While scents remain an all-consuming obsession, I haven’t focused on ‘The City’ part of this website for some time – which is remiss of me, as there are so many wonderful things currently happening in the capital – especially when it comes to books and literature (I’ve yet to meet a perfume-lover who isn’t also a bookworm).
Case in point is the literary salons run and hosted by journalist Alice-Azania Jarvis, which at the moment take place at The Ned. A relatively new hotel and members club, described by CN Traveller as “a bank reupholstered as a bordello”, it doesn’t seem the obvious choice for bookish gatherings. But there’s something about these slightly surreal, larger-than-life and incredibly glamorous surroundings that lends itself rather well to storytelling (I imagine the likes of Dorothy Parker and Nancy Mitford would have felt right at home here). Previous salons have taken place in The Ned's old bank vaults below ground (which feel like you’ve wandered onto the set of Ocean’s 11), as well as their roof conservatory, which affords glorious views of the cityscape. In short, there are worse places to find yourself on a quiet Sunday morning. It's here (for the present) where Alice speaks to different new female authors each month, not just about their books, but also their journey into getting published and any advice they have for others hoping to do the same.
The popularity of literary salons such as these is perhaps unsurprising, given the current social climate. In the age of #MeToo the “female experience” (to use a rather hackneyed term) has been the topic of much discussion - and the books and authors Alice features are timely reflections of that. Previous salons have seen author Emily Hill talking about her collection of short stories Bad Romance - which can broadly be described as the antithesis to those “happily ever after” fairy tales girls are force-fed pretty much from birth - as well as Laura Freeman, whose memoir The Reading Cure documents her struggle with anorexia and how her appetite for books helped her re-establish her love of food.
“What we are seeing are these wonderful books whose authors are saying, ‘I am going to defy social expectations of this old-fashioned idea that to be happy I need a man and marriage etc.’” Alice explains when we meet up. “I thought Dolly Alderton’s book, Everything I Know About Love was just fantastic in its celebration of female friendship. It spoke of a new kind of independence of spirit and mind - it couldn’t be further away from Bridget Jones and I love her for that. Emily Hill talks about the ‘happily never after’, which is this idea that you don’t need to necessarily conform to this nuclear family ideal. Then recently in The Times Magazine, Acting Fashion Editor Hattie Crissell talked about how there’s nothing necessarily ‘brave’ about being single in your thirties, but instead, it's a choice women are freely making.”
Alice herself grew up between London and South Africa where her father is from. “When Mandela became President, Dad wanted to go back" - so that's what they promptly did when she was 11. After spending her teens on the African continent, she returned to London which led to a career in journalism, and in turn – a love of books.
“I was drawn to the writing of journalism first and foremost. I liked nice turns of phrase, but later fell in love with the reporting – particularly working as a gossip columnist. You’re getting stories out of thin air as opposed to giving your opinion – so you’re really reporting. As features writer I did that as well.”
“I suppose my involvement in and love of books has come out of my job. As features editor at ES Magazine I’m always looking for ideas, whether it’s reporting on the rise of Millennial memoirs - written by people like Dolly Alderton and Laura Freeman - or just spotting an interesting author like Nell Stevens to interview. Being a journalist for ten years, I’ve also known lots of people who’ve gone on to write books.”
The idea of starting a salon came about “almost by accident really. I was asked to host a talk with Nell about her book Bleaker House, as we had already interviewed her for the magazine. It was a lovely event – so I spoke to the Ned the following week and suggested that this could be a series every month.
“The first one I organised was with Elizabeth Day - who I’d known for years - about her book The Party. At that stage I didn’t know huge amounts about organising these events. When it comes to selling books, you have to get a bookseller to come in and make it official. The salons have taken off in an unexpected way and there's a nice atmosphere. I didn’t expect quite the level of interest that it’s got.”
With the success of other bookish endeavours, (such as the well-received launch of Alice Revel's monthly subscription box Reading in Heels), what does Ms. Jarvis think the reason is for London's vastly expanding literary scene? “There’s an endless appetite in London for people wanting to do interesting things. People buzzing around on the tube making plans to go to this literary event, that photography exhibition, that new restaurant etc. It’s that collective will in London to have a nice time that I find fascinating!
“At [London newspaper] The Evening Standard I’m really exposed to it - part of our identity is making the most of the city – as it really is a wonderful city. I suppose we’re so bombarded with distraction and multiple forms of media, whether it’s social media or endless online news cycle vast array of streaming programmes. When you’re overwhelmed by the choice, it’s nice when someone says they’re going to curate this lovely event. That there’s going to be a thoughtful discussion, and instead of checking your phone constantly, you’re just going to be engaging with other humans and thoughts and pages.”
Are there any loose criteria when it comes to picking the authors? “The books just have to be good and interesting – you don’t want too much of the same thing. I’ve been pleased that it’s not been repetitive in terms of the type of book. So with Nell being the first one (I didn’t organise it, I was just the interviewer), Bleaker House was an incredibly quirky book. Then we had Liz with The Party – a fantastic novel that felt very much like a state of the nation type of book. After it was Francesca Hornak’s Seven Days of Us, another novel but quite different in that it was very much about family - it was extremely festive too. This was followed by Clemency Burton Hill ’s Year of Wonder: Classical Music for Every Day; Otega Uwagba with her Little Black Book – A Toolkit for Working Women; and Charlie Craggs who had edited To My Trans Sisters, a series of letters from trans women to other trans women.”
What sort of crowds turn out for these events? “At the moment the crowd is predominantly people from the media and arts and creative types. It started with me inviting people I know and it spread through word of mouth. It’s mostly women, but we are seeing more men coming along now too.”
During each salon, after Alice interviews the author, there is a Q&A session where audience members tend to go beyond the book in question. “People are extremely interested to hear current gender debates. Authors like Charlie were keen on creating a safe environment for conversation, along the lines of ‘ask me anything I won’t be offended, I want to talk about these issues’. At her salon we had debates about women-only spaces and no-platforming. There’s a lot of noise around that debate and so much I didn’t know, but getting to know someone from the trans community on a human level helps a lot. Then to have Emily with her collection of short stories, was different again. Her book was crowd funded, so it was completely different publishing tale, and there were a lot of questions about that.
“Plus I also think a lot of people who come along are interested in writing a book, so it’s always good to discuss the writing process and how these authors got published. As someone who loves writing, I’m obsessed with how other writers write anyway and weird rituals they have.”
Is she planning on keeping focus on female authors for now? “I think women aren’t always the best at championing themselves and blowing their own trumpet and something like a salon is a good opportunity for someone else to force you to do that. So many women I know loathe talking in public and giving presentations. It’s always easier being interviewed rather than just being given the floor. But I think it’s really important to force yourself into that uncomfortable position of being in the spotlight, as it’s so expected in society. It’s good to have a platform where women champion themselves – but some of the authors can end up being self-deprecating. One kept talking about her bad reviews, when she actually had the most glowing reviews I’ve ever some across! Women always tend to have a downer on themselves, but I always try to counteract that when I’m interviewing them.”
Who has she got coming up next? “Our next author is Lucy Vine talking about her book What Fresh Hell, which is Saturday April 21st – she’s incredibly witty and smart, so I’m looking forward to that.”
Those interested in attending or to find out about future events can contact Alice on firstname.lastname@example.org