Sunday 26 February 2012

The Irish giant faces you head-on as you enter the slightly eerie, mauve-grey light of the museum. The glass cabinets are as sparkly as any expensive parfumerie ... until you realise that the glittering jars and bottles contain body parts and foetuses.
The giant is Charles Byrne who died in 1783 and he shares his glass cabinet with the skeletons of Mr Jeffs (long dead of a painful genetic disorder) and a seven-month foetus.
Byrne, who was 7foot 7inches tall, was one of several Irish giants who exhibited themselves in Georgian England. (He suffered from something called pituitary gigantism.) It cost 2s6d to visit the 22-year-old giant in his genteel apartment at an umbrella shop behind the Mall. Children and liveried servants, 1s.
The giant was in London for barely more than a year. His health deteriorated after he was robbed of his substantial life savings of £700 and he took to drink. Maybe out of loneliness or despair ... or maybe sheer terror. He had already caught the eye of the surgeon John Hunter, founder of this same Hunterian Museum. Who paid a man to follow the ailing giant's every move.
Think of it ... to know that the grave robber covets your body even before you are dead.
The dying giant left instructions that he was to be buried at sea in a lead coffin. But, en route to the coast at Margate, one of his friends was bribed by Hunter to sell him the corpse.
The surgeon boiled the giant's remains down to the skeleton, hid it for four years, then put it on display in the original museum at his house in Leicester Square. There has been some recent controversy about whether the museum should now do the decent thing and belatedly bury the giant at sea. (To be fair to Hunter, he carried out post-mortems on several of his own friends and family and was himself dissected when he eventually died in 1793.)
My first thought was that all this would make a great novel. Then I discovered that Hilary Mantel had the same idea.
But as I was heading for Trafalgar Square, anyway, for the Lucian Freud exhibition, I made a detour to see if I could find the street where the giant had his elegant apartment.
There's no blue plaque ... just government buildings, the back of a hotel, a multi-storey car park. Nothing to see - but I loitered, anyway, fascinated to think that an Irish giant had walked this street in fear 200 years ago.
I went past again on a bus a few days later with my 11-year-old niece and so I told her the story. She looked at me with withering disdain and utter boredom ...
I bet Hilary Mantel has a more receptive family.

Sunday 19 February 2012

I'm ambivalent about Alain de Botton and his School of Life but there's no denying that he's a brilliant speaker ... he speaks in paragraphs and doesn't even draw breath ... and his talk at the National Theatre last week was packed out.
But I couldn't help laughing when I saw the incredibly long line of people waiting to meet him afterwards and get their books signed.
He's clearly hit the spot with religion for atheists ...
If they still feel some primeval need for blessings and relics.

Sunday 12 February 2012

So glad that I made it to Chichester the other day in time to catch this exhibition which was a rare treat, especially as most of the paintings were on loan from private collections.

Friday 10 February 2012

Woman's Weekly was a blast from the past, even in the late 1960s when my best friend's gran used to save back copies for us.
I can't say we were enthralled by 'famed for its knitting,' and Mary Marryat's ladylike problem page wasn't a patch on Cathy and Claire in Jackie (which was banned by the nuns at school.)
But we were magazine addicts and read anything we could get our hands on from cover to cover. There was a running battle with my mum who thought Petticoat was depraved. Mum used to take Woman and Woman's Own, which I'd grab before she had the chance to sit down with them. But we had art student lodgers who kept a blissful stack of back copies of She magazine, Honey (my favourite) and Nova - how brilliant is this cover, streets ahead of any women's mags today - far too cutting-edge for 12-year-old me, but I read it anyway.
Who would have thought that Woman's Weekly would have survived into a new millennium ... long after the demise of Petticoat, Honey et al. Maybe they did Catch their Death in those mini-skirts and the way to longevity is knitting your own sensible knickers. Woman's Weekly readers really did knit their own lingerie. This programme yesterday was a hoot.

Tuesday 7 February 2012

In an ideal world, there would be a flying squad of marmalade troubleshooters who could be called upon in emergency.
Like the midwives of Nonnatus House, they would rattle up on sit-up-and-beg bicycles, in sensible shoes and wraparound pinnies, bringing calm and good advice as the rolling boil comes to a crisis.
They would never have allowed me to go into labour shredding orange peel at 4.30pm on Sunday afternoon because that way lies tears before bedtime.
They would have restrained me from pushing too soon - knowing that it is recklessly dangerous to stir in the sugar, then think, sod it, I'll finish it off tomorrow.
Because on Monday morning, I woke up to marmalade that had set solid in the pan.
And when I got home from work at 10pm, I was too exhausted to push any more.
And contemplated chucking the whole lot into the bin.
I missed a dear friend who died last year. This has been my first time without a marmalade doula to take 999 calls, coax me through giving it welly on the rolling boil and give me confidence at the worrying wrinkly stage on the saucer.
At least, this year I didn't have to worry about it setting.
There was some emergency intervention. (Melted it down, if you must know.)
And after one last sticky push ... I was finally delivered of 7lb on Tuesday lunchtime.
Mother and marmalade are doing well.
But could the midwife please bring some wax-paper circles when she makes the home visit?

Thursday 2 February 2012

Maybe it was January torpor that got me off to a slow start with this - because it's a novel that ought to be read with the brain switched on - but heavens, I'm so glad I persevered because it got so gripping that my bedside light hasn't been switched off until 3am for the last couple of nights.
As for the slow start, well, Cornflower put it very well when she said that Jane Harris's plot is like a rope played out.
I feel as if the Victorian spinster narrator has tickled me like a trout ... and now I'm flailing in her net, and I'd happily go right back to the beginning to see how many clues I didn't pick up on.
As for the ending ... What? I'm sure I really did let out a yelp as I nearly jumped out of my bed.
The trouble is, this is a very difficult novel to review without spoiling it for anybody else.
In 1888, the summer of Glasgow's International Exhibition, Harriet Baxter, a financially-independent female, makes the aquaintance of a young artist and his family and, by making herself useful, soon becomes a fixture in their home.
That's enough. You'll have to read it for yourselves. All I'm going to say is that I should have been listening harder right from the start ...