Saturday, 16 August 2014


Enjoyed this two-part documentary about the four Romanov princesses, based on Helen Rappaport's book Four Sisters which I've meaning to read for ages; her previous book Ekaterinburg about their last days in the House of Special Purpose was gripping - the very best kind of history writing that has you on the edge of your seat - even though, of course, you know how it's going to end. There's a review of Four Sisters on Lyn's blog; she's on the other side of the world but I know that if she likes a book, I'll more than likely agree.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

All across the nation, we settled with dinners on our laps to watch Great British Bake Off.
But tonight I poured a glass of chilled wine, cut a wedge of homemade tomato tart, scattered with dill flowers and sprinkled with white balsamic ...
And although Mary Berry would have noticed that my pastry wasn't sufficiently rested and had shrunk-
It didn't have a soggy bottom.
So there!
On the other hand, I have never made Florentines. Or, for that matter, a 3-D biscuit ski resort.
Over to Simon, who will have his very funny commentary up soon.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014



I wanted to like this more than I did, but I found it overlong and the writing style too mannered. As if he's looking over his shoulder at the reader, saying, "Look, how I'm crafting this story ... see how I'm juggling all the threads ... admire my skill with words which is going to add at least 100 pages to the length!"
Oh dear, I suppose I'm saying I'd have enjoyed this more if somebody else had written it. Preferably, a sparer, more restrained European instead of a Best Young American Novelist set on writing a war epic.
I'm sure others will disagree with me; Darlene, for one, loved it.
Certainly it's a cracking story, set in Germany and France from the early 1930s to 1944 and the siege of St Malo. Marie-Laure, who has been blind since she was six, is the daughter of the locksmith at the Natural History Museum in Paris. Her father creates a perfect miniature of their neighbourhood so she can learn her way around the streets.
Werner is a white-blond Aryan orphan whose talent for everything to do with radios lands him in an elite German military academy where he becomes part of a brutalising regime.
As Paris falls to the Germans, Marie-Laure's father is entrusted with a beautiful but accursed diamond.
This review sums up pretty well exactly how I felt about a novel that was trying too hard ...
In the end, I skimread great swathes of overwriting and enjoyed it for the story.



So one wartime volume went back to the library ... and another came home with me. I don't know why I waited so long to call this in from another branch, as I've been wanting to read it for ages and despite keeping a beady eye on Amazon, cheap secondhand copies never seem to materialise. (Although what's the betting that I find one in the Oxfam shop as soon as I've read it?) Mollie Panter-Downes covered the war for the New Yorker (what a fantastic job for a writer!), cabling letters to America at weekly or fortnightly intervals. CP Snow said: 'To anyone who lived through the period, [the letters] bring it all back, as though one caught a whiff of brick dust and was transported to the smell after an air raid.' No present-day fiction can ever match contemporary accounts like this. 

August 13, 1944: Londoners who are back with their holiday tans report that the old bomb snobbery which used to flourish in the blitz days is once more evident in rural districts. Residents of tiny southern villages where, perhaps, a bomb has blasted a field and killed a few hens are inclined to be proudly certain that they are the ones who are getting the really tough part of the battle and deflecting it from 'those cockneys.' What is really tough for country dwellers, though, is the job of getting house repairs made, because so many local work-people have been drafted up to London to assist in the rehabilitation of the severely hit districts. The most serious damage in some little English towns has been caused not by bombs but by modern armies negotiating streets more suitable for knights in armour riding on palfreys. The battered Saxon bridges and sagging Tudor doorways which record the progress of skidding British tanks and American trucks through the countryside will keep the local bricklayers busy for a long time after they get back from London.

Hollow laugh as, 70 years later exactly, I've spent all day waiting for London workmen who haven't shown up. I'm taking the philosophical view that at least the unpleasant leak in the bathroom wasn't caused by a bomb.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

There's a lane where I walk occasionally which is very good for blackberries - and very good for lime blossom for tea, if you like that kind of thing, but I don't much. But on Friday I noticed a tree laden with golden mirabelle plums. They were literally falling from the bough ... what luck that I got to them before the birds! So now there's a mirabelle almond cake in the oven ...

And this will be a short post as I mustn't let it burn!

I've been experimenting recently with baking with flowers. First off, tiny lavender meringues which would be lovely as petits fours with coffee. Then I used lavender sugar to bake a batch of lavender shortbread.

Then I got braver and thought I'd make fennel meringues ... whoops, only after I served them I realised I'd picked dill flowers instead. I felt slightly crestfallen until I told myself that you'd pay a whack for dill  meringues in a swanky Michelin restaurant. Wouldn't you? They have a rather grown-up, astringent anis-y taste and I think I'm quite pleased with them.


I'm also planning apricot and lavender cake from this lovely book. And I'm eagerly awaiting this.

Thursday, 7 August 2014


Finding Vivian Maier proved to be a fascinating documentary about the Chicago-based nanny who has been described as Mary Poppins with a camera. Intensely private, secretive, eccentric, she used to haul her young charges around with her as she captured post-war America on her Rolleiflex. Just like Mary Poppins, she seems to have had a menacing quality. Except that rather than dancing on the chimneytops, she took the children she nannied on outings to the abattoir in the meat-packing district. Some of her charges adored her; some were abused by her. You can't help wondering how she ever got a reference. As she moved from family to family, she accumulated 100,000 negatives and 2,700 rolls of undeveloped fim that only surfaced by chance after her death.

Now that I've seen the movie, I'm mad that I've missed several exhibitions of her work in London.

Did any of you watch Mrs Miniver on television this afternoon? First time it's been shown in seven years but for some reason it hasn't gone on iPlayer. Enjoyably dreadful, well, dire, really - but you can't complain that it massacres the book when it doesn't bear a scrap of resemblance.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014



It's a bonus if kids' shows amuse the grown-ups just as much as the children ... but we all adored The Elephantom this morning, hilariously funny and brilliantly performed. It was the National Theatre's Christmas show last year, now returned to the West End. All new to me as I hadn't read the book.

But I can tell you that the Elephantom grows and grows - until he's much, much bigger than in this picture - and if you're sitting where we were, you'll find yourself squashed under his enormous blue bottom. And the bigger he grows, the worse he behaves - until he's about as welcome as an elephant poltergeist. 

The puppets were made by the same people who did War Horse.

It's a poignant story about a little girl who is ignored by her over-busy, self-obsessed parents. The choreography and sound-effects of their frantic breakfasts were quite brilliant.

And while I'm on the subject of sound effects ...

That elephant really wasn't house-trained.

Four enormous icecreams later, we headed off to the newly re-opened Imperial War Museum. All I can say in my own defence is that when we planned this trip several weeks ago, I didn't twig the significance of the date. It was heaving ...

Complete chaos. The main atrium with all the boys' toys now seems horribly cramped. We tramped up and down stairs, couldn't find the WW2 exhibit we were looking for - and felt sad that they've taken out    the Blitz experience which the boys would have loved.

As we didn't have timed tickets, it was 4pm before we made it into the WW1 galleries which I think are probably excellent if we hadn't been so frazzled. It would take at least two or three hours to absorb them properly. We were tugged along by the boys who couldn't wait to get into the trench - but it was nowhere near as interesting as the Trench experience that they had years ago.

But we'll go back, I'm sure. Just not in the summer hols. At least, not this year.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Summer, 1914 (JD Fergusson, 1934)
All weekend I've caught myself thinking, 'This time 100 years ago ... '

So this painting caught my eye when I went to Chichester yesterday for the last exhibition of the excellent Scottish Colourists series that has travelled down from Edinburgh.

It was painted 20 years later, as Fergusson looked back nostalgically to that last golden summer before the war - which must have been rather like this one.

His longterm partner, later his wife, was the avant-garde dancer Margaret Morris who recalled: 'The wonder of the summer at Cap d'Antibes passes all description. Fergus had everything organised, a good supply of charcoal for slow-cooking, omelettes and soups. He had hung a hammock on the big tree, so one could lie in it and pull the ripe figs - sometimes the early ones dropped on one, over-ripe: I remember standing on the tiny balcony and saying to myself - nothing can ever be as perfect as this.'

Fergusson's response to war was less than heroic, although I can't help feeling sympathetic towards someone who felt less than enthusiastic about being conscripted in his 40s.

But although his exuberant colours are so beguiling, there's a shallowness to Fergusson who always seems to trying on some other artist's clothes. Much as I've enjoyed the whole series, and here's my thoughts about Peploe last year, the Cadell exhibition (which I never got around to blogging) was definitely my favourite. Here's why.