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.