On a closed set in West London, cameras and lighting rigs are assembled to the strains of acid jazz and the contented munching of early morning bacon sandwiches. Padding around in a body-warmer, white jodhpurs and thick woolly socks (this is before she had her own clothing line – can you guess who it is yet?), a small blonde girl sips tea from a steaming mug. I’m at a photo shoot with esteemed photographer Mary McCartney, daughter of Sir Paul and sister of designer Stella. But the focus of the shoot isn’t rock royalty, it’s the real thing. “Do you want smiling or serious?” asks the blonde, flashing the whitest teeth I have ever seen. Zara Phillips is sporting immaculate blonde highlights and a glowing complexion only obtained from years of healthy outdoor living. She is sickeningly photogenic and all Mary has to do is point and fire. We get some great shots of Zara in front of the British flag, until someone asks whether the Union Jack is being held the right way up. There is a debate and it’s decided to consult Zara’s older brother, Peter who is loitering by the buffet table eating chips (“shh, don’t tell,” he mumbles through a mouthful of mashed potato: “I’m meant to be on a diet”). He looks at his sister and laughs: “That,” he says, pointing at the flag, “is upside down!” The chunky white stripe on the diagonal cross has to be on the top left-hand side, apparently. This is verified by examining the Union Jack cufflinks that Peter just happens to be wearing (that’s serious patriotism) and the situation is resolved. Peter holds up the flag, just out of shot, while his sister tried to suppress giggles and look sultry…*this is an extract from an interview with Zara Phillips. For more, read Royal Rebel, Zara Phillips*
I am sitting at a table dominated by a tight bunch of fat cream roses that I inhale until I feel light-headed. The wooden floors have been buffed to gleaming, the tables are cloaked in white and the glassware has been polished to perfection (with vinegar, I suspect from my years of waitressing as a teenager). Uniformed staff hover in double-breasted blazers and shiny black shoes. I run my fingers over the beautifully laid table and grin uncontrollably. Admitting my fondness for white linen napkins and butter knives makes me feel about as rock and roll as Sue Barker but there you have it. I’m 30 and I get off on Radio 4 and tea from china cups.
“Would Madam like to order something while she waits for her guest?”
It’s been 25 minutes, I rationalise. They probably need me to order something. I can just share it when my ‘guest’ arrives. I try calling the number I’ve been given again but there’s no answer. And so, selflessly, I submit to my waiter’s recommendations.
I eat pinwheel sandwiches on cocktail sticks with an olive on the end and chase melon balls around a plate with my fork. I sip Lapsang Souchong and feel that satisfying burn as the tannin hits the sides of my tongue. I bite into something new and get an explosion of flavours. I identify chopped nuts, honey, cinnamon, and possibly bits of apple wrapped in a delicate filo pastry. I get slightly tingly all over at the egg-free praline chocolate slice (as if it’s the egg that’s going to make my thighs swell) and then eat a scone topped in half a centimetre of icing sugar. The sugar goes up my nose. I sneeze and drop the scone, sending a cloud of powder over my face. I begin to choke. I’m making such a racket that the lounge pianist pauses his rendition of Dido’s ‘Thank You’ (which amazingly still sounds crap even in crooner style) and sends over a waiter with some water. Spluttering, mortified, pink, but grateful, I sip at it. Suitably chastened and sobered-up from my sugar-high, I decide that perhaps conducting interviews over afternoon tea isn’t such a good idea. It’s far too distracting. After another 10 minutes, I resolve to leave. And no, my ‘guest’ never turns up.
I enjoyed the good weather, honestly I did. But there’s part of me that has always secretly relished the prospect of a drizzly afternoon. When the heavens open and it lashes it down, giving the air a thick, chilly lick, I feel no guilt whatsoever in remaining inside and assuming the foetal position on the sofa with a book. This week I have been re-reading a favourite, Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved. Despite knowing what happens, it’s a novel so utterly compelling that I’ve been functioning on autopilot. Last night, I took it into the bath and lost all track of time, only to emerge, prune like, after an hour. Still reading, I headed to the kitchen, more through habit than hunger. Opening the fridge, the pathetic yellow light illuminated little more than some moulding cheddar, tartar sauce and what may once have been a carrot, so I returned to the sofa with my book. Determined to get to the end, I turned my phone to silent, fought off tiredness and ignored the streetlights flicking on outside. I remember getting to the last page and that wave of emotion that comes with the end of a book you have loved. But the next thing I knew, it was morning. I’d forgotten to shut the blinds and a laser-like light seared open my eyes. My stomach threatened to devour itself and gurgled angrily, reminding me that I had neglected it and missed dinner. My limbs creaked in protest at being concertinaed into a two-seater Ikea sofa for eight hours. And suddenly the idea of reading all night when I had a day’s work ahead of me, a commute, meetings to prepare for, PRs to catch up with, pitches to hone and writing to be done, didn’t seem half so sensible or even romantic. So today is all about coffee. And an early night. And then maybe a small virtual shopping trip to Amazon to order Hustvedt’s latest offering…
There wasn’t much to do in early 1990s Random-on-Thames of a Saturday night once you’d exhausted the possibilities of the Magnet Leisure Centre and Laser Quest. Fortunately from the age of 14, at all of five foot tall, local bouncers in saw fit to let me into their establishments with the aid of some woefully poor fake ID (Sarah Thomas photocopied the school logo and whacked it between some sticky-backed plastic with a typewritten slip of paper that said: “We’re in the sixth form, honest”). So imagine my surprise and mirth at returning to the scene of the crime(s) a couple of decades on to find that the average 14 year old has an iPhone in one hand, a Starbucks in the other, and a social calendar that would make an It girl weep. Modern adolescent girl is also dressed head to toe in an achingly cool combo of high street, designer and vintage clobber and brimming with confidence. When did this happen? Why did no one tell me? And how can I ever recover from being dressed in Global Hypercolour T-shirts and double denim for much of my youth? Answers on a postcard please.
Back from a blissful Hay festival and wondering how the heady summer days of the weekend have descended so rapidly into a grim and grey week. Settling back into the 9-5 after a holiday has always been a struggle. I have grown to expect all my days to start with a latte on the lawn and some soft jazz in white marquee, cider and venison burgers for lunch and some literary criticism in the afternoon. Real life, it turns out, isn’t much like that. So in the name of fending off the holiday blues, I’m writing down the best bits.
Overheard at Hay:
“I’ve never seen so much sensible footwear in one field…”
“No, they don’t have a Jack Wills concession here.”
“Do they do tofu?”
“I was chatting to Martin Amis at breakfast…”
“Do you know what I think? I think…”
“Oh yes, I love Nietzsche too!”
“I find (insert author’s name here) work so inspiring.”
Spotted at Hay:
A huddle of hot dads pushing Maclaren buggies over rough terrain accompanied by women wearing tie die confections.
The Lady editor Rachel Johnson looking regal with amazing hair, blow-dry perfect even off-duty and in a field.
Two mid brow, thinking woman’s crumpet, C-listers who recently dated friends of mine. Both behaved in ways counter to their on screen/on page persona of carefully cultivated ‘new man’ and both subsequently replaced my challenging, interesting wonderful friends with identikit, miniature and meek girls half their age. Shame.
Forget the news scoops, insightful interviews and carefully crafted features I have worked on over the past year – all anyone’s interested in now is what the SATC2 premiere was like. I have been asked about this more over the past week than about Womankind, Race for Life, my cousin’s debut exhibition or the marvellous Ben Addis in Eurydice at the Young Vic. All anyone really wants to know is: “What’s SJP like?” The answer? She seems lovely. And a damn sight more entertaining than the film, if reviews are to be believed. Judge for yourself here or marvel at the technical talents of Raid’s Jack Burnford who has put together a collection of such witterings here. No laughing please. Well, okay, a few sniggers are allowed.