Monday 31 January 2011

On a day with a glimmer of sunshine (at last),
I glimpsed a flash of lapis blue as last year's hyacinths begin to open (and felt glad they'd been reprieved from the bin).
I squeezed lemons into a bowl of pasta
And tore a bunch of green, peppery basil.
Poured a glass of cold wine
And settled down to a book
That evokes the colours and scents of Corfu.
A high-quality beach read is exactly right for grey days
Spent on the sofa
Instead of a deckchair.

Friday 28 January 2011

What high hopes I had of Wild Romance for this true Victorian scandal inspired Wilkie Collins, among others, who borrowed from it for his novels No Name and Man and Wife.
And, of course, Chloë Schama - whose first book this is - is the daughter of highly-readable historian Simon Schama. (Only a cynical thought, but what happens to female historians these days if they don't have telegenic good looks?)
Real-life Wilkie Collins?
I'm willing to forgive that novelett-ish book-jacket and prepare to be gripped ...
'Somewhere, across the silvered plane of dimpled water, a ship sounded its horn, and another answered. Theresa Longworth, the teenage daughter of a Manchester silk manufacturer, stood on the deck of the steamer ...'
Oh dear, oh dear.
Too breathless for me, but never mind. In 1852, on that cross-Channel steamer, 19-year-old Theresa enjoys a brief flirtation - and a fumble under the travelling rug - with William Charles Yelverton, a soldier and Irish aristocrat. Some months later, she takes a bold step and starts writing to him and before long she decides that she's in love. So much in love that when Yelverton is posted to the Crimea, she follows to become a lay nurse with an order of nuns. Yelverton, of course, is a cad. When they're apart, he makes some effort to damp down this hysterical passion. But when they meet again, and Theresa is so enthusiastically up for it - and he's having fantasies about her nun's habit ... well, what's a chap to do?
And I'm on Yelverton's side here. Because Theresa is bloody terrifying ... all that pent-up convent-girl energy; we'd call her a stalker today.
Home from the Crimea and they have a clandestine affair and there may/may not have been a pregnancy and illegal abortion. In 1857, they go through a makeshift wedding ceremony in Scotland, followed by another one in Ireland. But in those days the marriage laws of England, Scotland and Ireland didn't tally ... so was either marriage legal? Barely a year later, Charles gets legitimately hitched to a wealthy widow ... and if Theresa is to find her way back into respectable society, she has to prove that she has prior claims.
The courtroom drama that ensued in Dublin is a riveting exposure of Victorian hypocrisy - for how can a wronged woman defend herself without impropriety?
So why does the book go downhill from there? Naturally, Theresa hasn't a hope of achieving respectable marriage to anyone else ... so she feistily takes off to America as a journalist, Fanny Trollope-style, and goes on to travel the world as a New Woman.
Much as I admired her indomitable spirit, though, I'd stopped caring about her - for once the courtroom drama is over, it falls flat and reads too much like a well-researched dissertation.
And though I'm all for feminism, did Charles have to be such a cardboard cut-out? Maybe Chloë Schama's research didn't throw up any more information but it seemed the kneejerk reaction of a young, female writer to cast him so readily as cad and villain.
Come on, men can be victims too, and I'd feel sorry for any chap pursued through a war zone by a highly-sexed Victorian spinster who's impossible to shake off.
Great story ... but she doesn't tell 'em like Wilkie Collins.

Tuesday 25 January 2011

Black Swan
totally barking mad
absolutely beautiful ...

And I lapped up
it was
twice as long.

Even if there were moments when I had to whimper and cover my eyes.

Sunday 23 January 2011

It says something about my squandered afternoon that I caught Jamie Oliver recommending tapas of cheese, honey and coffee.
That's right. Together.
So it had to be tried. Right away.
(It's good ... but it needs better coffee than I had immediately
to hand.)
I did wonder if Jamie got The Flavour Thesaurus in his stocking?

Saturday 22 January 2011

Hurray, the first snowdrops and a glimpse of daffodils and tulips starting to appear, and next year's tiny fircones forming on the trees. But it was so cold and grey at Kew this morning that we hid in the Palm House.
The sap isn't rising ... yet.
But it won't be long.

Wednesday 19 January 2011

'And still Mrs Miniver had not bought herself a new engagement book, but was scribbling untidy notes on the fly-leaf of the old one.'
My Persephone Diary is beautiful but it's designed for Mrs Minivers whose only commitments are Tennis Parties and Afternoon Tea.
I can see that I'll have to buy another diary to cope with Ordinary Life 2011.
Before I get into a dove-grey muddle.

Tuesday 18 January 2011

I love it when an exhibition makes me open my eyes. And think as well as look.
I got off to a great start at the Royal Academy's British Sculpture exhibition this morning.
It wasn't too crowded - with works or people - so there was room to stand and
wonder ...
And feel surprised, because somehow I never thought of the Cenotaph as sculpture? (It strikes me as more powerful in its stark original version, unadorned by poppies and carved wreaths. Or flags.)
And then I thought about what a wealth of inspiration British sculptors found in the British Museum.
And what vitality surges through Epstein's colossal Adam ... how can blood seem to be pulsing through stone?
(I didn't drop my lorgnette like the old lady who was appalled by Adam's nakedness when he was first exhibited in 1939.
But isn't it typical of British prurience ... that a great work of art ended up being exhibited as a rude sideshow in Louis Tussaud's waxworks in Blackpool?)
There was space to sit and contemplate Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. (That's one of hers from Battersea Park in the photo.)
And then ... I got to the 1990s and Damien Hirst's seething mass of bluebottles crawling over a festering barbecue.
And hoped that eventually we'll take a few steps back and start again.

Monday 17 January 2011

Today is Blue Monday, the most depressing day of the year. (Although I hit my lowest ebb during the Biblical rainstorm on Friday.)
So what possessed me to persevere with this book?
No 85 on the Observer's list of 100 Greatest Novels of all time ... and much higher than that on my list of 100 Novels to make you feel like slitting your wrists.
It is desolate, the story of two orphaned young girls in a godforsaken town beside a lake where their mother and grandfather have both drowned.
And it is a novel that is sodden with images of floodwater and damp.
If you like this style of writing you might call it poetical. But I wanted to put this novel through a mangle, wring out some of that self-indulgent lyrical squelch.
There were Too Many Words. I was drowning.
In a way, it reminded me of Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi. Another story of transience and loneliness - and lots of rain - but so much more powerful because it was so tautly written.
I know that Rachel at BookSnob was completely entranced by another Marilynne Robinson title recently and that readers in Cornflower's book group were almost unanimously positive about Housekeeping. So clearly I was the wrong reader. And all I can say is ...

Saturday 15 January 2011

Having so much enjoyed London Belongs To Me, I couldn't resist buying a secondhand copy of Norman Collins' slightly later (1951) novel Children of the Archbishop. Alas, this time without the enviable dust jacket.
This is the story of the Archbishop Bodkin Hospital, an orphanage in Putney and it begins in 1920 on the night a baby is left on the doorstep. Four years later Sweetie has settled in nicely and we start getting to know the other inmates and governors. There's kindly Canon Mallow, the Warden, who is about to retire and who has been lifted shamelessly from Trollope.
There's disciplinarian Dr Trump, the new Warden, who isn't entirely bad; he doesn't spare the cane but his real problem is that he doesn't understand children.
There's Dame Eleanor - chairman of the Board of Governors: 'It was from her grandfather, the Admiral, that Dame Eleanor had inherited that particular glance of hers ... And it was as though deliberately to avoid any possible misunderstanding that she allowed herself to wear so ostentatiously feminine a hat. Small, veiled and frivolous, it was perched on the neat white hair, like a butterfly resting on a spent flower.'
Then there's Dame Eleanor's housemaid-companion, Margaret, a ramshackle cast of teachers and - most importantly - there's Ginger, the orphan who captures Sweetie's heart.
So I began with high hopes that I was going to bond with all these people as I bonded with the inmates of Ten Dulcimer Street in the earlier book. (Hard to believe that London Belongs To Me was the earlier book, it's so much more accomplished ... but you can see why it's a Penguin classic and this one is more or less forgotten.)
It's an enjoyable read. But it's all too easy to guess the mystery of Sweetie's parentage and the characters didn't really come alive for me. Garn ... but that Ginger is an urchin wiv a 'eart of gold straight from central casting wot talks wiv a Cockney accent like this.
So, not bad ... but not up to my very high expectations of Norman Collins.

Wednesday 12 January 2011

Want to know what your mum was reading as she put her feet up waiting for the stork? I'm too coy to reveal the Birthday Best-Seller from the week I was born.
I've read it.
But I don't think my mum went in for anything quite so racy.
I stood in the shop, trying to decide. Between the large bouquet of lilies and roses,
reduced in price
and a Bargain
and the modest bunch of red tulips.
And I chose Spring.

Tuesday 11 January 2011

Would I have given this novel a second glance, if it hadn't been for Cornflower? I don't think I would.
But when I saw a pristine, virgin copy in the library last week, I brought it home with me ... for no other reason than it was one of Cornflower's books of the year, and I know from past experience that she's a tremendously good 'picker'.
But honestly, I thought this time I was going to disagree with her. The title, the jacket ... well, to me it conveyed historical saga of the heathery braes and uisgebeatha genre. And I'm a Sassenach.
Cornflower's review - 'like a cloudscape reflected in water, subtly shaded, shifting, depths within depths' - conveys far better than I ever could the bewitching quality of this novel that has consumed my every waking minute for the past three days. (Up until 3am this morning, desperate to finish it, desperate that I couldn't be immersed in it forever.) Corrag is a lonesome, wild creature who tells her story from the prison cell in Inverary where she is awaiting execution as a witch in February, 1692, in the aftermath of the Massacre of Glencoe. Outlawed as hag and witch, as was her mother before her, she fled north from England to find sanctuary in the glen where her skills as a herbalist brought her into contact with the fierce, but proudly hospitable MacDonald clan.
Corrag tells her story to a prison visitor, a dour and godly Irish Jacobite who is looking for evidence of the King's involvement in the massacre. At night, after he leaves her, he writes letters thrumming with heartache for the wife he has left behind in Ireland.
As I only finished this at 3am, Cornflower's cloudscape is still shifting across my mind and I have a feeling that this book will remain with me for a long time. It is far, far more than a historical novel; more a distilled essence of love and loneliness and simplicity and kindness. And, of course, heathery braes ... I'd be away to Glencoe this afternoon if only I could!
What a start to the reading year. As a concession to Sassenachs, however, I see that the publishers have changed the title and the paperback is coming out as Witch Light.

Saturday 8 January 2011

As I came out of the Tate and walked across the wobbly bridge in drizzly twilight, I was thinking of this - rather than of Gauguin's tropical islands and flowers.
I wasn't wildly keen on the exhibition.
I'd love to have dismantled it and rehung it.
He isn't one of my favourite painters, but I don't think the Tate did him justice. (How sloppy it looked, so many peeling labels. And I know it's now drawing to a close, but people were complaining about the labels a couple of months ago.)
It's a huge exhibition, but I was more engrossed in the letters and photographs than the paintings.
I have a feeling I might have enjoyed the Tate's 1966 exhibition rather more.

Friday 7 January 2011

The King's Speech was every bit as wonderful as I expected and the cinema was packed.

People applauded at the end, which always seems slightly odd after a film.

I can just about remember when they used to play the National Anthem as people scuffled out of their seats to go home. (There was always a rush to get out the door before it began.)

For once, it would have seemed entirely appropriate to stand for two brilliant performances by Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush.

Tuesday 4 January 2011

When you have spent the afternoon watching I Capture the Castle.
Followed by The Bishop's Wife (Cary Grant, 1947, great skating scene).
Then Brief Encounter (for the umpteenth time, but you've never noticed before that Celia Johnson has such very bad skin).
And then it was straight into The Passionate Friends. (More Trevor Howard, still asking "Are you happy?" And was that the same coffee percolator as the one in Brief Encounter?)
Well, no wonder there's only sausages for dinner.
And perhaps it is time to get off the sofa and get back to work.

Sunday 2 January 2011

Walking along the river, I almost missed the grey heron in the grey evening gloom.
He was standing stockstill on the cabin of a motorboat.
All he needed was a braided sailor cap. And maybe a pipe.
It wouldn't have surprised me if he'd consulted a tide table and chugged away.
I walked on, wondering if a slow stroll on a cold day cancels out a large slice of Petersham Nurseries' cake.
Of course, I'd already had the cake.
Carpe dulcem? (Or something like that.)
That's Latin for , "It would be tragic if they'd sold out before I'd got there."