Q&A on my blog. He’s written a wonderful book, Loving Le Corbusier, on Yvonne Gallis, wife of the world famous architect, Le Corbusier. I was eager to ask him some questions about writing in general and the process of writing this book in particular.


1. When did you first hear about the ‘secret wife’ Yvonne and how long was it between then and you deciding to write a book about her?

I had intended writing a novel with Le Corbusier as a peripheral figure and so I re-read some of my old books on him. Yvonne was always described as a model from Monaco, which sounds rather glamorous, but photos showed her to be perfectly ordinary. Gradually I began to realise that no one really knew much about her. One article I read suggested that she might have been a prostitute, which I don’t believe. A biography of Le Corbusier by Nicholas Fox Weber pointed me in the direction of the published correspondence and from there I began to form a fuller image of her. I thought she might be a good way of looking at him but gradually I realised she was the story.

2. Could you describe a bit about your research process? Did you have letters etc? Was there a moment when Yvonne jumped out and came alive for you? When was that?

I read everything I could get my hands on, not only about Le Corbusier but also histories of France and biographies of people like Cocteau. I watched old French films from the 1930s, too. But the chief source was always the personal correspondence. Le Corbusier and Yvonne are both adoring in their letters but once you read between the lines then you start to form a slightly different picture. After so much reading I knew I had to get to France so off I trotted and spent a fantastic time following in her footsteps. It was then that Yvonne really came to life for me.

3. Did you suffer at all from Stockholm syndrome – being taken hostage by her? I remember there was a moment when I was writing about Florence Maybrick, a Victorian arsenic poisoner, when I thought she’s got me, my sympathies have been won over. I’m on her side no matter what! I had to work very hard after that to present a balanced picture.

When I visited their apartment in Boulogne-Billancourt the place was empty apart from the person who let me in, so I was able to walk around, imagining their life there. When I went on to the roof terrace and saw the Eiffel Tower in the distance, and that you couldn’t get to the edge of the roof and look down into the street, that was when I really felt the pain that Yvonne must have felt being there, removed from the liveliness of the centre. It was hardly a grand literary moment but I said in my mind to Yvonne, “I’ll see you right”– a real Aussie phrase. Ever since then I wanted to champion her side of things. She was such an unpretentious person that I didn’t feel I had to sugar-coat anything about her.


4. Simon Schama talks about historians becoming so immersed in their research that they begin to ventriloquise the voices of the past. Did you experience anything as useful as that!

Yvonne was so much about unsaid things, her unspoken thoughts, her uncertainty. Can I say that I felt the power of her silences? Although of course there were moments when she was pretty vocal with her husband!

5. So if you have to chose between Rue Jacob (in St Germain where Yvonne started her life with Le Corbusier) and the apartment in Boulogne-Billancourt (24, Rue Nungesser et Coli – 24NC – where they moved to) which would it be? I have to say I’d never have moved from the cluttered attic!

Oh, the romance of a cluttered attic, especially in the 6th Arrondissement! Boulogne-Billancourt is an interesting area with some rather sumptuous 1930s buildings but it doesn’t compare to Rue Jacob. It was totally not Yvonne’s sort of place. Although of course now Rue Jacob is so fashionable that I don’t think Yvonne would recognise it, although the Petit Saint Benoit restaurant seems unchanged.

6. One of my favourite scenes is when she and Le Corbusier meet up with Picasso and his girlfriend Francoise towards the end of the book. There’s a conversation there between the two women in which you say a great deal about the situation of women who are ‘muses’ to ‘great’ men. Do you have a favourite scene?

Too many! I always grit my teeth at the tragi-comic scenes with Le Corbusier’s mother as Yvonne tries to do the right thing. I like the tiny scene in the Pyrenees when Yvonne and Ed (the name Le Corbusier was called by his family) are collecting kindling in the bitter cold and they suddenly erupt into uncontrollable laughter. It says something of their essential closeness, I think, despite everything.

7. Your love of France shines out of the book could you tell me a bit about that?

It’s almost an affliction, my love for France! I think I’ve always enjoyed its difference. As a child we often went to France for summer holidays, or passed through it on the way to Italy or Spain. I remember houses with balconies (always a sucker for a balcony), people eating at tables outside, and crumbling old towns (and fetid loos, in the 1960s). I was always sad returning to the UK. As an adult I often considered moving to France, and I did do a little bit of work there as an interior designer. Now I live in Australia, I love returning to France each year if I can. It feels like home – a certain old fashioned quality, the love of food and wine, the fantastic buildings and the natural beauty. I even watch the French news most mornings on the TV as we get that here.

looking across the hall at 24NC

Looking across the hall at 24NC

8. Could you talk a bit about the technical choices you made in the book? Were you ever tempted to write the whole thing in the first person for example? You have two first person pieces at the beginning and end which are very vivid.

Good question. I started out writing in the 3rd person but abandoned it about halfway through because it felt too distant. Writing in the 1st person gave me a much stronger insight into who Yvonne really was, using her voice, but it had a certain clunkiness because I also wanted to convey certain information about what was happening around her, and I had to simplify the language as she was an uneducated sort. I missed writing descriptive passages and I often find that reading something in the 1st person can become a bit hectoring, like you’re sitting next to a bore who keeps talking about herself.  So I put it back into the 3rd person and it felt much better, more spacious. The exercise of writing in the 1st person was a vital part of this process, though, and I think it’s a good exercise to get inside a character’s head. But I wanted to keep the sense that she was talking to the reader directly which is why I bookended it with 1st person scenes. I suppose going into the 3rd person at the beginning of the novel is rather like the traditional fuzzy screen in a film.  

9. Was this a very different experience to writing your other book, Not Always to Plan? If so in what way?

‘Not Always to Plan’ was different in many ways, especially being set in modern day Australia, although I managed to slip in a bit of Le Corbusier. ‘Loving Le Corbusier’ required a different headspace in that I had to be factually responsible and didn’t have the freedom to invent so much. I wanted to follow the arc of Yvonne’s life and although I wrote in my first draft scenes when she was a girl in Monaco in the 1900s, I got rid of them because they were purely fictional. The essence of sitting down and writing was the same, though – becoming so absorbed in a character that the hours pass by unnoticed. I love that process.

10. Now then we’ve got to talk about what Le Corbusier did to the dog, Pinceau. I found that incredibly chilling. If he’d done that to your dog what would you have done?

 It is chilling although it wasn’t that unusual at the time. Taxidermy was a huge thing in the late 19th century, too. But it does show the gulf between Ed and Yvonne at that stage. I’d struggle to like, let alone love someone who did that with my beloved pet.


the high bed at 24NC

The high bed at 24NC

11. “Artists, she thought, were like horses they needed space or you might get hurt” Excellent quote – it made me laugh  and I have to say it rang a few personal bells – would you care to elaborate?

I’m glad you like that – I’m rather proud of it, although I’m not intentionally quoting anyone (to my knowledge). Don’t you think artists are like horses, rather wonderful to watch but temperamental and prone to galloping away? Ed was certainly someone who needed his own space. I’m not sure what my artist friends will make of it, though!

12. You’re given an unlimited budget to build a house anywhere in the world – where do you build it and which architect (living or dead) do you use?

The view from the area around the cemetery at Roquebrune where Yvonne is buried is simply breathtaking. I love that whole area – the sparkling sea, the wild mountains, and close enough to the Alps and Italy for the odd little sortie. So that’s the place. Architect? Of course I should say Le Corbusier but I won’t. I do love Frank Lloyd Wright’s horizontal lines and the Arts & Crafts use of wood and stone. But a building that was engineered to work with the climate would be the most important thing now, with lots of glass and a huge terrace overlooking the sea. Oh, and a fantastic writing room, of course!

13. Could you tell me a bit about books which influenced you or made you want to be a writer?

When I was a teenager I adored the novels of Iris Murdoch, the sense of civilised people behaving badly, and I used to scrawl terribly turgid pastiches of those. I suppose I’ve always been attracted to domestic dramas of some sort –  Franzen’s The Corrections blew me away, and  Mark Haddon’s lovely A Spot of Bother was a big influence on my style of writing. Alan Hollinghurst’s descriptive writing is so beautifully precise while seemingly effortless. And bringing humour into any novel is vital, I think – it releases the pressure sometimes. Kingsley Amis is the master of ambushing the reader with a seemingly innocuous phrase – a one-line description of people on a bus, for instance – that has you on your knees with laughter. I’d love to do that!

14. What’s the next thing you’re working on?

I used to do a radio series called Design Files, giving a potted history of a particular object, anything from a pepper mill to the paper clip. Often the design originated in France. I’d like to explore that more – a travel book of sorts, perhaps. For fiction, I’ve got the 1980s swirling around my head at the moment so I’m not sure where that’ll lead me.

Thank you Colin for a fascinating insight into the writing of this wonderful book and lots of good luck with it and your forthcoming projects.

Here is the link to Colin’s blog:

And the Amazon link for the book:

All photos are from Colin’s blog and used with his permission.



Yvonne Gallis

Loving Le Corbusier by Colin Bisset tells the story of Yvonne Gallis, a working class girl from Monaco, who came to Paris in 1918 at the age of twenty-six, looking for adventure and romance. Working at the salon, Jove, known for dressing the higher ranks of the ‘oldest profession’, she caught the eye of Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, later to be known as Le Corbusier, the world famous architect.

This book, told from her point of view, traces the course of their relationship from the early, happy days in the Rue Jacob in St Germain, through to the end of her life in 1957. It is not simply the story of an archetypal ‘odd couple’ but also a beautiful depiction of France during a war-torn part of its history.

At the core of the book lies the mystery of human attraction. Which one of us hasn’t looked at a couple we know and wondered what on earth they see in each other and why they stay together?  Down to earth and not particularly interested in art or ‘Ed’s’ (as he was called in his family) buildings or books, Yvonne was an unsophisticated working-class girl, who managed to capture the heart of a rich and sophisticated man. And what did Ed see in her? Maybe a woman who  would accept that he did not want children, (“my career will always have to come first … I’ll be away so much researching and building.”), a woman who would tolerate his extremely long absences and  a woman who would endure him doing pretty much exactly as he pleased – an affair with Josephine Baker is hinted at and one presumes there were others. He must also have been struck by her beauty and her spirit. At one point Le Corbusier rather chillingly comments:

“We are influenced by every object around us so it’s vital to make sure that we live with only beautiful things that function properly because only those items will bring us happiness.”

Yvonne however, although certainly beautiful, is a human being with human needs and eventually she does start to ‘malfunction’. First she is removed from Rue Jacob, which she adores, to an apartment in one of  Le Corbusier’s buildings out in Porte Molitor in Boulogne-Billancourt. Then as war breaks out he parks her in Vézelay, while trying to get work with the Vichy government and travelling to Algeria. After the war is over, Le Corbusier stays away longer and longer, travelling to amongst other places, South America, the United States and India and the wire-haired schnauzer, Pinceau, although much loved, is no substitute for his presence. She misses her husband and turns to the bottle for comfort. Finally, he hires a man servant, Luan, to look after her and try to control her drinking during his absences. Arguments increase, plates are thrown but they stay together.

One of the clues as to why Yvonne accepts her situation is perhaps provided by two revealing scenes with their respective mothers, a fairly ghastly pair. When Yvonne finally gets to meet Ed’s snobby, chilly mother, Madame Jeanneret says:

“Edouard is very taken with you and of course you are a very lucky girl to have met a man like him.”

Later, when she takes Ed to meet her parents in Monaco, her own mother’s vicious disapproval and criticism of her, everyone and everything makes Yvonne’s sick to her stomach. In fact in the context of her family it seems amazing that she has emerged with her joie de vivre in tact and it makes her attachment to Le Corbusier very understandable. At least she knows that she is loved and she is materially looked after.

There is a lot of gentle humour here as well. When Ed shows her a sexually explicit sketch of a woman, she asks him why he’s been out buying pornography. On being told he’s been given the sketch by Picasso who “had heard he was in love with a voluptuous woman and he thought he’d appreciate it,” she sighs and says “Well, he’s really very famous these days so I suppose we can at least sell it.” Visiting the new apartment for the first time, she is bewildered by the bidet, which is out in the bedroom next to her dressing table and not particularly taken by a bed which has metal legs a meter high. Le Corbusier may be a visionary and ‘a god’ to some people but he never manages to sort out the leaking roof of the house he built for his parents.

In the end I was left wondering if Yvonne wouldn’t have been happier if she’d never met him and instead married a working class Parisian boy and had the large family she craved. At least then she wouldn’t have had to have a marble dining room table that was designed with the idea of a mortuary slab in mind. When, towards the end of her life, he builds her “a palace by the sea” in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, it is a tiny shed with a narrow bed, the head of which is close to the toilet bowl.

You don’t have to be interested in Le Corbusier, architecture or the history of France  to enjoy this beautifully written book, although if you are you’ll find a great deal to savour; Loving Le Corbusier is for anyone who has ever wondered about love and the strange workings of the human heart. At the end I was left thinking that if there is a moral to be drawn from the book it is perhaps that, if a man claims he is a visionary, it might be a good idea to give him as wide a berth as possible. However, I may be influenced by an inability to forgive Le Corbusier for what he did to Pinceau. No, I’m not going to tell you. Read the book to find out!

Below is the link to Colin’s website which has  lots of fantastic photos and writing about Le Corbusier’s buildings.

Here’s the amazon link for the book:

And here is Colin on twitter:


The utterly splendid Simon Schama

Pity James Runcie, the man who last Sunday had the job of trying to keep Simon Schama in some kind of order, for another of The London Library Words in the Square events. Simon is not a man to allow a clip-on mike to stay on his body for more than about 10 seconds at a time, so the talk was interspersed with it pinging loose fairly frequently, which was emblematic of what Simon himself did over the course of the next hour.

The subject of the talk was The Books That Made Me. As you can imagine there were a lot of them and some were fairly obscure (to me anyway). He started with Shakespeare. Simon was born in 1945, the year the war ended. His father would read Shakespeare with him when he was as young as nine and they would take all the parts between them. His father’s view was that England had saved the Jews and that their ‘decency was locked into the past and expressed in literature.’ He made Simon learn a lot of it by heart and made him do that in order to then be taken to see Richard Burton at the Old Vic when he played Henry V. ‘Do you think the iambic pentameter has had an effect on your prose?’ James Runcie speculated. Simon seemed bemused but later he said of his prose style: ‘I try to aim for clipped – not really.’

His childhood was full of storytelling. Each night his father would tell him a story called ‘Knock ’em down Ginger.’ I think this was something his Dad made up. Of history Simon said: ‘It is a rich type of storytelling’ and that ‘Herodotus used to recite his histories at the Pan-Hellenic Games.’

He said he read the Bible as an adventure story. He mentioned Jonah and Naboth’s Vineyard, then Cain and Abel, which he described as Quentin Tarantino-esque. ‘Has anyone read Ezekiel?’ he asked. Ping went his mike. ‘Yes,’ a brave woman replied. He said ‘It starts with someone being told that in order to speak the word of God you have to physically eat it first.’ Good grief!

Then we were onto more books:

  • The Scourge of the Swastika by Lord Russell – a short account of the German War Crimes of World War 2 – ‘Thank God for the English Channel,’ Simon said.
  • The Defeat of the Spanish Armada by Garrett Mattingly – he talked of the cadence and sonority of the prose and also the use of *in medias res.
  • To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson – it’s about revolutionary thought but I can’t remember for the life of me anything Simon said about it so you’ll have to check it out yourself.

At about this point James Runcie put his head in his hands and groaned, ‘We’re never going to get through them all.’ Also at this point my notes became, ahem, somewhat erratic… a glass of wine … a very hot tent … the use of the expression in medias res had put me into a depressed coma. What did it all mean? I was struggling to keep up. But then a book I recognized – hurrah!

  • The Ipcress File by Len Deighton – at the beginning Simon had read out an opening paragraph of a book and suggested the audience might try and guess which book it was. If someone was successful they would win a bottle of wine. No one got it at first so he now read out another bit and the bottle was won. The microphone pinged and then we were off again.He liked Len Deighton because there was a bit of him which is ‘sardonically cool’ (like Harry Palmer). He said this made his wife laugh a great deal.
  • The Police and the People by Richard Cobb. It’s about the French Revolution. Cobb was an uncontained writer, a drunk, chaotic … he had to carry him to bed. Oh good, soap opera, Oxford gossip, now I was wide awake. He learnt from Cobb about the importance of delivering a sense of place and the archive of the feet…(don’t ask I was still struggling with in medias res). Simon read out the final paragraph of the book. It was made up of one very, very long sentence … oh god the tent was hot…

Now, Runcie gave up, ‘If you’ve got any questions for Simon you’re just going to have to ask him when he’s signing books,’ he said despairingly. Had in medias res got to him too? Or was it the archive of the feet? Or Naboth’s vineyard? Now we were crashing towards the end.

  • The Idea of History by Collingwood. He (could have been Collingwood or was it Simon?) described historians as slightly incompetent detectives piecing together clues and fragments. He talked of history as a form of re-enactment and about total immersion in your sources leading to becoming a ventriloquist for the past.
  • War and Peace by Tolstoy. Novels matter. All of human life is there. The creak of a corset.
  • The Meaning in the Visual Arts by Panofsky
  • The Leopard by Lampedusa
  • The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth
  • The Good Soldier Svejk  by Jaroslav Hasek
  • Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
  • Serve it Forth/Borderland   by M.F.K Fisher. The sensuality of her prose. The description of biting into a tangerine or was it a tangerine left on a radiator?

Sorry about those last ones but I was a goner. All I can say is that if Simon Schama were a firework, he would not be one of those ones you could put in a milk bottle and expect to whizz straight up in the air and explode decorously over your head. No, he would be the one you light and at first does nothing. Then just as you think you had better go back and light it again, it will shoot past your ear, hurdle your neighbour’s fence, smash into his greenhouse and set fire to his cat. He’s a marvel! He’s splendid! He is the utterly splendid Simon Schama! And he was wearing a very beautiful pair of lavender suede shoes. If you get the chance to hear him talk make sure you go but don’t take notes, it’s too stressful and may make you feel thick.

*in medias res – the use of a narrative that begins somewhere in the middle. You knew that didn’t you, I know you did?


Last year one of my favourite books was The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebank. I was surprised. It’s not that I’ve got anything against sheep, it’s just that before reading it I never would have thought I would become so fascinated by sheep and shepherds. The fact that I did is testament to the quality of James’s writing.

I was thinking about that book reading Luck Bringer by Nick Brown and I was thinking who knew I could become this interested in triremes and hoplites? But with writing this good why wouldn’t I?

“The smell of a trireme hits you, a mixture of sweat, urine, damp wood and salt. In rough weather this is augmented by vomit, and in battle by the effect of looseness of bowels as fear grips the heart.”

Luck Bringer is the story of Mandrocles, a teenage boy, who is handed over to the Greek renegade general, Miltiades, by his father to get him out of a bit of trouble he’s got into at home. In this case definitely a jump from frying pan to fire. The Persian army is on the prowl and Miltiades ends up fleeing to Athens, where he is viewed with suspicion both by the aristocrats, (the Alkmaionidai), and the demos. The boy gets his nickname “The Luck Bringer” because early on he deflects a blow intended for Miltiades and the device is a clever one because, as the bringer of luck, he becomes a talisman never allowed to stray too far from the general’s side and is therefore an observer of the politics, trickery and villainy which swirl around his master.

One of my favourite scenes is when a play “The Sack of Miletos” is  being performed in Athens:

“The bloody slaughter scars our soil

Our young dead now, thrown from walls

Maidens ravaged, crones lamenting

Youths gelded in the blood pit …”

The performance causes a riot because the sack has taken place relatively recently and the populace is frightened that this is exactly what will happen to Athens soon at the hands of the Persians.

Characters you may have heard of (Themistocles, Aeschylus, Pythagoras) either appear or are referenced. Here’s an entertaining description of Pythagoras:

“I tend to think of him as a potentially decent military engineer gone astray. His notions of the soul and eating beans, his long windedness and lack of understanding of the affairs of men may have won him a reputation for wisdom … but to me he was a potentially good craftsman who became crazed.”

There are also some funny and scathing comments about the Spartans, who failed to turn up and help the Athenians at The Battle of Marathon, which is the climax of the book. This was the battle in which a ragtag army of 10,000 Athenian hoplites beat a professional army of 20,000 Persians.

“And where were the Spartans, the showy, heel dragging buggers then, when the whole world held its breath as the Persian Empire turned its full might on a small city?”

“Everything that’s good or makes sense about life is inverted in Sparta. A place that chooses a regime that keeps thousands down so that a small group can waste the richness of the land in this type of posturing vanity.”

Reading this book reminded me how much I enjoyed fiction set in the classical age and how little of it I have read since I devoured Mary Renault, Rosemary Sutcliffe and Robert Graves in my teens. At the beginning I became slightly confused by the politics but that ironed itself out soon enough.I loved the descriptions of the triremes and what it was like to be in one when it rammed another ship. The moment Mandrocles puts on his heavy helmet and his world narrows to the eye slits will stay with me for a long time. If you want to know what it was like to fight at the Battle of Marathon my guess is this is as close as you’ll get.  Luck Bringer is an example of a vivid imagination fertilizing the seeds of detailed historical research. A great read. And I do love that cover. Below is the link to Nick’s website.


Fortunately this does not involve cold showers and forced marches. At the weekend I went to see a panel talking on the subject of building a character. This was part of The Words in the Square Literary Festival celebrating 175 years since the founding of The London Library by Thomas Carlyle. They were actors and directors not writers, the usual subject of this blog, but it was interesting to hear what they had to say on the matter. The panel was made up of Simon Russell Beale (SRB) Simon Callow (SC) Harriet Walter (HW) Natascha McElhone (NM) and Nick Hytner (NH) and they were being kept in order by James Runcie.

Preparing for a role:

HW said that she does Shakespeare from the text. She quoted John Barton as saying you do what they do and you say what they say and a character emerges. So the thing was not to impose yourself on it but to allow the character to emerge. Then the character was altered or developed by its interaction with others in rehearsal.

SRB said you start at base level and then build it up like a mosaic piece by piece. The only Shakespearean role he had done outside research for was King Lear, and then he had looked into different forms of dementia. But he said it was rare for him to do that.

Film he finds scary because of its solitary nature. He likes the interactions with others you get in theatre. He’s been cast in a film as Beria, Stalin’s secret police chief, and is hoping the director is open to a rehearsal period. He said one way to warm up a part in a long stage run was to listen to others afresh. You also had to trust to your own individuality. To trust that ‘your’ Hamlet would be different to someone else’s. He said that he got the measure of playing Cassius in Julius Caesar when he realised that in every scene Cassius appears in, he threatens to kill himself.

SC said that actors were ‘expert voyeurs’, looking at people, seeing how they behave. That they built up a vast memory bank. He said the trouble was if you had to act a part which you couldn’t find anywhere in your memory bank. That had happened to him doing Richard III on the radio. He felt no connection at all and found there was nothing to draw on. He also found it in Pozzo in Waiting for Godot. He said his bowels did not engage with it in any way! He said that he listened to Shostakovich’s 8th Symphony and that in that he found a noise that was Pozzo and that then because Pozzo comes on leading a man on the end of a rope he thought of themes of Empire and dominance and that brought him to Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and then it began to fall into place.

Rôles they loved or failed at?

NM said she was tormented by the part of Costard, a comic figure, in Love’s Labour’s Lost, that she played in drama school. She said even if the rôles are ones you did in drama school, if they fail they stay with you. She said in the end she borrowed a friend’s pair of dungarees, put on a pair of clogs and listened to Irish reels. When she was in Branagh’s film of Love’s Labour’s Lost she was guiltily relieved to  see Nathan Lane struggling in the same part, as well.

HW said she loved playing Nina in The Seagull and Helena in All’s Well but she was fed up with being cast as 2-dimensional malevolent older women in TV productions.

SRB said the good rôles changed your life and then went on to talk about all the bad ones. He said he’d never got to grips with Edgar in King Lear or Malvolio in Twelfth Night. And he said he was in a terrible production of Jekyll and Hyde with Roger Allam when he (SRB) decided to play Jekyll as an angel and it was obvious from the previews that it ‘was crap’. One of the best ‘notes’ he ever had was from Juliet Stevenson who told him ‘to be less conscious of the effect you’re trying to have.’

NH said that as a director you have to shut up when you see actors’ eyes glaze over.He and SRB have worked together 5 or 6 times and he said it works because they think in a similar way. They have an intellectual approach and the feelings follow the thought but he said some actors act instinctively. He once made the mistake of casting Tom Hardy in a restoration comedy Man of Mode. He said that the play was all about style and language and it was entirely inimical to Hardy’s way of working. He blamed himself for persuading him to appear in it.

SC said that sometimes you know from the first page of a play that you are that rôle. He felt that when he read Tuesday at Tescos translated from the french Le Mardi à Monoprix. It’s about a transgender woman called Pauline and the first line is ‘Everyone stares at me on Tuesdays.’ The day she goes shopping with her elderly father at Tescos.

He told an interesting story about a friend of Flora Robson’s going to see her as Lady Macbeth playing opposite Charles Laughton. He refused to go back stage after the production because he said it was so bad. He told her later it was not her job to be ‘psychological’ but to ‘flick Lady Macbeth through her soul’. Rather a lovely expression.

There’s more  I may put into a Part Two, but to sum up for now, they were lovely this lot – generous with each other and the audience, collaborative and funny. And James Runcie was an  amiable figure focusing the discussion in an elegant way to a happy conclusion.