Donna Karan announced her departure from Donna Karan-the-brand in 2015. When she opened the first DKNY store in Bond Street in 1994, I interviewed her for the magazine I was editing at the time, Arena Homme Plus.
What made you choose Bond St as the site for the new DKNY store? It’s not exactly a funky area (yet)! When I walked into the space it reminded me of our showroom in New York — the light, the height of the ceilings, that kind of thing. So it was more about that than the area. There isn’t really an area in New York that compares.
And why now? The timing is right. London feels like a second home to me and there’s an energy that is very DKNY. It just feels like the right place at the right time. It’s all down to gut instinct, really.
I happen to think that female designers make intensely flattering, wearable and genuinely sexy menswear. What defines sexy clothing for you? Comfort, fit and how a man expresses his body language through his clothes. It's actually sensual rather than sexy; about making your clothes a part of you. Men had always said to me, ‘Why can’t you give me what you give women?’ So I did.
You consider clothing to be a kind of adult security blanket. A lot of people think of it as armour…Absolutely! It’s definitely an emotional thing, but clothes should be fun, enjoyable. They should be your partner.
Americans create that simple, understated sportswear look better than anyone. Do you see your clothes as part of some sort of American tradition? They are definitely American clothes in that they are separate pieces that are very flexible and casual, work from day to evening seven days a week, travel well and aren’t necessarily about a particular season — and that’s a very American approach to fashion.
The rest of the world still seems to define an English look in terms of Savile Row tailoring, rolled-up brollies, stiff upper lips and bowlers. How do you define an American look? Actually I think of an English look as more funky and eccentric than that — but we do have our version, which is probably Brooks Brothers; the kind of blue blazer, Oxford shirt, grey pants look. Then there are the classic American casual looks — jeans, the black leather jacket and so on. And the Hollywood take on America and those icons of glamour, like Cary Grant. They are all ‘American’ looks.
Why is black your favourite colour? And if it ceased to exist tomorrow what would replace it for you? Black is great because it goes day-to-evening and works with jeans or black tie — everything really. But then I’m always looking for new ways to do black… The alternatives? Navy, grey!
I can’t remember who it was — perhaps a male designer — who said that the ugliest part of a woman is her knees… so what’s the ugliest part of a man? Ha! His belly. That’s a very American ugly part…
Best and worst things about New York and London? New York? The energy, spirit, the light, the skyscrapers silhouetted against the sky, Central Park and the multi-cultural-ness. The worst has to be the violence, the dirt, drugs and homelessness. London? The antique shops, the young people, the cleanliness — at least compared to New York — and the fact that London sets the trends. And the worst? The weather, of course, and the food. Although I must say the food is improving!
Thanks. Your husband aside, who best sums up DKNY man? It’s not one man in particular. He’s a very creative man, a businessman, a sensual man. He’s kind of ageless, secure in himself — and not trendy.
What items of clothing should every man own? A navy blue suit and a white shirt, no question.
How do you feel when you spot someone wearing your clothes? I spot the person first and find myself thinking ‘they look great’, then I see the clothes.
You’ve said that ‘everything I do is a matter of heart, body and soul’. Let’s face it the fashion business isn’t renowned for its soulfulness, so how do you bring soul into fashion? By personalizing it. I’m my own worst critic and at the end of the day it’s about my personal desires… do I want to wear it, do I want my husband to wear it, does he want to wear it? That’s how it works.
Your house is burning down… what one thing do you grab (and it’s got to be a thing, not a person!) Sorry, two things: my address book and a cashmere sweater!
Do you wear anything not designed by yourself? If so, what? Absolutely not! If I find there’s something I want in my wardrobe that’s not there then I make it!
Any ideas yet on what we’re going to look back on as the defining style of the 1990s? Only that it’s more casual and comfortable than, say, the Eighties
Define good taste in five words or fewer Simple, elegant, timeless, glamorous, comfortable.
And bad taste? Ill-fitting, contrived, wrong shoes and socks… um, five words? If it doesn’t go together!
Your men’s fragrance will be launched here next year. How do you go about designing a smell - and how do you know when you’ve got it right? I knew it was right when I loved smelling it on my husband. It was a very personal thing!
What would you have as your epitaph? Something like ‘she brought a piece of love to people’…
David Beckham almost certainly doesn't know this, but without the influence of the late Ray Petri he would never have worn that famous sarong. There was no Premier League when Petri was
alive and football had yet to be fetishised (and Hornby-ised) by the middle classes, but the idea of a gifted, internationally famous, pretty-but-straight, fashion-obsessed, married gay icon of a
young footballer wearing a skirt in the street? Ray would have loved it.
Had he lived, Petri would have celebrated his 52nd birthday yesterday. Instead he died in 1989, just shy of his 42nd birthday and at the tail end of the decade he helped to define by
producing powerfully idiosyncratic images, under the pseudo-corporate 'label' Buffalo, for the pages of the then fledgling 'style' magazines, The Face , i-D and Arena .
In the early 80s, Petri coralled a pool of young model-muses (Nick and Barry Kamen, Tony Felix, Simon de Montfort, Howard Napper) and photographers (Jamie Morgan, Roger Charity, Marc
Lebon), plus assorted, like-minded west London creatives: hair and make-up artists, musicians, designers, acolytes, allies, cohorts, and hangers-on for whom Petri, the cool, charming, funny,
shy-but-gregarious nexus of the group was also a charismatic uncle confessor-cum-mentor-cum-role model. 'People tend to associate the word Buffalo with Bob Marley's 'Buffalo Soldier',' Ray once
explained, 'but in fact it's a Caribbean expression to describe people who are rude boys or rebels. Not necessarily tough, but hard style taken from the street... a functional and stylish look;
non-fashion with a hard attitude.'
Petri was born in Dundee and moved to Brisbane, Australia when his family emigrated there in his teens. By the mid-70s he was back in Britain, running a stall in north London's Camden
Passage antiques market. Moving in creative circles among art students and photographers, he'd decided to become a photographer's agent, recruiting some raw talent in the form of Marc Lebon and Jamie
Morgan. Still, he soon discovered he preferred a more hands-on approach to fashion photography: the casting and styling of images for which there was, at that time, only a very limited audience. 'It
can be no surprise that Ray showed up at our door,' says Nick Logan, founder editor of The Face and Arena , 'Other than i-D , where else would he have gone?'
In the early 80s, fashion photography was still largely the preserve of the glossies, but at The Face and i-D , Ray's vision coincided with the very beginning of what has subsequently
become the commercialisation and mass consumption of street style. Petri played skilfully with the iconography and mythology of the heterosexual modern hero and the homo-erotic muse. He created new
breeds of free-range urban cowboys in Ray-Ban aviators and hats; a suited and booted beauty accessorised by a feathered Native American headdress; a smiling black boxer with a blowsy red rose tucked
behind his ear; boys in highly polished brogues worn with tracksuits; Crombie coats teamed with shorts; sportswear and couture; kilts and diamanté_ and the definitive Petri Buffalo garment, the
no-nonsense Nylon MA1 army surplus flight jacket, lined in bright orange, teamed with Levi's 501s: the look that evolved into the predominant urban male uniform of the 80s.
From expressing the style of a small gang of west London movers and shakers, Buffalo hit the big time when the heavily pregnant Neneh Cherry took her Buffalo stance from Notting Hill to
the Top of the Pops studio and the charts. Funny, but just a few years before the Spices and All Saints bared their big-bellies-as-fashion-statements, the sight of an eight-month-pregnant Neneh
gyrating, fecund-but-sexy, on TOTP was a small stylistic watershed - if not the first sign that the 80s were all but over and the in-touch-with-its-feminine-side 90s were on the way. Though
necessarily identified with the 80s, Petri would have much preferred both the 90s and the zero-zeros, politically, emotionally, culturally, socially and visually - but then Ray was always ahead of
Petri was a fashion stylist long before this was a coveted job description and another amorphous by-product of the global fashion industry. Indeed, in the early 80s, selecting and
arranging clothes on models was still known, if it was known at all, as 'fashion editing', but he was an instinctive stylist, using his visual flair and magpie intelligence to produce elegant,
unfussy and invariably sensual images of timeless modernity.
Petri didn't live long enough to get rich on the back of the fact that his visual influence has now been almost totally absorbed into fashion's mainstream, turned into a hugely successful,
branded, marketable, logo-ised industry. Likewise, he never worked with many of the people in the business whom he has inspired directly - the gifted Austrian designer Helmut Lang, say, or,
indirectly, the skilled marketeer Tommy Hilfiger, or David Beckham, or any of the tens of thousands of visually savvy teenagers and twentysomethings whose easy, confident mix of fashion and
sportswear has been the predominant urban style over the past decade. But in high fashion circles, among names like Giorgio Armani and Jean Paul Gaultier (both of whom he knew well and collaborated
with) to today's younger generation of career stylists on their fat, glossy-magazine salaries, advertising contracts and handsome retainers with the corporates, Petri's name commands awesome
Ray Petri was a genuinely charismatic figure. The sort of man who, even if you had your back to the door, one still sensed had made an entrance. Tall, smiling and handsome with slightly
sad eyes and a gently penetrating gaze, I first met him in the early 80s as a young fashion writer at i-D . He instantly brought out my inner, slavering groupie, but was always sweet enough to
pretend he hadn't noticed. Then, in 1987, I moved on to become The Face 's first fashion editor and, for a while, learning on the job, I sometimes felt I was working under false pretences. In fashion
terms, there was probably nobody whose approval I sought more than Ray's, but whatever he really thought about my wobbly fashion vision, he was never less than a gent and always treated me as a
In 1988, I vividly remember Ray coming into the office for a meeting. Seeing his face bearing the unmistakeable stigmata of Kaposi's Sarcoma, I immediately fled the office in tears and angrily walked round the block, muttering 'not fair, not fair, not fair_' before pulling myself together and - mascara messily smeared - having the meeting. Ray didn't bat an eyelid, he was far too big - and too cool - for that. But he was no saint and was not without ego. Indeed, before his death, he had enough of a sense of his burgeoning influence and potential legacy to be editing pictures for a project that, 11 years down the line, has evolved into a beautiful book, Buffalo , edited, written and designed by the Buffalo boys and girls he considered to be as close, if not closer, than family.
[From the vantage point of fifteen years, these days I bet David Beckham knows exactly who Ray Petri is...]
I was The Observer's TV critic from 1999-2009. It was a wonderful job and one I never took for granted. I always knew I'd miss it when it was gone... and I do!
‘Kathryn is Britain's most perceptive TV critic of recent years. Her love of television shines through in every column — and she's pretty much always right.’
—Boyd Hilton, TV Editor, Heat
‘If it’s zeitgeist TV criticism you’re after, look no further than Flett. Her column is arguably as trendy as Fleet Street TV reviewing gets and her effervescent prose is always worth dipping into.’
‘I laugh out loud every Sunday thanks to the marvellous Kathryn Flett.’
—Paul Abbott, BAFTA/Emmy-winning creator of Clocking off, State of Play, Shameless
‘Kathryn Flett has a love/hate relationship with the telly; fascinatingly, she gets wound-up loving it and laughs about hating it. Kathryn writes like no-one else: beautifully meandering, unavoidably personal and effortlessly f*****g funny.’
—Stuart Murphy, Director, Entertainment Channels, Sky
‘If TV criticism is a dying art, Kathryn Flett may well prove to be one of its last great practitioners. It is much easier to be critical than it is to be correct — Kathryn is unique amongst modern TV critics in that she is both.’
—John Yorke, MD Company Pictures; former Controller, BBC Drama Production
What are the different challenges in designing for men and women?
Stefano Gabbana They are totally different things. The Dolce & Gabbana man is a real man and the woman is a real woman. We’re very conservative and traditional in that way. We do like to work with the feminine part of the man and the masculine part of the woman, but…
Domenico Dolce … not in an extreme way.
Is the difference that there are no limits with womenswear but with menswear God is in the details?
SG It’s true. There are definitely no limits for us in womenswear because, not being women…
DD …we have to work very hard to imagine what a woman would want. In menswear there are less changes, but those changes are deeper. Womenswear is less deep but more changeable.
SG Our men and women are the fiancés of each other. Very often we use the menswear as a starting point for the womenswear.
I think that’s one of your strengths. Working on a men’s magazine means I’ve almost forgotten what a skirt is. When
I first started reporting on menswear I found it a real challenge to write interestingly about trousers!
DD It’s the same. Designing a men’s collection is much more challenging because it is the details that are important — proportion, fabric and so on. Even with a three-button jacket there is a lot you can do, but it is all about details.
Did you plan to do menswear when you started out?
SG We launched the menswear four years later. We always wanted to do it but it wasn't exactly planned.
Your careers have progressed very steadily upwards. Is this the kind of thing you can plan?
DD It is dangerous to go Boom! at the bginning. We’re lucky that we’ve had time to organize ourselves.
SG We had a plan but you can’t control it.
DD Actually, we would have liked a Boom! at the beginning but in fact it probably worked better that we didn’t.
How do you work? Who does what?
SG We work, almost always, together.
DD Very closely. We quarrel a lot but we also think the same way.
How do you resolve arguments?
DD By going with whatever the third option is! This is a bit strange but because we work so closely together, when we get separated we’re actually a bit lost. We’re also very lucky because if one of us hates doing something the other one usually loves it. For example, I hate the phone, I avoid it and if you do get me on it I just say ‘Yes’, ‘No’, ‘Yes, ‘No’. But he loves it. He’s better at public relations.
SG Obviously we’re an interesting case because we are two names on one label. But you’ll usually find that even designers who work on their own have a shadow…
This sounds like potentially harder work than being married! If you’re married and you have a row one of you can march out and slam the door.
DD Maybe one day there will be a Dolce collection…
SG… and a Gabbana!
DD I could always open a pizzeria.
They’d be great looking pizzas
DD I don’t think it will happen!
So how did you meet?
DD It’s a long story…
SG We met while we were both working at the studio of a Milanese designer and we worked alongside each other for a year before getting our own studio. The we worked together, but separately. We weren’t Dolce & Gabbana. We were Dolce. And Gabbana. One room each. Then one day… Dolce a& Gabbana was born. We were invited to show and we didn’t have a name. Dolce & Gabbana was written on the door so we went with that.
You could have argued about being Gabbana & Dolce…
SG Luckily that wasn’t a problem!
DD The good thing is that we are perfectly compatible even though we actually have different taste. We notice and react to the same things even when we’re not together.
Maybe you were married in a previous life.
SG Ha! Maybe!
DD The good thing is that, for example, things were quite difficult when we started eight years ago and we managed to keep each other going. It’s the same now.
SG If one of us is down, the other is usually up.
How many collection are you designing each season?
SG Men’s, women’s…
DD Beachwear, underwear…
SG Ties, shoes for men and women, scarves…
SG Knitwear for men and women…
DD ‘Complice’, for women…
SG And D&G — very young, very English. Not an Italian look.
Actually, I never really think of yours as an ‘Italian look’
DD That’s because we don’t like rules.
SG Yes, we hate the kind of restaurants where you have to wear a tie. That kind of rule has nothing to do with elegance.
DD You can buy an elegant outfit but you can’t buy elegance. You can be poor and wear old clothes, you could be a tramp and still be elegant. It’s something inside…
What excites you most about your work?
SG At the beginning, when you start thinking and drawing…
DD Even before that!
So it’s not when you make the dream a reality?
SG It’s all over by then, you’ve given birth…
I know what you mean. I always say that I give birth to a magazine every few weeks, but that’s not the best bit. Conception is more fun
SG Ha! Yes, it’s exactly that. By the time of the show, it’s all over. Although there are other satisfactions then…
Like people buying it?
SG That’s always very satisfying!
DD It’s difficult, though, because the satisfaction always passes. You only seem to remember the bad bits, the things that went wrong. Still, it helps you to move forward…
SG Very often the negative things are more important.
Why do you always shoot your campaigns in black and white?
DD You have to fantasize more in black and white. If you shoot a red dress in colour then it’s just a red dress. Colour determines the story for you. If you see a picture of a green jacket and you don’t like green, then that’s it. If it’s a green jacket shot in black and white it could be anything you want it to be.
That’s just smart marketing!
I love fashion but I can’t say I love the fashion business. How do you deal with that side of things?
SG We don’t like the falsity. We like sincerity, directness, honesty…
You’re in the wrong business!
DD Well, we’re not so cynical that we don’t think things might change, but we’re not naïve, either… in Milan, for example, we don’t have our offices in the fashion area. There is another, more, uh, dangerous fashion area!
Tell me about the ideal Dolce & Gabbana woman
DD There has been a revolution during our career. When we started out, our ideal woman was very spiritual with an interior strength, like Anna Magnani. Then she evolved, this strength came out in her body, like Sophia Loren.
SG Then when she was sure of her sexuality she became sophisticated and erotic, like Madonna. Now she has evolved again. She is sure of both her interior and exterior strengths, sure of herself.
DD So now she is looking for a new philosophy. A Nineties woman who is…
SG We don’t know yet! All we know is that women are changing. There is a new freshness, an innocence. Women now are more natural, softer, more vulnerable.
DD They might look fragile but they are strong, too. It’s just a different kind of strength. They don’t have to have these bodies… At a certain point with the supermodels, when they walked down the catwalk you just stopped seeing the clothes, you only saw them. It doesn’t mean we won’t use them, just that we will use different girls, too.
Why do you think women’s bodies are so subject to the whims of fashion?
SG Actually we like normal bodies. We don’t like extremes. Not too tall, too short, too skinny, too curvy. The perfect model for us is Christy Turlington — she’s beautiful, she’s pure, she’s just perfect. It’s the same with the men. Not too many muscles, not too much armour. We actually don’t like a lot of male models because they are too modelly, the way they walk…
So it’s safe to say you don’t cast the same way as Versace...
What motivates you?
DD Our willingness to change.
SG We love our job! It’s our life!
Is it possible not to be a workaholic?
Oh good! A disagreement!
DD the most creative time for me is after office hours, but it’s not possible to separate the two.
SG It needn’t be a negative thing. It doesn’t have to be heavy. Sometimes it’s fun…
DD The problem is that amusement has its limits. It would be more amusing if we didn’t have to sit an examination every few months.
If you only amuse yourself then you tend not to amuse others?
SG But if you amuse yourself in a sincere way I think people get the message, and then it amuses them, too.
I was proud to be one of BBC2's Grumpy Old Woman from 2003-2006. (Wish I looked that 'Old' these days...)
This issue of the Observer’s 1990’s supplement, Life (below), came out on February 9th, 1997. In it, I'd written an article for the travel pages, entitled 'By Waterloo Station I Sat Down and Wept'(as an editor on the magazine I'd come up with the title, too). At that point I'd been a journalist for 12 years; I'd edited magazines and won awards and (career high, this) David Bowie had even made me breakfast — however this one article entirely changed the trajectory of my career. As it is currently unavailable anywhere else online, for those who have not had the *pleasure* I thought I'd reproduce it here.
Students of confessional first-person journalism/any other interested parties may like to know that the piece took as long to write as it did to type and I didn't change a single word after I'd written it. As anybody who writes for a living knows, this is unusual to say the least (it's never happened to me before or since). I feel very fortunate to have experienced this kind of 'automatic writing', if only once.
At that time, bizarrely, it felt very much as if the story needed to tell itself and I was simply the conduit. Even though, nearly two decades on, it remains my best (and certainly my best-known) piece of writing, I don't mind a bit. As recently as a fortnight ago, at a friend's book launch, somebody came up to me and wanted to talk about how reading 'Waterloo Station' had made them feel at the time. What a privilege.
I like my stations grand — vast and gracious cathedrals dedicated to the god of travel, with vaulted ceilings and a big clock instead of an altar; with the prospect of movement, of arriving and leaving and waiting, infecting the travellers. This is why By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is a great title for a novel and By Waterloo’s Eurostar Terminal I Sat Down and Wept is not. Still, inspiring or no, it is the place where many romantic European journeys both start and finish, as the couples I saw knotted together beside the automatic check-in machines, oblivious to the coolly functional surroundings, testified.
So, it was inside Nicholas Grimshaw’s plastic tent that my own painful romantic journey began and ended. To Brussels on Eurostar, a connection to Bruges and a ‘romantic’ weekend for two at a hotel called Die Swaene, one of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, home of artful drapery, napery, fluttering waiters, candlelit everything, fine wines, fussy gastronomy and, naturally, olde worlde charme.
For my husband and myself this was something of a double-edged sword. In the period between being offered the trip and boarding the train — about a week — he had made it clear to me that, for him at least, our marriage was not working, that he wanted to, was in fact going to, leave. Which meant, in a way, that we were already travelling; his quiet stoicism and determination and my predictable tears and anger, recriminations and shock tactics had already laid the tracks, precipitating our own, separate, journeys away from each other. We decided to go to Bruges to carry on the negotiations — me trying to persuade him to stay, him building his resolve to go — on neutral territory, because at home even the half-empty packets of pasta, loo rolls and old magazines seemed to throb with a hitherto unnoticed and powerful significance: they said all this will no longer be as it was.
Adjusting to the fragile etiquette that surrounds these situations proved a test. We didn’t speak much on the train. I spent a great deal of the three-and-a-quarter hour journey to Brussels in a different carriage, accompanied by Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong and several large bags of crisps. We were apart when the train entered the tunnel, and I thought that if something horrible happened, that might be that. Of such wilfully morbid fantasies are tragically romantic train journeys made.
Eurostar hissed into the late afternoon darkness, through Birdsong’s First World War killing fields, where my great-grandfather is buried, and on to Brussels, where the grim Eurostar terminal leaves you in no doubt how great an architect Grimshaw is. We made the connection to Bruges
on a desolate platform at Brussels Midi station and sat opposite each other on a squeaky, plasticky, cruelly-lit train for 50 minutes, not speaking, just making eye contact and, when it all became too much, which was often, sighing and looking away.
The cab journey from Bruges station to the hotel takes about 10 minutes. Our driver was cheery: ‘First time in Bruges? Ah, Die Swaene is one of the very best hotels, possibly the best. Do you want to be recommended a restaurant?’ And I thought to myself, ‘You think we’re Mr and Mrs Happy looking forward to our lovely weekend’; and I also thought, as we chatted with him, what great actors people can be.
Die Swaene is three old townhouses of four storeys, with a dimity reception and a creaky lift. The welcome was warm, the staff do not wear uniforms — this is a family-run hotel and it shows. Our suite, number 50, in the eaves, had a shower room, a separate bathroom, a little living-room with a squashy leather sofa and a bottle of Moet in a bucket on the coffee table. The bedroom was dominated by a vast bed, surmounted by a large gold cupid. The furniture was mostly of the dark, old, eclectic, heavy, oppressively European variety. Two tiny casement windows overlooked a deep-frozen canal. The view was of cobbles, trees, ancient buildings and iced water. Although we were in the middle of the town, it was completely silent.
We arrived at 9pm, just in time for dinner, and were given the best table at the back of the restaurant, which has been converted into a conservatory. Our package — oh irony! — was called the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ weekend and included two set meals, one of four courses, one of six, with wine and, according to the brochure, the threat of champagne being opened with a sword, which is the kind of thing I hate. I wondered if we could borrow the sword afterwards. We didn’t have champagne.
The food really was sublime and talking about it enthusiastically, with a courtly politeness — ‘No, no, what were you going to say?’; ‘No, after you’ — nearly got us through the evening. We were given an oyster each, as a tiny appetizer, followed by a roulade of wild boar with goose liver pate; tiny bread rolls with walnuts; a 1993 Riesling selected by the delightful female sommelier, who revealed that her favourite wines are old burgundies; stuffed envelope of cod with wakame, accompanied by a sprightly Medoc; wood pigeon in an orange sauce; a cityscape of a chocolate pudding with cinnamon; tiny petit fours and coffee that was brewed on the table in a Frankenstein-type contraption attached to a Bunsen burner. There was enough to keep us occupied. There was also a lot of ‘When was the last time you ate anything like this?’; ‘When was the last time you stayed in a hotel like this?’ We realised that we’d never done anything like this together; we just hadn’t got around to it yet. We’ve only been married for 16 months.
With the coffee came more tears, more stoicism. The carefully cultivated atmosphere of ‘romance’ was proving difficult because, obviously, we were here to sift and scavenge through the detritus of romance, not feast on it. We were the last to leave the restaurant, and our marriage summit resumed in suite 50 and went on until about 4am before it faltered and was abandoned. Zero tolerance.
Inevitably to bed. Turning down the coverlet revealed two single beds, pushed together but made up separately. For my husband it was probably a relief, yet it seemed strange. After all, it is not unreasonable to assume that most couples staying at Die Swaene would probably want to be close, but to do so in suite 50 you have to negotiate a no-man’s land of tightly tucked-in sheets. I turned my back to read and left my husband staring at MTV. We agreed that the new U2 single was a disappointment.
The following morning brought a late room service breakfast of scrambled eggs, little pastries, coffee and orange juice — perhaps the very best thing about hotels — then out into a perfect winter days of high blue skies, fogged breath and blood-coagulating cold. We had a map, but Bruges is made for meandering. The city’s chocolat-boxy good looks are due to the fact that, for a very long time, it was a dying city. In the 1300’s a phenomenal 150 ships moored here every day — brugge is Norwegian for wooden dock — but later the estuary silted up and the ships moved on, taking the trade with them. Bruges’s inhabitants were too poor to knock down or modernise, so the city and its eight miles of canals waited for someone to invent the camera. Now almost a theme park, Bruges in summer is apparently nearly as unbearable as Florence — and even in January no cobble, spire, bridge or canal was left unsnapped by grinning, hand-holding couples. Base emotion or no, I found it in me to be jealous of them all.
There’s not much to buy in Bruges except lace and chocolate. I couldn’t see a place for lace in either of our futures, but sought short-term consolation in the purchase of several pounds of dark chocolate from Leonidas — shockingly good. Neither of us was in the mood for culture, and my usual passion for churches seemed to have abated — they make me wibbly at the best of times — which meant that I took a picture of, but couldn’t quite face entering, the beautiful 12th century Basilica of the Holy Blood in the cobbled Burg, one of the many European churches which claims to own a clot of Our Lord’s platelets.
We had a cheap and delicious lunch — chips, mussels, beer, what else? — in an unpretentious, if touristy, restaurant in the Simon Stevinplein, a small square dedicated to the man who introduced the decimal system to Bruges and invented dykes. We barely spoke. Shortly before sunset we boldly took one of the ‘romantic’ horse and carriage tours of the city that leave from outside the Basilica. Actually, even if one was feeling romantic, they’re not romantic at all — the guides are too good, talk too much, crack too many jokes. For 900BF (plus tip), our guide, Toon Defauw, and his horse, a bay called Wilco, gave us a scatter-gun history of the city at a cracking trot. It’s worth it. Toon took a picture of us sitting to attention in the carriage, with horse-blanketed knees and big, brave camera-friendly smiles, with the Lake of Love behind us.
As the sky turned dark, we retreated to the hotel for coffee and downtime. I read, while he watched television, both of us building on our reserves of strength for the evening’s six-course dinner, and all the rest of it.
Dinner: a bavaroise of crab and turbot with caviar; a glass of Sancerre; roulade of ray with a cherry beer sauce; a glass of Chardonnay; lobster tempura; lamb; a heady Medoc — of which my husband observed, with faux-pomposity: ‘It smells a bit like dirty, medieval, treacherous velvet. Thick, historical, Inquisitional. It’s like Donald Pleasance as Pope.’ After tasting it he admitted that it was ‘actually Vincent Price as Witchfinder General.’ Which made me laugh for the only time in Belgium.
Back in suite 50, after deep-fried Camembert with orange and a pudding called a Zephyr, with rose petals, and coffee and petit fours, I felt a dull heavy pain in my solar plexus which I would have liked to have blamed on courses four to six, but couldn’t. We talked until late, again; and I couldn’t sleep, so at 5am I finished Birdsong on the sofa and when I did, finally, sleep, I dreamed dark, medieval dreams.
Next morning, something like a routine emerged among the chaos—our second identikit breakfast. I ached from the previous day’s walking, all over and inside, and as we went out into a Bruges Sunday, the skies were no longer high, but just above our heads, and our feet hit the cobbles hard. From a church belfry came, bizarrely, a discordant carillon of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. It was too cold to walk for long so we went back to the hotel and drank hot chocolate in the tiny wood-panelled bar until it was time to leave. Upstairs, the bottle of Moet remained untouched on the coffee-table.
For such a beautiful city, Bruges station is hellishly ugly. And, when you have to wait a couple of hours for a delayed train, Brussels Eurostar terminal is hellish, too. We did this in silence letting go. On the return leg we travelled first-class and were served strange pate and prawns by an endlessly smiling Belgian girl. The journey was slow — left Bruges at 1.50, got to London at 8.30. In compensation Eurostar offered everyone free single tickets.
At Waterloo, people were being met by their partners, but as I watched mine striding ahead to the taxi rank, I felt him let go even more, uncouple, move on. By the time the taxi had taken us home, I knew nothing would stop him.
If your marriage has to end, perhaps it is best that it does so against the backdrop of a city like Bruges, rather than under the sodium glare of a streetlamp outside the local chip shop, or on the sofa in front of the Nine O’ clock News. Die Swaene and Bruges are beautiful, but it will come as no surprise to discover that I won't be going back. It’s time to move on.
The Times, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, The Mail on Sunday, The Guardian, The Observer, The Radio Times, Elle, Saga, Grazia, Harper’s Bazaar, Red, Tatler, Woman, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, She, High Life, John Lewis, Ocado, Good Housekeeping, Woman’s Journal, The Los Angeles Times, Esquire, Details, Industrie, Woman & Home, In Style, i-D, The Face, Arena... and many more.
‘Newsnight’, ‘The Culture Show’, ‘The South Bank Show’, ‘GMTV’, ‘Richard and Judy’, ‘Sky News’, ‘BBC Breakfast’, ‘When Were We Funniest?’, ‘The Story of the Costume Drama’, ‘Style on Trial’, ‘TV’s 50 Greatest Magic Tricks’, ‘Are You Having a Laugh? TV and Disability’, ‘Russell and Ross’, ‘Big Brother: A Decade in the Headlines’, ‘TV on Trial’, ‘I Love the 1970s’, ‘I Love the 1980’s’, ‘Michael Portillo’s Great British Losers’, ‘Giles and Sue Live The Good Life’, Channel Five’s ‘Most Shocking Celebrity Moments’ ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’, 'Top of The Pops: 1978', 'Most Shocking Celebrity Moments', 'The Peter Kay Story', The Graham Norton Story' & 'The Adele Story', and as a judge on ‘The BBC Design Awards’ and ‘Gok Wan’s Miss Naked Beauty’ and as contestant on ‘Celebrity Sewing Bee’, BBC Children In Need.
* Trustee, Hastings Pier Charity, 2014—present (www.hpcharity.co.uk)* M.Litt (Hon), University of Brighton, 2015 * Contestant, 'Celebrity' Great British Sewing Bee for Children In Need, 2014 * Grumpy Old Women, BBC TV 2003-2006 * Author 'The Heart-Shaped-Bullet' 1999/ 'Separate Lives' 2012 * TV critic, The Observer, 1999-2009 * Restaurant critic, The Observer, 1998/9 * Columnist, The Observer, 1994-2010 * Editor, Arena/Arena Homme Plus, 1992-95 * Features Ed/Fashion Ed, The Face, 1987-89 * Staff writer (and occasional 'crap model' — see above), i-D magazine, 1985-87