My lunch with Salman Rushdie

I have just come back from spending some days with David Hockney at his house in Normandy. We are making a film about him – the longest film about a single subject I have ever attempted. Like Monet’s, Hockney’s environment is his subject. The great sequence of ‘The Four Seasons’ is from his grounds. He finds all the different blossoms he needs there, and there is a river and a pond. His friend has turned an old barn into a magnificent studio. David is in his mid-eighties but is as sharp as he was the first time I interviewed him for The South Bank Show in 1978. Since then, there

Bombs over London: V for Victory, by Lissa Evans, reviewed

Lissa Evans has been single-handedly rescuing the Hampstead novel from its reputation of being preoccupied by pretension and middle-class morality. Her original black comedy (Crooked Heart) concerned Vee, a middle-aged suburban scammer, and the prodigiously bright but orphaned Noel, who join forces in north London’s urban village during the second world war. Evans then went back in time to tell the story of Noel’s Suffragist godmother Mattie founding a disastrous girls’ club on Hampstead Heath during the 1930s (Old Baggage). In V for Victory, the story moves forward again. It’s 1944, and Hitler’s rockets are falling all over London. Mattie is dead. Vee is pretending to be Noel’s aunt and

A tax on intellectuals: Terrace Cafe at the British Library reviewed

The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom, and it sits like a red-brick crab on the Euston Road, on the site of an old goods yard between St Pancras and Euston. The older British Museum Library, whose collection was founded on the books of George III, Sir Hans Soane, Robert Harley and Sir Robert Cotton, was in the British Museum, but that gorgeous reading room is now a glass atrium with overpriced cafés and shops selling historical tat for children: cultural vandalism, then, and incitement to migraine. Instead we have the red-brick crab. It was opened by the Queen in 1998 and it is Grade I-listed,

Non-magnetic north

Oh, Hampstead, what did you do to deserve Hampstead? Bet you wish the film-makers had pressed on down Fitzjohn’s Avenue and made Swiss Cottage, say. On the other hand, maybe you did have it coming, especially as I once overheard one mother say to another in the Coffee Cup: ‘James? He had so much homework we had to send him to boarding school.’ That always makes me feel better, given I’ll never be able to afford to live there. This plainly wants to do for Hampstead what Notting Hill did for Notting Hill and Manhattan did for Manhattan and Munich… nope, we’ll stop there. But it’s the sort of ‘love

Not-so-sweet 16

I like novelists who don’t try to do everything in their novels, but just to do something well. This is what Francesca Segal achieves in The Awkward Age, published four years after her book, The Innocents, won the Costa First Novel Award. She takes six characters — widowed, middle-aged Julia, her teenage daughter Gwen, her grandparents-in-law Philip and Iris, her new American boyfriend James, and James’s teenage son Nathan — and plonks them in sturdy houses in Hampstead, sets the clock, and lets the story play out. Gwen and Nathan are now forced to share a dwelling. Like a good piece of Bach, what unfolds has an inevitability to it but

Ziggurat of bilge

Ella Hickson’s new play analyses our relationship with oil using the sketch format. First, there’s a candlelit soap opera set in Cornwall, in 1889, with a lot of ooh-arr bumpkins firing witless insults at each other. Next, a bizarre Persian scene, set in 1908, where a Scottish footman (who uses the celebrated Edwardian colloquialism ‘OK’) rescues a ditzy waitress from a sex-maniac serving in the British army. Then we move to Hampstead, in 1970, where a female oil magnate is visited by a Libyan diplomat seeking to nationalise her wells by waving documents at her, in her kitchen, while teenage kids pop in and out performing oral sex on each

Diary – 30 June 2016

Referendum day is as nondescript and wet as the day before, happily spent in Cambridge at my son’s Leo’s graduation. Even here the coming vote intrudes. Some students say that the master of Trinity College has come out for Brexit. Leo’s boyfriend Eddie, newly graduated in German studies and about to head to a job in Berlin, worries about job prospects. Our lunch table is shared with genial and smiling but very divided family. The polling station is equally lively, a place for chat with neighbours. The working day is uneventful. Dinner with friends in the evening, asleep before the first results. I wake in the middle of the night,

The bitter taste of victory

The Parliament Hill Café is a drab glass box at the bottom of Hampstead Heath, near the farmers’ market and the running track. But it is something else too. It is a paradigm. The Corporation of London announced that the D’Auria family, who have run the café for 33 years, would not get a new contract; instead, it would go to a firm called Benugo. This has been reported as a fable with universal meaning, which it is; the café is Cinderella, or the frog, or Anna Karenina. Benugo is Karenin, or consumer capitalism, or the ball. The north London intelligentsia organised a petition and a public meeting. Giles Coren

Strangers in their native land

Though it seems to begin as an affectionate memorial to his maternal grandparents, a testimonial to a rare and perfectly happy marriage, Their Promised Land by Ian Buruma has a deeper purpose. The cache of letters to and from Winifred (‘Win’) and Bernard (‘Bun’) Schlesinger is the pre-email, daily correspondence of two people who could not bear to be apart, yet were separated for years at a time by both world wars. Although his grandparents died in 1984 and 1986, this artful volume reveals a good deal about the world we live in today. Born and brought up in posh Hampstead comfort, with plenty of servants, before moving to a

Lost in the telling

This is a thriller, a novel of betrayal and separation, and a reverie on death and grieving. The only key fact I can provide without giving away the plot is that Caroline, the film-making wife of Michael, the novel’s main protagonist, is killed in the badlands of Pakistan by a drone controlled from a facility near Las Vegas. Caroline is filming Taleban leaders when they and Caroline are killed. Michael, who is ‘an immersive journalist’, has spent some years on a project with gangs in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It is dangerous but rewarding work, and after a few years his findings are published to some acclaim under

Hampstead liberals can use their vote to fight radical Islam (and silence right-wing bores)

A few months ago I was in a pub on a quiet night and overheard a young couple having an argument about politics. They were both, I’m guessing, young white London liberals and although I couldn’t hear everything they were saying, the gist was this: he was arguing that Islamic violence was a particular problem and she was telling him that all religions were equally violent and that no faith could be singled out. At the end of the night he gave in and conceded that she was right and it was prejudiced of him to say otherwise because no faiths are more violent than any others etc etc. I

Mini Election: Quilliam’s Maajid Nawaz discusses fighting a three way marginal

Will the Liberal Democrats make any gains in the London suburbs at the upcoming election? In the latest Mini Election video, I went to Hampstead & Kilburn to speak to Maajid Nawaz, the Liberal Democrat candidate and head of counter-extremism think tank Quilliam, to discuss his campaign to win this seat, which was a three-way marginal at the last election. Nawaz discusses how his work with Quilliam has strengthened his reputation locally when the Liberal Democrats’ national reputation has taken a beating. Given the publicity surrounding his involvement in the Jesus and Mo cartoons furore and calls for him to be deselected, Nawaz said he still thinks the recognition makes it

Beer and skittles and Lucian Freud and Quentin Crisp – a Hampstead misery memoir

The rise of the ‘misery memoir’ describing abusive childhoods, followed by the I-was-a-teenage-druggie-alkie-gangbanger-tick-as-appropriate memoir, pushed into the shadows an older tradition, the memoir of childhood pleasure, of charm and humour. Some of the greats — Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece, Diana Holman-Hunt’s My Grandmothers and I — continue to be enjoyed; others every bit as good — Joan Wyndham’s Love Lessons trilogy — must be snapped up secondhand. Marjorie Ann Watt’s Slideshow never quite reaches these heights, but is nevertheless a welcome addition to this genre. Watts herself is a painter and illustrator, and here she uses words to depict the lost world of the prewar bohemian Hampstead upper-middle-classes. Her father,

The sweating, dust-glazed saints at the Hampstead Theatre tells us nothing new about the miners’ strike

Hampstead’s new play about the 1984 miners’ strike was nearly defeated by technical glitches. Centre stage in Ed Hall’s production there’s a clanking great iron chute that stubbornly refused to go up and down when ordered. A bit like the miners. The writer, Beth Steel, is a collier’s daughter and she romanticises the pit workers to the point where they seem like an exotic species of humming bird. Brave, high-minded and selfless, these noble sons of toil go marching off to the pithead every day to hack and burrow their way through the depths of hell. Into the elevator they trudge, their shovels resting on their shoulders, their voices uplifted

When the big-boobed whisky monster met the upper-class snoot

Lionel is a king of the New York art scene. An internationally renowned connoisseur, he travels the world creating and destroying fortunes. He anoints a masterpiece, here. He defenestrates a forgery, there. He visits the Californian city of Bakersfield (code in America for Nowheresville) to determine the authenticity of a Jackson Pollock bought for three bucks in a garage sale by an unemployed drunk named Maude. This is a great set-up. Power meets destitution. Sophistication frowns at simplicity. Wealth hits the dirt-heap. It’s enormous fun, too. As the impeccably tailored Lionel walks into Maude’s cluttered hovel, he’s attacked by two ravening Alsatians. She offers him a whisky ‘to take the

If Ed Miliband can’t be our first Jewish prime minister, he can still be our first atheist Jewish prime minister from Primrose Hill

Last weekend, in a small New Jersey suburb, I found myself in a liquor store. Never been anywhere like it. The walls were lined with single malts of rare and impressive varieties, and the clientele both knew their whisky and spoke of little else. Yet they were all, also, to a man (and they were all men) ultra-orthodox Jews. Properly ultra, as well. There’s a website you might have come across called ‘Amish or Hipster’ and it shows pictures of young folks in beards and hats and braces, and asks you to vote on which particular cult you reckon you are looking at. This lot were like that. The beards

Toffs rule! 

This is a strange one. Simon Paisley Day’s new play feels like a conventional comedy of manners. Three couples pitch up at a Welsh cottage for a relaxing weekend away from the kiddies. Trouble erupts instantly. Keith and Briony bicker over the milk that the swollen-breasted Briony has to express into plastic bottles. Keith secretly craves his wife’s ‘liquid love’ and he tiptoes around the cottage trying to glug it back without being spotted by the others. Ross and Rosy arrive. They’re an achingly smug yuppie twosome. They finish each other’s sentences. They tee up each other’s anecdotes. They stand in the kitchen entwined in each other’s arms and gaze

Why did Penelope Fitzgerald start writing so late? 

‘Experiences aren’t given us to be “got over”, otherwise they would hardly be experiences.’ The opening sentence of the first draft of The Bookshop, published in 1978 when Penelope Fitzgerald was 62, didn’t survive in the finished version, but its author had found her voice, and, in a way, her subject. She had learnt how to look back. She had begun publishing only four years earlier, with a life of Edward Burne-Jones. There followed a thriller, written to amuse her husband as he lay dying, and a second biography, The Knox Brothers. This was about her father, ‘Evoe’ Knox, editor of Punch and author of light verse, and his three

Zoë Wanamaker: We need more giants like Obama

It’s all true about Zoë Wanamaker. She’s like a wood-nymph from the Tolkien franchise. Pixie features, nut-brown eyes, a mischievous tight-lipped smile and a warm cackling laugh. Next week she makes a guest appearance at the Hampstead Arts Festival to discuss her acting career. Had she heeded the advice of her parents — Sam Wanamaker and the Canadian actress Charlotte Holland — she might never have followed them on to the stage. ‘You don’t want to go into that. It’s full of disappointment and rejection,’ they told her. ‘Do something else. Get a proper job.’ Wanamaker’s idea of a proper job was to become a painter. ‘I went to art

Hysteria is a pile-up of unmotivated absurdities

Terry Johnson’s acclaimed farce Hysteria opens in Sigmund Freud’s Hampstead home in 1938. The godfather of psychobabble is ambushed by a beautiful maniac named Jessica, who forces him to analyse her, and then hides in his closet and strips naked. Along comes Freud’s old chum Yahuda, a bumbling twerp who doubles as the farce’s authority figure. His presence forces Freud to improvise countless daft wheezes in order to prevent Jessica from being discovered. You may wonder if Freud is the best candidate to star in this kind of sex caper. And you’d be right. He is, in fact, the worst candidate. Having spent 40 years treating mental illness, Freud has