Tuesday, 15 August 2017


Alexandrie restaurant promotional card.
I discovered the other day that a restaurant previously called Aladino's has changed its name to Alexandrie.

The restaurant explains its transformation: 'Unique in London, Alexandrie's stylish restaurant in Kensington offers its brand of fine Alexandrian cuisine, conveying the marriage of flavours by the most cosmopolitan city from antiquity to recent times'.

As recently as 1953 when you might see Sophia Loren hanging out a window overlooking the Corniche. That was the year she was in Egypt filming Aida in which she played the title role.

As long as the restaurant remains as out of date as this photograph it should do well.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

The Man who Mistook his Holiday for a Hat

No, not eating from a trough.
I received this postcard yesterday. It dates from the 1920s when it was de rigueur to wear a hat while viewing the Underwater Gardens at Catalina off the coast of California.  Those were the days, you might think.

Today people still go to Catalina to peep underwater and they still wear hats.

Thursday, 3 August 2017


New paperback Justine published 2017

Today, sixty years after the publication of Lawrence Durrell's Justine, Faber and Faber have published a paperback edition in a cover that is a reminder of the first edition - a child's handprint, so familiar on the walls of Egypt, to avert the Evil Eye.

Durrell's photograph of Eve in a mirror,
Alexandria 1943.
A line from Justine runs along the bottom of the cover.  'I have been thinking about the girl I met last night in the mirror ...'  The line is given in full on page 59: 'I have been thinking about the girl I met last night in the mirror: dark on marble-ivory white: glossy black hair: deep suspiring eyes in which one’s glances sink because they are nervous, curious, turned to sexual curiosity'. This is Justine, seen in a mirror in the gaunt vestibule of the Hotel Cecil, and in whom I recognise Eve Cohen, Durrell's second wife.

There is a brief and reassuring forward by Victoria Hislop, who describes herself on her website as the 'multimillion-copy bestselling author' of popular novels set in the Mediterranean. Justine has a modernist flavour, she writes, and must have tested readers when it was first published in 1957, but 'You do not stop to ask "why?" or "when?" but instead follow the compelling narrative flow'. 

First edition of Justine, 1957.

Your reward is Durrell's remarkable writing, his portrait of a vanished exotic city 'described with a vividness and clarity that invades the reader's every sense', and most of all his 'honest exploration of love'. 'Here, more than in any other novel I know, we see this powerful force at its most complex, at its most unkind and its most real. It is the great strength of this exceptional work.'

Friday, 14 July 2017

Staying at Buxton

Old Hall Hotel
Last week when I was at the Buxton International Festival talking about The Durrells of Corfu, I came across the Old Hall Hotel, thought to be the oldest hotel in England.  The present building dates from 1573 and stands on the foundations of a yet earlier hall and was specially built with the sanction of Queen Elizabeth I to accommodate Mary Queen of Scots who was held here under house arrest from 1576 to 1578. 


Apparently Mary Queen of Scots liked Buxton and the Old Hall, sadly scratching with her diamond ring on her bedroom window pane, 'Perchance I shall visit thee no more - Farewell'.  

No mustard
Alas I stayed at the Palace Hotel which is not really a palace at all.  They served cheap bready sausages for breakfast and when I asked for mustard I was sharply told that 'We do not serve mustard at breakfast'.  

Also I overheard a man complaining that there was no avocado in his avocado salad to which the response was 'we replaced it with cucumber'.

Off with their heads.  

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Books in the Window at the London Library

As I left the London Library this afternoon I noticed that they had a window display of books recently written by some of their members, among them my own book The Quest for Mary Magdalene. The sun was shining brightly against the glass and the reflections made it difficult to photograph anything. There were about ten or twelve titles in all; here are few.

Erica Wagner's Brooklyn Bridge; she was born in
New York but lives in London now.

Andrew Marr and John Simpson are well known on
BBC news and current affairs programmes.

The Beverley Collection at Alnwick Castle by 
Claudia Wagner, John Boardman and Diana Scarisbrick 
details one of the finest gem collections still in 
private hands, the envy of Russia's 
Catherine the Great. 
And there is my Quest for Mary Magdalene.

The London Library has at least two and a half times
as many books as the ancient Library of Alexandria
is thought to have had.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Democracy in America

The London Library's copy of Democracy in America
by Alexis de Tocqueville, first edition 1835.  Half slave, half free.

After publishing Democracy in America in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville visited London where he was asked if he had thought of doing such a book about England. Writing about America, he said, was easy; you had only to find the central point and everything is in view. But England is an ancient land full of contradictions and overlapping histories, and there was no one place from which it was possible to comprehend the whole.
In America all laws originate more or less from the same idea. The whole of society, so to say, is based on just one fact: everything follows from one underlying principle. One could compare America to a great forest cut through by a large number of roads which all end in the same place. Once you have found the central point, you can see the whole plan in one glance. But in England the roads cross, and you have to follow along each one of them to get a clear idea of the whole. 
                         - Alexis de Tocqueville
But America did have one great contradiction as the map facing the title page of Tocqueville's book shows; half of it relied on slavery, and its consequences remain unresolved to this day. 

Monday, 3 July 2017

Top Summer Read: The Durrells of Corfu

Vanessa Feltz, writing in The Mail on Sunday yesterday, picked The Durrells of Corfu as the top summer read and described it as 'absolutely riveting'.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

The Times: Best Books of 2017 Featuring The Durrells of Corfu

Today The Times has announced its selection of the best books of 2017, among them The Durrells of Corfu.  All the non-fiction titles recommended by The Times are listed below.


Summer books: nonfiction
From history to memoir, Robbie Millen rounds up the best nonfiction of 2017


The Russian Revolution: A New History by Sean McMeekin 
Profile, 478pp; £25

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain by Ian Mortimer
Bodley Head, 464pp; £20

Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day by Peter Ackroyd 
Chatto, 262pp; £16.99

The Earth is Weeping: the Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West by Peter Cozzens
Atlantic, 576pp; £25


Jane Austen at Home: A Biography by Lucy Worsley
Hodder & Stoughton, 387pp; £25

M: Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster by Henry Hemming
Preface, 400pp; £20

The Durrells of Corfu by Michael Haag
Profile, 212pp; £8.99


Theft by Finding: Diaries Volume One by David Sedaris 
Little, Brown, 514pp; £20

Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood 
Allen Lane, 336pp; £14.99


Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh 
Orion, 246pp; £16.99

Fragile Lives: A Heart Surgeon’s Stories of Life and Death on the Operating Tableby Stephen Westaby 
HarperCollins, 320pp; £14.99

True crime

Killers of the Flower Moon: Oil, Money, Murder and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann 
Simon & Schuster, 336pp; £20

The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
Macmillan, 322pp; £20


East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity by Philippe Sands
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 464pp; £20

The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam by Douglas Murray 
Bloomsbury, 352pp; £18.99

Move Fast and Break Things: How Google, Facebook and Amazon have Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy by Jonathan Taplin  
Macmillan, 320pp; £18.99

Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson
Macmillan, 297pp; £16.99


The Way of the Hare by Marianne Taylor
Bloomsbury, 272pp; £16.99


Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova
Granta, 379pp; £14.99


Ravilious and Co: the Pattern of Friendship by Andy Friend
Thames & Hudson, 336pp; £24.95

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Philip De Laszlo's Studio

De Laszlo painting a portrait of Princess Marina, Duchess of York, in the studio behind his house.

When Philip de Laszlo died in 1937 he left his house at 3 Fitzjohn's Avenue in London to the Catholic Church which transformed it, together with the two adjacent houses at 5 and 7, into the Holy Cross Convent.  These have recently been developed into flats called De Laszlo House though only number 3 has anything to do with the painter who in his time was regarded as the successor to John Singer Sargent.

But de Laszlo's studio, where he painted, was not part of his house; it stood in his garden and could be entered from the rear of his house or from Maresfield Gardens.  The Catholics turned the studio into a temporary church.  Now St Thomas More, a purpose-built monstrosity farther along Maresfield Gardens, is their place of worship.

The studio still stands, however, and is identified as De Laszlo Hall.

De Laszlo's house on the corner of Fitzjohn's Avenue and
Maresfield Gardens. His studio is the white building
in the distance. 

The Maresfield Gardens side of de Laszlo's house.

The studio is the white building on the left.

Philip de Laszlo's studio.
The door into De Laszlo Hall.

De Laszlo painting a mannequin from Lady Duff Gordon's fashion house. 

You can view a 1928 silent film of de Laszlo in his studio painting a fashion model. 

A short step from the back of the house to the studio.
But where there was a garden there is none now.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

The De Laszlo House, Fitzjohn's Avenue, London

View down the length of Fitzjohn's Avenue.
The De Laszlo House is at the bottom.
In a blog post last summer called Upstairs Downstairs I wrote about the history of the house at 3 Fitzjohn's Avenue in London. From 1921 to his death in 1937 it was the home and studio of the society portrait painter Philip de Laszlo. In his time number 3 was called Hyme House but recently it has been developed along with the two neighbouring houses, 5 and 7, and all three have been dubbed De Laszlo House to give them a cachet and added value, though De Laszlo owned only 3 and had nothing to do with 5 and 7.

Now I have been contacted by Caroline Ries of St Paul, Minnesota, who tells me she lived in the houses as a student in the 1970s when all three had been taken over by nuns. At first Caroline was thrilled to come across her old residence online but said, 'I was shocked to see the ultra modern interior replacing the historic character of the house'.

To illustrate her dismay at what the developers have done, Caroline has sent me the brochure for the Holy Cross Convent as it was in the late 1930s along with her own photographs of the houses taken in the 1970s, 'in black and white which doesn't do them justice', she says, but which clearly depict how a once beautiful example of Arts and Crafts architecture has been turned into what the developers call 'a masterpiece of artful design'
- and where the price of a three bedroom flat is around £4,000,000.

Cover page of the Holy Cross Convent brochure from the late 1930s.  Philip de Laszlo lived in number 3 on the left, but after his death all three houses, 3, 5 and 7, were taken over by the Catholic Church and turned into a convent.  

Brochure illustration of the entrance hall at number 3, the one house owned by De Laszlo.

Caroline recalls the entrance hall at 3 Fitzjohn's Avenue. 'Parlour and dining room to the left on the Maresfield Gardens side.  The back door to the garden was to the right of the window, behind the staircase. The panelled door next to the fireplace opened to the room used as a chapel. Visible through the open doorway is a free-standing partition of frosted glass panels. They were probably not original but served to separate the second dining room from the hallway to the adjacent house, number 5.'

The following are also taken from the Holy Cross Convent brochure.

Dining room at number 3.

The lounge.

A single bedroom.

Brochure view of number 3 from the garden.

Caroline Ries took these photographs when she took a room at the convent during her student days in London in the 1970s.

The French doors leading from the dining room at number 3 to the garden.

View of the garden from the back door of number 3.

Looking across from the garden of number 3 to the rear of numbers 5 and 7
showing their Arts and Crafts architectural features.

'I was thrilled to see your blog on 3 Fitzjohn's Ave.', Caroline wrote to me.  'I lived there as a student from 1971-1977. In fact, I still have a very old brochure advertising Holy Cross Convent as a student residence which shows photographs of the house and gardens. The brochure appears to have been made in the late 1930s or early 40s.'

'I was very disappointed to see that the interior of the three houses (Nos. 3, 5, and 7) were completely gutted. The woodwork was beautiful, and there were French doors leading from the dining room to the gardens. I am surprised there was no effort to restore the interior. The photos I saw online as individual flats are unrecognizable.'

'The original woodwork (that did not get painted over) was beautiful, as were the fireplaces. The main foyer was quite spare. I think the Swiss nuns tried to downplay the opulence of the place. A restoration would have been a better tribute to de Laszlo. After all, he painted the portraits of the Duchess of York and the young Princess Elizabeth in his studio there. I read there exists a film of De Laszlo entertaining the Duke and Duchess of York and Princess Elizabeth at Hyme House.'

'I lived in two different rooms as a student: one facing Fitzjohn's Ave., and my favorite facing the garden. I stripped the white paint off the fireplace in my room thinking it would reveal beautiful woodwork. It turned out to be marble.'

Online photographs of the the so-called De Laszlo House at 3, 5 and 7 Fitzjohn's Avenue show, as Caroline says, that the interior has been gutted, all the fireplaces removed, its Arts and Crafts detail stripped away both inside and along the rear facades.


Living room.

The only detail that survives is a bit of stucco cornicing here and there
and the exterior mouldings.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Postcards from Corfu: Kouloura

Madame Gennatas' Venetian manor house still stands at Kouloura today.
The following is adapted from The Durrells of Corfu by Michael Haag which again this Saturday, for the sixth week in a row, is The Times number one bestseller among paperback non-fiction titles.

On a beautiful spring day in 1936, Spiro drove Theodore Stephanides and Larry and Nancy Durrell from the Daffodil Yellow Villa at Kontokali north along the coast road, a difficult journey during rainy weather and impossible when it was stormy. Here the ridges of Mount Pantocrator drove straight into the sea, creating a succession of coves but allowing little workable land, only the olive trees clinging to the slopes of the mountain in steep steps of terraces.

Normally the journey was done by the daily caique which set out from Corfu Town for Kouloura across the narrow strait from Albania. In each direction the caique put in, when requested, at the little villages along this remote coast – exposed to the northern winter winds, parched in summer, a wilder Corfu, so different from the gentler, almost Italian lower half of the island. But today was fine, and as the big car bounced north along the broken road the afternoon sun struck obliquely through the olives, dappling the occasional colour-washed houses of ochre, of white, of mulberry, with light and shade.

Theodore had been invited to tea by Madame Gennatas and was asked to bring his new friends. The old widow lived in a fortified Venetian manor house at the port of Kouloura, the most beautiful of all the little coves along this coast, where a horseshoe jetty sheltered red and blue fishing boats, and where waving pale green eucalyptus and dark jets of cypress rose above the sound of water faintly lapping at a pebble beach. The immensely thick walls of the manor house, originally pierced by loopholes, was now opened up by several French windows, which let out onto a wide stone terrace overlooking the sea. Here the visitors were served afternoon tea and listened to Madame Gennatas recall the Corfu she had known when she was a girl – and how to this day the King of Greece always arrived aboard his yacht at Kouloura to visit her in summer.

It was dark by the time Theodore, Larry and Nancy departed, but the bright moonlight helped Spiro navigate the Dodge back to Kontakali. Along the way the talk was of the beauty of Kouloura and the dramatic landscape of the surrounding countryside. Nancy had long wanted to get away from the south of Corfu, away from the villas near town. ‘I felt we’d been living too near the crowds – too tame. I was terribly keen on being in the wildest place I could find – most untamed.’

Come morning, and Larry and Nancy decided to find some rooms in a peasant cottage up that way. Their thoughts were put into immediate effect by Spiro, who knew everyone: ‘Don’t you worries, Larry, I’ll soon fixes it.’ Ten days later, and against the wishes of his mother Louisa, who wanted him to remain at her villa in Kontokali, Larry was moving with Nancy into two rooms in a white-painted house overhanging the sea at Kalami, a sprinkling of four or five cottages round the headland to the south of Kouloura.

Aerial view of Kouloura, below, and Kalami beyond.  The White House,
home of Lawrence and Nancy Durrell, is the large house at the left-most
end of Kalami's crescent beach.   

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

The Charm of The Durrells of Corfu

I have just been sent this photograph of the attractive window display at the new Waterstones bookshop in Crouch End, London.

Booksellers have been having a lot of fun with this title, imaginatively suggesting the mix of sun and sea and wildlife and an idiosyncratic family presented by The Durrells of Corfu, Book of the Month for May.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Corfu Postcards: Kardaki

I have been receiving some beautiful postcards of Corfu. This one is of Kardaki, south of Corfu town, in the general direction of Canoni where Spiro Americanos lived.

Meanwhile The Durrells of Corfu continues at the top of the bestseller lists this weekend, number 1 in The Times, number 3 in The Sunday Times.