The blue hour in Paris

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L’heure bleue by Guerlain is one of my very favourite perfumes, conjuring up the elegance and beauty of long summer evenings in the garden. And yet the blue hour in Paris is even more intoxicating. The softness of the light on those magnificent buildings and the flickering of car headlights and streetlamps as evening starts to fall. Pausing by one of the many charming squares and parks to catch a glimpse of the explosion of colour which has suddenly emerged after a brutally long winter, you suddenly smell the most heavenly perfume ever created (Guerlain and even Chanel can’t come close) – that of night scented flowers with their white petals standing out against the approaching darkness. I love the wide avenues and boulevards meant for walking and found it impossible to stop that first evening, strolling as far as the Pont Alexandre III and looking across to see a shimmering Eiffel Tower. April in Paris is certainly a cliché but like most clichés, it’s difficult to beat.

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The museum I call home

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I love the Musée d’Orsay for many reasons. First of all because it’s in a former train station, the Gare d’Orsay, an architectural masterpiece which reminds us of the golden age of steam. An age when travel could be elegant and railway stations weren’t just shopping centres. There’s a fabulous story of how Jeanne Moreau went to visit Orson Welles in his suite at the Hôtel Meurice overlooking the Tuileries gardens (how I envy him!) and he spotted two twin moons across the river which she explained were the railway clocks. Captivated, they rushed out in the night for a closer look and the station was later brilliantly used in his adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial. But back to me. I have been going there so long that this place almost feels like home. It helps that I feel like I belong in 19th and early 20th Century France – many of the works of art even feel like old friends. Daumier’s Célèbrités du Juste Milieu, paintings of Scapin and Don Quixote with the dead mule, Millet’s The Gleaners, Manet’s portrait of Zola, Olympia and that astonishing asparagus, Robert de Montesquieu by Boldini, Proust by Jacques-Émile Blanche (although this wasn’t on display last time which is outrageous), the Gates of Hell and that sculpture of Balzac by Rodin, Courbet’s Burial at Ornans and The Artist’s Studio (last time I visited the museum I bought a book about Proust, only to discover an inadvertently stolen postcard of Courbet’s Origin of the World which is my least favourite painting there, surely hidden away by a schoolboy), Pompon’s Polar Bear and Owl, all that Art Nouveau furniture and glass. It’s torture trying to see everything until overcome by exhaustion, I must accept defeat and head for the exit. Until next time.

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An afternoon at the Louvre

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I have always had a love/hate relationship with the Louvre. On the one hand, it’s an undeniably magnificent collection in a beautiful building with such a remarkable history. On the other hand, the collection is so vast that I never manage to see more than 0.0001% of what they have on display. There are parts of the museum I have never yet ventured into and at the end of every visit, I retire defeated, certain that I could stay there for months, years even, and still not see everything. Perhaps I should find two friends and just run through the whole thing in record time like in Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à Part.

To be fair, it was 16 years (!) since my last visit and returning there last December brought back nothing but happy memories. On a rainy winter’s afternoon, I decided to make my way to the famous pyramid entrance after killing time dodging puddles in the Tuileries before my timed ticket was valid. I needn’t have worried – to my astonishment, there was no queue at all to get in and I descended the familiar spiral staircase, happy to discover that everything was pretty much the same. Part of my trouble at the Louvre comes from the French Romantics – I can never resist going to those galleries first to see those vast canvases by Géricault, David, Delacroix and the rest, and end up spending far too long there but this at least time I avoided the crowds in front of the Mona Lisa after the disappointment of my first ever visit when I couldn’t believe that such a famous painting was so small and protected behind glass.

After that I only had the energy to visit the sumptuous Napoleon III apartments which made me want to have the rooms of my home decorated in red and gold and invest in a chandelier and fabulous plants. But I’m already planning my next visit to the Louvre when I won’t head straight for the French Romantics. Since my last visit, they have opened an Angélina’s close the Second Empire apartments where you can sit on chairs upholstered in gris montaigne and savour one of their ridiculously thick hot chocolates before trying to see another 1% of the Louvre’s collection instead of an indifferent coffee and a macaron at the regular café. I can’t wait.

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Written in stone

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The last time I visited Paris, it was winter and a light dusting of snow covered the ground. I couldn’t  wait to take the metro up to Montmartre cemetery, one of the few I haven’t visited, with my Paris guidebook featuring a guided walk there by the great photographer Jean-Loup Sieff, plus flowers for François Truffaut, Hector Berlioz and Dalida who are all buried there. My enthusiasm died a sudden death though when I found the gates firmly locked with a notice that this cemetery, and in fact, all cemeteries and large parts of parks were closed for health and safety reasons. For such a romantic nation, the French have no sense of the poetic at times – what could be more beautiful than funerary monuments in the snow? To paraphrase Henri IV, “Paris vaut bien une jambe cassée.”

Anyway, I’m happy to report that this time there was no snow. In fact, it was the perfect winter’s day and the only decent one of my trip. Returning to Père Lachaise after 16 years, everything felt both familiar and new. It really is a remarkable place and like many great French things, we owe it to Napoleon, or more specifically Nicholas Frochot, after the walls of the notoriously overcrowded Cimetière des Innocents collapsed and he ordered him to create new cemeteries outside the centre including this one, named after Louis XIV’s confessor, Père de la Chaise. Its immediate attraction for me all those years ago was the number of famous people I admire who sleep there – Simone Signoret and Yves Montand, Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrision, Frédéric Chopin, Isadora Duncan, Marcel Proust, Marie Trintignant, Balzac, Edith Piaf and too many others to mention. But one of the great pleasures is just to wander from section to section along its avenues lined with magnificent old trees, stopping to admire any monuments or graves that catch your eye and even imagining the story behind the names.

If you want to go there, I encourage you to get off at Gambetta and walk down the hill which is much less arduous and crowded. You will need a plan which you can find at the entrance at the top or from the conservation office at the bottom. I also recommend a guide like Permanent Parisians or Stories in Stone, both of which are excellent. But also be realistic – there are 108 acres to cover and it’s almost impossible to visit all the graves you want to in one day. And always be prepared for surprises – a cemetery cat greeted me after I unexpectedly found the great Claude Chabrol’s grave on my way to Chopin’s. Pausing, I saw a man with wild curly hair and glasses, carrying a folder coming towards me. When I told him I was now looking for Jim Morrison’s grave, he exclaimed, “Jim is dead?!,” before leading me on a shortcut to find it and telling me all the fascinating stories about Edith Piaf, Marcel Marceau, Chopin and so many others. He works as a guide and loves his job because he has no boss calling him on the phone and covers a huge amount of space walking each day. His secret was revealed when he opened a cigarette box to reveal large amounts of chocolate. He left me to make his way to the crematorium to see the barbecue as he described it but I encountered him again, chatting and laughing with other visitors. A true delight.

As the sun started to set, my feet began to ache and I resigned myself to not seeing all the graves on my list and felt sad at the thought of leaving this place that means so much to me. But the memories of that special day are still so vivid and I’m already thinking about my next trip to Paris when I might finally get to Montmartre.

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Héloïse and Abélard

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Robinson’s phantasmagoric tomb

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Félix Faure, President of the French Republic who may have died after erotic excess with his mistress.

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Vivant Denon

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Memorials to those who died in concentration camps.

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The Communards’ Wall

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Oscar Wilde

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Honoré Daumier’s grave was in a sad state when I first visited but it’s now been restored thanks to donations by those who love his work.
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Jim Morrison

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René Lalique

Favourite books of 2017

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Nigel Slater’s Christmas Chronicles is just one of my favourite books I read this year. Some are new, some were published a few years ago but all are wonderful. I hope you find something to interest and inspire you on my list.

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One of the greatest living photographers, Fred Lyon, pays homage to his beautiful city of San Francisco and its noir heritage. Stunning and atmospheric photos.

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Two books about the darker side of Hollywood. Piu Eatwell makes a convincing case for finally solving one of the most notorious crimes of all time, that of Elizabeth Short, nicknamed The Black Dahlia. Gripping and well told with great compassion for the victim. While in High Noon, Glenn Frankel turns his attention to the blacklist and the making and influence of one the great westerns, High Noon. A revealing portrait of America which still resonates today.

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In Les Parisiennes, historian Anne Sebba looks at the testimonies of both ordinary and well known French women who lived through the German Occupation. So compassionate, fascinating and well researched that I couldn’t stop reading. I’m not a huge fan of contemporary fiction but I loved All The Light We Cannot See which is also set in Occupied France. A heartbreaking and beautiful book which I still can’t stop thinking about.

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Nicholas Ray’s adaptations of In A Lonely Place is one of my favourite noirs but I had never read the book which is actually quite different. One of the greatest books about Los Angeles too along with Slow Days, Fast Company. Eve Babitz was one of my discoveries this year. Her writing is deceptively simple but so good and I laughed out loud many times. Eve’s Hollywood by her is also highly recommended.

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I’ve posted quite a few photos by William Claxton on Instagram and then someone recommended me this book which features his journey across the States and experience of jazz. Brilliant photography as you would expect and such a magnificent and huge volume.

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The Essential Marilyn Monroe by Milton Greene features all the photos from their 50 sessions together, many beautifully restored and quite a few published for the first time. All are remarkable and revealing photos of a woman at her most beautiful by a friend and photographer who knew how to get the best from her.

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Gleb Derujinsky was one of the greatest fashion photographers of all time and this book is both a revelation and a joy. My friend Jan wrote a superb review of it here which I recommend reading.

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Robert Doisneau is one of my very favourite photographers but I had no idea about his work for Vogue in the post-war years. This stunning book is available in English and French and you can see more beautiful photos from it and read Jan’s excellent review on his blog here.

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And finally thanks to Jan’s blog, I discovered two wonderful books on Coco Chanel, including this one which you can read about in more detail here.

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A superb book about remarkable interiors inside the homes of the twentieth century’s most remarkable women with amazing photos and illustrations too.

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A deliciously gossipy book about film, fashion and Rome. Unputdownable and fun.

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The story of the Palazzo Venier and the three women who lived and transformed what is now the Peggy Guggenheim Museum. Beautifully written and endlessly fascinating.

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One of my favourite Instagrammers recommended this book. I can see the influence of John Piper in these remarkable illustrations and drawings which bring Britain’s lost buildings to life. Accompanied by a superb text.

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Extracts from Raymond Chandler’s works accompanied by atmospheric photos of Los Angeles taken in the 1980s which create the perfect mood. A must!

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I never thought I’d get the chance to buy a book of newly published Fitzgerald stories! Not all are masterpieces but some are exceptional and it’s an essential for any fan of his work.

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The story of the Riviera and those who graced it when elegance and sophistication still ruled makes for a fabulous read. At the Existentialist Cafe brings back memories of my own pilgrimage to these famous places and studying philosophy. The author explains the ideas clearly and makes you want to learn more.

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2017 was the year I officially became addicted to Joan Didion and her razor sharp prose. I bought this on a rainy day in Berlin and it was such a tonic to read someone use the English language so well and have a real understanding of the people and issues she encountered.

The perfect friend

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  • I’m high street and he’s haute couture
  • He loves Downton Abbey and I much prefer Gosford Park
  • I’m devoted to Chanel No 5 and he’s in love with No 22
  • He adores the screwball films from the 1930s and I have a weakness for ‘40s and ‘50s noir
  • I don’t understand Top of the Lake and he doesn’t like Orson Welles
  • He loves costume drama and I love The Sopranos
  • My china is Lomonosov and his is Royal Copenhagen
  • He lives for nuits blanches and I never paint the town red
  • He only has eyes for Maurice Ronet and I go weak at the knees for Alain Delon
  • He dreams of riding the Tube and the Métro and I long for the Berlin U-Bahn

But we share a love for the people and things that really matter, like Matisse’s work, films by Woody Allen, Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut and those with Bette Davis and Romy Schneider.  Not forgetting Niederegger Marzipan, books by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Saki’s stories, Paris and the Café de Flore, Café Florian in Venice, Louis Malle’s Le Feu Follet, Hermès Parure de Samouraïs scarves, Raymond Chandler novels, strolls along the Kurfuerstendamm and macarons from Spruengli. Most of all, there is nobody witter or more charming I would wish to share a pot of Afternoon Blend Tea with than Jan, especially as he also puts the (cold) milk in first. He also now lives in Berlin, one of my favourite cities, and if we cannot meet regularly  at the Literaturhaus for coffee or have bouillabaisse at Galeries Lafayette, then at least I have his blog to console myself with until our next meeting.

Below are some highlights from my recent trip to Berlin.

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The fragrance of summers past

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Impressions of my first trip abroad are still vivid in my mind. Our departure in the early hours of the morning, sitting in the back seat of the car in between my two older half-brothers and spending the long journey to Dover listening to cassettes on my Walkman (though whether it was the Beatles or ’80s pop, I couldn’t possibly tell you). And then after so long on the road, suddenly catching sight of the sea, that mass of blue with the seagulls squawking overhead. It never ceases to astonish me. Travelling by ferry really makes you feel you’re going somewhere, watching the boat pull away from those famous white cliffs while strangers on the quay wave you off. And then just under an hour later, seeing the French coast emerge. We drove with our caravan to a campsite on the coast of Brittany. Every morning, my parents took me for walks along the seemingly endless and beautiful beaches.

I recall the taste of galettes with cheese and of crêpes with ice cream. And most vividly of all, I remember trying to look in through the gap in a circus tent on our campsite to catch a glimpse of a magician and his glamorous assistant doing a show before getting caught by one of the staff and told off in incomprehensible French.

If summer had a particular scent back then, it was probably my mother’s Mitsouko which I secretly used to spritz and later on my eldest half brother’s bottle of YSL Kouros until he complained about me using too much. Or perhaps my American aunt who rented a house in Brighton where we spent one summer. She always smelled of Giorgio Beverly Hills which made me think of those striped yellow awnings I had seen in my favourite TV show back then, Beverly Hills 90210.

The first summer scents of my own were Ô de Lancôme, Clarins Eau Dynamisante, Prescriptives Calyx and Estée Lauder’s Pleasures. The last one was a particular favourite, worn the summer I finished high school when spent the long holidays in the garden, reading under the apple tree. I was reminded of this after finding a bottle the other day in a discount store and felt inspired to recommend some of my other current favourite summer fragrances paired with books for summer I love. Alongside Pleasures in the first shot. I chose a delightful Moomin book which never fails to lift my spirits and will make you long for adventures.

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I love the greenness of this Diptyque fragrance which counters the sweetness of the figs. There are many other fig fragrances out there but for me, this is the best. This classic book transports you back to Greece before mass tourism and is a delightful account of childhood discovery and English eccentricities. Frequently adapted for television but none have the charm or magic of the original.

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The first time I tried this classic fragrance, I found it rather intimidating but with a little patience, I’ve become addicted to its green sharpness which comes into its own in summer. Heartless but utterly brilliant, rather like this Evelyn Waugh masterpiece.

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I cannot wear Acqua di Parma without thinking of Venice. I wore it every day on my trip there last year and saw it in almost every shop window. Although I recognise that the Colonia Intensa is probably a more complex and interesting fragrance, this is still my favourite. I cannot get enough of it citrussy opening and sexy woodiness, warmed by the sun. It’s the essence of summer for me. The Brodsky is probably the best book ever written about Venice by a Russian poet in exile who loved the city as much as I do.

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I love No 5 and wear it all year but on hot days, it’s nice to have something lighter. I consider all the fragrances here unisex but this one smells especially nice on men with more vetiver than in the original. I also much prefer it to last year’s lighter version of the classic. Paired with a lovely Folio edition of a wonderful book which inevitably makes you think of No 5’s most famous wearer.

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Created for the Duke of Marlborough in 1902 and worn by Winston Churchill, this is an invigorating  blend of citrus, woods and spices and goes perfectly with Tove Jansson’s stories of summer on an island which has to be one of the best holiday reads ever which its quirkiness, humour and poignancy.

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Cristalle was created to remind us of the dazzling structure of a crystal. It’s a citrus chypre and its crisp opening makes me think of the dazzling California sunshine and beauty described in Ross Macdonald’s crime novels which mask a bitter heart. This is the reason why I love reading noirs in summer. I bought the Eau de Parfum which is a little softer and was developed much later but next time will try the Eau de Toilette which is closer to the original by Henri Robert from 1974.

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Acqua di Parma has always been my favourite cologne. Until I tried this one from Les Exclusifs. It’s the kind of fragrance you want to drown yourself in all day which explains why the large bottle is always sold out and its dazzling, polished beauty goes perfectly with the magnificent prose of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tragic masterpiece set in the South of France.

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I was inspired to buy this thoroughly delicious Guerlain scent after reading how much my friends Jan and Patricia love it. Depending on your point of view, it may make you think of sherbet lemons or freshly pressed lemon juice but the fact that it reminds me of them makes it extra special. Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle is my absolute favourite summer book, best read around midsummer. It’s full of the dreams and heartbreak of youth. Quintessentially English.

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My current summer read. It’s the perfect companion for a long journey – compelling, beautifully written and moving. Guerlain’s Après l’Ondée is a very old and magical scent which is like a soft blanket and reminds you of flowers in the garden after the rain with violets, irises  and carnations.