In forty years’ marriage, my friend’s Dad, a surgeon allergic to shopping, gave his wife not one present. He adored her, and their lively sex life was a fact of which their kids would have preferred to know less. Yet the gift embargo lasted until their youngest son (30) called it a disgrace. You may think the Dad is amazing, but his wife’s self-possession is what impresses me. The Roman historian Titus Livy wrote, ‘A woman’s mind is affected by the meanest gifts’ – meaning, it costs little to buy female favour. But this happily married couple show that feelings about presents are fluid, and always an index of a relationship’s insecurities.
‘The manner of giving is worth more than the gift,’ claimed Pierre Corneille – in a play called The Liar. In reality, gifts cause upset because they are supposed to embody the giver’s esteem for the recipient. Hence it is little consolation to hear Mum say, ‘It’s the thought that counts’, when you open a half-eaten tube of Polos from your aunt on 25 December, as a mate of mine did, more than once.
As each exchange is a diplomatic act, similar rules apply to presents as to flattery. When Gordon Brown welcomed Barack Obama to Britain with a pen holder whittled from timbers of a sister ship of the Resolute, out of which the Presidential desk in the White House is made, plus a seven-volume, first edition Churchill biography, Obama gave him 25 DVDs including Psycho. Commentators scorned Obama’s ‘insult’, but the error was Brown’s. His presents were too great to be returned.
If gifts betoken love, in practice, they often say more about our budget, the relative length of queues in Selfridges and Superdrug, or our family etiquette. Indeed, a litmus test of new in-laws at Christmas is how they read local custom. My first time all gifts ‘for me’, in thrice-recycled paper, were ‘for me and him’. The highlight? A wooden spoon. Was I gracious? As if. But I have since learnt that so deep is my mother-in-law’s aversion to receiving gifts, to her, something useful, costing pennies, is the best imaginable.
I still love finding the perfect gift. The downside is that I am a pain to buy for. Which is why the best gift my husband and I shared was last Christmas. A gift-free, guiltless week in Egypt.


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If you shuffle through the autumn leaves in St James’s Park and take a turn around the current exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, you will find much to feed the eye, and boggle the mind.
The Conversation Piece: Scenes from Fashionable Life is a journey through time. It opens windows on the various ways the rich found to waste their days, but is truly gripped by a more perplexing lifestyle question: how to be a monarch and resemble a human being.

The tour begins in 1632, with an embarrassing daub of Charles I and his queen. Their infant Charles II is about to tumble off a table, but his parents seem not to care. They have plonked their heir there, by crown, sceptre and an olive branch, to send a message. Namely, that the royal family is at peace with its subjects. Sadly, history proved otherwise.

35 paintings and two centuries later, the tour ends with another public family faking a private life. In one, doll-like Queen Victoria simpers at Albert, who has brought her corpses, fresh from a day’s shooting. Sir Edwin Landseer’s brush springs to life depicting their begging dogs, but the waxen couple see only each other. Meanwhile, their toddler daughter fondles a dead kingfisher. With such macabre propaganda, sold in prints, Victoria claimed her people’s hearts.

These two images seem consistent, but if this exhibition were a conversation, it would be a quarrel. (No raised voices, mind; this is Buckingham palace.) Two topics are in dispute. First, what is a ‘conversation piece’? Second, how can royalty, of all people, be trendy? And these questions are beside the real point of the show, a dazzling clutch of canvases by Johan Zoffany.

Where to start? With chipper Fleet Street optician, John Cuff, basking in golden light among the widgets of his trade? Or Queen Charlotte, wan wife of loopy George III, immobilised in her corset as two sons scamper in fancy dress. Tellingly, she touches neither, only her gigantic hound. I began wondering about our current monarch’s affections – corgis versus offspring.

The showstopper is 1777’s The Tribuna of the Uffizi, which celebrates of the Grand Tour. A hubbub of English aristocrats and homosexual collectors leer at naked Venus and Hercules in the octagonal room of the Uffizi gallery, jewel box of the Medicis’ art collection. Zoffany even smuggles in himself, flogging a Raphael to a duke. And the viewer knows not where to look. Each inch is pasted with perfect renderings, at postcard and stamp size, of Rubens, Titians, Holbeins.

This miraculous work has ironic shades. Sent to Italy by Queen Charlotte, Zoffany spent five years living it up in Italy, buying and selling art, while drawing a fat salary. If he hoped to compensate for the long absence with his virtuoso daring, he credited his patron with too much taste. Like most royals, Charlotte was concerned less with fashion than the image she projected. And she would not entertain such tourists, however grand – certainly not on the walls of her apartments. Thus Zoffany’s masterpiece ruined his career.

As a result, the royal collection has only seven works by Zoffany. Hence the broader scope of this exhibition, which tackles questions about the conversation piece, a style of painting that became fashionable in Britain in the 1730s, influenced by seventeenth-century Dutch family portraits (a mixed bunch are on display). Such works are concerned with conversation in its oldest sense, ‘social interaction’. They show groups, at less than life-size, engaged in posh hobbies. So they are about wasting time elegantly – about being genteel, not regal.

Can you imagine a relaxing conversation with Queen Victoria? Exactly. But if this exhibition is not what it pretends, it is fun, and suggestive.

The history of the conversation piece echoes the history of conversation as an art, which was an idea born in conversazione, parties of wealthy Renaissance Italians. It evolved in seventeenth-century salons of aristocrats tired of Versailles. Then Dutch merchants aped French manners, then the conversation morphed again in England, with the boom in newspapers, coffee shops, and that mercurial beast, public opinion. If the art of conversation was a democratic force, the conversation piece celebrated the middle class, seizing power off those lumpen Hanoverian kings.

So instead of ‘conversation pieces’, this exhibition presents those Hanoverians, playing at gentlefolk, in vistas reminiscent of Hello! magazine. There are some fine Stubbs, merry-go-round horses, and panoramas of ladies tugging up stockings while high and low promenade along Pall Mall. But nothing more hilarious than puce George IV by his phaeton (the eighteenth-century Ferrari), of whom Thackeray sneered ‘he signalized his entrance into the world by a feat worthy of his future life. He invented a new shoebuckle.’

And say hello to the forgotten Prince of Wales, Frederick, at his cello. Had he survived, how cultured might the Windsors be? And on another wall, there is his secret society, ‘la table ronde’, of groupies in military garb, reading each other speeches. Do William and Harry declaim sonnets in Mahiki? I doubt it.

So go and look, and laugh.


As seen in The Lady magazine


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Is sexual liberation over? You may think so, reading Jealousy, the sequel to The Sexual Life of Catherine M. In it, lusty Parisian academic Catherine Millet, who hung out with the whores in the Bois de Boulogne, reveals something controversial: a heart. When her man slept around, she went barmy.  

Hypocrisy is the most logical attitude to infidelity, as it fuses many issues, and beliefs about it formed in a world very different to our own.  It has a religious dimension.  As an infidel betrays God, so infidelity betrays the faith between two people.  The assumption is that loyalty in body, mind and spirit are interchangeable.  But arguably, people began disapproving of infidelity for a more practical reasons, to stop rows about property.  

Avid debauchee Alexandre ‘Three Musketeers’ Dumas lamented, ‘Why is what was called cuckoldry in the seventeenth century called adultery in the nineteenth?’  His answer was inheritance law.  Once, first-born sons got it all, then the law changed, giving every child a portion of the estate.  So husbands who once worried only about the paternity of their heir grew to fear every cuckoo in the nest.  And society grew fiercer about female infidelity, while in men a mistress remained a badge of success.   

Female sluts got it in the neck since Eve bit the apple.  Katie Price is slated for cavorting with her cage fighter.  But male sluts are less tolerated than before.  The court of public opinion is still out on randy Ashley Cole, while Cheryl is a latter-day saint for fighting for her love.  But for those whose private lives are private, now we have DNA-testing, good contraception, fidelity seems less relevant.  With the internet and the liar’s friend, the mobile phone, slipping the marital leash is ever easier.  Why can’t we act on passing fancies without breaching emotional loyalty? 

I understand infidelity’s fans.  Yet I believe monogamy, with the right person, is the least-worst path through life. Even empty sex threatens a relationship, as nobody can guarantee it will not come to mean more.  This belief is less old-fashioned than imagining that mind rules body, like 17th-century rationalist, René Descartes.  On the contrary, scientists have found neurochemicals released in sex, vasopressin and oxytocin, mean that where lust leads, territorial feelings often follow.  Love and sex, mind and body, are as interchangeable as ever.


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My husband’s godson Theo (3) is a painter of genius. Thank-you notes come daubed in cubist rainbows, with titles (e.g. ‘Bacchus, drunk’) added by dad. We’d like to nurture Theo’s talent, but I’m worried we’ll ruin his fun. A recent study found children paint happily until told it is for a certificate, then instantly their enthusiasm plummets. Perhaps this is why traditionally we like artists starving in garrets. If they’re glum, we can believe their work is serious.

What is art? The question is slightly pointless. If something provokes you to ask it, and was designed to, it must be. Art’s job is to be contemplated, be it a busker’s performance, Marcel Duchamp’s upside-down urinal, or Piero Manzoni’s canned turds.

What people mean by this question is ‘Is it any good?’ It can be hard to tell, as I found at the ICA, working on perplexing events like the Naked Poetry Festival. The greatest talent, Steve McQueen, revealed to me how much an artist’s task is to convince us of his value. Wisely, he refused to supply publicity videos: no, his films were ‘installations’ (worth thousands). He understood that we rate art by its price. If Charles Saatchi coughs up £5,000 for a pipe, you know you’re not dreaming: it is Art.

Charles Darwin speculated that all futile delights – art, music, jokes – evolved from sexual competition. Whether or not ancient cave painters did it to impress lovers, you can be sure they wanted to depict their horses well. Once cash entered the equation, artists needed a new skill: to grab attention. Michelangelo was discovered after burying a sculpture and selling it to a cardinal as an antique. (The cardinal realised, laughed, and summoned him to Rome.) Art developed in social competition between artists and patrons, showing off. A patron sent one message – ‘My Madonna and Child has more gold leaf than yours’ – while the artist sent another, ‘Look at what I can do’.

Now ads, TV and colour are everywhere, visual competition is intense, and beauty, cheap. So art has a new task. It need not be gorgeous, but must do more than distract: it must seize imagination. Hence anti-social art has risen to the top. The Chapman Brothers are no Michelangelos, yet they are great. Because they make us ask, ‘Is it art?’

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This morning my husband left me.  Thank God.  We are in the Malvern hills.  He expected a holiday but I must write.  (Coincidentally, about couples screwing up leisure.)  The sun is in, mist yields myopic views, and two loved-up newlyweds are building a house ten yards away.  Deafened by the cement mixer, they shout – right now, about a boil on the man’s arse.  Meanwhile my husband is hiking in Wales.  His parting shot: ‘Work hard.’  Mine: ‘Shove off.’  


Our break isn’t going to plan, but may yet be salvaged.  Romance is a matter of taste, and while the newlyweds happily bray their sweet nothings, that isn’t how we do love.  Forget Dirty Dancing: give us Cary Grant cussing Katie Hepburn!   Our defining romantic story was a disastrous honeymoon, with the punchline that he forgot my birthday.  (‘What do you mean, present?  I just gave you a helleymoon!’)  Still, this holiday may beat it.  Provided he comes back.


Romance is always a story.  The word reeks of Mills and Boon, but the original romances were epics of knights, monsters, and unattainable married princesses (then, marriage was about anything but love).  Nowadays there is a set romantic script by which to tell love.  Or so vendors of satin hearts and teddy bears hope we believe.  Such tokens are the bastard spawn of ritual gifts traditionally exchanged between courting couples (their value conveyed the gravity of intentions).  But conventionality may undermine romance.

Rituals are far from empty gestures.  They have the power to imbue experience with not only greater significance but also pleasure.  Psychologists find that if you make tea in a certain way, then drink from your favourite cup, it truly tastes better.  Only to you, of course, but then you are the one who matters.  It tastes better because our brains form neural circuits, and anticipation increases the release of dopamine, the joy chemical.  


It is a mistake to accept the pro-forma romance script and expect your relationship to fill in the gaps.  Instead, form personal rituals.  Have a song that is yours; routinely set aside fifteen minutes a day to chat and do nothing; make the effort to tell each other tales about your off-beat bliss.  Do this and your love should resonate deeper and last longer.  You may become smug bastards, braying sweet nothings.  But happy smug bastards.  

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Did greedy doctors invent sex addiction to grab a piece of the divorce lawyers’ action?  I only ask because commitment anxiety is rising, and not just adultery is being diagnosed as a disease.   Fidelity, too, is suspect.  Are you married, cohabiting, eyes for no other?  Might you be – whisper it – co-dependent?


I am married and I am independent.  Or so I thought.  However, my spouse and I depend on each other.  So the increasingly common term ‘co-dependence’ worried me. It sounds vague.  But my dictionary says that a co-dependent couple features one who is an addict, and another who is addicted to their relationship with the addict.  So me and my husband are okay.  But then it struck me the definition is slippery.  What if the addict is addicted to the relationship?  And what if a co-dependency therapist had advised Victorian poet Robert Browning? Would he have eloped with ageing, invalid opium addict Elizabeth Barrett?  Would we have their great love story?


‘In a codependent society,’ warns therapist Robert Burney, ‘everyone has to have someone to look down on, in order to feel good about themselves.’  Sounds like human nature.  By this measure, love between any two imperfect or unequal individuals is unhealthy, and caring is suspect (caring could be ‘looking down’ in disguise).  Is there such a thing as a relationship without any power imbalance?  Isn’t one of the benefits of a relationship that you don’t have to be best at everything?


Burney is not the first to view love with a surgeon’s suspicion.  ‘My love is as a fever, longing still/For that which longer nurseth the disease.’  In this sonnet Shakespeare described a disorder called romance, which traditionally occurred outside dull marriage (which was for babies, money, and dynasties).  Only in the seventeenth century did married love come to be regarded the summit of human fulfilment.  In our crowded world, such a belief is less tenable.  


Twenty-first century romantics must commit to their job, friends, home, kids.  Even had we the time, it is harder to be confident about prioritising one relationship.  Fear of monotony, worry about monogamy, have increased our faith in other people’s right to talk us through our lives, and tell us how to live them.  But if we over-diagnose our emotions, our love stories may end before they’ve begun.



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What is your quintessence?

Do you know who you are?  Yesterday I faced a metaphysical puzzle — of the nicest kind — whenI was  interviewed by my charming namesake Cathy Blythe for KFOR in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Resisting the temptation to ask the questions was difficult.  Was she talking to me?  Or I to me?  At least we had the e to separate us.

Metaphysical questions about words and names have been circling me for weeks, since the nice chaps at asked me to talk about the word quintessence.  They are devoted to celebrating language, from etymologies to personal definitions, in an on-line video archive.  This enterprise is the brainchild of Bebo co-founder, Michael Birch.  Since language is constantly evolving, and quarreled over, Wordia is a brilliant forum for capturing meaning on the wing, and pinning it to the fleeting sentiments with which we launch our words at one another.  If you have a favourite word and would like to tell the world about it, drop them a line.  

Here were my thoughts…


Quintessence is an odd word.  Everyone knows what essence means.  So that quint part tacked onto the start sounds unnecessary.  Ornamental.  Pretentious.  A little bit camp, a little bit snobby.  Indeed one definition of the word quintessence is as a superlative, as a term of praise.  If you are the ne plus ultra, the last word in fashion, you might be called the quintessence of fashion.  You have IT.  


So what is IT?  Another sense of the word quintessence is ‘definining characteristic’ — meaning, the essence of your essence.  But this is rather like saying ‘your most perfect perfection.’  It is a tautology.

However, originally quintessence meant something quite specific meaning.  It referred originally to the fifth element.  The first four were air, water, earth and fire; the mysterious quintessence was thought to be the substance of which the heavens and gods were composed.  Capture the quintessence and you would have the divine within your grasp.  Once upon a time, this elusive quantity was supposed to be latent in every substance.  So alchemists did not merely strive to turn lead into gold.  They sought also to extract the quintessence from base metals.  Hence it was also used as a verb – meaning, to distil or remove the essence from something.  


Although fond of this absurd word, I can’t hear it without picturing someone who wears overly complicated clothes, with lots of unnecessary frills and fringes.  The type of person who adds several extra vowels to words like Hellooo and Chic.  Because pretty as quintessence is, it sounds the essence of pretension.  Not to mention illogical, and far too long.  If it were up to me, I’d take the essential part and the quint could go hang.  

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