Trump’s America – the podcast


With less than a month to go to the US presidential election, Donald Trump is barely seven points behind Hilary Clinton in the polls. How do you explain the astonishing rise of an unlikely demagogue like Trump? How much does he reflect signs of a deeper division in America – one which has possibly been there since the country was founded ? And how much is he simply an anomaly, whose popularity will dissipate once the first woman president of the United States is in the White House?

This week I was joined at Mark’s Club by  best-selling author Lionel Shriver, and writer, broadcaster and academic Professor Sarah Churchwell to talk about Trump’s America: why post-truth politics is stranger than fiction.

Lionel Shriver’s latest novel, the Mandibles, at once satirical and dystopian, maps an isolated America in 2029, on the cusp of a financial apocalypse as the world switches to a new global reserve currency, backed by a coalition of countries led by Russia’s ‘ruler for life’ Vladimir Putin. In 2029, there’s already a ‘great wall’ – built by the Mexicans to keep the US economic migrants out, and the Republican party has imploded, leaving the US as a single party democracy. Is this simply fiction, or the likely consequences of the current political crisis in the US?

Sarah Churchwell’s book, Careless People, is an exquisite analysis of the politics, economics and social context of F.Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby. As Sarah has said, ‘the America Trump inhabits is actually the one that Fitzgerald predicted in Gatsby, where we slip by unknowing degrees into accepting what once we would have deplored….Jay Gatsby is redeemed by his idealism: Donald Trump is what Gatsby would have been if he had no soul to corrupt in the first place.’The question is, how did we get here from there? And, if the 1920’s hold a mirror up to where we are now, what lessons can be drawn as we reflect on what the future can hold?

Listen to the podcast on iTunes here or below on soundcloud

Jilly Cooper at The Books That Built Me

I have adored Jilly Cooper almost since I can remember first reading grown-up books. I still have the very tattered copies of Emily, Harriet, Imogen, Octavia, Prudence, Bella and so on that I fell in lomount-2ve with when still a schoolgirl for the novels’ racy glamour and wonderful heroines for whom the bumpy course of true-love eventually runs smooth.

I’m old enough to remember Riders’ sensational launch – what did the Telegraph call it? ‘Fetlocks and Fornication’ – and to have had it confiscated by a prefect when caught reading it during prep; wrapping it in the cover of my biology textbook was evidently an inadequate disguise. Rupert Campbell-Black is surely one of the most desirable romantic rotters of the last thirty years?

A considerable part of my home library is dedicated to her many subsequent novels, all of which are my ‘go-to’ comfort reads.

But for me, Jilly Cooper is more than just comfort reading or escapism: her books have built me as a reader: one of the many enchanting things about her work is that it wears its learning very lightly, and her own immensely satisfying novels kicked down a door to a magical literary world in a way that my teachers at school never could. I would never have discovered the delights of Mitford, left to my own devices, and remained entirely immune to the many charms of Yeats until captivated by Declan O’Hara in Rivals. There are many, many more examples – she has shaped my own taste in books to a very satisfying degree.

Anyway, I can’t tell you how beside myself with joy I am to welcome Jilly Cooper to The Books That Built Me on 22nd November. We will be in the elegant surroundings of Gieves and Hawkes, No.1 Savile Row – I can’t help feeling that Rupert Campbell-Black would have his suits made there – and in addition to a hardback copy of Mount! Jilly’s latest novel (in which R C-B returns), each ticket comes with a glass of Champagne Bollinger and a bar of Prestat chocolate, in addition to a subscription to Town and Country Magazine.

Tickets are £45 and are available here



Book Club: The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry, 27th October

October’s book group choice is Sarah Perry’s second novel, the Sunday Times bestseller, The Essex Serpent, an atmospheric, eerie, fin de siècle tale set in the Essex marshes.

fullsizerenderSarah Perry’s PHD was in the Gothic – she also has a creative writing MA – and her love of “a strangeness and a darkness in things… a feeling that brimstone is never far from the soles of my feet” suffuses The Essex Serpent. Set between London and Essex towards the end of the 19th Century, Perry’s book successfully captures a high-Victorian Gothic sensibility within a novel of ideas, and conjures a world in which the reader becomes so embroiled, one can’t help but continue reading long after one should have gone to bed, which is for me, always a sign of a brilliant book.

It’s a beguiling and compulsive read, and I am dying to talk about it at the Books That Built Me book group on October 27th at Waterstones High Street Kensington. We start at 6.15 and there is no charge to attend, but it’s helpful if you let me know you’re coming so that I know how much wine to put in the fridge….and if you’d like to talk about it, or can’t make it to High Street Kensington, then please join the conversation on Facebook from 6th October.

It is still in hardback, but at £14.99 it’s less punchily priced than many, and the design of the dust-jacket is so beautiful, it’s worth the investment (and if you buy it at Waterstones HSK, you can get 10% off if you say you’re coming to the Books That Built Me book club – please ask at the upstairs till.)

Plot summary:

London, 1893. Widowed Cora Seaborne leaves London with her son Francis, a curious, obsessive boy, for a new life in Essex where she hopes fresh air and open space will provide the refuge they seek. Rumours reach them of the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, said to have returned to the coastal parish of Aldwinter. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist with no patience for religion or superstition, is immediately enthralled, convinced that what the local people think is a magical beast may be a previously undiscovered species. As she sets out on its trail, she is introduced to William Ransome, Aldwinter’s vicar, who shares Cora’s suspicion of the rumours, but he thinks they are founded on moral panic, a flight from true faith. As he tries to calm his parishioners, he and Cora strike up an intense relationship, inexorably drawn together and torn apart, eventually changing each other’s lives in entirely unexpected ways.

Read the FT review by Books That Built Me alumni, Alex Preston, here.

[approximate time to read: 8 days at a reading speed of approx 40 pp a day – whilst Perry’s writing is literary and beautifully crafted, she is generous and kind with her reader – no endless Henry James style sentences – added to which, her plotting is sharp and pacy and her characters compelling, all of which keep the pages turning]

The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry. Published by Serpents Tail, price £14.99.

Event: Trump’s America: what fiction tells us about post-fact politics.

As the US election draws ever closer, is it time to think the unthinkable? If the world wakes on 9th November to find President Trump in the White House, what will the future hold for the world’s most powerful nation?

On Wednesday 12th October, best-selling author Lionel Shriver and academic, writer and broadcaster, Professor Sarah Churchwell join me at Mark’s Club in Mayfair to talk about the possible, the probable and the untenable in the run up to the election.

Lionel Shriver’s dystopian novel, The Mandibles, set a hundred years after the Wall Street Crash, imagines a (near) future America in terrible crisis; the country is bankrupt, defaulting on its debt obligations, the Republican party has imploded, and Mexico has built a wall to keep desperate US citizens out of its country. Far from feeling far-fetched, The Mandibles seems chillingly prescient: perhaps, as one of the novel’s characters says, “Plots set in the future are about what people fear in the present. They’re not about the future at all.”

Professor Sarah Churchwell says Trump is nothing new – the United States has seen it all before. Trump’s much vaunted ‘America First‘ was originally the campaign slogan of Warren G Harding, who became the nation’s very first ‘businessman President’ in 1920, breeding the anti-immigration nativism, isolationism and cult of profit that defined the twenties and ended with the Great Depression.

Churchwell and Shriver are two of the most incisive and fascinating of commentators on contemporary America and the evening promises a unique and vivid analysis of the spectre of a Trump presidency, the lessons of the past, and why post-truth politics seems stranger than fiction.

Trump’s America. Wednesday 12th October, 630pm to 800pm, Mark’s Club, Mayfair.

Tickets are £40 and include drinks and canapés, a copy of The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver and a copy of Careless People; Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of the Great Gatsby by Sarah Churchwell.

Mark’s is London’s most exclusive private members’s club. I have a small number of tickets available to non-members: to reserve your place, please email me on

Guests of The Books That Built Me may also book for dinner (please let me know whether you’d like to dine when you email). Club dress code applies.



Janet Ellis will be at The Books That Built Me on Tuesday 18th October 2016 to talk about her astonishing first novel, The Butcher’s Hook, and about the books that have inspired her, and helped her hone her craft.

Of course, Janet Ellis will be familiar to many from her long and varied career in television – she was one of my favourite Blue Peter presenters as a child – and as mother of Sophie Ellis-Bextor, but joining the prestigious Curtis Brown writing school allowed her to fulfil a long-cherished ambition to write a novel. Her agent submitted The Butcher’s Hook to publishers under a pseudonym: the ensuing bidding war between rival publishers resulted in a six figure two book deal with Two Rivers – almost unheard of for a debut novelist.

The Butcher’s Hook is a dark, gothic story set in eighteenth century London – its damaged, vulnerable yet compelling heroine, Anne Jaccob, is the only surviving child of comfortably off parents, yet her mother, worn out by miscarriages and still births, is only a shadowy presence, and her father seems not to see the point of his daughter, except as someone who can be married off. Friendless, lonely, yet sharp-witted and imaginative, Anne falls for the butcher’s boy, and the consequences of a bright, bold girl starved of affection are darker than anyone could have anticipated.

The Butcher’s Hook is meticulously researched, offering a vivid picture of life in 1760 and its part of Ellis’ skill that its protagonist, Anne, remains both appealing and vulnerable despite her transgressions. I’m dying to discover how Janet Ellis’ reading fired her ambition to be a writer, and became the literary building blocks of this astonishing debut.

Join me at The Books That Built Me with Janet Ellis on Tuesday 18th October 2016 at the Club at Cafe Royal. The salon starts at 6.30 and finishes by 8.15, and tickets include a copy of The Butcher’s Hook, a glass of Champagne Bollinger, a bar of Prestat chocolate and a six month subscription to Harper’s Bazaar. The all-inclusive ticket is £35.



Authors’ Best Loved Books

August 9th is National Book Lover’s Day – to celebrate, I had a look at the books most frequently chosen by authors at The Books That Built me so that I could compile a list of authors’ favourite authors – the top five are below

  1. Nancy Mitford
  2. Leo Tolstoy
  3. Virginia Woolf
  4. George Eliot
  5. Evelyn Waugh




The Books That Built Me Reading Group: Mrs Bridge, Evan S Connell


I’m delighted to have teamed up with Waterstones High Street Kensington to create a The Books That Built Me reading group.

On Wednesday 17th August 6.30pm, we’ll be talking about one of Lionel Shriver’s favourite books: Mrs Bridge by Evan S Connell. I hadn’t heard of Mrs Bridge before Lionel sent me her book choices, but it’s a captivating, original read that stays with you long after you’ve closed the final page.

“Her first name was India. She was never able to get used to it.”

So begins Mrs Bridge, a novel in which nothing and yet everything happens. First published in 1959, Connell’s hugely successful novel tells the story of an unremarkable upper middle-class housewife in Kansas City between the first and second world wars. Mrs Bridge has three children, a comfortable home, a kindly – if distant – lawyer husband and spends her time shopping, going to bridge parties and bringing her children up to have nice manners. She has expensive hand towels which she puts out when visitors come but secretly hopes they won’t use, and she has never met a socialist. Her world is delightfully and sensitively observed: Mrs Bridge has everything a woman of her class and time could wish for, yet we sense the quiet tragedy of a life that’s not quite fulfilled.

Chosen by Lionel Shriver as one of the books that built her as a writer, Shriver admires Connell’s modesty, his determination to take himself out of his work, so that the reader can ‘see through the novel straight to the character. That kind of clear-sightedness, that not getting in the way, of not saying ‘look at me, isn’t that a great sentence’, I really admire that.’

Copies of Mrs Bridge are easily available at Waterstones High Street Kensington (and other Waterstones). The latest edition is published by Vintage and has an excellent introduction.

TIME TO READ:  Mrs Bridge is a rewarding read and one of those rare books that’s easy to pick up and read in short bursts – on the tube or at bedtime, for example. It’s written in 117 vignettes, each of which is a complete story in itself (it’s a bit like a blog in that respect) and I finished it in a weekend. I am rather a fast reader, but even read at a much steadier pace, I don’t think it’ll take more than a fortnight of dipping in and out.

If you’d like to chat about Mrs Bridge in the run up to the reading group, please post on the facebook page in the comments under this post.

This is a free event, but please email me on to let me know you are coming so that I make sure there is enough wine for all.