Monday, 24 February 2014

My lunch date stood me up today so instead I grabbed the chance for my annual fix of Victorian  mahogany splendour at Two Temple Place, which is only open for a few weeks every year. This year's exhibition, drawn from the University of Cambridge collections, is quirky and engaging ... but really I was there for the splendid carvings, the mad stained glass windows and the glory of sailing up that staircase. And it's free to get in.

When I came out, I thought as I might as well go to the Isabella Blow exhibition at Somerset House, as I was only a stroll away.  More pictures here. Now, to be honest, I'm not that interested in the overblown lives of the Tatler set ...

But oh, those fabulous Philip Treacy hats. They're works of art. In another life, I could fancy myself swishing in a breathtakingly beautiful gown of tiny feathers by Alexander McQueen, with a bit of taxidermy on my head - but I'd need a fairy godmother to endow me with cheekbones first. One of the early reviewers seemed to think that you could catch Isabella Blow's scent wafting from the clothes ... Maybe it's worn off now that the exhibition has been on for weeks, but I can't say I noticed. I did notice the sloppy spelling/grammar mistakes on some of the labels, though ... No use getting in a tizz about compliment and complement these days,  but I thought 'would of' was plumbing new depths. 

Sunday, 23 February 2014

I thoroughly enjoyed this BBC4 documentary Dancing in the Blitz (broadcasts 5th March) with its interviews with old dancers, reminiscing about how WW2 was the making of British ballet. I knew that the Vic-Wells ballet company was stranded in Holland when the Nazis invaded but how fascinating to hear Julia Farron, the last survivor of that tour, telling the story. Her father was in the Air Ministry and hadn't wanted her to go and, not only that, but her mother went to chaperone the youngest dancers who were under 16. The early performances were such a success that the Dutch threw tulips and daffodils onto the stage ... but on the night of May 10, 1940, Margot Fonteyn was up on the roof of the hotel in her lilac dressing gown, watching airborne troops dropping by parachute. Back home, the corps de ballet was so disciplined that when doodlebugs flew over the theatre, sylphides simply froze - and started dancing again as soon as the orchestra crawled out from under their seats.

I'm still glued to BBC's ballet season this afternoon and was completely entranced by Good Swan, Bad Swan, (9th March) which was like a Swan Lake masterclass with gorgeous Tamara Rojo who makes you realise why you will never, ever, ever tire of seeing Swan Lake. I must have been about 10 the first time I saw it, and I was firmly in the Odette camp ... now,  well, I can completely see how Tamara finds wicked Odile such fun to dance. Fascinating to see her and Alina Cojocaru watching footage of Galina Ulanova, and how interpretation of the role has changed over the years with the physicality of the dancers. As for Pierina Legnani performing the famous 32 fouettés on a chalk ring drawn round a rouble ... you can only sigh and wish you were there. Might have to watch this one again!

Saturday, 22 February 2014

So what do you do on a glorious morning when London is looking fab in the sunshine? You think pink, grab a croissant and sit in a darkened cinema watching Funny Face. Even if it's not very long since you saw it last, because seeing it on television doesn't count.
Could there be a better feel-good movie? It's got Paris and frocks and the best-ever beatnik bookshop in a movie and songs that set your toes tapping and TWA planes and a spoof on Sartre.
And gorgeous Kay Thompson (in sizzling turquoise eye-shadow) -  who is probably better remembered today for living in the Plaza hotel and writing Eloise.

Of course, Fred Astaire - who was pushing 60 - is far too old for lovely Audrey.

  103 minutes of sitting in the dark with a great big smile on your face is very good for the soul ...

And when I emerged it was sunny enough to sit outside with a box lunch from Lantana and a view of the Post Office Tower against the blue sky.

Then I filled in half an hour doing my food shop for the weekend, took a short cut through Chinatown and spent the afternoon - oh, I do love back-to-back movies - watching Inside Llewyn Davis. Which took me full circle back to Greenwich Village where I'd started off at 10am in Audrey's bookshop. It was sad, funny, great music, and the great thing about an over-50s audience is they get jokes about Clancy Brothers' knitwear that are lost on the young.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

I slipped this book into my bag to bring to Paris last weekend, for no other reason than its being a very slim volume to carry. I bought it ages ago in the Oxfam shop and it was gathering dust on a pile and I really do want to conquer the piles, read them, shelve or recycle them.
What a very strange book ... Is there such a thing as Battersea Gothic? It is beautifully written; you can smell those brown, damp, cabbagey, lino-floored rooms.
The vet's daughter lives with her brutal father and timid, gentle mother who is dying of cancer, her end eventually hastened by her husband who puts her down like a sick animal. The vet is a monster, with a terrible waxed moustache ... Just one sentence redeems him, when a locum describes him as the most brilliant vet he has worked with. For a moment you see him expand into the man he could have been had he not been so crushed by a life of disappointment.
After her mother's death, there is no-one to shield the vet's daughter but this gentle locum who fixes her up with a job as lady's companion to his depressive mother. For a while, it seems that she has escaped from her abusive father who has very quickly shacked up with a blowsy barmaid.
And then ... well, then it gets very strange but it would spoil it to say much more. I'll only say that the shocking ending on Wimbledon Common reminded me of Shirley Jackson. It made me slightly cross, though. Magical realism always seems a bit of a cop-out. But I won't be recycling it. It's a keeper and I'm sure I'll read it again.
Eve, 1881

It was bitterly cold - Rodin's Jean d'Aire seemed to be clenched against the wind, not the Hundred Years' War - but in a woodland grove at Compton Verney yesterday, Eve was surrounded by drifts of yellow aconites and snowdrops and spring seemed to be on the way. A lovely exhibition, indoors and out and I wished I could take Rodin's sculpture of entwined hands - two people's entwined hands - home with me.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

I was working in Paris on Saturday, so there was no way I was rushing back home.
I'm so not a morning person that when I opened my front door at 6am, I was surprised that it was still pitch dark ...
But I was in Paris by 11am. And after a browse in the flea market - and a big steak and frites lunch - and the frustration of arriving 10 minutes too late to see the Brassaï exhibition because I'd stupidly forgotten that France is one hour ahead ... that early start (and I did get the work bit done, honestly) was catching up on me.
But next morning I awoke to discover that just across the road from my hotel it was a bustling Sunday morning on a little street of delectable fromageries and patisseries. Did I want to walk around with a smelly parcel all day ... well, no, not really, so just a grand café crème and a croissant and a regretful peep into the cheese shop which, after all, has a couple of branches in London.
Then a stroll in the sunshine ... yes, there was sunshine in Paris ...  down the Champs-Elysées where the tricolor flags look so much more fluttering and flirtatious than the Union Jack.
My project for the morning was this dazzling exhibition of Cartier diamonds.
My dear, the tiaras ...
Diamonds, rubies and emeralds for princesses, maharajahs, and the stonking rich.
The Queen's lovely rose diamond brooch, the Duchess of Windsor's flamingo, Liz Taylor's bling and the Princess Grace's engagement ring.
But in the end, the dazzle and the crowd all got a bit much.
Funny, they weren't selling any bling in the exhibition shop. I guess you don't really fancy imitation when you've seen the real thing.

Later I headed to the Musée Nissim de Camondo, spotted on my last expedition when I set out on the trail of the Hare with the Amber Eyes. It is one of the mansions backing onto Parc Monceau. Built in 1911, so too late for Charles Ephrussi to have visted there - but I'm sure the two wealthy Jewish families, both interested in art and living on the same street, must have been acquainted.
Maybe for a few years at least, ladies in diamonds made their way up the grand staircase to be received in the salon.
But it is a house imbued with sadness because Moise de Camondo's young wife ran off with an Italian riding instructor soon after their marriage, his only son was killed in the air force in 1917 - and the house became a place of mourning.
It seemed such a lonely place .. unfortunately, imbued also with that unmistakeable cheap disinfectant aroma of Parisian lavatories. Which makes you appreciate the National Trust's corporate pot de pourri.
You try to imagine this mansion filled with flowers - the buzz of conversation - grandchildren running up the stairs after a visit to the carousel in the park.
But Moise de Camondo's only daughter and his grandchildren died in Auschwitz.

Monday, 10 February 2014

The Invisible Woman is quite simply brilliant and within minutes I felt transported back to the 1860s ...  whisked out of my cinema seat to be at one of Dickens' public readings, or up in the balcony at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, watching him perform The Frozen Deep. The details are wonderful, from Victorian wallpapers to the scene at Doncaster races which could have been William Powell Frith's Derby Day. It raises some interesting questions about the position of women in Victorian society... when Dickens and Nelly are involved in an altercation on the doorstep, a constable says, "Is this lady bothering you, Sir?" And, although Nelly's mother is clearly complicit in their relationship ... how else can poor Nelly support herself as the only untalented member of a theatrical family?
The best performance, though, is Joanna Scanlan's fat, frumpy Mrs Dickens - who, in one heartbreaking scene, is forced by her husband to deliver a gift of jewellery to Nelly, after it was wrongly addressed by the jeweller who assumed it was meant for his wife. As for Dickens, he's vain, dandyish, endlessly energetic, ruthless, selfish - and completely irresistible. And I should think Claire Tomalin is completely thrilled by this adaptation of her biography.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Lettice Newdigate, aged two, 1606

Much as I'd love to say you really must go to Fashion&Gardens at the Garden Museum - incredibly, it is supposed to be the first-ever exhibition about gardening and fashion - the truth is that it is a charming, but tiny display, the admission charge is hefty when you'd be hard pressed to spin out the visit for 15 minutes, and unfortunately it's a great idea that would have been carried out far better by the Fashion Museum or the V&A. In fact, it's so skimpy that you'd learn more from reading the feature in last month's Vogue. There's hardly any frocks and, given the restrictions on space, the curator made some bizarre choices; a shiny purple Burberry mac has only a very tenuous connection with gardening in my mind. There is, however, one fabulous Valentino opera coat. This review from the Standard, though, clearly written by someone who hadn't been to the show, makes it sound much more fabulous than it is and most of what's mentioned isn't in the exhibition at all.
So a bit of a disappointment, but the amazing flower installation by Rebecca Louise Law was even better than last year's canopy of roses hanging from the ceiling ... this year she's gone mad with gerbera, allium, roses, bird of paradise flowers, gypsophila, anthurium, and many more, and all fresh tonight though they'll eventually fade away.

(Jane Lloyd/Garden World Images)

It would have been fun if they'd recreated this hair-do. Ladies kept their flowers fresh by burying vases in their wigs ... imagine, the mess when they leaked ... your powder would turn to glue. I suppose then, like now, you had to be the type to carry it off.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

I'd almost forgotten what it was like ... a day without rain. Far too nice to stay home, so I headed off to Columbia Road to buy flowers.

Which is always a difficult decision. Do you buy two bunches for five? Or three rather more desirable ones for ten? Or do you hang on for the four for ten frenzy at 4pm?

Should it be a sheaf of 50 tulips? Or a bargain basement box of cheerful primulas?

But in the end I chose a massive armful of soleil d'or narcissi which cost a fiver and there was no way she was going to reduce them.

And a pot of seven white hyacinths for £3.50.

And the bargain of the day was a sheaf of pale pink orchids that the stallholder was chucking away so I rescued it from the gutter. The other ladies who dived in quickly were very pleased too.

Just as well I didn't buy the primulas because my arms were getting tired.

I'd like you to imagine the vase of orchids on my desk.

But what with 12 library books, a mug, last night's wineglass, dozens of notebooks, two diaries, last week's Guardian and this month's Vogue  - and that's only the top layer -

You'll understand why I plonked them on the windowsill.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

What a treat. I noticed that Enchanted April was on TV at the crack of dawn this morning, so I thought I'd treat myself to five minutes on iPlayer with a cup of tea and a bacon butty ... and it turned out to be this 1935 version, which I've never seen before.  On iPlayer for one week only - you'd never guess from the website because the BBC is flagging up the 1991 remake.

Sixty minutes and three cups of tea later ... the bacon burned to a crisp but the film was a delight.