Saturday 22 December 2012

Sadly, I won't be seeing Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty because it is completely sold out but I enjoyed this programme about his working methods and was impressed by the dancers' inspirational book table. I spotted Vita Sackville-West's The Edwardians; Christopher Wood on Victorian fairies; an intriguing-looking book About the Sleeping Beauty by PL Travers, of all people (but of course, Matthew Bourne did choreograph Mary Poppins!), as well as several movie versions of Wuthering Heights.
The Lilac Fairy is a vampire and the baby Aurora reminded me of those weird dancing babies from Ally McBeal. I'll bet it's spectacular.

An enthralling evening at the Almeida tonight to see The Dark Earth and the Light Sky, a new play about the poet Edward Thomas - and now there's two more books on my list for 2013, his wife Helen's memoir (too frank by far, apparently, for his friend Robert Frost who never forgave Helen for writing it) and also the the recent biography by Matthew Hollis, Now All Roads Lead to France.

Edward Thomas was encouraged to write poetry by Frost and wrote 144 poems in a creative outpouring from 1914 until he was killed at Arras in 1917. A shell passed so close that the blast of air stopped his heart and he died without a mark on his body.

He was a prickly, difficult, depressive character with a deep love of England's countryside, a physical coward who enlisted when he didn't have to, his decision influenced - or so the play has it - by his friend's poem The Road Not Taken. For Thomas, the two roads that diverged were the opportunity of going to America to write and work on Frost's farm ... and the road to France.

The play delves into his unhappy marriage to Helen and his relationship with spinsterish Eleanor Farjeon who loves him but has never kissed a man.

I was engrossed from the moment Pip Carter, who plays Thomas, walked onto the stage - and astonished later to realise how physically he resembles the poet.

A wonderful evening and the theatre was packed. (Thought I saw Julian Barnes there but am too short-sighted to be a reliable spotter of literary celebrities in the wild.)

Incidentally, my ticket in the stalls (a perfectly tolerable restricted view) was £8, considerably less than the local cinema.

Friday 21 December 2012

I enjoy other people's books of the year lists and I'm more inclined to take inspiration from favourite bloggers' lists than from the Sunday papers. Rachel's enthusiasm for Henry Green means I'll be keeping an eye out for an author I've never read before and I'm sure I'll be dipping into Cornflower's lists of fiction and non-fiction.

So here's my round-up for 2012 from the 66 books that I've read. (There were a couple of very long ones but I'm still rather shocked when I think that only a few years ago, I was easily getting through two novels a week. If only book blogs weren't such a distraction ...)

And as I kept a movie list, too, let's award an Oscar. As I seem to average a visit to the cinema every three weeks or so, I'm hardly the film buff of the year -
but for sheer, unexpected enjoyment my Best Film 2012 has to be Woody Allen: A Documentary which had me smiling all the way through.

But on with the main feature, the books. Here they are, in no particular order:

Harriet by the wonderful Elizabeth Jenkins is one that I wrote about quite recently, and would be a strong contender for my Book of the Year.

As would The Expendable Man by Dorothy B Hughes, so it has been a vintage year for Persephones.

I was completely smitten by Mrs Bridge by Evan S Connell as beguiling as an American Provincial  Lady but with an undercurrent of heartbreaking sadness. But why have I never managed to find the companion volume Mr Bridge?
(No matter. A 26p copy is now on its way from America. As midnight treats go, at least it's non-fattening.)

Still in America, The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe went some way to assuage my distress at missing out on the latest series of Mad Men.

The Lewis Man took me to the Hebrides and was just as gripping as the first book in this trilogy which means that Peter May features on my list for the second year running.

For sheer elegance of writing I'm including The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes and An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro, which was published in 1986 but was new to me. In many ways, it made me think back to The Remains of the Day.

Pure by Andrew Miller is one of the best historical novels that I've ever read and evokes the stench of the Ancien Régime so vividly that you can taste it. (If you enjoyed Patrick Susskind's Perfume, you will  love this.)

And I mustn't forget The Odd Women by George Gissing, and Gillespie and I by Jane Harris, although it does seem a long time since I read them at the start of the year.

So that's my Top Ten in fiction. I've also been re-reading some old favourites. Wolf Hall was just as good second time round. David Copperfield was better as I didn't have to sit an A-level at the end of it. At Mrs Lippincote's will always be one of my favourite Elizabeth Taylors. And Mildred Pierce by James M Cain is as good as a second helping of Mildred's wonderful pies.

Whoops, just forgotten one so let's have a special category for graphic novels and include Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, by Leanne Shapton. Quirky and engaging - and just the right length to enjoy in one evening.

I don't read anything like as much non-fiction, but I'd agree with Cornflower who also recommends The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe - poignant and very moving. 
The Paper Garden by Molly Peacock was a beautiful book - with creamy paper and lovely illustrations -about Mrs Delany and her exquisite paper cut-outs. But it loses points because of the intrusive presence of the author who simply can't shut up about herself. 

In the end, I'm torn between two very different biographies. So my non-fiction award of the year goes to Jeanette Winterson for Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Even the title is brilliant! 
(There is still time to catch this fascinating documentary about her on iPlayer.)
Sharing joint place with Martin Gayford's A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney.

Wednesday 19 December 2012

Oh, my, it's fruitcake weather ...

Dovegreyreader has been asking for suggestions for Christmas reading and after I mentioned Truman Capote's lovely story A Christmas Memory, one of Lynne's readers mentioned that she'd mislaid the link to a favourite recording.
I've read it many times but I've never heard a recording - and I don't know whether this is the version that Sarah had in mind - but I found this very charming TV film  on YouTube, narrated by Capote himself.
(I tried to upload it and failed miserably.)

It's just the right length for a cup of tea and, as I didn't have any fruitcake and didn't want to venture out in the rain for mincepies from the cornershop, I had the inspired idea of making a batch of flaky, sugary Welsh cakes. Kitchen cupboard to plate in about five minutes. Just right.
As I never did get round to tackling the complete works of Mr Dickens, or even Barnaby Rudge which I've never read before - and I don't suppose I'm going to manage it now by 31st December - nevertheless, I thought it would be nice to round off Dickens's year with a visit to his newly-restored house on Doughty Street.
There had been a whisper some months back that this had not been done with a sympathetic hand.
But I wasn't expecting this ...

Despite an uncanny resemblance to Sherlock Holmes, this is supposed to be the shadow of Mr Dickens directing you up the stairs.

Yes, here we are at his only surviving London residence, so let's turn it into the Charles Dickens Visitor Experience, why not?

(One of the museum staff said that 90% of visitors love it.)

Okay, no permanent damage done and one day a tin of Farrow & Ball will obliterate Messrs Dickens-Holmes (I think there were three of them).

But the shoddiness of the curatorship irritated me ...

Look at these rather splendid plates in the dining room, each plate bearing the face of one of Dickens's literary friends. There's no label telling you anything about them but 90% of visitors might well assume that these were plates that convivial Mr Dickens had dined from.
Or commemorative plates presented by his grateful fans?
Of course, there's always the awkward few ... no, it wasn't just me ... who peer and mutter and think, well, I'm no expert on plates but they don't look quite right.  (And one forthright chap even picked one up and turned it over but then his wife stopped him.)
But the guide in the room assured us that these were indeed the genuine article and 'probably' a gift to Mr Dickens who received lots of presents.
Now she was a nice young girl and, to be fair, I noticed as I was leaving that she was checking it with  her boss. In fact, Mr Dickens never set eyes on these splendid Victorian plates which were decorated - when? maybe all of six months ago? but anyway, made-to-order for the museum.
So why isn't it labelled? And why is there absolutely no information - not one single word - about the restoration and how it was carried out? Of course, the wallpapers and carpets are brand, spanking new. (Not sure what 90% of visitors believe!) But how did they decide on this decor? Is it generic early-Victorian Bloomsbury? Did Dickens ever describe a lairy blue dining room like this in any of his letters?
When I asked, I was told it's all on the website.
Well, it isn't.
It's a museum, for heaven's sake. I want to know what's real - and what's guesswork - and what's Dickens - and what's Dickensian-style.

But if you try very, very hard, can you step out of the Dickens Experience and get a feeling of the man himself? This is where he lived from 1837-39, at the start of his career; where he wrote Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist; when he was newly-married to poor Catherine who gave birth to two of their children here and suffered a miscarriage after the death of her 17-year-old sister Mary who lived with them. Or was her miscarriage caused by her husband's melodramatic grief after Mary died in his arms?
I found that I was thinking more of the women than of Dickens himself. How little privacy there must have been in that house, the two bedrooms so close together, every twang of the bedsprings so audible. Is this what fostered Dickens's intense attachment to Mary? and hence the grief that fed so many death-scenes in his novels? It must have seemed as if he were married to both of them, two 'angels in the home' under one roof, one in his bed, one so near that he'd maybe hear her turning in the night.
Or am I reading too much into it? Living with an unmarried sister-in-law wouldn't have been anything like as unusual then as it would be today.

What touched me most today was seeing Catherine's little turquoise engagement ring, so like Dora's little blue ring in David Copperfield.
And the serpent ring, a gift from Catherine to her treacherous sister Georgina after Dickens's death.
Two tiny objects in old-fashioned museum cases. And the genuine article.

I realise now how lucky I was to visit Gad's Hill this summer, when there were letters and objects on loan from the museum while the restoration was going on ... but where the heritage industry hasn't been unleashed to destroy the atmosphere.

Saturday 15 December 2012

Inside it is toasty and warm; the first jar of blackberry whisky has been opened, just for a taste; Edward Thomas's poetry conjures up all too well what it's like outside.
A wilder night
Coming makes way 
For brief twilight. 
Jamie's six-hour pork and crackling will be ready in an hour or so and smells delectable.

But I have been invited to a party ...
Bath, party frock, lipstick, out into the night air, two buses or a cab, local mums in intense middle-class conversation about the merits of perfectly okay local schools.

I think it's time to put on the roast potatoes.

Saturday 8 December 2012

It wouldn't be Christmas without a good pantomime villain and, as I love an old b/w movie, it was fun to see What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? on a large(ish) screen this afternoon -
Because they don't make them like that any more.

Thursday 6 December 2012

Out shopping this afternoon, I got distracted by a lovely exhibition of Mary Fedden's work that I didn't know was on and spent half an hour enjoying her colours and the scent of lilies in the gallery and choosing what I'd buy if I had a few thousand pounds to treat myself.
And then I walked around the corner to see this Lowry exhibition, and paintings that remind me of back streets where I used to walk with my dad when I was very small.
And so I didn't really do any of the things that I was supposed to be doing. But never mind.

Wednesday 5 December 2012

I've just come across this fascinating map of the London Blitz and was astonished when I entered my own postcode to discover that I'd have taken a direct hit, or very close, had I been living here during 1940-41 ... I had no idea, though it was only stables and garages here in those days. Also, an incendiary bomb fell just over the road in October, 1940. Bad luck, although nothing to what was happening in the East End which got the worst of it.
My family weren't living in England during the war so I have no personal anecdotes or family stories other than my mum's vague memories of sugar rationing and no bananas.
But somehow it brings it home to you. There must have been flames blazing right here, broken windows, if they were lucky, on the older houses to the front  ... and here I am  72 years later, with nothing much to worry about other than whether it's going to snow tonight.

Tuesday 4 December 2012

I have to confess that the Joyce Hatto scandal a few years ago in the music world completely passed me by and I had never even heard of this not-very-successful concert pianist, whose career never got off the ground because she was crippled with nerves - but who enjoyed an extraordinary late renaissance with CDs released when she was terminally ill with cancer.
For a short while she was 'the greatest pianist no-one has ever heard of.' Or was she?
Victoria Wood has made a terrific job of dramatising her story for the BBC - it's called Loving Miss Hatto - and I've been googling to discover more about the true story.
Hatto died in 2006 and shortly after her death, and glowing obituaries, it emerged that more than 100 of her recordings were fakes, pirated CDs that had been digitally tinkered with by her husband, 'Hattoised'  to resemble her touch ... fooling many critics, it has to be said, until iTunes analysis showed up the jiggerypokery.
Today Hatto's husband, Barrie, still alive and in his 80s (and whatever else you might think of him, hats off to his computer skills in the spare bedroom) admits that some recordings were 'enhanced' to edit out Joyce's groans of pain as she was recording.
But he insists that Joyce herself knew nothing about the hoax.
Not being a music buff, I wouldn't much care - but Victoria Wood, who made a deliberate decision not to meet Barrie, has turned this into a poignant love story about living with disappointment and how it drains the life out of you.
Was Hatto really too scatty to know? Did she feel that she deserved her 15 minutes of fame that had been so long in coming? Did they both somehow persuade themselves that these were the ideal recordings that she could and should have made in a more perfect world?
There is an interview with Victoria Wood here.

Saturday 1 December 2012

Dancing Satyr, attributed to Praxiteles

If I'm not first through the door, then you can bet I'll be last - and if I don't see an exhibition as soon as it opens, then somehow the weeks tick away and, before I know it, it's almost too late.

When it's cold and damp, I have to force myself off the sofa, even though I know I'll be glad once I'm up and out. It was 5pm today before I got myself out of the house ...

And half an hour later, I was gazing in wonder at this Dancing Satyr that was dragged up from the seabed by fishermen off the coast of Sicily in 1998. He seemed not to be dancing so much as spiralling down to the depths from a shipwreck ... which I suppose is what really happened to him roughly 2400 years ago.

Brian Sewell gave the RA's Bronze exhibition the most scathing review, saying that the way it connects works from different times and cultures 'might amuse shallow-minded members of the Women's Institute but induce the serious to snore.'

Well, I thought it was magnificent. (Apart from the silly, obscure labels. I don't know about you but I get terribly confused between BCE and mad cow disease.)

I was spellbound by Anish Kapoor's bronze mirror, so beautiful that it seems like a cauldron of shape-shifting, molten reflections. (Or if you prefer Mr Sewell's line, some 'tag and bobtail trivia' of contemporary work.)

It was buzzing with people, lots of them young, some of them serious, nobody snoring. Here's the story of how it all came together.

And it's still on for a few days if you'd like to make up your own mind.

Thursday 29 November 2012

The first Christmas card arrived today, tucked into the first Christmas present and, no, I haven't opened it yet ...
Although I am ashamed to say that a BOGOF purchase of mincepies has already disappeared.
And there wasn't a single one left when I guiltily settled down to watch a preview of the TV adaptation of The Making of a Marchioness which I refuse to call The Making of a Lady.
(A Christmas act of goodwill so I won't be inflicting it on teenage boys come Boxing Day teatime.)
Liberties have been taken with the original and, if you've read the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett,  you won't recognise heroine Emily Fox Seton who is slender and 20 instead of 34 with big feet and good hips. And, sadly, liberties have also been taken with her poor, but cheerful lodgings which were so delightful in the book ... no Turkey-red cotton chairs or cheap Liberty cushions or twopenny halfpenny art china.
No, Emily's charming lodgings have been downgraded to standard-issue ITV garret. Presumably because the subtleties of Turkey-red cotton are lost on viewers who can't pronounce Marchioness after two glasses of Baileys and mum's sherry trifle.
I'll let them off for whizzing through part one of the book, even though that's the part I liked best, because the story is structurally very peculiar, I have to admit.
But really ... Linus Roache isn't my idea of a dull, prosaic 54-year-old marquis. (Standard-issue Mr Darcy moment when he takes off his nightshirt.)
He can put his slippers under my fourposter bed any time he likes.
Still ... I did enjoy it. Even without the mince pies.
Fortunately, I only remembered my hidden stash of blackberry whisky once it was over.

Wednesday 28 November 2012

I'm a bit late joining in with Cornflower's 'my day in books' - completing sentences with book titles that we've read this year - and I'm afraid I don't have her patience, so I haven't created any links ... but it always amuses me how there's always a title to fit!

It goes without saying that I am compiling this right now this minute largely because I am running out of excuses for putting off a job that I have been contemplating all day.

I began the day by No Surrender
before breakfasting on Cakes and Ale
and admiring Half of the Human Race.
On my way to work I saw The Odd Women
and walked by The Crowded Street
to avoid Vile Bodies
but I made sure to stop at Wolf Hall.
In the office, my boss said, Why Be Happy, When You Could Be Normal?
and sent me to research Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris.
At lunch with Wilfred and Eileen
I noticed The Expendable Man
in The End of the World Book Club,
greatly enjoying The Best of Everything.
Then, on the journey home, I contemplated Ghastly Business
because I have Double Indemnity
and am drawn to Terra Incognita.
Settling down for the evening in Jacob's Room,
I studied The Elegant Art of Falling Apart
by The Less Deceived
Before saying goodnight to The World's Wife.

Fellow procrastinators, do feel free to join in!

Sunday 25 November 2012

I have been completely gripped this week by my latest Persephone treat, Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins, and my high expectations were amply fulfilled.
The real Harriet, to mark her engagement in 1874
Jenkins, who only died two years ago, aged 100-and-something, was fascinated by Victorian crime and especially the chilling horror of domestic crime. Harriet is based on the real-life Penge Mystery, a sensational murder trial that gripped the nation in 1877. Harriet is mentally disabled, a 'natural' they would have said in those days, but she has been brought up as a fastidious lady by her loving mother - she loves fine clothes - and she has a substantial fortune of her own. On a visit as a paying-guest to distant, impoverished cousins, she falls victim to a fortune-hunter who marries her against her mother's will. Lewis was previously courting Alice, one of the cousins, whose older sister is married to his brother Patrick, an impecunious artist, in whose eyes Lewis can do no wrong ... and before too long, Lewis and Alice are living in some style as husband and wife, on Harriet's money, while Harriet and her baby are starving to death in a squalid attic at his brother's house in the country.

Harriet and her baby? Oh, yes ... it is typical of Jenkins' laconic style that she drops this in so casually, bringing the reader to a sudden jolt of realisation that Lewis has consummated his marriage to poor Harriet, how confused she must have been and how terrified giving birth to a child. Perhaps he thought it wiser to consummate the marriage so it couldn't be annulled ... and then Harriet was available, so why not, her silly devotion flattering to his vanity, and he didn't find her repulsive ... or at least he didn't yet.

There is no conspiracy to kill Harriet ... it's more a creeping wickedness of neglect and, as in her later book Dr Gully - also based on a true Victorian murder-scandal - Jenkins is brilliant on what goes on behind closed doors, out of sight of respectable society.

And although I know I'll be howled down for this, her brilliance as a writer is that she does moral ambiguity so well. In The Tortoise and the Hare, one of the best novels I've ever read about marital infidelity, she allows you to sympathise with each of the characters ... the devoted, insipid wife, her Alpha-male husband and the voracious spinster next door.

What happens to Harriet is undoubtedly wicked, but Jenkins allows you to get under everybody's skin, so although you can't exactly sympathise, you can begin to understand. How Alice is envious of lumpish Harriet in her beautiful silk gowns ... who wouldn't be? How Patrick's wife would do anything in the world for her husband and family. But of course she resents Harriet's intrusive presence in her home ... wouldn't you? How they are each of them trapped in barely genteel poverty on the lowest rungs of the Victorian middle class. Can't you just imagine Lewis, as an impoverished clerk with dreams, investing in a 1d copy of self-help guru Samuel Smiles - and embracing its message rather too well?

And at the end, we're left wondering are they guilty? Morally guilty, without a doubt. But guilty of murder?

No great surprise that Kate Summerscale chose this as one of her books of the year in yesterday's Guardian. Jenkins is wonderful on Victorian detail - food, furnishings, clothes - and I wonder if that's because she was writing in the 1930s. Close but not too close. A contemporary writer might have taken it for granted; wouldn't have bothered mentioning how Harriet fastidiously combed out her fake hair every night. (One of the shocking details later is that her real hair has become hopelessly tangled and matted into her wig.) 

I'd love to track down some more of Elizabeth Jenkins. Apparently, she wrote 12 novels - but despite keeping an eye out in charity shops, I've only ever managed to find Dr Gully, Jenkins' own favourite. Apart from the two that are still in print, of course. I enjoyed it, but I much preferred Harriet.  

Friday 23 November 2012

It was twilight as I walked through the Parc Monceau on a literary quest before catching my train home. 

And I thought of how Charles Ephrussi must have walked along these same allées, twirling his cane (or would that be vulgar?) and feeling pleased about the latest painting in his collection.

I turn up Rue de Monceau, looking for the very grand hôtel Ephrussi and a lady comes out of the house opposite. She says it has been demolished, and I say I don't think so ...
And she says you're the second English person who has asked me ...
And I stand there wondering whether I can really make out E for Ephrussi in the cast-iron window grilles or if it's just my imagination.
Then a girl comes of the house I'm looking at and I bound across the road, thinking if ask nicely maybe she'll ask me in ...
Only she has never heard of Charles Ephrussi.
And I say haven't you read the book? Only I can't remember the word for hare, so I say well, it's like a big rabbit, only it's not really a rabbit, with amber eyes ...
And she shakes her head.
(And in all honesty, would you invite this English person into your very grand house?)
And then I rummage in my coat pocket for the bit of paper and realise that I am outside 81 Rue de Monceau and that the hare/rabbit with amber eyes lived at 82. Which is quite some way down the road and I've already walked past it.
The lights are on and I stand on tiptoe and see people inside having a meeting. It is now an insurance office.
 I linger for a moment and think about Charles who appears in this painting.
And realise that if I am quick, there is time for one last glass of Kir before the train.

Thursday 22 November 2012


On a misty Saturday morning in Paris, I turned my back on the crowds of tourists outside Sacré Coeur to make a little pilgrimage to Renoir's garden, where a handsome black cat was waiting on this bench ...

Highly appropriate because there was a rather good exhibition on about the famous Chat Noir cabaret.

The garden isn't quite as it was in Renoir's day when, 'It looked like a beautiful neglected park. Outside the hallway of the little house, you found yourself facing a huge lawn of unmown grass dotted with poppies, convolvulus and daisies.'

But you could still imagine it like this ...

Garden in the Rue Cortot, Montmartre, Pierre Auguste Renoir

And I was delighted to see that there was still a swing. If not THE swing ...

From the bottom of the garden, you can look across the Montmartre vineyard, where chrysanthemums grow beneath the vines, to the Lapin Agile.

Then stroll down the road to Moulin de la Galette, where shopgirls and clerks came to dance - and the owner generously provided sandwiches if they were hungry. 

Of course, as soon as I got home I realised that I must have passed within yards of Renoir's other house in Montmartre. Oh, well...
I loved this book but it has been quite a long time since I read it.
Of course, it might have been an idea to pull it down from the shelf before I set out.

Monday 19 November 2012

It's always a plus when a work trip to Paris - a rare treat these days - coincides with an exhibition that I'm aching to see. And what I really wanted to see was the Musée d'Orsay's Impressionism and Fashion exhibition. So I was up before the crack of dawn, out of the house by 5.30am to recover on the train with a new Persephone book ... and by mid-afternoon, my time was my own.

Was it crowded? It seemed like every woman in Paris was there. Here's a review.

Women in the Garden, Claude Monet

Fresh cotton muslin crinolines made me think straight away of this painting by Monet. Spotted and striped, flounced and braided ... one of the prettiest was striped with bands of marguerites and tied with a green ribbon sash.

Sans doute les Parisiennes sont femmes, mais elles sont plus femmes que toutes les autres femmes.

It all sounds so irresistible in French, pleats and panniers, pelisses, bustles and bows. I was fascinated by all the fashion magazines and descriptions of the big new Paris department stores. 
Puis venaient des tissus plus forts, les satins merveilleux, les soies duchesse, teintes chaudes, roulant à flots grossis ... les damas, les brocarts, les soies perlées et lamées.
And I realised that I absolutely must read Zola's La Bonheur des Dames. (The inspiration for that truly dreadful BBC costume drama a few weeks ago.)
Seeing these ravishing gowns brought the paintings and the city to life, as I imagined the latest fashions  filtering down from femmes du monde to the midinettes, with money of their own to spend for the first time. Look at this ... can't you just hear the rustle of silk? (Click on the picture for the fabulous detail.)

And then look at this ...
La Parisienne, Edouard Manet

Dans la Serre ou Mme Bartholomé, Albert Bartholomé
I loved this one, because can you imagine seeing the very same dress that was worn in the painting, still looking so fresh and crisp and new? Mme Bartholomé died six years later, only 38, and her husband devotedly preserved her lovely summer frock.

I spent four hours sighing over every furbelow and flounce ... and I haven't even mentioned the bonnets and hats. If only I could go back again next week! (The exhibition is going on to Chicago and New York, but not London.)

Wednesday 7 November 2012

I don't think that I wrote about Pure when I read it earlier this year, other than to say briefly how much I enjoyed it. I know I meant to, but life probably got in the way. And I'm not going to review it now because it's gone back to the library.
But it's probably the novel that I've enjoyed most out of all that I've read this year, so I grabbed the chance to hear Andrew Miller speaking this evening at a book festival that's almost on my doorstep.
The book is about the destruction of an ancient cemetery in the heart of Paris in the last days of the Ancien Régime and Miller's writing is so brilliant that you smell the putrefying stench that pervades the locality, penetrates homes, taints food and even makes the inhabitants' breath smell.
It was interesting to hear that, as a doctor's son, Miller's childhood reading included a stash of old BMJs and copies of The Lancet.
I can't think of any historical novel - other than Wolf Hall, which I've just finished reading for the second time - that has brought the past so vividly to life.
I was surprised when Miller said that so far it hasn't been published in France. Maybe the French think that it's their history and their territory ... but they're missing out.

Monday 5 November 2012

Sometimes I have to give myself a shake to get out of the house on a cold evening, especially when Downton Abbey and Homeland are on television.
But I was glad I made the effort last night as this Canadian film about four young girls and their lives in the care system was gruelling but incredibly powerful, with wonderful performances from the young actresses - especially the little girl, eight in real life, who plays the part of an anxious six year old shuttled from one foster home to another.
I don't suppose this will get wide distribution - but if it's on near you, it's well worth seeing.

Saturday 27 October 2012

If only I'd given in to that impulse to retrace my steps for another look at Scarlett's green curtains ... I'd have run into Darlene who arrived at the V&A's Hollywood Costume exhibition about 20 minutes before I left.

But we only discovered that after we both got home.

Missing each other would have been a tragedy except that we have a date to meet tomorrow morning.

We haven't had a chance to exchange impressions of the exhibition yet ... but I LOVED it.

The first thing I saw as I walked in was Scarlett's green velvet dress from Gone With the Wind. I felt a bit sad because it was terribly badly lit and, try as I might, there was no way I could make out the chicken claw garnish on Scarlett's hat. Remember the scene when Uncle Peter chases the rooster for Christmas dinner? It's the last chicken in Atlanta that wasn't stolen by Yankee troops - and after they ate it, Scarlett used its feathers and one of its black, scaly claws to trim her hat.

It was the minuscule detail that you miss on the screen that had me gasping and sighing and appreciating how every costume writes its character's backstory.  The patches and darns on Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp costume, his trousers cobbled together with white thread. (How my dad would have loved to have seen that.)
The tawdry green bunny rabbit brooch that Kim Novak wore in Vertigo ... I'd never noticed it before but it was so exactly right.
Vanessa Redgrave's Guinevere wedding dress from Camelot. Terrible film ... but who would have guessed that her gown was crocheted spiders' webs stitched with tiny pearls and hundreds of pumpkin seeds?
There was something very sad about the stained cowboy boots from Brokeback Mountain. They seemed to speak volumes.
And Eliza Doolittle's skimpy green coat and black mittens. (How I wish that they'd had her black and white Ascot gown. It sold for $3.7 million last year to a very private collector and the V&A couldn't track it down.)
I gasped at Meryl Streep's French Lieutenant's Woman's cloak which I hadn't been expecting and ooohed over some serious glamour and sequins from the golden era of Hollywood. Like Hedy Lamarr's
peacock feather cape from Samson and Delilah, collected from the peacocks at Cecil B DeMille's ranch.
And I giggled at the provocative costume for a risqué 1920 silent movie called Sex - because a distant cousin on my mother's side played a part in bringing in the Hays Code.
He'd be spinning in his grave if he could see Keira Knightley's slinky green dress from Atonement.
But I was astonished at the laser-cut detail on the décolletage... impossible to see it on screen, but the idea was to make her seem nearly naked.
I think it worked.

Tuesday 23 October 2012

If you can laugh through the movie that starts at 10am. If you have the stomach for lunch in McDonalds (after visiting the cow with a foot growing out of its back). If you don't mind going into every souvenir shop that you pass. And the biggest, brashest, noisiest sweet shop. If you stop for a sniff of the smelly durian fruit in Chinatown and watch the man making angel hair noodles with only his fingers. (He does noodle rabbits for appreciative audiences.) If you high-five every animal in the Rain Forest and explore three whole floors of Lego, Scalextric and remote-control helicopters without a whimper or a cup of tea.
If you know the shop where they sell the biggest ice creams on the way home ...

You can bask in hugs and sticky kisses and agree that it was the best day out EVER.

Friday 19 October 2012

Edward Bawden, Farming (1950)

Elizabeth Blackadder, Eastern still life (1980)

Archie Brennan, At a Window VII, The Spotted Dress (1980) 
Last weekend's exhibition wasn't one that I'd recommend ... but today's was a delight, even though the weather was too dank and gloomy for making the most of the lovely grounds at Compton Verney. (This time last year, I was scrumping apples there but it just wasn't that kind of day.)

Tapestry:Weaving the Century at Dovecot Studios marks the centenary of the Edinburgh-based studio that was originally set up by the Marquess of Bute - back in the days of Downton Abbey -  to furnish his homes. And you thought Sanderson wallpaper was posh ...
The studio has recently been rehoused in a former public baths and I'll definitely be making a visit next time I'm in Edinburgh. (There are only two British tapestry studios. The other is West Dean.)

My ideas about tapestry were pretty much Louis XIV's Gobelins meets William Morris. I certainly wasn't thinking about the swing of the pleats in that black and white dress.

Stanley Spencer was thrilled by the one and only tapestry ever produced from his work. (Not in the Compton Verney exhibition, but maybe I can catch it here if I'm quick.)
David Hockney was less impressed when he visited Edinburgh to check on progress and realised that a line that took two minutes to draw took three weeks to weave. (Hockney's work is called A Tapestry made from a Painting, made from a Painting of a Tapestry, made from a Painting. Which had my brain in knots!

I'm not sure whether I was more impressed by the fact that weavers traditionally worked from the back of the loom; so they could only see the front of the tapestry by peering through the warps at its reflection in a mirror ...
Or simply bowled over by the way one weaver decided in the 1960s to work from the front, which demanded a whole new set of skills - but gave the finished work so much texture and expression.

For those who love wool shops and yarn, there is one room devoted to having a go yourself. Suffice to say, weaving is not a buried talent that I didn't know I had. You need more than nimble fingers.

Saturday 13 October 2012

Normally, I think that tickets for London's wonderful museum and art gallery exhibitions are terrifically good value, when you think of the cost of mounting a blockbuster show like Tate Britain's Pre-Raphaelites.  (And compare ticket prices with the cost of a West End cinema seat.)
But very, very occasionally I think, they've got a cheek!
And the Museum of London have some brass neck charging £9 for their new exhibition about London's grave-robbers and surgeons. We had free preview tickets, so shouldn't complain - and probably wouldn't have bothered going at all if we hadn't -  but there simply wasn't enough here to justify more than a small one-room display.
The brass neck is charging £9 to see it when you could hop down the road to where the same story is better told in a hauntingly beautiful display at the Hunterian Museum. Where you don't pay a penny.

Spirits were restored by a pot of Lapsang and a passionfruit cupcake in Bea's.
And by the best free ride in London ... up in the glass lift, face to face with St Paul's Cathedral, to see the spectacular view from here. Breathtaking even on a gloomy day.

Thursday 11 October 2012

After reading The Expendable Man a few months ago, I decided that Dorothy B Hughes was Persephone's most neglected author, and now I've been gripped once again by her creepy, twisted noir  thriller In a Lonely Place  - which is much, much creepier and darker than the movie starring Humphrey Bogart. Interesting to discover that Hughes' cynical, damaged war veteran Dix Steele partly inspired Patricia Highsmith's Ripley. I was also very pleased to discover that Hughes seems to have been quite  a prolific writer and that there's lots of wonderfully lurid covers available on Amazon. Don't think I'd want to read them back to back, though.

Wednesday 10 October 2012

By chance tonight I came across this lovely documentary about Edna O'Brien who has such a beguiling voice, I could go back to the start and listen all over again.

Friday 5 October 2012

After I wrote about Maggie Smith's new film the other day, I tracked down the documentary about the real Casa di Riposi per Musicisti in Milan, that inspired the original stageplay.
No subtitles, unfortunately. I've been dipping in and out and, maybe over the weekend, I'll see if I can watch it all the way through in Italian.
But even if you don't understand Italian, do take a look from 21.56 ... Che bella.

Sunday 30 September 2012

When I got home with two stems of kangaroo paw, a couple of boughs of cherry and a bunch of pink lilies ...
I wondered what Constance Spry would have done. Apart from throwing in a cabbage. (Bought the expensive pink hydrangeas that weren't reduced probably.)
But that's Columbia Road at the bargain basement end of the afternoon.
The arrangement looks .... unusual.
Perhaps Constance Spry had a better selection of vases.

Friday 28 September 2012

I'm going to Atlanta for that $300 and I've got to go looking like a queen ...

Of all the fabulous costumes in the V&A's Hollywood Costume exhibition, the one I really, really want to see is Scarlett's green curtain dress  (and the chicken feather hat that goes with it).

The Batsuit? Not so much.

I've often thought that it must be great fun being part of that older generation of actors/actresses whose working lives seem to be one Uptown Downstairs Abbey reunion after another.
So of course I loved Maggie Smith's new film Quartet (with Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins, a greyed-up Billy Connolly, bit of a shock that last one because I think of him as in his prime.)
The movie (to be released in the New Year) is set in a home for retired opera singers and was filmed in the rather splendid Hedsor House (next door to Cliveden) where I wouldn't mind ending up in my dotage. If I have to have a dotage, that is.

It's not often that Stannah stairlifts get a movie credit.

(No, you don't get to see Dame Maggie on the stairlift ... although I'm sure she could sail down with aplomb and I expect they'll be installing one in Downton Abbey in time for series 5.)

By the end of the film my eyes were damp. My friend let out a loud Bravo.
But I think what moved me most were the closing credits when it turned out that several of the supporting actors, playing other residents of the home, really had been musicians in their day. And we saw snapshots of them when they were young and gorgeous. (And the dates didn't even seem all that long ago.) The most famous was Dame Gwyneth Jones, who was the butt of some of Dame Maggie's best lines, but there were several more whose names I wasn't quick enough to catch.
It seemed all the more poignant as only a couple of weeks ago I was visiting a 92-year-old lady in the kind of home that makes you think, Please, please don't let me end up in a place like this.

If any of you understand Italian - no subtitles, unfortunately - you might enjoy this link to a documentary that was the inspiration for the original stageplay, about the real Casa di Riposo for musicians founded by Verdi in Milan. It looks a real delight although I haven't had time to watch it right through. They speak slowly so I'm hoping my rusty Italian might cope.

Monday 24 September 2012

I can't claim that I was fulfilling my lifetime's ambition ...
But it was great fun to ride on the footplate of a steam train and have the job of tooting the whistle.
However, train drivers must be more lissom than I am,
Because the only way I could get down again was on my hands and knees in the soot with my bum in the air. There are NO photographs and it is very unkind of you even to think that.
A nice man said, 'Jump, lass, and I'll catch thee.'
But I thought I might flatten him.
With half an hour to wait at Leamington Spa station the other day, I was delighted to come across the unprecedented sight of a bookshelf in the waiting room. The Friends of Leamington Station invite you to borrow, read, return, swap or keep books as you wish ...
I couldn't swap a book as all I had with me was a library book.
But I gratefully helped myself to a Rumer Godden that I hadn't read before and hoped that Simone de Beauvoir and Barbara Pym would soon find good homes. (Didn't want to be greedy.)
I'm not very likely to be in Leamington Spa again any time soon. But what a nice idea - and an interesting selection of books.

Tuesday 18 September 2012

On the Beach at Newlyn, Ernest Proctor
I made a detour on the way home yesterday to see this Modern Romantics show; so slight, it's almost anorexic - as most of the best mid-century paintings have disappeared into private collections. (No Piper or Ravilious, which is what I'd been hoping for.)

In a Cottage Garden, Henry Herbert La Thangue

Still, quite a nice thing to do on the way home from work. Though I far preferred the work of earlier Newlyn artists at the back of the ground-floor gallery.

Monday 17 September 2012

I have no idea why, but this post from a couple of years ago - about what lurks in the depths of my handbag - is actually the second most popular post that I have written since I began blogging. (You can't argue with stats!)
I thought of it on Friday, as I reshuffled my papers for a meeting at work.
A strategically-placed notebook hid a large rabbit pie
And half-a-pound of haslet.
(I haven't changed.)
The pie got slightly bashed on the way home
But it was absolutely delicious.
And I did ask the butcher to wrap it really, really well.
This is not recommended if your handbag has featured in Vogue.
But I suspect that ladies who lunch do not do rabbit pie. And definitely not haslet.

Saturday 15 September 2012

We all have a lot more to read than we can read and a lot more to do than we can do. Still, one of the things I learned from Mom is this: Reading isn't the opposite of doing; it's the opposite of dying. I will never be able to read my mother's favourite books without thinking of her and when I pass them on and recommend them, I'll know that some of what made her goes with them.

Mary Anne Schwalbe was a remarkable, lively, inspiring woman who died three years ago this week, someone you read about and wish you'd had the chance to meet.
After she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, her son Will kept her company through endless chemo treatments and, as mother and son chatted about the books they were reading, very soon they found that they had formed a special book club of two ...
The End of Your Life Book Club.
As soon as I read Cornflower's review a few days ago, I was hooked. And like her, I've devoured this book in a couple of days.
Because on one of those first hospital visits, in November 2007, when Will asked his mother what she was reading, her book turned out to be Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner.
Now if I had to choose one book for the end of my own life book club, it would be this one. If you have never read it, it is a book about what it means to be human.
When one of their next reads turned out to be Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, that was it ... I might just as well have pulled my chair up beside Mary Anne's bed and started eating the grapes.  I can't think of any character in literature who would be more sustaining to have beside you at the end of your life. (I find cheerful people very draining ... Olive Kitteridge is a wonderful, resilient grouch.)
The End of Your Life Book Club is a long, wonderful conversation about books in very good company. There's a great book list, several of which I'd read and loved: William Trevor's disturbing  Felicia's Journey and Alan Bennett's Uncommon Reader; and I've made a note that I really must read Appointment in Samarra (John O'Hara) and Marjorie Morningstar (Herman Wouk).
But really it is about how a mother and son, who were already close, use books as a way of creeping up sideways on the big questions they don't always want to tackle head on.
It is also a lovely, affectionate memoir of a woman who knew how to live well even when she was dying.

We could still share books, and while reading those books, we wouldn't be the sick person and the well person; we would simply be a mother and son entering new worlds together.

We're all in the end-of-our-life book clubs, whether we acknowledge it or not; each book we read may well be our last, each conversation the final one.

Links here and here to more about the book.

Monday 10 September 2012

No matter how many times I look at Pre-Raphaelite paintings, there's always something new that catches my eye. I gazed for a long time this morning at Ford Madox Brown's The Last of England, at Tate Britain's magnificent exhibition. Had I really never noticed those cabbages before ...
Surely I must have registered how tightly the woman is pinching the cold, purply-blue flesh of her husband's hand as she clings to him for courage? The skin is puckering under her leather-gloved fingers.
I'm pretty sure, though, that I've never before noticed the child's red sock peeping out from under her cloak. And can you make out the clever cord that attaches the husband's hat to his coat button, so it won't blow away? (If you click on the image, you'll see the detail.)

There were paintings that are old friends, that I haven't seen for a while. Like this one.

 Isabella, John Everett Millais
And one in particular that I looked at with a fresh eye. Now I realise that this is a seriously dysfunctional family ...
But look at that phallic shadow springing from the brother's groin. Was there something incestuous going on between brother and sister?
She, after all, is barking mad and uses her lover's decapitated head as potting compost for her kitchen herbs. And Lorenzo, if it comes to that ... He is the lover, offering the plate of oranges to Isabella. He is a warehouse clerk employed by her wealthy brothers. But look at his face. This is potentially one freaky stalker.
You could make a film out of everything that's going on here.

The Children's Holiday, William Holman Hunt

But there were other paintings that I've never seen before. I don't remember this one (even though it's from Torre Abbey and I lived in Torquay for a while.)
But, oh, that gleaming samovar, those teacups, those currant buns ...

If you don't love the Pre-Raphaelites, but you get dragged along to the exhibition - a friend's husband was shuddering on Sunday afternoon at what is in store for him - look out for this funny little satirical watercolour by Florence Claxton (from the V&A, but I've never come across it before) mercilessly taking the mickey out of Millais and his redheads.

Because sometimes you just have to laugh:

The Triumph of the Innocents, William Holman Hunt

Saturday 8 September 2012

On one of the last sunny afternoons of summer ...

I sat in a darkened cinema watching the longest perfume advert ever made.

Thrilled to Keira's gnashers masticating her lover.

Anna the Kannibal?

Thought that if I'd been her I'd sooner have seduced my sombre, sexy husband than drippy Vronsky.

Wondered why the ball scene reminded me of Hogwarts' prom night.

Loved the hats, furs and diamonds (from Chanel)

And yawned as I wondered if there'd be any bread in Waitrose by the time it was over.

Luckily, I got out before the ice-cream shop closed. (Pistachio, fig and mandarin.)

It was five* ice-cream

And a two and a half* film.