Manners and Mobiles: August 2016

In town yesterday, I noticed a middle-aged couple sitting in the sun, eating lunch. Or rather, the woman was eating lunch – a rather nice-looking salad – while the man was scrolling down his phone.

Now I do understand that every relationship has its arid patches. It is not always easy to be passionately interested in everything one’s partner has to say. But- call me old-fashioned – and definitely call me parsimonious, if you are going to spend good money on eating out with a companion isn’t it worth making an effort to converse? Apart from enjoying a good meal, isn’t that the main reason for going out? I could almost have understood if both man and woman were on their mobiles – perhaps their reason for eating out was a mutual hatred of cooking – but, no, the woman, who looked very nice, also looked pretty unhappy while she munched her salad in silence.

To be fair to the man, there might have been good reasons for his behaviour. Perhaps his partner had just told him she was having an affair with his best friend and he looked at his phone in an effort to manage his rage. Perhaps their son had fallen from a cliff and was sending him desperate texts. The man did not have the look of a cuckolded husband or a desperate father. I suppose he might have recently given his wife a phone and was busy arranging her contacts for her which could be considered as caring by some, and controlling by the rest of us. To be honest, I’m not convinced by these explanations. I think he was just rude, and if I were the nice woman, I wouldn’t eat out with him again.

Charles Dickens and guess who.

On holiday in Scotland last month, I read Claire Tomalin’s superb biography of Charles Dickens. Tomalin is sympathetic, empathetic and gloriously readable. She shows how extraordinary Dickens was: a brilliant novelist, journalist, actor and social reformer who performed countless acts of individual kindness.

And yet even Tomalin can’t explain his outrageously cruel behaviour to his wife. He met Catherine when she was nineteen and married her shortly afterwards. Twenty years and ten children later, he fell in love with an eighteen-year-old actress and told Catherine they must separate. He told his children to stay away from her. He forbade his friends to see her and if any of them did so, he cut them out of his life. Years later, his daughter Katey said, “My poor mother was afraid of my father. She was never allowed to express an opinion – never allowed to say what she felt.”

Does this sound familiar? Those of you who follow The Archers will of course shout out two words:ROB TITCHENER. For those of you who don’t know The Archers, all you need to know is that if you have a partner who makes it clear, however sweetly, that your looks/clothes/conversation/ambitions/friendships etcetera all merit constant re-evaluation, there is only important response. Run. Even if he’s as brilliant and charismatic as Charles Dickens. Especially if he’s as brilliant and charismatic as Charles Dickens.



April 2016: Johnny Depp and Getting Old.

I was watching Breakfast TV yesterday morning. Breakfast TV is one of the few pleasures of going to the gym three mornings a week. The partnership of Piers and Susanna is a novel waiting to be written, hopefully by Jonathan Coe.

Yesterday there was a clip of the now infamous apology video of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, part of the punishment meted out to Amber for illegally bringing into Australia their two dogs, Boo and Pistol.

The two of them sat, like victims in a pillory, mouthing pre-written expressions of contrition along with praise of Australia. I have never seen such awkwardness and misery since President Clinton denied having sexual intercourse with Monica Lewinsky.

How did the wild and beautiful Johnny Depp get to the point where he became an over-weight middle-aged man with improbable hair, a too-young wife, and the co-owner of dogs called Pistol and Boo?

Ageing is a cruel process. Lady Diana Cooper, the celebrated twentieth-century beauty, could not bear to look in a mirror as she grew older. It is easier for those of us who were never stunning in the first place. Humour and self-awareness are probably the best weapons to carry. Step forward my great hero, Cary Grant. When told by an interviewer that everybody would like to be Cary Grant, he apparently replied, “So would I.”

2016: In Praise of Independent Bookshops

In the last few weeks I’ve been lucky enough to promote my new novel in three of the best bookshops in the country. First, there was Toppings in Bath, stuffed with beautiful handmade bookcases and run by Saber and his team with calm enthusiasm. The evening before my talk, Julian Barnes had been in, and so, for possibly the only time ever, his latest work sat side by side on the counter with The Soulmate by Debby Holt.

Two days later, I was in East Sussex at Much Ado Books in Alfriston. For those of you lucky enough to live nearby, do make your way here. Cate and Nash are warm and wonderful proprietors, true bibliophiles. It is a place where one feels instantly at home.

Finally, I went to The Hunting Raven in Frome, bang in the centre of one of the few wholly medieval shopping streets in Europe. Writer Crysse Morrison describes it in her blog as a jewel of the South West, and she does not exaggerate.

What do these three shops share? They have staff who are enthusiastic and informative without being pushy. They provide a space in which one can peruse and ruminate and be calm. And they always have time for their customers. Long may they flourish!

February 2016: My new book!

Welcome to February and an unashamed puff for my latest novel, The Soulmate, out on February 4. It’s published by Accent Press and follows the stories of 62-year-old widower, Henry, and his daughter, Maddie, as they set out to find new partners.

I’m very fond of both Henry and Maddie and I hope you will be too. I’ll be talking about them in three fabulous bookshops: Toppings, in Bath, on February 18; Much Ado Books, in Alfriston, in Sussex on February 20, and The Hunting Raven in Frome on February 22. I’m also doing a talk at Hadleigh Library in Suffolk on March 19. Come along if you can!

January 2016: Colm Toibin

I love Colm Toibin. I love him for creating Brooklyn and, especially, Nora Webster. How was he able to make a novel about a difficult woman slowly coming to terms with the loss of her husband so gripping? How could he make me care about a woman who – if I met her – I know I would find formidable and forbidding?

I love him even more after listening to him on Desert Island Discs this week. In the programme, he admits he finds writing difficult and painful. I have always envied friends who lose themselves in their fictional worlds. For me, the actual creation is slow and arduous and interrupted by endless mugs of black coffee.

The enjoyment finally arrives during the third or fourth draft when my characters are friends who trust me to take care of them. For most of the time, the best part of my working day comes in the evening when I switch off my computer and pour a large glass of wine.

I should add, of course, that in line with the latest government advice, it will henceforth be a very small glass.

December 2016: Dancing

I was online, trying to find out about William Prynne, a curmudgeonly opponent of King Charles the First who is mainly famous now for the fact that his ears were chopped off. In the process, I somehow stumbled on a quote by George Bernard Shaw in which he described dancing as a “perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire.”

Isn’t that brilliant? In a moment, William Prynne flew out of the window and in his place was the memory of a student party with Mama Told Me Not to Come on the record player. There I was on the dance floor with a boy I’d only just met and as we swayed to the music our eyes remained locked on each other.

The last time I danced was with my baby grand-daughter. She was teething and unhappy until I started playing Cat Power. We sashayed round the kitchen in perfect harmony for quite a long time because every time I stopped the crying started again.

Incidentally, William Prynne thought dancing was a result of “the inbred pravity, vanity, wantoness, incontinency, pride, profaneness or madness of men’s depraved natures.” Personally I’m with George Bernard Shaw on this one.