Monday, 25 April 2022

I'm definitely one of those north/south of the river people - and I had to kickstart myself yesterday to get myself to Brixton by lunchtime. I know, three stops further than Tate Britain - but it's all in the mind! I was so glad I did because we had a fascinating tour of the house where van Gogh was a lodger in 1873/74 and may/may not have had a romance with his landlady's daughter. Or even his landlady. The house was almost derelict but has been sympathetically restored and stripped back rather than turned into a museum. It's fascinating as a glimpse of middle-class domestic architecture: the parlour where Mrs Loyer ran a little school - and kept her cane in a hidden window box; the punishment lines penned by some hapless schoolboy, discovered under a floorboard; the steep, narrow stairs up which some poor little skivvy hauled cans of water; and the thrill of standing in Vincent's best bedroom looking over the rooftops and slum dwellings in the alley behind. I'm hugely envious of the artists in residence who get to sleep there. Only half a dozen people on the tour so it all feels very intimate. And definitely worth the (very short) detour.

Thursday, 14 April 2022

I loved The Weirdstone of Brisingamen as a child, especially as it was set in a Cheshire landscape that was familiar from Sunday runs in the Austin35 (five children crammed in the back!). I remember reading it, sick with excitement ... and would have been baffled that Alan Garner later rejected it as a 'fairly bad book'. Do children still read it today? I don't think they do; none of the children I know,anyway - it's all Harry Potter. I hadn't realised that 50 years later Garner wrote this sequel to round off the Weirdstone/Moon of Gomrath trilogy that he had abandoned - but it's a sequel for adults, not children. Colin, the child-hero, is now a brilliant but brain-damaged astro-physicist at the radio telescope at Jodrell Bank, traumatised by his childhood adventures. Reader ... I hated it! I lost the will to live - and it's only 150 pages. If it baffled Ursula le Guin, what hope was there for me? I don't have much patience with fantasy and myth, but I don't see what's so clever in being obscure.

Thursday, 7 April 2022

Anyone else enjoying Sarah Lancashire as the exuberant TV cook Julia Child? Lovely to see her with so much joie de vivre after all the miserable northern characters she usually plays.
Remember feeling so thrilled when I happened on Julia's kitchen in the Smithsonian ... plodding around the world's largest museum, a bit footsore, trying to cram too much into a day ... and what a surprise! I didn't even know it was there.

Monday, 4 April 2022

I wasn't in a hurry to read this, as I hadn't much enjoyed Edmund de Waal's last book about porcelain - and somehow it had passed me by that Letters to Camondo is very much a companion piece to The Hare with Amber Eyes, which I devoured twice. In fact, on a visit to Paris when I made a little pilgrimage along the Rue de Monceau (was that really ten years ago?????) I spotted the Musée Nissim de Camondo too near closing time to go in - but made a point of returning on my next trip. (Happy days when I could count on the occasional work jaunt to Paris!) At the time I'd wondered if de Waal's forebears, the Ephrussi family, had been acquainted with their neighbours a few doors down the street ... I was only a few pages into the book when the penny dropped, "Hang on, I know these people! I've been to this house!" And it all came vividly to life. But what a terribly sad story. Moise de Camondo, who built the house at 63 Rue de Monceau, lost his son in WW1 fighting for France and bequeathed the palatial house to the state as his memorial.
This is Moise's much younger wife Irène painted in girlhood by Renoir. They divorced after she had an affair with her husband's Italian stable master and she managed to survive WW2 by hiding out in Paris under her second husband's Italian name.
Here are Irène's two little sisters. The younger girl married a British officer and lived to a ripe old age. The little girl in blue died in Auschwitz, aged 69. So did Moise and Iréne's daughter Béatrice and her children Fanny, 22, and Bertrand, 20. Their story seems especially poignant at the moment when so many lives are in shreds. The book is a series of imaginary letters between de Waal and his 'friend' Camondo. It's not a page-turner like The Hare with Amber Eyes - but still completely riveting. I do wish the publishers had run to including a family tree, though!

Saturday, 2 April 2022

Sometimes you just have to gasp in amazement.I couldn't link to a video but do be sure to click on the image to see the animation ...

Wednesday, 9 March 2022

It's a cross between Fatherland and The Handmaid's Tale - not as good as either, but I quite like a bit of 'what if' history and this was an undemanding page-turner that I've rattled through this week. I'm afraid I'd be consigned to Widowland, the run-down slum for unproductive middle-aged women - where the recalcitrant fellow inmates would appear to be rather good, bookish company.

Tuesday, 8 March 2022

The crocuses (croci?) are looking splendid at Ham House. And at Kew Gardens on Sunday the magnolias against a blue sky had more 'wow' than the showy orchid festival. (Where I was sorely tempted to push a couple of preening, pouting Instagrammers into the pond! Wouldn't that have made a photo opportunity!) First chilly picnic of the year - if a sandwich and a hunk of fruit cake on a bench counts as a picnic. Kew Gardens Orangery serves the nastiest cup of lukewarm tea in London.