Friday, 11 December 2009

The Allure of Chanel

When Jack Black sang “It’s a long way to the top, if you wanna rock and roll” in the 2003 film School of Rock, he knew of what he sang. That line, a perfect ohrwurm if ever there was one, wormed through my own ears yesterday evening as I headed to North London. It got slightly altered along the way to “It’s a long way up to Hampstead if you have to walk,” and indeed it is. Especially from Mortlake. On a cold December night.

Penury had forced me to take Shanks’s Pony to Keats’s House in this charming part of London as I had accepted an invitation to chair an event for Pushkin Press and Daunt Books. It was however to prove worth the shoe leather as something extraordinary happened.

The occasion was the launch of a new Pushkin title, The Allure of Chanel, originally written by Paul Morand and published in 1979 in French. Now available in an exquisite translation by Euan Cameron, it contains quite superb illustrations by none other than Karl Lagerfeld and photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Jean Moral, to name but two. It tells the story of ‘Mademoiselle’ in her own words, as recounted to Morand over a number of days and weeks in 1946 when the writer and designer met in a hotel, the Badrutt’s Palace in St Moritz, Switzerland, awaiting post war calm to allow her return to France. Chanel was at this time unemployed, exiled and ‘waiting to become wealthy again.’ It was a difficult time for her, the sulphurous whiff of collaboration hanging about her, perhaps fittingly for the self styled “only volcano from the Auvergne that is not extinct.” It may be that feeling oppressed and unhappy, she chose this time to tell her story and to self-mythologise parts of it, especially her childhood years. Some believe this to be the case. I, however, am no expert on her and her life and cannot comment. What I can say is that it is a fascinating read and a wonderful insight into the mind and character of a force of nature, a pioneer of both couture and arguably feminism. And all this despite the fact that I'm probably not in the target demographic for the book, but a good story well told has universal appeal.

The evening was an enchanting one. Sitting next to an illuminated Christmas tree, in a beautiful room, in the former home of such an illustrious poet was inspirational. The 50 or so members of the audience were engaged with the conversation between Mr Cameron and myself and engaging with their questions and comments. There was a warmth to the proceedings, a literary conviviality as Cameron’s beautifully prepared piece on Morand and Chanel met with interest and approval. The publisher had flown in from New York and two of the doyens of Pushkin arrived by Eurostar. Richard Strange, the actor, musician and man of letters, one of the finest fellows I know (he once trashed an art gallery with Jack Nicholson) and who is possessed of charm, talent and extraordinary generosity was there, fresh from the film set of the latest Harry Potter film and with his brilliant wife and lovely daughter. The questions came and when neither Euan nor I had answers, other members of the audience offered their insights.

One of the joys of a smaller event is that it can be run less as a performance and more an open talking shop. One audience member, sitting in the front row, who gave her name as Emma, shared insights that belied her youth. As we delved deeper into Chanel’s life, she seemed to be possessed of yet more answers, more rejoinders, all delivered in a voice, an accent, as sweet and soft as crème Chantilly. I laughingly asked her “You’re too young to have known Coco Chanel, but I don’t suppose you’re in some way related… are you…?” She paused and looked at me. I thought she was insulted, that I had in some way ruined the evening for her and was half way through stumbling out a hurried, defusing, apology when she said “Not to Coco no, but my Great Aunt and her husband were two of Mademoiselle’s closest friends,”

Oh boy. Not only could you have heard a pin drop but you could almost feel and hear the goose bumps rising throughout the room. Emma’s great aunt and her husband are mentioned throughout the book and have a chapter devoted to each of them. One of Karl Lagerfeld’s illustrations is of Emma’s forebear wearing none other than an early ‘little black dress.’ It was an extraordinary moment of the sort that happens so occasionally at such events and is gloriously unforgettable when it does.

When at the beginning of this piece I said that something extraordinary happened, I may have slightly dissembled, for as if that wasn’t enough something else occurred. Sitting across the aisle from Emma, also in the front row, was a beguiling, elegant angel. Graceful, alluring and shining with calm intelligence, she was tall enough that when I stretched my legs out at one point, our toe-caps nearly touched and I swear a Michelangelo, Sistine chapel ‘spark of creation’ moment occurred. Whether she felt the same thing is as yet unknown. I therefore can’t write “but that’s another story.” Not yet at least.

So while it may not have been an evening of rock and roll, rock and roll was indeed present. Even when it is a 'long way up to Hampstead when you have to walk' and twice as far if you have to walk back, the return was on feet so much lighter than those that took me there. Chanel’s allure was indisputable. The allure of “The Allure of Chanel’ evening only goes to show that there is still romantic inspiration to be found at Keats’ House.



Sunday, 6 December 2009


Imagine Kent, the garden of England as it used to be known, with its endless orchards, fields of hops and fecund woodland. Now turn the thermostat up to the mid thirty-degree mark, crank the humidity machine up to full and paint in a range of dramatic mountains. Add in the smell of woodsmoke, spices and aromatic cooking, then turn the volume up so that you can hear the gentle susurration of the cooling breeze through the tea plantations of the highlands or the rhythmic chug of marine engines as houseboats sluice their way across the coastal lakes and slowly a picture of Kerala begins to emerge. Kerala the fertile, Kerala the fragrant, Kerala the beautiful. Like Kent, but with the colour, contrast and volume turned to maximum.

This southwestern state of India is rapidly becoming the destination of choice for travellers of all tastes and budgets. They are not wrong. The variety of landscapes and cultures it has to offer are second to none, but so too is the range of accommodation. Homestays are becoming the newest ‘new big thing’ since eco-tourism - the two concepts are not unrelated – and they are playing a key role in the growth of tourism in the region.

On a recent three-centre tour I started in the highlands of Munnar, just west of the border that separates Kerala from Tamil Nadu and the centre of the tea growing industry, started in the 19th century by Scottish planters. The air here, 6000 feet above sea level, is cool and clear. The roads wind and climb the hillsides giving glimpses of spectacular waterfalls one minute and the verdant green, hobbity, topiary of tea fields the next. The highest tea plantation in the world, the Kolukkumalai Tea Estate is here, just fifteen miles from the colourful, pungently aromatic, bustling centre of the little town of Munnar. Not a huge distance, but three hours by bouncing, lurching jeep up an impossibly vertiginous turnpiking track on the private estate. Worth every bruise and scrape of knee for the views from over 2km above sea level and for the purest, freshest tea it’s possible to drink.

Agriculture is the mainstay of the region and not just tea. Cedar Woods, the homestay that was my billet for two nights, is set in 75 acres of cardamom, vanilla, coffee and cocoa plantation. Nutmeg grows wild here, its pear shaped fruit falling and exploding on the ground to reveal the nutmeg within, wrapped in a red sheath that looks for all the world like a waxy, alien, lacework version of something that normally covers a Dutch cheese and which when dried is better known as mace. Cardamom curing houses dot the hillsides, the sweetly fragrant smoke hanging in the air like cathedral incense. Not for nothing is the adjacent homestay, an award-winning pepper plantation, named Spice Garden.

This is not a wealthy area. As the younger generation flock to Dubai and Abu Dhabi to find work in the hotels and restaurants, the pool of agricultural labour has diminished. A worker in the spice trade who five years ago would receive 60 rupees for a days work can now command 250 rupees. But the value of the spices they pick and process has not risen and so the owners of smallholdings are opening their homes to visitors to supplement their incomes. Warmly welcoming and eager to ensure that guests are spoiled with truly excellent home-cooked food, the hosts of these clean and comfortable family homes manage to be superbly hospitable, attentive and informative without becoming intrusive. They have taken the adage “Invite a guest, send back a friend” to their hearts.

Six hours westwards along pitted roads where monkeys wait for handouts on the verge is Pala. Larger than Munnar and straddling the river Meenachil, it is a lively little town set in the rolling hills of Kerala’s mid country. Here the landscape is more tropical. Palm trees abound. The humidity is turned up another notch or two. The Indian street orchestra of constant car horns and puttering auto-rickshaws (three wheeled Vespa scooters with bench seats and flat bed rears for loading with wood, families, furniture or fare-paying passengers) is louder here, more cacophonous but somehow pleasantly and curiously calmingly so. Outside the town are stands of rubber trees, private groves that support entire extended families one of which were to be my hosts.

The Meenachil Enclave is the heart of a small industry and a good example of the diversity that one family relies upon for its sustenance. It is also properly luxurious, opulent even. The house looks like a Thai temple. Beautifully ornate wood panelling, doors and carvings rise up from the pristine lawns on which are dotted bird cages alive with budgerigars, love birds and in one three very impressive eagles. The marbled interior, with its central atrium open to the sky so that rain feeds the water feature, would not look out of place in a five star hotel anywhere in the world. The bedrooms, crammed with dark wood furniture, designer bathrooms and skin-caressing linens, belie the fact that this is not just a family home but an ancestral home.

Rubber is the mainstay. The result of the mornings tapping brought to the rear of the house for processing, rolling and finally smoking in the lofts above. The cured sheets of latex, thick bathmats of browned rubber are then stored, hung over wooden dowels until the market price meets with the owner’s approval. The rear of the house is where the chickens, rabbits and guinea pigs (oh yes) are kept in hutches or roam the pasture. No pets these though, but good organic ingredients for superb Keralan cuisine. The byre hold cows for milk. There is a pool. There is family warmth. There is impeccable hospitality and gracious attention to one’s comfort. There is even gold cutlery.

Finally to the coast, not that of the Indian Ocean however, but of Lake Vembanad and the town of Alleppey, the Venice of the East.

Here there is a delightful breeze and life takes on the slower pace that proximity to large bodies of water instils. Here there are endless paddy fields of rice. Here there is Vembanad House, a family home surrounded on three sides by water, a spiritual retreat and a balm to the world weary. Here there is lobster fishing from wooden canoes that leave from steps at the bottom of the garden, where clams can be raked from the lake bottom and cooked for you over open fires under waving palms. This is where time can be spent gently, swinging in a hammock, visiting the Church of St Mary in Champakullam, a site of Christian worship since St Thomas founded a church here in AD 52. Here the beautiful husband and wife owners and their wonderful small son will play cricket with you, cook you exquisite Ayurvedic inspired meals to be eaten at night under the star-studded velvety skies by the lakeshore and then treat you to a captivating Kathakali performance by masters of this oldest of theatre forms. Here there is India, glorious India. A little like Kent and at the same time nothing like Kent at all.

Paul Blezard stayed at the following Mahindra Homestays locations:

Cedar Woods, Munnar, Kerala with Jean and Anita Jayan

Meenachil Enclave, Kottayam, Kerala with Jose and Mariamma Kuruvinakunnel.

Vembanad House, Alleppey, Kerala with ‘Bala’, Sandhya and Dhanush Balakrishnan.