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Un ‘Insight’ avec Hélène Clément

West Hampstead has a quite long literary pedigree – which continues to this day, with three local book launches in September alone. This month sees the launch of another one, but not in English and not at West End Lane Books. Mais non! This book is called “Le Plus Beau Reste á Venir” (Ed = The Best Is Yet To Come) and the launch will be at the French Bookshop, La Page, in South Kensington on Saturday 14th October. The author is Hélène Clément, one of West Hampstead’s large and growing French community.

What brought you to West Hampstead ?

Luck, really. When I had just moved to London nine years ago I was staying in Hounslow, which was way too far from… everything. When a colleague said she had a spare room in her flat on Lymington Road, I took it before even checking West Hampstead out. Best decision ever ! I immediately fell in love with the area. Since then, I’ve had to move flat twice, but never looked anywhere else. West Hampstead truly feels like home.

Behind the bar at the Alliance

Tell us a bit more about your book. Is it your first one ?

‘Le Plus Beau Reste a Venir’ is my first book, yes, so I’m over the moon and really proud that it got published by an important French publishing company.

The book tells the story of four characters, when they’re teenagers in the 90s, and when they meet again in 2010, after eleven years of estrangement, to overcome the loss of the teacher who had changed their lives and brought them together in high school. ‘Le Plus Beau Reste à Venir’ is about second chances, family, friendship and little attentions. Those little attentions which cost nothing but can make a huge difference in someone else’s life.

Where did you write it? And did West Hampstead inspire you?

Some writers need silence and stillness. I need activity. I need fresh air. I need to watch people and everyday situations. So I wrote 90% of my novel outdoors, in West Hampstead, on my notebooks. I was managing a coffee shop in Hampstead Heath at the time. Every day, I would leave work around 3pm and walk back to West Hampstead, to oxygenate my brain and gather my ideas. Once on West End Lane, I would find my writing spot of the day, at one of the cafes in the area if it was rainy. Otherwise, I would head to West End Green, Fortune Green, Hampstead Cemetery or the playground between Lymington Road and Potteries Path. And I would write for hours, inspired by the buzzing life around me.

My story takes place in a French high school, in the French countryside, so not in West Hampstead, obviously. But my readers will never know how much less obviously it’s been fed by West Hampstead. But it does and my affection for the area has grown stronger through the writing of my novel. I can assure you that, one day, I’ll write a novel all about West Hampstead !

What are you West Hampstead favourites ?

For coffee, I always go to Caffè Nero because the team, led by the lovely Teresa, is amazingly friendly, and I’m addicted to their mochas. For a drink, I would highly recommend Thunderbird. Moussa is a gem of a manager ! As for food, Lena’s Café was one of my all time favourites, I’m really sad it has closed down.

Now, if you’re looking for everything at once: great coffee, great drinks and incredibly good food, just come to The Alliance. I won’t get a pay raise for writing this, I truly mean it. I was a customer there long before starting to work for Mike. This is one of the coziest places around and the dining menu is a marvel!

How is life as a French expat in London? What do you miss the most ?

Life in London is amazing. I feel very lucky to live in such a vibrant and open-minded city. If it wasn’t for my accent giving me away, I wouldn’t feel like an expat anymore ! I’m from Carrières-sous-Poissy, a small suburban town, forty-five minutes west of Paris, really close to Saint-Germain (if you follow French football)!

What do I miss the most ? Cheese, obviously ! And pavement seating areas, there aren’t enough of those in Central London.

Describe West Hampstead in three French words :

Paisible – Chaleureux – Charactère. (Ed = peaceful, warm and characterful)

‘The Art of Failing’, the West Hampstead way

Local author Tony McGowan’s new book ‘The Art of Failing‘ is described by the publisher as ‘A laugh-out-loud chronicle of one man’s daily failures and disappointments, set in West Hampstead‘.

He has a book reading coming up at West End Lane Books on Thursday this week, so we popped by for a cup of herbal tea to have a chat. Tony couldn’t actually find a herbal tea bag, so the following events took place over a cup of hot water with a measly slice of lemon.

The book is in diary format and according to his agent was ‘not an obvious book to publish’ as it is a series of Facebook musings turned into a book, but published it was, with a book launch last week at Daunt books in Marylebone.

'Don't cry for me, West Hampstead. The truth is I never left you.'

‘Don’t cry for me, West Hampstead. The truth is I never left you.’ Pic: at the book launch at Daunt’s Books

How did it come about?

“Well, my personal writing style is observation and a touch surreal so I needed some space, but I was interested in writing something over social media. As Twitter is only 140 characters, Facebook seemed the natural choice. Quite early on I realised that the ‘likes’ (which became quite addictive) offered a feedback loop on what was popular so it helped shape things. So the musings on cricket, for example, had to go!”

The book appears to be a diary or journal, but a lot of what happens seems bizarre and extraordinary. How much of it is true?

“All of it to some extent, much is as true as I could make it, there is a kernel of truth in all of it.

For example, take the dwarf doppelgänger called “Heimlich” who I encountered one evening when I was out walking the dog. Suddenly I heard this panting and pounding sounds behind me. I turned around and there he was. I stared at him, he stared at me, but then ran off. When I got home I told my wife and kids about him and they said ‘nah’, but I occasionally saw him after that and yet they continued to think he was figment of my literary imagination. This ties into another strand of the book about my marriage being under strain by increasing weirdness during that period. When that was over I was out with my wife and daughter and we ran into Heimlich; we all saw him. So they realised he did exist and yes they agreed he did even look a bit like me, just smaller.

My approach is to look at the world in a different way, even at mundane events, so even something usual becomes a new thing”.

For a book that is supposed to be funny, some parts are quite sad/poignant. Does the sadness undermine the humour?

“Part of the narrative is the disintegration of my character and my isolation from my family – it’s exaggerated of course, but it came after a successful period and things felt a bit flat, my career seemed to be heading downhill. Yet the comedy comes from that – it has an edge. However, the reviews and feedback I have had tended to see only the humour. As writer (or artist) you create what you can and put it out there, you can’t control how others react”.

Your family appears in the book. How do they feel about that? Especially the fearsome Mrs McGowan*…

“The kids are fine with it, they drift in and out of the text. My wife Rebecca plays a more central role so that was trickier. She can appear hard and cruel but is also rather beautiful so that was OK. I’ve discovered that way round is fine for people I write about, but not vice-versa”.

(* I was at university with Mrs McG and we nearly went out, except she turned me down. How different history could have been.)

What else have you written?

“I written a number of books for teenagers. The ‘Donut Diaries’ is a comic trilogy set in the north of England where I grew up.  The other books are all stand alone novels; ‘Hellbent’ about a teenager who dies and goes to hell – it’s a comedy, ‘Jack Tumor’ about a boy who discovers he has a brain tumour and keeps hearing voices. It’s inspired by Henry IV with the tumour playing the role of Falstaff. I’ve also written ‘The Knife That Killed Me’, which tackled teenage knife crime and was made into a film”.

In some ways the book is a love song to West Hampstead.  What are you favourite things about the area?

“What are my little stations of the cross? Well there’s Hampstead cemetery, the best open space in the area. It has everything; wilderness, history and a sense of poignancy of the graves. Each one is a story.

I’m also a big fan of the charity shops as a collector of first editions I’ve found a couple over time. Socially, a recent find is Tannin and Oak. Plus a long standing favourite where you often find me and Mrs McG having lunch is the Wet Fish Cafe. I used to go a lot to the Czech (and Slovak) Club but that’s tailed off.  And of course there is Lately’s.”

 

 

Paradise regained, by way of Keats House

Here’s two names you rarely encounter in the same sentence: John Keats, peerless Romantic poet, and Nancy Dell’Olio, peerless, er, socialite, and, it turns out, major Keats aficionado and Hampstead resident.

With this knowledge on board, it’s less of a total surprise that Nancy was on hand to cut the ribbon and officially open Keats Festival at the poet’s former residence in NW3.

Nancy poised to cut the ribbon (Photo (c) Alex Brenner)

Nancy poised to cut the ribbon (Photo (c) Alex Brenner)

The beautiful Georgian house in Keats Grove will be hosting a season of delights… and not just for the poetry minded either.

The House has used its recent Arts Council grant to further upgrade its exhibits and as well as the usual cache of treasures from the two years the young poet lived there, during which time he wrote his most brilliant cycle of Odes, the House will feature a rolling cycle of rarely seen items: from letters to manuscripts and even annotated copies of Keats’ copies of Shakespeare and Milton. So, chances are, if you visit more than once, you’ll see different things each time. They’re clever, these Keats peeps!

A star object in the collection - Keats' love letter to Fanny Brawne (Photo (c) The City of London)

A star object in the collection – Keats’ love letter to Fanny Brawne (Photo (c) The City of London)

The Festival includes poetry readings and lectures, family activities and several musical events. Among those appearing will be Owen Sheers, whose recent novel is set in Hampstead, and also former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen, who is newly named Poet in Residence at the House.

The Festival runs from 28 May – 7 June and you can view all events on the website, with bookings via this page.

Keats House is a quiet gem nestling a stone’s throw from the Heath in the heart of Hampstead – a very pleasant amble from West Hampstead and always a tranquil haven to visit while in the area. The festival, plus the wonderful new exhibits and the fact that one ticket buys you entry for a year (and under-17s go free) mean that it’s a fantastic place to discover the work and life of this most endearing of geniuses… a joy forever, one might even say.

Keats House in its full sunny splendour

Keats House in its full sunny splendour (Photo (c) The City of London)

Kilburn gets bookish with week of events

kilburnlogo2

If you thought that literary festivals mainly happened in fields on the outskirts of small Welsh towns, think again.

The first-ever Kilburn Literary Festival starts today and runs until 4th November, with events in various local venues including West Hampstead’s very own Sherriff Centre. The eclectic programme includes talks by authors, workshops for budding writers (including “How to Publish and Sell your Erotic Fiction”!), quizzes and a “flash fiction competition”. Two highlights are local history buff Ed Fordham’s talk on the history of Kilburn authors, at the Tricycle on Saturday morning, and the (esoteric perhaps) History of Fighting Fantasy and Adventure Game Books talk on Sunday afternoon, which will appeal to boys and girls who are now of a certain age!

Most events are ticketed, with prices ranging between £4 and £10, but there’s also a free “Festival of Books” at the Sherriff Centre at St James’ Church on Saturday. As well as readings, there will be activities for children, such as the chance to make their own book, and would-be authors will be able to talk to publishing professionals for advice on how to develop their writing.

You can find a full programme of events, and buy tickets, at the festival’s website.

Jeff Norton on the importance of reading… and a margarita

Jeff_Norton_Bookshop

Canadian ex-pat author/producer Jeff Norton talked to West Hampstead Life about the importance of getting kids to read, his love of a margarita, and – of course – his next book.

Was it always your dream to be a writer? If not, how did you start?
As a kid, I was pretty sure I wanted to be in the entertainment industry, but wasn’t clear on what that would entail. Growing up in suburban Canada, it felt as far away as the moon! I have been lucky enough to work in different areas of show business, developing and producing for film and TV, but when I moved to the UK seven years ago and was managing the Enid Blyton literary estate, I decided that I had stories of my own to tell. That was when I embarked on writing as a full-time creative pursuit.

West Hampstead is an area full of writers, musicians and actors, do you think there is something about the area that attracts creative types?
West Hampstead has a very active streetscape, which I feel stimulates the creative mind. There are characters all around us here, and it’s a joy to just walk down the high street with open eyes and an open mind. I think it also helps to be just a few minutes from central London, but also able to quickly retreat to the relative quiet of West Hampstead to focus on the craft of writing.

Do you have a favourite West Hampstead spot?
West End Lane Books, of course! And the library is somewhere I love to take my kids. But aside from those ‘bookish’ places, I’m a huge Mexican food fan so I was thrilled when Mamacita opened up. They do one mean margarita!

What are the best and worst things about living in West Hampstead?
The best is probably the people. Everyone is friendly and dynamic. I feel like West Hampstead is a place filled with people doing interesting things with their lives. The worst is probably some of the aesthetics: too many estate agent signs, saturation of similar services (how much hair do we really have to cut?), and way too much dog poo!

As a parent and busy author how important is a healthy work/lifestyle balance?
It’s very important, but it’s hard to attain. I work as many hours as I can in a week and yet time with my two boys and my wife is critical to a healthy family life and a positive relationship, but it’s a daily balancing act to get it right.

You’ve done several events at local schools, how important is it for schools to carry on encouraging kids to read outside lessons?
Establishing the habit of reading for pleasure is a gift that a school (and parents!) can give a child. It’s less about the literacy or information-intake, and more about opening up the world to the child. Plus, like anything, the more you do it, the better you get at it. I was a very reluctant reader as an adolescent so, for me, helping to inspire young people to work out their reading muscles is a very personal pursuit. It sets children up for success in so many areas.

Your latest book is the last installment of your MetaWars series; what’s next?
Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie publishes on August 7th and I couldn’t be more excited. It’s the story of a twelve-year-old boy with OCD who rises from the grave to solve his own murder. It’s actually inspired by a short film I shot in West Hampstead a few years ago [which you can watch below].

If you could have written any other book what would it have been?
That’s impossible to answer! I have a lot of stories I want to tell; so hopefully it’ll be one you’ll be reading very soon!

Jeff Norton is on the web at www.jeffnorton.com and tweets @thejeffnorton.

Why local author Susie Steiner loves West Hampstead

Susie Steiner, Guardian journalist and novelist, chatted to West Hampstead Life about life as a working mother in West Hampstead.

Susie Steiner

Susie Steiner

Looking from the outside, you appear to have it all. How did you do it?
The career was very slow – I’m very slow and ploddy – I started on local papers and did work experience on the Ham and High. Then I trained as a cub reporter and did moonlighting shifts on the nationals. Eventually I got a staff job at The Times as a news reporter and then as a feature writer, and then I went to the Guardian in 2001 as an editor on the Weekend Magazine. That was a very lovely job and that’s where I had children, so it was punctuated by an awful lot of maternity leave! I got to a point that lots of women get to after their youngest is a bit more independent and you think: what now?

West Hampstead seems full of writers, musicians and literary agents, do you think there is something about the area that attracts creative types?
Well it’s just the most gorgeous place to live. I can’t think of anywhere better to live. It’s got is the gorgeousness of Hampstead and Belsize Park without the wankers really! It’s not as moneyed, it has a shabby edge to it, which is lovely. It hasn’t got that investment banking feel which is the death knell of creativity. It’s got a very nice low-key ordinariness to it and an amazing feeling of community, it’s hard to walk down the street without knowing everyone. You can be whatever you want here, you don’t have to put on a front when you walk out the door or dress a certain way.

How has West Hampstead changed since you first arrived?
It was a very different place, it was really shabby. There were no supermarkets, just a rash of 24-hour shops where you could buy fags but that was it. It’s changed a huge amount. I think it’s become better and better, there are fabulous places to eat and lovely shops. It’s amazing to go into shops and know the people who work there! It’s delightful.

What’s your favourite spot in West Hampstead?
Oh God I love so much! I like the guys in David’s Deli hugely who say hi to my kids. I love the food at The Wet Fish Cafe. I love the Kitchen Table – who doesn’t? I love the community centre where I do an exercise class and the nursery below it where both my kids went. I feel knitted into the whole place. I love Emmanuel School where my children are, which is a roll down the hill. We’re really embedded. I moved here in about ’94 and I lived in Kingdon Road in a bachelorette pad with my mates. When I was single I didn’t know anyone here, it was just great for work because of quick transport. But then when I got married and had children I suddenly got to know all my neighbours in an amazing way.

What are the best and the worst things about West Hampstead?
The number of estate agents makes my blood boil! The number of very average cafés makes me a bit annoyed. I’d like a kid’s shoe shop, I’d like a clothes shop. I think we have a problem with the variety of shops, there is a great deal of repetition. The best thing is the community – the people. I’ve never been happier, there’s no better place to live in terms of friendliness and the feeling of belonging somewhere and I’d never imagined how important that feeling would be. Saying hello to people on the hill every morning really makes a big difference. It’s extraordinary.

What book do you wish you’d written?
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. It’s a few years old. It’s a fictionalised life of Laura Bush and it poses the question of how did a bookish, shy Democrat come to marry this sports jock, hard drinking, handsome Bush? It’s riveting and it doesn’t have shock tactics of sex and violence, it’s a very intricate study of character. It’s slow, detailed and absorbing.

Susie Steiner’s latest book, Homecoming is out now in paperback and was reviewed here. She will also be running a creative writing workshop on May 1st at West End Lane Books.

Review: Homecoming, by Susie Steiner

HomecomingMy husband has oft commented that with our Farmer’s Market, our feisty WI group and altogether friendly villagey atmosphere in Mill Lane and West End Lane, West Hampstead could be twinned with Ambridge.

Not entirely surprising then that Susie Steiner, one of the area’s community of writers, has chosen to set her debut novel, Homecoming, within a farming community.

The narrative follows the fortunes of the apparently hapless Hartle family with the story unfolding to the rhythm of the farming year.

The Hartles’ farm is suffering financially, the family is suffering emotionally: one son sinking into alcoholism, the other hotfooting away to open a garden centre so halfheartedly that he actually names it Garden Centre; parents Joe and Ann struggle to balance the books and make sense of a year so bleak that the prevailing advice is to sell up and cut their losses.

But Homecoming, set in Yorkshire, is resolutely not a ‘grim oop north’ story. It’s about community and family, belief and commitment. The portraits of the family and the locals, in particular the Hartle boys’ partners – the energetic and sparky Ruby and the embattled Primrose – provide a warm and vivid counterpoint to the harshness of the landscape and the seemingly unremittingly bad news that rains down on the Hartles.

In essence, Homecoming is all hearts and minds. Will there still be a viable farm for one of the boys to inherit? Will any of the marriages survive let alone prosper? Is stoicism the right response to the Hartles predicament?

For those of us who like to really submerge ourselves in the characters that writers like Steiner create, there are tears and literally laugh out loud moments in Homecoming and while reading it I ran home to seek it out as one would a warm hearth on a bitter day. And there are precious few novels one can say that about.

Homecoming, by Susie Steiner is out in paperback on March 6th
Faber & Faber, £7.99

Review: Deep Shelter by Oliver Harris

DeepShelterWhen Harris’ debut, The Hollow Man, was published in 2011, I thought ‘It doesn’t get much better than this’. His thriller, set in Hampstead, fulfilled my fantasy requirements of an intelligent crime novel: sharply written, fabulously paced, wonderful central character and a plot so local I wouldn’t have been surprised to see my own road turning up. And actually I’ve never been to Starbucks in South End Green since [spoiler alert].

But it turns out that I was wrong.

This follow-up, Deep Shelter, still tracking the fortunes of Byronesque bad-boy cop Nick Belsey (‘a beguiling bastard’, according to crime writer Val McDermid), adds a maturing style and a broadening appeal beyond the parochial to the long list of boxes ticked.

Briefly, if you love the early discovery of names to drop, you should pick this up.

Deep Shelter finds Hampstead nick’s Belsey attempting to keep his nose clean. But then a car chase in Belsize Park leads him to be confronted with the sort of riddle that Agatha Christie could have dreamed up, when the driver legs it down a blind alley and disappears.

What unfolds is a vivid cold war conspiracy drama. And while London swelters in the slick heat of an oppressive summer, Belsey goes underground to uncover the degenerating secrets that lie beneath our great city.

Where The Hollow Man was a no-holds-barred kitchen sink of a high octane rollercoaster, Deep Shelter is pace and pitch perfect and depicts London every bit as masterfully as the Scandinavian thriller-meisters paint their home territory.

Out March 20th, Deep Shelter is well worth investigating.

Zadie Smith’s NW: Opportunities knocked

Kilburn, Willesden, Harlesden. London’s north-west neighbourhoods pulse through this triptych of interconnected tales. Their council estates and streets are the building blocks and threads of a narrative that sweeps its way through ideas of opportunity, identity and class.

Zadie Smith’s affection for the area, her area (at least before she moved to New York), is clear. Her characters never escape it, whether they want to or not and irrespective of the rare foray into central London. Readers, especially those living locally, may choose to revel in the fecundity, though for many of the young professionals who now call NW home, it may be easier to observe this multicultural landscape dispassionately; just as it’s possible to spend time on Kilburn High Road yet never engage with anyone meaningfully.

“A local tip: the bus stop outside Kilburn’s Poundland is the site of many of the more engaging conversations to be heard in the city of London.”

Gazing down on NW from such a height would be a disservice to Smith’s abilities. The crowning glory of this book is its dialogue, internal or conversational (and the two often merge). Rich in vernacular and alert to linguistic trends (“It was the year everyone was saying that such and such a person was ‘their rock'”), the conversations peppered across the pages are those you hear on the streets.

Yet, for all the local detail, and the acute, native understanding of lives lived here, the setting ends up a backdrop when it feels as if Smith wanted it to be a character in its own right. Her prose doesn’t help here: the conflict between self-aware changes of pace, style and form, and the natural ebbs and flows she creates in dialogue left me tripping up; forcing me to stand back from the story rather than fall into it as if into the arms of a lively Kilburn pub.

NW has had some lofty accolades heaped on it, but it certainly hasn’t grabbed everyone. It has some gorgeous vignettes but is never the sum of its parts. It has interesting things to say about opportunity and aspiration, but fell short of making me think new thoughts, which I feel any great novel should do. It has some entertaining and insightful characters, but they are often the co-stars rather than the protagonists. Ultimately, it feels more like a book set at a precise time rather than one set in a particular place.

In a final, unsettling, move, it ends abruptly.

NW
Zadie Smith
Penguin, 2012