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!

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.