Thursday 26 August 2010

I'm only 70 pages into The Hare with Amber Eyes and already I can tell that it's going to be one of my best reads of the year.
Sorry ... must get back to 1870s Paris which has been brought so vividly alive that I feel like an habituée of those opulent salons.
Normal life will be resumed in a day or two.

Tuesday 24 August 2010

How can you lose patience making a three-minute loaf? Oh, yes, you can ... I slopped in too much water and considered chucking the sticky, gloopy mess that didn't look like any loaf I'd made before.
It wasn't the sort of day when I should have considered making anything more complicated than a cup of tea. I was up to my eyes in boring jobs that couldn't be procrastinated any longer. But then I got The Urge.
Inspired by another blogger, I was going to make the famous New York Times loaf that I've been meaning to make for simply ages. And I was going to do it Right Now.
It didn't even take three minutes to mix it all together. It's not a therapeutic loaf because you don't have to bang out your aggression on it. (I used to make bread every Saturday when I had a job I detested some years ago.)
Twenty hours later it looked such a mess that I could hardly scrape it into the pot. (An old Pyrex casserole with a lid.) I couldn't believe that my loaf would look like Jane's or Cornflower's.
But it emerged from the oven crusty and brown, with a dense, chewy crumb almost like sourdough. It was good with cheese. It would be great with homemade soup. And now it's nearly all gone.
I'm tempted to set another one to rise but I'm shocked at how fast it disappeared.
I thought I was only the person in the house.
Could it be mice?

Tuesday 17 August 2010

I can hear hisses from loyal Dorothy Whipple fans but, much as I've enjoyed her, I'm beginning to see why she fell out of favour after the war.
I don't know why - I'm not sure what was going on in her life at the time - but her post-war novels Because of the Lockwoods (1949) and Every Good Deed (1950) don't show Mrs Whipple at the peak of her form. (Or may I call her Dorothy, do you think, now we're such old friends and I'm presuming to criticise? Perhaps not, I can feel myself fidgeting under her observant eye and she isn't impressed by that mug of tea without a saucer.)
I'm not quite a Whipple completist. I haven't read her children's books, nor some of the short stories. But I have read every Whipple novel, including the rare ones. Thanks, Rachel!
My library copy of Because of the Lockwoods is nothing like Rachel's copy with its lovely original jacket. No, it's an ugly large-print edition, well-worn and tea-stained, a book that would happily sit on a WRVS hospital trolley. (Here's a nice story, dear ...)
It is set in Whipple-country - a northern milltown - where Mr Lockwood, a prosperous solicitor, takes advantage of his widowed neighbour and cheats her out of a substantial sum of money. Thea, her younger daughter, bitterly resents the patronising Lockwoods and blames them for everything that goes wrong in her life - especially after they sully her good name when she is sent home in disgrace from au pair-ing at a strict French school after a very innocent first romance with a young man.
Set in the 1920s, this must have seemed very old-fashioned to readers in the aftermath of a second world war.
But though it has all the classic Whipple ingredients ... class and snobbery, social climbing and downward mobility, a young woman trying to find her path in life ... it doesn't quite come off. Thea is too snobbish herself to be very likeable, and for all her supposed brains she can be as droopy as her mother. 'If you don't mind my saying so, I think, as a family, you're inclined to give up. Give you a blow, you don't rally. You shrink and nurse your pride,' says Thea's ardent admirer, a rough diamond who is trying to improve himself to win her middleclass heart.
Nor does Mr Lockwood - a loving paterfamilias - have any of the glamour of Whipple's villainous Mr Knight.
And, oh Dorothy, what came over you to write that silly, melodramatic ending!
Now for the first time I understand why Virago drew their Whipple line.
It's a shame, because a couple of years later Mrs Whipple is back on top form and Someone at a Distance, her last novel, is one of her best.
I'd delayed reading Because of the Lockwoods, knowing that I'll never again have a weekend welded to the sofa with a fresh Whipple. But I'm not as bereft as I felt coming to the end of Elizabeth Taylor.

Wednesday 11 August 2010

I've always thought that Dr Johnson would make a great dinner guest. And if I could sit between him and Sam Pepys ... please, hold the foie gras, turn down those heavenly trumpets ... I'm trying to listen!
I'm sure I'd get on well with Dr J because I so agree with his opinion that 'when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.' I can't imagine living anywhere but London. (Although I don't suppose I'd ever get tired of New York or Paris, either.)
He also said, 'No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.' And I heartily agree with that. (So what am I doing writing a blog ...?)
When I found myself on Fleet Street this afternoon, I remembered that in all the years I worked there I had never once visited Dr Johnson's house. (It wouldn't have been the done thing when the pubs were open.)
It's a house where you can imagine talk and chinking glasses and loud contradictions, hot gossip and hot punch, and the smell of newsprint - and I could so easily imagine Dr Johnson's heavy tread on the creaking stairs. I was surprised by the number of visitors. But then, he always loved company ...

Saturday 7 August 2010

An 89-year-old friend is starting a computer course because she says she wants to keep up with the times.
I said that I admired her spirit.
And wondered if I would ever see the point of twittering.
Or am I too old?

Friday 6 August 2010

I was entranced by the idea of a maze in Trafalgar Square.
But completely put off by the queue and the cacophony of music blaring out of speakers.
(It looks much better - and bigger - in this picture than it does when you're there.)
And I thought that if this were Paris, a maze would be chic and amusing. Instead, I was repelled by the fat tourists in shorts and the litter and most of all the noise.
So I turned my back and went into the National Gallery. Which, as ever, is very good for the soul.

Wednesday 4 August 2010

Shall I sit out the rest of the Dance ...?
Many years ago, I read the first volume of A Dance to the Music of Time. Then I read it again a couple of years ago for a book group. I liked it enough to want to read further. (One book group friend went on to read all 12 volumes in a matter of weeks; everybody else, if I remember rightly, was plain bored by it.)
It took me ages to get around to volume 2. And, by the time I got to vol 3, I'd forgotten who everyone was. (How did people keep track if they were reading each volume as it was published ... did they go back every couple of years and read the whole lot again? )
I'm afraid I was bored by The Acceptance World. I'm ready to admit defeat and give up.
But I read somewhere the other day that the next volume, At Lady Molly's, is one of the best.
Am I sitting out too soon? I need some encouragement here ...
Of course, I could always take up Proust or Ulysses instead?

Tuesday 3 August 2010

Just before closing time, I found myself alone in the gallery with this recumbent figure by Henry Moore.
It is so beautiful that it sent shivers down my spine.
I am so pleased I went back to Tate Britain to see this exhibition again before it closes, because my first visit was very crowded. And it is a rare treat to spend a few minutes alone with something so moving.
Night after night during the Blitz, Moore roamed the London Underground system, fascinated by reclining figures bedding down for the night as working-class Londoners sought shelter from the bombing, for the price of the cheapest penny ha'penny ticket. (Middle-class families had their own shelters in their own back gardens.) The trains kept running until their usual hour, so families with small children huddled to the back of the platforms to allow passengers to go by. Moore captured that pathetic vulnerability of sleeping in public; mouths dropping open, limbs contorted, as sleepers clutched their grimy shreds of blankets. He couldn't sketch openly; it would have been like sketching in the hold of a slave ship, he said. These figures seem like mummified bodies; you can almost smell the fetid air. This sketch was made at Liverpool Street, in a new train tunnel in which the rails hadn't been laid.

I go home, as usual, by Tube. I am lugging a bag of groceries, I can't get a seat ... I don't spare a thought, until I get home, for the sleepers.
It happened 70 years ago, next month.
Which doesn't seem all that long ago. When you think about it.

Monday 2 August 2010

On a whim on Sunday morning, I took the train to Oxford. And, as always - it's only an hour away - I wondered, why don't I do this more often? Once I'd doused myself in colour, and visited the Ashmolean, I ambled about the city for a couple of hours soaking up centuries of history. And literature. (And I always feel a pang. If only I'd worked a bit harder when I was at school...)
I thought about having a pint at the Eagle and Child, which ought to be wreathed in a blue fug of pipe smoke, and I thought about the Inklings - Tolkien, CS Lewis and his brother Warnie - who met in the back bar every Tuesday morning to drink beer. And talk. You wouldn't be surprised if you saw Frodo Baggins and Strider sitting in the snug.
I walked down Cornmarket, past an inn where Shakespeare often stayed - and tumbled the inn-keeper's wife - on his way up and down between Stratford and London. (In Pizza Express next door, there's a Painted Room looking much as it would have done in Shakespeare's time. Ask nicely. They won't make you buy a pizza.)
I walked across Tom Quad - where Brideshead's outrageous aesthete Anthony Blanche was thrown into the fishpond - and was in time for evensong at Christ Church. Then I strolled through Christ Church meadow thinking about Alice and her sisters scampering down to the river to hear a story. And Lewis Carroll, dining at High Table in the splendid college dining hall, and seeing Alice's father, the Dean of Christ Church, disappearing down a narrow spiral staircase every night ... rather as if he were vanishing down a rabbithole?
And I think that Lewis Carroll and Alice would be absolutely delighted that, more than a century later, that same hammerbeam roof was bewitched to look like a sky dotted with stars - that flickering candles hovered in mid-air - and that Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall were sitting at High Table. Because Christ Church dining hall was the inspiration for Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films.
I gasped when I saw this painting by Howard Hodgkin yesterday. It is called Home, Home on the Range and it is such an explosion of colour - this picture doesn't do it justice - that you feel you could walk right in, hunker down by the campfire, feel the heat throbbing off the prairie.
But I found myself maybe even more engrossed in Damp Autumn, a brownish monochrome that took seven years to paint. Think ... the essence of late November, 'worlds of wanwood leafmeal', organic odour of dark brown humus and damp beechmast underfoot. If you get the chance to see this exhibition, do leave time to see the film interviews with Hodgkin that set me wondering about vision and memory and how an artist sees and whether he is born with that gift of seeing and remembering or works to attain it. Afterwards, I wandered up to the Ashmolean to see Indian miniatures from Hodgkin's own collection. And revisit Sickert ... odours of landlady's cooking, stale beer, tobacco-browned wallpaper and the tannin smell of old tea-cosies?