Sunday, 31 May 2015

This is the blackhouse village where we stayed on the Hebridean island of Lewis ...

That's us. Last cottage on the right, nearest the beach.

And here's our blackhouse. The tiny window in the roof was my bedroom. 

And this is Peigi, who lived there until 1974 when she moved to the council houses up the road. Born in 1895, she left to work in munitions in Glasgow during WW1, then stayed on after the war in the herring curing but returned to the island in the 1930s to look after her parents.

I didn't do much reading. Wild, blustery Hebridean weather doesn't allow for lounging in deckchairs. But I did manage to read Entry Island, by Peter May who wrote the Lewis Trilogy. Entry Island is nowhere near as riveting and I wasn't terribly interested in the present-day murder on a remote Canadian island. But the flashbacks to the 19th century, the potato blight - which affected Scotland, as well as Ireland - and the brutal Highland Clearances were fascinating to read in a landscape where there's so many derelict crofters' cottages. As for The Blackhouse, the first book of the Lewis trilogy ... now I simply have to read it again.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Who would ever have predicted that Borgen, a series about Danish coalition politics, for heaven's sake, would make compelling viewing ...
But it was gripping. And so I was looking forward to this new Danish period drama 1864, which stars all our favourite actors from Borgen/The Killing.
Oh, dear. Can anybody watch this without going, Hey, It's Birgitte ... Look, there's Troels! Godnat Troels... And isn't that Kasper Juuls?
And then comes the sinking realisation that Danish politics might be gripping. But the Schleswig-Holstein Question, even with sex/bestialism/Troels is kind of boring.
And every time you yawn, you've fallen behind with the subtitles.
Lord Palmerston said: 'Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business - the Prince Consort, who is dead - a German professor, who has gone mad - and I, who have forgotten all about it.'
Don't think I'll be hanging in there long enough to make that four people. Although when I see my  Danish sister-in-law next week, I'll be interested to hear what she thinks.

Friday, 8 May 2015

I'm a big RC Sherriff fan. His sci-fi novel The Hopkins Manuscript was the first Persephone title I ever read; except I read such a glowing review that I couldn't hold out for the forthcoming Persephone edition - and then it still took weeks for a musty-smelling original to arrive from America. I'm not sure I made the connection at the time but, shortly before, I'd wept over a harrowing West End production of Journey's End, with David Haig. And several years later - when I'd properly discovered Persephones - I was completely charmed by The Fortnight in September, possibly my favourite of the gentler, feel-good titles on their list.

Greengates, originally published in 1936, is being republished later this year; but I discovered a battered old copy in library reserve stock - that hadn't been taken out since 1981. And I knew I was going to love it.

Mr Baldwin is a 58-y-o Chief Cashier in a City insurance company, a gentle, self-effacing man, perhaps a couple of rungs up the ladder, but essentially not unlike the father who takes his family to Bognor for The Fortnight in September. (It's unnerving as a middle-aged reader to realise that there was a time when 50 wasn't the new 30, it was lumbago and marking time until The End.)

Several months into retirement, Mr Baldwin finds time hanging on his hands; he's thoroughly bored and aimless and cracks are appearing in his previously contented marriage which wasn't designed to survive this 24/7 togetherness. Then, completely out of character, the Baldwins decide to turn their lives around by selling their home and all their possessions and buying a new-build (Tudor or Georgian, £1,050 to £1,950) on a housing estate in what was becoming Betjeman's Metroland ...

Mr Baldwin becomes a pillar of his new community, although it isn't long before Woolworth's, Sainsbury's, Boots' and Lyons' have pursued him down the newly-concreted road to this rustic goodlife.

It sounds delightful? Noooo. Unfortunately, we accompany Mr Baldwin every step of the way - every meeting - every anxiety and setback - every letter he writes through the whole utterly tedious process of   buying and selling and arranging the finance. If Mr Baldwin were your next-door-neighbour in Metroland you'd borrow his well-oiled shears and think what a harmless old bore he was. Maybe in 1936 this was a novel about buying The Middle-Class Dream. But today it feels like traipsing round in the wake of an overly-persistent estate agent. Here's a contemporary review. I'm happy to return this to the library; it's not a keeper.

Carey Mulligan or Julie Christie? No contest. I'm afraid this new film adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd is a mere blip, not a classic.
There's something not quite right about it, even though it's beautifully filmed, and the costumes are terrific. (Especially Bathsheba's going-to-market outfits - but would she really have worn a leather jacket?)
It's too modern. Carey Mulligan is too gamine and minxish to ignite smouldering passion and, without the smouldering passion, where's the tragedy of Farmer Boldwood's brooding love for her? (Also, you should see the grandeur of his house ... it's ages since I read the book, but surely he was a prosperous farmer, not an aristocrat? As for Bathsheba's farmhouse, well, I never imagined it as fancy as this, did you? The director is Danish; maybe the finer nuances of English rural class went over his head.)

Then there's Sergeant Troy ... he looks more like a fresh-faced sixth-form army cadet than a Lothario.

But apart from all that, the story is told at such a galloping pace (it's a good half-hour shorter than the 1967 version) that there's no sense of Bathsheba's character mellowing and changing.

Passionless and pointless. But it looks lovely, I'll give it that much.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

I'm not a fan of magic/fantasy so I didn't feel drawn to Susanna Clarke's whopping great novel, which seemed to demand more commitment than I was prepared to make to a whimsical story. But so far - I've only seen the first episode - I'm enjoying BBC's lavish adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Mostly because it's set in York and I'm having fun spotting snickets and ginnels. It takes place in the early 19th century when magic has withered away to dry-as-dust theory ... but now some are urging a practical magic revival. I'm not sure I'll stay the course over seven hour-long episodes - but I loved the scene when, as proof of his powers, Mr Norrell makes the statues in York Minster's Kings of England Quire Screen start chatting to each other. Wish I'd been there!