Sunday, 30 June 2013

I've never watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer and don't really feel that I've missed out.
But who would have guessed that low-budget Shakespeare filmed in b/w in 12 days by Buffy's creator Joss Wheldon at his own Santa Monica villa ... would be such an absolute delight!
It makes Kenneth Branagh's attempt seem positively leaden.
Not being a Buffy fan, I haven't a clue who any of the actors are and for all I know they're big names in vampire drama.
But they speak Shakespeare like their native language.
Absolutely the best summer movie ... and actually, I enjoyed it far more than the long-awaited Before Midnight. Could anybody be married to Julie Delpy for 10 years without putting a pillow over her head - because she never shuts up for one second. Sorry, Julie, but what was charming for one night in Vienna 18 years ago is now grounds for divorce.
I knew that I didn't care about you any more when I realised that I was far more interested in those glorious Greek tomatoes you were chopping - and in Patrick Leigh Fermor's villa which was the setting for the film - than in your long-running romance.
I know ... I'm middle-aged. But stuff love and romance ... I'm sighing over stuffed tomatoes.

When I was in Edinburgh last week, I caught a preview of this fascinating exhibition about Mary, Queen of Scots at the National Museum of Scotland.
Somehow, I've always focused on the rivalry between Mary and Elizabeth, the long years of imprisonment and Mary's execution. Maybe it was being in Edinburgh, but what came vividly alive  to me this time was the 19-year old-widow - Queen of Scots and dowager Queen of France - and those six turbulent years that she spent in Scotland before her abdication. For once, it wasn't the portraits and jewellery that enthralled me ...
It was a coin struck by her ambitious husband Darnley, depicting himself not as King Consort but as Mary's equal.
And the crime scene reconstruction, a precise sketch of how the bodies were discovered on the morning after Darnley's murder, that was sent to Elizabeth's statesman William Cecil by one of his Edinburgh spies. In case you've forgotten, Darnley's lodgings were blown to rubble in a gunpowder explosion but his mysteriously unscathed body was found in a garden on the other side of the town wall.

And then you realise that if you stand in the museums's natural history gallery - and you look past the squid and the shark and the elephant - well, that's the outside wall of the museum that was the boundary  of Kirk o' Field, where Darnley had his lodgings. The town wall runs under the museum. And Darnley's body was found somewhere only yards down the street.

And I had an overwhelming feeling of standing where it all happened.

Meanwhile I leave you this trailer of a forthcoming TV series. Please, call me Mary!

Sunday, 23 June 2013

The Observer calls it 'thriller of the year.'

AN Wilson, believe it or not, calls it a 'five-star suspense story' and Sophie Hannah reckoned it was 'a near masterpiece.'

Mrs Miniver's Daughter will go out on a limb and say this is the most tedious load of old drivel she has read all year. Tesco-lit for the ladies' book group market. (Of course, that's why I was unenthusiastically reading it in the first place.)

I am now reading John le Carré with great relief; elegant and, as ever, utterly gripping from the first page.
Tulips in a Pottery Vase, 1912

Tulips - The Blue Jug, 1919
I got up painfully early on Friday morning, meaning to be standing on the doorstep when the gallery opened ... and I was only 20 minutes behind schedule, which is pretty good for me. I'd been hoping for months for an excuse to visit Edinburgh in time to catch this lovely Peploe exhibition, which was the second in their Scottish Colourist series (JD Fergusson coming up next), but I was cutting it fine as it closes this weekend.
What a treat to see so many Peploes all at once. (This was the first major exhibition for 30 years.)  It was fascinating to see how the French influence in his work developed, how he dallied with Manet, then van Gogh, took some ideas from Pissarro, then embraced Cézanne ... you could feel the buzz of all these ideas and colours spilling out of the paintings.
And I loved how his tulips went from van Gogh impasto (look at that sunflower yellow background) to such sinuous elegance that they seem to be dancing across the frame.
Much as I loved it, though, it couldn't top last year's FCB Cadell exhibition and Cadell's wonderful northern light and glittering reflections.
This time, on my way out, I remembered to cross the road to see Charles Jencks's Landform - easy to miss if, like me, you always walk up from the airport bus stop. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to visit his Garden of Cosmic Speculation.
But what made my day was discovering the most charming, old-fashioned allotments you could imagine within the gallery grounds. Fruit trees, roses, peonies ... I'd never noticed them before as I always walk the other way. Now I want to know why there isn't a kitchen garden at the Tate.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

There were only two of us in the cinema this afternoon, me and one old lady who looked about 80. (She was gently snoring as the movie started but I thought she'd have a heart attack if I tapped her on the shoulder. What a social dilemma ... I didn't want her to miss it.)

I'm certainly old enough to remember learning to type with coloured stickers on the keys but I never painted my nails as a mnemonic. Anyway, back then nail varnish was red, pink or coral. Maybe a Mary Quant sludgy purple, but I don't recall blue, yellow and green.

I loved every feelgood minute of Populaire, but I've been itching to see it ever since I saw the posters on the Tube. Did they really have speed-typing marathons in the 1950s?

Try to imagine Mad Men: La Vie en Rose ...  lots of cigarette smoke, but set in smalltown Lisieux instead of New York,

And in a palette of colours that reminded me of Les Parapluies de Cherbourg and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort.

Don't you love that pink typewriter? (They seem to have forgotten the grubby, crumpled carbon paper which I always managed to get wrong way round.)

If I'm honest, Rose's handsome boss would never have been my type. I'd far prefer her seedy-looking Papa, who's looking rather older here than in The Returned. (Was it the shock of his red-haired zombie daughter coming back from the dead?)

The old lady must have woken up because as we left she told me she was shocked by so much old-fashioned sexism.
But actually, I've always worked in offices where most of the men could type faster than I can.

Like Rose, before she went into training, I can still only type with two fingers ...

A few more shades of nail varnish and I might have cracked it.

I knew that Populaire reminded me of something and now I've remembered ... it's the Orla Kiely typing pool from London Fashion Week. Not that any of these tentatively tapping models would win any speed contests.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

For all the years I've lived in London, there are still corners that I've never explored, only to be put to shame by how much visitors like Darlene can cram into a week. But yesterday I finally did make it to Chelsea Physic Garden which turned out to be even more enchanting than I expected, a secret walled garden hidden away from all the traffic on the Embankment. It's been on my one-day-I-must list for years. (No excuses in future now I find that the bus stops right outside the gate!)

Chelsea was looking so pretty in the sunshine yesterday, roses tumbling over garden walls, yellow irises and bright red poppies as if an artist had tipped a pot of paint over the flowerbeds ...  and I never expected to see grapefruit growing on a tree in London. (A gardener told me that the fruits don't fully ripen, so they use the windfalls as slug traps.)

I had a lovely lunch of salmon en croûte in the sunshine, with jars of pink peonies on the table, then strolled down the road to make another tick on my list ... yes, I finally got to visit Carlyle's House and now I really must get round to reading The Carlyles at Home.

What a little gem. The painting above is the endpaper of the Persephone edition and still hangs in the Carlyles' sitting room, which still looks exactly the same as when, in 1857, the artist promised a picture that would be 'amazingly interesting to posterity a hundred years hence.' The rent was £35 a year; imagine how shocked thrifty Jane Carlyle would be if she knew that today that would barely cover lunch out for two.

Can you see the door right at the back? That opens into the china closet where in 1865 a housemaid called Mary managed silently to give birth to an illegitimate child while Carlyle had tea in the dining room with a visitor. At 2am the baby was smuggled out of the house wrapped in a table napkin.

Darlene visited on her last but one trip and this is what she thought.
And Virginia Woolf visited with her father in 1897 when she was 14. 'Take the Carlyles, for instance,' she wrote. 'One hour spent in Cheyne Row will tell us more about them than you can learn from all their biographies.'

VW was right. The house is so tiny that Thomas and Jane Carlyle seem so vividly alive here. You can see how the lives of middle-class women were so entangled with their servants when they lived so much on top of each other ... and how poor Jane must have struggled trying to run a house with a series of slapdash housemaids and a pernickety husband. And you completely understand Carlyle getting irritable about all the noise when he's trying to write his epic volumes of history... all that clattering from the kitchen, horses and wagons and tradesmen outside in the street, street musicians that had to be paid to go away, noises from the busy river, and all the jollity coming from those pleasure gardens down the road. It must have been like living on top of a theme park.

Needless to say, that Persephone book has been pulled out of the teetering book pile and dusted. Now that I've seen the kitchen and the china closet and Jane's secondhand sofa ... the book is going to feel like a visit to old friends.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

I see that tomorrow the Queen is visiting the BBC's snazzy new extension to Broadcasting House.

I was there a few weeks ago, having found a quiet corner for a meeting-

When a mouse scuttled across the floor.

I squealed. But I daresay Her Majesty has a stiffer upper lip.

I am sure she never kicks the royal handbag under her chair.

But I hoicked mine onto the table. In case the mouse hitched a ride home with me.

My local charity shop has been a treasure trove over the past few weeks and I nearly passed out the day I went in and found 13 pristine Persephone titles complete with their bookmarks. Alas, only one of which I hadn't read before and I am trying very hard to cure myself of the habit of buying just for the sake of it. But there has also been a slew of more interesting than usual Viragos (the ones with nice covers) and I have convinced myself that a genteel local lady bibliophile must have recently died (peacefully, I hope, rather than buried under a bookshelf avalanche) and that all these desirable books came from her drawing room/library.
I was rummaging again this afternoon, tempted by one of the Viragos, when the thought flitted across my mind that I never seem to come across any of Noel Streatfeild's grown-up titles. And just as I was struggling for the name of her alter ego, I saw it right in front of me ... a ballet story from 1948, and also Poppies for England set in the aftermath of the war. Has anybody read them? Very light summer reading by the look of it, but I'm very pleased with my £1.99 bargains. I loved Saplings and was torn between amusement and horror at the wonderfully silly Whicharts - which has warped my memories of Ballet Shoes forever more.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

I've seen Dial M for Murder any number of times and never realised that it was originally made in 3-D, which was the latest thing in 1954. (Actually, it was the fad of 1953 and had rather fizzled out by the time by the movie was released.)
Great fun seeing Grace Kelly's hand grasping for that lethal pair of scissors within an inch of your own nose. And I'm sure I've never seen Ray Milland's shiny white teeth, and all those Brylcreemed heads,  gleaming so brightly. Wonderfully kitsch and very effective. I've never seen a proper film in 3-D before (it's being re-released later this summer), but Grace Kelly is far more alluring than the Great Gatsby.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

This book is acknowledged by many lawyers to be the classic detective story with a legal background. It has stood the test of time and has been sold regularly during the lives of three Lord Chief Justices, at least one of whom has had no reasonable doubt (or has felt sure) of its excellence. (Henry Cecil in the Sunday Times.)

When I came across a well-worn copy of Tragedy at Law on the rummage shelf outside a second hand bookshop recently, the title sounded familiar and I remembered that it was one of Cornflower's bookclub titles rather a long time ago. (Word of warning, there's spoilers in her comments section.)
Apologies to Cornflower for being so out of step ... but I got there in the end and thoroughly enjoyed this dry, elegant, lawyerly murder mystery (though the murder only happens at the end).
Like Karen, I guessed whodunnit although I think only a qualified lawyer could work out exactly why. There are some wonderful characters - the pompous circuit judge, his highly intelligent and much younger wife, Hilda ('like many other women barristers, she had never succeeded in acquiring a practice'), and the disillusioned lawyer Pettigrew whose irrepressible levity has cost him success.

'Four courses for lunch!' she exclaimed. 'In wartime!'
As usual, she was conscious, too late, that she had said the wrong thing. 
Pettigrew plunged desperately in to the rescue. As usual, he said the first thing that came into his head. 
'The four courses of the Apocalypse, in fact,' he remarked. 

(I could so imagine Pettigrew chuckling over this.)

I loved the descriptions of Judges' Lodgings and all the panoply of the assizes and the author's dry cynicism about the justice system. Later in his career, Cyril Hare became a judge himself.

Something about that quality of writing from the inside reminded me of this classic Fleet Street novel, sadly forgotten today... some time I must go back and see if it's as good the second time round.