Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Are any of you planning to listen to tomorrow's War and Peace marathon on Radio4? I got a head start and listened to episode one over dinner tonight. It's very good, though I'm still trying to keep up with who's who as it's far too many years since I read it. (Anyone else remember the 1970s TV series with Anthony Hopkins?) I'm making no promises about sticking it out to the end - but for now I'm turning up the sound to drown the fireworks outside. If only I were a bit further into the story, they'd stand in for cannon.

Monday, 22 December 2014

You're never too old ... and it's made my Christmas. Ursa marmalada is a complete delight. I don't know how many grown-ups (including one grown-up film director) have told me in the last few days that they really, really wanted to go but they didn't have a child ... well, I say go anyway.
I did manage to invite myself along with some younger friends and we all laughed and laughed. Got the last few seats in the front row at 10.30 am, scrunched through the popcorn on the floor and sat engrossed. It's the best film for Notting Hill since - well, since Notting Hill. It does London proud. Though I'm wondering whether the Natural History Museum might sue because they do NOT come out of it well.
And now I think of it ... I didn't nod off once. Not even 'resting my eyes.' Which either means that Paddington is my Film of the Year 2014 - or that 10.30am is a jolly sensible time to go.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

When you notice that your library book carries a label that says it's a 'two week lone' ...
Time to start a Campaign for Real Librarians.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

On this very cold, damp day, I've just found out that this is where I'll be going on holiday next year. I put it all down to reading this book.

Friday, 12 December 2014

You will see, my child, if you keep your eyes open, that there is a strong line of demarcation between the people who can't seem to wait for the summer, and those who understand the quality of chrysanthemums, and an early dusk, and the magic of lamplight. And nearly always, as I say, it's a case of breeding. 
Mrs Marie Leighton, in Tempestuous Petticoat , the biography written by her daughter, artist Clare Leighton

I've been enjoying Jane's anthology of dusk which is maybe why this sprang out of the page at me. Marie Leighton would have been Vera Brittain's flamboyant mother-in-law had her fiancé survived WW1.
I'm afraid I must be irredeemably common - Mrs Leighton was quite a snob - because much as I love chrysanthemums, I find the dark, grey dampness of winter rather depressing.

I am still mulling over tonight's screening of Testament of Youth. There was a polite ripple of applause at the end. But it fell short of that visceral rage and grief in Vera Brittain's book.
There was a Q&A at the end with the screenwriter and the beautiful Swedish (yes, Swedish) actress who plays Vera. They made a big deal of how they were wary of emotional overkill and melodrama.

And so ...

When Vera gets the telephone call at Christmas telling her that her fiancé Roland has been killed when  she's expecting him home on leave ... they had to go one step further and make out that it was their wedding day.

Although it's true that Vera's brother turned up injured at the hospital where she was nursing, he was tucked up in his pyjamas in hospital in London ... and she didn't simply trip over him in a casualty clearing station at the Front.  

How mawkish is this! Having Vera learn the brutal details of how Roland died in agony, not from his Colonel, but from George Catlin the man she would later marry. Trouble is, it was several years after the war before Vera even met him.
Oh, that last one got me muttering and grumbling. What a crude, clunky, pointless invention. It's not as if the true story is devoid of drama and emotion, is it?

Of course, it looks stunning - the costumes are wonderful - and you couldn't fail to be moved when the camera sweeps across so many rows of stretchers outside a battlefield hospital. But it has a glossy, Pride and Prejudice quality that doesn't pack anything like the punch that I remember from the old BBC adaptation when I was young. (I had a long wallow a few months ago watching it again on YouTube.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

It's not that I didn't enjoy it. I did. But I couldn't help feeling that I'd seen The Imitation Game before, in any number of guises (Enigma/Atonement/A Beautiful Mind).
Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent - Keira Knightley no more irritating than usual - but how depressing that Joan Clarke, the fiercely intelligent codebreaker who was briefly Turing's fiancée, has to be glammed up for the demands of film audiences.
It smacks of rather too much American involvement, too much of an eye on Academy Awards and I came away thinking that I'd probably find the book rather more satisfying.
(Anybody else find themselves distracted, thinking Ooh, there's the chauffeur from Downton Abbey ... especially as Tom seems to have recycled his Downton tweeds?)
I'm always fascinated, though,  that they recruited people for Bletchley who could whizz through the Telegraph crossword. Especially as crosswords then were very feeble compared with today's. I prefer The Times - but I'm not sure that I'd have been much help with cracking Enigma.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

I'm not a big fan of Angela Thirkell - too smugly English upper-middle-class to be taken except very occasionally in small doses ...
But in a weekend of builders' chaos without a kitchen and the old fridge now apparently defrosting over the carpet, it has been pure escapism to sit drinking tea from an unwashed mug whilst pondering a domestic life made to run smoothly by parlourmaids, chaffeurs and cooks. As for 'snatching a hasty lunch of salmon mayonnaise, roast beef, potatoes, peas, French beans, salad, chocolate soufflé, charlotte russe, cream cheese, Bath Oliver biscuits, raspberries and cream ...'
If only I could. Curry or pizza?

Friday, 28 November 2014

I didn't get round to mentioning Emlyn Williams' long-forgotten 1950s play Accolade when I saw it a couple of weeks ago, but it would be hard to beat this review on the Persephone website: Accolade has the same depth of moral insight, compassion and insight into human frailty as in every Dorothy Whipple novel.
Which might explain why we came out saying what a thoroughly engrossing, good old-fashioned play it was. I'd never been to the St James Theatre before; quite a find in that rather dreary, dirty bit of Victoria that's the Queen's back yard. 

This week I've been to this very engaging documentary about David Hockney. (Rattling around in an almost-empty cinema; rather dispiriting , too, that the audience was almost exclusively over-60.) Don't feel you've missed out on it being Live from LA: I didn't grasp who was doing the Q&A but he was an abysmal interviewer who interrupted Hockney before he got most of his answers out. Heaven forbid there should be a moment's silence before a famously deaf interviewee gathers his thoughts. Fascinating on perspective and painting water and heart-breaking when he talks about the dozens of friends who died of AIDS.
But sometimes I had to shake myself ... it was a bit like seeing Alan Bennett transplanted to Malibu.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Now I know that a new decluttering guru is as seductive as a new diet. You always start out by thinking this time it really will work.
This book has pinged into my consciousness over the past few weeks. First of all, a friend mentioned that it was on her Kindle.
And then Lucille mentioned it too. I am deeply shocked. Lucille is the acknowledged expert on what is Useful or Beautiful. Her blog exudes calm and peace. I refuse to believe that Lucille has piles of stuff that require Japanese clutter-therapy.
When you organise your life according to this incredibly easy method, you will, of course, naturally, without a doubt, money-back guarantee, feel more confident, become more successful, lose weight and be transformed into the person etc etc
The book is due back to the library on December 24th. (Couldn't buy it without adding to the clutter, could I?)
Watch this space.
When I've cleared a space, that is.

I have just got to the bit where the author claims to have culled her books down to 30 volumes. I can't imagine living in a house with only 30 books. And I wouldn't like it.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

It could be that I'm the wrong reader because I've never really cared for short stories. They're too short. You can't get engrossed in a short story, or hardly ever. (I make an exception for Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain which is the most perfect short story ever written.)
But I'm eagerly awaiting Hilary Mantel's next Thomas Cromwell instalment next year and so I hoped this might fill the gap, even though some of the stories are several years old. 1993, in one case, and it shows.
Wish I could say that the others are Hilary Mantel at the peak of her powers, but they're not. They seem stagey and contrived and only the first one rang true - about a Pakistani businessman who foists himself as an unwanted visitor on an unhappy expat housewife holed up in Jeddah. It feels autobiographical; Mantel lived in Jeddah for four years in the 1980s and said it was the happiest day of her life when she left.
I've still got a couple of stories to go. But I might just let this one go back to the library tomorrow as there's a waiting list for it. You can read the Mrs Thatcher story here, but it struck me as Mantel trying to be controversial for the sake of it.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

I thought I couldn't imagine any Mapp and Lucia other than Prunella Scales and Geraldine McEwan - but, on the strength of the first episode of the new series, Miranda Richardson and Anna Chancellor are absolutely brilliant and I simply love Richardson's face whenever Miss Mapp is thwarted.
Just in time ... my Sunday evening was quite ruined when I belatedly realised that the rather abrupt and unsatisfactory ending the previous week was actually the end of this series of Downton. I suppose they must eke it out ... because once Tom and Lady Mary walk down the aisle - which is my pet theory, so it's bound to be wrong - that has to be The End.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Anyone else trying this book quiz?  I'm stuck with six to go ...
No, that's five to go, just had a brainwave!

Monday, 17 November 2014

I'm enjoying this very much, especially with Alan Bennett's voice rumbling through it and admitting that he doesn't understand Auden. (If my mum were still here, this would have been her Christmas present.) There's Larkin and Betjeman, like old friends - MacNeice, learned by heart at school ...

Life in a day: he took his girl to the ballet;
Being short-sighted himself could hardly see it -

How I sympathise with that!

For me, the new discovery has been Thomas Hardy; I've read all the novels, but very little of his poetry.

Not a new discovery that I thoroughly dislike AE Housman ... what a posturing old fraud he was. Alan Bennett says that his poems don't appeal to women.  Auden summed him up exactly:

Deliberately he chose the dry-as-dust,
Kept tears like dirty postcards in a drawer. 

I think I'm with MacNeice:
I would have a poet able bodied, fond of talking, a reader of the newspapers, capable of pity and laughter, informed in economics, appreciative of women, involved in personal relationships, actively interested in politics, susceptible to personal impressions ... I write poems not because it is smart to be a poet but because I enjoy it as one enjoys swimming or swearing, and also because it is my road to freedom and knowledge.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Nina Stibbe's funny collection of letters  Love, Nina, was my Christmas reading last year and proved exactly right for those days between Christmas and New Year when you'd like to get stuck into a book but there's lots of interruptions for eating and conversation and playing silly games. I wasn't completely convinced that, as a 20-year-old nanny to the literati - Alan Bennett is a neighbour, often dropping in -  she was quite as naive as she makes out ... but it was a nice, funny, easy read.

I'm much less taken by her latest book Man at the Helm, a semi-autobiographical first novel about two impossibly precocious sisters trying to fix their flaky mother up with a man. (It's not actually a new book, it was written years ago and has only been published now on the back of last year's bestseller.)

I'm getting tired of all that breathless, self-conscious ditzy charm ... In fact, I feel as if I'm at a party that I was quite enjoying half an hour ago but now I'm getting desperate to escape. It's just too relentless. Aaarghh ... let me out! It's going back to the library!

Friday, 14 November 2014

Dorothy Whipple fans will recognise Pauline with a Red Cushion (Sir James Gunn, c 1930, from some lucky person's private collection) ...

She was even more glamorous in yellow when I met her 'in the flesh' for the first time at the Harris Museum in Preston a few weeks ago. I remember admiring her painted toenails - so not a huge surprise to discover that she worked for Elizabeth Arden.

I'd love to visit this exhibition - and see the real yellow dress - but I doubt I'll be in Preston any time soon.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

It was 1am before I headed stickily to bed having - as ever - started the whole project far too late in the day. The scent of quinces and rosewater wafted from the kitchen last night, spreading into
every room and I'm beginning to understand Sue's passion for quinces.

I only had half a dozen, rather small ones ... but now I have more than 70 little quince sweetmeats, to be sugared and layered in a tin as soon as I get tired of them cluttering my worktops! (Best hide them soon as I have a little nibble every time I put the kettle on.) They are loosely inspired by two historic recipes - 17th and 18th century - a dollop of Jane Grigson for common sense - and once you've achieved a gloopy, red mess, then wing it and hope for the best.  
I wish I could have tied them into lover's knots (any advice, Sue?) but they were too floppy and sticky so what I ended up with is the 17th century Rowntree's fruit pastille.

I'd love to display them in a little sugar basket. I might have a bash at something less ambitious tomorrow.

Now dusted with sugar and cinnamon and stashed away out of temptation and, though I say so myself, my quince sweeties are delicious. (Actually, everybody who's had a taste has been enthusiastic.) Now, if only I had some more quinces ...
Maybe I should to move to a house with a quince tree.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Turner on Varnishing Day, William Parrott

Timothy Spall gives a terrific performance as Mr Turner and it all looks simply wonderful, as you'd expect, but, oh dear, what a very long film - I could have done with 30 minutes less - and I'm afraid I nodded off for a few minutes during dinner with the Ruskins.
Can't remember the last time, though, that I went to the cinema and it was completely sold out.
Okay, so I'm the last person in the world to catch on - but Serial is completely addictive and far more compelling than anything currently on television.

I'm fascinated by this innovative style of campaigning investigative journalism ...  Apparently,  there are 850,000 podcast downloads of Serial each week which means it is doing better than most national newspapers with their plummeting circulations. (I have an old-fashioned fondness for print so this makes me sad - but I've stopped them buying them, too.)

Serial, in case you don't know, is a re-investigation of a real-life crime story from 1999. These are real people - real witnesses - real interviews. Someone is really in prison, rightly or wrongly.  There may or may not be a real killer still at large.

It is gripping. It is brilliantly well-crafted. And yet it makes me uncomfortable.

It's door-stepping by the mob. Re-trial by podcast.

I'm not sure about the ethics but I confess I'm hooked.

Monday, 10 November 2014

I was drawn to the lovely covers of this crime classics series and intended this for holiday reading when I was up in the Lake District a few weeks ago.
I've only just got around to it now but, to be honest, it hinges on rather too much detail about rural petrol deliveries - and I'm getting bored!

Sunday, 2 November 2014

After a couple of bad reading choices in quick succession (The Shock of the Fall was almost unanimously disliked by the book group, only one of us having a good word to say for it, so it wasn't just me!) ... what a relief then to spend the weekend with my head down in a new Ian McEwan. The literary equivalent of sleeping on a good firm mattress instead of a cheap foam-filled futon. (Mattresses have been preying on my mind this week after a perfect night's sleep in a hotel bed that came from here. As mine needs replacing, I am sorely tempted.)

I haven't always been a fan of McEwan. Loved Atonement, loathed Saturday, wasn't entirely convinced by On Chesil Beach. But I do like his spare, elegant writing.

This is a compelling slim volume, only 213pp. Fiona is a High Court judge in the Family Division, fiercely intelligent, going through a midlife crisis in her own long, on the whole loving, but childless marriage. (Does seven weeks and a day without sex constitute a crisis worth leaving home for? Her husband thinks it does.)

To be honest, I didn't much care about Fiona's private life and whether or not she picked up the threads of her marriage with the history professor husband who was so vain of his silver-grey chest hair. But her working life is fascinating: the judgement she gave on Siamese twins - her ruling on educating the daughters of two divorced Orthodox Jews ... She is cool, dispassionate, a female Solomon. She wears Rive Gauche; a detail dropped in towards the end, but how exactly right for her.

And then she is called on to make an emergency court order in the case of a young Jehovah's Witness with leukaemia; almost 18 - but not quite - he is refusing a blood transfusion.

Often, when I finish reading McEwan I find myself stricken by doubts. Now that I've surfaced, I'm not entirely convinced by this beautiful, precocious, exceptionally-gifted 17-year-old poet. But I was completely engrossed while I was reading, right to the last page.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Persephone Books recently listed this as one of the 50 books they wish they'd published themselves, which is why I picked it up at the library despite the unpromising cover. They even said it should be on the Booker longlist.

Perhaps I should have trusted my instincts about the cover. It's chick-lit with pretensions. Topping my 2014 list of books I wish I hadn't wasted time on.

Unfortunately, it was the only book I'd shoved in my handbag when I was away on a work trip earlier this week. Although I suppose the advantage of not giving two hoots about silly plot or characters is that you can pick it up and put it down again without caring a jot when you're interrupted.

Friday, 31 October 2014

October 31 and London was bathed in sunshine this afternoon. Children were stripped down to nappies and pants, splashing in the fountains and jumping over the water spouts. I ate a late lunch sitting outside, wishing I hadn't put on warm autumny clothes this morning.Then a golden twilight fell very suddenly in the park and I set off for home.


I'd finished work early, was near Trafalgar Square anyway and, torn between what I ought to be doing (choosing a new cooker in John Lewis) and what I wanted to do, I naturally found myself in the National Gallery at the Rembrandt exhibition. But it was heaving with people and there wasn't a moment of stillness to contemplate one magnificent painting after another. I didn't want to jostle in front of the tenderness of Isaac and Rebecca, the Jewish Bride ...

I was transfixed by Catrina Hoogshaet's incredibly painful looking gold hairpins. See how they pinch her flesh?

And despite the crowds, this Apostle Bartholomew drew me across the room. He has such a timeless quality. Painted in 1661, but something in the craggy weariness of his face seems very modern.

This is a staggeringly good exhibition but I left in frustration at the blockbuster experience after an hour. I'll try again, maybe earlier in the week, or earlier in the morning.

Monday, 27 October 2014

I haven't been to the cinema for weeks, if not months - but I was completely engrossed tonight by this many-layered film, not a new one, but from 2003. It is about grief and shame; it is an elegy for the dead, at the same time as being an irresistible journalistic coup; it is about voyeurism and the ownership of stories and much more.
The story behind it became part of Emmanuel Carrère's memoir/novel My Life as a Russian Novel. I vaguely remember reading reviews of this when it was published; yet another book on my must-read-soon list ... will I ever catch up with myself? Kotelnitch is a small, dead-end  town on the Trans-Siberian railway. Carrère's initial visit was to tell the story of one of the last forgotten prisoners of WW2 who had languished for 55 years in a psychiatric hospital. He returned to make a documentary about the town, and then again to tell the story of a young woman - his interpreter - who was brutally murdered. And somehow, along the way, he found himself confronting the story of his own grandfather, a collaborator in Occupied France who had vanished without trace after the liberation.
Emmanuel Carrère was there tonight, taking questions. The central characters in his film are mostly still alive, still grieving and destroyed by the events he recounts.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Take the Carlyles, for instance. One hour spent in 5 Cheyne Row will tell us more about them and their lives than we can learn from all the biographies ... It is impossible not to believe that half their quarrels might have been spared and their lives immeasurably sweetened if only number 5 Cheyne Row had possessed, as the house agents put it, bath, h. and c., gas fires in the bedrooms, all modern conveniences and indoor sanitation. But then, we reflect, as we cross the worn threshold, Carlyle with hot water laid on would not have been Carlyle; and Mrs Carlyle without bugs to kill would have been a different woman from the one we know.

From Great Men's Houses, Virginia Woolf

Worth dipping into this book of V Woolf's essays from 1931/2 for Good Housekeeping magazine if only for her look askance at how the Carlyles' lives were ruled by the struggle to achieve good housekeeping whilst carrying hot water up three flights of stairs from the well in their basement kitchen.
Other essays on the London docks, Oxford Street and the House of Commons left me feeling too uninvolved to take much interest.

I don't often write about books I dislike - after all, why bother? - but The Shock of the Fall, which won the Costa prize, turned out to be everything I most dislike about the contemporary novel.
I admit, there wasn't anything about it that appealed to me when it was selected for our book group this month. 'You're going to love it' - the plug from the Daily Mail on the back cover - would be enough to assure me that, No, I'm probably not. The jacket design shrieked mass-market emotion.
I persevered. I loathed the typographical tricksiness. Even the page numbers are irritating and gimmicky.
Very briefly, it is about grief and guilt and a teenage boy's descent into schizophrenia following the death of his Down's syndrome brother. Could there be a novel with any more Issues?
Nathan Filer - who was a psychiatric nurse - is now a lecturer in Creative Writing and this reads like a competent NaNoWriMo project. It's the kind of novel that might have been assembled in parts from an Airfix kit.
I'm sure there's a PhD thesis for someone on the deleterious effect of the female book group on literature. Because the demand for bite-sized discussion topics to go with the finger food has created a vast market for novels that are like ready-meals for the brain.
Of course, what's really bugging me is that no sooner had I plodded to the predictably upbeat and redemptive ending - don't want it too grim and depressing, do we?  - than I realised that I'll probably be working too late to make this month's get together. Dammit. I needn't have bothered reading it!

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.
The Garden by Andrew Marvell

I haven't been for a browse along Cork Street for ages, but I knew exactly where I was heading yesterday when I left the Royal Academy ... to this exhibition of new Howard Hodgkin prints at Alan Cristea. The show's title Green Thoughts refers to Marvell's poem. Hodgkin sounds as if he might be terrifying to meet, and journalists are warned not to ask him what his paintings mean or he'll burst into tears. Of course, this could be out of sheer exasperation at being asked the same question yet again. Anyway, the girl in the gallery yesterday said writers tend to play up his reputation for being a prickly interviewee. You can read Andrew Marr's fascinating essay here.
And I learned something new. I had no idea that Hodgkin was a cousin of Roger Fry.

Portrait of Gian Gerolamo Grumelli (The Man in Pink), 1560
The Royal Academy's exhibition of works by Giovanni Battista Moroni is the first to be held in the UK and it is a gem. These portraits of living, breathing people - Moroni was renowned for his realism - seem so alive that you almost expect them to step out of the frame and start talking and dancing and bickering, probably reigniting some ancient blood feud from what I gathered from reading the labels. As for their sumptuous costumes ... oh, this exhibition is a feast. If you click on the images, you'll see the detail.
There is the Man in Pink, above, with his jacket embroidered with silver. his fine ribbed stockings and his fabulous seed pearl garter. The fine red embroidery on his ruff and at his wrists must have been fashionable because it features in several portraits, of men and women alike.

Portrait of Isotta Brembati, c 1553
The Man in Pink was married to this sober, patrician lady - she was a poet - who hasn't been able to resist the frivolity of an ostrich feather fan in candyfloss colours. Very Claire's Accessories, don't you think?

The Lady in Red (below, from the National Gallery) was also a poet, renowned for her beautiful manners. She had to leave town to escape a blood feud. Her husband was the Knight with a Wounded Foot who wore a foot brace if you look carefully. I should think he caused her plenty of grief because shortly after his portrait was painted, he died after falling into a well when he was drunk. I'm sure Hilary Mantel could weave all of these people into an Italian version of Wolf Hall.

There must be a story to tell about this lady who is rather too old to be wearing rosebuds and jasmine in her hair. She reminds me of Princess Anne, or maybe Margaret Beckett, suddenly discovering a skittish, romantic side that we didn't expect. But look at that wonderful smocked chemise that she's wearing. 
Portrait of Lucia Vertova Agosti      

Then there was The Widower and his two little daughters, on loan from Dublin. 

And this little girl looking very self-composed, with her pierced ears and her coral bracelet to ward off evil.  

There is a slide show here. I'll definitely be going back for a second visit. 

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Quinces, Eliot Hodgkin, 1969
Much thought went into planning how to cook my ration of six quinces.

An expert was consulted. Their lovely scent wafted from the kitchen as I baked them, following Sue's advice. (Thanks, Sue.)

Then I made the quince tort dating back to 1662 from this fascinating book.  Here's the original.

Quinces, Parmesan cheese, marzipan scented with orange-flower water, mixed together and baked in puff pastry. (I own up. It did have a soggy bottom.)

The technical challenge, of course, is guessing 17th century oven temperature/timing.

I thought it would be sickly-sweet but it was quite fresh and light. I'd make it again if I could get hold of more quinces.

And it was certainly a talking point.

The serving suggestion of a puff pastry eagle's head stuffed with marzipan and quince is sadly beyond my skills as a pastrychef.

I'd feel mortified serving up an eagle's head with a soggy bottom.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Life has rather ground to a standstill over the past few days as I've been head-down in Sarah Waters' page-turner of a novel. It's not her best, I don't think, but it's still first-class autumn reading.

It is 1922 and post-war London society is fissured. Soldiers have returned to a land that can't find employment for heroes. Genteel widowed Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter are forced to take in paying guests to maintain their shabby South London villa. The paying guests are a brash young couple  from the new 'clerk class' who initially bring colour and a bit of life to respectable suburbia. But they also bring with them the contagion of moral and emotional chaos.

I thought the novel was more interesting at the start in its depiction of two classes coming into intimate contact on the stairs and landing and passing through the kitchen en route to the outside lav. After that ... well, I'd better not spoil it, but it does keep you gripped to the last page.

Fortunately, I have a new Persephone to console me for the gap it leaves in my life. (And a heap of work that has been shoved to one side as I read 'just one more chapter...')

I'm also feeling very regretful for the many times I've walked past secondhand Virago copies of A Pin to See the Peep-Show - especially given the astronomical prices currently on Amazon.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Jane's post today on jam and art got me thinking, especially as I'd also been struck by Stanley Spencer's  doorstep of bread and jam when I saw it at Somerset House earlier in the year.

I knew that Melendez painted jam, for sure ...

But I wasn't really thinking of jam as still life.

I started racking my brain. (As you do when you're supposed to be working on something entirely different.) I thought of paintings with bread and cake and brioche and ham and fried eggs and all kinds of fruit ... but where was the jam?

I was so sure that Tissot had painted jam, but when I checked they'd gone straight on to cake ...

Holyday, James Tissot c 1876

I remembered seeing this painting quite recently, and I was sure this old gentleman would have had jam - especially as it wouldn't be rationed yet. But when I looked carefully ... no jam. (But do click on the image for lovely detail, like the gas-mask on the table.) 

Why War?, Charles Spencelayh, 1938

I thought Evelyn Dunbar would be a good bet for jam, but seems that she was more interested in canning which isn't quite the same ...

A Canning Demonstration, Evelyn Dunbar, 1940

So I set off on a quest and discovered tea-parties that might well have been cheerier with a pot of strawberry jam ... 

Mrs Raynes's Tea Party, Henry Tonks, 1928

And messy kitchens where maybe they'd find some jam if they tidied up ...

David, in the Kitchen, with Thistle, John Bratby

And neat-as-a- pin kitchens where they'd put away the jam (but left the sauce bottle out on the sideboard).

Half a Kitchen, Thomas McGoran, c1956

And pantries full of empty jamjars ...

The Tiled Kitchen, Harry Bush, 1954

And - finally - tea with bread and jam (though maybe it's honey!)

Kitchen at The George, John Kynnersley Kirby, 1932

So it seems that Jane is right . In art, it's jam yesterday, jam tomorrow - but never jam today. And you can't beat Stanley Spencer for a jam doorstep. 

Postscript: Sue has cleverly suggested Coupons Required by Leonora Green, from the Imperial War Museum, for its jar of Hartley's apricot. 

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

This was one of my favourite books as a child and I'd love to read it again. I can't think why it isn't better known today. Or is it? I only know boys who would think it was soppy!

It was in my classroom library - one very small bookcase, which didn't boast many books - so we read them again and again.

It's about a little girl who shrinks to visit her dolls in their house. They think she's their landlady and bombard her with complaints about the dolls' house food and all the things that don't work.

So I was delighted to spend this morning at the Museum of Childhood looking at some of the dolls' houses that will feature in this exhibition. Including one very superior house with real cake! (The exhibition will be free to get in.)

Remember Ballet Shoes?
    The Fossil sisters lived in the Cromwell Road. At that end of it which is farthest away from the Brompton Road, and yet sufficiently near it to be taken to look at the dolls’ houses in the Victoria and Albert every wet day, and if not too wet, expected to ‘save the penny and walk.’ Saving the penny and walking was a great feature of their lives.

The very same dolls' houses. Could it be a need for equity release to support their owners in dolly retirement that forced their removal from genteel South Kensington to their present less fashionable address in Bethnal Green?

(Nothing to do with dolls' houses - but have you tried this reading test? I scored faster than a college professor but I imagine that college professors might be reading something more intellectually taxing!)

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Ruhleben Prison Camp: Hut No 8, Nico Jungman, 1917
There are some very moving stories in the Garden Museum's new exhibition Gardens and War, including the fascinating history of all those keen British gardeners holed up in  Ruhleben internment camp during WW1. Hut 8 was very proud of its rose garden.

The first bomb of that war fell on a garden in Dover and blasted the gardener out of a tree he was pruning. I never knew that!

Most poignant are the gardening stories from recent conflicts, little plots of hope in Gaza, Israel and Afghanistan.

But ... this is an exhibition almost entirely bereft of objects. When you think about it, it's extremely unlikely that anything would survive other than stray photographs. You wouldn't lose anything by experiencing it online instead of buying a ticket.

No excuse, though, for all the sloppy spelling mistakes. Ordinance/ordnance ... in an exhibition about war, for heaven's sake. Plus the usual it's/its and several more I spotted. Not a very good example for school parties.

My verdict: save the tube fare and buy the book.
Like the first snowdrops, the first cuckoo of spring (although the green parrots of London squawk all year round) ...

The return of autumn is marked by Downton Abbey and a new series of Lewis. And when my thoughts turn to dahlias, I invariably feel the urge for a Sunday afternoon trip to Columbia Road. Looking back, it seems that nothing changes ...

Yet again, I was tempted by the hydrangeas but held off until the moment when the cry goes up along the road. "Twoferfive. Twoferfive.  Two bunches for £5. Ladies, two bunches for £5."

A sheaf of papery Chinese lanterns and a big bunch of claret-coloured dahlias. Bargain sealed.

Then home to watch Downton, almost embracing autumn ...

The first bottle of whisky should clinch it.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

How could I possibly have resisted this cover? (Southern England 1944, Spitfires Attacking Flying Bombs, by WT Monnington.) I came across it a few weeks ago for £1 in the secondhand bookshop at Ham House.)

I haven't been able to settle with a book recently, but still managed to enjoy it - and I suspect that I'd have enjoyed it even more if I'd been able to bury my head in it uninterrupted for a whole afternoon. It reminded me rather of Elizabeth Taylor's At Mrs Lippincote's. On the Side of the Angels, first published in 1945, centres on two sisters whose lives are peripheral to a WW2 military hospital in Gloucestershire. They seem to be mere satellites of the men who have a more important role in the serious world of conflict. Honor is married to (and still besotted with) Colin, a dapper, overbearing  little man who was a small town GP in civilian life. Army life (although he has never seen action) has given him more masculine status than he ever commanded before ... but, equally, it leaves him thin-skinned and vulnerable to losing face as he obsesses over his standing with his commanding officer.  Claudia is engaged to Andrew, who is deprived of any status/desirability now that he has been invalided out of the Army with a dodgy heart.

Honor sighed: a moment later she said, unexpectedly "This isn't a war for mothers with children ... It's all right for young girls - they can go into the Waaf, or make munitions - do something - but the married women get the rough end of it. Trailing round in furnished houses, resented by the locals, snubbed by the trades-people - and on top of it all, cold-shouldered, seeing their husbands only on sufferance -"

Claudia flashed her an ambiguous glance. "The CO, my dear, doesn't like rivals," she said. 

Betty Miller is wonderfully perceptive about 'male pirouetting' and fragile self-esteem, and all the petty vanities and jostling for position that are part of army life ... and the ending came as a complete surprise to me. (She said it was an almost exact picture of the military hospital where her husband served under a very peculiar CO during the war.)

I wasn't terribly keen on Miller's earlier novel Farewell Leicester Square, which was interesting in the way it addresses insidious English anti-semitism between the wars - but was rather dull as a novel. I can see why Virago chose this one instead as a better read. Seems impossible, though, to track down any of her other novels. Not on Amazon/Abebooks/eBay ... or has anybody struck gold in a secondhand book shop?

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Conversation overheard on platform at Carnforth railway station. Wife to husband: 'It's not a girls' film. It's got trains in it.'

I'm not sure I'd agree ... I think it's the very epitome of a girls' film. But as I'd started the holiday at the Midland Hotel, where Trevor Howard stayed during the making of the film, I couldn't resist breaking the homeward journey south with the full Brief Encounter Experience on Carnforth station. Free to get in - the film runs on a loop so you could settle down in old-fashioned cinema seats for the whole afternoon - and there's tea and homemade buttered Bara brith in the old station master's office, where Celia Johnson used to warm herself  by the stove when they were filming. No Banbury cakes, though. They ought to have Banbury cakes. Fresh this morning.

One night they didn't finish filming until 7.30am by which time, the fish train from Aberdeen had gone through - leaving a smell of herrings. Happy? No, not re-all-y.

Nobody there but us and a few old train buffs who knew every line of the film, pointing out details we'd never spotted before like the train driver leaning out of the express in the opening sequence. This was 1945 and the driver wouldn't have seen a station lit up at night since the start of the war. But by then it was almost over and there wasn't much likelihood of bombing raids on Carnforth.

Far too late, it dawned on me that we should have made a detour here while we were still in the Lake District. So that's still on the bucket list.

PS I completely forgot to mention in the post about Morecambe this amazing secondhand bookshop on the promenade - keep walking past the seaside rock shops - which looks (and smells) like something out of Diagon Alley. I wouldn't have been at all surprised to stumble across the mummified body of a booklover who got lost in the towering stacks.