Wednesday, 29 December 2010

I'd make a hopeless ballet critic.
Because I love it so much, I'm simply very sad when it's all over.
Until next time.
Before setting out this evening,
I pulled out my collection of shiny red ballet programmes from the
Royal Opera House.
And thought about dozens of lovely evenings I've enjoyed over the years, and felt sad that some wonderful dancers are now retired.
Tonight's Cinderella wasn't as memorable as Sylvie Guillem a decade ago. But I gazed very hard at the fairy who is billed as the Next Big Star and thought how magical it must be to be 22 and on the brink of stardom.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

I've been having fun with Tamara Drewe, which - not being an avid Grauniad reader - I hadn't realised was (very) loosely based on Far From the Madding Crowd.
No prizes for guessing that beautiful Tamara with her nose job and legs up to her bum is obviously Bathsheba Everdene.
Reliable gardener and handyman Andy is Gabriel Oak.
And handsome rock star Ben is a 21st century Sergeant Troy.
While naive, substance-sniffing teenager Jody makes a brilliant stand-in for tragic Fanny Robin.
There's a muddle over an e-mail instead of a Valentine.
But I wasn't quite sure about the philandering novelist, Nicholas ... he's the older man, Tamara's third suitor, but surely he can't be respectable Farmer Boldwood? Or does there come a point where I'm trying to read too much into it? Anybody else have any ideas? It's so long since I read the original that maybe I'm missing something.
Posy Simmonds has done a brilliant job depicting the Hardy-esque misery of modern rural England where the pub has long closed down and local youth has nothing to do in a bo-oo-oo-ring village but hang out in bus shelters discussing snogging and reading Heat.
I love Posy's drawings that change colour with the passing seasons and her merciless eye for middleclass England ... how my toes curled when I realised that frumpy, reliable Beth, the put-upon wife, wears an apron of the same (ubiquitous) Cath Kidston fabric as my ironing board cover. Yes, I am that boring ...

Sunday, 19 December 2010


The amaryllis bulb that I bought in October in hopes that it might flower on Christmas Day ...

Was finally planted today.

Two months procrastination about such a simple job that took about two minutes.

Luckily, amaryllis are also very nice in February.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Bizarre Christmas tip from today's Sunday papers: Show your light-hearted side ... pop a few chocolates into unexpected containers, such as wellies outside the front door for guests to help themselves to as they leave.

Suppose it's a change from a tin of Quality Street. But don't feel obliged to on my account.
The man checking bags at the door of the National Portrait Gallery yesterday looked defeated as he gazed into the depths ...
There was a novel to read on the train
A scarf that I'd bought for a friend
Gloves, recipes, shopping lists, bits torn out of newspapers that are slowly turning into confetti.
And if he'd plunged deep enough he'd have found a white pudding.
White puddings are a rare delicacy in London so when I happened upon them in an Irish shop, I had to buy one. (And shove it into my handbag for the rest of the afternoon. Maybe in another life I will return as someone with one perfect red Chanel lipstick in a designer bag ... in this life I am the person clutching a bag of hard-to-source offal.)
Sadly, today's white puddings never taste quite as good as they did in my childhood. (And I've certainly lost the taste for nibbling it raw.)
But fried in lashings of grease until you can spread it on thick, white factory bread
And you can feel your arteries clogging
That's what I call a Sunday breakfast.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

On the day I bought the first Christmas present -
And wrote the first card -
And said, ooh, yes, please to the first paper cup of mulled wine ...

I'm afraid I also saw the first daffodil.
Anybody fancy an Easter egg?

(On my way home, however, I came across a festive flashmob of hundreds of Santas in Trafalgar Square. If only I'd had a camera.)

Friday, 10 December 2010

How strange ... none of the Sunday papers have asked for my books of the year. I can't think why not. Maybe I read the wrong kind of books. On this year's Observer list I scored a staggering nul points; the Telegraph's is a bit more reader-friendly, don't you think? I haven't much desire to read Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. I find it tragic that our so-called culture secretary - I couldn't have put a name to him last week but he is now lodged in my mind forever as Jeremy *unt - can't think of anything he has enjoyed more than Tony Blair's memoirs.
But I would like to read Philip Larkin's Letters to Monica and I would be delighted to find Romantic Moderns, by Alexandra Harris, under the Christmas tree. (I hold out little hope. I have to do my duty by the bath products industry. I know. I'm ungrateful. I am difficult to buy for. There are starving children who would be glad of my shower gel. And a scented candle.)

So here they are, my books of the year 2010 ...
No surprises that top of the list are Wolf Hall (I know, it's last year's book, I'm always behind the times) and The Hare With Amber Eyes, as well as Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner (a brilliant discovery, thanks to Cornflower's book group) and Olive Kitteridge.
Other books that I've really enjoyed were Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon and Death Comes for the Archbishop (but anything by Willa Cather soars to the top of any list).

The most powerful book of the year was Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi. I meant to post about this but I was too gutted after I read it. It's no secret what it's about but I won't tell you here because the drip, drip of clues increases the tension. You know how it will end but the ending, when it comes, is so much worse than you can possibly imagine. But don't read this if you are in any way fragile; it is so powerful, a Greek tragedy of a story that you can't get out of your head.

My easy, enjoyable wallow award goes to Norman Collins for London Belongs To Me, the only book that's ever got a unanimous thumbs-up from our book group.

Maybe it's a sign of age (and fading memory) but I find that I'm returning to novels that I've read before ... and it was well worth a return visit to The Go-Between by LP Hartley and my favourite Elizabeth Taylor, A Game of Hide and Seek, which I'm still reading. (Thanks again to Cornflower for the push.)

And although it seems to be blog protocol not to give bad reviews ... what the hell. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is vile, pornographic tripe fit only for the dustbin. Which is where it would have gone. Except it was a library book.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

I have eaten the first Christmas lunch, with turkey and pudding. And a mince pie. But that was over a week ago.
The first cards are on the windowsill ( even though I haven't written any).
I have been to the first noisy party, wondering how many prawn nibbles it takes to soak up a mojito imbibed on top of champagne (even though I'm old enough to know better).
I have been to a nativity play and clapped very loudly for the Wise Man and the Little Donkey who invited me.
And I've sat in front of a roaring log fire in front of a Christmas tree that tipped the ceiling of a stately home.
I ate too many chocolate snowballs this morning pondering how behind I am with work after all the festivities.
Is it over yet? Because although it's been very nice, I think I've had quite enough. Already.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

In a kitchen 200 miles away, my brother is making Welsh cakes in a sandwich toaster. (Christmas present c.1980-something, found at the bottom of the cupboard, needed a good wash.)
In a kitchen in London, I'm making Welsh cakes in a frying pan slicked with butter paper because I don't own a proper griddle and I didn't get a sandwich toaster that Christmas, think that was the year I got the foot spa.
You have to keep a very, very sharp eye on Welsh cakes or they burn.
But the second batch was very good.
Of course, it does explain why nobody in this family has a waistline.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

My train passed through a monochrome landscape of snowy fields and icy mists, past frozen canals and stark, black woodland.
It was very lovely.
But I was glad when I arrived back in London to find that our snow had disappeared.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, for there is in London all that life can afford ...
Dr Johnson didn't say anything about his feet getting tired but my visitors last weekend appreciated stops at some of my favourite cafés with a view.
Where you can watch twilight fall over the city for the price of a coffee.
This is the view from the National Portrait Gallery; the finest view of Nelson's backside that London affords.
(But could I interest the younger generation in portraits of Jane Austen or the Brontes ... not a bit, it was straight down in the lift and on to Covent Garden before the shops closed.)
Everybody agreed that, much as they'd looked forward to seeing Tate Modern, in fact the National Gallery has so much more 'wow'. I wasn't surprised. (I find it hard to love Tate Modern. I hate, hate, hate the thematic hang and that overbearing building seems to leech all the energy from the paintings.)
But what a view from the restaurant ... wow!

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Reading The Outward Room, by Millen Brand, reminded me of this painting by Hopper.
It is both a love story and the story of a young woman's recovery from mental illness after she has the good fortune to meet a thoroughly decent man. Harriet has spent years in an asylum following her brother's death. When she manages to escape, she jumps a train to New York where she is soon penniless, riding the subway at night with thousands of other homeless girls - and she can't even afford to buy a coffee in a neon-lit diner that sounds just like this one.
But when she meets John, his quiet goodness allows her spirit to mend.
The novel was a sensation when it was published in 1937 during the Great Depression, on the same day as William Maxwell's novel They Came Like Swallows.
I was fascinated by the descriptions of Depression-era New York, the El-trains and grimy rooming houses and sweatshops. But Harriet's slow, slow healing was a bit too slow for me and I couldn't help thinking that this would have been better as a long-ish short story. Maybe I just lack the patience for broken minds and broken syntax.
I'm glad that I read this but I far prefer William Maxwell. Interesting, though, that it was partly based on the experiences of Millen Brand's first wife who was deaf and came to New York when she was 17 to live in a windowless tenement in Greenwich village, supporting herself by working in sweatshops and washing dishes in restaurants.
I took my family on a walk around Spitalfields, one of my favourite parts of London.

My niece goes clubbing here every weekend, but she had never noticed these narrow Georgian streets where Huguenot silk-weavers lived.

However, she does know the names of all the graffiti artists.

I don't know that I'll ever be a huge fan of Banksy.
But I love the local wildlife.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

'Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you'll poison me.'

That's what the village children chant when they see Mary Katherine Blackwood, who is 18 years old, and lives with her sister Constance. 'I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cap mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.'

I love this cover, far more atmospheric than my free-with-The-Times Penguin edition. And I'm not going to say too much here because one of the best things about this book is the way Shirley Jackson drip-drip-drips clues about the two strange sisters who live alone in a rather wonderful house. (Eating rather wonderful meals because Constance is an excellent cook ... don't you love books that describe rum cakes for tea and rose-coloured china, and tiny thin hot pancakes for breakfast?)

It builds up to a climax that's reminiscent of Jackson's horrifying story The Lottery. And as she leaves plenty of room for the reader's imagination to go off at tangents, I'm still puzzling over the Blackwoods and how Merricat got to be like she is ... doesn't the father sound overbearing?doesn't the parents' marriage sound as if something wasn't quite right? There aren't any answers, just niggling, unsettling hints to worry your mind.

It was a delight to read something short and gripping - you could read it in an evening - after unrewarding weeks plodding through The Lacuna.
Which really wasn't worth it.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

There's two books that I've enjoyed far and away above anything else I've read this year, so I'm delighted that they've won Galaxy National Book Awards.
I know I've harped on about them before. But for sheer brilliance of story-telling it doesn't get any better for me than Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and The Hare with Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal, awarded Galaxy New Writer of the Year for his riveting family history.
The Hare with Amber Eyes is the book that has made me want to jump up and down and tell people, 'You've simply got to read this!'
I'd jump up and down about Wolf Hall, but nearly everybody I know has already read it!
Whee-ew ... I have finished The Lacuna which is about the same length as Wolf Hall but which took me five times as long to wade through.
I'm not used to taking weeks over one book. There were times when I could have sworn that it grew 50 pages in length on the bed-table overnight because I never seemed to get any further on with it.
I thought if I ever finished it, I'd deserve a medal.
(It's a book group choice. I don't know why, because nobody's cracking a whip, but I've never abandoned a book group book yet. Think this has more to do with personal vanity at conceding defeat in a public arena than any finer feelings of etiquette and fairness to the person who chose the book.)
But now that I have finished ... there's ideas rattling round in my head about truth (especially as reported by newspapers) and the nature of celebrity and I realise that I was much more engaged than I thought. (Of course, for pure reading pleasure, it didn't come within a whisker of Wolf Hall. It won the Orange prize because it is a big, fat, serious political doorstopper and maybe we still don't expect women writers to address political issues.)
The photos are Leon Trotsky and Frida Kahlo. I'm far too lazy to write a review but here's an interesting interview with Barbara Kingsolver.
I still think that it's a major flaw if it takes 250pp to get interested in the main character.
But we'll have plenty to discuss when we meet later this week.
At least, we will if everybody else has finished the book!

Friday, 12 November 2010

I'm not an opera buff - but last night's performance of Roméo et Juliette at the Opera House was a bit of a let down.
If it had been MacMillan's exquisite ballet, I'd have been holding back tears.
If it had been Shakespeare, I'd be on the edge of my seat.
But I did think that Gounod makes a sentimental dog's dinner of a great tragic story.
And there were several empty seats after the interval.
Not me. I stuck it out to the end.
But I must have had a premonition that it was going to be a Long Night.
Because at 4pm I hurriedly made a big plate of egg and chips.
To see me through -
A very shrill soprano
A libretto that would have Shakespeare spinning in his grave
And an overwhelming urge to grab the mobile phones from all the fidgety, twitchy young people sitting around me.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Being rather witless about anything technical, I've only recently discovered my stats counter which is now a source of endless fascination.
Whoever would have imagined that, so far today, there have been rather more visitors from America than the UK. (Why, I wonder?)
As well as others dropping in from Canada (hi, Darlene), New Zealand, Switzerland, Spain and Singapore.
This week I've had guests from Croatia and Argentina, Romania, Australia and Malaysia.
Not to mention Mrs Miniver's fanbase in South Korea and Russia. (Are they learning English? Or should I be worried?)
I wish I knew who you all are. Do you arrive by mistake and shuffle off quickly? Or stay here to browse?
Come on. Be brave. Leave a comment. Even if it's just, "Hi."
We don't bite.
Well, not very often.

Monday, 8 November 2010

When Darlene wrote recently about Frost in May, by Antonia White, I couldn't resist pulling my copy down from the shelf. I remember exactly where and when I bought it on a drizzly, rainy weekend in a dreary out-of-season seaside town in Devon. It must have been 1978, everything was closed, I was working in my first job and counting the months until I wasn't quite so useless and could find employment in London.
But when I discovered that slim volume in a secondhand bookshop (1948 edition, 35p, sadly, no dustjacket), I was ecstatic ... because Frost in May was the first Virago Modern Classic and I'd read all about it in Cosmo. If you weren't around in the 1970s, it's impossible to describe how exciting that magazine was, how we counted down the days to the next issue, how it was our lifeline to the glamorous, glossy, sophisticated life that we had to believe was around the corner. (I hasten to add that it bore no resemblance to the trashy rag it is today.)
So there was a lot of nostalgia in immersing myself in that novel once again. (Nostalgia for my 21-year-old self, not for out-of- season seaside towns, because my instincts were absolutely right and I was much happier living in London. Even if that glamorous sophistication has always eluded me.)
But 30 years on, I think I've responded differently to the Lippington nuns. In 1978, I hadn't long escaped from my own school days in a convent which was a watered-down version of the Convent of the Five Wounds. We had black lace mantillas, marked with Cash's nametapes, as part of our school uniform and bridal veils for feastdays; at primary school, we even curtsied to the teachers. Far from being a Nanda, I loathed the whole caboodle.
But this time round, what horrified me wasn't the rigid regime of the nuns but Nanda's creepy father, a Catholic convert, his intense relationship with his daughter, his ownership of her 'purity,' his angry rejection of her as soon as she appears tarnished.
I also wondered if the nuns weren't kinder and more realistic than I'd given them credit for. After all, this is pre-WWI and what was going to happen when middleclass Nanda and her aristocratic friends left school? For Nanda, in Earl's Court, there would be no coming-out parties or curtseying to royalty; outside the democratic walls of the convent her friendships would surely fade when she couldn't keep up. (Read The Flower of May by Kate O'Brien for the damage wreaked by convent friendships across class boundaries.) I was horrified by the nuns' snobbery when I was younger ... now I think that maybe their feet were firmly on the ground and that they had a very realistic grasp of the society they lived in.
Still shudder at the convent cabbage, though ...

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

I have never heard the first cuckoo of spring.
But today I heard the first strains of White Christmas playing in M&S.
So I accepted a free sample of shortbread and walked out the door and did my shopping elsewhere.
So there!

Thursday, 28 October 2010


Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert wise-cracking their way through one of the last rom-coms before a very distant cousin of mine was instrumental in imposing moral standards on Hollywood.
That cousin, who was the scourge of the movie industry, died before I was born, and his favourite movie was The Song of Bernadette.

I daresay he'd have disapproved of sassy Claudette, as the spoiled little rich girl on the run from her daddy, who meets a cynical out-of- work hack on the bus to New York.
Okay, so she borrowed Clark Gable's pyjamas. But when she's forced to share his motel room, he hangs up the Wall of Jericho - a curtain dividing the room - and it doesn't come tumbling down until right at the end.
Barbara Stanwyck in Forbidden is a much racier story. Of an adulterous love affair and illegitimate birth and sleazy newspapermen raking up dirt. 'Two hours of soggy, 99.4 per cent soap opera ...' said director Frank Capra. You wouldn't think that it was nearly 80 years old. I guess that's what happens when librarians take off their specs, take out their savings and take themselves off on a cruise to Havana.

The man in the row behind me was boasting that he'd seen seven movies back to back the day before. But two's my limit. Even during London Film Festival. Some of us simply don't have the stamina.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

It is the year of the cabbage. After some fine specimens in Edinburgh last week, what do I find at the RA today but ... more cabbages.
(I'm sure I saw a few Brussels sprouts as well.)
I don't think that I'll ever be bowled over by the Glasgow Boys.
Although my brother might persuade me to change my mind when he flies down from Aberdeen to see them next week.
They are certainly the men of the moment as there's three exhibitions of their work currently on in London.
PS Do read this story about the cold and hungry little girl in the painting.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

My real reason for visiting the National Portrait Gallery yesterday was to see the Thomas Lawrence exhibition that has just opened.
He painted this portrait of Queen Charlotte when he was only 20, with no formal training as painter, and having been granted only one sitting by the Queen.
But look how that young boy has captured the sadness in her eyes, only a year after the first descent into madness of King George III.
There were other haunting faces in this exhibition, so real - you'd think - that they might have stepped out of their frames to engage you in formal, polite conversation. Lawrence seems to have had a way with those who were old and frail, like old Lady Manners who was 89 when he painted her sitting erect but twisting a lace handkerchief in her knotted, arthritic hands. He painted William Wilberforce in retirement, his body wracked by pain but goodness and good humour shining out from his face.
There was hardly anybody in the gallery yesterday and my guess is that the average age of visitors was well over 60. I enjoyed the quiet and the sense that everybody there was engrossed in the paintings ... but what a shame that so many will ignore this exhibition because it isn't 'fashionable.'

Friday, 22 October 2010

It could be a scene out of Dickens or Wilkie Collins.

But before anybody's imagination runs away with them, this isn't Bill Sikes ...and he's only buying a newspaper.

Still, you can't imagine the lengths that pioneer photographer Camille Silvy went to, to capture that gloaming effect.

I wonder if he would have liked one of these?

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Flagging behind Cornflower's book group, I have just finished the Lost Man Booker Prize-winning novel Troubles, by JG Farrell.
I had a nagging feeling that I might have read this back in the 1970s. I had a strange sense of déjà vu about the Majestic Hotel and yet even by the end I couldn't decide if I was only imagining that I'd read it once before. In fact, that slightly disoriented 'what am I doing here?' feeling is rather appropriate to the mood of the book.
You'll either find Troubles achingly funny ... or you'll be bored to irritation by its melancholy pace. Major Brendan Archer is still traumatised by his experiences in the trenches when he arrives in Ireland to claim the young woman he acquired as his fiancée in a fit of characteristic vagueness while he was on leave. By now it is 1919 and the Irish countryside is overrun by Sinn Feiners and Black and Tans. Angela's father Edward Spencer, loyalist to his teeth, is the owner of the Majestic Hotel that serves as a metaphor for the decrepit British Empire. The Majestic is a tour de force ... inhabited by old ladies smelling of lavender and mothballs, overrun by feral cats and brought to the point of collapse by every kind of rot and the blanched, hairy roots of overgrown vegetation in the Palm Court. The Major is soon released from his engagement but months pass and a terrible inertia keeps him living (in hysterically funny discomfort) at the Majestic.
It took me a long time to read this novel .. well, a week, which is slow-going for me ... and eventually I realised the sheer skill of Farrell's construction. There's no chapters, the only breaks are intermittent news reports from elsewhere in the crumbling Empire ... and like Major Archer, all you can do is read on, carried forward by inertia, unable to extricate yourself from the Majestic Hotel. Very clever. And very funny.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Especially for Darlene ... a garden with no strange men lurking under the chairs.

And a wonderful pair of stripey socks.

The Artist's Sister in Her Garden by Joseph Bail.

Sunday, 17 October 2010















Midsummer by Sir James Guthrie.

Don't you think that the angular lady on the right might have been Miss Jean Brodie's maiden aunt taking tea in the garden?
That silver teapot caught lovely reflections. I wonder who polished it?
Another stunning painting from Edinburgh by the American artist Charles Courtney Curran.
The lilies are Nelumbo lutea, the American lotus, that has a sweet, magnolia-like fragrance ...
It's quite a small painting and yet I felt like I was breathing it in.
The woman under the green parasol, on the left, was the artist's bride who carried these flowers in her wedding bouquet.
Chestnuts were raining on my head in Kew Gardens, as a flock of green parrots swooped through the trees and shook them to the ground.
That's life in the suburbs ...
(You couldn't make it up.)
I shall have to roast them or I shall feel guilty for depriving the squirrels.
I thought about trying to make chestnut flour but it sounds more trouble than it is worth.
But chestnuts roasting in a gas oven ...?
It simply doesn't sound quite right.


Saturday, 16 October 2010

Was it worth the journey to Edinburgh? And was it a Grand Day Out? Oh, yes, it was ...

It was dazzling.

From the jolly Caillebotte daisies outside the gallery and decorating my cupcake ...

To sizzling nasturtiums and dahlias, and yellow lilies floating on a lake.

Not forgetting some very handsome Savoy cabbages.

There were paintings of dewy mornings when you could feel the cool air in a garden of pink roses and morning glories.

And twilit evenings with the scent of lilac.

And I could imagine Monet fussing over his blue and white pots on his terrace at Argenteuil and worrying whether his Epiphyllum would survive the winter. (Every morning, at Giverny, he had one of his gardeners wipe the lily pads clean of traffic dust before he came down to the garden with his paints.)

I'm more of a laissez-faire gardener, like Renoir, whose Montmartre garden was a wilderness of poppies, convolvulus and daisies. 'Give me an apple tree in a suburban garden. I haven't the slightest need of Niagara Falls,' he said.

This exhibition was about people, enjoying their gardens. There were children's toys and games of hopscotch ... there was fruit cake and silver teasets and kettles and comfortable chairs in quiet, sunny corners.

Then, when I'd walked twice through the exhibition, I paid a flying visit to the gallery next door to see the best fried eggs in art history.

I ate haggis and clapshot mash in a stone-flagged kitchen with an old cooking range.

I walked around the New Town - which is very old - and took a shortcut through a graveyard once haunted by grave robbers. And thought that Edinburgh at dusk is surely the spookiest city I have ever seen.

And then I flew home. Because, if I'm honest, my feet were beginning to ache rather a lot.

But I wouldn't have missed it for anything.


Saturday, 9 October 2010

Not yesterday's meringues which are nothing like as glamorous as this, but
a wonderful hat that I simply couldn't resist when Kristina highlighted the work of a very inventive milliner.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Being a thrifty cook, rather than waste a couple of egg whites, I buy raspberries and a pot of cream, and I turn the oven on for an hour, and I make meringues.
(Look after the pennies, and the pounds will spend themselves.)
The recipe says 'makes 15.'
No, it doesn't. It only made six.
(I'm afraid I'm not a very dainty person.)
But though I say so myself, they looked good enough for Mary Berry.
Even if not quite as good as the ones my mum used to make for Sunday tea.

Sunday, 3 October 2010


Her manly portrait hung in the great hall, and was honoured every Founder's Day by a bunch of hard-wearing flowers such as chrysanthemums or dahlias.
From The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark.

My hard-wearing bunch of sunflowers has lasted more than a week but they're maybe too frivolous for the Marcia Blaine School for Girls.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

My worn, but lovely, 1948 copy has a different colour jacket but what I really like ... if you look closely ... is the brown teapot set into that wreath of London landmarks. Because this is a book in which the kettle is never off the boil. And I've got through many a brew this week (builders' blend, no sugar, please) as I've been buried in London Belongs To Me by Norman Collins.
It starts in 1938 as war clouds are gathering and ends in 1940 with the start of the Blitz. It was published in 1945, so Collins - who was the BBC's director of overseas services for the troops - was actually writing it in the small hours of the night through the second half of the war. (Later he initiated BBC's Woman's Hour which, of course, is still going strong after 60-odd years.)
This is a book about Londoners, ordinary Londoners who live in rented rooms at No 10 Dulcimer Street, south of the river. There's Mr and Mrs Josser, he's a retired City clerk, very decent people these; ineffectual widow Mrs Boon and her ne'er-do-well son Percy; there's Connie, the ageing actress fallen on hard times, who has a job in the ladies' cloakroom of a disreputable nightclub, and who hungers for tea and company, as well as any drama and gossip that's going. Down in the basement, there's landlady Mrs Vizzard, also a widow, who has fallen for the dubious charms of charismatic Mr Squales, a dodgy spiritualist who has a way with widows' savings. After 600 pages, they now feel like family. Try not to laugh when young Doris Josser and her flatmate Doreen instal a phone, in the hopes of converting their social life - courtesy of the Postmaster-General - from Lyonses and milk-bars 'into a whirl of Berkeleys and Savoy Grills.' But in the three days they've had it, the phone doesn't ring once.

But it's not just the characters, Norman Collins has a way of describing a room so that you feel you were there. Let's visit the home of Ted and Cynthia, the Jossers' son and daughter-in-law. (Please excuse Cynthia, she's a bit common, she used to be an usherette - but Ted's besotted with her, to his mother's disgust.)
For a start, everything in the flat was so up-to-date and modern. Ted had spent a lot of money on the furniture. From the low couch and the duplicate easy chairs, each with a gold tassel hanging from the front of the arms, to the new looking antique dining-room suite it was all of one style - 1937, Co-op.

Or we could drop in at the nightclub where Connie works, sitting behind a counter with a saucerful of pins in front of her, but don't interrupt her meal of customers' leavings and 'the better half of a chicken sandwich, only slightly covered with cigarette ash.'
There were the same canary coloured walls that were not much more than sparrow coloured in places where the customers had rubbed against them.

Maybe you'd prefer a large pink gin in the high-class Tudor-beamed pub where Percy has his fateful encounter with The Blonde.
The decorations were high-class, too ... The whole place had just been rebuilt, which was why everything was so new and fresh looking, even the old parts. The antique copper jugs that hung in a row over the bar were brand new, everyone of them. And even the stag's head that was mounted over the door was bright and glossy as though it had been shot specially for the opening.

Pink gin? No thanks, I'm off to put the kettle on ...

Friday, 1 October 2010


I can't resist filling my pockets with shiny, brown conkers. What's wrong with little boys today ... they don't seem to care about them any more.
When I was little, by 3.45pm there wouldn't be a conker in sight ... you had to run out of school before they all disappeared from under the tree by the bus-stop. There was conker warfare on the way home.
But I could collect sackfuls on the pavements around here.
Maybe I should donate a conker. (This year's crop does seem smaller in size if not in volume.)
Last year I showed two little boys how to tie their conkers on a string.
I remembered that my brothers used to go through arcane and secret rituals involving vinegar and baking in the oven.
If only I'd paid more attention.
I lost interest in my conkers as soon as they lost their shine. (This lovely book showed how to make dolls' house chairs from your conkers but, to be honest, it didn't really work.)
I never dreamed I'd be responsible for handing down a male tradition.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

It is far too long since I have had a Proper Treat. New shoes? New handbag? New coat? Oh dear, I really need a new coat but I was born without the female shopping gene.
They say women turn into their mothers as they get older.
But I have turned into my dad. And I hate, hate, hate shopping. (Unless it's for food. I like food shopping. This is not entirely unrelated to the fact that shopping for clothes is a torment.)
No, what I really like is a Grand Day Out. On my own.
I know this is unsociable. But Grand Days Out do not allow for compromise. (You will only get tired and moan and keep phoning your children to see if the house is on fire ...)
And what I want to do is visit this exhibition. And spend hours and hours there if I want to.
I've read the catalogue. I've sighed about the fact that it's not coming to London. I saw Cornflower's pictures and was stricken with a nasty attack of blogger's envy.
And then this morning I read this and it tipped me over the edge.
So I got on the phone and talked to a person in Calcutta or thereabouts and discovered I could buy a day return flight to Edinburgh for £50.
And that is why I'm in a happy, sunshiney mood today. For the price of a pair of shoes!
I'm looking forward to a Grand Day Out.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

I only nipped out to go to the bank but to get there I have to pass the Oxfam bookshop.

For every man there exists a bait which he cannot resist swallowing.

But what am I even thinking of, going inside? (Especially when the bank will be closed in 10 minutes.)

Temptation is an irresistible force at work on a moveable body.

Of course, you'll understand why it's important - even though I'm drastically cutting back and there's heaps of unread books all over the house - but I simply have to check in case there's a rare and wonderful bargain.

The trouble with resisting temptation is that it may not come your way again.

I'm in the door ...

I deal with temptation by yielding to it.

I see the dovegrey cover. Even though I already own a copy of Miss Pettigrew (and have given several others to friends) I pick it up, anyway. It is pristine. It still has its Persephone bookmark. And, wait for it ...

It is signed, in slightly shaky, old lady's handwriting by Winifred Watson herself.

There is a tussle with my conscience. It is only £1.69. But people whose bookshelves are double-parked do not need duplicates.

I put it back on the shelf. I hope that it will go to a good and loving home.

Of course, the Oxfam shop opens again at 9am tomorrow.

Those who flee temptation generally leave a forwarding address.

Sunday, 26 September 2010


'He is like a butterfly, but at the same time he is the epitome of manliness and youthful beauty. The ballerinas, who are just as beautiful, are completely eclipsed by him.'

'When he danced Spectre he was the very perfume of the rose because in everything he extracted the essence.'

Oh, oh, oh ... what can I say about the V&A's Ballets Russes exhibition except that I spent three hours there this afternoon, absolutely entranced. If only I could take a day trip back in time and see a performance. Would I pick the beautiful Nijinsky in Le Spectre de la Rose? (And he was beautiful, like a faun, I hadn't realised quite how lovely he was until I saw the sculpture of his head.) Or Tamara Karsavina dancing Firebird? (Though I chuckled at the cartoon of Mr Punch's spoof ballet Les Suffragistes starring M. Asquithoff and the Corps de Ballot.)
It was easy to see how Diaghilev set the world aflame with his Ballets Russes. What an explosion of colour and music and art. I saw costumes by Bakst and the biggest Picasso in the world and Lydia Lopokova dancing in a frothy little can-can number designed by Derain.
And there is even something for the knitters ... two wonderful woolly swimsuits designed by Chanel for the ballet Le Train Bleu. (For dancing, or posing but not, I think, for getting wet.)

You need at least three hours to see this spectacular exhibition; I hadn't realised how big it was, so I'll be going back for another look.

Friday, 24 September 2010

The whirlpool and the gulf were the quintessence of the wildness of Jura, and just the kind of thing Orwell's police state in Nineteen Eighty-Four had abolished, because they knew such wilderness nourished freedom of thought and action ... Whirlpools and wild places are inextricably linked with our capacity for creativity, as Orwell demonstrated when he chose to come to Jura to write his last novel. From Waterlog, by Roger Deakin.

I am a paddler in the shallows, not a person who swims in whirlpools. But I like it that there are others who do.
I'm with them in spirit. Just not so keen on getting wet.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

On an autumn afternoon, this was such a perfect film, poignant and funny, and as soon as it finished I wanted to see it all over again. The Illusionist is a vaudeville magician on his uppers, who meets Alice, a young girl who is convinced that his magic is real. (It's based on a previously unfilmed screenplay by Jacques Tati.)
I loved the old-fashioned animation evoking rain-drenched London and soot-blackened Edinburgh in the late 1950s; a world of third-class British Rail carriages and dingy theatrical digs. I giggled at the Scottish fish and chip shop with ideas above its station; I didn't know whether to laugh or cry when the magician thinks he has eaten his nasty-tempered rabbit in a stew. And I felt really sad that the cinema was almost empty because I thought this gentle, nostalgic film was a work of art.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Things I've enjoyed this weekend ...
Nigel's plum crisp (scroll to the end for recipe) which won hands down over his plum cake.
Watching Gigi on television. My mum took me to see it at the cinema when I was five or six. She knew that the unsuitable bits would sail right over my head.
Lamb baked with aubergines and tomatoes for dinner.
Picking Michaelmas daisies along the river.
Giving in and turning on the heating.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

I hardly notice the deer, or the squirrels or the mushrooms that might not be poisonous. I'm thrashing through bracken, and hopping over rabbitholes. (Or are they molehills? I'm such a townie.) I'm late, I'm late, I'm late.
It is London's Open House weekend and I've decided to explore close to home. I have every confidence that I can scurry across Richmond Park in time to tour the Royal Ballet School before it closes. When I arrive puffing and panting the stern lady on the door is not at all sympathetic. I am Too Late. I can tell that she is accustomed to dealing with those who are disciplined enough to get up on time. After all, the swans can't hop along 40 minutes late to dance Swan Lake.
But the museum is still open so I get to read Darcey Bussell's school report. Her teacher says that Darcey works too hard.
Not something that was ever said about me. (Although I recall one teacher saying that I was destined to succeed Late in Life.)
So off I thrash again, through woods and bracken. And emerge - fancy that - at exactly the right gate to have cake at Petersham Nurseries.
If I'm ever going to achieve a Darcey Bussell waistline, it'll have to be later.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

As I looked around me at shining gold and plush red velvet - and glittering chandeliers - and myriad lights reflecting in the windows of the Floral Hall, I thought about all the lovely evenings I have spent here.
Feeling the same thrill as the curtain went up every time. Thinking that a night at the opera hasn't changed in more than 250 years ...
Even if Così Fan Tutte is now described as a 'Sex in the City triumph' with portraits saved on iPhones and, OMG, the marriage contract is drawn up on a laptop.
Don't you think that Mozart would have loved it?

Thursday, 16 September 2010

For all you cynics, this is what happened when the fairy tale ended for Sleeping Beauty











And Little Red Riding Hood













The Little Mermaid


















And Snow White and her handsome Prince














And, worst of all, Belle (Beauty and the Beast).

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

After the dullest of dull days, there was a spectacular two-tone sunset over the beach. Corals and orange blazing to my left, the tide far out and the light catching on the sand at Sheppey; blues, silver and heathery clouds like a Whistler nocturne to my right.

Everybody stops to stare. Neighbours run home for their cameras.

Our sunsets are famous and we never tire of watching them. It is a sociable moment when strangers stop to talk. 'It'll be a good one tonight.' 'It flares up again just before the end.'

No wonder the local cinema closed down.

We've got our own Cinema Paradiso.

With seagulls.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Reading to my favourite four-year-old yesterday, from an animal encyclopaedia, about a butterfly that lives off alligators' tears.
What we both wanted to know was ... what makes alligators cry?
You'd have to be braver than us to be mean to them.
But now I have Googled the answer.
And I know.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Did I say that I saw the first Christmas tree in a department store last weekend? Just thought you'd like to know.

Monday, 6 September 2010

I love it when it's definitely autumn but still warm enough to go out with bare legs.
And you can eat peaches for lunch.
But there's chicken cooked in earthy flavours of cider, tarragon and cream for dinner.
And you definitely still want an ice-cream. But this week's flavours are fig leaf, chestnut or blackberry sorbet.
You hear the wind in the tree outside your bedroom window and go to bed with a hotwater bottle.
And one of those old orange Penguin paperbacks with pages that smell sweet like stale icing.
And you lie there thinking that the white linen dress is going to look barking mad at the party next week. Especially if it rains. B*!@*r!
I hate shopping for clothes.
Whatever the season.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Dans la Nuit / In the Night (1924)
Vers le Jour / Just before Dawn (1925)
Sans Adieu / Because I can't bear to say goodbye (1929)
Je Reviens / I will return (1932)
Vers Toi / To You (1934)

A love poem that inspired five scents created by Worth in the 1920s and 30s. I don't think I've ever been to a perfume exhibition before but I knew I had to see this.
How I longed to undo the stoppers to unleash the heady fragrance of an Edwardian boudoir or sniff the wrist of a 1920s flapper.
Even the names are so evocative. Le Jardin de Mon Curé was a Guerlain scent of 1914: mint, thyme, salvia and wood.
Though I wasn't sure about Le Mouchoir de Monsieur as I've known too many messieurs whose mouchoirs are grimy rags that don't bear inspection.
But wouldn't you just love to sniff another vintage Guerlain from 1904 - wood, patchouli and iris - called Voilà Pourquoi J'Aimais Rosine? Can't you just imagine dabbing that on your teagown?
Before I left, I squirted myself liberally with L'Interdit (Givenchy, 1957) and wafted home. Smelling like Audrey Hepburn.
Even if I don't look like her. Much.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

I'm a bit of a prissy-knickers about my Persephone Books collection. No sticky fingers, no reading in the bath, no pushing them into handbags so those dove-grey covers get ugly scratchmarks from bunches of keys.
Perhaps that explains my guiltiest reading secret ... the Persephone pile that as yet remains unread. (I will, I will get round to them soon. Some day when my hands are clean. And I'm not in the bath.)
But imagine my horror when I pounced on a grey cover in the Oxfam shop this afternoon and realised that a previous owner had scribbled comments and made underlinings. In Red Biro.
I was scandalised ... fortunately, it was a title that I already owned. (And I have read it, so there! Though it's not one of my favourites.)
Fortunately, there was another pristine Persephone on another shelf and it still had its bookmark and had clearly never been opened. (Or maybe it had One Careful Lady Owner. Like me.)
So I had to buy it. Didn't I?

Thursday, 2 September 2010

The Hare with Amber Eyes has been the most absorbing, completely fascinating story that I have read in a long time ... I didn't know whether to read it quickly, because I was so engrossed, or slowly, to make it last.
Edmund de Waal is a ceramicist; I know I've seen his work in the V&A, but I must go back now for a better look. In 1994 he was left a large collection of Japanese netsuke by his great-uncle Iggie Ephrussi who lived in Tokyo. They had been bought in Paris in the 1870s by Iggie's cousin Charles Ephrussi. That's a name that I recognised, if only vaguely. The Ephrussi family was fabulously wealthy, nearly as rich as the Rothschilds ... and Charles was a patron of the Impressionists. You'd recognise him ... he's one of the cast of Renoir's Boating Party and was a model for Proust's Charles Swann. (I am now feeling a pressing need to read Proust.)
'You take an object from your pocket and put it down in front of you and you start. You begin to tell a story.' And what a story ... from Paris to Vienna and back to Tokyo, against a turbulent background of history when even the Ephrussis' staggering wealth couldn't insulate them from the swell of anti-Semitism. Until the netsuke came to rest in an Edwardian family home in an ordinary London suburb. I'm completely in awe of de Waal's skills as researcher, writer, historian. You feel like he's spinning history on his potter's wheel.
There's only one thing wrong with this book ... 264 netsuke and not a single picture of any one of them. I'm sure I'm not the only reader who wanted to see the hare with amber eyes.


Wednesday, 1 September 2010

On Saturday I was blown sideways as the wind whipped up the waves and boats clinked and jangled. And so I went home and went to bed with a hot water bottle.
On Sunday I went for a walk. Rosehips and damsons and plums grow along the beach. And I thought about making rosehip syrup but knew that I'd never get round to it. Rosehip jelly on scones might be nice. I didn't get round to that either.
On Monday it was so hot that I wanted an ice-cream.
Typical August bank holiday.
And typical that it's absolutely glorious now that I'm back at work.


Thursday, 26 August 2010

I'm only 70 pages into The Hare with Amber Eyes and already I can tell that it's going to be one of my best reads of the year.
Sorry ... must get back to 1870s Paris which has been brought so vividly alive that I feel like an habituée of those opulent salons.
Normal life will be resumed in a day or two.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

How can you lose patience making a three-minute loaf? Oh, yes, you can ... I slopped in too much water and considered chucking the sticky, gloopy mess that didn't look like any loaf I'd made before.
It wasn't the sort of day when I should have considered making anything more complicated than a cup of tea. I was up to my eyes in boring jobs that couldn't be procrastinated any longer. But then I got The Urge.
Inspired by another blogger, I was going to make the famous New York Times loaf that I've been meaning to make for simply ages. And I was going to do it Right Now.
It didn't even take three minutes to mix it all together. It's not a therapeutic loaf because you don't have to bang out your aggression on it. (I used to make bread every Saturday when I had a job I detested some years ago.)
Twenty hours later it looked such a mess that I could hardly scrape it into the pot. (An old Pyrex casserole with a lid.) I couldn't believe that my loaf would look like Jane's or Cornflower's.
But it emerged from the oven crusty and brown, with a dense, chewy crumb almost like sourdough. It was good with cheese. It would be great with homemade soup. And now it's nearly all gone.
I'm tempted to set another one to rise but I'm shocked at how fast it disappeared.
I thought I was only the person in the house.
Could it be mice?


Tuesday, 17 August 2010

I can hear hisses from loyal Dorothy Whipple fans but, much as I've enjoyed her, I'm beginning to see why she fell out of favour after the war.
I don't know why - I'm not sure what was going on in her life at the time - but her post-war novels Because of the Lockwoods (1949) and Every Good Deed (1950) don't show Mrs Whipple at the peak of her form. (Or may I call her Dorothy, do you think, now we're such old friends and I'm presuming to criticise? Perhaps not, I can feel myself fidgeting under her observant eye and she isn't impressed by that mug of tea without a saucer.)
I'm not quite a Whipple completist. I haven't read her children's books, nor some of the short stories. But I have read every Whipple novel, including the rare ones. Thanks, Rachel!
My library copy of Because of the Lockwoods is nothing like Rachel's copy with its lovely original jacket. No, it's an ugly large-print edition, well-worn and tea-stained, a book that would happily sit on a WRVS hospital trolley. (Here's a nice story, dear ...)
It is set in Whipple-country - a northern milltown - where Mr Lockwood, a prosperous solicitor, takes advantage of his widowed neighbour and cheats her out of a substantial sum of money. Thea, her younger daughter, bitterly resents the patronising Lockwoods and blames them for everything that goes wrong in her life - especially after they sully her good name when she is sent home in disgrace from au pair-ing at a strict French school after a very innocent first romance with a young man.
Set in the 1920s, this must have seemed very old-fashioned to readers in the aftermath of a second world war.
But though it has all the classic Whipple ingredients ... class and snobbery, social climbing and downward mobility, a young woman trying to find her path in life ... it doesn't quite come off. Thea is too snobbish herself to be very likeable, and for all her supposed brains she can be as droopy as her mother. 'If you don't mind my saying so, I think, as a family, you're inclined to give up. Give you a blow, you don't rally. You shrink and nurse your pride,' says Thea's ardent admirer, a rough diamond who is trying to improve himself to win her middleclass heart.
Nor does Mr Lockwood - a loving paterfamilias - have any of the glamour of Whipple's villainous Mr Knight.
And, oh Dorothy, what came over you to write that silly, melodramatic ending!
Now for the first time I understand why Virago drew their Whipple line.
It's a shame, because a couple of years later Mrs Whipple is back on top form and Someone at a Distance, her last novel, is one of her best.
I'd delayed reading Because of the Lockwoods, knowing that I'll never again have a weekend welded to the sofa with a fresh Whipple. But I'm not as bereft as I felt coming to the end of Elizabeth Taylor.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

I've always thought that Dr Johnson would make a great dinner guest. And if I could sit between him and Sam Pepys ... please, hold the foie gras, turn down those heavenly trumpets ... I'm trying to listen!
I'm sure I'd get on well with Dr J because I so agree with his opinion that 'when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.' I can't imagine living anywhere but London. (Although I don't suppose I'd ever get tired of New York or Paris, either.)
He also said, 'No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.' And I heartily agree with that. (So what am I doing writing a blog ...?)
When I found myself on Fleet Street this afternoon, I remembered that in all the years I worked there I had never once visited Dr Johnson's house. (It wouldn't have been the done thing when the pubs were open.)
It's a house where you can imagine talk and chinking glasses and loud contradictions, hot gossip and hot punch, and the smell of newsprint - and I could so easily imagine Dr Johnson's heavy tread on the creaking stairs. I was surprised by the number of visitors. But then, he always loved company ...

Saturday, 7 August 2010

An 89-year-old friend is starting a computer course because she says she wants to keep up with the times.
I said that I admired her spirit.
And wondered if I would ever see the point of twittering.
Or am I too old?

Friday, 6 August 2010


I was entranced by the idea of a maze in Trafalgar Square.
But completely put off by the queue and the cacophony of music blaring out of speakers.
(It looks much better - and bigger - in this picture than it does when you're there.)
And I thought that if this were Paris, a maze would be chic and amusing. Instead, I was repelled by the fat tourists in shorts and the litter and most of all the noise.
So I turned my back and went into the National Gallery. Which, as ever, is very good for the soul.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Shall I sit out the rest of the Dance ...?
Many years ago, I read the first volume of A Dance to the Music of Time. Then I read it again a couple of years ago for a book group. I liked it enough to want to read further. (One book group friend went on to read all 12 volumes in a matter of weeks; everybody else, if I remember rightly, was plain bored by it.)
It took me ages to get around to volume 2. And, by the time I got to vol 3, I'd forgotten who everyone was. (How did people keep track if they were reading each volume as it was published ... did they go back every couple of years and read the whole lot again? )
I'm afraid I was bored by The Acceptance World. I'm ready to admit defeat and give up.
But I read somewhere the other day that the next volume, At Lady Molly's, is one of the best.
Am I sitting out too soon? I need some encouragement here ...
Of course, I could always take up Proust or Ulysses instead?

Tuesday, 3 August 2010


Just before closing time, I found myself alone in the gallery with this recumbent figure by Henry Moore.
It is so beautiful that it sent shivers down my spine.
I am so pleased I went back to Tate Britain to see this exhibition again before it closes, because my first visit was very crowded. And it is a rare treat to spend a few minutes alone with something so moving.
Night after night during the Blitz, Moore roamed the London Underground system, fascinated by reclining figures bedding down for the night as working-class Londoners sought shelter from the bombing, for the price of the cheapest penny ha'penny ticket. (Middle-class families had their own shelters in their own back gardens.) The trains kept running until their usual hour, so families with small children huddled to the back of the platforms to allow passengers to go by. Moore captured that pathetic vulnerability of sleeping in public; mouths dropping open, limbs contorted, as sleepers clutched their grimy shreds of blankets. He couldn't sketch openly; it would have been like sketching in the hold of a slave ship, he said. These figures seem like mummified bodies; you can almost smell the fetid air. This sketch was made at Liverpool Street, in a new train tunnel in which the rails hadn't been laid.

I go home, as usual, by Tube. I am lugging a bag of groceries, I can't get a seat ... I don't spare a thought, until I get home, for the sleepers.
It happened 70 years ago, next month.
Which doesn't seem all that long ago. When you think about it.

Monday, 2 August 2010


On a whim on Sunday morning, I took the train to Oxford. And, as always - it's only an hour away - I wondered, why don't I do this more often? Once I'd doused myself in colour, and visited the Ashmolean, I ambled about the city for a couple of hours soaking up centuries of history. And literature. (And I always feel a pang. If only I'd worked a bit harder when I was at school...)
I thought about having a pint at the Eagle and Child, which ought to be wreathed in a blue fug of pipe smoke, and I thought about the Inklings - Tolkien, CS Lewis and his brother Warnie - who met in the back bar every Tuesday morning to drink beer. And talk. You wouldn't be surprised if you saw Frodo Baggins and Strider sitting in the snug.
I walked down Cornmarket, past an inn where Shakespeare often stayed - and tumbled the inn-keeper's wife - on his way up and down between Stratford and London. (In Pizza Express next door, there's a Painted Room looking much as it would have done in Shakespeare's time. Ask nicely. They won't make you buy a pizza.)
I walked across Tom Quad - where Brideshead's outrageous aesthete Anthony Blanche was thrown into the fishpond - and was in time for evensong at Christ Church. Then I strolled through Christ Church meadow thinking about Alice and her sisters scampering down to the river to hear a story. And Lewis Carroll, dining at High Table in the splendid college dining hall, and seeing Alice's father, the Dean of Christ Church, disappearing down a narrow spiral staircase every night ... rather as if he were vanishing down a rabbithole?
And I think that Lewis Carroll and Alice would be absolutely delighted that, more than a century later, that same hammerbeam roof was bewitched to look like a sky dotted with stars - that flickering candles hovered in mid-air - and that Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall were sitting at High Table. Because Christ Church dining hall was the inspiration for Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films.
I gasped when I saw this painting by Howard Hodgkin yesterday. It is called Home, Home on the Range and it is such an explosion of colour - this picture doesn't do it justice - that you feel you could walk right in, hunker down by the campfire, feel the heat throbbing off the prairie.
But I found myself maybe even more engrossed in Damp Autumn, a brownish monochrome that took seven years to paint. Think ... the essence of late November, 'worlds of wanwood leafmeal', organic odour of dark brown humus and damp beechmast underfoot. If you get the chance to see this exhibition, do leave time to see the film interviews with Hodgkin that set me wondering about vision and memory and how an artist sees and whether he is born with that gift of seeing and remembering or works to attain it. Afterwards, I wandered up to the Ashmolean to see Indian miniatures from Hodgkin's own collection. And revisit Sickert ... odours of landlady's cooking, stale beer, tobacco-browned wallpaper and the tannin smell of old tea-cosies?

Saturday, 31 July 2010

I know ... it's no good longing for a Horrockses' frock if you don't have the teeny waist for those cinched-in skirts.
And in those days a size 14 was only as big as today's 10.
So you'd have to wear a lift-and-separate bra (Playtex or Maidenform?) and a girdle and stockings and suspenders. Like those women in Mad Men.
But, heavens, those frocks were pretty. I remember when they were still advertised in magazines, although by then they seemed very old-fashioned. Not that my mum could have afforded a cotton dress that cost £7 in the 1950s. These were dresses for honeymoons and garden parties. The Queen and Princess Margaret wore them on Caribbean tours. You could tell an Englishwoman abroad by her Horrockses' frock.
I loved this exhibition. I spotted a strappy magnolia print in pale yellow cotton that was so Betty Draper.
I loved the black and white gingham banded with blue roses, with a little bolero the colour of the sea in Capri.
And the witty summer frock, printed with slices of pie and other treats, that dated from the last days of rationing.

I got chatting to a pretty young intern who was wearing a lilac-coloured floral stripe ... Was it Horrockses? Yes, it was. As crisp and fresh - she let me touch - as it must have been in that 1950s summer when it was new. I wonder who owned it first? She bought it on E-bay, she said. For £32.
I'm not sure what I envied most, that lovely dress - or her slim waist!

On the way home, I caught a screening of a 1953 movie. I nodded off and nearly missed Deborah Kerr in the surf.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

We looked at the baby ducklings and swans.

And saw fresh green acorns and fir-cones that were tender and new.



There were horses and a golden hay meadow like in a storybook.

We shouted, 'Be careful. Don't fall in,' and nobody seemed to listen. But luckily nobody did fall in.

We explained about the mounting block in the stable yard where we had tea and ice-creams.
And then we shouted, 'Be careful. Don't fall off.'

We watched planes from Heathrow flying overhead so close they looked as if they might clip historic chimneys.

But we didn't go inside. Because that's pushing your luck with four-year-old friends. Who are the most delightful company in the world. Until they get bored.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

The gooseberry crumble was delicious; tart berries from a friend's allotment, crumble that didn't go soggy, and custard from a carton. (Sorry, but I'm no good at making unlumpy custard).

And there's plenty left over for breakfast. (Just as well, because I've run out of bread.)

And I'd be having a perfectly nice, quiet evening in, in front of the television. If only Series 4 of Mad Men were on. (It's started in America. It's preying on mind. I must stop tormenting myself by reading reviews in the New York Times.)
What was I saying? If only Series 4 of Mad Men were on. Instead of a cookery show and that bloke who used to be Bergerac.

Good thing I went to the library this lunchtime ...

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Walking along the river, I saw brambles beginning to ripen and haws flushed with pale red streaks and I noticed how plump the conkers look on the trees.
I admired dahlias here as big as dinner plates and I wondered if I should try parsnip and maple cake for a change with my coffee.
It all sounds very autumnal.
But I'm not ready for that.
Hang on ... I haven't got my legs brown yet.
If you can't think of anything to say, say something nice.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Greatly to my surprise, my beautiful white amaryllis has flowered again for the third time this year.
It astounds me that something so lovely can thrive on neglect.
Because I don't have green fingers.

Monday, 19 July 2010

On a hot afternoon in the park, you need a picnic rug, a glass of cold wine and the perfect book to chill out with.

If you haven't read the book, you might be puzzled by a baby polar bear eating bananas.

Though you would be surprised at how many people asked me when I went to Antarctica a few years ago if I'd be seeing lots of polar bears and penguins.

I saw lots of penguins. But the polar bears must have been hiding in the banana trees.
That was a shame.
If it hadn't been such a good trip, I might have complained.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

This is possibly the most inappropriate book cover I have ever seen and my guess is that Elizabeth Strout must have been spitting mad at her UK publisher.
Olive Kitteridge is a big-built, elderly maths teacher with a caustic tongue and she runs up baggy frocks for herself out of old curtains.
So why make out that she's this creamy-skinned young thing in a ballgown?
Why make a great Pulitzer-prize winning novel look like run-of-the-mill chicklit?
Oh, for God's sake, Olive Kitteridge would say. What in hell ails them? Luckily, when I found this in a charity shop a few days ago, it was an American edition, its cover bland but otherwise completely inoffensive.
So now I've got that off my chest ... I can say that Olive Kitteridge is the most powerfully-moving book that I've read in a long time. I loved Olive, who is mean and abrasive and brave and compassionate and perceptive and self-deluding; I can completely see that other readers might dislike her but that's partly what this book is about, the accommodations that we all have to make as we get through our lives. This is a novel told in linked short stories set in one small American town and sometimes Olive is at the centre of what is going on and sometimes she's on the sidelines; just as well, you might think, because there can't be many people able to take Olive full-on for too long at a stretch.
Her husband is a gentle man; she tongue-lashes him through their long marriage, tends him when he has a stroke and misses him like hell when he dies. She can't understand why her much-loved son is in therapy, why he never phones. Did he leave town because she was overly possessive? When she hit him as a boy - and Olive hits, she doesn't spank - did she sometimes go too far? You'll have to work it out for yourself ... there's lots of things in this novel that you'll have to work out for yourself.
'I'm starving, too,' Olive says brusquely to an anorexic girl who is starving herself to death:

"'I am,' Olive said. 'Why do you think I eat every doughnut in sight?'
'You're not starving,' Nina said with disgust.
'Sure I am. We all are.' "

There's so much loneliness and unhappiness here ... and so much humanity.
As for Olive ... she's so real to me that I can't quite believe that I'm not going to run into her next time I go shopping. Of course, I might cross the road if I see her coming.

Friday, 16 July 2010

When I blog, I write like Agatha Christie.
But when I am at work, I write like Dan Brown. (Actually, that doesn't surprise me at all.) I wasn't exactly pleased to learn this - I'd like to pitch a bit higher - but I'll be laughing all the way to the bank, just you wait. Has the cheque been delayed in the post?
So do try this ...
I hope your intellectual pretensions aren't smashed to smithereens.
Will any of us live long enough to get to the end of Frank Delaney's podcast dissection of Ulysses?After five weeks, he's still on page two - so do jump in and catch up if you've missed the start, if only to listen to that mellifluous Irish voice.
The big question: will Frank persuade me to re-read the novel? Or will it stay on my list of earnest intentions?
At this rate it'll take us 20 years ...
But it isn't a race.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

The clove-scent of a bunch of stocks is filling the room.
A fresh breeze is blowing outside, such a relief.
I walked across the park for a crusty loaf from an old-fashioned baker.
I am going to toss a salad of spinach, chicken and chorizo and eat it off my lap, reading Olive Kitteridge.
So not a bad day, even if it hasn't been very exciting.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

It was too hot to blog, too hot to sleep. So ...
I drank cold raspberry wheat beer in a beachside bar.
I watched a sunset of Tiepolo blue and celestial gold.
I propped myself against an old boat and read a biography of George Eliot until I simply had to put it down and splash in the sea.
I bought local gooseberries, cherries and strawberries from a proper greengrocer.
And a copy of Olive Kitteridge from the charity shop.
My ice-cream flavour of the week from the posh ice-cream shop was maple and walnut.
But I also enjoyed a Mr Whippy from the fish and chip shop.
And I mended the garden tap ... just as it started to pour.
Tonight the girl from the corner shop cafe was standing out in the street giving away enormous slices of Victoria sponge with cream cheese frosting ...
Oh dear, I really shouldn't. But I did.