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.