Sunday, 30 May 2010

I have been wedged in a corner of the sofa for most of today with Thomas Cromwell and Wolf Hall, on a subsistence diet of ham sandwiches and cups of tea. When at last I stood up at 9pm, I was stiff all over (and then I had to think of something to make for dinner).
But now I have finished. All 650 pages.
And I am awe-struck ... this is the best work of historical fiction I have ever read. I hesitate to call it a historical novel because this isn't costume-drama fiction. It is about power and politics and the psychology of kingship and social mobility in an era when Henry Tudor might favour a man with riches or disembowel him on the gibbet. Thomas Cromwell is on the up ... at least for the moment. 'Lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning,' says Thomas More, 'and when you come back that night he'll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks' tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money.' As I was brought up on Thomas More as A Man For All Seasons - and Thomas Cromwell as arch-villain - it was fascinating to read Hilary Mantel's interpretation of his (Cromwell's) character ... clever, generous, wryly-humorous. I have lived inside Cromwell's head for this past two weeks. Heard his pen scratching on vellum, thumbed his Bible, drunk his wine, admired his brilliant politician's brain ...
And all the time I kept thinking of that superb Hans Holbein exhibition that was on at Tate Britain a couple of years ago. (What a shame, that Holbein's portrait of Cromwell wasn't shown.) But his chalk sketches of Thomas More and his household ...the sweep of an eyelash, a tightlaced bodice loosened over a pregnant belly ... he brought them all so vividly to life that you'd almost expect to hear their voices whispering, laughing, praying. 'There is a kind of magic moment where you feel your characters are really speaking,' Hilary Mantel said in an interview. And yes, I do think that she's done with words what Holbein did with chalks and oils.
I wonder how far along she has got with the sequel ....?

Thursday, 27 May 2010

It was a good weekend. The sun was blazing and my face got brown. I picked marigolds and honesty for a sizzling purple and orange posy. And lilac, campion and cow parsley for a big frothy bouquet of pink and white pastels.
The sea was as blue as the South of France. Even if it was still far too cold to get in.
And then I went shopping. I bought Marghanita Laski's The Village, a Kate O'Brien novel and a Beverley Nichols gardening book. All three for 90p.
I bought 15 children's story books. 10p each.
And a bottle of premier cru Meursault for £3. No, I couldn't believe it either. He was selling it for cooking but said some bottles were fine for drinking. If you were lucky. If not, they'll be the best moules mariniere I've ever had in my life.
Then, to make a sunny day perfect, the ice-cream shop had my favourite marmalade and ginger ice-cream.
And there was a lovely apricot sunset.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Would you read someone else's diary if you came upon it by accident? Hmm ... not sure I believe you! There's something about a secret diary and especially one that was written in code.
Of course, some secret diaries were hardly worth keeping secret.
Ever read Beatrix Potter's diary?... heavens, it's dull!
But I broke the book-buying ban this week to buy an old Virago copy of The Diaries of Anne Lister.
Anne was a lesbian in 19th century Georgian England and, as all through her life she conducted passionate love affairs with other women, her diary had to be written in code.
The love of her life was her friend Mariana who broke Anne's heart by marrying a man for money and status ... if Mariana's husband had discovered their secret affair, there would have been trouble. Then there was Isabella, who dearly loved Anne - only Anne, sadly, disapproved of poor, unhappy 'Tib' who drank a bottle of sherry a day and was inclined to get a bit boisterous.
I kept thinking of Jane Austen's heroines ... a single woman must be in a need of a husband, only in Anne's case she longed for a wife.
The journals are often poignant. You can't help thinking that if Anne had only been born 200 years later, she and Mariana might have had a civil partnership and nobody would have batted an eyelid.
The diaries are also a chronicle of everyday life in 19th century provincial England. When Anne wasn't flirting with other girls, she wrote vividly about food and fashion, and learning to drive a gig, and dinners in hotels and going to the dentist.
Somehow I felt as if I could hear Anne's voice coming down the centuries - though I'm not sure I'd have liked her. She was a dreadful snob. She was so conscious of being landed gentry and she wouldn't have invited me to tea, as I'm in trade!
Anne's code was cracked by the last member of the Lister family who was so shocked by what he read that he hid the diaries behind panelling in the family home in Halifax where they weren't discovered until after his death in the 1930s.
You can still visit the house.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

It has been the first day of summer. I walked from Borough Market, past the Globe Theatre, listening to wavelets lapping in the river, and wondered if these wharves and alleys were familiar to the characters in Wolf Hall. Of course, Shakespeare drank in taverns here. And so did Samuel Pepys. But they came along a bit later.
But I'm sure that Thomas Cromwell did business on the river. Because he had his finger in so many pies.
People were sunning themselves on the small, sandy beach. (I love it that there's a little beach in the middle of London.) But nobody was making elaborate sand sculptures today.
I bought sourdough bread and blue cheese from Neal's Yard (so light and fresh you can taste the grass in it, only of course now I can't remember its name.) I bought chicory and fennel for a salad. And I winced at the price of leafy, Italian lemons. I decided that £1.70 for a single lemon was far too dear for me. Even if it was the most beautiful lemon in London.
Then I bought Italian porchetta on a soft bread roll, and a very large salted caramel ice-cream, and I sat outside Southwark Cathedral in the sunshine and had a picnic on my own.
There is a monument inside the cathedral to a 17th century quack doctor who was famous for miracle pills made from sunbeams. He is reclining on his tomb and he looks as if he's chuckling to himself about all the patients that he's fleeced.
I love the way that London makes the most of a few hours sunshine. There were deckchairs set out on a strip of astroturf outside Foyles bookshop.
Maybe Dr Sunbeam knew what he was doing.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

There should have been a warning on the book-jacket.
Beware: this book may damage your income and your professional reputation.
Because it is very, very difficult, if you are supposed to be working from home, not to indulge in one more stolen half-hour engrossed in Wolf Hall. Just one more chapter, and one more cup of tea ...
I thought it would take me weeks to read this book which is thick as a brick.
But I'd finish it in a couple of days (if only I didn't have to earn a living).
Which is why Wolf Hall is now hidden under a pile of cushions. In the forlorn hope that I might forget that it's there.
It's a tactic that I've tried before. Usually, with chocolate.
Doesn't work. Does it?

Sunday, 16 May 2010

It would be lovely to sit down to pancakes for Sunday breakfast. If somebody else made them.
But when you make your own pancakes, you always end up eating them standing up.
And it is a little-known fact that solitary pancakes are higher in calories. Because the first two are always a disaster. But you eat them anyway.
And then you have to make at least one perfect one (when you've gone to all that trouble).
And after that ... well, you might as well finish what's left of the batter and make just one more.
And look at all the washing-up you've created ... frying pan and wooden spoon, drizzles of syrup all over the table, and the coffee you spilled when you were flipping.
Doesn't sound like those aspirational lifestyle blogs, does it?
Just as well I don't take pictures.
Some weeks ago I wrote about Ham House, such a chill and gloomy place. And now, thanks to Jarvis Cocker, you can listen to the tread of ghostly footsteps pacing its oak-panelled gallery and wainscotted chambers.
Spooky? It sent chills through me ... he's got it exactly right.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

I am so frustrated by the lilac that grows on the railway embankment, smelling gorgeous but just out of reach. Mrs Miniver has come out in sympathy and changed her colour scheme.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

When it's as cold as today, there's no guilt in spending an afternoon wallowing in old-fashioned glamour and glorious Technicolor.
Ava Gardner was thrumming with Sex Appeal, James Mason was brooding, the Costa Brava setting was luscious. Not to mention gowns and gorgeous cars and bullfighters' costumes that made you want to shout - Freeze! I need to get a better look at that fabric.
And if the dialogue was sometimes so overblown that the audience laughed out loud ... so much the better.
They don't make them like this any more.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

A sad day, although I knew it couldn't be postponed for much longer. Some weeks ago, in my local Oxfam shop, I fell in crowing triumph upon an old green Virago copy of Palladian, Elizabeth Taylor's hardest-to-get-hold-of novel. And I've been saving it up ever since, knowing that Mrs Taylor and I were coming to the end of a very enjoyable road ...
Although I haven't read all her short story collections, I have now read all of her novels. (And stories, I'm afraid, no matter how good, are simply not the same as a novel.)
But what a strange novel this is (Taylor's second, published in 1946) and I'm glad that I came to it late because it's not the best one to choose if you've never read her before.
It's a quirky satire on romantic novels and literary escapism from real life ... a dash of Northanger Abbey, a lot of Jane Eyre; and Nicola Beauman, in her biography of Elizabeth Taylor, seizes on a clever parallel with Howards End that I can't possibly explain here without spoiling a rather shocking twist at the end of the book.
But, to start at the beginning and the first sentence: 'Cassandra, with all her novel-reading, could be sure of experiencing the proper emotions ...'
Cassandra Dashwood is the orphaned heroine who takes a job as governess to the young daughter of a widower, still haunted by memories of his wife (shades of Rebecca here ... but you'll be playing 'spot the novel' all the way through.)
' "He will do to fall in love with," Cassandra thought.' Her employer is Marion Vanbrugh, no swarthy, growling Mr Rochester, but an effete, upper-class drip with a girl's name. And, of course, he does 'do' to fall in love with ...
Meanwhile, Marion's ne'er-do-well cousin is playing at Branwell Bronte, hellbent on drinking himself to distraction whilst carrying on an illicit affair with the wonderfully vulgar landlady of his local pub. (Another shocking twist at the end of the book when we discover what has driven him to drink.)
You are always aware, as a reader, that these people aren't meant to be real, they are fictional stock characters ... and I have a feeling that Elizabeth Taylor probably got great amusement from writing it.
Very clever. I'm still turning it over in my head hence this muddled review. Don't think I'll rank it amongst my favourite Taylors but I'm glad I read it.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Sometimes I have to give up and admit that I'll never get on with an author that other people cherish. I can understand why John Betjeman admired Barbara Pym. I can see why Jilly Cooper likes her. Philip Larkin allegedly said that he'd sooner read a new Pym than a new Jane Austen. (Did he really? I'm not at all sure that I believe it.)
But this week's BBC Woman's Hour serialisation, of An Unsuitable Attachment, has forced me to conclude that Barbara Pym and I will never form an attachment.
I am not cut out for English vicarage society.
I don't like them.
And they wouldn't like me.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

I loved Sebastian Barry's novel A Long, Long Way, about the Great War. So I was keen to catch his new play Andersen's English based on a visit made by Hans Andersen to Charles Dickens' house at Gad's Hill in 1857.
It's all there, as if Sebastian Barry were checking off all that he'd gleaned from biographies. Dickens' cruelty to his wife: tick. Tension between Mrs D and her sister: tick. Dickens' heavy-handed paternity: tick. There's not a footnote unturned. Dickens' home for fallen women: tick. That's not to say that cobbling all this together makes a good play.
Andersen is the fly-on-the-wall whose poor command of English means that he fails to pick up on the friction. But why cast a black actor as Andersen? And then play him as a noble savage?
It was okay. I dozed during the first half. It was better than watching wall-to wall election coverage on television.
Sometimes that's all you can say ... it was okay.

Monday, 3 May 2010

There is a heartaching melancholy in Paul Nash's landscapes, haunted by his experience as an artist of two world wars.
He painted winter seas that are like splinters of ice in the soul.
He died young, having suffered a breakdown after WWI. I wondered if he woke sweating from nightmares. When he paints a ploughed English field, it echoes with the cratered landscapes of Ypres. It is all strangely beautiful; he makes a dump of shattered German aircraft look like billowing waves of the sea.
I was glad that I caught this exhibition just before it closes.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Sometimes I wander around the supermarket, wishing they'd invent a new, edible animal. (Though I've tried alligator, ostrich, kangaroo and jellyfish, I do see why they haven't caught on.)
But I'm a carnivore to my bones so I keep on trying. And I had to try buffalo sausages.
All I can say is that the buffalo is a very chewy and gristly beast.
Even if it tickles me to think of them grazing in English pastures. (Apparently, they're imported from Romania.)
On the other hand, Heston Blumenthal's recipe for steak was as good as it gets. Bacon and egg ice-cream for afters, anyone?