Top writers and moi

When I was a little girl dreaming of becoming a journalist I would look at my stepfather’s Sunday Times and wonder if one day I might be good enough to write for it. It seemed an unobtainable aim, but I imagined reporting from trouble-spots around the world, one of the bravest and best foreign correspondents the Sunday Times had ever known.

As some of you may know, I do write for the Sunday Times, I have a column about living in France called The French Mistress. But this weekend there was a special surprise for me. On page two there is a list their top writers in the Sunday Times with pictures. There among the likes of Michael Portillo, Christina Lamb and Marie Colvin was moi. So it’s official, I am a top writer. I was terribly excited by this, despite the fact that while Lamb was reporting from Zimbabwe and Colvin’s dispatch came from Basra I was writing about, er, Botox.

Droopy BobBut do not underestimate the dangers of botox, get it wrong and your eyebrows droop. Not a good look. Even Mugabe is unlikely to do that to you.

Obviously next week I’ll be reporting on matching underwear from Afghanistan.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2008

One book better than two?

Two Lipsticks and a LoverI have finally made it into the Guardian newspaper, twice in a week. I wrote a blog about romantic literary heroes that don’t age, then appeared in a piece in today’s lifestyle section. Today’s article is not flattering (read it here if you can be bothered, it goes on a bit). The writer, someone I’ve never heard of called Zoe Williams, clearly loathes and detests me. This is not unusual in a Guardian writer. She says she is ‘amazed’ by me, calling me a ‘no-mark’. What’s that exactly? I can only assume that she is referring to my wrinkle-free complexion, something I am rather pleased about. She goes on to insist that she cannot believe how I managed to string out my observations about French women into one book, let alone two.

It was around here that I got confused. I know I write books with more regularity than most people have their eye-brows plucked, but can I really have missed one? What is this second book about French women?

It was then I twigged: Ms Williams is referring to the US edition of Two Lipsticks and a Lover, called All you need to be Impossibly French. How unfortunate. It is one thing writing a vehement attack on someone, but to get such a basic fact wrong is rather, well, sloppy.

All You Need To Be Impossibly FrenchMs Williams has every right to refuse to take care of herself (as she so proudly states that she does) but she should really take more care in her research. Moreover, she is guilty of missing the point of my one book about Frenchwomen. It is not that I think that Frenchwomen are a superior race, nor do I think that English women should be condemned for not looking good. However, I do think that one can both look good and be intelligent; it is these two qualities that one should strive for. I said in the book that I thought that English women had a stronger sense of sisterhood and I would always rather go out with a group of them than a group of French women.

If Ms Williams had bothered to read one of the books – rather than thinking they were two separate books – she would have learnt this. But maybe she was too busy stroking her goatee to care!

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2008

Yeah, right….

OK, so who was it? Which one of you is responsible for the following letter?

Trinny & SusannahHi Helena.

Love the column.

Any chance, I wonder, of a signed photograph of yourself?

The one (or similar) accompanying your French mistress article in yesterday’s Sunday Times/Home Section would be FAB.

It really would complement the Joanna Lumley, Doon Mackichan and Trinny & Suzannah ones’ that already adorn my office wall!

DoonIf you’re willing to respond to such a request then I’ll obviously forward you my UK postal address.


This email ranks alongside those ‘I’m a Nigerian prince and want to give you all my money’ or ‘my name is Jonny Wilkinson and I have been secretly in love with you since I spotted you in the crowd at the Marseille Velodrome’ style mails.

JoannaMy husband maintains he has never heard of Richard and that it wasn’t him. Most of my friends are too lazy or busy to pull a stunt like this. Maybe it was my step-children in revenge for my column about how spoiled their generation is? Maybe Leonardo is a precocious internet user? But the only celebs he knows are Spiderman and Peter Pan.

Whoever it was, I didn’t fall for it. As if I would be seen dead next to Trinny and Suzannah. I mean, puhleeaaase.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2008

To drink or not to drink

It was the American journalist and critic George John Nathan who said “I drink to make other people more interesting.” I would like to add to that. I drink to make myself more interesting. Last night I was so intent on not making a fool of myself and/or waking up with a hangover that instead of piling into the champagne at the Sunday Times Christmas party I drank water.

God I was boring. I could hardly bear to hear myself speak. What happened to the entertaining, witty girl about town I am convinced I am? She was a sober shell of her former self.

Pat CashThere has to be a happy balance. Just enough drink to make you and others interesting but not too much. I am going to spend the rest of the week trying to find that balance and will report back.

Meanwhile I can tell you that the absolute highlight of the evening was meeting fellow bloggers Wife in the North and Rachel from North London. They were great. I only hope I didn’t bore them too much in my sober state. And Pat Cash the tennis player was there. He told me he is now on the “oldie” circuit. He claims to be all of 31. It’s enough to make you reach for a drink…..

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2007

What I most miss about England

We have just come back from Venice where we were invited to the launch of a joint venture between the estate agents Savills and a local company called Views on Venice. We stayed in a penthouse apartment overlooking the Grand Canal. The weather was amazing, sunny and warm, and we walked for hours on end, discovering parts of Venice that I have never seen before.

Another thing I discovered is what I most miss about living in England. I thought it was M & S or Waitrose or Bendick’s Bittermints. It’s not. It’s the girls. We went out for dinner Monday night after the launch party. There was the Savills PR girl Fiona, Rupert, three other female journalists from The Standard, the Mail on Sunday and Country Life (did you know by the way that it comes out weekly? Amazing, I can’t think what they find to write about. Apparently they have a dog of the week column now, is that animals or women I wonder?) and me.

""Anyway, we sat down to dinner, ordered vast amounts of wine and had such fun. Having lived in France for seven years I have forgotten that all women are not forever counting calories and refusing to drink more than one half glass of wine. These women wouldn’t drink any less than half a bottle each. And OK you might wake up with a hangover, but all the laughing you’ve done must counterbalance the health threat of the alcohol.

English women are great. They are feisty, fun-loving, generous, warm and just fab company. Even Rupert, who was severely out-numbered, had a good time. I cannot imagine a group of French women having such a riot, and they certainly wouldn’t have drunk their way through four bottles of wine. Topics of conversation ranged from journalism (and how crap it can be, but then you do get to go on trips like this), children, men (and how crap they can be, except for Rupert, obviously) and whether to give up your maiden name when you get married. No is the answer.

Had I been out with a bunch of French women, I may have woken up feeling more clear-headed than I did on Tuesday morning, but where’s the fun in that?

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2007

Arise Sir Jonny

OK, so we lost, but it’s only a game.

You have my permission to kill anyone who says that. It’s not only a game, it’s the WORLD CUP and we lost, rather unfairly I think. I was in a bar full of French people supporting South Africa. Helllooooo??? Aren’t we all Europeans together? Apparently not. But we were gallant and Jonny was glorious. Percy Montgomerie doesn’t stand a chance. And what was that fall into the camera all about? “That’s Percy,” said a friend of mine who was watching with me. “He sees a camera and he throws himself at it.”

Sir Jonny

I propose a knighthood for Jonny and a permanent statue in Trafalgar Square. I will be designing a fountain with a vast statue of Jonny in the middle for our garden.

My scoop in today’s Sunday Times didn’t make it to the international edition but you can read it here. You can also read my seminal piece about Jonny in the news pages (since when was the fact that we all love Jonny “news”?). Someone at the paper put some stupid joke about the Aussies and All Blacks in the middle of my text which they got wrong, making me look like one of those awful women who talk about rugby but know nothing. Which of course I am. And they messed about with our scoop, making up some drivel about a lavender garden and cutting out the brilliant neighbour completely. I can see why people hate journalists. But as I have experienced this weekend, it’s often the editors or subs that make stuff up, not us.

Meanwhile I am pleased to report that Olivia is showing signs of becoming a true French woman. She sent her first text to me today. “Olivia + Quentin,” it read. “Darling,” I said. “How sweet, your first ever text. I’ll keep it forever.”

“Don’t keep it forever,” she responded. “I might get another boyfriend.”

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2007

The Lady in the Lake

Rupert and I have just been to Albi, covering a murder trial. I won’t go into all the details here as am about to collapse after two days hard work but what it taught me is how much fun old-fashioned reporting can be.

I started off thinking the man was guilty, mainly based on newspaper stories I found on the internet. The fact that he looks like a sinister character from a Dickens novel doesn’t help either.

I spoke to the dead wife’s best friend, a charming lady, and was even more convinced of the rotter’s guilt. Then I met more people and heard their side of the story. Then I went to the lake where her body was found, and her house and suddenly it was no longer that easy. Neither Rupert nor I could understand how she could have ended up in that lake unaided.

The Lake

Finally we met her neighbour. He was terrifying to start with. “What are you doing here?” he demanded. I could tell he was a hunting man by his cars and dogs and was slightly worried we might end up dead too. He huffed and puffed and then said: “If he did kill her he deserves a medal.” Then talked some more and eventually invited us in for coffee. It was one of those classic situations where just doing nothing gets you what you want.

My point is this. Nowadays it’s so easy as a journalist to rely on the internet. We all knock out stories without moving from our desks. But this was the real thing. We were Woodward and Bernstein in full flow. I felt like a proper journalist. One day a film will be made about us starring Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.

It was all so exciting. Following the trail of the dead woman, talking to the people who loved and knew her. Discovering another side to her that was not revealed in court. And trying to work out how she ended up in that lake.

The article comes out in this week’s Sunday Times. I think we might write a book about the whole affair. An ‘In Cold Blood’ based in France profonde. Then maybe I can come out with Truman Capote’s immortal line: “When I think about how good this book is going to be I can hardly breathe.”

Even if I can’t, we might at least solve the mystery of the Lady in the Lake.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2007

One of the upsides to journalism

Dear Helena Frith Powell

Wonderful piece in Thursday’s Mail on the pomposity of ladies who object to
an innocent pinch of le derriere.

I’m what you might describe as an older man, but still have hair, most of my own teeth and am told very occasionally that I don’t look my age. I wonder if you think I might be considered one of your followers, so that, at a time and place to be agreed, I might apply a subtle tweak.

Yours sincerely

Neil Coppendale

This charming reader added his phone number to his letter, which of course I won’t be sharing with the rest of you.

Nice letters like this make me as happy as nasty ones make me miserable. But as my friend Jonathan says when I get a really nasty one “mail like this is a sign of success. It shows you can evoke passion in the very stupid”.

Mail like the above is a sign that there are still people in England with a good sense of humour (unlike the lady who had her bottom pinched).

Richard & Judy just called and I may be on tomorrow’s show to talk about bottom pinching. How will they introduce me I wonder? “Bottom pinching expert Helena Frith Powell”? So another upside to my article is that I get to cruise around in a chauffeur-driven car for an afternoon, have my own dressing room and feel like a celeb for three minutes.

If I ever meet the man who carried out the daring deed that caused all this (see today’s article) then remind me to pinch his bottom as a thank you.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2007

Trial by TV

Robert MuratWe all want a conclusion to this story. It has to be said that it was with a sense of relief that at last something was happening that we watched the news the other night of Robert Murat’s arrest and the house search. It was chillingly familiar to the Soham murders; a local man hanging around the crime scene. And of course he had a dodgy glass eye as well as a shady past so suddenly two plus two made four and here was our man.

It was interesting to see how the Sky news reporter (not their brilliant correspondent Martin Brunt who has been calm and sanguine throughout) went from thinking Robert Murat was quite a “good bloke” to the chief suspect as the course of the news report went on.

He may very well be guilty. Only he really knows. But the fact is whatever else happens; his life as he knows it is over. If they don’t catch the abductor then he will face suspicion and possibly hatred wherever he goes. As he told Martin Brunt yesterday; “my life is ruined”.

This has the appearance of a witch hunt. No one knows anything about this man apart from the fact that he’s slightly dodgy. Slightly dodgy is not a crime and the media is no judge.

The local police are obviously desperate to come up with something. This has dragged on far too long. But to me the only crime so far has been Maddy’s abduction and to a much lesser extent the ineptitude of the police in the hours that followed. I am sure vital clues went missing then. Clues that could probably have determined Robert Murat’s innocence or otherwise, without this trial by TV.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2007

A dubious honour

I see that in this week’s Sunday Times I share the dubious honour of being a columnist alongside Vladimir ‘Stalin’ Putin. I realise that good commentators on Russia are hard to find, mainly because he’s had them all murdered, but I am still horrified.

Anna Politkovskaya - murderedSince Putin came to power in 2000 fourteen journalists have died in questionable circumstances. I found his column dreary bordering on unreadable. I would have preferred to have read something by the brave and brilliant Anna Politkovskaya but she was gunned down in October last year in the lift of her apartment block. Putin was widely assumed to have ordered the killing due to her coverage of the Chechen war. The latest journalist to die was only a few weeks ago; Ivan Safronov, a military affairs correspondent for Kommersant “fell” from a window.

But Putin is not only murdering journalists. What is happening in Chechnya is beyond belief and now it seems he is not above attacking his own people. His police broke up two anti-government protests recently, arresting the key speakers and beating the protestors. Also reported in the Sunday Times this week was the fact that demonstrators were dragged off trains on their way to demos last week. So much for the “democracy” he so long-windedly drones on about in his less-than-riveting column. Instead of writing this drivel himself, which many of us on the Sunday Times are perfectly capable of doing, he should be allowing journalists in Russia the freedom to express their views without fear of extermination.

I wonder what I will be reading this week? Maybe a column on good farming policy by Robert Mugabe? ‘How to be nice to political dissidents’ by China’s Hu Jintao? ‘Look after your Nobel peace prize winners’ by Burma’s Than Schwe? I can hardly wait for next Sunday.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2007