Monday, 29 August 2016

I've acquired a few of George Gissing's more obscure titles recently - this was an Oxfam-shop find - but  
I always think of him in terms of gaslit London streets, slicked with rain; damp overcoats that don't keep the chill out ... they're novels of the gloaming, like stepping into a painting by Atkinson Grimshaw. Something like this. Depending on how the city is treating you, you could be hurrying home for a mutton chop and a snifter of something warming or stumbling to a chill garret to nurse the consumptive cough that will see you off by the end of the chapter.

Then last week, when it was too hot and sticky to think, I realised that the gloaming is a perfect antidote to a heatwave ... and I raced through the novel that was top of my saved-for-autumn pile. Beginning in 1887 - the year of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee - it has all the ingredients: secrets and lies, a father's foolish will, women no better than they oughter be, and every human frailty in a city where modern life is so volatile that fortune can favour the strong - and catastrophe can overtake the weak. It's a city that can't stand still - pulsing with money and vulgarity - and if you're not on the make, then you're on your way down and out. 
Gissing's female characters are real people. Shrewish Ada is as far as you can get from the Victorian ideal of the 'angel in the home.' Her vulgar sister Beatrice - I liked Beatrice! - smokes special womens' cigarettes and drinks claret with her virile dinner of rump steak and fried onions; she has an eye for business and a bachelor flat of her own, and her male acquaintances call her 'old chap.' Nancy - who fancies herself 'cultured' - dreams of an independent life and being able to walk the city streets with the freedom of a man ... but she finds happiness in subjugating her desires to those of her husband.        That's the trouble with Gissing. He wants women to be rational, educated equals who won't cling to a fellow or make demands. He'd like a wife to be more like a mistress, living uncomplainingly in the suburbs while he keeps up a bachelor life in town and visits her once every couple of weeks when the fancy takes him. (And guess who doesn't get lumbered with the baby!) It's all wishful thinking, born of the mess Gissing made of his own life. He was expelled from college in Manchester, aged only 18, and sentenced to one month's hard labour, for pilfering from other students' coat-pockets in an attempt to support his teenage prostitute mistress. And then he only went and married her. His first wife died in the workhouse after they separated, and he made another catastrophic marriage to a violent alcoholic who died in an asylum. No wonder he's so good on the domestic misery of men who marry beneath them. Oh, you could throttle Mr Gissing when poor Nancy gives voice to his fantasies about peace and contentment - or rather pipe, slippers, passionate kisses and NO NAGGING - while husbands get to do just as they like ...
But it's all such a rollicking good read. I can't think why Gissing isn't better known today. He's a brilliant choice for book groups; and why can't somebody do a TV adaptation? There's a good article about his female characters here.

Another Sunday morning, another movie - but despite the gorgeousness of Cillian Murphy's eyes/cheekbones and a true story of wartime resistance, Anthropoid turned out to be a rather plodding WW11 thriller (not very thrilling) with silly 'Allo 'Allo voices. But Prague in wartime sepia tones looked beautiful.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Far too hot tonight to make dinner so I settled down instead with a tub of ice cream and BBC Four's The Virago Story. I love my dark green Viragos, three shelves in alphabetical order (chaos everywhere else but my bookshelves are always well-ordered).  And I definitely remember the excitement surrounding the launch of the Modern Classics in 1978. I'd read all about it in Cosmo which was my bible. (I liked the idea of Spare Rib but found it too drab and boring.)
In 1978, I was fresh out of university, working in my first job (blithely unaware that the glamorous older woman who had interviewed me was paid considerably less than her male colleagues). I still have my musty old copy of Frost in May - the first VMC title - that I discovered that winter in a secondhand bookshop; in fact, not a Virago edition but when I saw it there I recognised the title from all the publicity.
I don't think I've ever parted with a Virago. Even The Well of Loneliness, toe-curlingly boring and never read again, is still on the shelf. But mostly, they were treasures ... all the Elizabeth Taylors, Rebecca West, Sybille Bedford, FM Mayor and EH Young, and of course Mrs Miniver. Christina Stead was their 'most disagreeable writer,' Carmen Callil claimed in the BBC programme - but she didn't say why.
Yet Anthony Burgess - applauding the re-issue of Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage, which I've never read and doubt I ever will (13 volumes of stream of consciousness, no thanks!) - thought it was too important a book to have been published by the 'chauvinist sows' at Virago.

I don't read all that many books in translation, and those I do read are probably European - but I came across an old radio programme the other day with a thread on contemporary Chinese literature. And that led me to The Chilli Bean Paste Clan ... doesn't it sound wonderful?

I'm now aching to read it ... but it hasn't been translated into English. ('Fewer writers are translated into English than into any other language': Carmen Callil again.)
Here's an excerpt, so I'm hoping it's coming soon.

Monday, 22 August 2016

For a lie-abed like me, there's something almost virtuous about getting up and out on a Sunday morning to go to the cinema. Yesterday I saw Captain Fantastic - which was quirky, funny, sad and as good as was promised here.  (Though the ending is a bit too glib to be believable.)
It works because there's an edge of danger. Ben is a radical hippy, raising six children in a Swiss Family Robinson fantasy of home schooling/anti-capitalist self-sufficiency/weapons training. When their mother dies, the family sets off on a road trip to gatecrash her conventional funeral.
You're never quite sure quite how crazy the father really is ...

When I resurfaced into daylight, it wasn't even lunchtime and I grabbed a sandwich, a free Waitrose coffee (the soapiest coffee in the world, yeeuuggh) and the Sunday papers and strolled along the river until it was time to go home and make dinner.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Spot the difference. Lord Melbourne ...

And Lord Melbourne, as played by the delectable Rufus Sewell. I've only seen the first episode of new series Victoria but it's safe to say that the Downton hole in Sunday evenings has been lavishly filled. But, really ... wasn't he 40 years older than her? Albert won't get a look-in!

Thursday, 11 August 2016

I can't remember when I last enjoyed a book as much as this. I got it from the library a couple of days ago, in a mad dash just before closing time - started it after dinner - and regretfully turned out the light with throbbing eyes at 5am and realised I had read the night away. Well, the next day was a write-off. But now I am going slowly because I don't want it to finish.

So thank you to Cornflower, who introduced me to Sue Gee a few years ago with her equally entrancing The Mysteries of Glass.

Trio is set in Northumberland in the late 1930s when Steven, a young history teacher, living in a remote cottage, is grieving for the loss of his wife from tuberculosis. The world is moving towards another war as the last war still reverberates through many lives. Through a charismatic colleague whose beautiful sister plays the cello in a musical trio, Steven is drawn into a privileged, graceful world of country houses and finds healing in music that you can almost hear coming off the page. (I've even been stopping to listen to recordings on YouTube as I'm reading.)

There is a containment and restraint in Sue Gee's writing that makes the emotions she describes so powerful.

I am loving this book - and I still have 100 pages to go. Slowly.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

It's years since I last saw an Ayckbourn play. Quite a few during the 80s, but I think the last one I saw was his brilliant House and Garden at the National c1999 - when two plays were performed simultaneously in two theatres and the same cast sprinted between them. It was a masterpiece of comic timing, one of the cleverest things I've ever seen.

I suppose Ayckbourn isn't exactly fashionable.

But I'd forgotten how funny he is, even if this 1960s comedy is showing its age. (Won't be long before they need programme notes to explain the old-fashioned landlines!)

And that comic timing is still brilliant.There's one hilarious scene with a couple swivelling between two dinner parties.The theatre was packed; the audience tonight was mostly old enough to remember it first time round. Old enough to remember when avocados were alarmingly exotic, rather than smashed on sourdough toast and Instagrammed to a world that needs to know what you had for breakfast.

I'd been complaining to Darlene a couple of days ago that I hadn't been to the theatre in months, then I pulled myself together and made some last-minute bookings. It was only later that I realised that I'd let myself in for two consecutive nights of intrigue and adultery ...

Affairs that in one play are managed by cellphone,  while the Ayckbourn characters get into tangles on GPO-issue Bakelite. (The man in the row behind me at the Ayckbourn play was a phone buff who was able to list the complete 1969 range of two-tone colours.... Saffron, anybody? Just be glad you're not married to him.)

The Truth was sharper, more cynical, French ... and probably even funnier than the Ayckbourn.

On a roll, I have booked - months in advance, but it's bound to sell out - to see Anne-Marie Duff in a new play at the Almeida where the £10 restricted view seats are usually fine.

And I've one more show to see this weekend. With my two favourite 10-year-old theatre-going companions ... We've heard that the audience is protected by bullet-proof glass. But if the bangs and explosions are loud enough, it'll be 5* reviews from us.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Leaving the Munition Works, 1919
I've never much cared for Winifred Knights' most famous work The Deluge - I always think it looks like a ballet set. She was acclaimed in her day, then disappeared into the oblivion of Forgotten Women Artists - but she was far from prolific and I came away from the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery,   her first major retrospective, thinking, 'Is that all?'

Leaving the Munitions Works appealed because I thought of my granny, in her early 20s during WW1, who must have enjoyed her comparatively high wages as a munitionette; her sister was a milliner and they earned very little. I hope granny didn't have to hand over her entire wage packet to her mother.

The Marriage at Cana, 1923
The watermelon slices and the coral necklace caught my eye at The Marriage at Cana.

My picture will be very beautiful. I have drawn 11 plates of melon, pink melon, 9 glasses of wine some empty, partly because they have run out, and 38 people.

The Santissima Trinita, 1924-30
And I do like the way Winifred Knights portrays the Italian landscape in the background to  this painting of sleeping women pilgrims.

But as a body of work it seemed ... slender?

I do like her style, though. Those ballet slippers! They were selling 'Winifred Knights' dresses in the shop, although I can't imagine who on earth goes to a gallery and spends £300-plus impulse-buying a frock they can't try on. Me? I bought a couple of birthday cards.