Thursday 31 March 2011

I have a confession to make ... Miss Buncle Bored Me.
It didn't help that when I pounced on it in the library last week, it wasn't the elegant grey Persephone edition, it was an Old Lady's Library Book. Large print. From the family saga shelf.
Look at that cover. It even had a geriatric effect on Miss Buncle herself. Her age isn't specified in the book, but - as her old nanny is still her housemaid - my guess is that she's one of those literary spinsters still in their mid to late-30s. And here she is looking 65 if she's a day, in her mauve knitted-jersey suit and her pussy-cat bow.
I know, I know, it's still the same book. But I picked this up feeling like I should be resting my varicose veins on the pouffe and enjoying a cup of Complan on the side.
And I'm not ready for that. Not yet.
I'd been hoping that Miss Buncle - who writes a novel about her neighbours to supplement her dwindling income - would be a spinster with the pzazz of Miss Pettigrew.
But this is one of those 'gently-humorous' tales of sleepy English village life that lead me into temptation to stand up at the WI and tell raucously dirty jokes. (I wouldn't. Of course, I wouldn't. I can never remember the punchline of a joke.)
Or rev my motorbike outside the Vicarage.
Or put out my binbags on the wrong day.
Miss Buncle's Book is a Nice Library Book.
For nicer ladies than me.

Thursday 24 March 2011

Good Things in England today ...
Drinking oolong tea in the sunshine, listening to birdsong.
Pussywillows on the riverbank.
Shaking a yellow duster and feeling gratified at all that dust (and one desiccated spider).
The scent of gardenias in Petersham Nurseries.
Walking into Waitrose just as they're knocking down the price of big bunches of tulips.
Finding Miss Buncle's Book on the library shelf.
And looking forward to two more series of Danish TV. (Maybe now she'll find time to wash that jumper at last.)

Saturday 19 March 2011

'At the great age of eighty-five Mrs Parkington was a powerful matriarchal figure in her family. She enjoyed life still, drank a half-pint of champagne every evening, and knew her own mind.'
When I read Rachel's review of Mrs Parkington, a 1942 novel by Louis Bromfield, I knew I'd have to get hold of a copy. And I was delighted that my 1p bargain from Amazon, when it arrived a couple of days ago, turned out to be a highly-desirable, old-fashioned Penguin - with a charming pen-and-ink cover sketch of Mrs P, with her Pekingese and her bottle of champagne.
How could I resist a matriarch who drank a half-pint of champagne every evening?
Mrs P is my new role model for when I'm 85.
(If only I'd thought about the price of champagne when I started my pension plan!)

Thursday 17 March 2011

I'm riveted by Agony and Ecstasy, this documentary about the English National Ballet ... it's even better than Black Swan.
There's a courageous, 38-year-old ballerina Daria Klimentová - so beautiful, so fragile, but looking so much older than her years as if ballet has sucked her dry - forced against her will to dance Swan Lake for the last time. There's a spotty-faced 20-year-old who is transformed into a prince before our eyes. There are dancers streaming with sweat, bullied by an artistic director who (one hopes) is playing it up for the cameras. There's drama when a prima ballerina fails to arrive in time for the first night. There's bunions that you make flinch at the thought of having to dance on them.
And I was fascinated to see how many injuries were sustained in the fight scenes of Romeo and Juliet ... because last year I went to a fight masterclass at the Royal Ballet where blood was drawn, too. I don't know how many times I've seen that ballet and never realised that dripping gore isn't necessarily make-up.

Saturday 12 March 2011

'When people hear about my mother cells they always say, "Oh y'all could be rich! ... Truth be told, I can't get mad at science, because it help people live ... I can't say nuthin bad about science, but I won't lie, I would like some health insurance so I don't got to pay all that money every month for drugs my mother cells probably helped make.'
Quote from Deborah Lacks, younger daughter of Henrietta Lacks (Henrietta photographed here with her husband c 1945).

I scraped through 'O'-level biology and that was the end of my scientific education. At the age of 15.
So I'm not the most likely person to be engrossed by a book about cancer cells.
However, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is not only a brilliant work of scientific journalism by Rebecca Skloot, but also a heartbreaking story of a family's anguish as they struggle to grasp what science has done to their mother. This is the story of a real woman whose cancer cells became a multi-million dollar industry ...
Henrietta Lacks was born into a poor, black family of tobacco farmers in Virginia, became a mother at 14, and had five young children when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951. She was treated (in a colour-segregated ward) with a rudimentary radium treatment but her cancer grew at a terrifying rate and she died in agony eight months later, aged only 31.
But before Henrietta died, a doctor took a sliver of tissue from her cancer. Tissue culture was in its infancy and nobody as yet had found a way of successfully growing human cells. But Henrietta's cancer cells multiplied, doubling their numbers every 24 hours. Even before she died, HeLa cells were being air-mailed to research scientists around the world.
When they opened Henrietta up - and the autopsy revealed her organs to be so covered in small tumours that it looked as if someone had filled up her body with pearls - a young woman technician happened to look at her feet and the chipped red varnish on Henrietta's toes. And thought, 'Oh jeez, she's a real person.'
Those HeLa cells proved to be one of the most important tools in 20th century medical research, for developing polio vaccine and chemotherapy, IVF, cloning, gene mapping, to study viruses like AIDS and ebola ... they even launched them into space. It has been estimated that all the HeLa cells ever grown would wrap three times around the earth. But it wasn't until the 1970s, when scientists wanted to carry out tests on Henrietta's children, that her family got any hint of all of this.
It didn't occur to anybody to explain to them. What little they grasped sounded terrifying, the stuff of science fiction. Especially to Deborah, Henrietta's younger daughter who wasn't quite two-years-old when her mother died. She was traumatised, worrying that she might bump into her mother's clone in the street; terrified that Henrietta was being tortured by these scientific experiments. She broke down when she came across a book describing her mother's autopsy in graphic detail ... when none of the family had even seen her medical records, let alone given permission for their release.
When Rebecca Skloot telephoned Deborah in 1999, she was just another white person wanting to know about her mother ...

Deborah died two years ago, just before this book was published. For all the medical advances driven by their mother's cells, the Lacks family couldn't afford health insurance.
Along the way she'd discovered what happened to her older sister Elsie, a beautiful, damaged child who had been placed in the State Hospital for the Negro Insane. Elsie's story would break your heart.

My father worked in a famous cancer research institute. As a small child, I remember sometimes going into work with him on Saturday mornings. I'm wondering now if there were HeLa cells in some of those petri dishes ... there must have been ... and if it ever crossed my father's mind that HeLa was a real person, only a few years older than himself, a mother of five children?
I can't ask him. He died many years ago. I wish he could have read this book.

Tuesday 8 March 2011

If your pancakes were flabby
And refused to flip
And broke up in the pan;
If you dropped the lemon quarters
Into the batter
(And no, that's never happened before).
If the second batch was even worse than the first
But you ate them anyway.
Because why waste them
When they could sit on your hips for the rest of the year?
If you said some rude words
That you didn't learn from Mary Berry
(Although you might have picked them up from Gordon Ramsay).
You could always join me
In giving up cooking. For Lent.

Sunday 6 March 2011

For Mystica in Sri Lanka ...

The Rhododendron Dell in Kew Gardens. That's where I was today.
And a closer view of the flowers, which can be all shades of pink, red, scarlet, magenta, pure white, lilac, peach, pale lemon ...
A glorious sight en masse. Especially when they've grown wild over a hillside.
A Golden Pheasant crossed my path this afternoon. I had never seen one so close.
I wondered if it was lucky.
And it must have been.
Because five minutes later I saw two green parrots sitting in a pink blossom tree.
So, all in all, it was a very colourful afternoon.
And there were also daffodils, carpets of crocuses, drifts of tiny blue irises and snowdrops, camellias - just opened and perfect; in a week or so they'll be looking like stained, tattered ballgowns. There were even pink rhododendrons in the rhododendron dell.
Rhododendrons and snowdrops?
Is it global warming?

Saturday 5 March 2011

They were about to kick off World Book Night as I arrived in Trafalgar Square.
I could wait ...
Maybe there'd be free books?
Or I could drop into the National Gallery to see this exhibition.
I didn't hesitate for a moment.
Even though I could feel book bloggers shaking their fists at me.
When you look at this painting in the flesh, as it were, you can almost feel the woman's soft crepey neck, the slight hairiness of her upper lip. You want to brush away the two stray, grey hairs that have fallen onto the man's fur collar.
Can you imagine that ... that someone could paint two distinct grey hairs on a fur collar?
About 500 years ago.
There were crowds gathering outside as I left.
(There was hardly anybody in the exhibition. Not that I'm complaining, you need plenty of room to stand and contemplate two grey hairs.)
There was still time to investigate World Book Night ...
But I was feeling a much stronger pull from a movie.
That turned out to be very good. With a brilliant soundtrack.
When I got home I found Larry McMurtry's book on the shelf. But I know I enjoyed the film much more.
Apologies to World Book Night but this is a city of too many choices on a Friday night.
And books are better enjoyed at home.

Tuesday 1 March 2011

I was saddened to hear today of the death of Suze Rotolo.
I've grown accustomed to seeing Bob looking grizzled and old ... but she seemed forever young.
Isn't she beautiful?
She once said that Bob's songs were like reading a diary. 'It brings it all back.
'And what's hard is that you remember being unsure of how life was going to go. His, mine, anybody's.
'So from the perspective of an older person looking back, you enjoy them, but also think of them as the pain of youth, the loneliness and struggle that youth is, or can be.'
I was 15 when I first listened to this album. And 21 when I saw Bob at Earl's Court. I held up burning matches (I don't think they'd invented disposable cigarette lighters!) as he sang Forever Young and I thought that my life was All Over.
Which, of course, it wasn't.
But seeing these pictures in today's papers still caused me a pang.