Friday 30 December 2011

It's usually a fair bet that I'll have read hardly any of the books touted in the Sunday papers as 'books of the year' but I've surprised myself this year, as for once I have read the most talked-about novel of 2011, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan which won the Pulitzer prize. True to form, I didn't bother reviewing it here as it was a book group choice that I'd never have read except under duress. Consoling myself all the while by plotting the epic 19th century revenge I would wreak next time it was my turn to choose a book.
Those tricksy post-modern novels are not for me and I've just remembered Charlie's wonderfully succinct definition that encapsulates why they don't appeal.
But I read 88 books in 2011 ... so here's some that I did enjoy. I'm standing by my choice of Sebastian Barry and On Canaan's Side for best novel but my number one book of the year is actually non-fiction and it's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which left me reeling in admiration at Rebecca Skloot's skill in telling a story. (My non-fiction runners-up are Sky Burial, a heartrending, gripping account of a Chinese woman's 30-year search for her lost husband; and Just Kids, Patti Smith's very moving autobiographical memoir of her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe.)

My reading list this year has been rather top-heavy with books from Persephone ... only because I staggered home with a huge bag of them from a library that I rarely visit. Susan Glaspell is now among the front-runners for my favourite Persephone author and if I hadn't been so bowled over by Sebastian Barry, Fidelity could easily have been my novel of the year. Closely followed by Brook Evans. Hard to believe that Fidelity was actually written in 1915.

I don't read all that many books in translation but the most powerful novel that I discovered this year was the highly unsettling Brodeck's Report. From the French, as was my most chilling read of 2010.

As I've been compiling this list, I've realised that some of my best reads of the year have been very evocative of place. Willa Cather is one of my all-time favourite authors so, of course, I'm including My Ántonia. I was also engrossed by Corrag and, quite recently, The Blackhouse, both set in Scotland (perhaps no surprise, as both were recommended by Cornflower up in Edinburgh).

Hurtling through some other titles that I'd highly recommend: So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell; Hostages to Fortune, another Persephone; and Mrs Parkington, which I discovered thanks to Rachel who wrote a much better review than I did.

I've also been re-reading some old favourites ... I don't know how many times I've read The House of Mirth but Lily Bart was as captivating this year as ever, and so was The Age of Innocence. One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes was even better second time round. And life is quite long enough to read The Woman in White as many times as you please.

If anybody's interested, these were my books of the year for 2010.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

I don't read a lot of crime fiction and the Scottish detective with tragic past usually makes me think heigh-ho, been here before ...
But Cornflower's review of this book intrigued me.
Detective Fin Macleod returns to the Hebridean island of Lewis, where he grew up, to investigate a particularly gristly murder that appears to be a copy of another recent murder in Edinburgh.
It is the first time he has been back to the island since he escaped to go to university and his journey back, as he encounters those who never got away, excavates uncomfortable skeletons from his past. At the heart of it all lies the traditional slaughter of the guga - young gannets - on an even bleaker, rocky islet out in the North Atlantic. Once this had been a vital source of food for the islanders but now the guga are a threatened delicacy and the annual slaughter has become a testing rite of passage for the island's men. Macleod has participated once during his last teenage summer on Lewis ... but whatever happens on the rock, stays on the rock. I got off to a slow start reading this but then the grey, barren island got to me, along with its god-fearing population, and by the end - despite a few minor quibbles - I was as gripped as Karen was. I can't remember when I last read a book that conveyed such a deep sense of place. And the description of the brutal culling of 2,000 guga on stinking, slippery An Sgeir rock is completely riveting (but not for the tender-hearted). Despite the gore, I'm now intrigued to know what it tastes like. No surprise that Peter May used to live on Lewis although he never participated in the closed-shop of the gannet slaughter. What did surprise me is that this brilliant book was initially rejected, and it was published in French - under the rather better title L'Ile des Chasseurs D'Oiseaux - before it was published in English. I kept thinking that it would make a brilliant television series and must say that I'm looking forward to the second book in the Lewis trilogy, out very soon.
The Christmas cake went into the oven 10 minutes ago.

Mrs Miniver's daughter realises that she cannot condone feeding copious amounts of alcohol to an underage cake. Before Sunday.

Mrs Miniver's daughter's friend says stick a layer of marzipan on top and call it a Simnel cake and you'll be ahead.

Mrs Miniver's daughter says B..... St Delia and her ***@!** Christmas cake kit.

Which doesn't even include the ***@!** marzipan.

And hopes the cake will be out of the oven in time to put tonight's dinner in.

Monday 19 December 2011

David Hockney described it as a great operatic experience.
For years, I have been meaning to visit Dennis Severs' house at 18 Folgate Street. One day soon, next time I have visitors, and really, shouldn't I book in advance, all those excuses that meant yet another year passed - and Dennis Severs died - and I still hadn't got round to doing something that I really, really wanted to do, that is less than a hour's tube ride from home.
And today, at last, I put on my coat, queued for half-an-hour in the icy-cold drizzle ... and stepped back in time into one of the most strangely moving historical experiences that I have ever had.
This house made me shiver. (There are pictures here and links here and here will take you to two beautifully-written accounts by the author of Spitalfields Life.)
You are asked to imagine that this is the house of a fictional family of silk weavers ... you are just too late, because they have just stepped out of the room. Leaving a crumpled napkin and a glass of wine, half-a-cup of tea, a half-eaten breakfast, a child's shoe on the stair, tumbled beds and a chamber-pot that needs emptying. (I didn't investigate too closely.)
Indeed, if you investigate too closely - as if you were in a museum - you will find yourself peering at sardonic little notes from Dennis Severs, pointing out that if you are looking too hard, then you are missing out on the essential experience. This is not a house that needs a guidebook.
Fires are glowing, candles flicker, stairs creak, footsteps pass on the pavement outside and the clock on Hawksmoor's nearby Christ Church strikes the hour ... until you're hard put to say what is real and what is theatre and what is your own imagination. I caught myself looking into a tarnished mirror for a glimpse of what might be happening behind me.
I warmed my hands at the fire in the basement kitchen, where somebody really had been baking for the last two days ... there was bread toasting in front of the fire, Welsh cakes on a griddle, jellies glistening on the dresser, a scent of oranges and cloves and mincemeat. If there were ghosts here, they were cheerful and busy.
But up in the icy-cold garret, where ragged, grey shirts were strung on a line to dry in front of a fireplace of cold ashes ... that's where I really shivered because the walls seemed to exhale the misery of generations of poverty. I don't know who really lived here. It doesn't matter. There are streets of houses like this in Spitalfields, layer upon layer of history. (In the cellar you can see the real remains of a medieval leper hospice.)
I dawdled until I was the last one there and wandered through the house in silence on my own. Then chatted for a few minutes to the custodian who told me that for several months he had actually lived in that attic. There is always somebody living here. Take your time, he said, as he moved around the front parlour, trimming candle wicks, you're not in anybody's way ...

Friday 16 December 2011

A time-waster for when you can't face writing another Christmas card. If you want to join in, complete the sentences with the title of a book that you've read this year.

I began the day with A Visit from the Goon Squad.

On my way to work, I saw Fattypuffs and Thinifers

and walked by The House of Mirth

to avoid Nemesis

but I made sure to stop at A Place of Greater Safety.

In the office, my boss said, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths

and sent me to research Brodeck's Report.

At lunch with Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary

I noticed Some Tame Gazelle

under The Pattern in the Carpet (and The Hare with Amber Eyes under Flowers on the Grass),

Then went back to my desk Alone in Berlin.

Later, on the journey home, I bought The Dolls' House

Because I have Family Values.

Then, settling down for the evening I picked up Letters to Monica

And studied How to be Alone,

Before saying goodnight to My Ántonia.

I'm always amazed that, no matter what the sentence, there's always a book title on my reading list that fits.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

What is the sound of an eighty-nine-year-old heart breaking? It might not be much more than silence, and certainly a small slight sound.

Could you imagine having the skill to craft a sentence like that? And what a beginning to a novel. From those first few words, I was completely and utterly drawn in.

I'd been wondering for a few days about compiling a list of my 'books of the year.' More in the spirit of postponing writing the Christmas cards than because I think that anybody else cares ...

But I certainly wasn't expecting to discover my out-and-out best read of 2011 now in the last couple of weeks of the year.

I've only just finished On Canaan's Side and I'm still reeling from the breathtaking quality of Sebastian Barry's writing. And sad because, if my mum were still here, and she'd have been 89 this year, I'd surely be buying this for her Christmas present. She'd have read it more slowly - and it should be read slowly, but I couldn't help myself and now I'm feeling bereft that it's finished.

Sunday 11 December 2011

'Surely a pretty woman never looks prettier than when making tea. The most feminine and most domestic of all occupations imparts a magic harmony to her every movement, a witchery to her every glance. The floating mists from the boiling liquid in which she infuses the soothing herbs, whose secrets are known to her alone, envelop her in a cloud of scented vapour, through which she seems a social fairy, weaving potent spells with Gunpowder and Bohea. At the tea-table she reigns omnipotent, unapproachable. What do men know of the mysterious beverage? (Lady Audley's Secret)

Fast forward 150 years and this particular social fairy is sitting here with her Yorkshire teabag still swimming in a mug that only got rinsed under the tap after the last brew. (I know I'm common, but I do like it good and strong. And constantly flowing.)

'It's all women's work from one end to the other. He marries a woman, and his father casts him off penniless and professionless. He hears of the woman's death and he breaks his heart - his good, honest, manly heart, worth a million of the treacheous lumps of self-interest and mercenary calculation which beat in women's breasts. He goes to a woman's house and is never seen alive again ... And - and then,' mused Mr Audley, rather irreverently, 'there's Alicia, too; she's another nuisance. She'd like me to marry her, I know: and she'll make me do it, I dare say, before she's done with me. But I'd much rather not; though she is a dear, bouncing, generous thing, bless her poor little heart.'

Bless my heart, I think I need another cup of tea ...

Saturday 10 December 2011

Mary Elizabeth Braddon began writing when she was eight; abandoned by her feckless father, she went on the stage to help support her family and made her debut as Fairy Pineapple in panto. She had six children by the Irish editor who published her sensational serials but couldn't marry him because his wife was in an insane asylum in Dublin.
So as you can see, she wasn't going to be short of ideas for penny-dreadful fiction.
I've just finished Lady Audley's Secret. (I'm sure I read Aurora Floyd years and years ago - it's here on the shelf - but I can't remember a single thing about it.)
Lady Audley has all the ingredients ... a wicked lady with the looks of an angel - a besotted husband - a suspicious nephew - blackmail, arson, attempted murder - oodles of secrets and aliases - a gloomy shrubbery where something horrible has happened ...
But even though I love a bit of Victorian melodrama, I didn't find myself quite as engrossed as I expected to be. Braddon isn't anywhere near as accomplished a writer as Wilkie Collins (to be fair, she was only in her 20s when she wrote this) and whereas I've read the Woman in White at least three or four times, I can't imagine wanting to revisit Lady Audley. It was originally published over 13 weeks and I do think that I'd have enjoyed it much better in smaller doses. Thanks to Cornflower, though, for providing the nudge because I've been meaning to read this for years. And I'm sure that she's right and that Lady Audley is a Victorian prototype for Daphne du Maurier's My Cousin Rachel. Now that was really gripping ...

Friday 9 December 2011

The lift was broken at the Royal Academy this afternoon ... which lent authentic ambience, as their exhibition of Soviet architecture is - gasp - right - gasp - at the very top. At least I wasn't hauling a shopping bag full of cabbages. There was something very poignant about Richard Pares' stunning photographs of factories and workers' housing, built with such high ideals and so many of these strikingly elegant buildings are now crumbling and derelict. But I couldn't help laughing at the top picture of a workers' club in Moscow - because, if you look carefully, you can see that the human urge for flouncy knicker-blinds can never be suppressed. When I got home I discovered a couple of interesting interviews with Richard Pares here and here. And was sorry that I hadn't read them before I went. But I'd only gone in to oil the wheels of capitalism by buying some Christmas cards.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

If Celia Johnson's bored housewife had run off with Trevor Howard, this is the fate that would have befallen her. (Telegraph)

This was an England scarred by war, a world of blistering paint and shillings for the gas, and redundant heroes.
You could almost smell the brown-ness of 1950, the whiff of tweeds that are hardly ever dry-cleaned.
I emerged from the cinema feeling wrung out by the heart-wrenching music, which is exactly right, and by Rachel Weisz's emotionally-shattering performance.
My only criticism is that she is too beautiful (and doesn't look old enough) to be Hester, the married woman who stakes everything on her all-consuming love for a younger man.
(I'm sure I saw The Deep Blue Sea years ago in the theatre, with Penelope Wilton more convincingly careworn and battered.)
The film ends, literally, on a flicker of hope. That could easily be blown out. It's had mixed reviews, but I loved every heart-breaking, miserable moment.

Wednesday 30 November 2011

The picture, in case you're wondering, is of a lifesize crochet-dermy brown bear, for those occasions when taxidermy isn't an option. (Perhaps a convention of vegetarian Natural History Museum curators? Or a Save the Grizzly fundraiser? Well, let's hope it comes in handy sometime because somebody has devoted hours of their life to making this.)
I'm certainly not the V&A's target audience for its Power of Making exhibition - I don't knit, sew, crochet, quilt, make wickerwork coffins or unwearable ballgowns out of dressmaker's pins, and nor have I the slightest desire to learn. But I'd arrived far too early for last night's talk on Dickens by Claire Tomalin, and so I drifted in ...
And there were some ingenious things there, like the crochet snowflake that turned out to be a surgical implant for replacing lost tissue.
But in an exhibition that was like a Crafts Council end-of-season rummage sale, unfortunately there was all the rest of it ... the handmade lace G-string, made by lacemakers who make altar cloths for the Pope; the spun-sugar tiger, with ferocious teeth and claws, made by a pastry chef in the V&A cafe; the incredibly realistic and incredibly ugly marzipan baby; not forgetting the gorilla made out of wire coat-hangers and the Brobdingnagian Aran rug, made on giant needles from the wool of 18 sheep.
It made me wonder about all those clever people, and their extraordinary skills ... and the hours and hours expended on making such a complete load of old rubbish.
Still, the devil makes work for idle hands ...

Sunday 27 November 2011

I'd forgotten that it was Thanksgiving and I didn't realise until I got home that it was exactly 35 years to the day since the best concert that I never went to happened at the Winterland ballroom in San Francisco.
But it was also the best rock movie ever.
There were two young boys behind me as I went into the cinema. Maybe a bit older than I was in 1978.
One of them said, 'I've never seen it before.'
And his friend said, 'No, and I'm not quite sure who The Band were ...'
(Not quite sure who The Band were???? )
I turned around and said, Well, I saw it first time around.
And they looked at me, politely. As if I was the living proof that dinosaurs still walk the earth. When did my life become vintage? That's what I want to know.
(The movie has been digitally restored and enhanced which sounds like something I could do with, too.)

This film should be played LOUD, it says at the start ...
And it was even better than I remembered it.
And I still go weak at the knees for Robbie Robertson. (But he hasn't aged any better than I have!)

Saturday 19 November 2011

I suppose I have rather squandered a sunny afternoon, watching back-to-back Fred Astaire films on television ... but I did enjoy The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle.

I didn't realise that their dancing career was so brief before Vernon was killed in WWI.

Here's Mrs Castle wearing some fabulous clothes. (She also started the craze for bobbed hair.)

I'd love to dance the Castle Waltz, or the Turkey Trot or the Grizzly Bear.

And I think I might even actually manage the Castle Walk.

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Somehow it didn't feel right to be buying a bunch of golden narcissi and a sheaf of pussy willow.
It felt like wishing my life away to be embracing spring
before I was finished with autumn,
When I still haven't rummaged in the drawer to find last year's gloves.
But how could I resist them
When they only cost £1,
Wrapped in crackly cellophane
And tied with green raffia
By the lady in the new flower shop.
I'm sure they put a spring in my step -
Especially as I'd only popped out for a pint of milk.

Tuesday 15 November 2011

This is why I went.

She is more beautiful than the Mona Lisa. I have never seen her before and, quite probably, I will never see her again in my lifetime. Unless I go to Cracow.

No reproduction can do justice to the exquisite delicacy of the ermine's ear, the bones of its face, the quiver of a whisker and the musculature of its leg.

I couldn't walk away ... and when I did, I kept coming back. A woman turned to me and said, 'I cannot bear to leave.'

Now, what you really want to know ...

The queue (two hours, said the woman at the desk) stretched out the door of the National Gallery and up the side of the Sainsbury wing and they start queuing for day tickets at about 7am.

But once you get inside, it wasn't nearly as bad as I expected and, I must say, the National Gallery have done a pretty good job at managing the flow. The crowd ebbed and towards the end of the afternoon, I was able to commune with the beautiful Cecilia and her ermine for as long as I pleased. Of course, it wasn't quite like this.

Sunday 13 November 2011

The exhibition is called Painter of Moonlight.But it could just as well be Painter of the Gloaming.
What I love about Atkinson Grimshaw is that sense of something about to happen.
That Colin and Mary might appear in the Secret Garden of this Yorkshire house.
And I wonder why a woman and child have stopped in this muddy lane in the chilly dusk to gaze at a firelit bedroom window.
Was she cast out by her Victorian father for eloping with a ne'er-do-well who turned out to be married? Or is she a mill girl plucking up courage to confront her employer with his illegitimate child? There is a Wilkie Collins novel in every frame.
These are paintings of gaslit city streets and wet cobbles and snuff shops, of dead bracken and leaf mould ... so evocative that you can almost smell them.

And when the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry, as with a veil, and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky, and the tall chimneys become campanili, and the warehouses are palaces in the night, and the whole city hangs in the heavens, and fairyland is before us - then this wayfarer hastens home; the working man and the cultured one, the wise man and the one of pleasure cease to understand, as they ceased to see; and Nature, who for once has sung in tune, sings her exquisite song - to the artist alone.
(Underlined by the artist in his copy of Whistler's The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. Whistler thought that he was the inventor of nocturnes, 'Until I saw Grimmy's moonlight pictures.')

Grimmy's own life was a Wilkie Collins novel waiting to happen. (I'm quite prepared to judge Great Art on its merits alone, but this isn't Great Art and I do love a salacious Victorian story.)
He was an irascible, blustering father, married to his cousin Fanny who gave birth to 16 children although only six of them survived. Three children died of diphtheria in 1874.
Some time in the early 1880s, so his daughter recalled, 'It would be about that time that Pappa, who had been to the theatre, brought home with him a beautiful young woman to live with us and be his model! Poor mamma, careworn by much childbearing and the many griefs they had both shared, was deeply hurt and for the first time in my life, I heard angry voices as I clung terrified on her breast.'

Poor Fanny ... she must have been spitting mad when beautiful Agnes Leefe, with her handspan waist, posed naked as the goddess of autumn. And to add insult to injury, when Agnes died of lung disease in 1890 ... guess who ended up having to nurse her?

Atkinson Grimshaw died when he was only 57. By 1893, he had cancer and a mountain of debts and was painting in a frenzy. He painted all day long, seven days a week, completing picture after picture ... The day came when he could no longer stand at the easel. He crept upstairs to the magnificent Persian brass bed that he had bought, complete with silk hangings, not long before ... Once, in the last few hours, Grimshaw turned to his wife and whispered, 'No sun, no moon - no stars.'

And as no doubt you can tell, I was lapping up every melodramatic Victorian morsel ...
Before I went out into the gloaming and made my way home.

Saturday 12 November 2011

When I started blogging, I fully expected this would turn out to be a book blog. Turns out that I'm lazy when it comes to writing about books. By the time I've given a book time to settle in my mind ... well, by then I'm usually on to the next thing. And the moment passes.
So I have huge regard for a blog like Cornflower's that keeps up the momentum of coming up with something perceptive every day.
It was Karen who first alerted me to Francesca Kay whose first book An Equal Stillness is probably the best novel about art that I've ever read. I couldn't quite believe that Jennet Mallow's paintings existed only on the page and that I wouldn't be able to find them in Tate Britain.
So I came to her second novel The Translation of the Bones with high expectations - quite apart from the fact that it's on Karen's book of the year list.
And I have to admit that at first I was a bit disappointed. If I'm honest, I wanted An Equal Stillness 2 (and 3, and 4. It was that good.) And when the new novel opened in a Catholic church with a simple-minded young woman, washing the wounds of the crucified Christ with something from Body Shop, and persuading herself that she has been chosen as the conduit of a miracle ... I felt a bit confused. Was it a heavy-handed attempt to be funny? Please God, let it not turn out to be a Catholic version (not so many jumble sales but lots of Hail Marys) of Barbara Pym's novels about vicarage groupies.
So a shaky start for me. But then the characters started growing on me. The visceral loneliness of the women; Mary-Margaret's aching for something to love; her fat, bloated mother, trapped in a tower block of flats, still yearning for a fleeting passion she had known as a once beautiful girl back in Ireland. A priest who seems lacerated by a faith that is too passionate to bear. The ending, unfortunately, a bit too shocking to be believable.
I'm glad I read it and I still think that Francesca Kay is a very fine writer. But she set the bar very high with An Equal Stillness - and this time, I think, she's fallen a few notches short of that flawless perfection.

Thursday 10 November 2011

Watching BBC's breathtaking Frozen Planet, I have to pinch myself as I recall that I once spent a night shivering alone in a tent after landing on this beach ....

And that I am the girl who once danced on an iceberg.

Sometimes I lie in bed at night and remember the colours of the ice -

And I wonder if one day I will ever have the chance to go there again.

That's my tea-break sorted ... thanks, Harriet, for the reminder that there's a whole week of Dorothy Whipple stories on Radio4.
I found this when I was looking for a picture.

Wednesday 9 November 2011

I would never have thought of buying them on e-bay if it hadn't been for Jude at A Trifle Rushed. Of course, by the time a damp parcel of slightly-squishy sloes arrived from a farm in Dorset, I'd kind of gone off the idea.
I'd already bought some cheap gin. The kind that looks as if it should be kept under the sink for unblocking the drains.
I am lost in admiration for the domestic skills of other bloggers, for Charlie's delectable petits plats, dished up with a story, for Sue's quince jellies or Cornflower's literary cakes.
But I wasn't really in the mood this morning ...
I was thinking **!$@** I could have bought sloe gin in Waitrose.
Which would have been cheaper. Especially after I'd bought another bottle of gin. So as not to waste any sloes. (Look after the pennies and the pounds will squander themselves.)
Then I went out for coffee with a friend who is so completely undomesticated that she probably thought I'd been treading sloes in the bath. So I was able to show off a bit.
And when I got home and shook up the bottles, they were already turning a pale shade of garnety-pink. (I'm not sure about the Tesco Value label. Should I have soaked it off? No ... I think I like that Delia goes Dipsomaniac aesthetic. It's very moi.)

Now ... do you think they sell quinces on ebay?

Tuesday 8 November 2011

It's always a surprise going to a Royal Ballet rehearsal because you never know what they'll be rehearsing until you get there.
But you know that it will be amazing. (So fascinating to watch that I'd sooner go to a rehearsal than a performance.)
Last time I went, it was the fight scenes from Romeo and Juliet.
But last night it was something new. When a principal ballerina like Laura Morera says that she gets goose-bumps working with a 24-year-old choreographer, you know you are watching something special. (You can listen to Liam Scarlett at 1.06 on the video.)
There were only three seats left when I bought my ticket so I was lucky to be sitting right at the front. Where I could watch the articulation of every muscle in a ballerina's back. Laura Morera and her partner Ricardo Cervera, on whom Asphodel Meadows was partly created, dance together as if they are moving as one bio-organism.
Imagine turning a couture gown inside out and seeing the structure inside ... that was what it was like. It's like holding a ballet in your hand and unfolding its layers, its musicality, its intelligence.
It was one of those evenings when you realise that you were privileged to be there. For the price of a cinema seat.

Monday 7 November 2011

Even though Downton Abbey was getting sillier every week, I feel quite bereft. (Although I'll cheer up once The Killing starts again.)

I wonder what happened to the amnesiac Elephant Man who thought he was the Rightful Heir? He has simply disappeared ... maybe he came to and thought, whoops, sorry all, just remembered I'm supposed to inherit Chatsworth not Downton. Maybe, like Tracey in Coronation Street, he has gone to Play Upstairs for the next decade.

Matthew looks as if he needs a good dose of syrup of figs. I am sure that Downton Abbey boasts up-to-the-minute Edwardian plumbing and it is hard to tell whether he is overcome by emotion or the binding effects of Mrs Patmore's puddings.

I cannot for the life of me remember why Miss O'Brien left the soap by Lady Cora's bath when she was pregnant.
However, I have always wondered if Thomas might be her illegitimate son. Or younger brother. Or something. Or Rightful Heir to that dead rat that she wears on her head.

Didn't Lady Cora bounce back quickly from her 24-hour Spanish flu?

I do hope that Anna wasn't as disappointed as I was when she finally saw Mr Bates with his clothes off? (That'll be Mrs Patmore's puddings again.)

Family Man Lord Grantham, who is devoted to his wife, has slapped a super-injunction on the Downton Village Gazette and we are not allowed to comment on his fling with that over-familiar housemaid.

Friday 4 November 2011

What I love about London is that, for all the years I've lived here, there's always something new to discover. And although I've walked past the quirky mansion at Two Temple Place countless times, admiring its lovely weathervane - because I do remember to look up if there's not too great a chance of getting run over - I had absolutely no idea of the magnificent splendours inside. I assumed it was some rather grand legal establishment.
What I didn't know was that it was the London pied à terre of American millionaire William Waldorf Astor - who came to England because he thought there was less risk of being kidnapped here than in New York. He never lived here - I suppose he didn't need to if he had Cliveden and Hever Castle - but he kept a bedroom here for his mistress.
But just look at this ... isn't it fab? Betjeman called it 'one of the most attractive late-Victorian private houses in London.' Astor asked his architect for a house that would 'personify literature' ... wouldn't you love to be able to do that? I'd be happy with a bookroom and a proper set of library steps. Those mahogany carvings are from Shakespeare and Walter Scott and Arthurian legend. (I had a Downton moment and thought of the housemaids doing the dusting.)
The house only opened to the public a few days ago and there was a real buzz there this afternoon; people were so bowled over that they were actually talking to each other.
It's the start of a new scheme for bringing wonderful provincial art collections to London. (It did cross my mind that people outside London might think we had the lion's share already.) The first exhibition is from the William Morris gallery; only as far away as Walthamstow, but I'm ashamed to say I've never been there.
When the next Lord Astor put the house up for sale in 1928, a newspaper said that it was too magnificent to be really comfortable.
I'm not so sure. I could imagine sweeping down that staircase in a greenery-yallery gown.
If anybody's tempted to visit ... it's free to get in.
And the quince and blueberry tart in the very pretty tearoom immediately won my vote for the best art gallery tea in London.

Thursday 3 November 2011

Of course, I had to see it.
And it was riveting.
Tilda Swinton is superb. That's the Oscar for Best Actress sorted. It seems ages since I read the book but the film struck me as considerably more chilling.
Kevin is a malevolent devil-child. But you knew that already. Don't they have boarding schools in America?
But sometimes you have to laugh. Look at this.

Wednesday 2 November 2011

Although I set out to see the exhibition of women war artists at the Imperial War Museum,
I found that I was much more engaged by this magnificent exhibition of work by war photographer Don McCullin.
In fact, I was hopping mad with myself that I'd dawdled through the women artists and left myself insufficient time to watch the 30 minute video of McCullin talking about his work.
I find myself lost for words to describe the power of these photographs, some of them unbearably sad, some starkly beautiful.
There were images that made me gasp ... even as that voice in my head is thinking, 'Great story.'
I knew little about Don McCullin himself although his images are so familiar. But a sense of a man's unswerving honesty and decency pervades this exhibition. His first published photograph in 1958 was of London gangsters on the streets where he grew up. His experiences left him suffering from war fatigue and depression but in recent years he has found healing in landscape photography. 'My landscapes have become a form of meditation. They have healed a lot of my pain and guilt,' he says. But the exhibition is also a damning commentary on the decline of British newspapers from those heady days of the pioneering Sunday Times magazine under Harold Evans.
In my teens, I used to get up at the crack of dawn to get hold of the Sunday Times before my dad ...
McCullin eventually got the sack. Which says it all.

Saturday 29 October 2011

Paris in the 20s,

Harlem in the 30s,

The Spanish Civil War,

And the verdant English countryside, raped by motorways but still surviving.

There is still - just about - time to catch this wonderful documentary about the artist Edward Burra which makes me very keen to see this exhibition.

And in the light of recent discussions about biographers and artists' lives, here was a man who said, 'I don't tell anybody anything.'

Thursday 27 October 2011

Following on from yesterday, we have The Post Whose Success Surprised Me and, honestly, I am baffled as to why a post about that Irish white pudding that I keep in my handbag should have caused a statistical blip ... but it did, and here it is.

As opposed to The Post That Didn't Get As Much Attention As It Deserved. I'm tempted to skip this, because when nobody comments I'm guessing that it's because I've been droning on about something that nobody else is much interested in. Like old ballet photographs. I won't be hurt, go on, admit it, you were nodding off. And I certainly haven't unearthed any neglected gem like Charlie's clever exercises in scones.

I thought I was going to be equally stumped by The Post I'm Most Proud Of. But, hey, why shouldn't I blow my own trumpet? For nobility of character, for heroic self-restraint under severe provocation ... I nominate the post where I prove that I can resist temptation in a bookshop. Of course, it goes without saying that the secondhand book you don't buy is the one that you never, ever forget.

Thanks again, Charlie. And I now throw the challenge open to anybody else who would like to join in.

Charlie invited me last week to join her in a blog project that invites us to rummage in our blog-attics and come up with seven posts that are worth reading again ... well, I'm very flattered to be asked, Charlie!
But I do recommend that you visit her blog because she has come up with some really lovely posts from her own vintage collection.

My most popular post Not counting my first-ever, tentative post when I wasn't at all sure what I was doing or why I was doing it, a post which notched up stratospherically high stats as I obsessively kept popping back to check if any kind person might have left a comment.
Well, not counting that, rather to my surprise I discover that my most popular post was this one about a lunchtime spent with Leonardo at the National Gallery.
I have no idea why ... except that it is one of the most beautiful drawings in the world.

My most controversial post Oh, this was a tough one. As you may have guessed, the most controversial issue in my world at the moment is What's Gone Wrong with Downton Abbey? not What's Gone Wrong with the Euro? And even so, I have been remarkably restrained, although I will say that the BBC is going to have even more ammunition for a jolly good Downton spoof than it did last year.
That stirring in Matthew's loins ... it would take a heart of stone not to guffaw.
Will the Elephant Man turn out to be the rightful heir?
Will they manage to put the Easter Rising on hold until the Irish chauffeur persuades Lady Sybil to elope? (At this rate, they won't get to the GPO before it closes ... )
But getting back to that most controversial post, I have racked my brains.
I wondered if it might be the post when I admitted that Miss Buncle bored me?
Pretty contentious stuff, don't you think?
Of course, there was that time when I must have been spoiling for a fight and said something mean about Dorothy Whipple.
But we won't go down that path again now that Rachel is back from New York because she's terribly fierce when roused ...

My most helpful post Well, that's easy. For Public Service Blogging, I nominate the post where I as near as dammit went to the Royal Wedding and told you about the flowers.

All this sifting through the past is taking longer than I thought, so I shall have to finish this tomorrow. Meanwhile, would anybody else like to have a go?
The missing categories are The Post Whose Success Surprised Me, The Post That Didn't Get the Attention It Deserved and The Post I'm Proud Of.
Watch this space ...

Thursday 20 October 2011

Follow this link ...

To see why I'd happily go to the ballet every night of the week. Amazing, aren't they?

One of these days I'll work out how to embed YouTube like everybody else.

Tuesday 18 October 2011

Coming home the other evening, through Marylebone station, hauling my big bag of windfall apples from Compton Verney, there was one shop I couldn't resist on Marylebone High Street.
Not Daunt Books. Not even the very posh Rococo chocolate shop. But the Ginger Pig, which is carnivore heaven.
And that's why a smoked ham hock, from the piggiest of pigs, was plip-plopping on the stove when I came in tonight.
And as I opened the door, I realised this was the smell of my childhood.

Sunday 16 October 2011

If this were a marathon, I'm sure there'd be a sign around about now saying, 'Don't Give Up. There's Only Five More Miles To Go.'
Whew ... I'm 570 pages in which means there's only 300 pages to go and I feel as if I've been reading this forever. Well, about a fortnight, but when did a book ever take me a fortnight?
Seeing that wonderful documentary recently about Hilary Mantel, being interviewed by James Runcie, gave me the urge to read some more. Much as I absolutely loved Wolf Hall (and that didn't take me a fortnight, I devoured it in three or four days, sitting up at night because I couldn't bear to put it down), I'd only read one of her other novels, Beyond Black, which was all a bit too fey and supernatural for me.
A Place of Greater Safety is her mammoth novel about the French Revolution. It took me a while to get into it, because it's been a long time since I've been in the company of Danton and Desmoulins, Girondins and Montagnards, etc etc etc and even in my student days, I used to get them all in a bit of a muddle. Now, at last, I'm beginning to grasp who's who.
(If only I'd been able to read this back in 1974 when Jacobins and Jacobites were all in a tangle in my A-level brain.)
It's brilliant and it makes history come alive. But I'm not loving it as much as Wolf Hall. There's so many different characters to keep track of ... and although I've found myself developing a sneaky fondness for charming, unreliable Desmoulins and even for ascetic Robespierre (who'd have thought it, after growing up on The Scarlet Pimpernel?), there's so many of them, and all their wives, fiancées and in-laws, that it's not quite as satisfying as falling head over heels for Thomas Cromwell.
Meanwhile, my tumbril awaits and it's back to Paris for those last 300 pages, where things are getting bloodier and bloodier ...

Saturday 15 October 2011

As Simon says, seeing beautiful Compton Verney is a bit like the moment when Lizzie Bennett sees Pemberley.
Very apt, because Colin Firth was there this summer making a film and visited the Stanley Spencer exhibition twice. (Too late, it's now closed.) He wasn't there, alas, on the day when I went.
But it was gorgeous yesterday which was one of those perfect, crisp autumn days. I even managed to pick a bag of their windfall apples (well, there were hundreds lying neglected under the tree) for a Sunday apple pie. They were so scented and warm from the sun that at first I thought they were quinces. (I know, I know, I wouldn't win any prizes for botany.)
I strolled around the lake picking up fir cones. Just as well I had all those carrier bags stuffed into my handbag from my fruitless sloe-foraging weekend in Devon a couple of weeks ago.
And as the current exhibition at Compton Verney is all about fireworks, even the names - Crimson Cascade, Mine of Serpents, Chrysanthemum Fountains - took me to back to the autumns of my childhood. Now if only they'd been selling treacle toffee and parkin in the café ...
On a noticeboard they asked people for their Bonfire Night memories. I can still remember the glowing feeling of pride that I was the only five-year-old at the bonfire whose grand-dad had sparklers in his ears and stuck up his nose.

Wednesday 12 October 2011

Olive oil and sea-salt on your ice-cream?
Sriracha? there's some in the kitchen cupboard but I've never thought of squeezing it on Ben and Jerry's.
Maybe I'm just too straight for a Big Gay Ice Cream. But it's giving me food for thought ...
(Actually, now I think of it ... sriracha and ice-cream? Sounds pretty good.)
The topping in the picture is toasted curried coconut.

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Too late, as it's happening tonight - but wouldn't you love to be sitting down to Virginia Woolf's famous boeuf en daube?
Even if that orchestrated conversation got a bit pretentious?
Unfortunately, it's sausages and scrambled eggs here this evening.
There are no insignificant suppers, only inadequate ways of looking at them.
Just a thought, but does anybody else think that the randy Major could turn out to be heir presumptive to Downton should anything happen
to Matthew in the war?
Of course, he was only missing in action for two minutes. But it got me thinking.
Maggie Smith was dropping heavy hints ...
We're used to Matthew now. God knows who the next heir is, probably some chimney sweep from Surrey.

And exactly what injury is Major Pants-Down supposed to be convalescing from, anyway? Send the cad back to the trenches ...
I really enjoyed Kathryn Stockett's novel The Help when I read it last year, but I'm not so sure about the movie.
There's some great performances from the actresses who play the black housekeepers, but somehow it felt too slick - too caricatured - too Oprah-ish. Too packaged.
Too long by a good half-hour.
I came away having sort of enjoyed it, but wishing that it had been handled with a lighter touch.
I've seen more films in the past three weeks or so than I have all year.
But my Oscar vote is still going to Tinker Tailor.

Thursday 6 October 2011

Watching Nigel's Surf 'n' Turf suppers, it struck me that's exactly what I had for dinner on Saturday night.
Mackerel wrapped in Serrano ham, with pig's cheek on a bed of potato purée.
That's Surf 'n' Turf. Right? Or should it be Surf 'N' Sty?
If I hadn't had that extra glass of wine, I might have remembered to investigate what they'd done with the pig. Which tasted fabulous.
Although last time I saw pig's cheeks in the supermarket, they were six for £1. Not £14 a plate.
If I'm ever reincarnated, please ... don't let me come back as a vegetarian. Unctuous is not a word you can ever apply to a cabbage.

Tuesday 4 October 2011

Oh, oh, oh ... as I passed a boring parade of shops today, I noticed that one of them was being done-up.
And I looked through the window ...
And it was a very promising-looking second-hand bookshop. About 90 seconds walk from home.
(I am confidently expecting a dramatic rise in house prices. Don't you think? Far more exciting than school catchment areas.)
I edged through the door which had been left ajar and shamelessly distracted a man up a ladder who was stacking shelves. A man who seemed to have all the right ideas about old Viragos and orange Penguins.
I wasn't quite brazen enough to start clambering over boxes ...
It opens next week. I can't wait.

Friday 30 September 2011

A stroll on a hot evening, licking an ice-cream. Up to the Castle. Down to the river. Along the High Street, via second-hand bookshop to Eton College.
Half an hour browsing in Takky Maxx because it's not all about history and culture.
Then a drink with a friend and some funny songs, even if the rest of the programme was ... hmm, a bit mixed.
I did wonder if the Queen ever looks out of her window and wonders what it would be like to go for a pizza.

Monday 26 September 2011

A little something to torment Darlene ...

Lady Grantham: Edith, are you a lady or Toad of Toad Hall?

Best Maggie Smith line from this week's Downton Abbey. (Edith has announced her intention to drive a tractor.)

And did anybody else notice that the book that housemaid Anna doesn't get around to reading is Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim?
(There was even the suggestion of forming a book group in the servants' hall ...)

Thursday 22 September 2011

The last few days have been damp and dun.
When the sun came out today - which wouldn't have pleased Darlene, who wanted atmospheric gloom for her long-awaited visit to Highgate cemetery - I nipped down to Kew for an end-of-the-afternoon stroll.
The sun shone through glowing rudbeckias, golden marigolds and autumn crocus.
I paid my last visit of the year to the waterlily house
And smelled lavender in my favourite secret garden,
Admired two enormously fat peacocks
And lost count of green parrots which are multiplying faster than ever.
(I don't mind. I like lairy green parrots.)
And then I came home and made blackberry and apple crumble.
Even though the walk was supposed to work off the cake I ate with Darlene, Rachel and Simon on Sunday.

Saturday 17 September 2011

When Spitalfields was the centre of a real living weaving industry, the pale weavers were to be seen with their butterfly nets in all the woods and copses near London, seeking inspiration and suggestion in the beauty of captured insects no less than in that of the flowers on which they fed.

It is Open House weekend, with more than 50 pages of architectural visits to choose from. Last night there was some lamenting that some tours needed to be pre-booked.
I am not a pre-booking kind of person. I am a running out of the house at the last minute person, sometimes so last minute that I miss the whole event.
Full of good intentions, I run out of the house only two hours behind schedule.
I get distracted by this church because you can't walk past a Hawksmoor church without going in.
I get distracted again as I grab a rare chance to see inside one of the Georgian silk weavers' houses on Fournier Street - pure luck, because it's nothing to do with Open House - and I'm especially thrilled to see the kitchen with its stone sink and the tiny courtyard garden. This is what it looks like outside. It's a gallery now - I don't ever remember seeing it open before - and, to my delight, they're showing The Map of Spitalfields Life devised by a clever map-maker in collusion with the anonymous author of this endlessly fascinating blog.
Of course, I'm even more fascinated by the house next door because it's unattainable and I'm very envious of Jane's chance to see the view from its roof garden.
But what I've really come to see is another house that's rarely open. A house that has been described as our Ellis Island, a palimpsest of layer upon layer of history, Jewish over Huguenot, a synagogue built over the garden of a weaver's house that still has its bobbin sign hanging outside.
Then I amble down Brick Lane, with a bag of samosas for lunch, getting distracted by vintage shops selling hats out of Brief Encounter and, of course, I have to admire the wild life.
And the afternoon has ticked away before I make it as far as this exhibition.
Which was actually only number two on my Open House list of places to go.
Never mind. I did better than last year.

Friday 16 September 2011

Jane Eyre or John le Carré ... I didn't have to think twice.
There's no contest.
It had to be Tinker Tailor. Can you give a film 10*? It was brilliant. What can I say ... I didn't think of Alec Guinness, not once. No wonder John le Carré is so pleased with it.
It's a phenomenally good cast. Gary Oldman has made George Smiley completely his own. Colin Firth is superb. (His suede shoes speak volumes.) The homosexual undertones that were more understated in the 1970s version .. well, history speaks for itself.
And in a film that is largely about the quiet ruthlessness of male betrayal, Kathy Burke is simply fantastic as the Circus's retired, alcoholic researcher Connie Sachs.
I'm ever so tempted to go again.

Wednesday 14 September 2011

Doesn't this inspire you to start your great Victorian novel?
There's something about Atkinson Grimshaw that makes me think of Dickens and Wilkie Collins, of moonlight and fog and gloaming and ladies in white.
I'd barely heard of him until one day when I was working in Leeds and snatched an hour in the art gallery there before catching my train home. I remember thinking ... wow, I like these.
I'll definitely be going to this exhibition because we don't get much chance to see his work here in the south.
Belatedly joining in with Cornflower's and Simon's game, the idea being that you complete each phrase with the name of a book that you've read this year. So here goes:
One time on holiday, We Bought A Zoo (Benjamin Mee)
Weekends at my house are Planet Dinosaur.
My neighbour is Doreen (Barbara Noble)
My boss is The Hare with Amber Eyes (Edmund de Waal)
My superhero secret identity is NY JS DB 62 (David Bailey)
You wouldn't like me when I'm angry, because The Very Thought of You ... (Rosie Alison)
I'd win a gold medal in Making Conversation (Christine Longford)
I'd pay good money for A Visit from the Goon Squad (Jennifer Egan)
If I were Prime Minister I would Let the Great World Spin (Colum McCann)
When I don't have good books I ... Decline and Fall (Evelyn Waugh). Sorry, Cornflower, for copying but nothing else would fit.
Loud talkers at the cinema should be All Quiet on the Western Front (Erich Maria Remarque)

Anybody else inspired to have a go?

Tuesday 13 September 2011

She dances, dying. As around the reed
Of a flute where the sad wind of Weber plays,
The ribbon of her steps twists and knots,
Her body sinks and and falls in the movement of a bird ...

And her satin feet like needles embroider
Patterns of pleasure. The springing girl
Wears out my poor eyes, straining to follow her.

I didn't know that Degas had ever written poetry. No big surprise that I loved the Royal Academy's new Degas and the Ballet exhibition when I went this morning. When he was in his 50s, he went to the ballet three or four times a week which would suit me just fine if I could only afford the tickets. Occasionally I've had the chance to go to ballet rehearsals - and once to company class at the Royal Ballet - and you realise how exactly Degas got it right. Dancers are always fiddling about ... with a strap, or a shoe, or a ribbon. You can feel the tension in a plié and the pull of thigh muscles performing a battement. As for those glowing pastels from his later years when his eyesight was failing ... those gossamer skirts seem to lift on their own.
The exhibition links Degas to developments in photography and film. In 1915, he was filmed unwittingly on the street, an almost blind old man. I watched it again and again. It seemed so sad.

Sunday 11 September 2011

I finally embraced autumn when I saw the amazing arrangements at Petersham Nurseries this afternoon ... dahlias the size of dinner-plates, sunflowers, apples, branches of crab apples, garlands of hops, bundles of baby round carrots. (Yes, carrots.)
I felt so autumnal, I even chose pumpkin and Taleggio quiche for my lunch. Instead of cake. This is unheard of.
Maybe it was Sue that made me think of picking a huge, prickly bunch of haws on the way home. Every single person who passed me asked if you can eat them.
And one girl asked if they were hallucinogenic. Er ... not last time I tried. But I can't say that I've ever inhaled.

Friday 9 September 2011

Health Warning. Do not read the following if you suffer from any of these workplace disorders: procrastination syndrome, willingness to be distracted at every opportunity, internet addiction, obsessive behaviour, etc etc
Particularly dangerous to the idle self-employed.
Oh dear, in the last few days I have discovered a wonderful time-wasting game that is an even bigger distraction from what I should be doing at my desk than reading other people's blogs.
I have signed up as a tagger, as part of this scheme to catalogue the nation's oil paintings in little-known public collections.
What do you see in this painting ... ? Boats, sea, fishermen's cottages, a church clock ... tag it, then on to the next painting which might be an abstract, or an 18th century portrait, or a still life with flowers. It is seriously difficult to log off.
I gave myself a scolding and told myself enough was enough. But like all the best computer games, I got promoted to the next level ... which is estimating the date of paintings, where that is unknown. Is cold turkey the only option? Sometimes I hanker for the days when there was no distraction but the crossword and making paperclip boats.