Thursday, 21 June 2018

The Frida Kahlo exhibition at the V&A made for uncomfortable viewing yesterday afternoon. Yes, it's spectacular and beautifully presented (and it wasn't even as crowded as I'd feared).
But at the centre of the exhibition is a gallery dedicated to Frida's endurance of pain, containing personal belongings that remained locked in her bathroom for 50 years after her death. It's fascinating to see ointments and cosmetics - her Revlon Frosted Pink Lightning nail polish, Shalimar scent, nail polish remover decanted into a Chanel No 5 bottle. There's excruciating corsets and braces, including a plaster corset painted with a foetus, made nearly 20 years after she suffered a life threatening miscarriage. There's her prosthetic leg in a jaunty red boot with bells and Chinese embroidery.
But is it all an intrusion too far, this rummaging in cupboards? Or was her whole life a work of art? It was amazing to see the display of her stunning costumes (I thought I spotted a neatly-darned cigarette burn on a skirt) and her jewellery and head-dresses: she dressed up even when she was at home and not expecting visitors.
Actually, what puzzles me most about myself is that simply by turning up you make yourself part of the hagiography and become a worshipper at the shrine. I suspect in another age I'd have been a Wife of Bath on a jaunt to Canterbury.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

I saw a lovely, gentle film last night (a remake of an Argentinian film from 2010) about a put-upon Catholic housewife who begins to find herself when she discovers a talent (and a partner) for competitive jigsaw puzzles. It's the opening film of the Edinburgh Film Festival. There's a trailer here and review here.
I can't do jigsaws - haven't the patience - though I imagine the satisfaction of the last piece is similar to that 'all's right with the world' feeling that you get from completing a challenging crossword.
But if you are a puzzle fan, these are the jigsaws from the movie.
I was puzzling over where I'd seen Kelly Macdonald before until I remembered that she was Christopher Robin's beloved nanny.

Last week's film was Leave No Trace - which I wanted to like more than I did because it's beautifully filmed if you like the great outdoors (I don't much!) but sooooo slow-moving. It's had ecstatic reviews but I came away feeling short-changed as so many questions weren't answered ... like, how long had Tom and her army veteran dad been living in the wild? and where was Tom's mother? Maybe I'm too literal minded. A wonderful performance by the young New Zealand actress who plays Tom and a very funny scene when she and her father feel obliged to attend church. But it didn't quite pass the slumber test as I drifted off for a few minutes and, as I clearly have more vulgar taste than The Guardian reviewer, I'll admit that I preferred Captain Fantastic.
Actually, I went to another film over the weekend - L'Aveu, an oldie with Yves Montand and Simone Signoret, based on the true story of a communist politician, one of the accused in a 1951 Stalinist show trial in Czechoslovakia. (A Czech historian appeared at the end and seemed to have lots of quibbles about the veracity of the film but didn't make a very good job of explaining why.)
Gripping, but gruelling - and no, I couldn't persuade anyone to come with me!

Thursday, 14 June 2018

You know when you really, really loathe a book that everybody else seems to be gushing about?

And then a friend says, 'Have you read, "Eleanor Oliphant ...?"'

And you brace yourself -

And the friend says, 'Oh, I hated it!'

And you think, whew, we can still be friends.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

I've spent the past two days completely engrossed in this memoir of a Jewish woman in hiding, trying to escape from Vichy France. Frenkel, a Polish Francophile, was running the only French bookshop in Berlin when, having survived Kristallnacht by a fluke - the shop wasn't on the list of those to be destroyed - she fled to Paris weeks before the outbreak of the war. As a Jew, she isn't allowed to exchange any currency, not even the ten marks permitted to other travellers; she arrives at Gare du Nord without even a cab fare. When the bombing starts, she heads for Nice in the hope of being able to cross into Switzerland. (Somewhat puzzlingly, there is no mention of her husband who was rounded up in Paris in 1942 and died in Auschwitz.)
For Frenkel, who by then was in her early fifties, there is literally no place to lay her head for more than a few weeks at a stretch as she keeps on the move, heartened by the kindness of strangers who risk their lives for her. (The accounts of people smugglers and profiteers seem all too topical today.) Little is known of her life post-war. There are no photos her. She does escape, that much we know, and she died in France in 1975. This book was published in 1945 by the publisher that had illicitly published a French translation of Daphne du Maurier's Frenchman's Creek; but Frenkel's book was long forgotten, until a copy was discovered in a jumble sale in Nice in 2010. It's a gripping, and sobering, read.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Back in the day, I was a big fan of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? and it was the ambition of my life to get on the show. Ever the optimist, I saw '15 questions away from a million' as a pension plan -until I got the phone bill with all those premium calls! In later series the questions were weighted towards 'popular culture' as apparently ITV audiences don't like middle class/middle aged winners ... and that's when I got bored and switched off. Who did Eleanor of Aquitaine marry? I'm shouting the answer at the telly - but the only footballer I could confidently name is David Beckham. And I'm not even sure who he played for.
Did you know that it's no good asking the audience in Russia? British or American audiences will give it their best shot - but Russians resent your good luck and will deliberately sabotage the contestant. (I'm not sure how they respond to Phone A Friend!)

Perhaps my obsession isn't entirely cured!

Oh, you can see why I'm the target audience for James Graham's new play Quiz about the coughing major scandal. (Ink, his play about the Sun newspaper was the best thing I saw last year.) It's hugely entertaining - lots of audience participation and a gizmo attached to your seat so you can vote. Highly recommended and great fun, but it also raises some pertinent questions about trial by media. It's only on for a few more days.

On a more sober note, this documentary City of Ghosts (trailer here) is on BBCFour tomorrow and left me humbled at the courage of the undercover citizen journalists of Raqqa.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

I must be one sandwich short of a picnic to have wasted my time on this ridiculous re-make of Picnic at Hanging Rock. Honestly, don't bother. Much better watch the original film again. I've gone off The Handmaid's Tale, too, which seems to be getting far too much relish out of violence to women.  Anyone else still persevering?

Monday, 4 June 2018

There are no words. This is probably the most powerful, the most harrowing book that I have ever read.
I thought perhaps I shouldn't write anything here. But then I read Elie Wiesel's Nobel acceptance speech at the end of the book:

I remember: it happened yesterday, or eternities ago. A young Jewish boy discovered the Kingdom of Night. I remember his bewilderment, I remember his anguish. It all happened so fast. The ghetto. The deportation. The sealed cattle car. The fiery altar upon which the history of our people and the future of mankind were meant to be sacrificed.
I remember he asked his father, 'Can this be true? This is the twentieth century, not the Middle Ages. Who would allow such crimes to be committed? How could the world remain silent?'
And now the boy is turning to me. 'Tell me,' he asks, 'what have you done with my future, what have you done with your life?' And I tell him that I have tried. That I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Can't help thinking that we won't see their like again. (Nothing Like a Dame, on iPlayer if you missed it tonight.) And how lucky I am to have seen each of them in real life. I'd give a lot to see Dame Maggie again in Lettice and Lovage, with Margaret Tyzack in 1987 - it had one of the most hysterically funny moments I can recall in a London theatre. 1987 must have been a vintage year as I also saw Judi Dench as Cleopatra at the National Theatre with Anthony Hopkins as Antony. I suppose by definition you're no spring chicken when you achieve damehood - but it's hard to think of anyone coming up who will fill the role in the nation's affections.

Saturday, 2 June 2018

You think you know London - and then you discover this Victorian Gothic gem of a church just behind Oxford Street ... and you never knew it was there.
I wafted round on a cloud of incense, loving all those zigzags and stripes ... it does feel rather as if you've got your head tangled in a very elaborately-patterned sweater!
The wonderful Ian Nairn put it more provocatively: I knew it would be worth looking up what he said! To describe a church as an orgasm is bound to offend someone. Yet this building can only be understood in terms of compelling passion. Here is the force of Wuthering Heights translated into dusky red and black bricks, put down in a mundane Marylebone street to rivet you ...
Now aren't you longing to discover it for yourself? The force of Wuthering Heights just behind Top Shop ...

I was on my way - by a roundabout route - to see the Orla Kiely exhibition which was full of ladies sighing over handbags. It's fun, but slight. (I'd have felt miffed if I'd paid nearly £10 to get in! Unless you're an Art Fund member, I wouldn't bother.)
It does feel very derivative ... Mary Quant, Bill Gibb and Ossie Clark should be on commission!
And I do wish the English would learn to pronounce Kiely!

Is it really two weeks since the royal wedding? My interest was hovering somewhere around zero until it turned into such a riveting soap opera with all the undesirable relatives. (I was casting Meghan as a younger, more glamorous Hyacinth Bucket being shown up by Onslow and Daisy!)
I mellowed sufficiently that I even picked a handful of elderflowers and made a sambocade - an elderflower and rosewater cheesecake (in sort of homage to the elderflower wedding cake) that dates back to this 1390 manuscript and the court of Richard II. It went down so well that I made a second one.
But on the day, I took advantage of a cheap ticket offer for a matinée at the stunning new Bridge Theatre ... no escape from wedding fever as American television crews were out in force getting shots of Tower Bridge. They've got some interesting plays coming-up. And what an inspired idea - freshly-baked madeleines in the interval!

Sunday, 27 May 2018

... her heroine has the fate to be born in a land where myriads of women of her station go passively like poultry along all the tramways of their parishes; life is something that happens to them, it is their duty to keep to the tracks, and having enough to eat and enough to put on therewith to be content, or if not content, sour, but in any case to seek no further over the parochial bounds...

In a land like England, where there is great wealth, little education and little general thought, people like Miss Mayor's heroine are common; we have all met not one or two but dozens of her. 

From John Masefield's preface to FM Mayor's 1913 novella about one of those unloved surplus women. It's a while since I've read any spinster lit ... always gives me a shiver to think that I was born  not much more than 40 years later.

Saturday, 26 May 2018

Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made
By singing: "Oh, how beautiful," and sitting in the shade
While better men than we go out and start their working lives
At grubbing weeds from gravel-paths with broken dinner-knives.

I haven't been getting on too well with this slim volume probably because I'm at odds with Penelope Lively (and Kipling) when it comes to gardening.

'Gardening is not outdoor housework,' she says. Oh yes, it is and if pushed I'd sooner mop floors. And if better men than I actually enjoy grubbing dandelions ... well, I wish they'd come round here and tackle mine. Of course, Kipling was talking about hired hands; if only!

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Just got in from seeing this amazing and very moving animated film (based on a children's novel by Canadian author Deborah Ellis, directed by Irish director Norah Twomey, and executive produced by Angelina Jolie) about a young girl in Taliban-controlled Kabul who disguises herself as a boy - as many did - to provide for her family after her disabled father is arrested and her mother and older sister - now with no male relative to accompany them - are unable to venture out even to get water or shop in the market.
There was a Q&A afterwards that sadly rather got hi-jacked by an audience of millennials talking about women in the film industry when I'd much sooner have heard about women in Afghanistan. But  the story is set in 2001 and we were told that since then conditions for women have somewhat improved; I only hope that's true. To my surprise, the film is to be dubbed and shown on television there.
I'm confident saying that this is going to be one of my films of the year.
Reviews and a trailer here and here.
(There's posters for this film all over London but unfortunately it seems to be on fairly limited release elsewhere. Just for a change.)

Monday, 21 May 2018

Absolutely loved On Chesil Beach - and Saoirse Ronan is breathtakingly good on that excruciatingly clumsy and repressed honeymoon night. In fact, I thought it was miles better than the book which I never found entirely convincing. Ian McEwan has adjusted the ending and it works.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds.

That's not a spoiler, just the opening line. I only meant to open this for the quickest of quick looks on my way into town last night, but I was hooked - I was reading it in the interval of this wonderful concert at the Festival Hall - just as well I'd gone on my own! - then on the train home - and in snatches today when I really should have been working.
Completely gripping and beautifully written. There's more here.
It reminds me slightly of Véronique Olmi's horrifying - but unforgettable - Beside the Sea. French writers do tension so well!

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Lazy Saturday here as it's chucking it down with rain, so I made a pile of blueberry pancakes (why do I even buy blueberries, they're such miserable, imported, soapy-tasting things - and why can't you get our own bilberries any more?) and then I settled down to episode one of A Very English Scandal. Ben Whishaw is brilliant and fragile as Norman Scott and, rather more surprisingly, as I've never thought of him as a proper actor, just a rom-com floppy-haired twit, Hugh Grant makes rather a good Jeremy Thorpe. The book, by John Preston, is completely gripping and far and away the best book I've read this year.

May is going by in a flash and if there hasn't been much blogging lately, that's because I've been out pretty well every day/evening and, frankly, I'm knackered.
But my best outing this week - corny as it sounds - has been to the BFI to see The Sound of Music. I hadn't seen it in a cinema since a 9th birthday treat when it first came out but a new 70mm print from the original camera negative has just been released. (Screening dates are here.) I'm not entirely sure what that means, not being technically minded, but it looked fabulous, as good as seeing it at the original première, we were told. Anyway, you could see every blade of grass on the mountainside ... or is that just seeing it on a big screen with the contact lenses that hadn't been invented in 1960-whatever? (No wonder I was hopeless at a biology/chemistry/maths and every lesson that involved squiggles on a blackboard that I couldn't see.)
I'm normally getting fidgety when films last too long ...but this was three hours (five minute intermission - remember the intermission?) and I lapped up every glorious minute from How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? to the escape from the Nazis. (I don't think that when I was nine I appreciated quite how gorgeous Christopher Plummer was. No wonder Maria gave up on being a nun.) I'd have happily sat through it all again but continuous performances are a thing of the past. And sadly, no Lyons Maid strawberry sundae which was for birthday treats only - unless my mum was feeling flush - because they cost 2s which was a whopping extravagance and my idea of the height of sophistication.
Going to the cinema in the daytime is one of my Favourite Things - and when we emerged into the sunshine (I refuse to feel guilty about wasting the heatwave; if I hadn't gone into town, I'd still have been faffing about in the house) we had lunch sitting under roses and lilac in the Southbank roof garden ... which was almost deserted.

Friday, 11 May 2018

There's a lot that I enjoyed in Lucy Mangan's Bookworm memoir although she's considerably younger than me and our childhood reading didn't quite coincide. (No Maurice Sendak or Roald Dahl in my childhood or anything cutting-edge and modern that was written-up in the Sunday review sections. My mum steered us towards classics from her own childhood, mostly cherished Christmas and birthday presents from my great-grandfather, who is credited with the reading gene that runs through the family: Milly-Molly-Mandy, which was published when she was six, and Little Women and What Katy Did. My dad wasn't a reader and the local children's library only ran to a few sparsely-filled shelves ... when you'd read all the Noel Streatfeilds and the ballet books, you went back to the beginning and started again.)
It was lovely to be reminded of Teddy Robinson - how could I have so completely forgotten him? (None of us in our house much cared for Winnie-the-Pooh.) There were books that were banned, on a parental Index Librorum Prohibitorum because my mum couldn't stomach them any longer - but mostly because my sister and I loved them so much that we'd hide them and run up massive library fines. (I've just googled the wretched Pookie and I'm astonished that the white, furry rabbit with floppity ears only dates back to 1946 because you'd swear he was an Edwardian!)
Like Lucy Mangan, I felt outraged, too, at the God-stuff in CS Lewis - what a cheek, I thought, and what an idiot I felt for being so slow to tumble to it. Hobbits and elves and animal books ... not for me, thanks. (My mum was appalled by my stony-hearted indifference to Black Beauty and Greyfriars Bobby over which she had wept buckets.) I could lose myself in a rubbishy Enid Blyton and was bored to tears by Swallows and Amazons, which might just as well have had stamped on the cover: Approved by Grown-ups.
Unfortunately, what really grated on me is Lucy Mangan's brash, self-deprecating, overly chatty, tabloid-y voice ... I know it's a memoir, but I just wanted her to pipe down. (Pot calling kettle, I know!)

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

A few months ago, I read Never Mind - the first novel in Edward St Aubyn's Patrick Melrose series - and I was left reeling by how good a writer he is.
And now I've just finished the second book Bad News - and I'm reeling in quite a different way from this drug-fuelled barrage of awfulness. It is 17 years later and Melrose, now in his twenties, has flown to New York to collect the ashes of the father who abused him as a child. I'm sure it's authentic - it's drawn from life - but if this unbearable, drug-addled tosser were lying dead in the gutter, I can't imagine that any reader would much care. Originally intended as a trilogy, there are now five books in the series; I'm telling myself that this has to be rock bottom because at the rate he's going, I'd give Melrose a life expectancy of six months at the outside.
Shall I attempt the third book? It can't be as black - or as relentless - as this one. I do think that Benedict Cumberbatch is going to be marvellous in the TV series.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

This book - from 1936 - was mentioned in the British Library talk the other night and, of course, I'm now aching for a copy of my own. How could anyone resist Picnic no 54: asparagus in French rolls, cold grouse and pickled plums, salad of lettuce hearts and caramel soufflé?
I'm much more interested in food from the past than today's gimmicky cookbooks, no matter how lavish. (I'm baking my way through this at the moment and everything has turned out brilliantly.) But I admit I was tempted by this new book at an event at Anthropologie on Regent Street last night ... I wavered but didn't cave in!

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

I'm tempted by quite a few of the talks in the British Library's ongoing 'food season.' Tonight it was The Art of the Cookbook with Anne Willan and Jill Norman which sent me on a nostalgic browse through my own collection when I got home... I've just pulled out Anne Willan's Observer French Cookery School which was one of my first sophisticated 'grown-up' purchases in my early 20s. Robert Carrier was my go-to for entertaining boyfriends; it was mentioned this evening that cookery book photographs date very quickly and I have to laugh at my youthful aspirations - but his recipes always worked.
Plats du Jour was also mentioned with affection ... and I had to stop myself from bouncing up in my seat to boast that I found a 1957 first-edition Penguin copy last week in a 10p charity rummage bin. (It does smell rather dreadfully of old book.)
Will anyone ever think nostalgically about flaxseed buns from faddy girls with flicky hair? Somehow I doubt it.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

More consumer goods for the people!

Let's revolutionise the fishing industry!

Yes, do let's. And let's keep our streets, villages and homes clean and tidy!

And - wait for it - let's do more sheltered-water aqua cultivation! You know you want to!

I was passing through Granary Square this afternoon and saw the signs for this (first-ever) exhibition of graphics from North Korea ... which rather reminded me of an old-fashioned Janet and John.

Run! Run to mother! Let's all rear more goats!

Let's develop more mulberry plantations to produce more cocoons!

A bit pricey to get in but fascinating.

I was dawdling, enjoying the sunshine after seeing this gripping film at my new favourite cinema. No nodding off this week! And what a perfect day to discover a new-to-me ice-cream shop.  Look at these amazing flavours. (I chose greengage ripple.)

Friday, 20 April 2018

Well, trust me to book matinée tickets for a heatwave - and after sun-bathing on the steps of the Royal Court this afternoon, when I arrived early, it was hard to drag myself indoors to take my seat.
Fortunately, the play - Instructions for Complete Assembly - turned out to be hilarious, about a couple - Jane Horrocks plays the mother - trying to create an upgraded version of their son from an IKEA flatpack. I hardly ever go to the Royal Court because mostly my heart sinks at the thought.
But if there were more like this, I'd go more often.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

On my way home from the cinema on Saturday, I made a diversion to the British Museum to see this small, but very charming exhibition about the charmed lives of Patrick Leigh Fermor and his friends. (My friend announced grandly that she'd already seen it in Athens.)

Hotel by the Sea, John Craxton, 1946
It did make me long to be staying here. 

The stone flags of the water's edge, where Joan and Xan Fielding and I sat down to dinner, flung back the heat like a casserole with the lid off. On a sudden, silent decision we stepped down fully dressed into the sea carrying the iron table a few yards out and then our three chairs, on which, up to our waists in cool water, we sat round the neatly laid table-top, which now seemed by magic to be levitated three inches above the water. The waiter, arriving a moment later, gazed with surprise at the empty space on the quay; then observing us with a quickly-masked flicker of pleasure, he stepped unhesitatingly into the sea, advanced waist-deep with a butler's gravity, and, saying nothing more than 'Dinner-time,' placed our meal before us - three beautifully grilled kephali, piping hot and with their golden brown scales sparkling ... Diverted by this spectacle, the diners on the quay sent us can upon can of retsina till the table was crowded. 

Don't you just wish you were there? And then, of course, there's the book jackets ...

At last I could stride about the olive groves for hours, putting sentences together and pulling them to bits again!

Beats the irritating TV Durrells - and the exhibition is free.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

The Sunday morning cinema ladies have been lying abed recently so this weekend we've indulged in an orgy of movie-going to make up for it. First up, on Saturday, was the long-awaited Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Don't hate me, I know I'm an old cynic - but I couldn't get that excited about it. Too saccharine for me and I thought Lily James must be mad to jilt a wealthy Yank for a potato farmer who had nothing to offer but his Jersey Royals and a love of books. I liked the scenery and the clothes ... but it was like seeing Their Finest all over again and I dozed off a bit in the middle. My friend, however, was mopping her eyes at the end and loved every minute.

Next morning we reconvened to see a powerful performance from Maxine Peake in Funny Cow, in which she plays a stand-up comedienne on the northern club circuit. (Loosely based, for those old enough to remember, on Marti Caine.) Strong stuff, but it'll stay in my mind long after Potato Peel Pie  has composted down into a mush of ration cards and period detail in my brain.

I was feeling a bit churlish for being so underwhelmed by The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society - but was heartened to see in yesterday's paper that the Times' critic gave it 1* star and his 'absolutely no screen chemistry whatsoever' award. He must be grouchier than me because I'd say 2* for the clothes and lipstick. Coincidentally, he also gave 5* to Funny Cow. You read it here first! 

Monday, 16 April 2018

I hadn't realised that E Nesbit wrote adult novels too and this is the last of them, published in 1922 two years before she died. Now I'm not going to claim that it's anything like as good as The Railway Children but it's silly and cheerful and optimistic and has kept me entertained all weekend. (It would be a wonderfully undemanding read for anyone feeling under the weather.)
It is 1919 and two naive girls, fresh from school, have been swindled out of their fortune by a guardian, leaving them with a delightful country cottage and £500 - so not as destitute as all that! Facing up to their situation as a lark, they set about earning a living and managing servants; first they open a charming flower stall, then get into scrapes taking in dodgy paying guests. There are hints in the background that the young men in the story, recently returned from the war, are struggling to find their feet in a world that is not offering much of a welcome home to returning heroes. But for all their independence and lack of any suitable chaperone, these girls are simply filling in time before marriage ... and to be honest, by the end I was getting the teeniest bit bored as if I'd been grazing too long in a box of sugary sweeties. The character I'd have liked more of was Miss Antrobus, the plain-looking, formerly lovelorn heiress whose war work has been the making of her.
But I do love a book with lovely clothes and fabrics and lots of flowers, and here's a taste:

They were occupied in covering two easy-chairs with bright chintz. I am sorry to say that they had cut up a pair of curtains twelve feet long by six feet wide so as to avoid the extravagance of buying new cretonne to brighten the sitting-room which they were arranging for their new guests. The curtains were beautiful, with purple birds and pink peonies and pagodas of just the right shade of yellow to be worthy to associate with the pinks and the purples. The curtains were lined and bordered with faded rose-coloured Chinese silk, and pounds could not have bought their like. Shillings, on the other hand, and not so very many of them either, could have bought the cretonne. Pity, but do not despise these inexperienced housekeepers. They did not know - how should they? Even the most charming girls do not know everything. There was a girl once who cut up a fine hand-woven linen sheet to line a dress with and thought she was being economical, but that is another, and a sadder story.

Saturday, 7 April 2018

I love an old-fashioned pudding and couldn't resist this when I saw the hefty reduction on Amazon. And today I tried it out for the first time, with a recipe from 1681 for a carrot pudding that tasted much better (and lighter) than it sounds. In fact, I got a hug from a little girl who said it tasted like Easter. Now ... what shall I make with those leftover egg whites? I always seem to have a fridge full of leftover egg whites.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Another re-released classic. Of course, I've seen Look back in Anger before - but never in a cinema, which makes all the difference. I do love a bit of monochrome squalor but it did seem very stagey and dated and Jimmy Porter, the original Angry Young Man, is nothing but a whinging, ranting bully who needs to pull himself together and use his university degree to get a proper job. I mean, honestly, an Angry Young Man who sells jelly babies on a market stall lacks credibility.
But oohh, Richard Burton ...
I was wondering why today's actors seem so lacking in old-fashioned sex-appeal. Then Burton's hairy chest flashed across the screen ... when did you last see a manly chest on a cinema screen? Are they all waxing? No wonder they seem so girly!

Sunday, 1 April 2018


I refuse to believe that it has been 40 years ... but when I said to the young girl ahead of me in the queue that I hadn't seen Grease in a cinema since it first came out, she gave me one of those looks that say, 'That was decades before I was born!'
I nearly didn't go - I mean, I've seen it countless times on TV - but it was such good fun on a grey day and it still has me jiggling in my seat. What I hadn't realised is that it's all based on a real high school in Chicago and the Pink Ladies really existed.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Don't dither, ladies ... there is a flash sale at the Old Vic, book today and all tickets from next week until the end of the run of Fanny and Alexander are down to £12. I went last night and Penelope Wilton is wonderful and though it's three and half hours long, it flashed by. (Downton fans might also like to see second footman Molesley/Kevin Doyle as a grim Calvinist bishop.)

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Self-portrait with a Sunflower, van Dyck
This exhibition on Charles I's art collection at the Royal Academy is simply breathtaking. What a coup to bring it all together. (The jostling crowd in the first couple of galleries was breathtaking, too, but it does thin out as you go round.)

If you go, do read the labels which tell you where each work in which palace - and its fate in the Commonwealth Sale of the royal collection in 1649.

Charles I, 1635-6, van Dyck

There's no denying that Charles was fortunate in his court painter. Here was a weedy, 5ft3in stammerer with rickets ... and van Dyck turned him into a King. (At school we used to giggle because the history teacher had such a pash on him.)

Charles V with a Dog, Titian, 1533

I didn't come away with any sense that the King really had an eye for art; he just owned lots of it! He inherited works of the northern Renaissance ... I envied his Holbeins far more than any Venetian works. And he bought a massive job lot, sight unseen, from the Gonzagas. This Titian was a gift.

Robert Cheseman, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533

This was one of my favourites. The disdain in his eyes ...

Erasmus, Quinten Massys, 1517
But Erasmus reminds me of Mark Rylance.

John More, Hans Holbein the Younger

I've always loved Holbein's portraits of Thomas More's family; they're so alive.

Derich Born, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533

And doesn't young Derich Born, the 23-year-old steel merchant look immensely full of himself? The inscription on the ledge reads: If you added a voice, this would be Derich his very self. You would be in doubt whether the painter or his father made him. 

Charles I and Henrietta Maria Holding a Laurel Wreath, van Dyck, 1632

Henrietta Maria with Sir Jeffrey Hudson, van Dyck

And here we are back with the King and Queen. They are all exquisite. 
Now ... am I going to follow-up with Charles II?

Sunday, 25 March 2018

I don't watch awards ceremonies so I didn't know that Oprah had spoken out at the Golden Globes about the story of Recy Taylor, a black woman who was kidnapped and gang-raped while walking home from church in Alabama in the 1940s. So it was purely by chance that I heard of this afternoon's screening of The Rape of Recy Taylor with Q&A afterwards with the film's director Nancy Buirski (who also made Loving). Oprah might be gratified to know that the cinema was full and the film will be on wider release from May. (I'd much sooner see films in a cinema - and the director made the point that this one is worth seeing as part of an audience; very true as people were still discussing it on the way out. But, if you really must, it's available to watch on-line.)
I'd never heard of Recy Taylor - who only died last December - and wasn't sure if that was my ignorance of black history, or if her story is little known; but chatting to others in the audience, it seems that I wasn't the only one. There's a trailer here and you can read her story here . It also brought home to me how little I know about Rosa Parks who was an activist long before she refused her seat to a white man on a Montgomery bus. (Parks was forcibly ejected, ie thrown down the steps of Recy Taylor's home by the local sheriff when she visited to organise support.)

I think all of the questions afterwards came from women, of all ages. And it did strike me - as I quite often go to these Q&A events - that women ask questions - succinct and very interesting questions this afternoon - whilst men so often turn a question into a lengthy diversion to display their own knowledge.

Incidentally, this was my first visit to the Everyman at King's Cross which only opened a few months ago and now it's my new favourite cinema.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

I do find that American book jackets can be desperately unappealing ... I mean, honestly, would you even think of picking up this dreary-looking thing in a bookshop? But I've been wallowing in Montmaray with guilty pleasure for the past couple of days. I don't read teen books very often but I'd have been in heaven if this had been around when I was 12. And if I were 12, I don't suppose I'd notice, let alone care that author Michelle Cooper has helped herself liberally from I Capture the Castle.

This is the journal of Sophia Margaret Elizabeth Jane Clementine FitzOsborne, begun this twenty-third day of October 1936, on the occasion of her sixteenth birthday ...

And if she isn't quite writing this sitting in the kitchen sink, listening to the dripping roof and watching her sister Rose ironing her only nightgown - well, give or take a title, Princess Sophia and Cassandra Mortmain are almost interchangeable. If Cassandra lives with her eccentric family in a decaying castle in the middle of the nowhere in the 1930s, the FitzOsbornes are living it in spades in their castle in the tiny island kingdom of Montmaray somewhere in the Bay of Biscay. There's a mad king, still wracked by WWI - a mad housekeeper, shades of Mrs Danvers - the housekeeper's handsome son - invading Nazis - secret passages - bombs ... and a bit too much author-splaining about the Spanish Civil War, Mrs Simpson and historical background, though maybe that wouldn't grate so much on a teen reader. Never mind, it was a jolly enjoyable read-in-bed although for my money, you can't beat Guard Your Daughters which has been republished by Persephone since I wrote about it two years ago. (I can't claim credit because lots of bloggers were urging it!)

Although the first book ends on a cliffhanger, I wasn't sure whether I'd continue with the Montmaray saga but as I was ordering this on Amazon last night - couldn't resist my baking heroine Regula Ysewijn at such a hefty reduction - I decided I needed something else to make up £10 and qualify for free postage. So that's three books bought this week, and I took three rather smaller books to the Oxfam shop - so it's one-in-one-out but not really solving the shelving crisis, is it?

Isn't Regula Ysewijn a fabulous name for a cook? I always think of her as Regulo Eis-wein but I'm probably mispronouncing her in my head.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Rimon (Pomegranate), Tal Shochat 2011

So perfect, you'd think it was plastic. Israeli photographer Tal Shochat (on her own? or with a squad of helpers? I couldn't help wondering) polished every twig, leaf and fruit on this pomegranate tree to achieve perfection. (And then rigged up a black background.) I am awestruck at the thought of going into the orchard with a can of Pledge and a yellow duster - when I so rarely attack my own bookshelves - and accept that I simply don't have the patience to be an artist and had much better put my creative urges to making cake!
The photograph is in the V&A's Into the Woods exhibition of tree photography. If you're at the V&A anyway for their ocean liners exhibition - which I enjoyed very much, but haven't got round to writing up - you'll find this tiny free exhibition in the next gallery and it's worth a 10-minute detour.

I loved this film when it first came out last year but at the time, there was little chance of seeing it outside London. Suddenly I see posters everywhere and it seems to be on wider release as of next week but the English title has been changed from the unwieldy Fifty Springtimes to I Got Life. Highly recommended and I might even go again. Miles, miles better than the clunky Finding Your Feet that squandered a brilliant cast (Imelda Staunton, Celia Imrie, Timothy Spall, all boosting their pensions!) on a hackneyed, patronising script.

Monday, 12 March 2018

I absolutely loved Bernard MacLaverty's latest book Midwinter Break which reminded me that I'd never got round to reading his earlier novel Grace Notes, despite the pulling power of its jacket by one of my favourite artists Hammershoi.
Sadly, it turns out that I'm the wrong the reader for this one and I didn't warm to this novel at all. Perhaps it really is 'a bad novel by a good writer' as one reviewer put it, but I simply felt irritated by Catherine, the young woman composer who is the central character; though I'll grant that someone more responsive to music - and the smell of babies - than I am might feel more sympathetic.
It's short, so I limped along to the end - felt glad that I didn't choose it for book group as it's my turn next and they'd all have hated for me for it - then picked up a George Gissing with huge relief because a good Victorian never lets you down.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Woman with Dagger, 1931
This is what Picasso painted during Christmas week, 1931. You can only imagine the festive mood in the family home ...

Woman in a Red Armchair, 1931
And this is the large painting he does, very quickly, on Christmas Day, a portrait of his secret (and much younger) lover Marie-Thérèse, with her face obliterated and her features replaced by a heart. (They met - or rather, he picked her up - in Galeries Lafayette one day when she was 17 and had gone to the store to buy a Peter Pan collar and cuffs. She remained in love with him for the rest of her life and said that he was the only person who ever really looked at her and properly saw her. ) 

And that's the opening of Tate Modern's magnificent Picasso exhibition that gives a day by day/month by month account of just one year in his life, 1932, when he was 50. I was riveted; when you look at the dates, you realise what a furious pace he worked at. 

The Dream 
I was one of the last to leave yesterday and stood in front of this for a long time; every curve seems imbued with love. (Of course, I'm glad that it wasn't me who did this. Whoops! )