Monday, 22 February 2016

I had high hopes of this autobiographical coming-of-age novel, published in 1938 by New Zealand writer Robin Hyde, mostly because it's a forthcoming Persephone title. But oh, dear ... it isn't an easy book to read, that's partly her style of writing - too disjointed and self-consciously poetical for me - but also I found it profoundly depressing. Apparently, the author struggled with writing it and I'm afraid that I struggled reading it. It feels like every character is groping through life with one hand tied behind them, that disappointment and loss are somehow pre-ordained. Godwits are birds that migrate north at the end of the New Zealand summer. These New Zealanders are English, but not English. To me, it felt as if New Zealand was suffocating every single one of them None of the men will ever commit - you know in your bones that your illegitimate baby will die and it does - you'll never get to use the lovely things in your bottom drawer - you'll never escape to England and even if you do, you'll die as soon as you get there. And the latter is exactly what happened to Robin Hyde herself who did eventually make it to England but committed suicide in 1939 only months after she arrived.
Eliza Hannay in the novel is Robin Hyde herself. There are wonderful portraits of her mother and Carly, the properly-behaved older sister who aches for marriage but whose 'understanding' with a young man comes to nothing. The failure of her modest Plan B for the rest of her life is heartbreaking ... you feel this opening chasm of desolation, that her life is finished at 24.
I skim-read quite a lot of this book - I very nearly abandoned it because I'd find myself becalmed and bored when it seemed to be going nowhere - and yet in the passages where it came to life, it rather reminded me of Cider with Rosie. Well, only slightly. A joyless Cider with Rosie with little hope of ever walking out one midsummer morning.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

I bought a secondhand copy recently of this biography of the Victorian lady gardening writer who was gardening's Mrs Beeton.  It is terribly gushing and flowery, by another lady writer (there's no other way to describe her!) for Country Life,  but it's still rather readable - and isn't the jacket simply lovely? As for Mrs Loudon's magnificent Bayswater villa with its domed conservatory, glimpsed on the cover - well, it's still there, but no middle-class lady writer, except possibly JK Rowling, could aspire to it today. (Actually, Mrs L was getting strapped for cash by the time she died.) Worth heavens knows how many millions, it is now an absentee Arab sheikh's pied-à-terre - which seems rather sad. And I suppose Mrs L's favourite hyacinths and camellias are long gone. 

Here are some more illustrations by Philip Gough, who did the book jacket. 

Sometimes you just have to wonder, "Why am I doing this?" I had a £10 matinee ticket yesterday afternoon to the Almeida's Uncle Vanya ... but, aaaarrggh,  three and half hours of it! I was buoyed up on so much strong coffee during the intervals that I couldn't get to sleep last night. Famous faces in the cast niggled at me until I placed them. There was wotshername who eloped with the chauffeur in Downton - and Susan Wooldridge whom I would never have recognised, she looks so different from Jewel in the Crown - which was more than 30 years ago, to be fair - and the doctor, well, eventually the penny dropped, he was the nasty Redcoat officer from Outlander, and even when he got down to his underpants I clearly didn't know him with his clothes on ...
I know, I'm ashamed of myself ... all that Chekhovian ennui must have been contagious.
So when it finally ended, I'd have happily headed home - except I had to dash across town in icy-cold drizzle to meet a friend for a film. Got there just in the nick of time and the cinema was so packed that we couldn't even sit together. But the b/w 1963 adaptation of Lord of the Flies turned out to be gripping. At the end, director Peter Brook - who is now 90 and still working - walked very shakily on to the stage and gave a fascinating talk about making of the film on a very tight budget, and about his unknown cast of boys whose parents were so eager to get rid of them to a Puerto Rican island for their summer holidays.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

It has become something of an annual tradition to visit Two Temple Place, which is only open for a few weeks - and it doesn't seem to matter what the exhibition is, as it's this gem of a building that draws me back. I've often fantasised about sweeping down that wonderful staircase - which was the setting for Lady Rose's Downton wedding. And I've often wondered who does all the dusting? Well, I gave that wonderful staircase the fingertip test this afternoon - and the answer is nobody. Those lovely carved banisters are black with grime and dust. Mrs Hughes would be appalled.
This year's exhibition is all about the Egyptians getting dolled up for the afterlife. I'm not very good with dates BC, but I do know that Predynastic is thousands of years ago - and yet there's a cosmetics palette bearing a little heap of green malachite eye-shadow that Liz Taylor could have worn in the Sixties. I was fascinated by the laundry mark on a mummy wrapping - and the copper mirrors that would have lent a 'divine' golden glow to one's reflection. Because you're worth it.

Friday, 12 February 2016

I spent most of last weekend at the cinema, which is as good a way as any of spending a chilly afternoon. (Nobody could ever accuse of me of being the outdoor type, striding forth in Hunter wellies with glowing cheeks. Truth is, nobody over the age of five ever wants to go for a walk with me because I dawdle.)
Anyway, first up was Spotlight, a gripping account of the Boston Globe's investigation into that city's cover-up of child abuse by Catholic priests. Fascinating to see this who's who and how closely the actors resemble their real life counterparts.

On Sunday morning, I was up and out early to see A Bigger Splash. Ralph Fiennes was hilarious but this didn't quite pass the snooze test and I drifted off in the middle. But an unexpected appearance by Tilda Swinton for Q&A at the end made me think that maybe it was more nuanced than I gave it credit for. She stayed for half an hour, giving thoughtful, articulate answers to questions from the audience; and I was fascinated to see her in the flesh ... Actually, the film is now rather more topical than when it was made. Swinton's rock star character is clearly inspired by David Bowie and the issues of migrants on the island of Pantelleria are even more pressing.

The Lobster, on the other hand, was weird and hilarious and had me laughing out loud. Slightly discomfiting to watch as an unattached singleton - because in this dystopian world,  where single people aren't allowed, and get turned into the animal of their choice if they can't find a partner ... I'm afraid I'd find myself turned into a three-toed sloth within 45 days. (Word of warning: my unhappily single friend HATED this movie and didn't get the black humour ... and she's sentimental about animals, and there's an awful moment with a dog who's really someone's brother ... Oh dear, I don't know why I feel guilty inviting someone to a movie they dislike, but I always do!) 

Thursday, 11 February 2016

I spent this afternoon speed-reading Henry James, only to discover as I reached the end of The Bostonians that book group wasn't tonight after all. I'm still mulling it over - I need a bit of space between me and neurotic, jealous, lesbian Olive Chancellor who is such exhausting company - but already I'm wondering what happens to her after the end of the novel. I suppose she becomes a desiccated, jilted Miss Havisham.

And as I found myself in for the evening after all, I watched the first episode of Julian Fellowes' lacklustre adaptation of Trollope's Dr Thorne. (See cast in picture above.) Don't feel particularly encouraged to watch episode 2 and I don't think it's going to measure up well to these previous Trollopes. 

Saturday, 6 February 2016


My task for this afternoon was meant to be tidying my desk and, believe me, it would take all afternoon; there's going to be a nasty avalanche before long and there's some rather expensive art books teetering on the top of the pile. But despite my best intentions, I got distracted by this excellent drama about the summer of 1953 when Winston Churchill was incapacitated by a stroke - and not even his Cabinet could be allowed to know. There's a wonderful cast - Michael Gambon and Lindsay Duncan as Winston and Clementine - and some lovely scenes on location at Chartwell that made me want to visit again. I didn't realise until after I'd watched it that it is based on this novel by Jonathan Smith - who wrote Wilfred and Eileen, another true story, and Summer in February which I was meaning to read but didn't get around to. Well, that explained why I couldn't place the character of Millie Appleyard, the Labour-voting nurse who encouraged Churchill back to health (at least, sufficient health to postpone retirement for another 18 months). It was nagging at me why I'd never heard of her ... turns out she's a fictional character (Romola Garai with a slightly unconvincing working-class accent). The novel seems to have been published originally as The Churchill Secret KBO  - as in Keep Buggering On. I rather like that; but I can see why they changed it ... before the penny dropped I was thinking, 'Secret KBE????' Definitely recommended; on ITV in a few weeks' time.

As I was watching, I was nibbling on a bar of this chocolate. Did I say nibbling? Yes, me ...the person who hardly ever buys chocolate as I could demolish a bar of fruit and nut in minutes. Do I even believe that raw chocolate is a superfood ... sounds a bit too good to be true! But this 85% chocolate is so intense that I've managed to save half a bar until tomorrow ... I think this is a personal first!

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Available now in considerable quantity are varieties of Swiss roll. The chocolate kind are filled with thick mock cream - margarine I guess. Have just eaten two slices of this muck, some coconuts and cherry cakes and almond biscuits for my tea and feel heavy with indigestion. 14th February, 1951

Serves her right, don't you think? I'm now 500 pages into A Notable Woman, and we're still only at the start of the 1950s. But oh dear, Miss Jean Lucey Pratt ... could we ever have been friends? Was there ever such a desperate, man-hungry spinster, loneliness spilling over the page - and sometimes I want to pick you up and shake you. There you are, well into your 30s and desperate to lose your blasted virginity which is such a millstone around your neck ... come on girl, it's wartime, a schooner of cheap British sherry for courage and surely you could find a Yank to oblige! I do feel that your chances would have been greatly improved by the invention of contact lenses as this unfortunately is one of your more flattering photographs. But couldn't you at least take your specs off when you go to a dance ...
Actually, I would love to read the diaries of the men you persuade yourself you're in love with.  You must have been terrifying ... you're Bridget Jones with Superglue. If anything in trousers passes you in the corridor at work, you're 0 to Altar in 60 seconds in your fevered imagination. You know those married men who turn up unannounced on your doorstep once or twice a year? You're not his mistress, dear - it's what the 21st century would call a booty call. I know it's cruel to point this out - but, honestly, when a man puts in an appearance so rarely that you don't even realise that he's been dead for a whole twelve months ...
As a reader, you do feel as if you're drowning in someone else's loneliness, and timidity (the tradesmen might find out if a man stayed the night at her cottage and then her name would be mud in the village) and lack of self-esteem buoyed up by pep talks. But there couldn't be a more vivid account of how it felt to be one of 3 million surplus women. Always a looker-on, she was just slightly too old to be called up and so she spent WW2 in a dreary office job in a metals company.
What a waste it all seems. Jean hoped that her diaries would one day be read by posterity and now they are. But if only she had ripped off her camiknickers - thrown her Liberty bodice to the winds - got rid of the damn cats ... and lived her life instead of writing all those millions of words.