Friday, 26 May 2017

I was too hot - too tired - not in the mood - I thought it sounded bonkers and couldn't remember why I wanted to go in the first place ... but I'd already got my ticket so I dutifully set out this evening to see An Octoroon inspired by Boucicault's play that caused a sensation in 1859 ...
And it turned out to be quite mad and absolutely hilarious and very clever. What a shame that the tiny Orange Tree Theatre was only one-third full (and quite a few left at the interval including the lady next to me who clearly didn't get it.)
The Guardian called it 'bizarrely brilliant' and they're right. I do hope they get a fuller house when the weather cools down.

You don't expect an audience of millennials for a Terence Rattigan play ... but last night the average age was about 87! Fine by me, actually ... it makes a pleasant change to be the youngest.
Set in the final months of the war, the play was last seen in London at its West End premiere in 1944 - when it originally starred the famous American theatrical couple, the Lunts, who had been bombed out of another West End run by a V-I rocket.
It's about a glamorous middle-class widow who's revelling in her new high society life - as the established mistress of a Canadian millionaire - until her lumpish teenage son returns from being evacuated.
I thoroughly enjoyed it, though the lumpish teenage son was a bit over-played for my seat in the front few rows of the stalls. I was so close to the action that I kept getting wafts of Eve Best's scent and wondered what she wearing. Reviews here and here.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Having spent yesterday with my head down in Lincoln in the Bardo - so brilliant, I've nearly finished it  I couldn't help seeing these Giacometti figures at Tate Modern as troubled spectres.
It's ages - a couple of years - since I've been in Tate Modern. I walk past and don't bother going in. I loathe it ... the totalitarian bulding, the banal thematic displays, the fact that you can go all the way up without even glimpsing any art. I enjoyed the exhibition but when I strolled through one of the displays on my way out, I thought what absolute *!!* this is.
But I did enjoy the exhibition. And because I hadn't been up there before I whizzed up to the (very chilly) viewing platform and thought how I'd hate to live in one of these £4.5million flats. What tidy people live there. Though I suppose if you can afford £4.5million to live in a goldfish bowl, you can afford someone to clear last night's coffee mugs and plump the cushions. I was rather hoping somebody might shuffle through in designer bunny slippers and their PJs - but it was lunchtime. If you can stop admiring other people's sofas, from the river-side there is a terrific view across London.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

I normally find over-hyped, post-modern, best-selling novels all too easy to resist and I carted this home from the library yesterday, balanced on a bag of shopping that I was already struggling to carry, more than half-convinced that I'd be carrying it back again only half-read ...
But the reviews have been so good and I suppose I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
This afternoon, I was sitting at my desk, supposed to be working - and I opened it, just for a peep. (It is so not a good idea to have a teetering TBR pile balanced on one's printer, if only because it makes printing so precarious.)
Anyway, I peeped and now I'm completely immersed. I think it's going to be very good. See you when I surface.

Friday, 5 May 2017

I spent yesterday afternoon buried in a deep, squishy armchair at Soho House (a bit too squishy, I needed four cushions to prop myself up) watching Woody Allen's Manhattan - the first time I've seen it in a cinema since 1979. Can it really be 38 years? I'd forgotten how beautiful it is - my favourite city - Gershwin - Mariel Hemingway's eyebrows ... even if they did have to bring their own park bench to the bridge. Ranked at number 76 of the 500 greatest movies ever made. (I'd place it higher. I've just checked out the list and Raiders of the Lost Ark was number 2 for heaven's sake!) It has just been re-released in cinemas. Don't think, "Oh, I've seen it before" ... it was even better than I remembered it.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

The Promise Movie Poster

I realised that I know almost nothing about the Armenian genocide in the last days of the Ottoman empire, a massacre that Turkey refuses to acknowledge to this day. (No doubt that explains why The Promise was filmed in Spain, Portugal and Malta.) Despite pretty awful reviews, I went to see it last night; it's by the same Irish director who made Hotel Rwanda. To be honest, you'd have to be very generous to give this well-intentioned film more than 5/10. Wooden acting; Christian Bale was particularly bad. An unconvincing love triangle/romance tagged on for human interest as if the deaths of 1.5 million people weren't enough. (Look out for a bizarre cameo from Tom Hollander - could anybody look less like an Armenian clown ...  what on earth was all that about?)  And yet I'm glad I went. The film could have been better but it's a shocking episode of history that deserves not to be forgotten.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

It's always interesting to see new Persephone titles, but I can't see either of these two latest books becoming anybody's favourite. I remembered that I'd bought an old copy of Earth and High Heaven some time ago, stuck it on a pile where it got buried and never got around to reading it - so last week I dug it out. Published in 1944, it was the first Canadian book to reach number one on the NY Times best-seller list.
I got off to a good start but my interest in Erika Drake - daughter of a prosperous, WASP-y Montreal family - and her lover Marc Reiser, a Jewish lawyer, was soon flagging. (Not least because Gwethalyn Graham is so repetitive: if she makes a point once she drums it home again and again and as a reader, I began to feel a bit hectored - bad editing maybe, but it made me lose sympathy with her characters.) Erika and Marc meet at a party at her parents' home where her father cuts Marc dead as soon as he realises that he is Jewish. Trouble is, I couldn't help visualising them as illustrations from an old-fashioned women's magazine serial ... Defiant Love - Trembling Passion (but no sex, please, we're middle-class Canadians!) - the handsome hero who could have stepped out of a Mills&Boon romance and the tearful heroine in evening dress, knocking back martinis. Honestly, you couldn't meet a more irritating pair. Erika, in her late 20s, with a good job on a newspaper, has to meet her lover on street corners because seemingly it would kill her parents if she were to do the obvious thing and leave home ... I mean, this is the 1940s, not the 1840s! She's a drip, he's a prig and it doesn't help the novel that you can't help feeling that - in 20 years time - she's going to be worn out from treading on eggshells around a husband who will be quiveringly on the alert to take offence. (Even Marc's far more likeable brother tells him that he needs 'a swift kick in the pants.')
As for Erika's rather incestuous relationship with her possessive father - who treats her more like a wife - and the way her mother colludes with this ... eeuurggh. There's more going on here than kneejerk anti-Semitism and it's clear that her father is always going to have a problem with any man who lays hands on his daughter - never mind whether he's socially acceptable at the country club.
Oh, dear - poor Erika. Perhaps another dry martini and a 'prescription of stuff' to make her sleep ...

But at least I managed to finish Earth and High Heaven. Effi Briest is already a Penguin classic so I'm not sure I see the point of republishing it as a Persephone; unless perhaps a different translation makes it  more readable? I found the Penguin edition in the library, made it to p95 and I doubt that I'll ever care enough to finish it. The introduction compares Effi with Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina ... but I'm afraid if a train came along now, I'd be tempted give this winsome child-bride a good shove.
One of the best tragic novels of the 19th century? Socially-ambitious Effi is married at 16 to a dull Prussian baron - my sympathies are entirely with the baron - and by p95, she's still behaving herself, though there's a caddish major whose intentions are clearly dishonourable. I don't feel there's going to be any surprises if I plod through to the end.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Grabbing a book for a weekend at the seaside, I nearly left this behind ... wasn't I carrying enough without reaching for a hefty hardback! So glad I didn't because A Gentleman in Moscow turned out to be the perfect holiday read and, away from online distractions, I'm now two-thirds of the way through. Maybe it's true that a life without luxury can be the richest of all because all I've done over Easter is read, reacquaint myself with beach friends and eat hot cross buns. Perhaps with a sigh for the warm, sticky, gorgeously scented hot cross buns that came from the baker at the top of the road when I was a child - because Tesco's finest are a grim travesty of what a hot cross bun should be. And as for M&S carrot and mascarpone buns ... well, I'll try anything once if they're reduced to 10p but not again.

The gentleman in Moscow would have had some philosophical insight into man's compulsion to tweak a good bun to death. Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced to house arrest in an attic of Moscow's grand Hotel Metropol in 1922 and as the years pass (I've got as far as 1946) the hotel's lobby, restaurants and backstairs hideaways become his world. As I'm reading, I'm shooting the movie in my mind - it's a Soviet Grand Budapest Hotel where the labels have been removed from 100,000 bottles in the wine cellar to render them equal. Immensely charming, definitely recommended - and I'm going to feel utterly bereft when I finish.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

So sad about the fire at beautiful Parnham House. I had friends who lived nearby and we spent many lovely afternoons here. I always longed for the pretty bedroom with the fresco of spring flowers.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Four centuries of the most gorgeous tulips at Ham House yesterday - and the wisteria is simply breath-taking. This spring is happening so fast. Bluebells and cow parsley in the woods already. I left them growing as I have jugs of lilac in every room.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Everybody who's read it seems to be delighted with Ysenda Maxtone-Graham's book about girls' boarding schools - and so was I. (Much livelier than her Real Mrs Miniver whose company I tired of long before the end.) There's lots of bracing Malory Towers fun - but it's also rather sad when you read about homesick girls and unpopular girls who didn't fit in and were bad at games. And even though I was at a girls' day school - at the tail end of this period - gosh, did it bring back memories of foul  school food (we'd have thought a turkey twizzler was heaven!) and nuns and their stupid rules and, most of all, the aching boredom. By the early 70s it was assumed that most of us would go to university - but if you didn't, the options were nursing (I don't remember anybody setting their sights on being a doctor which was probably just as well given the abysmal science teaching), teacher training college or the civil service. At least we got out by 4pm. The day I danced down the street and thought, 'I'm never going back,' still glows in my memory.
This was a lovely book to read, no bigger than my hand - almost like a school hymn book. And at least my tweedy, twin-setted teachers were mostly kind. Reading reviews of this book, it seems that girls got off lightly.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

I did a sleepover once at the Science Museum - never again! - but I could happily move into the Fashion Museum for the duration of the Josef Frank exhibition. I came away yesterday with serious fabric envy ... Wouldn't you just love this Italian Dinner fabric with all the ingredients for a fabulous summer dinner - lobster, mussels and squid, garlic, aubergines, tomatoes?

This one looks so fresh - and there was another tulip print that I coveted, too. Who knew that Swedes buy 1 million tulips a day? Well, for all I know, we do, too - not this week, I've got pink roses and lilies and some peachy coloured pinks that now I look at them need chucking out. Dead supermarket flowers ... so not Swedish! 

This Manhattan print is fun but I'd prefer a London version. Very Don and Betty Draper. On a Saturday afternoon, I was the only person in the exhibition after two other ladies left - and heaven, there  were signs inviting you to sit on the chairs. (Would they have noticed if I'd tried to escape with that chaise-longue?) 
I vaguely recall visiting the Svenskt-Tenn shop in Stockholm some years ago. (And blanching at the prices!) But I don't remember this simply gorgeous tea-shop.

Friday, 7 April 2017

I suppose a novel about the making of a morale-boosting wartime film about Dunkirk was crying out to be made into a movie. I have to confess that I have only the vaguest recollection of reading this a few years ago and that last night I enjoyed the movie version rather more. But why has Their Finest Hour and a Half - quite a clever title - been changed to Their Finest (their finest what?) ... well, maybe because an hour and a half would have been plenty, thanks very much, and the two hours running time had me longing to shout, 'Cut!' Ironic,  as the scriptwriter character - played by Gemma Arterton - is told several times that her scripts are too long and to lose the half that isn't important ... if only they'd taken their own advice! I enjoyed it but I was fidgeting by the end. So 3.5* from me, which is better than the 2*from the chap in the Guardian. (This is so not a man's film!) It did have the feel of a rather good BBC Boxing Day drama.
Their Finest.jpg

What I absolutely loved was the set design and all the period detail ... the bombsites and old-fashioned typewriters and 1940s knitwear and John Craske-style embroideries in the pub. Bill Nighy is wonderful  as ever doing what he always does as the vain, flaky old has-been. Incidentally, this is a film made by women - female director and screenplay/book/artdirection/setdecorating/musical score all by women. The story is loosely inspired by the work of Diana Morgan at Ealing Studios.

Next week's movie - in case you need to time to brace yourselves! - is The Handmaiden, a Japanese/Korean take on Sarah Waters' Fingersmith ... Well, I'll report back and I'll let you know! 4* from the Guardian for a 'lurid, lesbian pot-boiler.'

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Wouldn't you think that I'd have read this before? But in fact I hadn't - and this biography of The Real Mrs Miniver by her grand-daughter had been on my list for simply ages.
I knew the outline of the real Jan Struther's life - but it was still kind of disappointing to discover that she wasn't her character. Worse still was the dawning realisation that if we'd met, I'm not sure we'd have been friends. Well, there was an awful lot of strumming guitars and singing folk songs and I'm afraid I've never been a Joiner In. And, oh dear, once you'd fallen out of love with your husband - who was a golf club bore - and fallen head over heels for a much younger Jewish refugee ... oh, Mrs Miniver-Struther you really were rather tiresome company, going on and on and on about being such soulmates. Partly, I got a bit bored because there's so much detail - your wartime sojourn in America was recounted almost lecture by lecture. And although I could see that it was a gruelling tour - and undoubtedly useful propaganda in the war effort - I still couldn't help feeling that Jan Struther had a very cushy war indeed and had legged it to America mostly because she was hotfooting it after her lover. Vera Brittain - whose children sailed on the same boat, but who remained in London herself for the duration - wrote in her diary that she loved Mrs Miniver the movie: 'But I think Jan Struther is a charlatan posing as a patriot in the safety of the USA.' So did I. I think Mrs Miniver might have Behaved Better.
I did enjoy the reactions of contemporary readers to the fictional character. Americans, of course, adored wise and plucky Mrs M. The British were more cynical. Fond as I am of Mrs Miniver, floating serenely as a swan thinking her Beautiful Thoughts ... it's still hard not to be snarky about one who was born not only with a silver spoon in her mouth but Georgian silver sugar-tongs, as well. 'She is always so smug, so right, such a marvellous manager,' bitched someone (male or female? surely female?)  in a letter to The Times. 'It would be so much more helpful if Mrs Miniver would tell us how she would behave if her husband had an affair with a pretty ARP worker, if her son refused to join up, and if some of the workers at the hospital supply depot rose up in revolt and told the lady where she got off. No, I think the only thing for Mrs Miniver is a direct hit from a bomb ...'
I'm sure that person would be highly amused to discover - as I was - that this twit is the real Mrs Miniver's grandson.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

DH in Hollywood, 1980-84 by by Howard Hodgkin.
DH in Hollywood, Howard Hodgkin, 1980-84
It wasn't my intention to have such a packed day. But I'd already booked a concert ticket to hear some wonderful Sibelius yesterday evening and then I got a cheap matinée ticket for this Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie and that was clearly too good to resist. So, after grabbing a sandwich, that left me with just over an hour to fill in between - and I crossed the road to the National Portrait Gallery because where better to fill in an hour? I was only looking for somewhere to dawdle - but WOW, their exhibition of Howard Hodgkin's portraits is quite glorious.
And good fun. The thing about Hodgkin is that his paintings are always about something. But sometimes it takes a minute to get it. Pink, phallic David Hockney with a swimming pool splash and Hollywood palm trees made me smile ...

Mr and Mrs Patrick Caulfield, 1967-70

 And Mr and Mrs Patrick Caulfield was clever ... as long as you know who he is.

Chez Stamos, 1998
On the other hand, I haven't a clue who Stamos might be - but I'd love to be epitomised in a cascade of peacocky blues (and this was a huge painting).

Mr and Mrs Stephen Buckley, 1974-76
The Stephen Buckleys are sitting in frontof the fire in a holiday house near Rye. In autumn.

In Bed in Venice, 1984-88

Waking Up in Naples,  1980-84

Not sure whether I'd prefer to be In Bed in Venice or even more sensuously Waking Up in Naples.

Howard Hodgkin died a couple of weeks ago. What a gorgeous last exhibition.

And then ... there were magnolias in Sloane Square on my way to Cadogan Hall.

And that last movement of Sibelius's Fifth Symphony has been playing in my mind all day. 

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

I've been enjoying this book slowly, not so much for the wealth of architectural detail but for wonderful stories like this.
Would you have guessed that this is a design - not for a castle in Spain - but for Selfridge Castle, drawn up for the flamboyant owner of the department store - near Bournemouth! It was never built. Probably just as well.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Can it really be 30 years? Apparently, it can. It was 1986 when I saw Pauline Collins as Shirley Valentine in the West End - so long ago that I'd actually forgotten it was a one-woman show as I'd got it muddled in my mind with the film that came out a couple of years later. 
To be honest, I wasn't expecting too much when I booked for the 30th anniversary revival of the play - but what a fun night it turned out to be and a terrific performance from an actress I think we were supposed to recognise from TV but, of course, we'd never heard of her. (It's touring until November.) 
Coincidentally, I saw Pauline Collins a couple of weeks ago still typecast as a similarly put-upon housewife who escapes not to Greece but to the Ile de Ré in a truly dire film The Time of Their Lives ... with Joan Collins, pretty much playing herself as a faded Hollywood star with a gammy hip who escapes from a care home. You have to hand it to Dame Joan for being game enough to wipe off her makeup and take off her wig. It could have been fun, but it wasn't - because whoever wrote the clunky, clichéd script was no Willy Russell. Shirley Valentine still feels fresh and funny.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

View of Chichester Cathedral from the Deanery, John Piper, 1975
Feeling Sunday-afternoon grumpy - I'm sure it's a throwback to all that never-quite-started weekend homework from 40-odd years ago - I took myself into town for an hour to Two Temple Place. I've always liked this view of Chichester Cathedral and it looks exactly the same today.

In Temple Gardens, they were filming Mary Poppins Returns - to London in the Depression, apparently. I peeped through the railings but couldn't see anything except busy-looking crew and lots of   trucks and cherry-pickers. If Mary was planning another Jolly Holiday with 91-year-old Bert, I hope she brought her parrot-headed umbrella  - because it looked as if was going to start chucking it down any minute.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

It has been a very theatrical week. First up was a visit to Wilton's Music Hall which has been on my one-day-I-must-get round-to-it list for years. I vaguely remember having a peep about 30 years ago, when it wasn't even a building site, just a wreck and a fund-raising project. Well, I finally made it. Quite a lonely walk from Tower Hill - with a Jack the Ripper museum to spook you - so I was glad I'd brought a friend. (Don't worry, you're more likely to be mown down by killer cyclists and joggers.)
The Victorian music hall was quite different from what I'd imagined ... I was expecting red velvet and gold paint - but Wilton's was never grand, it was for sailors and dockers and they've kept all its shabbiness. We were fascinated by the building and went upstairs to explore all the nooks and crannies.
The play was Frankenstein ... I spent the first 10 minutes thinking, please God, don't let it all be mime! It was acted with - gusto - and greeted with the usual whoops and screams from the mostly young audience - but it did feel a bit like a drama studio exercise. Never mind, we'd come for the place not the play.

Last night, though, I saw Imelda Staunton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 5* from all the critics and 5* from me. She's terrific.

A mid-morning whim got me the ticket ... but even as I left house I was thinking, 'Do I really want to spend the afternoon in a Jacobean bloodbath? ' But I'd never been to Sam Wanamaker's candlelit Playhouse and I wanted to see it. I've always been a bit ooooh-er wary of Webster. But guess what - it was terrific. From my seat in the upper gallery, I could have reached up and touched the painted clouds on the ceiling. And in the glimmering (real) candlelight, it felt like 400 years had rolled away and I was watching the first performance of The White Devil in 1612.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

On my walk through the lanes yesterday ... the last of the snowdrops, clouds of white blossom, daffodils and primroses, crocuses and scilla and, in gardens, the first tulips and magnolia.
Today, sadly, tee-shirt weather has reverted to coat and scarf weather.
But I do have a jug of blossom by my desk.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Self-portrait, c1915
I'd been holding out for a sunny day to see the Vanessa Bell exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, because it's not just the art, it's a green, leafy saunter from the station, and tea in the garden, and sunshine through the stained glass in the mausoleum ...
So it didn't really matter that I'm a lukewarm Bloomsbury-ite. I can get quite swept away with lifestyle envy at Charleston. But I'm not convinced that any of it translates well into an art gallery setting. If they hadn't lived in squares and loved in triangles - what a brilliant marketing ploy - would we remember any of them, except for Virginia? I can't see that Vanessa had an original thought ... it's a bit of Matisse here, a bit of Cézanne there, and it all looks so much better on the walls at home.
Still, it made a pleasant afternoon out, though I whizzed around in half-an-hour because - well, there just isn't very much to it, is there? (Okay, I admit, I'd really like one of her rugs.)
I was lucky because I'd been expecting hordes of Bloomsbury-genuflectors but there was hardly anyone there. (Got chatting with a couple of gallery attendants who were definitely not worshippers at the shrine and they clearly would have given Vanessa a C-minus for trying.)
But I do like the fabrics and that sense of painting happening in the middle of a domestic life. (Okay, I know that nanny features in the paintings!)
I liked the texture of the canvas coming though Vanessa's loose-weave grey dress in the self-portrait.

Virginia Woolf, c1912
'My God! what clothes you are responsible for!' wrote Virginia, cattily describing an outfit worn by their sister-in-law. 'Karin's clothes wrenched my eyes from the sockets - a skirt barred with reds and yellows of the violent kind, a pea-green blouse on top with a gaudy handkerchief on her head, supposed to be the very boldest taste. I shall retire into dove colour and old lavender, with a lace collar and lawn wristlets.' I wonder what she would have made of the wispy slips of silk - for anorexic Barbie dolls - selling for £195 in the gallery shop. An impulse buy along with a Charleston fridge magnet? You'd need a fridge lock first.

View of the Pond at Charleston, c1919

Many years ago I remember having a lovely picnic here beside the pond. It wasn't quite the same wandering down to Dulwich village for a deliciously greasy sausage roll from Gail's Bakery. (No wonder I don't fit into little Charleston dresses.)

The Other Room, Late 1930s
This one belongs to Bryan Ferry. And it's probably cheaper than a Matisse.

Interior with the Artists' Daughter, 1935-6

And this is just armchair envy ...

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Pat Whalen, Alice Neel, 1935
I'd never heard of Alice Neel until I encountered this portrait of an Irish-American union leader last week at the Royal Academy's America after the Fall exhibition. And then she cropped up again - one of the women artists celebrated in BBC's new Imagine series. So I've just grabbed an hour over lunch to watch the riveting documentary, made by her grandson.

Alice Neel was born on January 28, 1900, four weeks younger than the century. Her penetrating gaze caught the individuality of her sitters but also seized on something about the era in which they lived. (And managed to keep on doing this into the 1970s and 80s at the end of her life.)

The documentary is a fascinating account of what it costs to be an women artist and the fall-out to those closest to her. For much of her life, Alice Neel worked in obscurity, struggling as a single mother on benefits. Her work was out of kilter with fashionable abstract expressionism; she painted humanity. Her uncompromising need to paint One daughter died as a baby; another was taken away to Cuba by her father and when Alice saw her again as an adult, she didn't even recognise her: that very beautiful young woman later committed suicide; Alice's two sons - one of them cruelly bullied by a charismatic, intellectual stepfather - come across as damaged souls, fearful of Bohemian chaos and yearning for bourgeois security.
At the end, her daughter-in-law makes the point that Alice's work was eventually recognised and she became famous and so it was worth it; but if she had never been recognised, would it still have been worth it? Not a question that would be asked in quite the same way of a man.

I also watched the programme about Jeanette Winterson, thinking I'd heard it all before - then realised it was a repeat from a few years ago. I'd still like to sit down with Mrs W and hear another side of the story.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Can't remember when I last enjoyed anything on television as much as this - but the new BBC adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall is quite perfect. Jack Whitehall is absolutely right as the hapless Paul Pennyfeather - 'I expect you'll become a schoolmaster, sir. That's what most of the gentlemen does that gets sent down for indecent behaviour' - David Suchet is headmaster of the third-rate public school where he ends up teaching and Douglas Hodge is his boozy colleague Captain Grimes who always ends up 'in the soup.'

Saturday, 4 March 2017

American Gothic, Grant Wood, 1930

The Royal Academy was heaving this afternoon, a bit too much shuffling in front of each painting ... and, of course, the biggest crowd was in front of American Gothic which has never before left America. I've never been to Chicago where it lives, and missed my chance to see it in a show in Washington some years ago because I was only there for a couple of days and there was so much to pack in. I used to think it was creepy - a bit Bates Motel - probably because it has spawned so many parodies. Now I see worry - grit - resilience. I'd never noticed the aspidistra and the Swiss cheese plant on the porch or the tendril of hair escaping from that tightly-controlled bun. The models were Wood's sister Nan (who had a more up-to-date hair-do in real life) and his dentist; they are supposed to be father and daughter, not husband and wife.

 Gas, Edward Hopper, 1940

The exhibition covers the decade of the Great Depression when unemployment peaked in at 25.2% in 1933; that's 12.8m people out of work. It's the era of dance marathons for big money prizes - the Dust Bowl and The Grapes of Wrath - and escapism at the movies.

New York Movie, Edward Hopper, 1939
The New York movie is probably Lost Horizon - which the pensive usherette will probably see three times a day for a fortnight. (My mum had a part-time job as an usherette and often groaned about the films she knew by heart.)

Home, Sweet Home, Charles Sheeler, 1931
Apart from the big names - Hopper and Wood, Georgia O'Keeffe (only one) and an early Jackson Pollock - most of the artists in the exhibition were completely new to me; now I'm a fan of Charles Sheeler and his wonderful rugs.

Thanksgiving, Doris Lee, c1935
Complete hoaky ... but I can't resist a rolling-pin. Amazingly, this won first prize at the Art Institute of Chicago's American painting exhibition that year.


It wasn't planned but only last night I finished this 1935 novel by Sinclair Lewis; my battered and tea-stained library copy hadn't been checked out since the 1960s but suddenly there's a wait-list for it and, having been re-issued by Penguin for the age of Trump, it's currently no 4 on the paperback bestseller list. To be honest, I won't be hurrying to read any more Sinclair Lewis; his flabby writing style almost had me giving up after 100 pages, but I'm glad I stuck it out - it gets quite gripping by the end as ignorant, demagogic president Buzz Windrip introduces his own brand of terrifying downhome Fascism to America. Aside from his dramatic glory, Buzz Windrip was a Professional Common Man. Oh, he was common enough. He had every prejudice and aspiration of every American Common Man. He believed in the desirability and therefore the sanctity of thick buckwheat cakes with adulterated maple syrup, and the superiooority of anyone who possessed a million dollars. He regarded spats, walking sticks, caviar, titles, tea-drinking, poetry not daily syndicated in newspapers and all foreigners, possibly excepting the British, as degenerate.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Here's a page from my favourite 17th century cookbook (alas, in the British Library's possession, not mine). I was rather pleased yesterday with my cheesecakes in the Italian fashion, having drastically cut down the quantities. (For '6lbs of good fresh cheese curd of a morning milk' read one tub of Tesco's cheapest cottage cheese; if I make them again I'll use ricotta.)

Cheesecakes were quite the thing in 17th century England. Hurrying to meet a friend last night I came across a tiramisù shop. ('Have you seen the new tira-mi-shoe shop?' I babbled to my baffled friend.) It seemed to be doing a thriving business though I only had time to peep in the window. Now that cupcakes are old hat - and macarons are for tourists - and éclair shops never quite seemed to catch on ... is the tira-mi-shoe shop the latest thing? Something puritanical deep inside me is appalled. # First World Gaps in the Market.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

I came across this very old-fashioned cake book in a 10p rummage bin in a charity bookshop and I've been enjoying it immensely. Originally published in 1964, I'm guessing it was old-fashioned even then; in fact, I'm wondering if this might be the last ever published recipe for rout cakes which I think of as very Jane Austen-ish. I made several batches of little cherry rout cakes before Christmas - a bit fiddly but you only have to flash-bake them for five mins and they're pretty and people seemed to like them. I've got a ginger cake in the oven right now. Margaret Bates was an old-fashioned Domestic Science teacher in Belfast and there's several Northern Irish recipes ... I keep meaning to try the potato apple cake 'from the orchard districts of County Armagh. And Jap fancies ... anyone remember Jap fancies? They were my favourite as a child but they were bought cakes; far too fiddly to make at home.

Incidentally, does anyone out there what China ginger is? I'm guessing that it's crystallised ginger - but it's not something I've ever come across and it's not in the glossary, so presumably in 1964 it was assumed that you'd know. I'm wondering if maybe it's an Irish term?

No Sunday morning cinema today as I knew that if it were snowy and slushy, I'd want to roll over and stay in bed. Well, the blizzard turned out to be a mild flurry of snowflakes yesterday afternoon but I rolled over and stayed in bed, anyway. However, I never got round to writing up last Sunday's film which was Hidden Figures. A bit clunky but we enjoyed it, anyway - and the story of these mathematically gifted black women working at NASA during the space race was new to me, and I guess will be new to most audiences. They're sending men into space - but lose a 40 minute chunk of their day as it's a half-mile round trip to the coloured ladies' room.
I know it's not the same thing, but it did remind me of the casual chauvinism that was taken for granted when I started work back in the Seventies. It wasn't at all unusual to encounter men in the ladies' if you were working a late shift ... they assumed that out of secretarial hours, it was their territory, because what could a woman possibly be if she wasn't a secretary?

A few days later, several of the Hidden Figures cast cropped up again in Moonlight - but despite stellar reviews I found this film heavy going. I think I was expecting a black Brokeback Mountain which it isn't. It has some wonderful performances but it wasn't for me.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Beach and Star Fish, Seven Sisters Cliff, Eastbourne, John Piper. 1933-34

Off to Two Temple Place this afternoon for this year's exhibition - Sussex Modernism - bizarrely, in the most ornate surroundings you can imagine. It starts with a roast peacock banquet in 1914 for an old-school poet who thought this modern stuff was all tosh - well, that was a bit of a distraction because it set me off wondering what roast peacock tastes like and whether you'd need some bread sauce with it or a few chipolatas - but stay with me, because we're off on a tour of Sussex, starting at  Ditchling then on to Charleston Farmhouse ...  At the back of the catalogue, there's directions for a real tour - well, you'd have to whizz around to fit it all into a day, but it did make me long to visit Furlongs and Farleys Farmhouse and West Dean, though I'd rather take it slowly over a few long summer afternoons. Why rush?

Sussex wasn't just a rural escape, it was a threshold - gateway to Europe (for ideas and refugees) and also a site for potential invasion. Piper's cliffs are torn-out pages from the New Statesman: a strip of classified ads for English private schools, perhaps making some statement about the class system,  and (hard to read as they're upside down) news reports about Nazism in Germany

Landscape near Rye, Edward Burra, 1943
Burra wasn't too keen on Rye. (Harlem was more his thing.) He called it a 'ducky little Tinker Bell towne - like an itsy bitsy morgue, quayte dead' ,,, so I'm guessing he wasn't a fan of Mapp and Lucia. Dark clouds loom over his landscape ... are those skull bones being crushed in huge pincers?

Bronze Ballet, 1940 - Edward Wadsworth
Bronze Ballet, Edward Wadsworth, 1940
Wadsworth was working 'to the somewhat noisy accompaniment ... of the bombardment of Abbeville, Boulogne and Calais' - heard from across the Channel - 'all mingled with the call of the cuckoo.'

The Annunciation, Vanessa Bell, 1942
I've still never been to Berwick Church, but I do like the idea of the Angel Gabriel appearing in the walled garden at Charleston.

Two Temple Place has become a winter landmark for me; half way between Christmas and spring, although sadly the cake isn't anywhere near as good as it was a few years ago. Shame - but it's still free to get in and there's some fabulous pictures of this very quirky building here.