Saturday, 27 June 2015

Okay, I should know better. The fact that there's a wait-list of 400 at the library means nothing except that it's over-hyped.
But it's summer and I was in the mood for a page-turner. I got off to a good start but quickly found myself flagging ... why read 300 pages of How Well Do You Really Know Your Spouse? when the same stock characters feature every day in the Daily Mail? This is a cautionary tale of Bad Things Happen to Women because all women have the same design flaw. If you're female, by definition,  you're more or less unhinged.
The girl on the train (who is a woman in her 30s but women are intrinsically childish) is an alcoholic whose life is so messed up that she can't rely on her own memory.

On the other hand, I'm fascinated by this as a brilliantly formulaic example of how to write a best-seller.
And, in fairness, it's quite a lot better than Gone Girl.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

What happened to the crystallised borage flowers?

Well, I picked them - nasty, prickly things - and I carried them home and remembered they were still in my bag around about midnight.

And then I thought, Well, I could still do it before bedtime. But it's a fiddly job pulling the pretty blue flowers off with tweezers when you don't want any green bits and the big bunch of borage was dwindling to a tiny heap of petals, which were looking rather tired and so was I ...

And I thought why am I starting a sticky job like this when sensible people are in bed?

And I also thought about all the dogs that walk down that lane ...

So I thought, Stuff it and chucked the whole lot in the bin.

Yesterday I noticed that the hedgerow has been mown and all the borage flowers have disappeared. So that's that.

But I still made the marigold tart from the 1573 recipe.

And nobody noticed that it was garnished with marigolds instead of borage.

Meanwhile, rose petals are drying on a teatowel on my windowsill. There could be rose petal sugar for meringues. I blame this book.

Rosepetal sugar being far less fiddly, I whizzed up a couple of jars in two minutes and those meringues - or shortbread - or macaroons - will actually happen. I do like instant results! 

Monday, 15 June 2015

This hasn't been a good year for reading and for the last few months I've been finding it hard to settle down to a book. (One notable exception: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, which is one of those books that, while you are reading, become more real to you than real life.)

But over the last week or so, I've devoured three novels. (A few days at the seaside, away from electronic devices has certainly helped!) Far and away the best was Anne Tyler's new novel which, at 73, she claims is the last novel she will write. And what a way to bow out! (I can't believe that Ali Smith beat her to the Baileys Prize. Or rather, I can, because literary prizes are a very unreliable guide to choosing books I'm going to love.)

A Spool of Blue Thread is about three generations of an American family. Anne Tyler drip feeds their secrets to us ... right to the end, I kept thinking wow, I never saw that coming. It's wise - she handles her characters with such masterly skill - and it's a book that could only be written by someone at the height of her powers.

I galloped through Bodies of Light which is short enough to read over a weekend; I'm not sure it would have held my attention for longer, because it is rather contrived. The central character is Ally, daughter of a successful Pre-Raphaelite artist in Manchester and his brutally philanthropic wife, who is fanatically obsessed by the plight of fallen women and, indeed, all of society's crimes against women. Ally fulfils her mother's ambition - nay, demand - that she should qualify as one of the first women doctors. Unfortunately, I never quite believed in this novel ... If men hold all the power, why has Ally's prosperous father so completely relinquished control of his household and daughters to this zealot of a wife? And was it even possible in 1856 for a bride in the Cof E to omit 'to obey' from her wedding vows? I'd have thought that didn't come in until much later; after all, until the Married Women's Property Act, wives were defined by law as subject to their husbands.
This is Guardian Wimmin's Fiction; not a patch on Anne Tyler, but it passed an evening and the train journey home.

When Darlene was over here a few weeks ago, knowing how she loved The Love-Charm of Bombs (which I still haven't finished), I remembered to show her the house where Rose Macaulay lived after she was bombed-out during the war. (Picture the scene: London blogger on the pavement, bleating: "Don't get run over!" as Canadian blogger blithely steps into the road for a better photo ... )

So when I discovered this brilliant second-hand bookshop a few days later - and there was an old Virago copy of Rose Macaulay's The World my Wilderness, of course I had to buy it.

 It is a fascinating picture of the bombed heart of London in 1946. Barbary is a precocious and semi-feral 17-year-old who has grown up in Vichy France, running wild on the fringes of the Maquis,  completely neglected by her English mother. Now that the war is over, she has been thrown into her father's utterly conventional household in London. There she finds an escape - along with other drifters - in the ruins around St Paul's. I've never read any novel that describes the derelict city quite so vividly:

'A wilderness of little streets, caves and cellars, the foundations of a wrecked merchant city, grown over by green and golden fennel and ragwort, coltsfoot, purple loosestrife, rosebay willow herb, bracken, bramble and tall nettles, among which rabbits burrowed and wild cats crept and hens laid eggs.' 

It made me wonder whether Sarah Waters read this, before writing The Night Watch? I'm sure she must have done.

Rose Macaulay was fascinated by the rubble and ruins of the broken city. I was less convinced by her characters ... even in wartime, could any upper-class mother have been quite as feckless and neglectful as Barbary's hedonistic mama?

Still, as Darlene pointed out to the assistant in Daunt Books who was valiantly trying to suggest a novel with a wartime setting that she hadn't already read ... only contemporary fiction really rings true. And Rose Macaulay made me feel as I'd stumbled with her over every broken stone and been dragged through every bramble.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

I don't have a thing about shoes. My heart doesn't flutter at the sight of Jimmy Choos and I thought most of the red carpet and catwalk shoes in the V&A's new exhibition looked ridiculously vulgar or stupid or plain ugly.

I couldn't care less about celebrities or what they are wearing. I found myself standing next to Lady Gaga this afternoon and I was wondering who the daft-looking person with the silly plaits was when she turned into a pumpkin and disappeared in a flurry of minders ... and I realised that I'd have to confess to my nieces that I hadn't taken much notice of what she was wearing. (I'm pretty sure she'd taken off her hat. Surely I'd have remembered the hat!)

So I whizzed around the exhibition in half-an-hour. (If it were hats, I'd have been there all day.)

I'm far more interested in shoes with a bit of history than anything worn today. I did rather like these saucy red ankle boots which must have been rather risqué in 1870. And Lady Ribblesdale's court shoes
from 1797 were simply exquisite, down to the royal coat of arms on the insoles.

I was also intrigued by a natty pair of ocelot ankle boots, c 1943, remodelled from their owner's old fur coat, with red leather platforms and tassels and 10cm heels. Which only goes to show that making do and mending was a heck of a lot easier if you happened to belong to the social class that had spare fur coats.

Kate Middleton's nude patent court shoes from LK Bennett looked cheap and nasty ...

And Marilyn Monroe's white stilettos looked cheap and scuffed. (But were actually Ferragamo.)

I couldn't leave the V&A without returning to the Alexander McQueen exhibition which was just as hauntingly beautiful second time round. Lingering in the Cabinet of Curiosities feels like you're trapped in McQueen's brain. If you go to one exhibition this century ... it really is that good.

On my way home, I dropped in to the Summer Exhibition. I didn't think much of the art.But I loved the staircase. (How many rolls of sticky tape, do you think ...)

Monday, 8 June 2015

We didn't quite manage to visit a Scottish castle a day, but it wasn't far short. First there was Drum Castle, above, which has beautiful gardens.
Then Eilean Donan, the castle that launched 1000 shortbread tins ...

The ruins of Duntulm on Skye, on a very windy day, with drifts of primroses and violets on the cliffs ... 

And Dunvegan. where we saw Flora MacDonald's corsets ...

And finally Crathes Castle with its Rapunzel-let-down-your-hair turrets.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

We get Nordic Noir, Nordic Cool and the latest trend seems to be Nordic History ... and they're mad about our Midsomer Murders, which doesn't strike me as a fair exchange.

On a whim yesterday, I set out across London to the postcode that gentrification forgot where this Nordic fan-fest was happening in a icily air-conditioned old cinema.

It was standing room only for excellent talks about Borgen (Sidse Babett Knudsen, to my surprise, was inspired by Tony Blair) and another on The Origins of Nordic Noir (traced back to Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow so, although I hadn't realised, I was there at the birth because when I read it about 20 years ago I couldn't put Miss Smilla down - I really must read it again).

There was an audience with Sofie Gråbol who played Sarah Lund - who turned out to be enormously chatty and good fun but wasn't wearing The Jumper. (It was so cold, I'd have happily borrowed it though I always thought it looked scratchy.) When her jumper became so famous, she said, there were times when she felt like she was only the stuffing for her iconic knitwear. The original - not an understudy jumper, but the real thing - was almost lost forever, when a British journalist (named and shamed, it was the Daily Telegraph) was asked to mind it, then mislaid it in Jenners' department store cafe in Edinburgh.

Sofia Helin - aka Saga, the cop with Asperger's - revealed that a final series of The Bridge is coming soon.

I ate far too many free samples of Swedish liquorice. Tasted some disgusting Icelandic liquorice vodka. And was let down by the cinnamon buns which were nothing like as good as they are here.

Despite my early start with Miss Smilla, I never really got into Nordic crime fiction - but I came away with some interesting suggestions. That is, if I can decipher the authors' names. (It's so hard when people pronounce them properly!) I liked the sound of Echoes from the Dead by Johan Theorin. Has anybody read it?

Friday, 5 June 2015

After basking in sunshine for just a couple of days, London is feeling quite rural. It was lovely to see haymakers and Shire horses clearing the lanes at Ham this morning. Very Cider with Rosie for TW10 ...

And yesterday, just off Brick Lane, I heard someone yell, "Close the gate!" as a mini-herd of sheep, goats and baby lambs came galloping over the cobblestones. I came home from Spitalfields City Farm with a bottle of the homemade elderflower cordial that I'm always too lazy to make. (I'd already lunched on bagels but I've marked the farm cafe down as a future lunch-spot on a sunny day.)

Tonight's project, however, is making crystallised borage flowers for a cake.

Just hope they haven't wilted in my handbag.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

On a very blustery day only a week ago I was in the sand dunes where the Lewis chessmen were found c 1831 - and it didn't seem fair that today not a single piece remains on the island. This afternoon I nipped into the British Museum just before closing time and spent a few minutes marvelling at their quirky characters - and wondering how they came to be buried in the sand. It did make me think how lucky I am to be able to drop in on a whim to see objects like this, completely free of charge. 

On my way into town, I made a detour to see this tiny exhibition of covetable Scottish paintings on Bond Street.  I was hoping there might be one of Cadell's Hebridean landscapes, but no. But the lovely painting below has lingered there unsold for over a year ...