Saturday, 25 October 2014


Take the Carlyles, for instance. One hour spent in 5 Cheyne Row will tell us more about them and their lives than we can learn from all the biographies ... It is impossible not to believe that half their quarrels might have been spared and their lives immeasurably sweetened if only number 5 Cheyne Row had possessed, as the house agents put it, bath, h. and c., gas fires in the bedrooms, all modern conveniences and indoor sanitation. But then, we reflect, as we cross the worn threshold, Carlyle with hot water laid on would not have been Carlyle; and Mrs Carlyle without bugs to kill would have been a different woman from the one we know.

From Great Men's Houses, Virginia Woolf

Worth dipping into this book of V Woolf's essays from 1931/2 for Good Housekeeping magazine if only for her look askance at how the Carlyles' lives were ruled by the struggle to achieve good housekeeping whilst carrying hot water up three flights of stairs from the well in basement kitchen.
Other essays on the London docks, Oxford Street and the House of Commons left me feeling too uninvolved to take much interest.


I don't often write about books I dislike - after all, why bother? - but The Shock of the Fall, which won the Costa prize, turned out to be everything I most dislike about the contemporary novel.
I admit, there wasn't anything about it that appealed to me when it was selected for our book group this month. 'You're going to love it' - the plug from the Daily Mail on the back cover - would be enough to assure me that, No, I'm probably not. The jacket design shrieked mass-market emotion.
I persevered. I loathed the typographical tricksiness. Even the page numbers are irritating and gimmicky.
Very briefly, it is about grief and guilt and a teenage boy's descent into schizophrenia following the death of his Down's syndrome brother. Could there be a novel with any more Issues?
Nathan Filer - who was a psychiatric nurse - is now a lecturer in Creative Writing and this reads like a competent NaNoWriMo project. It's the kind of novel that might have been assembled in parts from an Airfix kit.
I'm sure there's a PhD thesis for someone on the deleterious effect of the female book group on literature. Because the demand for bite-sized discussion topics to go with the finger food has created a vast market for novels that are like ready-meals for the brain.
Of course, what's really bugging me is that no sooner had I plodded to the predictably upbeat and redemptive ending - don't want it too grim and depressing, do we?  - than I realised that I'll probably be working too late to make this month's get together. Dammit. I needn't have bothered reading it!

Wednesday, 22 October 2014



Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.
The Garden by Andrew Marvell

I haven't been for a browse along Cork Street for ages, but I knew exactly where I was heading yesterday when I left the Royal Academy ... to this exhibition of new Howard Hodgkin prints at Alan Cristea. The show's title Green Thoughts refers to Marvell's poem. Hodgkin sounds as if he might be terrifying to meet, and journalists are warned not to ask him what his paintings mean or he'll burst into tears. Of course, this could be out of sheer exasperation at being asked the same question yet again. Anyway, the girl in the gallery yesterday said writers tend to play up his reputation for being a prickly interviewee. You can read Andrew Marr's fascinating essay here.
And I learned something new. I had no idea that Hodgkin was a cousin of Roger Fry.


Portrait of Gian Gerolamo Grumelli (The Man in Pink), 1560
The Royal Academy's exhibition of works by Giovanni Battista Moroni is the first to be held in the UK and it is a gem. These portraits of living, breathing people - Moroni was renowned for his realism - seem so alive that you almost expect them to step out of the frame and start talking and dancing and bickering, probably reigniting some ancient blood feud from what I gathered from reading the labels. As for their sumptuous costumes ... oh, this exhibition is a feast. If you click on the images, you'll see the detail.
There is the Man in Pink, above, with his jacket embroidered with silver. his fine ribbed stockings and his fabulous seed pearl garter. The fine red embroidery on his ruff and at his wrists must have been fashionable because it features in several portraits, of men and women alike.

Portrait of Isotta Brembati, c 1553
The Man in Pink was married to this sober, patrician lady - she was a poet - who hasn't been able to resist the frivolity of an ostrich feather fan in candyfloss colours. Very Claire's Accessories, don't you think?

The Lady in Red (below, from the National Gallery) was also a poet, renowned for her beautiful manners. She had to leave town to escape a blood feud. Her husband was the Knight with a Wounded Foot who wore a foot brace if you look carefully. I should think he caused her plenty of grief because shortly after his portrait was painted, he died after falling into a well when he was drunk. I'm sure Hilary Mantel could weave all of these people into an Italian version of Wolf Hall.



There must be a story to tell about this lady who is rather too old to be wearing rosebuds and jasmine in her hair. She reminds me of Princess Anne, or maybe Margaret Beckett, suddenly discovering a skittish, romantic side that we didn't expect. But look at that wonderful smocked chemise that she's wearing. 
Portrait of Lucia Vertova Agosti      

Then there was The Widower and his two little daughters, on loan from Dublin. 




And this little girl looking very self-composed, with her pierced ears and her coral bracelet to ward off evil.  





There is a slide show here. I'll definitely be going back for a second visit. 

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Quinces, Eliot Hodgkin, 1969
Much thought went into planning how to cook my ration of six quinces.

An expert was consulted. Their lovely scent wafted from the kitchen as I baked them, following Sue's advice. (Thanks, Sue.)

Then I made the quince tort dating back to 1662 from this fascinating book.  Here's the original.

Quinces, Parmesan cheese, marzipan scented with orange-flower water, mixed together and baked in puff pastry. (I own up. It did have a soggy bottom.)

The technical challenge, of course, is guessing 17th century oven temperature/timing.

I thought it would be sickly-sweet but it was quite fresh and light. I'd make it again if I could get hold of more quinces.

And it was certainly a talking point.

The serving suggestion of a puff pastry eagle's head stuffed with marzipan and quince is sadly beyond my skills as a pastrychef.

I'd feel mortified serving up an eagle's head with a soggy bottom.

Friday, 3 October 2014


Life has rather ground to a standstill over the past few days as I've been head-down in Sarah Waters' page-turner of a novel. It's not her best, I don't think, but it's still first-class autumn reading.

It is 1922 and post-war London society is fissured. Soldiers have returned to a land that can't find employment for heroes. Genteel widowed Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter are forced to take in paying guests to maintain their shabby South London villa. The paying guests are a brash young couple  from the new 'clerk class' who initially bring colour and a bit of life to respectable suburbia. But they also bring with them the contagion of moral and emotional chaos.

I thought the novel was more interesting at the start in its depiction of two classes coming into intimate contact on the stairs and landing and passing through the kitchen en route to the outside lav. After that ... well, I'd better not spoil it, but it does keep you gripped to the last page.

Fortunately, I have a new Persephone to console me for the gap it leaves in my life. (And a heap of work that has been shoved to one side as I read 'just one more chapter...')

I'm also feeling very regretful for the many times I've walked past secondhand Virago copies of A Pin to See the Peep-Show - especially given the astronomical prices currently on Amazon.

Friday, 26 September 2014


Jane's post today on jam and art got me thinking, especially as I'd also been struck by Stanley Spencer's  doorstep of bread and jam when I saw it at Somerset House earlier in the year.

I knew that Melendez painted jam, for sure ...





But I wasn't really thinking of jam as still life.

I started racking my brain. (As you do when you're supposed to be working on something entirely different.) I thought of paintings with bread and cake and brioche and ham and fried eggs and all kinds of fruit ... but where was the jam?

I was so sure that Tissot had painted jam, but when I checked they'd gone straight on to cake ...

Holyday, James Tissot c 1876




I remembered seeing this painting quite recently, and I was sure this old gentleman would have had jam - especially as it wouldn't be rationed yet. But when I looked carefully ... no jam. (But do click on the image for lovely detail, like the gas-mask on the table.) 

Why War?, Charles Spencelayh, 1938


I thought Evelyn Dunbar would be a good bet for jam, but seems that she was more interested in canning which isn't quite the same ...



A Canning Demonstration, Evelyn Dunbar, 1940


So I set off on a quest and discovered tea-parties that might well have been cheerier with a pot of strawberry jam ... 

Mrs Raynes's Tea Party, Henry Tonks, 1928


And messy kitchens where maybe they'd find some jam if they tidied up ...



David, in the Kitchen, with Thistle, John Bratby


And neat-as-a- pin kitchens where they'd put away the jam (but left the sauce bottle out on the sideboard).

Half a Kitchen, Thomas McGoran, c1956


And pantries full of empty jamjars ...

The Tiled Kitchen, Harry Bush, 1954


And - finally - tea with bread and jam (though maybe it's honey!)

Kitchen at The George, John Kynnersley Kirby, 1932

So it seems that Jane is right . In art, it's jam yesterday, jam tomorrow - but never jam today. And you can't beat Stanley Spencer for a jam doorstep. 



Postscript: Sue has cleverly suggested Coupons Required by Leonora Green, from the Imperial War Museum, for its jar of Hartley's apricot.