Friday, 6 May 2016

 I started out really enjoying Juliet Nicolson's biography of seven generations of the women in her family, not least for the lovely cover design by Cressida Bell. (If your respective grandmother and great-aunt were lovers, then I guess there's a book jacket in it somewhere down the line.)
It starts in 1830 with Juliet's great-great-grandmother Pepita, a Spanish flamenco dancer who caught the eye of (Old) Lionel Sackville-West, as opposed to his cousin (Young) Lionel who married Pepita's beautiful illegitimate daughter and inherited Knole. Then it flags a bit ... Famous Vita is disposed of quite quickly, as if to say heigh-ho, we've all been here before. It's impossible to care much about Juliet's spoiled, snobbish, alcoholic mother Philippa; she's simply a blow-in by marriage into this famous family - that was half her trouble. And by the last 100 pages, I'm afraid I was thinking, that's quite enough, thank you. But it did make me wonder about what it must be like living with this weight of too much ancestral information. I mean, which of us really wants to know about our parents' and grandparents' dysfunctional sex lives ...? Still, I admit that when I read my great-grandfather's diary it was a crushing disappointment to discover that he mostly wrote about Mass times and the weather.

Saturday, 30 April 2016


Meryl Streep clearly had enormous fun playing Florence Foster Jenkins, the heiress who was the world's worst opera singer and I'm convinced that she must have studied at the feet of Hyacinth Bucket ... her operatic soirées are so like dear Hyacinth's candlelight suppers. The scriptwriter (best known for Midsomer Murders and episodes of The Bill) appeared at the end and claimed that if not precisely factually correct, the story has 'truthiness' ... what a horrible word! It was good fun (though I think I might have edited out the jarring details about Florence's syphilis, even in the interests of 'truthiness').
Incidentally, all those wonderful shots of New York ... they're all filmed in Liverpool.
But I still preferred Marguerite, the recent French take on the same story - played with a far lighter touch, it brought out the poignancy of the story rather more subtly. Did anyone see see Maureen Lipman playing the same role in the stageplay?  I don't even recall it being on but I can so imagine her doing it.

Monday, 25 April 2016


I stole a couple of hours out of a work trip to Oxford last week to stroll through the water meadows at Magdalen, carpeted with thousands of snake's head fritillaries - a truly memorable sight,  as I've never been there at the right time of year before. There were primroses, violets and deer - a porter told me that he'd seen a couple of otters - and you wouldn't think that you were in the middle of a city (well, except for the hum of traffic). It was a gorgeous sunny day and I spotted what were surely the first rather self-conscious straw boaters of the season punting on the river.

Sunday, 24 April 2016


Dull, plodding, over-long - and proof that all the right ingredients (London and Oxford, 1945) don't necessarily add up to a good read. Was hoping this would be an undemanding but enjoyable read for the weekend but it's writing-by-numbers. After I'd begun, I remembered that I was none too keen on the same author's Half of the Human Race; but this new one is worse. Now filed under 'life's too short' and it will probably go back to the library unfinished.

Monday, 18 April 2016


I thought Outlander got off to a slow start last week and my heart sank, but now they're in Paris with Bonnie Prince Charlie - what a drip, Flora McDonald can have him and welcome - it's back on top form and the costumes are FABULOUS. So that's my Sunday evenings rescued. I was fascinated to discover that Claire's 18th century costumes reference the New Look ...  I think I'd picked up on it anyway but now I'm deconstructing every gown. How clever. It's a subtle way of making her stand out as an outsider. I couldn't be bothered watching this chat show all the way through - what an irritating interviewer -but if you go to 23.00 it's worth listening to the costume designer.

Sunday, 17 April 2016


As so often happens, brilliant Matt has made me laugh out loud ...  I can't help feeling that if British newspapers were allowed to tell us what most of us know already, they wouldn't have had anything like as much fun with the story. I'm not convinced about the public's right to know, but I'll defend to the hilt the public's right to take the ...  (Okay, I'll be polite and say take the mickey.)

I"d never heard of Elizabeth Harrower until recently I came across something online that made me think, 'I have to read this book!' A long-neglected Australian writer, she sounded like someone who might have been rediscovered by Persephone Books. A flip through the introduction only confirmed that: 'She is acutely observant of the mores of London in the late 1950s, of tearooms and restaurants and trips to the theatre; and, as ever, of the intersection of class and power.'  
If only I could remember the website where I read the original review ... because over the last few days, I keep thinking, Why on earth am I persevering with this! It is sapping - draining - life-destroying. And 80% of me is bored and the other 20% is thinking what a very clever writer Harrower is. (She is now 88, but gave up writing in the 1970s, )
At first, I was reminded of the L-Shaped Room ... Clem is a young law student, studying by correspondence course, giving French lessons in the evenings and living in a chilly attic bedsit. She is an outsider. 'At home the single aim was to present a front of expensive elegance, whereas in London it was obligatory to show what one was and did: this uniform reserved for genuine socialists, this for hereditary shoppers in Harrods, and so on ...'
Clem is competent, focused, independent - until her landlady takes on a troubled but charismatic young man as a window-cleaner/caretaker. Christian is a failed actor, feckless, dishonest, unreliable, alcoholic, embroiled in an appalling co-dependent relationship of jealousy and neediness with frumpy, uneducated, working-class Olive. One of his pie in the sky fantasies is a job in Paris, so Clem agrees to give him French lessons ... and is drawn into the chaos of his life. He is a leech. Clem wants to save him. He is un-saveable. Not worth saving.
And as a reader, you're bored - exasperated - thoroughly fed up with this unpleasant character's company ... and yet I've kept on reading. Which is why I think Harrower is so clever, she has let Christian make some kind of claim on me as a reader, just as he makes claims on Clem.
I'm now 50 pages from the end. I don't know how it will end. There could be violence - murder - she could destroy her life and marry him - she could get a grip and walk away ... I don't really care because she has exhausted my patience. I feel a bit besmirched as if I've spent too long in bad company and want to shrug off their tentacles.
And yet I carry on reading. Without pleasure - or much interest - yet unable to find the willpower to call it a day. I can't remember ever feeling so manipulated by an author. I've been consoling myself, thinking, Well, I'll finish this, but I'm never reading another ... then found this review of The Watch Tower ...  'This novel gripped me like a nightmare.' 'One of Australian literature's most malicious villains.'
And part of me is saying, Don't even think about it. And yet I know I'm going straight from here to the library catalogue ... The battered reader, like a battered wife going back for more?