Saturday, 20 October 2018



I'm not very good at London Film Festival; 225 films in 12 days befuddles me with too much choice and so I've only actually been to one. Luckily, that one turned out to be the very enjoyable Can You Ever Forgive Me? which is rather like a grouchier version of 84 Charing Cross Road, set in Manhattan. Honestly, it deserves an Oscar for Best Bookshop Locations. It's the true story of Lee Israel, a journalist/biographer fallen on hard times (and the whole cinema let out a gasp at her squalid housekeeping!) who discovers a talent for forging letters from literary celebrities like Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward. Melissa McCarthy is wonderful as the irascible grump Lee Israel and it's hard to imagine that the role was originally meant to go to the far too glamorous Julianne Moore. McCarthy appeared tonight in person with co-star Richard E Grant but sadly that was just ten minutes of luvvie-ish backslapping and neither of them said anything interesting. There's still tickets available over the weekend - and it's much more fun than A Star is Born. There's reviews here and here and the trailer is here.

Thursday, 18 October 2018



I've occasionally emerged from a theatre, thinking: 'Shakespeare would have approved' ... but you don't expect to come out, saying: 'EM Forster would be so thrilled with this!' A present-day, gay, post-AIDS riff on Howards End.
I booked a cheap matinee ticket on a whim a few days ago - quick scan, reviews looked okay, didn't have time to read them properly ... so imagine how thrilled I was this afternoon as the play unfolded and I realised it was far and away the best I've seen all year. 5* from me and from most of the critics. And absolutely not to be missed if you're a fan of Howards End because it takes Forster's novel and turns it around and inside out - well, let's just say it's beautifully structured and even more ingenious than Zadie Smith.
The Inheritance is one of those six-hour plus epics that are served up as two plays - and now I'm kicking myself because I only booked Part 1. (Wary after my last experience when I would cheerfully have walked out of a long and messy two-parter about Hogarth after the first half-hour. But hey, I'm a northerner/optimist and I'd paid my money and I dutifully turned up on the second night and regretted it again.) This afternoon, I was kind of sorry that I wasn't grabbing a sandwich and hanging on for the evening show - but maybe it's a better idea to absorb Part 1 before I go back for more. And my knees were stiff! Three hours in and Eric (the Margaret Schlegel character) has just walked into Howards End for the first time ...
There's reviews here and here and here. If you need a pick-me-up in between performances, the chocolate/chestnut/rum ice-cream at Gelupo this week is to die for.

Sunday, 7 October 2018



This has been an amazing year for quinces. Somebody said to me the other day that they're an ugly fruit - but I think they're beautiful, all knobbly and golden. I've had a dozen to play with so I've been experimenting with quince pies. Last week's was a monster: tort of quinces - with marzipan and Parmesan cheese - from an Italian recipe of 1662. Gargantuan quantity of filling so I made one big pie, lots of little pies ... I was a bit quinced out by the end of week.
So this week I kept it simple with a filling of poached quinces dabbed with quince jelly made by boiling up the peelings and cores in the cooking water. Topped with a very fancy pastry lid. It was - divine. Here's the recipe - from 1707 - thanks to my favourite food historian. Sadly, I'm now out of quinces.

Boil your Quinces in Water, sweetened with Sugar, till they be soft, then skin them and take out the Cores; after that boil the Water with a little more Sugar, Cloves, Cinnamon and Lemon peel till it becomes of the thickness of a Syrup; when cold lay your Quinces in Halves or Quarters, scattering Sugar between each Layer; put a pint of the Syrup, or more according to the Biggness of your Pye or Tart, make the Coffin round with close or cut Covers, and bake it pretty well. And thus you may do with Pippins and Pearmains, or with Winter-Fruit, and also with green Codlings.
From - The Whole Duty of a Woman. London: 1707

Wednesday, 3 October 2018



Rummaging in the back of the kitchen cupboard this evening produced a mini Christmas pudding leftover from last year, begging to be eaten before the new ones appear in the shops - so I settled down with a spoon and a basin of cream and this documentary about David Hockney making his (first-ever) stained glass window for Westminster Abbey - the Queen's Window, to celebrate her reign. I like that it was designed on an i-Pad in a couple of days but will glow there for centuries.
It is the first and only un-painted window in the Abbey, just pure colour, glass and light. The Bavarian factory that makes the glass produces over 2000 colours but still had to develop bespoke reds and pinks and gold-ruby glass to produce Hockney's country path through blossoming hawthorn. Somebody on the programme said they saw a Californian influence of cactus forms; I see corals and sea creatures. Perhaps it doesn't matter what we see, it's just that exuberance of colour. I still remember walking into that fabulous exhibition at the Royal Academy and thinking, 'Wow!'
Now, of course, I want to see it in situ. I haven't been in the Abbey since I got very excited about a royal wedding.

Saturday, 29 September 2018























I think I was the only person at the Design Museum - bar one old lady -  who couldn't have stepped into one of these Azzedine Alaïa gowns. (Actually, I was the person who had to ask at the ticket desk if I had jam smeared on my chin as I'd just scoffed a jam doughnut in a hurry ... could that have something to do with it?)
It was the end of the afternoon and there was hardly anyone there. Completely gorgeous - miles better than recent V&A exhibitions - and for anyone interested in dressmaking, you can get up close to see the drape and fall of each wonderful construction. They're timeless and it was impossible to guess which designs were recent and which were 40 years old.
Oh, to be rich enough - tall enough - thin enough - and with the willpower to resist doughnuts!

Monday, 17 September 2018



Cold War: exquisite, terribly sad and just as good as everyone says it is. 5* from me, too.

Friday, 14 September 2018



I had tea at Buckingham Palace this week, or rather a £5 scone (at least it was nice! but the tea was in a paper cup) overlooking the palace gardens at the end of the state rooms tour. Which was excellent and I've meaning to do it for years.
The picture gallery was rather too crowded for comfort - and to be fair, HM is a generous lender so I'd seen many works before - but this state portrait caught my eye in the ambassadors' corridor near the entrance, tucked away as if nobody much loves it. I loved the treatment of the Coronation gown but didn't think it a very good likeness of the Queen.
And then the penny dropped. The artist was Sir James Gunn (for more of his paintings see last week's Persephone Post).
And if the Queen looked familiar but not quite herself ... well, doesn't she remind you of his very glamorous wife Pauline? I wonder what Pauline thought!

Thursday, 6 September 2018



You can tell it's autumn when I have my first two-movie week in ages. I enjoyed American Animals  although I wouldn't rave about it quite as much as other reviewers. Who are almost invariably men and maybe heist movies are a male fantasy? Just a thought. But anyway, it's fun - 4* from me - and in fairness, I was whacked that night as I'd spent the day with two very lively young friends. (We had lunch here which I thoroughly recommend for enormous boy-pleasing portions, homemade chicken pie, a big East End-Italian welcome and cheaper-than-Pret prices. No gangsters, which caused some disappointment!)



But next day I saw The Godfather and that's in another league entirely. Last time I saw it must have been 1973 with my first boyfriend: me - no doubt caked in spit-mascara and sparkly eyeshadow - trying to look as if I were over-18 which I wasn't - but in those days nobody much cared. I think in all honesty I'd have preferred a rom-com and a Mivvi. Forty years later, I realise that it's simply brilliant.

Friday, 24 August 2018



I checked this out from the library at around 7pm last night - thought I'd just glance at it over dinner - surfaced and admitted it was bedtime at 3am - and finally caved in this afternoon: no point pretending, I clearly wasn't going to get a stroke of work done until I finished it.
I can't remember when I was last so engrossed in a book. There's a review here.

As I read, something was nagging at me - well, it took a while to surface from the soupy depths of my brain but eventually I got there. It was reminding me of that excellent Persephone novel The Expendable Man, also about a black man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Wednesday, 22 August 2018



I'm not ready to embrace autumn ... not at all ready for socks and proper shoes and the feeling that the year has hurtled away while I wasn't looking. But I'm quite happy to welcome autumnal cooking and apple windfalls and autumn telly. And I absolutely loved the first two episodes of Vanity Fair - terrific cast (Frances de la Tour makes a brilliant Miss Matilda Crawley and fat Jos Sedley is a delight), clever music, and one of my forever favourite heroines. I wasn't sure that we really needed another Vanity Fair - seems like there's a new adaptation for every decade - but this one is a treat.

Tuesday, 21 August 2018



Lad: A Yorkshire Story is a lovely, gentle, low-budget film about a teenage boy coming to terms with his father's death that has won festival awards but has struggled to get wider distribution. You can watch it here - no charge - but the producers ask that you leave a review on IMDB; it needs 25,000 reviews to be recognised in the annual charts that could bring it wider recognition. So far - on word of mouth promotion alone - it has a review rating that would place it in the top 100 films of all time.  (57.9% of those who have voted so far have given it 10/10.)
It has wonderful Yorkshire scenery - beautiful acting - and it really does deserve a wider paying audience. I promise, you'll love it.

Saturday, 18 August 2018















On an almost autumnal morning, I stood outside the house where Jane Austen died and thought of her and Cassandra ...




Then strolled next door to the much older building where I attended a very glamorous event (dress code: orange blossom and ostrich feathers and the family diamonds but I can't say any more) ...

And ate my lunch sitting here on a bench worn shiny by historical bottoms ...



On my way home, there was just time to sneak into Winchester Cathedral to pay a five minute visit to Jane's very plain grave and a memorial window that's so very un-Jane that if I'd commissioned it, I'd have demanded my money back.



I was far more taken by the west window, a random jigsaw puzzle of glass fragments that were pieced together after being smashed by Cromwell's troops. I had binoculars in my handbag - doesn't everybody? - but by the time I discovered it, I was in danger of getting locked in for the night.

Friday, 10 August 2018



That innocent looking lady at Dulwich Picture Gallery was me ... wondering how fast I could grab and run because everything in the Bawden exhibition - and I've been meaning to go for weeks - is just so covetable.  You can't really see it here but the twinkle in the pigeon's eye on this London Transport poster is a tiny London Underground roundel. Clever.

February 2pm, 1936
This was one of my favourites. And although this watercolour - of a cemetery near Banff -  is in the Tate, I'd never seen it before. There was a snide review the Independent. And a much better one in The Times. What's wrong with joie de vivre and jollity?







But I was rather less enchanted by the Flower Fairies exhibition at the Garden Museum. (Ridiculously expensive to get in for the tiny exhibition space and I miss the old cafe that used to have excellent cake. ) The fairy watercolours are undoubtedly charming. My favourite is the nasturtium fairy with nasturtium seed pompoms on his shoes - but that's probably because I've been making nasturtium seed bread this summer.
However, I'd like to think that Cicely Mary Barker - whose fairies were little children from the nursery school run by her sister - would have been just as appalled as I was by so many spelling and grammar mistakes on the labels. If it were just the odd slip-up - but I counted four sloppy mistakes on the first six labels alone. Harrumph. Not good, especially in an exhibition aimed at families with children.

Thursday, 9 August 2018



I got this from the library a few days ago and was so gripped that I couldn't put it down until I'd finished. Xinran was a radio journalist in China who, during the early 90s, hosted Words on the Night Breeze, a ground-breaking phone-in programme inviting women to talk about their lives. Xinran herself is about 18 months younger than I am, born into a wealthy family, and her first memories are of the Cultural Revolution: seeing her home burned to the ground by Red Guards who then cut off her plaits - a 'petit-bourgeois' hairstyle - and threw them in the flames. Her book is based on interviews with some of the women who phoned her radio show; their stories are heart-breaking ... the mother cradling her dying daughter, trapped in fallen masonry for 14 days after an earthquake; the educated woman reduced to scavenging rubbish to get a daily, secret glimpse of her successful son; stories of rape and abuse that paint a truly horrifying picture of the position of women in a society where human emotion has been brutalised by politics and history. (Of course, I'm assuming that Xinran picked out the most extreme stories and that did nag at me a bit as I was reading.)
I've only been to China once, back in the 80s, a couple of years before Xinran's phone-in began. Understandably, people were reluctant - and frightened - to talk about recent history. But one evening we made very discreet arrangements to meet someone who promised to answer our questions. I felt privileged to be there. Of course, looking back, I was too shy, too ignorant, too young to make the most of the opportunity. Xinran wrote her book after she settled in England; she could well have gone to prison had she attempted it in China at the time. I wish I'd been able to read it before that trip to China ... far more illuminating than diligently plodding through all those books on Chinese gardens!

Saturday, 28 July 2018



I found myself re-reading Elizabeth Taylor this week ... dank mists, rain on laurels, bronze chrysanthemums in slimy water ... it seemed like heaven. I'm so not a summer person; I'd like to be - but I'm the one wilting and sighing, 'I'm too hooottttt.'
So I've been reading in cold baths and hiding away in air-conditioned cinemas as even sun-worshipping friends are admitting they've had enough.  But oh, no! Mamma Mia 2 ... what a disappointment! Only 3* from me. Clearly, they'd used up all the best songs in the first film - and now Meryl Streep has died (but how? strangled by a giant Greek squid? I needed to know!) and Cher, three years older in real life, plays her mother. I know we're supposed to be impressed by Cher but all I could think was that her mortician/embalmer deserves an Oscar. And this time it's not even filmed in Greece which is a bit cheeky given that they're virtue-signalling over the economic plight of Greek fishermen.
It all fell a bit flat. Actually, far and away the best bit was the dopey young intern from W1A  - sorry, can't be bothered googling his name - who has all the gauche, twitchy mannerisms of a young Colin Firth.

Unfortunately, I can't get the music out of my head - and for days now life has been conducted to a soundtrack of ABBA. Which seems to fit every domestic scenario:

Look into his angel eyes
I hope that these scones will rise
Bu-ut - they're not nice - if they taste of - baaaking powder ...

I am available to write the lyrics of Mamma Mia 3. For a fee.



I went to this on my own, knowing very little about it - and honestly, there's no point phoning a friend on a sunny evening to say, 'Fancy a low-budget movie about Jehovah's Witnesses in Manchester?'
It turned out to be one of the best films I've seen all year. Brilliant acting - so real it's almost like a documentary - and absolutely gripping. (Despite the desperately uncomfortable seats at the BFI.) It's about a mother and two daughters, torn apart when one sister refuses a blood transfusion and the other tries to escape from the sect and is shunned. Their lives - especially as a low-status, single-parent family of females - are completely controlled by the Elders, men in cheap suits who in any other walk of life would be utterly insignificant.  It's heartbreaking - fascinating - sympathetic - and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. The director is a former-Witness and his mother has refused even to watch the trailer for his film.
At the end of the film, they asked if there were any former-Witnesses in the audience. I thought perhaps a dozen people would raise their hands - but it was more like half the cinema.
5* from me. Brilliant reviews everywhere. Still haven't convinced anyone else to go!

Tuesday, 17 July 2018



On hot days I prefer a brisk read, nothing to tax the brain and the satisfying feeling that - even if I haven't achieved anything else - I've managed to polish off a book in an afternoon.
It was the pretty green cover that attracted me to The Librarian - and the end-papers are worthy of Persephone. After that, I'm afraid it didn't do much for me - but it was such a hot day and it was so undemanding ... in fact, it's a bit like an old-fashioned Woman's Own serial. It's about a young librarian on a mission to broaden children's lives with the right book - until it all gets more complicated when she falls for the local, married doctor. Heigh-ho. I perked up for the bits about children's books, and was interested in a theory - I've never heard this before - that Tom and Hetty in Tom's Midnight Garden communicate through their junk-DNA. And there's a nice children's bibliography at the back. It's just a bit - flat. I kept wishing it had been written by Dorothy Whipple! Still, it kept me going through many cups of tea and most of a lemon drizzle cake. I haven't read any Salley Vickers apart from Miss Garnet's Angel which I read in Venice so was open to being charmed.





Oh, this is more like it! And shows that I really shouldn't judge books by their cover. The Only Story has been gathering dust here on a pile for weeks - probably months - but somehow that jacket doesn't exactly cry out, 'Read me now!' When I finally picked it up, it was like getting into a lovely cool bath of Julian Barnes' clear, crisp writing.



This was a much slower read, like a long, languid holiday in France. At first I thought I wasn't enjoying it quite as much as other Maxwells - but oh, he's such a subtle writer, it grew and grew on me and now I think it might be a favourite. It's about a gauche young American couple on a long vacation in France in the immediate aftermath of WW2. (Ration books, fuel shortages, power cuts ...) They are entranced by everything - the language, the countryside, the people - but there's so much that they don't understand. Rachel wrote a wonderful review here. And - how's this for serendipity because I've only just this minute come across it - Salley Vickers chose it as her Book of a Lifetime.  She's right, Maxwell is a kind, a very human writer. I always finish his books wishing that I'd known him. (I've been pacing myself, only one novel to go - his first, and the one he thought least of, Bright Center of Heaven.)



I write this sitting at an exquisite little Louis the Fifteenth secretaire in the White Drawing Room, using a gold fountain pen borrowed from the King of Montmaray and a bottle of ink provided by one of the footmen. Fortunately, the paper is just a sixpenny exercise book that I bought in the village this morning - otherwise I'd be too intimidated to write a word.

I thought this would be a nice, escapist heatwave read having enjoyed the first book of the Montmaray trilogy - but it's so derivative, and nothing much happens, and there's too much explanation of stuff that adult readers already know ... so I think here endeth my foray into the teen market and I won't be buying book 3.



I've never read any Philip Hensher although The Northern Clemency has been reproaching me from the shelf for the best part of a decade. (The guilt shelf ... books bought in hardback and never read!)
The Friendly Ones is a big, fat immersive read about two big families - one British, one Bangladeshi - living next door to each other in Sheffield, starting in 1990 with the Asian family's housewarming. I buried myself in it for a week, got a bit muddled at times but thoroughly enjoyed it.  (One theme is how little the British know about the Bangladesh war of 1971 and I'm afraid I fully proved the point.)



There has been so much written about this already - and it's a fascinating true story about a girl growing up in a loving/abusive family of hillbilly Mormon Fundamentalists. (It does get a bit repetitive, though. And I came away feeling that much as I admired Tara W she might be a bit of a bore.) Now estranged from most of her family, she does try to be fair to them - but I still had a niggling feeling that I'd like to hear another side to the story. (This is her mother's business which apparently employs 30 people.) It's not really a story of Mormonism; it's more Hillbilly Elegy  which I think was the better book.



Oh dear, I feel as though I'm the only churlish reader who was completely unconvinced by Laura Freeman's account of battling anorexia and rediscovering her (still very tiny!) appetite through relishing food in literature. I didn't take to her overblown style (lots of adjectives - a sure sign of those who in a previous life have been paid by the yard by the tabloid press!) and her little-girly voice grates. But being a complete old cynic I have to admire her for coming up with a very clever package: her stint on the Daily Mail, though edited out of her biography, has taught her what sells. Women who hate themselves ... you can't lose!

And after all that - tonight, would you believe, it's book group - and I haven't read the book.

Thursday, 12 July 2018



It's been so hot that I've been chasing air-con hence a glut of movies this week, including this oldie that doesn't date. (Just my luck when the air-con broke down in a stifling Leicester Square cinema.)
Hearts Beat Loud was a likeable, undemanding feel-good movie that will linger in my mind until at least the end of the week. Or maybe not even that long.
Searching was gripping until a remarkably silly ending completely ruined it.


It would have taken a heart of stone not to laugh at the blokes on my way home last night on the Tube. Those faces of abject misery ...  they weren't even drunk, sorrow clearly running too deep to be drowned.
Actually - whilst not giving a stuff about men kicking balls - I've been cheering England on since I noticed the correlation between big matches and tumbling ticket prices. (What spoilsports holding the final on a Sunday!)
Sweden v England saw me in the stalls for the first part of RSC's Imperium - and last night saw me back again for part two. Lots and lots of empty seats - but it was riveting! I'm not sure I could have done the whole seven hour marathon in one day - but I'd happily go back and see it all again. My knowledge of who's who in Ancient Rome is hazy but it's so deftly explained that even if you're not Mary Beard, you won't have any problem keeping up. And it's funny. A bit like Yes, Minister in togas.
I thought the streets of London would be deserted on Saturday afternoon but I'd forgotten about Pride; you'd think that when I found myself sitting on the Tube beside a 7ft drag queen with Liz Taylor hair, thunderous thighs and skimpy shorts that the penny might have dropped ... but I didn't twig until I surfaced at Piccadilly Circus and found myself in the middle of it. But it did make the ice-cream queue very lively...
You'd have to sprint to make it during the interval - but you'd be mad to buy boring theatre ice-creams at the Gielgud when this is just around the corner. After some dedicated testing this week, ricotta and sour cherry is my favourite so far.


Last one up's a sissy ... no surprise that was me! I climbed the Pagoda at Kew yesterday to admire the shiny new dragons that replace the originals that haven't been seen since the 1780s. (It has very rarely been open to the public - until now - and last time I was inside, many years ago, it was very dingy and disappointing.) I couldn't make out Windsor Castle - but looking east I saw as far as the Shard and the City. There's still not a lot inside - some lovely benches made from coppiced trees from the Gardens - and the hatches that were used to test smoke bombs for D-day. I loved playing with two delightful mechanical toys that show architect William Chambers on his visit to China and the Royal Family in their 18th century Kew menagerie - with kangaroos, peacocks and secretary birds. (Bit expensive though, as you have to pay on top of admission to the Gardens.)
The Gardens, sadly, were looking very parched and dry. (Last time I was there was in May to see the bluebells.) But the Waterlily House was simply gorgeous yesterday- like walking into a painting by Monet, though I couldn't bear the heat for more than a few minutes. And the kitchen garden - one of my favourite quiet corners - was pure Mr McGregor.

Friday, 6 July 2018



I'm rather tickled by the idea of Suffragettes marching on banana fritters ...



Which sound rather heavy-going for this weather - but it has just struck me that I've been tackling the heatwave in Suffragette colours since a kind gardener gave me a nice bunch of anise hyssop yesterday.  It makes a lovely, refreshing emerald-green tea. I haven't had a mug of Yorkshire Brew all day - unheard of for me - and I'll be begging for some more. The linden blossom is out all over London so I must grab some of that, too.
Meanwhile, there's a bowl of nasturtium seeds in the fridge - rescued from a wheelbarrow as gardeners wage war against black-fly. They have had a jolly good wash and they're going into a loaf of nasturtium bread. (They taste like capers.) Coming soon, lavender honey.

I was very pleased with my nasturtium loaf today - I made nasturtium butter to go with it, so you could say it was nose-to-tail: flowers, leaves and seeds. If you have nasturtiums in the garden, the recipe is in this lovely book. Or find it here. I should have served it on my pretty nasturtium plates but it disappeared in a flash.

Tuesday, 26 June 2018



Can it really be six years? Long enough for me to have completely wiped from my mind the banality of The Bletchley Circle - if only I'd reminded myself.
And so - feeling too hot to read, too hot to do anything - I found myself watching Bletchley Goes to San Francisco ... yes, that's right, San Francisco - a spin-off that aspires to mediocrity and misses.
The sad thing is that this was such a good idea - a drama about what happened to the clever Bletchley women after the war - and ITV couldn't have made a sorrier job of it.

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!