Friday, 31 July 2015

My National Trust card had a good airing this week. There has been Edwardian splendour at Polesden Lacey, a fascinating story of female social mobility (from boarding house landlady/unmarried mother to society hostess within one generation) ... but sadly, the tearoom left a lot to be desired. NT teas are splendid when they're good but this one wasn't. Its ambience was more workplace canteen. Never mind, look at the roses and that gorgeous view across the Downs.

On the way, we made a detour to see the ruined shell of Clandon Park, gutted by fire. How sad to think of so many years of history gone up in flames.

Then there was Hidcote. One of the most beautiful gardens in England. In the pouring rain. We could only imagine the scent of lilies and lavender on a sunshiney day.

Soaked to the skin, we picnicked damply in the car, then set out in search of somewhere under cover. We passed lavender fields that smelled of rain ...

And finally reached the Cotswolds home of an eccentric collector. Where the sun came out on that lovely, golden Cotswolds stone - just as it was time to go home.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

I wasn't intending total immersion in Bloomsbury, but it seems to have crept up on me since my recent visit to Charleston and Monk's House. And despite my lukewarm enthusiam for the new BBC series Life in Squares, of course I stuck it out to the end ... getting mildly bored with all that loving in triangles and getting my Grants and Garnetts in a twist - but it certainly looked lovely (and there isn't anything  else on).

I made a stalwart effort once at Hermione Lee's hefty biography of VW but 900-and-odd pages is simply too much, about anyone. I was enjoying Alexandra Harris's much brisker effort until I got over ambitious. I should put it aside. I thought, until I filled in the gaps and read The Voyage Out and The Waves and The Years ... and I really meant to but, of course, I didn't. And so Alexandra Harris got poked between the banisters on the landing which is where books gather dust when I really, honestly, intend to return to them. (Hmmm, I see Hermione Lee on Edith Wharton is there, too.)

But last week I went back to the beginning and read Alexandra Harris's book in a couple of days. Two hundred pages of biography is just right ... Life is too short for long lives.

Of course, I still have good intentions of reading The Waves etc etc - currently high on the list of books I always meant to get round to.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Feeling serious fabric envy after seeing Tate Modern's Sonia Delaunay exhibition earlier this week - and as for the curtain envy!

I'm also wishing I could tango!

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding ...

For a first sentence, that doesn't pull any punches. This is far and away the most gripping novel that I have read this year (and the best-written, the two don't always go together).

Jake is a young woman with a dark past, now living alone with her flock of sheep on a bleak, un-named island off the west coast of Britain. How did she acquire the terrible scars on her back?

Evie Wyld is an amazingly skilful writer. How rarely one comes across a novel as beautifully structured as this. As she takes you back into Jake's past in Australia, she exercises a masterly control and each time you think, so that's what happened ... you're wrong. Whole-heartedly recommended.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

I'm so enjoying this as a follow-up to yesterday's visit and, as Caroline Zoob lived at Monk's House for over 10 years as a tenant, it's full of quirky details that no-one else would know. Like the bathtub standing at a slant so the water is higher on the right: TS Eliot noticed this when he visited ... can you imagine lowering yourself into that bathtub and thinking of all the literary bottoms that had been there before you! I don't think I'd fancy it before I'd given it a scrub with some old-fashioned Vim.
This morning I belatedly realised that Non at The Dahlia Papers has also visited Charleston and Monk's House quite recently and her two lovely posts here and here capture both gardens exactly.

I was looking forward to Life in Squares  - the new Bloomsbury drama from a Swedish director - but I wasn't overly impressed by the first episode and my guess is that viewers will be switching off, bored and confused as they lose track of who's bedding who. Maybe you should think of it as a posh EastEnders? Might help if you could hear what they were saying but it's the usual BBC mumble-mumble. Of course, it looks lovely ...

And it was partly filmed at Charleston where I spent a lovely morning yesterday, then had lunch in the sunshine surrounded by hollyhocks and honeysuckle before making a flying visit to Monk's House.

Such a treat when I got to Lewes station and discovered that the station buffet was selling homemade lavender sorbet in paper cups and homemade lavender shortbread. How posh is that!

Meanwhile, although my rose petal jam is a stunningly beautiful colour, it turned out more like syrup with disconcertingly chewy petals - and I wished I hadn't been seduced by tales of Armenian monks and had stuck to Frances Bissell's reliable recipes. But though I say so myself,  my rose-petal strawberry shortcake the other night was a triumph of book group cuisine! Baked with rose-petal sugar, strawberries steeped in rose syrup and some more drizzled through the whipped cream - 10 minutes to make in a flurry after work and out of the oven in 20. But you do have to seize your moment ... my elderflower tart will have to wait for another year and I think I've left it too late for delicious-sounding fennel flower and linden blossom syrup. (Reckon there's a two-week window for making that, it's more pressure than catching the Seville oranges for marmalade.)
I've changed my mind about the rose-petal jam. It got jammier after a few hours in the fridge and is absolutely delicious on Greek yogurt. I'd make some more if only I could find some more red, velvety roses. 

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

An exhibition of Audrey Hepburn portraits was always going to be irresistible, so that's where I headed yesterday morning. There was Audrey, age nine, already looking like Audrey.
And then, a few years later, Audrey dancing in Ciro's famous nightclub which I never realised was on the site of the NPG's archive in Orange Street. There was something very touching about seeing her old  ballet shoes, the leather now crackled with age. And her dressing table with her kitsch lucky bunnies and a flaçon of Femme de Rochas. 

 There was Audrey in Kew Gardens ...

And Audrey in Richmond Park, both by Bert Hardy for Picture Post, but I think Bert was probably more interested in the impact of Austerity on the family behind.

There was Audrey on the set of The Nun's Story which I remember watching with my mum who must have seen it a dozen times.

And there was ravishingly gorgeous pink Audrey. At the end, though, I realised that it was all 'Audrey', dazzlingly beautiful, perfect and unreal. Not a glimpse of what she might be like if perfection ever slipped. I wondered if it might be the result of the war and living in occupied Holland, the need to keep  it buttoned in order to survive. But even at nine, there's a sense of her controlling what she lets you see. This was the only image that gave any hint of an ordinary, real, pretty girl.

When I got home, I watched Two for the Road (1967, with Albert Finney). Oh, Audrey, you did make some bloomin' awful films! If anyone is planning to see the exhibition, a warning - it's lovely, but I do think that £9 for a ticket is far too much for a very small exhibition of photographs.

After the exhibition, I set off on my favourite way of spending a sunny afternoon in London ... a long, aimless walk. Just looking. (It was so blissful not to be feeling too hot.) I ended up strolling through Temple with all its peaceful little courts and hidden gardens that always remind me of Oxford. I discovered a grave I'd never noticed before (because you always do stumble across some new literary connection when you're walking in London). I also discovered the most fabulous place for a cheap lunch. How gorgeous, I thought as I walked through Middle Temple, glimpsing the elegantly-laid tables in a garden of red and pink roses and lavender. How expensive, I assumed, looking at the menu with no prices. (Well, that's one way to deter the tourists on the da Vinci trail!)
Turns out I was wrong.  Lunch (burger and fries, corn on the cob, a big salad, a big bottle of sparkling water and a glass of wine) was only £10. Now to be perfectly honest, the food wasn't great; the fries were pretty awful and the rest was standard office canteen fare. But it was such a glorious place to sit for an hour that I could forgive them their wilted chips. (What a shame, though; if only they'd got that right, it would have been perfick!
(If you're tempted, they only serve lunch outside on days when the temperature is over 19˚ and they stop serving at 2pm.)

Friday, 3 July 2015

I love it when I'm walking down a London street and I'm suddenly hit by the heady fragrance of linden blossom . The lanes leading down to the river are full of lime trees and right now they're dripping with scented clusters of flowers. I don't know why I've never got round to picking them before now, but this evening I pulled a handful, enough to make a tisane before bedtime. It is golden and honey-ish and quite delicious - and very Proustian. I really must pick some more before they all disappear.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Lady in the Garden, Monet, 1867

On the hottest July day for 160 years, I find myself looking forward to an exhibition that will brighten my January. Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse promises to be as delightful as the Impressionist Gardens exhibition in Edinburgh, which I am shocked to realise was all of five years ago.

It's not that I'm wishing the summer away.

But I'm melting.

Meanwhile, the orgy of experimental summer baking continues. One jar of rose-petal sugar was turned into rose-petal meringues - though I'd never have guessed that it would turn the meringue mixture bright green! (Please don't tell me it was green-fly!) The rose-petal shortbread was probably more successful.
Tomorrow I have promised a rose-petal cheesecake and I hope there won't be any colourful surprises. I'm not really aspiring to be the Vicar Of Dibley's Queen of Cordon Bleeuggh.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

On a more positive note, reading this has been like spending a week in erudite but unstuffy good company with the kind of English teacher I certainly never had. If only!
Oh, to have read as many books as Professor Carey ... far too late now to catch up! Why have I never read any Milton? Because I thought he would be stuffy and religious - but Carey makes intimidating authors seem like friends you simply haven't met yet. I have a feeling I'm probably too intellectually lazy these days for Milton - but I do feel inspired to rediscover Robert Browning who sounds so much more exciting than when I plodded through his collected poems for A-level.
As I was reading this memoir, I kept trying to remember what I was reading at the age when Professor Carey was plunging into English literature. Actually, it wasn't all Jackie magazine and Cosmo (and every Sunday newspaper spread out on the floor). At school we read quite a lot of Shakespeare; Chaucer, Dryden and Pope - which I loved -  lots of Dickens, Hardy, all three of the Brontes and most of Jane Austen, and Mrs Gaskell because she was local; nothing much later than DH Lawrence, though. On my own - it was a long month waiting for the next shiny copy of Cosmo - I tackled Great Works mostly because I liked the idea of being the kind of person who read them. (It's gratifying to discover that Professor Carey was just as bored with Don Quixote as I was).
So what happened? My intellectual pretensions seem to have gone the way of my waistline. If found, please return to owner.