Thursday 28 October 2010

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert wise-cracking their way through one of the last rom-coms before a very distant cousin of mine was instrumental in imposing moral standards on Hollywood.
That cousin, who was the scourge of the movie industry, died before I was born, and his favourite movie was The Song of Bernadette.

I daresay he'd have disapproved of sassy Claudette, as the spoiled little rich girl on the run from her daddy, who meets a cynical out-of- work hack on the bus to New York.
Okay, so she borrowed Clark Gable's pyjamas. But when she's forced to share his motel room, he hangs up the Wall of Jericho - a curtain dividing the room - and it doesn't come tumbling down until right at the end.
Barbara Stanwyck in Forbidden is a much racier story. Of an adulterous love affair and illegitimate birth and sleazy newspapermen raking up dirt. 'Two hours of soggy, 99.4 per cent soap opera ...' said director Frank Capra. You wouldn't think that it was nearly 80 years old. I guess that's what happens when librarians take off their specs, take out their savings and take themselves off on a cruise to Havana.

The man in the row behind me was boasting that he'd seen seven movies back to back the day before. But two's my limit. Even during London Film Festival. Some of us simply don't have the stamina.

Tuesday 26 October 2010

It is the year of the cabbage. After some fine specimens in Edinburgh last week, what do I find at the RA today but ... more cabbages.
(I'm sure I saw a few Brussels sprouts as well.)
I don't think that I'll ever be bowled over by the Glasgow Boys.
Although my brother might persuade me to change my mind when he flies down from Aberdeen to see them next week.
They are certainly the men of the moment as there's three exhibitions of their work currently on in London.
PS Do read this story about the cold and hungry little girl in the painting.

Saturday 23 October 2010

My real reason for visiting the National Portrait Gallery yesterday was to see the Thomas Lawrence exhibition that has just opened.
He painted this portrait of Queen Charlotte when he was only 20, with no formal training as painter, and having been granted only one sitting by the Queen.
But look how that young boy has captured the sadness in her eyes, only a year after the first descent into madness of King George III.
There were other haunting faces in this exhibition, so real - you'd think - that they might have stepped out of their frames to engage you in formal, polite conversation. Lawrence seems to have had a way with those who were old and frail, like old Lady Manners who was 89 when he painted her sitting erect but twisting a lace handkerchief in her knotted, arthritic hands. He painted William Wilberforce in retirement, his body wracked by pain but goodness and good humour shining out from his face.
There was hardly anybody in the gallery yesterday and my guess is that the average age of visitors was well over 60. I enjoyed the quiet and the sense that everybody there was engrossed in the paintings ... but what a shame that so many will ignore this exhibition because it isn't 'fashionable.'

Friday 22 October 2010

It could be a scene out of Dickens or Wilkie Collins.

But before anybody's imagination runs away with them, this isn't Bill Sikes ...and he's only buying a newspaper.

Still, you can't imagine the lengths that pioneer photographer Camille Silvy went to, to capture that gloaming effect.

I wonder if he would have liked one of these?

Wednesday 20 October 2010

Flagging behind Cornflower's book group, I have just finished the Lost Man Booker Prize-winning novel Troubles, by JG Farrell.
I had a nagging feeling that I might have read this back in the 1970s. I had a strange sense of déjà vu about the Majestic Hotel and yet even by the end I couldn't decide if I was only imagining that I'd read it once before. In fact, that slightly disoriented 'what am I doing here?' feeling is rather appropriate to the mood of the book.
You'll either find Troubles achingly funny ... or you'll be bored to irritation by its melancholy pace. Major Brendan Archer is still traumatised by his experiences in the trenches when he arrives in Ireland to claim the young woman he acquired as his fiancée in a fit of characteristic vagueness while he was on leave. By now it is 1919 and the Irish countryside is overrun by Sinn Feiners and Black and Tans. Angela's father Edward Spencer, loyalist to his teeth, is the owner of the Majestic Hotel that serves as a metaphor for the decrepit British Empire. The Majestic is a tour de force ... inhabited by old ladies smelling of lavender and mothballs, overrun by feral cats and brought to the point of collapse by every kind of rot and the blanched, hairy roots of overgrown vegetation in the Palm Court. The Major is soon released from his engagement but months pass and a terrible inertia keeps him living (in hysterically funny discomfort) at the Majestic.
It took me a long time to read this novel .. well, a week, which is slow-going for me ... and eventually I realised the sheer skill of Farrell's construction. There's no chapters, the only breaks are intermittent news reports from elsewhere in the crumbling Empire ... and like Major Archer, all you can do is read on, carried forward by inertia, unable to extricate yourself from the Majestic Hotel. Very clever. And very funny.

Tuesday 19 October 2010

Especially for Darlene ... a garden with no strange men lurking under the chairs.

And a wonderful pair of stripey socks.

The Artist's Sister in Her Garden by Joseph Bail.

Sunday 17 October 2010

Midsummer by Sir James Guthrie.

Don't you think that the angular lady on the right might have been Miss Jean Brodie's maiden aunt taking tea in the garden?
That silver teapot caught lovely reflections. I wonder who polished it?
Another stunning painting from Edinburgh by the American artist Charles Courtney Curran.
The lilies are Nelumbo lutea, the American lotus, that has a sweet, magnolia-like fragrance ...
It's quite a small painting and yet I felt like I was breathing it in.
The woman under the green parasol, on the left, was the artist's bride who carried these flowers in her wedding bouquet.
Chestnuts were raining on my head in Kew Gardens, as a flock of green parrots swooped through the trees and shook them to the ground.
That's life in the suburbs ...
(You couldn't make it up.)
I shall have to roast them or I shall feel guilty for depriving the squirrels.
I thought about trying to make chestnut flour but it sounds more trouble than it is worth.
But chestnuts roasting in a gas oven ...?
It simply doesn't sound quite right.

Saturday 16 October 2010

Was it worth the journey to Edinburgh? And was it a Grand Day Out? Oh, yes, it was ...

It was dazzling.

From the jolly Caillebotte daisies outside the gallery and decorating my cupcake ...

To sizzling nasturtiums and dahlias, and yellow lilies floating on a lake.

Not forgetting some very handsome Savoy cabbages.

There were paintings of dewy mornings when you could feel the cool air in a garden of pink roses and morning glories.

And twilit evenings with the scent of lilac.

And I could imagine Monet fussing over his blue and white pots on his terrace at Argenteuil and worrying whether his Epiphyllum would survive the winter. (Every morning, at Giverny, he had one of his gardeners wipe the lily pads clean of traffic dust before he came down to the garden with his paints.)

I'm more of a laissez-faire gardener, like Renoir, whose Montmartre garden was a wilderness of poppies, convolvulus and daisies. 'Give me an apple tree in a suburban garden. I haven't the slightest need of Niagara Falls,' he said.

This exhibition was about people, enjoying their gardens. There were children's toys and games of hopscotch ... there was fruit cake and silver teasets and kettles and comfortable chairs in quiet, sunny corners.

Then, when I'd walked twice through the exhibition, I paid a flying visit to the gallery next door to see the best fried eggs in art history.

I ate haggis and clapshot mash in a stone-flagged kitchen with an old cooking range.

I walked around the New Town - which is very old - and took a shortcut through a graveyard once haunted by grave robbers. And thought that Edinburgh at dusk is surely the spookiest city I have ever seen.

And then I flew home. Because, if I'm honest, my feet were beginning to ache rather a lot.

But I wouldn't have missed it for anything.

Saturday 9 October 2010

Not yesterday's meringues which are nothing like as glamorous as this, but
a wonderful hat that I simply couldn't resist when Kristina highlighted the work of a very inventive milliner.

Friday 8 October 2010

Being a thrifty cook, rather than waste a couple of egg whites, I buy raspberries and a pot of cream, and I turn the oven on for an hour, and I make meringues.
(Look after the pennies, and the pounds will spend themselves.)
The recipe says 'makes 15.'
No, it doesn't. It only made six.
(I'm afraid I'm not a very dainty person.)
But though I say so myself, they looked good enough for Mary Berry.
Even if not quite as good as the ones my mum used to make for Sunday tea.

Sunday 3 October 2010

Her manly portrait hung in the great hall, and was honoured every Founder's Day by a bunch of hard-wearing flowers such as chrysanthemums or dahlias.
From The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark.

My hard-wearing bunch of sunflowers has lasted more than a week but they're maybe too frivolous for the Marcia Blaine School for Girls.

Saturday 2 October 2010

My worn, but lovely, 1948 copy has a different colour jacket but what I really like ... if you look closely ... is the brown teapot set into that wreath of London landmarks. Because this is a book in which the kettle is never off the boil. And I've got through many a brew this week (builders' blend, no sugar, please) as I've been buried in London Belongs To Me by Norman Collins.
It starts in 1938 as war clouds are gathering and ends in 1940 with the start of the Blitz. It was published in 1945, so Collins - who was the BBC's director of overseas services for the troops - was actually writing it in the small hours of the night through the second half of the war. (Later he initiated BBC's Woman's Hour which, of course, is still going strong after 60-odd years.)
This is a book about Londoners, ordinary Londoners who live in rented rooms at No 10 Dulcimer Street, south of the river. There's Mr and Mrs Josser, he's a retired City clerk, very decent people these; ineffectual widow Mrs Boon and her ne'er-do-well son Percy; there's Connie, the ageing actress fallen on hard times, who has a job in the ladies' cloakroom of a disreputable nightclub, and who hungers for tea and company, as well as any drama and gossip that's going. Down in the basement, there's landlady Mrs Vizzard, also a widow, who has fallen for the dubious charms of charismatic Mr Squales, a dodgy spiritualist who has a way with widows' savings. After 600 pages, they now feel like family. Try not to laugh when young Doris Josser and her flatmate Doreen instal a phone, in the hopes of converting their social life - courtesy of the Postmaster-General - from Lyonses and milk-bars 'into a whirl of Berkeleys and Savoy Grills.' But in the three days they've had it, the phone doesn't ring once.

But it's not just the characters, Norman Collins has a way of describing a room so that you feel you were there. Let's visit the home of Ted and Cynthia, the Jossers' son and daughter-in-law. (Please excuse Cynthia, she's a bit common, she used to be an usherette - but Ted's besotted with her, to his mother's disgust.)
For a start, everything in the flat was so up-to-date and modern. Ted had spent a lot of money on the furniture. From the low couch and the duplicate easy chairs, each with a gold tassel hanging from the front of the arms, to the new looking antique dining-room suite it was all of one style - 1937, Co-op.

Or we could drop in at the nightclub where Connie works, sitting behind a counter with a saucerful of pins in front of her, but don't interrupt her meal of customers' leavings and 'the better half of a chicken sandwich, only slightly covered with cigarette ash.'
There were the same canary coloured walls that were not much more than sparrow coloured in places where the customers had rubbed against them.

Maybe you'd prefer a large pink gin in the high-class Tudor-beamed pub where Percy has his fateful encounter with The Blonde.
The decorations were high-class, too ... The whole place had just been rebuilt, which was why everything was so new and fresh looking, even the old parts. The antique copper jugs that hung in a row over the bar were brand new, everyone of them. And even the stag's head that was mounted over the door was bright and glossy as though it had been shot specially for the opening.

Pink gin? No thanks, I'm off to put the kettle on ...

Friday 1 October 2010

I can't resist filling my pockets with shiny, brown conkers. What's wrong with little boys today ... they don't seem to care about them any more.
When I was little, by 3.45pm there wouldn't be a conker in sight ... you had to run out of school before they all disappeared from under the tree by the bus-stop. There was conker warfare on the way home.
But I could collect sackfuls on the pavements around here.
Maybe I should donate a conker. (This year's crop does seem smaller in size if not in volume.)
Last year I showed two little boys how to tie their conkers on a string.
I remembered that my brothers used to go through arcane and secret rituals involving vinegar and baking in the oven.
If only I'd paid more attention.
I lost interest in my conkers as soon as they lost their shine. (This lovely book showed how to make dolls' house chairs from your conkers but, to be honest, it didn't really work.)
I never dreamed I'd be responsible for handing down a male tradition.