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Thursday, October 25, 2012
Muswell Hill author Vanessa Greene transports us to a more favorable time in her debut
Vanessa Greene is vintage Muswell Hill. She grew up in Grand Avenue, went to Fortismere School, where her mother was the German teacher, and after a short but successful career in publishing and a foray south of the river ,she gravitated back to move into a quirky flat in Crouch End with her architect boyfriend, James, to write novels full time. If you cut her she would probably bleed frappuccino.
Her first novel, The Vintage Tea Cup Club, is achingly of its time - three women, one married, one engaged, one heart-broken, meet as they haggle over an antique tea set at a car boot sale in Charlesworth - a Sussex market town with no visible parking restrictions or chain stores - Crouch End-On-Sea. The trio, who share a love of tea dresses, homemade lasagne and fizz, become Firm Friends and guide each other through the emotional storms caused by The Past Coming Back to Bite You on the Bum.
I for one am going to move to Charlesworth - it’s is a magical wonderland where magazine in-trays are cleared by 5.30, vintage oyster silk wedding dresses are stumbled upon in antique fairs, and estate agents go out of business to make room for chic cafes which sell crafts on the side. It has a bank manager with pepper and salt hair who calls his clients “Mrs” and yet it’s still so close to London that you you can be in Islington for brunch!
The Vintage Teacup Club is a rattling good read, smartly written and littered with enough homemade brownies and blueberry muffins to keep you going till tea time. Vanessa began her career as an editorial assistant at Virago and went on to become a commissioning editor at Random House so she knows how to navigate her way out of the slush pile. The Vintage Teacup Club is escapism for the cluttering classes, written for those of us who may dream of running away to run a tea shop by the sea but for now will make do with a good old moan over tea from a brown betty pot at The Haberdashery in Middle Lane. Besides, you can discuss it with your mum and your daughter and bring it to book club without blushing fifty shades of puce.
And Vanessa knows that - she had a story to tell, a good one, which touches on her own brush with history,but she also knows that if she didn’t pitch it right it would still be mouldering in her desk drawer rather than gracing the shelves of Tesco. Hence the smart contemporary combo of tea dance chic and sassy self-awareness. Her heroines may gush over a piece of buttercup china but they know that,left unchecked, their passion can lead to a life surrounded by cats and cardboard boxes. And Vanessa showed the same clear-eyed discipline she applies to carbooting, when it came to becoming a novelist.
“When I turned 30 I thought I wanted to be writing rather sitting on the other side of the desk,” she said. So, in true chick lit style, she paired up with a loyal mate and together they took up the Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month nanowrimo.org) challenge - an annual online writing dare which encourages new writers to produce a novel in November. With the help of her friend she kept going and although the finished novel didn’t come to anything “ it gave me the confidence to think that I could do it.” The plot for the real Vintact Teacup Club came to her as a friend began searching out antique cups for her own wedding and she got hooked on the romance and detective work involved in treasured but every day antiques. She plucked up her nerve, approached a mate in the publishing world, and three chapters later - voila - a contract followed by an agent - unconventional, yet a pro to the end.
With her long blonde hair and easy bonhomie she oozes the serene confidence of the comfortable Crouch End girl, but there is always a good story behind the smiles. In Vanessa’s case it goes back to her grandparents. (Greene is a pen name - she is really Vanessa Neuling - and we agree that having a pen name is itself quite retro, so allowed) “My father was German and never knew his father because he was killed fighting on the Russian Front when his mother was pregnant with him,” she said. Her mother’s father was English and also fought in the war.” I always found it difficult to think that I had two grandfathers who both fought in the war but on different sides,” she said, It wasn’t until her father’s death that she and her mother discovered the letters her German grandfather had written to his wife, detailing his love for her and is excitement about the baby they were expecting that she realised the connection between him and her maternal grandfather. “They were both caught up in something and were doing what they thought was the right thing,” she said, and it was the first time she allowed herself any compassion for her German grandfather. Hers, she feels is the first generation that has grown up without having to endure a war, but neither has it had it so good - which is why, she feels, we are rediscovering and romanticising the era of make do and mend by holding knit ins and going mad for cupcakes.. She celebrated her launch in Drink, Shop & Do in the Caledonian Road, wearing a forties dress with her hair done up in Victory rolls - she felt a million dollars and it gave her a link with her past that isn’t just kitsch - it matters, she said.
Vanessa may celebrate her love of the past, but she doesn’t live in it. After showing me her treasured selection of bone china tea cups she pours me a cup of builders tea in a good solid mug. “I know I should serve it in a china cup, but I find you just don’t get enough,” she said, with a slightly guilty giggle.
The Vintage Teacup Club by Vanessa Greene is published by Sphere (£6.99)