Emma Beddington’s memoir, We’ll Always Have Paris, published earlier this month, is a memoir of a life spent, as the book’s subtitle says, trying and failing to be French. An early encounter with a library copy of French Elle promised glamorous, intellectual delights not otherwise available to a North Yorkshire teenager and prompted an enduring francophilia, leading, inevitably, to a move to Paris. At its heart, We’ll Always Have Paris is a journey of self-discovery: if, try as you might, you can’t be French, how do you find out who you really are, and what you really want to be?
H: How are you feeling now that We’ll Always Have Paris has been properly released into the wild?
E: I feel terrified and excited and like I want to run away to a remote cave, which I think must be pretty standard, especially with memoir. I have started getting texts from friends as they read through it which is very odd – good odd, but odd.
H: What kinds of things are people saying?
E: My friend Frances who is also married to a Frenchman was laughing about me saying my husband’s Proustian madeleine was tinned ravioli and saying her husband’s was coquilettes pasta (little shells) and knacki sausages which are these gross things you get in french hypermarkets that are made out of hooves and lips. Someone else was texting about early crushes – mine : Gary Speed, the man from the electricians and France, hers: the drummer from curiosity killed the cat.
H: One of the many joys of the book is the contrast between our expectations of what ‘being french’ means and the harsh reality – we think it’s all the glamour of À bout de souffle and how neatly tying a little scarf will turn you into Juliette Greco but it’s actually tinned ravioli and knacki sausages
E: I moved to provincial France in 1994 and it was NOTHING like nouvelle vague cinema. I remember watching French sitcoms (also terrible) and being mesmerised by the terrible clothes; boxy jackets with big shoulder pads, ill-advised vest tops
H: Your lovely book is subtitled Trying and Failing to be French – are you still an incorrigible francophile, or has French Elle no longer any allure?
E: I’m a ‘francophile avertie’ now – I know my own folly. I still can’t resist it, but I know it’s not the answer, really, not for me. Also, provincial France – that British Provence/Normandy/Côte d’Azur dream – holds no appeal to me. It’s Paris and nothing but. I want to be in St Germain or the Marais with a nicely groomed dog and an amazing wardrobe. Yes STILL, like I did when I was 16. Sigh, there is no hope. Continue reading →
June’s guest at The Books That Built Me is Emma Beddington, author of the hugely popular belgianwaffling.com and whose memoir, We’ll Always Have Paris, has just been published by Pan Macmillan.
I was lucky enough to grab some time with Emma to interview her about writing her book, of which more later this week. In the meantime, We’ll Always Have Paris is The Pool’s Bedtime Book Club. Emma writes so exquisitely, it’s hard to imagine this is her debut in hard covers – do have a read of the first chapters of her book.
Tickets for Emma’s Books That Built Me are on sale here. Price includes a copy of Emma’s book and a six month subscription to Tatler and there is a glass of icy cold Bollinger and a bar of Prestat chocolate to nourish the body as the Books that Built Me nourishes the mind.
“I didn’t become a novelist until I was forty-one. I never had an ambition to write [fiction] until I was about forty,” said Anthony Quinn at The Books That Built Me earlier this week, “It was possibly because I thought by then I could do it. Until then I’d been a journalist for twenty years, and a journalist is a sprinter whereas trying to write a novel is like going out on a really long run. It’s more pleasurable than you think.”
Anthony’s first book, The Rescue Man, won the Author’s Club Best First Novel Award in 2009 – since then, he has published five novels, of which the latest is Freya. Over a glass of Bollinger, we talked about six of the books that have helped build his considerable writing muscle.
“When I was a kid, I wasn’t a great reader. I loved The Beatles, I loved football and I loved drawing most of all. I noticed on my mum’s shelf a book called ‘Down with Skool’ by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle and I thought these amazing spindly gothic illustrations were magical and so I spent my whole time just copying Searle’s pictures. It wasn’t until three of four yeas later that I started reading them [the Molesworth books]. I’d never been to public school and I didn’t know anyone who’d been to public school but as soon as I’d read Molesworth, I knew exactly what a public school was. I could smell what a public school was: chalk, boys farts and wet socks. It was evoked in those spindly lines but also in the terrific, parodic, clever language.”
“This is the first proper grown up book I read. I was twelve years old and on holiday in Ilfracombe and I was transported by it. The Raffles stories are by a man called E.W.Hornung, Arthur Conan-Doyle’s brother in law, and they’re the B-side of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. Raffles lived in Albany: he was three things – a Mayfair man-about-town, the finest slow bowler English cricket had ever seen and by night he robbed the hostesses of Mayfair of their spoons. And their jewels. He’s the amateur cracksman….I always had ideas above my station: I grew up in Liverpool in a very lower middle class family but Raffles just transported me: I wanted to wear topper and tails, to smoke Sullivan cigarettes in the Burlington Arcade, to have a set of rooms at Albany and generally to swan around Mayfair as a man of leisure and as a dandy. I got the cigarettes in the end….. I put a character in Freya called Nat Fane into Albany, so that was the next best thing… he’s the spiritual heir of Raffles.”
[if Anthony Quinn could only keep one book of the six, he’d keep Raffles]
“I remember reading Brideshead and it was the first novel where I actively slowed down my reading because I couldn’t bear it to end. It was one of those books that completely bewitched and enchanted me. I wasn’t prepared for it really: I suppose it was the first serious English novels I’d read. I started it in ’81. I was seventeen. Two things happened – I was applying to Oxford and the famous ITV serial came out in the Christmas of ’81, just when I’d applied. Those Oxford passages [in Bridehead] still seem to me beautiful and magical and the whole first section is called Et In Arcadia Ego which as any fule kno [q.v.Molesworth] means ‘I too was in Paradise’…it’s a real Innocence and Experience book.”
“It has such intelligence and depth and complexity: it is a wonderful distillation of everything that’s great in the Victorian novel. It’s a unique book to me: this is the book that made me think the novel was the great form….I am totally in awe of [Middlemarch]: you know that you’ll never ever come near it as a writer, and yet it’s a shining beacon to you too.”
“There are some writers you seem to wait your whole life for: it’s the discovery of a writer whose voice you instantly identify with, and you feel lucky when you do, and for me George Gissing is that writer. This is just one of the great novels about money and marriage in lower middle class Victorian London but it’s an absolutely unsurpassed novel about creativity, about writing, about how to earn a living from writing…. It was a hot topic then and it’s an even hotter topic now. “
“This lovely salon that Helen has invited me to is called The Books That Built Me but what we all know about builders is that they never quite finish the job and I never consider myself – as a reader or a writer – the finished article. I hoe that I will still be reading new stuff, discovering new stuff and he writer who I feel so grateful for discovering in the last three years is Elizabeth Taylor….She is one of these writers who, as soon as you read her, you realise you’re absolutely in the hands of a master. It’s no exaggeration to say that this woman is a modern Jane Austen…just because your canvas is small and your milieu is small it doesn’t mean to say you’re going to write a small book.”
I asked Tony what he felt Elizabeth Taylor had taught him as a writer. He quoted from one of her earlier books: A View of the Harbour –
“I’m not a great writer, whatever I do, someone else has done it before and better. In ten years time, no one will remember this book. The libraries will have sold all of their grubby copies of it second hand and the rest will have fallen to pieces, gone to dust. And even if I were one of the great ones, who, in the long run, cares? People walk about the streets and it is all the same to them if the novels of Henry James or Jane Austen were never written. They could not easily care less. No one asks us to write. If we stop, who will implore us to go on?”
Me, I said, me! I will implore you to go on, as will all the guests you’ve captivated this evening. If you haven’t yet discovered Tony’s work, try the first chapter of Freya (you can read it by clicking Freya 1st chapter)- spend just a few minutes in the worlds he so cleverly conjures and I challenge you not to implore him to go on writing too.
[You can buy Freya by clicking the underscored link.]
With thanks to Tatler and to Prestat for supporting the salon and to the Club at Cafe Royal for hosting The Books That Built Me – the Cafe Royal is a fabled literary destination; it has played host to the great and the good of British writing since Oscar Wilde managed to get a writ served on him there, and crops up in countless novels, not to mention its walk on part in Raffles, Brideshead Revisited, New Grub Street, and Tony Quinn’s Curtain Call and Freya.
I’m delighted to welcome award-winning author, Lionel Shriver to the Books That Built Me on 17th May to hear her talk about the books that have inspired her writing.
Lionel Shriver shot to fame with her best-selling novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin. Never one to shy away from the difficult or controversial, her books since have explored the U.S healthcare system, obesity, population growth and terrorism. Her latest, ‘The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047’ is published on 12th May: its subject is a future financial apocalypse and her novel combines terrifying plausibility and inventive satire.
Lionel has chosen an original and intriguing six books to discuss next month: I can’t wait to explore how they’ve marked the milestones on her extraordinary writing journey. Tickets are £35 and include a copy of The Mandibles, A Family, 2029-2047, a six month subscription to Tatler, a glass of Bollinger and a bar of Prestat chocolate.
“‘Reality,’ sa Molesworth 2, ‘is so unspeakably sordid it make me shudder.'”
Nigel Molesworth, the schoolboy ‘author’ of Down with Skool!, How to be Topp, Whizz for Atomms, and Back In the Jug Agane (collected as The Compleet Molesworth), is the creation of Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle. Molesworth is a pupil at St.Custards, an appalling prep school – “it smell of chalk Latin books skool ink foopball boots and birdseed” – run by Grimes (“Headmasters are always very ferce and keep thousands of KANES chiz moan drone. With these they hound and persecute all boys who are super like sir galahad.” )and other masters (or ‘beaks’). Sigismond the mad maths master is a particular favourite.
Molesworth considers Fotherington-Thomas a weedy-wet and a swot: as his brother, Molesworth 2, says “‘i diskard him.’”
“‘And wot,’ sa Grimes, ‘wot hav we all been reading in the hols?’
Tremble tremble moan drone, i hav read nothing but red the redskin and Guide to the Pools. i hav also sat with my mouth open looking at lassie, wonder horse ect on t.v. How to escape? But i hav made a plan.
‘fotherington-tomas, sa GRIMES, ‘wot hav you read?’
‘Ivanhoethe vicar of wakefieldwuthering heights treasureislandvanity fairwestwardhothewaterbabies and -‘
‘That is enuff. Good boy. And molesworth?’
He grin horribly.
‘What hav you read, molesworth?’
gulp gulp a rat in a trap.
‘Proust, sir. A grate fr. writer. The book in question was swan’s way.’
‘Gorblimey. Wot did you think of it, eh?’
‘The style was exquisite, sir, and the characterisation superb. The long evocative passages-‘
‘SILENCE!,’ thunder GRIMES. ‘There is no such book, impertinent boy. I shall hav to teach you culture the hard way. Report for the kane after prayers.’
Chiz chiz to think i hav learned all that by hart. It’s not fair they get you every way.”
One may assume from Lissa Evan’s letter below that, if Molesworth was faking the Proust, he was better acquainted with Madame Bovary…
Lissa, a previous guest at The Books That Built Me, won a competition with her letter from Molesworth to Mme Bovary – the competition was to imagine a love letter between two unlikely fictional characters. Molesworth attracts many fans; Lissa, this month’s Books That Built Me guest, Anthony Quinn, June’s guest, Emma Beddington, Charlotte Mendelson, all of us introduced to his delights by fathers who had discovered him in the fifties when It was first published. I couldn’t induce Trefusis Minor to read Molesworth, and nor could my father. I would be interested to know if his appeal survives into a third or fourth generation: The Compleet Molesworth is out of print. Anyway, he still makes me chortle: earlier, re-reading Back in the Jug Agane I was helpless with mirth, and kept muttering ‘chiz chiz’ and ‘hello clouds hello sky’ much to the collective bemusement of the Trefusii.