Saturday, 16 May 2015


Who would ever have predicted that Borgen, a series about Danish coalition politics, for heaven's sake, would make compelling viewing ...
But it was gripping. And so I was looking forward to this new Danish period drama 1864, which stars all our favourite actors from Borgen/The Killing.
Oh, dear. Can anybody watch this without going, Hey, It's Birgitte ... Look, there's Troels! Godnat Troels... And isn't that Kasper Juuls?
And then comes the sinking realisation that Danish politics might be gripping. But the Schleswig-Holstein Question, even with sex/bestialism/Troels is kind of boring.
And every time you yawn, you've fallen behind with the subtitles.
Lord Palmerston said: 'Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business - the Prince Consort, who is dead - a German professor, who has gone mad - and I, who have forgotten all about it.'
Don't think I'll be hanging in there long enough to make that four people. Although when I see my  Danish sister-in-law next week, I'll be interested to hear what she thinks.

Friday, 8 May 2015



I'm a big RC Sherriff fan. His sci-fi novel The Hopkins Manuscript was the first Persephone title I ever read; except I read such a glowing review that I couldn't hold out for the forthcoming Persephone edition - and then it still took weeks for a musty-smelling original to arrive from America. I'm not sure I made the connection at the time but, shortly before, I'd wept over a harrowing West End production of Journey's End, with David Haig. And several years later - when I'd properly discovered Persephones - I was completely charmed by The Fortnight in September, possibly my favourite of the gentler, feel-good titles on their list.

Greengates, originally published in 1936, is being republished later this year; but I discovered a battered old copy in library reserve stock - that hadn't been taken out since 1981. And I knew I was going to love it.

Mr Baldwin is a 58-y-o Chief Cashier in a City insurance company, a gentle, self-effacing man, perhaps a couple of rungs up the ladder, but essentially not unlike the father who takes his family to Bognor for The Fortnight in September. (It's unnerving as a middle-aged reader to realise that there was a time when 50 wasn't the new 30, it was lumbago and marking time until The End.)

Several months into retirement, Mr Baldwin finds time hanging on his hands; he's thoroughly bored and aimless and cracks are appearing in his previously contented marriage which wasn't designed to survive this 24/7 togetherness. Then, completely out of character, the Baldwins decide to turn their lives around by selling their home and all their possessions and buying a new-build (Tudor or Georgian, £1,050 to £1,950) on a housing estate in what was becoming Betjeman's Metroland ...

Mr Baldwin becomes a pillar of his new community, although it isn't long before Woolworth's, Sainsbury's, Boots' and Lyons' have pursued him down the newly-concreted road to this rustic goodlife.

It sounds delightful? Noooo. Unfortunately, we accompany Mr Baldwin every step of the way - every meeting - every anxiety and setback - every letter he writes through the whole utterly tedious process of   buying and selling and arranging the finance. If Mr Baldwin were your next-door-neighbour in Metroland you'd borrow his well-oiled shears and think what a harmless old bore he was. Maybe in 1936 this was a novel about buying The Middle-Class Dream. But today it feels like traipsing round in the wake of an overly-persistent estate agent. Here's a contemporary review. I'm happy to return this to the library; it's not a keeper.

Carey Mulligan or Julie Christie? No contest. I'm afraid this new film adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd is a mere blip, not a classic.
There's something not quite right about it, even though it's beautifully filmed, and the costumes are terrific. (Especially Bathsheba's going-to-market outfits - but would she really have worn a leather jacket?)
It's too modern. Carey Mulligan is too gamine and minxish to ignite smouldering passion and, without the smouldering passion, where's the tragedy of Farmer Boldwood's brooding love for her? (Also, you should see the grandeur of his house ... it's ages since I read the book, but surely he was a prosperous farmer, not an aristocrat? As for Bathsheba's farmhouse, well, I never imagined it as fancy as this, did you? The director is Danish; maybe the finer nuances of English rural class went over his head.)

Then there's Sergeant Troy ... he looks more like a fresh-faced sixth-form army cadet than a Lothario.

But apart from all that, the story is told at such a galloping pace (it's a good half-hour shorter than the 1967 version) that there's no sense of Bathsheba's character mellowing and changing.

Passionless and pointless. But it looks lovely, I'll give it that much.

Thursday, 7 May 2015


I'm not a fan of magic/fantasy so I didn't feel drawn to Susanna Clarke's whopping great novel, which seemed to demand more commitment than I was prepared to make to a whimsical story. But so far - I've only seen the first episode - I'm enjoying BBC's lavish adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Mostly because it's set in York and I'm having fun spotting snickets and ginnels. It takes place in the early 19th century when magic has withered away to dry-as-dust theory ... but now some are urging a practical magic revival. I'm not sure I'll stay the course over seven hour-long episodes - but I loved the scene when, as proof of his powers, Mr Norrell makes the statues in York Minster's Kings of England Quire Screen start chatting to each other. Wish I'd been there!

Monday, 27 April 2015


Oh, dear. This was the lost weekend when I discovered Outlander, which only goes to show that one is never too middleaged for - sigh - utterly compelling romantic tosh. I'm appalled to say I watched 11 episodes back to back, completely gripped and feel as if I have gorged my way through a big slab of Highland toffee. If only I'd had a nice single malt to wash it all down, but sadly I had to make do with mugs of tea.
Poldark? Ladies, Poldark is nothing ... Poldark is a lukewarm Cornish pasty.
I've never read Diana Gabaldon's historical time travel novels and I don't really want to because, honestly, this is all too preposterous. It is 1945 and Claire, who was an Army nurse, is reunited with her puffy-faced English husband at the end of the war. He looks as if he's escaped from an episode of Foyle's War (and when I googled him, it seems that he really did). But we can forget about him - completely not my type, I'm afraid - because next thing, she's in the middle of some standing stones and  whoosh, she's transported back to Scotland in the 1740s and gorgeous Jamie in his kilt - see above - is rescuing her from the puffy-faced English Redcoat, the sadistic b...... who is her husband's ancestor.
No wonder they had to delay showing it until after the referendum.
It is beautifully filmed - apparently, the most expensive series ever filmed in Scotland - and shame on the BBC for not buying it up for mainstream TV.

Saturday, 25 April 2015


I'm getting very bored with this month's book group choice; only half way through but it definitely falls into the 'plodding on out of politeness' category. I'm not a great fan of historical novels unless they're of the calibre of Wolf Hall - which this surely isn't.
The real life story of Typhoid Mary, the Irish cook who spread disease through her cooking is undoubtedly fascinating. I knew little about her and certainly hadn't considered the human rights/legal side of her story. I don't know whether there's enough source material to flesh out a biography - but a good biography would have been far more interesting than this heavily fictionalised story.
Perhaps I'd have been more forgiving of the unconvincing historical detail (Mary's Paris hat? She's an immigrant Irish cook for heaven's sake) if the story had zipped along a bit faster - but it drags along so  painfully slowly that it gives the reader ample time to mutter and growl about its shortcomings.
The story of Typhoid Mary has all the ingredients for what could have been a gripping read - but by over-egging the pudding Mary Beth Keane has made it fall flat. I am reminded of another medical history, so deftly handled that it would break your heart to read it ... and can only say that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a far better read.

Sunday, 12 April 2015


Monica Dickens ... I've only to hear the name and the years roll away and I'm curled up in an armchair with a bag of sweets and my mum's library book. She'd pull them out of her shopping bag, Catherine Cookson's Mary Ann books, Daphne du Maurier, Howard Spring, AJ Cronin - and Monica Dickens,    who impressed both of us because of her famous literary ancestor.

 I don't recall reading The Angel in the Corner - but when Darlene posted about it recently, she sent me scurrying to the library to put in a request. I checked it out yesterday, two minutes before closing - started it in bed last night - pulled it out from under the pillow first thing this morning and the day has vanished, I've done nothing except read to The End.

 I don't know why they're so enjoyable. It's pure Woman's Own fiction. The nice middle-class girl marries a good-looking brute who drags her down to life in a slum - but he can't vanquish her independent spirit. (The Penguin cover is too insipid and droopy; I think this lurid one sums it up better.)
It's completely unbelievable soap opera, and Monica Dickens has a penchant for clunky great coincidences that maybe she imbibed from her great-grandfather. But she's such a story teller, so good on descriptions of clothes and food and London and domestic detail and grubby newspaper offices ... so thanks, Darlene, I'm blaming you for my lost weekend!