It's OK for intellectual feminists to like fashion

Blog title from Hadley Freeman's book The Meaning of Sunglasses : "Prada styles itself as the label it's OK for intellectual feminists to like".

The author is a bilingual fashion editor, writer and translator with a serious blog, cinema and magazine habit.

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Email: fashionmemex(at)gmail.com

French cultural blogger Caroline Doudet, better known online as L’Irrégulière, who reviews books, films and TV series on her blog Cultur’elle, has been convicted by a French court for being ranked too well by Google. Or more exactly, for publishing a piece discouraging readers from eating at a Cap Ferret pizzeria.

The court requested she changed the blog entry title, seen as denigrating. L’Irrégulière elected to remove the whole article instead. “Technically, it was quicker to remove than to edit, especially since Google does as it pleases anyway, as we can see with the cached page”, she explains in an email interview.

L’Irrégulière reproached the restaurant for its terrible service, a criticism echoed by more than a few reviews on Trip Advisor, although a near-equal number rave about the place and its pizzas.

The whole affair happened on the down low, barely mentioned by L’Irrégulière herself, until lawyer and star Tweeter @Maitre_Eolas (142K followers) highlighted it on 7 July. The news was picked up by media analysis site Arrets Sur Image and has since made headlines in specialist digital publications as well as in mainstream news outlets such as Le Monde and The Independent.

Ms Doudet, who acknowledges being surprised by the support she’s received from readers and strangers alike, says she didn’t expect the reactions to reach such proportions: “I was always going to let my readers know about it, probably on Facebook since I didn’t write about the whole affair on my blog itself. I doubt it would have had such a snowball effect though”.

In addition to being asked to edit her title, L’Irrégulière has to pay up €2,5000 in damages, a significant amount for this high-school teacher. Asked by her readers how they could best support her, the blogger set up a crowdfunding page on platform Pot Commun. She’s since had to shut it down since the process isn’t allowed by the French tax administration.

So is this the end of bloggers’ freedom of speech in France? Unlikely.

Although seemingly about slander, this ruling is actually about Internet misunderstanding and how behind the judicial system is. The judge asked for the title to be edited, ignoring caching. The restaurateur brought the case to the courts because “the article was going up and up in Google ranking”, which is the nature of SEO and something no amount of ruling can do anything against. Ms Doudet declared to the BBC that “this decision creates a new crime of ‘being too highly ranked [on a search engine]’, or of having too great an influence’”. The Google algorithm (as well as people’s searches) is responsible for that ranking, not her.

The restaurateur, like the lawyer who advised her, ignored that any outcome favourable to them would be met with an Internet storm. Today, anyone searching for “Il Giardino Cap-Ferret” on French or English search engines will be met with articles about the ruling rather than about the greatness (or lack of) of its cuisine. The damage to the restaurant reputation is higher than to Cultur’elle, a thoughtful, well written and intelligent amateur French blog that, ironically, I would never have discovered otherwise. Of course, this is a perfect example of the Streisand effect whereby strong attempts to crush one bit of information from becoming public results in its popularisation.

As Eloise Wagner, an intellectual property lawyer, writes for Le Nouvel Observateur, lawsuits prompted by bad reviews are nothing new in the gastronomy world, although they tend to be about guidebook criticism. French law allows criticism providing it is fair, objective and not made with the intention of damaging a reputation.

Ms Doudet elected not to have legal representation at the emergency hearing because it came as a surprise and she wasn’t able to get any in a short period of time. A lawyer would have argued that the review wasn’t done to damage the restaurant but based on a series of facts experienced by the blogger, which she lays out in the entry: dishes sent in the wrong order, unprofessional service etc. A lawyer would also have quoted a number of French and European prior cases and legal texts that go against the ruling.

Since, under French law, the ruling against L’Irrégulière doesn’t create a legal precedent, but that hopefully the reaction to it will be a cautionary tale for other companies wishing to pursue a similar route, it is unlikely the affair will have many freedom of speech consequences.

As for Ms Doudet, she hopes the ruling won’t change the way she writes her blog although she observes “there are topics I might avoid, which is silly since I have been to many nice places recently. It’s true I rarely write rants like this one, and when I do it tends to be more about news topics than brands. Regarding books, my reviews tend to be quite measured anyway and I doubt any publisher would risk a trial.”

Posted at 7:20pm and tagged with: france, blogger adventure,.

Blogger Adventure: A. Bello’s pop-up blog Rose

On 4 August 2014, children’s author A. Bello will launch Rose, a pop-up blog exploring why Neci, the baddie in her book Emily Knight I Am, became hateful. Rose will only be available for one month, with one chapter published and taken down every week over four weeks, before forever disappearing from the interweb.

A gifted writer and dancer dedicating much of her young career to inspiring children, A.Bello isn’t new to the blogging world: for three years, she has been running Life of a Street Dancer where she chronicles her writing journey, her struggles to get signed by an agent and her school visits.

I caught up with her on how and why she got the innovative idea for a pop-up blog, her creative process and what being a role model means to her.

Why create a pop-up blog as an extension to Emily Knight I Am?

I wanted to do something different. Sometimes with a book, you can’t expand on certain characters if it’s not relevant to the story line. I wanted an opportunity to show more depth in those characters. It’s an experiment to see if perception changes once you know more.

How did you get the idea?

It just came to me. I remember doing an Author’s visit at a school and the class said how at first, they thought Emily was such a brat but once they understood her, they changed their minds. So I wondered if people knew Neci’s story would they sympathise with her? I want to see if people change their minds on Neci after reading the blog.

Why did you make it a pop-up blog?

I didn’t want to deal with the hassle of getting a book done, as it isn’t for money, it’s for the fans. I can see how many reads a blog gets. If it’s successful, I will do more on different characters.

I thought it would be cool to have a pop-up blog that fans could really get into. I get messages all the time as to when the second book is coming out but as I’m in the process of getting a book deal, I wanted to do something to keep the interest.

Have you already written all chapters or will you be writing as you publish?

I have already written the chapters but I have changed bits here and there. Rose was actually the prologue to my second book, so really people are getting an advanced extract!

Each chapter is going to disappear after seven days. Why not keep them up forever?

It keeps the experiment interesting. As a kid, I would have loved that suspense!

Which public are you trying to reach through Rose?

Mainly my fans, the young people. Hopefully they will like the blog and if they haven’t read the book, they’ll read it.

Theme-wise, Rose will be similar to the movie Maleficent, which is doing really well at the moment. Why do you think we are interested in the topic?

As humans, we don’t want to believe someone is born evil. I think experiences and environment are what influences a character, so an opportunity to find out how they became bad is intriguing. I haven’t seen Maleficent yet! Angelina Jolie is my favourite actress and I was so scared of that character when I was a kid! Sleeping Beauty was the creepiest Disney movie, so maybe after watching it I won’t be so freaked out by her.

Why did you decide to use Blogger as a platform?

Originally, I wanted to have the story as something you could download but then I wouldn’t be able to track the views. My friend suggested doing a blog, which made more sense. I have been using Blogger for years for my other blog, Life of a Street Dance, and it’s really easy to use.

You’ve been running Life of a Street Dance for over three years now. Why did you decide to start it?

I used to be very private with my writing. I used to write just for me. When I was thinking about becoming published, I realised I had to get over the fear of people reading what I wrote. I also thought other people who wanted to get into writing or dancing and wanted to understand what it was like, could get an insight into it and see the challenges, because there are a lot! But I’m so glad I wrote it because I can see how far I’ve come. If I’m feeling a bit blah, reading past blogs lifts me up.

How do your writing processes for Emily Knight and for your blog differ?

Emily is all of the crazy things that I think about; it’s my escapism and my fantasy world. Life of a Street Dancer is all me and the real things that happen to me.

Are there similarities between your dancing and writing creative processes?

With both of them, I see what I want to create in my mind first. It plays out like a movie: I see it all in my head and then I create it.

The key characters in Emily Knight are female. Why was it important?

There aren’t enough lead female characters in children’s fantasy books. I do think it’s getting better but nowhere near enough. Us females are just as fab as guys!

As a self-published author how important have blogs and social media been to your promotion?

I self-published Emily. Thankfully I’m signed to an agent now because it was hard! Social media is key. I only made my TwitterTumblr etc. to reach out to more people but you have to be consistent to get results. My Emily fan page on Facebook reached 10k this year, which is amazing!! I won’t be content till I reach over a million though. Blogging was a great way to connect to people prior to my book release and I still keep it going because I get pretty good hits on it.

As a talented, driven young female black writer, you are an inspiration for young girls. Is being a potential role model something conscious for you?

Oh thank you! I have worked with young people since I was 16 so I feel I have always been conscious of how I act, as I know a lot of young people look up to me. The bigger my books get, the more that role will be, so it’s in my best interest to always be aware of my actions.

Posted at 8:05pm and tagged with: blogger adventure, book review,.

Explore the Fêtes Galantes at Paris’ Musée Jacquemart-André

From Watteau to Fragonard, Les Fêtes Galantes, an exhibition currently showing at Paris’ Jacquemart-André museum, is the perfect introduction to this elegant and refined period of French art history.

The term refers to a new style of painting and drawing that blossomed in the early 18th century, at the end of Louis XIV’s reign, and lasted throughout the Regency period. Typically, the paintings feature groups of men and women engaging in games or conversation amidst idealised representations of nature.

Located on the top floor of the Jacquemart-André museum, the exhibition explores, over 60 paintings and drawings, the chronological evolution of Fêtes Galantes.

The star of the exhibition is Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s La Fête à Saint-Cloud, a large painting on exceptional loan from France’s national bank La Banque de France. It depicts, in great detail, a fair in a Western suburb of Paris. There is a puppet theatre, puppet sellers, women playing, a fallen tree… Each scene could be a painting on its own.

Although La Fête a Saint-Cloud is an extraordinary painting and I was lucky to see it for real, my favourite section of the exhibition was the display of Antoine Watteau’s drawings, particularly his red chalks. Here, his talent and the spontaneity of his strokes are visible to all. Stripped from the corset of oil painting, his characters seem ready to move out of their frames, their clothes coming to life in the vivid rendering of fabrics and pleats.

Inspired by pastoral scenes, Watteau was a pioneer of the Fêtes Galantes genre. A fascinating short video at the very beginning of the exhibition explains how the at-times-lazy Watteau would cover his paintings with a sheet when his work done, just so he could make a copy and reuse groups of characters on other paintings. He used this technique on two depictions of a Pilgrimage to Cythera. Experts are still disputing which one he painted first. Neither painting is on display at the exhibition but the discussion surrounding them, particularly the debate as to whether the characters are arriving at or leaving from the island of love, is another Fêtes Galantes trait. Calling upon themes of love and relationship that resonate with all of us, the genre entices the imagination.

For instance, Jean-Francois de Troy’s The Rendez-Vous at the Fountain or The Alarm depicts a couple in close conversation. Is it an illicit meeting between lovers? Sweet words between newly enamoured young people? Or maybe a conversation between a man and a woman whose families disapprove of their union? A servant, asked to keep guard, interrupts. Quick, one of you hide! Someone is coming and they can’t be seen together.

Another painting that’s easy to extrapolate from is Jean-Baptiste Leprince’s La Precaution Inutile. A woman in her late teens sits on a bench, tied to an older man. He is sleeping. Is he a father, worried his daughter is going to show independent thought? A much older husband forced on her, concerned his wife might not be so enamoured with all his wrinkles? A servant tasked with looking after a girl displaying too much liberty? Whoever he is, his stratagem failed: a young man, partly hidden in the bushes, is taking advantage of his slumber to seduce the charge.

Beyond the beauty and technicality of the paintings, the Fêtes Galantes exhibition is a reminder of what romance was in the 18th century, and of the restrictions and social conventions imposed on individuals.

Sadly, the exhibition doesn’t make the best of its incredible surroundings. Much like the Nissim de Camondo museum, the Jacquemart-André Museum is a private mansion turned national museum, which dates back to the early 20th century. The Jacquemart-André couple collected multiple Fêtes Galantes paintings, which can be seen throughout the residence, without a clear link made to the exhibition taking place upstairs.

Collectors and artists, Edouard André and Nélie Jacquemart assembled, over 10 years, 5,000 or so oeuvres d’art ranging from Tiepolo’s massive fresco The Return of Henry III, moved from Italy to overlook the grand staircase, to Uccello’s iconic Saint Georges and the Dragon, which was reproduced in all my English language books.

An island of quietness straight on Boulevard Haussmann, the museum hosts a high-end café, with surroundings matching in grandeur and decoration the collections. There is a Fêtes Galantes-themed menu. My sister and I had the Lancret, a duck with soy and honey sauce, green asparagus and risotto and mushrooms. This was followed by a nutty Russian cake and a cream and raspberry-filled macaroon from the decadent dessert trolley. Despite this, the best part of the café probably is Parisians-watching. They are exactly the kind of Parisians you read about in books and magazines but don’t think exist in real life. This seems to be where they lunch.

Photo credits: (1) Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), La Proposition embarrassante Vers 1715 - 1720 Huile sur toile 65 x 84,5 cm Musée de l’Ermitage, Saint-Pétersbourg Photograph © The State Hermitage Museum / Vladimir Terebenin; (2) Antoine Watteau (1684 – 1721), Fête galante avec joueur de guitare et sculpture d’enfants jouant avec une chèvre Vers 1717-1719 Huile sur toile 115 x 167 cm Inv. Kat. Nr. 474 B Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie © BPK, Berlin, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jörg P. Anders; (3) François Boucher (1703-1770), Les Charmes de la vie champêtre Huile sur toile 100 x 146 cm Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures, Paris © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi; (4) Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), Pierrot content Vers 1712-1713 Huile sur toile 35 x 31 cm Madrid, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza © Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid; (5) Nicolas Lancret (1690-1743), Fête Galante avec la Camargo dansant avec un partenaire Vers 1727-1728 Huile sur toile, 76,2 x 106,7 cm National Gallery of art, Washington, W. Mellon collection © Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington; (6) Nicolas Lancret (1690-1743), Baigneuses et spectateurs dans un paysage (Les Plaisirs du bain) Avant 1725, huile sur toile, 97 x 145 cm Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des peintures, collection du baron Edmond de Rothschild (1926-1997); dation en paiement de droits de mutation, 1990 © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi; (7) François Boucher (1703-1770), Pastorale Huile sur toile, 64,5 x 81 cm Karlsruhe, Staatliche Kunsthalle © Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe; (8) Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), La Fête à Saint-Cloud Vers 1775-1780, huile sur toile, 214 x 334 cm Paris, Hôtel de Toulouse, siège de la Banque de France © RMN-Grand Palais / Gérard Blot; (9) Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), Le Jeu de la Main chaude Vers 1775-1780 Huile sur toile, 115,5 x 91,5 cm Washington, D.C., National Gallery of art, Washington, Samuel H. Kress collection © Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington 3 

Posted at 6:53am and tagged with: Paris, france, address, museum,.

Places to go and things to eat around Guérande (Brittany)

You might know Guérande (Photo 1) for its sea salt. It is collected in the Marais Salants (photo 2) through a long process that involves waiting for the seawater to evaporate. If you’re asked for more than €5 for a five kilo bag, at the market or at one of the shack on the side of the roads, you’re being had.

I know Guérande because aged one to five, I holidayed there every summer, at my grandparents’ house. I have limited memories of the place, although during the week I just spent there, I kept being struck by justified feelings of déjà-vu.

We stayed at Le Croisic (photo 3 and 10), a nice enough village at the end of a peninsula. I wouldn’t recommend it for a long term stay; you’d probably get claustrophobic as almost any journey requires going through the village of Batz-sur-Mer. Alternatives would be Piriac (photo 5), a typical Brittany village or La Turballe (photo 4), a port which is busy all year round. Local specialty: the sardines, which you can see being unloaded from the boats every day. You, and the dozens of seagulls waiting for their goodies.

O Jardin Secret, 10 quai du Port Ciguet, 44 490 Le Croisic

One of the best value-for-money restaurants on Le Croisic wharf, O Jardin Secret serves fresh products straight from the Criée (fish market) standing opposite. The basic, three-dish menu costs €16.90, and includes a choice of fish soup or home-smoked salmon for starter followed by the fish of the day with a beurre blanc sauce and mashed potatoes or meat. Dessert is a floating island, sorbet or the local Far Breton, a cooked custard with plums.

Crêperies

Holidaying in Brittany without eating a single crêpe should be a sin. They are the local pizza, best served with a bolée de cidre, a bowl of cider. Crêpes can be cheap since the ingredients involved aren’t costly – you shouldn’t pay more than 6 for a basic savoury galette de froment with ham and cheese, and no more than 4 for a basic sweet crepe with sugar and butter.

Fleur de Sel, Village de Kervalet, 44740 Batz-sur-Mer

The best crêperie we tried was the restaurant Fleur de Sel, located in the cute and typical village of Kervalet (photo 7). Aside from the traditional ham, cheese, mushrooms galettes, the place offers specials ranging from La Turballaise, spread with a sardine-butter-shallots concoction, to La Paludier, with eggs, onions, pancetta and cheese. I had La Bretonne with a leek fondue, pancetta, crème fraiche and cheese, which was the perfect balance of tastes. My dessert was La Pimms, which had nothing to do with the alcohol and was instead filled with orange marmalade, hot chocolate sauce and topped with an orange sorbet. My dad had La Gourmande, topped with salted caramel ice-cream and a warm chocolate sauce while my mum chose La Normande with stewed apples, vanilla ice cream and salted caramel (photo 6). The bill added up to 54, including a bottle of local cider. We left stuffed and content.

Le Commerce, 1 rue des Viviers, 56760 Penestin

Le Commerce, in the Morbihan county (insider tip: to figure out when you have crossed the border from one French county to the next, watch out for a sudden tarmac change), is a fast-served crêperie with an imaginative menu. I had a complète with ham, cheese, mushrooms and eggs, which was moist and filling. My dad had one with Andouille de Guéméné, a local sausage delicacy made with smoked pork large intestine, another must-taste from the region. My mum had one with ham and tomatoes that was a bit dry. For dessert, you can’t go wrong with another local specialty, the salted caramel spread. Mine, the decadent Angélique, came with whipped cream, toasted almonds and vanilla ice cream.

Local products

La Belle Iloise (photos 8 and 9) sells yummy tinned fish, three words you might not read together very often. The chain has stores all along the Brittany coast selling tuna, sardines, fish and lobster soups as well as mackerel sandwich fillings at factory prices. Take an empty suitcase: all products are sold by lots of at least three. Prices start around 5 for three salmon and tarragon spread tins. It’s also a great place for presents, since all stores offer assortments.

Driving through Brittany, you’ll keep seeing biscuiteries and fabriques de biscuits on the side of the road. Park by any of them and you’re guaranteed to find a wealth of butter-based desserts: palets and galettes, gateaux Bretons, crepes, Kouign amann… La Trinitaine, a semi-industrial chain, sells the cheapest salted caramels of the lot at 17 per kilo.  And I’d know, since we visited about 10 to compare. The salted caramel spread is a nice alternative, perfect on brioche, also produced locally. For a more upmarket and semi-artisan version, local son and “meilleur ouvrier de France” (‘best artisan in France’) George Larnicol has opened stores all over the region, selling for instance a little Kouign Amann, the Kouignette and Petit Ruilh, a melted biscuit filled with homemade jam.

Noirmoutier new potatoes. Like Jersey’s, but from a more local island. Can be found in any worth supermarket or from markets. | Secret Bichonné du couvent.  A tome-like cheese with the cutest name (and considering France is rumoured to count 300 types of cheese, there was competition) since it means Beloved secret from the convent. | La Fraiseraie. A local artisan ice-cream chain that started in the 70s, growing strawberries around Pornic. You can still buy the locally picked strawberries, as well strawberry syrups and jams in their 10 stores but the real treat is their ice-cream: a rainbow of tastes. I recommend praline as well as poire-chocolat (pear and chocolate) made with actual pieces of pears.

All prices accurate as of 30 June 2014. Photos courtesy of Pierre Goulet.

Posted at 7:42pm and tagged with: address, france, food,.

In France, Evian banks on 1998 nostalgia

Friday 4 July, half-time during the France-Germany World Cup quarter-final. Germany is leading 1-0 but Evian has taken a gamble, rebroadcasting its 1998 TV spot featuring swimming babies. “1998, a year we dream to re-live,” the ad declares over a background of referee whistles.

With perfect and studied timing, Evian had added the video to its YouTube account on 15 June, as France played its first match against Honduras. The brand announced the campaign on Twitter on 25 June, just as France went through to the last sixteen after the match against Ecuador. The tweet said: “In 1998, our babies were swimming. What are your memories of this mythical year?”

So far, the YouTube video has been watched 158,716 times. The tweet has gathered 178 retweets and 102 favourites, with the ad picked up and commented upon independently in other tweets too - a decent though not high level of engagement. In comparison, a tweet featuring tennis player and Evian poster-woman Maria Sharapova, posted on the 3 July, has so far gathered 214 retweets and 508 favourites*.

User responses to the tweet vary: some tweeted back it was the year they were born, the year they got married, the year they saw their first gig…  Many tweeted that for them, 1998 was all about France’s win. In short, the swimming babies succeeded in linking Evian to positive emotions and often life-changing memories.

Known for its imaginative and cute TV ads that play on its trademark theme of youth by water, Evian had a great marketing idea in rebroadcasting its 1998 ad. Though I remembered the spot, had I seen it without background information, I would have been incapable of dating it. Once I knew, it was as if it had dropped me in a comforting bath.

Calling on nostalgia is nothing new in advertising. Analysing the trend last year, specialised publication AdWeek remarked: “In a study of brands that had consumers buzzing during the first quarter, NBCUniversal Integrated Media noticed that those connecting to the past resonated strongly with consumers and shot to the top of its Brand Power Index (BPI)”.

Although nostalgia is a proven advertising strategy, Evian did take a risk by betting that France would get behind its national team. After the team’s skin-of-the-teeth qualification in November 2013, 79% of the French population had a negative opinion of Les Bleus. By the quarter finals, 62% of the French population had a positive view of them. News analysis has been focusing on this regained popularity as much as they have been discussing the team’s sports qualities. This might have been a factor in Evian deciding to spend the €200,000 or so the 32 seconds spot broadcast at peak time would have cost.

As with any bout of nostalgia, it doesn’t matter that 1998 wasn’t actually as good a year as France now remembers, since the World Cup title has thrown most other events in a pink fog. In a 2010 article about “The Power of Nostalgia in Advertising” for Branding Strategy Insider, brand consultant Derrick Daye explains that “every time we remember a past event it not only evokes the earlier memory, but can re-cast the past into a more pleasing “remembered” version. Memory, thinking and feeling are an active, shaping process.” In 1998 France, unemployment in Q2 leading up to the World Cup was at 11.7%, two points higher than what it is today. The French economy was restarting independently of football, after some tough times in the mid-90’s, thanks to a strong US growth. Had France won against Germany last Friday, and gone to hold the trophy, economists agree that it wouldn’t have resulted in similar economic results because the current landscape is too different.

But that’s irrelevant to Evian’s advertising strategy because, four World Cups from now, we would have remembered 2014 as a great year for France. Nothing shortcuts memory like happiness.

*As of 9am on 06 July 2014

Posted at 4:49pm and tagged with: marketing, Brand communication, world cup, Social media,.

Paris Museum Review: Nissim de Camondo

The Nissim de Camondo Museum's story reads like too many French Jewish family stories from the first half of the 20th century.

Eager to serve his country, the young Nissim enlisted as soon as World War I broke out. At first, he served in the infantry, in the trenches, before joining the brand new French Air Force. He went missing during an air battle in Eastern France, aged just 25.  

In his memory his father, the banker, aesthete and collector Moïse de Camondo, gifted his hôtel particulier, in Paris’ posh and quiet VIIIe arrondissement, to the nation. His other child, daughter Beatrice Reinach, had shown no interest in his collection of 18th century art. Moïse stipulated that the museum would bear his son’s name and would be kept exactly as it was at the time of his death, in 1935. Nothing added, nothing removed.

Beatrice died a few years later, rounded up with her husband and two children by the police. Like so many French Jews, Beatrice had thought that her nationality, combined with her family’s services to the nation, would protect her. First kept in the Drancy transit camp, the Reinach family were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau where they died - either gassed or from typhus - between 1943 and 1945. With them, died the last of the Camondos.

Although not at the heart of the museum, the family’s painful history is present throughout the visit. It brings very human emotions to a time that would otherwise solely focus on the beauty and artefacts on display.

Nissim is there, through photos as well as through the home office he only used a few times whilst on leave. Beatrice is there through her love of horses, seen for instance in a bronze equestrian statue of her.

But most present of them all is their father Moïse. Moïse had the mansion built made-to-measure, modelled on the Versailles’ Petit Trianon's architecture, to welcome his collection of 18th century treasures, including paintings, furniture, china, carpets.

All were sourced from le style transition (1750 to 1774) and le style Louis XVI (1774 to 1785), two key Arts Décoratifs styles inspired by the discovery of Pompeii and geometric motives.

Walking through the museum, it’s hard to imagine that was only built and furnished 100 years ago; Moïse’s modern taste (in terms of home comfort) are an easy reminder of how far ostentation had been indulged between the Revolution and the early 19th century.

Moïse and Nissim both had large bathrooms with stoneware baths and bidets. The chef had a phone in his office. The kitchen displays the best late 1910’s culinary technology. Guests could take a lift rather than climb the spectacular flight of stairs.

In keeping with Moïse’s modernity and functionality, the museum recently launched the augmented reality app Camondo AR. Available on iTunes and Android, it guides the visitor through one of my favourite rooms: le cabinet des porcelaines, which displays an extensive collection of chinas. They span 18th century styles and techniques: soft paste porcelain from Chantilly, Meissen porcelain from Germany and the highlight, three sets of green services Buffon from Sèvres, decorated with illustrations from Buffon’s 1770 Histoire Naturelle des Oiseaux (a natural history of birds). Thanks to the app, you can point your smartphone on any plate and hear each bird sing. The cabinet is a reminder of how much our current eating habits own the 18th century. Until then, there were no dining rooms; people ate in their bedrooms.

Moïse’s modernity wasn’t just functional, it was also personal. He had divorced his wife Irène Cahen-d’Anvers, who you might have heard of thanks to her portrait by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Their marriage had everything to do with bringing two powerful finance families together, and nothing to do with love. Following her daughter’s death in 1945, Irène inherited the Camondo fortune, which she is said to have squandered.

Luckily, the conditions of Moïse’s donation stopped her from splitting his painfully gathered collection. The museum was closed during the war and emptied of its treasures, stored for safekeeping in the Valençay castle. Thanks to this foresight, we can admire Moïse’s precise taste. For instance, two console tables on display in the Salon des Huets were purchased almost 30 years apart. The library dictated the height of the first floor because it needed to be perfectly dimensioned to welcome the panelling Moïse had bought from an original 18th century mansion. The Savonnerie carpet in Moïse’s room comes from Versailles, where it had been delivered in 1760 so Mesdames the King’s sisters could use it in the chapel on holidays and Sundays.

Through his purchases, Moïse safeguarded multiple 18th century oeuvres d’art. He isn’t the only member of the Camondo family French museums owe a debt to: you can spot the name next to numerous early 20th century paintings in museums like Le Louvre and Orsay. This is thanks to Moïse’s cousin Isaac - his 1911 donation contained some of the Impressionists’ most famous paintings. Manet’s Joueur de Fifre, Degas’ La Classe de Danse and Sisley’s L’Inondation à Port-Marly are all on display thanks to Isaac’s taste.

The Nissim de Camondo museum is open Tuesday to Sunday. Leave two hours to visit, up to three if you go through every option on the audio guide.

Photos courtesy of Camille Goulet.

Posted at 8:54pm and tagged with: Paris, 18th century, address, france, museum,.

From Luxor to Paris: The Odyssey of the Place de la Concorde Obelisk

It’s a miracle an Egyptian obelisk stands proud on the Paris Place de la Concorde. Not so much because of the mystery surrounding its carving, transport and erection in Upper Egypt in the 8th century BC, but rather because of the number of obstacles it faced on the journey from the city of Luxor to its current French abode. End to end, from Egyptian Khedive Muhammad Ali gifting it to France to its erection in Paris, the journey took seven years (1829 to 1836) and encountered technical difficulties, a cholera outbreak, stormy seas and Egyptian droughts.

The transfer was more than geographical, it was topical. A symbolised link between gods and humans in Egypt, the obelisk became a prime tourist attraction in France, and is currently the focus of a detailed exhibition at the Paris Musée de la Marine. It’s a fitting location: the French navy oversaw the journey. Apollinaire Lebas, the engineer who lead the project, was appointed curator of the museum in recognition of his work.

Focused on the Luxor-Paris journey, the exhibition quickly deals with the question of how the obelisk was made during Ramesses II’s reign. A video at the entrance shows men carving a bedrock of pink granite in the Aswan quarries.

When Muhammad Ali offered both obelisks from the temple of Luxor to France 16 centuries later, they were buried in nearly four metres of sand, as shown by the miniatures on display. In the 19th century, Egyptian monuments were used as an easy place to source rocks or build on, rather than as historical testimonies.

Lebas’ party, tasked with collecting the monolith, arrived in Luxor in August 1831 after five months at sea aboard the Luxor ship. Imagine Luxor at that time of the year: scorching. The obelisk itself was not in the condition the men expected; an eight-metre long fissure threatened to break it if they dared to try and move it. As his men watered the Luxor, now lying on the sand on the side of the Nile, twice a day, Lebas was forced to rethink his initial plan to take the obelisk down.

Two months later, everything was ready. Using two machines actioned by 200 men, the obelisk was brought down. During the transfer however, its centre of gravity moved and the obelisk fell in the sand, in the wrong direction but… in one piece. Lebas had succeeded in the first part of his mission.

The second part: bring the monolith back to the Luxor, 400 metres away. A span was cut in the sand. Using four capstans, 48 men managed the journey in two hours. The Luxor had been cut open to welcome her charge and, once the obelisk was on board, put back together.

Christmas day 1831 saw the men waiting for the flood for the first, but far from last, time. They needed the Nile to rise for the Luxor to float with her charge, a meteorological event not scheduled until the following summer. During that time, the party split in a few groups: some explored further than where Napoleon’s soldiers had gone, gathering scientific samples and taking Egyptian antiques for the Paris museum; others stayed in Luxor where they built a refreshing garden.

On 25 August 1832, just over a year after reaching its destination, the Luxor began the trip back to Alexandria. It reached the seaside town six months later, after being unexpectedly stuck in sandbanks.

The Sphinx, the first French navy steam boat, pulls the Luxor to Toulon, where she was initially quarantined before Lebas was able to disembark. His mission was only half complete: he still needed to get the obelisk to stand tall, in the heart of Paris.

Key to the success of this first leg of the journey was its core team. Aside from Lebas who, not wanting to live with the shame of failure, placed himself under the obelisk as it was erected Place de la Concorde so it would crush him if it fell, the party included: Lieutenant-Commander Raymond de Verninac Saint-Maur; his right-hand man Léon de Joannis, who documented the journey through sketches and Justin Pascal Angevin, a doctor. Angevin was not actually meant to be on board but switched places with the nominated doctor because he was determined to go to Egypt. He protected the men against cholera and dysentery. Although the exhibition doesn’t discuss the dynamics between the men, it is a lesson about the team’s role in the success of any project. With a different doctor, the whole party might have died.

Finally, after the last leg of the journey that saw the Luxor pulled by horses on the Seine, and the authorities somehow losing track of her, the obelisk reached Paris. However, it spent another two years lying by the pont de la Concorde before it was erected at its current place. King Louis-Philippe attended on a nearby balcony, only emerging when the experiment was a guaranteed success.

So the Obélisque has stood, overseeing traffic, for nearly two centuries. Louis-Philippe picked the place because he wanted it to be known for something else than the rivers of blood flooding there during Revolutionary beheading, including Marie-Antoinette’s and Louis VXI’s. By creating a new landmark and a new shorthand for Paris’ landscape, he succeeded. Yet few of the Parisians and tourists walking by every day marvel at how the obelisk got there, at the technological prowess and bravery involved in bringing a 230 tonne, 20 metre-high block of granite from Luxor to Paris in 19th century conditions. Le Voyage de l’Obélisque rights this oversight, mixing human stories with engineering in an exhibition covering all aspects of the journey.

Its only failure is not addressing whether the obelisk should be sent back to Luxor. The French authorities probably want to discuss the topic as much Neil MacGregor wants to discuss the Elgin Marbles’ ownership. The conditions under which the obelisk was obtained are less dodgy than the Parthenon sculptures though. Like any good 19th century French tale, it also involves the Brits. In fact, the Luxor obelisks could be standing in Trafalgar Square, since it had initially been promised to the Crown. Jean-François Champollion, liaising with Muhammad Ali on the topic, convinced the British consul to take the bigger Karnak obelisk instead, the only one worthy of William IV. It also turned out to be impossible to transport, which Champollion probably knew. So cunning, those French archaeologists!

The exhibition is open until 6 July 2014.

Photo credits: The exhibition banner; Flickr user Marc Ben Fatma Place de la Concorde; Flickr user Yann Caradec Obelisque de la place de la Concorde; Flickr user Le Jhe Concorde; Erection of the Luxor Obelisk Érection de l’Obélisque de Louxor,25 octobre 1836, détails, aquarelle. Cayrac, 1837 Dépôt du musée du Louvre© Musée national de la Marine/P. Dantec; The Luxor Obelisk being taken down Abattage de l’obélisque de Louqsor Maquette au 1/66 Atelier du musée de la Marine, 1847 © Musée national de la Marine/A. Fux; Shipping off the Luxor Obelisk Embarquement de l’obélisque de Louqsor Maquette au 1/66 Atelier du musée de la Marine, 1847 © Musée national de la Marine/A. Fux; Façade du temple de Louxor, vers 1800, aquarelle. François-Charles Cé-cile (1766-1840). © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre)/Les frères Chuzeville; Portrait d’Apollinaire Lebas (1797-1873), anonyme, milieu XIXe siècle © Musée national de  la Marine/A.Fux; Flickr user Jason Garber Place de la Concorde

Posted at 5:23pm and tagged with: exhibition review, Paris, address, Egypt,.

My great-great-grandmother, La Centenaire (The Centenarian, guess how long she lived…) was a cook in a large country house in the French village of Paray-le-Monial. In the vocabulary of Tessa Boase's The Housekeeper’s Tale, a cook is an upper servant. As is the housekeeper, the second in command in any country house, and the hero in Boase’s book.  

The Housekeeper’s Tale features six women, all housekeepers in National Trust and English Heritage houses that date back as far as the Regency period: Dorothy Doar (Trentham Hall), Sarah Wells (Uppark), Ellen Penketh (Erddig), Hannah MacKenzie (Wrest Park), Grace Higgens (Charleston) and Nicky Garner (Holkham Hall). Boase took Regency as a “starting point because the role of the housekeeper began to subtly change from Victoria’s reign; also because The Reform Act of 1832 seemed like a good year to begin a book about the gradual enfranchisement and emancipation of the working classes.”

The six housekeepers have service to a mistress and to a big house in common. They all start out loyal, yet four out the six get the sack. Doar was kicked out after the house agent realised she had been stealing. Twist: Doar was pregnant. It’s likely that she only started stealing after she was relieved of her duty; a married housekeeper with children was not acceptable in 1832. Wells was kicked out without much notice after 13 years of service. Twist: Wells and her mistress Frances Fetherstonhaugh had been friends, back when Fetherstonhaugh was just a dairy farmer’s daughter.

"I didn’t set out to look for this, but it did become a bit of a theme", Boase explains when I ask her why she features so many careers that turned sour. "These stories are far more interesting to unpick than that of the ‘treasure’ buried in the family graveyard after half a century of loyal service. Why did they get dismissed? Was it fair? Were they working in an impossible situation? What were the fault lines of this job? I enjoyed the sense of settling scores, of rewriting history, of giving them back a voice. But I also think this was perhaps a reasonable ratio of successes to failures. If you look at the bundle of application letters for the top job at Hatfield House, it seems to have been a surprisingly insecure profession, beset by in-house politics. It’s the ‘treasures’ that have been remembered by history as they show the aristocracy/upper classes in a flattering light.”

Housekeeping wasn’t just hard because of the responsibilities and workload. The job was what we would today consider a managerial or a leadership position. Housekeepers were second in command to their mistresses, entrusted to large sums of money, managing groups of maids, responsible for hiring…

At the heart of all of Boase’s stories is the relationship between the housekeeper and her mistress, a relationship that often went bad. “If it goes wrong for a housekeeper, it’s often because of a clash with a mistress,” Boase reveals about the four housekeepers who get the sack in her book. One of the reasons is that training to run a country house seems impossible. “Marrying into a big house, with its own particular regime and way of doing things, seems always to have been a bumpy ride for the incoming mistress”, she explains.

Boase is an Oxford English graduate working as a freelance feature writer, yet The Housekeeper’s Tale is a first class example of how to do social history. She credits the skills gained in her degree and through her job for her knack for the genre. “Context is everything, when you’re studying English Literature. That ability to try to get under the skin of a text – to extract nuance, new meaning, to hypothesise – I’m sure I owe this to my degree. But more, probably, to 20 years in journalism writing human-interest stories, honing my eye for telling detail and a good quote. I approached the historical research as I would any piece of contemporary research: like a detective.”

You can feel the human interest in the first class research, done “in those houses where there are particularly good archives”, that’s interwoven with more fictional passages. For example, Boase writes about potential encounters between MacKenzie, housekeeper at Wrest Park when it was a World War I hospital, and author J.M Barrie, a friend and benefactor of the house.

Including these passages was important to Boase but she had to fight her editor who “wanted to cut all the imagined stuff as it wasn’t strictly history. But there are such gaps in servant narratives that I wanted to try a new way of writing about them. With women like MacKenzie – where I had photos, a great story and even a living relative, but nothing actually in her own voice – I needed ways in which to bring her more vividly before our eyes. This is true for all of them: I wanted to hear them talk, to see them go about their business, to know their mannerisms. All my imaginings are flagged up in the text, and firmly based on the bald facts that I had sleuthed into place.”

The more fictional moments succeed in bringing the housekeepers to life, but even when retelling facts, Boase is never arduous to read. Her writing flows, the type of writing which surprises at every turn of phrase thanks to the beautiful and evocative way words are assembled. A random example, on the solitude of the housekeeper: “too senior to fraternise with her maids; too dignified to let her hair down.”

The English grad in Boase is also present through the book’s title. Its structure makes it hard not to recall Margaret Atwood’s seminal novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. The reference wasn’t something Boase had planned on, although she doesn’t reject the comparison: “Atwood’s focus on the subjugation of women and the corrupting potential of power has definite relevance for this book. Though my story arc is, thankfully, one of emancipation.”

The best proof of this emancipation? Garner, the last housekeeper featured, shows how the job really is all about management. Her boss, mistress of Holkham Hall, recognises this, and sends her on HR courses. Garner’s job is to make sure the house runs smoothly for the 30,000 visitors it welcomes every year rather than focusing on making sure the family has food every evening.

Featuring a contemporary housekeeper was important to Boase “because this is the only job to have survived from the old country house world, along with the butler. Housekeepers are currently having a resurgence due to the growth of the new rich and the influx of Eastern European labour. It would have been odd to end the book in the 1970s, when the country house was in decline, and servants had all but fizzled out. The successful reinvention of the English country house, and the new roles for its staff, is very much a part of this story

Housekeepers aren’t just topical for those reasons. Every autumn, the job is present on our screens though Downton Abbey's formidable Mrs Hughes. Boase is a self-confessed Downton watcher. Her book’s press release name-checks the series in its first paragraph (“A far cry from the Downton fantasy, the real life Mrs Hughes was up against capricious mistresses…”). She also references the series on her Twitter to promote the book: “Love Downton Abbey? Read real stories of grand housekeepers #thehousekeeperstale by@TessaBoase out on Thursday”; “Love Mrs Hughes? then read fascinating stories of housekeepers in #thehousekeeperstale by @TessaBoase out now” etc.

Although Downton Abbey might help with the book’s sales and marketing, Boase believes the convergence of events that made it possible goes far beyond the ITV series. “I don’t think this book would have been possible 20 years ago, but it’s not just Downton that’s got everyone focusing on servants (though it’s certainly helped, for all its maddening inaccuracies!),” she reflects.

Other reasons range from our growing interest in how people used to live to our interest in genealogy: “The feminisation of history led by women like Amanda Vickery, Lucy Worsley, Alison Light, Judith Flanders and Mary Beard – all women with a brilliant, popular touch – has turned our interest in the Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian eras indoors. The home is where it all happens; we’re now all agreed. Servants are very much a part of this story – but not just those working for the aristocracy. Every archive office I visited was filled with grey-haired couples researching their ancestry online – another relatively recent phenomenon. More of us will have servants in our past than masters and mistresses. Many people have contacted me with their own stories of a great grandmother or great aunt in service. The fact that the National Trust & English Heritage are now re-imagining the visitor experience to take in the service quarters isn’t just down to Downton: people were, apparently, asking for this before it aired. It gives us a sense of ownership of the local big house; so many of us have connections, but not posh ones.”

As a child, influenced by stories of my great-great-grandmother, present through her cookbooks and her pans, so heavy we rarely cook anything in them, I went through a phase of reading books about servants in the early 20th century. My readings around domesticity weren’t limited to non-fiction. Mrs Danvers, Rebecca’s housekeeper in Daphne du Maurier’s novel, fascinated me and millions of other readers.

Boase thinks we are obsessed with housekeepers “because they know all the secrets. The combination of absolute power, a bunch of keys, a black silk dress and a whalebone corset seems to be a seductive one. Is it a part-sexual fascination? Dominatrix-esque women guarding the door, safeguarding the aristocracy’s scandals… Of course the truth is far duller, but for fiction she’s a ripe character and a useful go-between linking upstairs and downstairs.”

The Housekeeper’s Tale busts the myth and like the best social history books, it left me wanting to keep researching the subject. The potential extensions to the book are many. An organised tour of the National Trust houses featured is an obvious one and this is the kind of book that will end up in all good country house gift shops. It’s also easy to imagine The Housekeeper’s Tale being turned in a six-episodes TV series, to be broadcast in parallel to an upcoming series of Downton Abbey. Boase isn’t against the idea: “it would make for great television I think, and there’s been some interest. Part documentary, part drama, set in the houses themselves. As an ex-thespian, I might even struggle into a whalebone corset myself…”

A complimentary copy of The Housekeeper’s Tale was provided to me by Quarto Publishing Group UK. Email interview with Tessa Boase 10 June 2014.

Posted at 7:20pm and tagged with: book review,.

I come from a family where we don’t do football. Ever. Until 1998, and the World Cup came to France, I’m not even sure I knew such an event existed. In 1998, I was 12 and I read Jane Eyre for the first time.

But the World Cup being in France that year, we got into it. My mum put up a calendar of matches on the fridge, as she does for the Olympic games. I have no memory of all the criticism around coach Aimé Jacquet or the team selection; I just know it existed because of the post World Cup coverage. Until quite far into the competition, this was just something going on in the background.

1998 was the last year my grandparents, my sister and I went on holiday to the seaside town of Brétignolles-sur-Mer. We had been visiting every summer for at least five years. Although it took my grandmother another 12 years to die, she was already diminished. My grandfather was still a giant to me.

The place they had rented was a shithole, the type you only accept to live in in cities where rent is very expensive or in resorts, where landlords know they can get away with anything since it’s for just a week.

For the duration our stay, we didn’t watch a single match (no TV) but we kept on top of the news thanks to Ouest-France, the local newspaper my grandfather was reading. Ouest-France is a West France institution, the French-speaking paper with the strongest readership, different variants depending on where you buy it and every summer, a scratch game. Or at least it did, in 1998. Ouest-France and my grandfather are linked to the extent I can’t see it without thinking of him.

Every day, sitting on the tiny patio, we were reading the news, until one day we realised Les Bleus were actually getting somewhere. At some point, I started cutting articles and keeping them. I had an obsession with archiving, aged 12.

We drove back from Brétignolles to Le Mans on 12 July, the day of the final. There were people on the side of the road wearing striped blue, white and red make-up, waving flags and honking. “We haven’t won yet” my grandfather, the man who had painted Austin Healeys in his garage for the 24 Hours of Le Mans and started the family tradition of disliking football, remarked.

Yet when we got home, just a few hours before France-Brazil kicked off, we switched the TV on. There was an Yves Saint Laurent retrospective at the Stade de France and then the game, of which I have little memory except for being very excited when I went to brush my teeth at half-time, my grandmother refusing to watch with us and my grandfather exclaiming “that was unnecessary” when Petit scored the third goal.

Then I remember the analysts taking over; France black-blanc-beur, the idea that this victory could be the start of a new, all-encompassing French society; President Jacques Chirac and his Prime Minister Lionel Jospin’s leaps in the polls; the crowds on les Champs-Elysées around the players’ bus…

One week later we were back on the road, travelling with my parents to the Somme. In the small village where we stayed, we continued another family tradition, that of buying Paris Match for big national events. That Paris Match is still in my cupboard but really, it should join the ones we found in my great-grandparents’ house about multiple Pope deaths and the de Gaulle family. 1998 was 16 years ago.

Four years later, I was in high school. My only memory of the World Cup in Korea/Japan is joining some of my classmates at the on-campus flat of the Welsh language assistant, who was dating one of them. France left at the group stage.

2006 is another good World Cup memory. It was my first year at the London School of Economics and my friend Stacy really got me into it. She wrote a blog about the Trinidad and Tobago team and I suddenly knew who Dwight Yorke was.

I went to see the match against Sweden at a bar by the Barbican, with mostly Trinidadians and Tobagonians. The room was heavy with hope because that game was a 0-0 draw. Later, Stacy told me there had been a few heart attacks in Trinidad, during the match. Then I went to see the game against England in a bar by King’s Cross. It was so busy that Nicholai had to perch me on the bar to see. The atmosphere was very different. Stacy wrote a few articles in the FT about the team and I was very proud. Seeing your friends’ names on an FT by-line never gets old.  

In the end, Trinidad and Tobago didn’t qualify but I have kept my red jersey, which I wore a few times that summer with pride, in between donning my postwoman uniform. Nobody else in Nevers had a Trinidad and Tobago football shirt. The games against Sweden and England remain the only two football matches I have ever seen on purpose in a bar.

Although mostly following Trinidad and Tobago during the group phase, I was also keeping an eye on France, if only because Stacy had written her third year IR dissertation on the politics of French football. The evening of the final against Italy, she sent me a text along the line of “good luck even though a victory would totally prove my dissertation wrong”. I kept it until I had to give up my French mobile.

The day of the final, we were in Le Mans again, for my goddaughter’s christening. My grandmother was in her cycle of hospital stays that would see her to the end of her life. I was wearing a white Kookai dress I keep forgetting I still own. When Zidane head-butted, everyone around the dinner table felt that all was lost. The following week, we bought Paris Match again, where some prize-winning novelist wrote that Zidane’s problem was hubris.

Since 2010 was another group stage World Cup exit for Les Bleus, I have little memory of it. I just remember the team refusing to disembark a bus. That day, I was meeting someone I was teaching French to, who was teaching me writing and he, like much of the British media, made fun of the French propensity for striking. My grandmother died that summer.

This year, I had hopes for another long World Cup until I heard on radio France Inter that the French squad’s aim was to reach the Quarter Finals; anything beyond would be a bonus. That’s not the spirit. François Hollande could really do with a trophy win, as could French society. But really, I am supporting Argentina because I drew them in the sweepstake at work and there is £40 at stake.

Posted at 4:30pm and tagged with: first person,.

The Last Room opens with a harrowing, hardly-bearable-to-read description of a pregnant woman being raped in the Cote d’Ivoire in 2005. I started the novel on 10 June, the first day of the Global Summit to End sexual violence in war, so this short chapter was immediately topical.

“When I wrote the book, I had been reading about the civil war in Cote d’Ivoire”, remembers author Danuta Reah. “It seemed to epitomise what we have since become more aware of. I wanted to make a victim of this kind of appalling sexual violence (and I was by no means as graphic as I could have been - I’m very aware of the danger of tipping over into gratuitous or titillating description) real to readers, to see her as a real woman and have some conception of what it must be like to suffer something like this.”

Although centre stage in the first two pages, Nadifa, the woman raped, only assumes a secondary role in the story. When the plot starts in earnest, she is an asylum seeker in Britain, married to a man recently deported for links with al-Qaeda, and mother to Sagal, a child recently murdered by a paedophile.

That murder, as well as the apparent suicide of Ania, a forensic linguist and expert witness in Sagal’s murder trial, accused of falsifying the voice evidence she used to convict the presumptive paedophile, are at the heart of The Last Room. Yet despite her integration of female characters, Reah often gives them second, passive roles. The real actors are the two men investigating Ania’s, and by extension Sagal’s, deaths: Will, Ania’s bereaved father, a disgraced retired policeman living in Scotland and Dariusz, her Polish fiancé. Both are convinced she would never have jumped willingly.

In their attempt to understand what happened to Ania, they encounter more men: Ania’s boss, policemen in Poland, Will’s former colleagues in the UK, a professor and a guard at the Polish university where Ania worked…

Reah says writing a story dominated by men wasn’t the plan but rather “the way the story worked out. I wanted both Ania and Nadifa to be women who had faced terrible adversity, and in a way they both survived. Ania dies, but she dies defending what she believes in. She isn’t defeated. At the end, I wanted her actions to be a model for Will who has lived so much of his life in bitterness and despair - she’s shown him another way. I couldn’t write from Nadifa’s perspective for long - I haven’t been through what she goes through, and I didn’t want to put words into her mouth. Also, she is marginalised exactly as women like her are marginalised all the time. Ania, was also a literary device. I wanted to show her from the different perspectives the men in her life had, and then finally, as a full person.”

As a female writer in the male-heavy crime fiction genre, Reah knows something about evolving in a field dominated by men. A few years ago, with fellow female crime writers Lesley Horton, Priscilla Masters and Zoe Sharp, she set up LadyKillers, a joint alliance to promote their novels. Although it doesn’t operate much anymore, the need for it is still there.

Reah’s audit of the inequalities in the crime writing landscape echo those female writers in any genre face: their books get reviewed less, and they are invited to speak on panels less. “Women still don’t get their fair share of reviews as opposed to male writers”, she regrets. For instance, in 2012, all genres combined, the London Review of Books featured 210 books by men and 66 books by women.

Panel underrepresentation doesn’t just mean that female writers voices aren’t heard, it also means that their names are less known. “I went to a conference in London called Queens of Crime, about women in crime fiction and it was fascinating. I got the names of several writers I hadn’t heard of who I plan to catch up with. At events and on panels, women are usually very generous with time and with to-ing and fro-ing in discussion, and asking questions about other writers’ books. Men can be more inclined to focus on their own work, though I have worked with many who are not like this. The worst panel hogs I have ever witnessed have been men.”

For all those disparities in terms of promotion and recognition, Reah doesn’t believe there is much difference between how both genders write crime fiction, though she reckons she would have said different a few years ago. So why the evolution? “I think men are still more represented as writers of fast moving action thrillers and women more in psychological crime fiction. However, there has been a marked increase in the number of women writing extremely graphic violence towards women. This makes me uneasy, especially as this kind of writing sells very well.”

In addition to championing women’s crime writing, Reah is teaching the next generation of female and male writers. One of the courses she’s taught focuses on setting up the all-important plot in a crime novel, so I asked her how she had structured the plot for The Last Room, inspired by a trip to Lodz for a Forensic Linguistics conference.

Ania’s character was the inception of the book. “I started with the idea of an expert witness being accused of falsifying evidence and apparently committing suicide. I then let the threads of that story run - had she in fact falsified the evidence? If she did, why? If she didn’t, what had happened? This is how I like to work - telling the story to myself as I go. I thought about the reactions of the people close to her. The intensity of Will’s grief and guilt gave me the idea that he would embark on a quest to find out what happened, and that he might even believe this was what Ania wanted - that she would talk to him and guide him. I was also curious about the concept of ‘the greater good.’ Are we ever justified in doing things for some undefined greater good that can destroy an individual’s life?”

Taking place between the United Kingdom and Poland, The Last Room includes a strong European dimension. For instance, Will is able to speak to the police team investigating his daughter’s death in Lodz thanks to a recommendation from his former boss in the UK.  The novel also includes multiple details on the history of Lodz. One in particular has stayed with me: the description of open grave pits in the Jewish cemetery where Ania and Dariusz met. They were dug on Nazi orders by Jews tasked with killing fellow Litzmannstadt Ghetto inhabitants. The graves were meant to be theirs, however the Russian army’s progress panicked the Nazis, and they fled before killing the men.

Mixing European travel, collaboration and horrific history is an effective way of reminding us why the European Union was built. Reah thinks herself “as European. My father was Polish and my mother was half-Irish. I think Europe is a wonderful continent and one we are part of, even though it can be troubled, with a very dark side. We’ve spent centuries knocking seven bells out of each other (and Lodz has some sobering reminders of what happened in continental Europe and what could so easily have happened here, less than 100 years ago). We haven’t had a war since we became more united, and I would hate to see that go.”

From the horrors of rape as a weapon of war to the usefulness of a European union, Reah has succeeded in constructing a story that isn’t just a page-turner, but also an example of how fiction can carry a message of progress and peace.

A complimentary copy of The Last Room was provided to me by Caffeine Nights Publishing. Email interview with Danuta Reah 14 June 2014.

Posted at 6:38pm and tagged with: book review,.