Friday, September 30, 2005

London diary : Friday 23 September 2005

AMBA lunch at Royal Air Force Club, Piccadilly

AMBA – the Association of Mills & Boon Authors – was the brainchild of one of the imprint's most brilliant, prolific and innovative writers, the late Charlotte Lamb who also wrote mainstream novels under her real name, Sheila Holland.

As I did, Sheila started her career under the aegis of John and Alan Boon who treated their authors – far fewer in those days than now – like queens.

My picture of Alan Boon, who was Editorial Director, at his window table at the Ritz comes from the photo album of American author Leigh Michaels. It was taken by her husband, Michael W Lemberger, and shows [from left to right] the late Jacqui Bianchi, a legendary editor, Alan Boon and Leigh listening to the now-retired Horst Bausch.

In 1971, for reasons explained here, John and Alan sold the previously family-owned firm to their Canadian associate, Harlequin Enterprises. A few years later Harlequin was taken over by the Torstar Corporation, publisher of Canada's largest metropolitan daily newspaper The Toronto Star.

Sheila Holland foresaw that writing for a global corporation might be significantly different from writing for the Boon brothers who epitomised the "publishing is an occupation for gentlemen" era. She felt that, by getting together, the authors could play a stronger hand than was possible individually.

In fact it was the internet and email, rather than AMBA, which put the writers in close touch with each other. Although movers and shakers from Harlequin's Toronto and New York offices do sometimes fly over for AMBA functions, these events are predominantly social.

However, at last Thursday's AMBA luncheon at the Royal Air Force Club, I was strongly reminded of the charming and cosmopolitan Boons when, after we had eaten the main course, the new UK Managing Director, Guy Hallowes, left the table where he had started lunch and sat down on my left.

Guy grew up in South Africa but later decided to move to Australia and has also spent time in North America. Like the Boons, he has a strong sense of humour. Thanks to my newspaper training, I rarely if ever have problems making friends withstrangers. But even a shy young writer, new to the HM&B list, would have responded to his easy manner.

Harlequin Mills & Boon party at Army & Navy Club, Pall Mall

The evening's festivities were held at another elegant club.
On 20th June 1837 Queen Victoria acceded to the Throne, the Electric Telegraph was patented and in August, The Army & Navy Club was founded. The first President, Lt General Sir Edward Barnes, had fought at the Battle of Waterloo, storming and recovering Quatre Bras at the head of the 92nd Regiment. In 1838 he was succeeded by a distinguished sailor, Admiral Sir Philip Durham who had commanded HMS Defiance at the Battle of Trafalgar, boarding and capturing the French ‘Aigle’.
The Club was formed to meet the needs of the many army officers who were waiting to join the other Service Clubs, which were already full. Royal Navy and Royal Marines officers were included at the behest of the Duke of Wellington, who refused to become Patron or a member unless they were offered membership. The Club opened at No 1 King Street with a joining fee of 15 guineas and a subscription of 5 guineas. The rules included ‘no gambling or smoking’.

From 5.30 to 7.30 p.m. the champagne flowed, trays of tempting nibbles were offered by attentive staff – including a tall, good-looking, blond Russian who told me he was working his way round the world – and authors and editors circulated.

Retrieving my coat from the Ladies, I met and chatted to Guy Hallowes' artist wife, Anne, who is busy preparing for an exhibition in Sydney and, later, had a brief meeting with their son, a musician.

Eileen Ramsay having returned to Scotland, there was no one at the club to talk to so I spent the rest of the evening reading the day's newspapers and looking forward to tomorrow's flight home.

Big city life is fun occasionally, but it's not my natural milieu and I was missing the person who had telephoned every morning at 7.30 a.m. and who would be waiting at the airport on Saturday afternoon.

Saturday 24 September 2005

I'm posting this today [30 September] because it's my last day with my summer Service Provider and tomorrow I shall be offline for at least a week and possibly longer.

Yesterday my bookseller rang to tell me that Grumpy Old Bookman : The Book of the Famous Blog by Michael Allen was awaiting collection. It's one of several books I shall read in the evenings at our night stops on the long journey south.

The chances are that my next blog won't be until Sunday 16 October. Meanwhile, don't miss the inspiring story, told by Elizabeth Grice in the UK Daily Telegraph, of what happened to Gill Hicks on the London Underground on 7 July and how she survived terrible injuries.

If this indomitable Australian fulfils her present intention to write a book about her experience, I believe it will have huge sales.

Au revoir…and good reading!

London diary : Thursday 22 September 2005

A morning in Marylebone High Street

For years, one of my favourite places in London has been Daunt Books For Travellers at 83, Marylebone High Street. Whenever I'm going "on location" for a new book, I know Daunt Books will supply me with the best books about the country I'm planning to visit, not only those published recently but, often, books long out of print.

Why Daunt Books doesn't have a website is a mystery I meant to investigate on my visit last Thursday morning. However, distracted by all the temptations on the display tables and shelves, I forgot to ask.

Had I been in London this week instead of last, I should have wanted to go to Daunt Books to hear John Julius Norwich [seen on the left] talking with Artemis Cooper about The Duff Cooper Diaries 1915-1951 at 7 p.m. on 29th September.

Next month, on October 6th, David Gilmour, author of The Ruling Caste : Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj with be "in conversation with" Charles Allen whose latest book is called Maharajas : Resonance From The Past. Tickets for both events are £5 including wine. The shop's telephone number, should you want to attend, is 0207 224 2295.

Another lovely shop not far from Daunt Books is V V Rouleaux which does have a website where their wonderful range of ribbons, trimmings and braids can be ordered.

On Thursday afternoon I attended a talk by novelist Elizabeth Buchan to members of the Romantic Novelists' Association.

At this meeting I was approached by a member of the Association's New Writers Scheme who asked me to sign her copy of my 1982 novel Antigua Kiss – she is holidaying on the island of Antigua as I write – and then, to my surprise and delight, presented me with a beautiful silk scarf as a gesture of thanks for what she described as "the hours of pleasure your books have given me."

I won't reveal her name now, but I'm confident that it won't be long before her first book is published and I'll be able to blog about it.

For some reason the photos of Elizabeth Buchan and Lord Norwich I intended to show here won't upload. It may be that they are not in the public domain which I feel authors photos always should be.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

London diary : Wednesday 21 September 2005

After breakfasting together, Eileen Ramsay and I took a taxi to Chelsea Manor Street where, at the Cadogan Hall, with four other members of the Romantic Novelists' Association, we were going to spend the day doing a media training course.

Our tutor was a former Member of Parliament, Hugo Summerson, who now runs Speaker Skills Training.

After introducing himself, Hugo presented each of us with a folder containing nine pages of course notes. The morning was spent going through them.

At lunch time, we relaxed over a delicious "cold collation"organised by Jenny Haddon, Chairman of the RNA, whose idea it had been to organise a media training day for Association members.

Hugo drank water with his lunch, but the rest of us drank pink champagne, or wine, to fortify us for an afternoon being interviewed and filmed.

Obviously I am not going to reveal the secrets of successful media interviews which Hugo taught us. But, even though I have been on TV before, during an 8-city tour of the UK for the publication of All My Worldly Goods, and was a little less apprehensive than some of my colleagues, I thought the course was well worth the fee and would recommend it to any writer likely to be caught up in the publicity circus.

It was a salutory experience to watch the videos of our interviews and listen to the comments of our colleagues before striving to improve our performance in a second interview.

For Eileen, Jenny and me, the day ended with an al fresco supper in the forecourt of The Pheasantry, a Georgian building at 152 Kings Road which is now a Pizza Express restaurant. The site was originally used to raise pheasants for the royal household. In the early 1900s, it was the home of Eleanor Thornton, thought to have been the model for The Spirit of Ecstasy mascots on Rolls Royce cars.

In the 1920s and 1930s it housed the studio of the famous dance teacher who taught prima ballerinas Alicia Markova and Margot Fonteyn. Later the building became a well-known artists' colony with which such famous names as Augustus John and Annigoni were associated.

In 1976 the six-year campaign to save The Pheasantry from dereliction reached a peak. Under the patronage of Sir John Betjeman, [whose photo you see on the left] the Friends of The Pheasantry wanted the building restored with residential studios, an art gallery, and exhibition space. They were not successful in preventing the adjoining development, but the front and gateway of the Pheasantry survived, heavily restored, as part of the rebuilding of 1971-81, forming a restaurant hemmed in by shops and offices.

If interested, you can read the story of The Pheasantry in more detail at Wikipedia.

After a excellent supper, and more shop-talk - of which writers, normally shut away on their own, can never get enough - Eileen and I taxied back to the club, feeling a lot more clued up than we had been on the outward journey that morning.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

London diary : Tuesday 20 September 2005

This morning [last Tueday], having filled a bowl with fruit from the breakfast buffet in the anteroom, I turned to enter the dining room and found the popular Scottish novelist Eileen Ramsay smiling at me from the doorway. It was our first realworld meeting but I recognised her face from a photograph on her website.

We shared the same table for two where Jenny Haddon and I had dined the night before and we talked as easily as old friends until it was time to set out for the day.

Having splurged £10 on a taxi to Chelsea on Sunday, today I caught a bus from Marble Arch to Trafalgar Square where I looked at the controversial statue by Marc Quinn of the naked and pregnant artist Alison Lapper.

Last time I visited the National Gallery, the space immediately in front of it was still a busy street. Changing it to a pedestrian way is a great improvement.

My destination was the Stubbs and the horse" exhibition, which closed on the 25th. I particularly enjoyed the 15-minute film showing at the little cinema next to the exhibition shop where I bought postcards of Whistlejacket and the painting called Mares and Foals.

From the exhibition I walked up to Piccadilly to have a look round Waterstone's bookshop where I spent £7.99 on Richmal Crompton : The Woman Behind Just William by Mary Cadogan, published by Sutton Publishing.

The back jacket copy reads
Richmal Crompton's William is known even to those who have never read the books featuring his anarchic exploits. For many, the scruffy, adventurous and exuberant William, Ginger, Henry and Douglas - not forgetting the awful Violet Elizabeth - remain and ever-remembered part of our childhood. But what do we know of his publicity-shy creator? In this enduringly popular biography, Mary Cadogan provides a portrait of a witty and talented writer and a celebration of her works.

A nice-looking young assistant put the book in a plastic bag printed with "There is no friend as loyal as a book" - Ernest Hemingway.

Then I walked a little further along Piccadilly to Hatchards bookshop where I bought Time to Be in Earnest : A Fragment of Autobiography by P D James, published by Faber and Faber, of which Libby Purves wrote -
"This secretive memoir is an engaging read. It is very human, very much in character…It is an odd book but it has real flavour."

By now it was time for my lunch date with the Editorial Director of Harlequin Mills & Boon at Green's Restaurant and Oyster Bar at 36 Duke Street where I hadn't been before. As usual I arrived early and was impressed by a warm reception from the "greeter", always a promising sign. The atmosphere at Green's is masculine : lots of well-dressed businessmen sitting on leather banquettes, some in booths for added privacy. I was shown to a table by the window where very soon I was joined by Karin Stoecker who had come to central London from the company's headquarters at Richmond.

Karin and I both started out as journalists, so we've felt a strong rapport since the first time we met when I was visiting Harlequin's HQ in Toronto, back in the Eighties. Karin has been heading the UK editorial team since the mid-Nineties. This week she's attending the second Women's Fiction Festival at Matera in southern Italy and there's an interesting interview with her on the festival website.

Our conversation at lunch was mostly about books. Karin was enthusiastic about Pomegranate Soup by Marsha Meran which at Amazon UK is described thus -
For the inhabitants of the damp little Irish town of Ballinacroagh, the repertoire of gastronomic delights has never extended farther than the limp meals of the local inn's carvery. But things are about to change when the beautiful Aminpour sisters - Marjan, Bahar and Layla - arrive, determined to share the magic of their kitchen with the friendly locals. Opening Babylon Cafe, right in the heart of town, they begin serving up traditional Persian dishes and, soon enough, the townsfolk is lured to the new premises by the tantalizing aroma of fresh herb kuku, lamb abgusht and elephant ear fritters, washed down with gallons of jasmine tea from the old samovar. Well ...most of the townsfolk. Not everyone welcomes the three women with open arms - some of the older matrons fear for the sanity of their husbands; the mayor has his eye on their property to open a disco; and his foul-mouthed son has his eyes on Layla...Filled to the brim with recipes, mouth-watering fragrances and mysterious spices, "Pomegranate Soup" is a heart-warming tale of romance, friendship and exotic food.

There's also a comment from the publisher -
'Pomegranate Soup is glorious, daring and delightful. I adored the Iranian sisters, Marjan, Bahar and Layla who are looking to build a life, start a business and find love in a place so far from home. Ireland has never been more beautiful, the perfect setting for this story filled with humour, hope and possibility.' -- Adriana Trigiani

After Karin and I had said goodbye, I popped round the corner to the Oakham Galleries at 27, Bury Street where I wanted to see the Venice Revisited exhibition of paintings by Michael Felmingham.

The door of the gallery was unlocked for me by a tall, distinguished-looking man who explained that he didn't work there. He was a customer who, it turned out, had just bought a painting which was being wrapped by a young man with whom, later, I had an interesting conversation.

A few years ago I went to Venice with a group of artists, some professionals and some amateurs like myself. It was one of the most enjoyable trips of my life and gave me the background for a romance called Sophie's Secret.

From the gallery, I strolled back to the club via Bond Street and then went to the early evening showing of Pride and Prejudice at the Marble Arch Odeon. The snag with seeing films at this cinema is that, while waiting for the movie to begin, one is forced to listen to the most ghastly kind of pop music and even during the movie the noise level is deafening. The music in the ballroom scenes was painfully loud and I could see that other members of the small audience were also wincing.

The last film I saw here was My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a lovely story spoiled by a too loud sound track. I was sufficiently incensed to seek out the manager and complain, but obviously it was a waste of breath.

I'll write about my reaction to the latest version of P&P in a future blog.

Back at the club, I had a glass of wine and browsed through some of the many glossies spread on a table in the drawing room. In the 2 June 2005 issue of Country Life, my eye was caught by a heading "The pictures they dared not let you see" above a Stubbs painting called The Grosvenor Hunt 1760-62.

Below it, I read
"Charles Saumarez Smith, the gallery's director, denies a New Labour plot to cleanse the historical record of references to the recently banned sport. We shall not comment beyond showing readers some of the pictures that they will not see in the exhibition this month."

London diary : Monday 19 September 2005

Today [last Monday] was supposed to be a shopping day, with dinner with one of my favourite colleagues in the evening, but I didn't see a thing I wanted to buy. There are about half a dozen shops in Knightsbridge and Chelsea where, for many years, I've usually found something irresistible. But not this time.

Yesterday afternoon, walking along the east side of Sloane Street, on my way from Swan Walk to the bus stops near Apsley House, I was stopped in my tracks by a heavenly grey chiffon and crystal-beaded evening dress in the Alberta Ferretti window.

But although I loved every elegant line of it, such a dress has no place in my life. But it's perfect for Allegra Carlyon, one of the principal characters in the second and third of my novels about an English stately home called Longwarden.

Shortly before 7 p.m. a taxi drew up outside the club which is my home from home in London.

Wearing a velvet jacket, the colour of a deep pool in shadow, out stepped my friend Jenny Haddon, Chairman of the Romantic Novelists' Association, who writes as Sophie Weston.

We had dinner upstairs in the first floor dining room, then went down to the comfortable drawing room to drink some more wine and talk shop for another couple of hours.

Then Jenny waved goodbye from her taxi and I took the lift up to my bedroom where, still wide awake despite the, for me, late hour, I attempted to read Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway. But, as I had already discovered on the flight to Gatwick on Sunday, Mrs Woolf's style irritates me. In the first 22 pages she uses "ever so" three times : "ever so many books", "ever so slightly", "ever so much".

On page 23 she refers to "the Albany", an extraordinary solecism for someone of her generation, besides using two exclamation marks in one sentence.

The club has a small library for members' use. I was tempted to put my raincoat over my nightdress and slip down to find something better to read. But by then it was midnight, so I put out the bedside light and lay down, looking forward to the treats in store for me tomorrow.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Bookworm's London week diary

This time last Sunday I was airborne for London and planning to spend the afternoon at Thomas Carlyle's house and the Chelsea Physic Garden.

This I did. But I didn't carry out my intention to draft a blog at the end of each day in London. Unaccustomed to city life, and to frequent wining and dining, I found that by bedtime I was too tired to do more than scribble rough notes.

Yesterday was particularly exhausting because there was a major traffic blockage as a result of the anti-war protest.

A taxi driver told me it might be several hours before the route from my club to Victoria Station was passable. So I took the tube from Marble Arch, changing at Oxford Circus. With a lot of bus routes out of action, the Underground trains were packed and struggling up and down escalators with a suitcase and flight bag took up a lot of the time I had planned to spend expanding my notes.

I'm still feeling fairly zonked, and have family coming to lunch, so Plan B is to post the diary in batches during the week.