Wednesday 30 May 2012

Stony Track, Angie Lewin
For some light relief yesterday, as I was just around the corner, I popped in to the tiny St Jude's exhibition of work by Mark Hearld, Angie Lewin and Emily Sutton, all madly covetable ... and this is the one I'd have chosen if I could have afforded a £500 treat.
Of course, it would hang oddly if I could also afford a print from the Photographers' Gallery.
I'm going to have to address these problems when I win the lottery.
Or buy a house big enough for a floral parlour and an apocalyptic drawing room.
Highway#1, Intersection 105&110, Los Angeles, California, Edward Burtynsky


It turned out to be an apocalyptic afternoon, first a gripping dystopian movie shot in Glasgow...

And then this dazzling exhibition by Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky in the newly-renovated Photographers' Gallery that offers pigeon's eye views over the grey, dystopian roofscape of Oxford Street.

His photographs are about oil, 'that flows like blood in our veins'; apocalyptic landscapes, highways hurtling towards celestial cities in the desert, a rainbow shimmering over an oil spillage.

They are more beautiful than you can imagine. They made me think of Richard Dadd's visions of hell, of Georgia O'Keeffe's bleached desert, of Turner sunsets, of Richard Serra, Mondrian, Dan Flavin and even Marcel Broodthaers. A 5* exhibition that's free to get in.

Friday 25 May 2012

Couldn't resist Cornflower's book titles game in honour of Chelsea Flower Show, so here's my effort:

Early this morning, as I was waiting for The World's Wife, I stepped out of The Crowded Street and bent down to touch Terra Incognita. 
As dawn broke and I took in my surroundings, I noticed several things: Half of the Human Race was struggling due to Ghastly Business,  Bricks and Mortar had been dug up in The Paper Garden under the Oak, but with help from The Other Elizabeth Taylor and knowledge gleaned from The Language of Flowers, I was able to bury them with The Sense of an Ending.
Later The Expendable Man popped in to take a cutting or two. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, he told me but he pointed out The Odd Women. 
Taking a well-earned rest from the weeding and chatting over the wall with Mrs Bridge from next door, I mentioned A Card From Angela Carter and remarked on Freedom. But then Gillespie and I, we said, Down the Garden Path and I went back to do a little light pruning.
My garden was once The Best of Everything but tending it is a joy and part of A Bigger Message.

Anybody else like to join in?

Wednesday 23 May 2012

There's a black taffeta ballgown hanging in my wardrobe as a tragic reminder that in some dim and distant past I had a 22in waist ...
So, of course, I couldn't wait to see the V&A's Ballgowns exhibition. And I'm not saying that I didn't enjoy it.
But I did think that the V&A haven't exactly pushed the boat out for the re-opening of their fashion galleries. Because this has none of the gasp-ooh-aah-sigh-isn't-it-gorgeous quality of their Golden Age of Couture exhibition a few years ago, or those two stunning exhibitions of hats and tiaras.
Maybe it's because this exhibition is subtitled British Glamour since 1950 ...
Well, I'm fine with the Fifties. But after that it's more like British Glamour: Its Last Gasp.
What came across loud and clear is that real glamour no longer exists, It's just showbizzy bling on the red carpet ... and on the stroke of midnight your borrowed frock goes back to the designer.
What's glamorous about a tinfoil dress that would make even the most beautiful woman look like a 20lb turkey trussed for the oven. Accessorised with what ... sage and onion?
I was also taken aback by the hideousness of the mannequins, with their distractingly dislocated hips and shoulders, like something out of C&A's window in 1972.
But how I've missed the fashion galleries which seem to have been closed forever. And if you leave the exhibition (which is £10 to get in) and walk around the permanent collection (which is free), there's all the  ooh-aah glamour you could desire. Mainbocher crêpe-de-Chine, cut on the bias? A Poiret evening coat from the 1920s? Or my favourite spotty Lanvin cocktail dress with a neat little bustle?
Although I also love a natty little 1920s tennis dress that might have been worn by a character from Angela Thirkell.

Monday 21 May 2012

The Expendable Man, by Dorothy B Hughes, Persephone Books endpaper

I have been utterly gripped by this for the past two days and utterly amazed that with all the Persephone blog chat, more people aren't shouting about it - because, trust me, it's one of their best. 
From the outset, it is unsettling ... why is this respectable young doctor so jumpy and paranoid as he drives through the Arizona desert on his way to a family wedding? His anxiety is so unnerving - what guilty secret lies in his past? what can he have done?- that every page thrums with tension and every frame feels like a film noir  playing inside your head. I couldn't possibly say anything else without spoiling it, except that on page 71, Dorothy B Hughes casually shocks you to the core ...
And you realise the hints have been there all along. 

This was a 5* Persephone which made me wonder which of their other titles I'd choose for my top ten. 
So in no particular order, here goes:
Someone at a Distance ... Dorothy Whipple pulling the rug from under a happy marriage. 
Fidelity by Susan Glaspell, written in 1915, and also Brook Evans, impossible to choose one over the other as Glaspell is so shockingly ahead of her time. 
Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski ... one of the saddest stories I've ever read. 
Miss Pettigrew, of course ... she's irresistible. 
And so is The Fortnight in September, by RC Sherriff, one of the best feelgood stories I've ever read. 
Still Missing, by Beth Gutcheon. Another page-turner.
The World That Was Ours by Hilda Bernstein, a true story that's as good as a thriller. 
Round About A Pound A Week because it brings the history of poor London women - not so very long ago - so vividly alive. 

Oh dear, we'll have to call it a baker's dozen, because I couldn't possibly leave out Saplings (Noel Streatfeild) or The Village (another Marghanita Laski) and although it's a long time since I read it, Alas, Poor Lady (Rachel Ferguson) was powerful punch-in-the-gut spinster-lit. 

So that's my ten, although it's really 13. But as you can see, I'm all for feel-bad and a cracking good story over what they call 'hot water bottle' novels ... at least most of the time. 

Anybody want to argue for titles I've excluded? I haven't read them all, but I must have ticked off more than 60, plus a couple that have fallen under the bed and, I fear, will go forever unloved and unfinished.

Sunday 20 May 2012

I know what I was expecting from an exhibition called Age of Elegance ... and I came away feeling ever-so-slightly short-changed because it wasn't all about ladies in tea-gowns and ball dresses.

But there were a few, in among the portraits of City gentlemen by once fashionable artists that I'd never heard of. (The Hon John Collier anybody? Fred Roe? Albert Chevallier Tayler?)

These three young girls in a garden of roses and hollyhocks could be the heroines of a Persephone novel, don't you think? Their summer dresses reminded me of my mum's old family photos and all those great-aunts and cousins whose names none of us can remember. The painting is Amaryllis, by George Harcourt, 1924.

And this is definitely what I had in mind ... Lady Lavery in her grey chiffon negligée with that pink satin shoulder-strap simply crying out to be ripped off. No wonder Michael Collins was in love with her and a description of this painting was supposedly found on his body after he was killed.

Not the most coherent of exhibitions. But free to get in, so I'm not complaining.  And only a hop round the corner from a pot of Lapsang and scones and cream here.

Which is about as elegant as I can aspire to on a Sunday afternoon.

Thursday 17 May 2012

My book bargains on Charing Cross Road this afternoon, only £1 each:
A Girl of the Limberlost, Gene Stratton Porter (1912)
Mrs Bridge, Evan S Connell (1959)
At the Jerusalem, Paul Bailey (1967) ... the book that impelled Elizabeth Taylor to stalk Paul Bailey to his job on the shopfloor at Harrods and take him as her inspiration for Ludo in Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.

Has anybody read any of them?  I was quite pleased with my haul.
You see them every morning at a quarter to nine, rushing out of the maw of the subway tunnel, filing out of Grand Central Station, crossing Lexington and Park and Madison and Fifth avenues, the hundreds and hundreds of girls. Some of them look eager and some look resentful, and some of them look as if they haven't left their beds yet. Some of them have been up since six-thirty in the morning ... They carry the morning newspapers and overstuffed handbags. Some of them are wearing pink or chartreuse fuzzy overcoats and five-year-old ankle-strap shoes and have their hair up in pin curls underneath kerchiefs. Some of them are wearing chic black suits (maybe last year's but who can tell?) and kid gloves and are carrying their lunches in violet-sprigged Bonwit Teller paper bags. None of them has enough money. 

How could I resist an intro like that? I wouldn't have been able to resist the Pan paperback either, but my library copy is a not-nearly-so-racy Penguin, with its 'as seen on Mad Men' sticker.
I'm a bit late catching up with Mad Lit, seeing as how I've been hooked on the series since the very first episode (a sore subject now that it's no longer on BBC2). But this is the 1958 best seller that Don Draper was reading to find out what girls of Peggy's generation want. His wife Betty, meanwhile, was reading Mary McCarthy's The Group. Rona Jaffe's novel is hardly great literature - she was only 26 when it was published - but it grabbed me from the first page and made my toes curl at the thought of some of my own entanglements during my 20s. If only I'd been reading it with a stiff Martini instead of a mug of tea. And I thought I was going to have such a glamorous life ...

As for those Bonwit Teller paper bags, see how gorgeous they were. You simply couldn't use them to carry just any old ham sandwich.

Tuesday 15 May 2012

They were filming a commercial outside the flower shop at the corner of my street this morning, in the pouring rain.
It made me realise that with the proper lighting, and seen through rose-coloured glasses, ordinary life on an ordinary street can seem as glossy as a movie.
Tonight I rounded that corner again -
And the foxes had been at the bin bags.

Saturday 12 May 2012

This is one of those great British films of the 1940s (directed by Powell and Pressburger) that I'd never actually seen.
It is long ... very long. And 10.30am isn't my ideal time for seeing a movie. The lights went down, I hadn't had time for my second cup of tea, let alone the third cup that gets me almost semi-functional ... and it had barely started before I was snoozing just resting my eyes.
Luckily I perked up, because it was well worth seeing. If Mrs Miniver (1942) was the film that Churchill credited with winning the war, Colonel Blimp (1943) was the film he tried to suppress.
It is about what it means to be English, through two world wars when England was facing up to the need to fight dirty. It has Deborah Kerr looking lovely in three different roles. And a mad comedy opening sequence years ahead of its time. (War starts at midnight ....)
But mostly it is about old-fashioned honour and ideals in a world that has irrevocably changed - and Brigadier-General Wynne-Candy, a gallant young VC during the Boer War, who has become a red-faced, fat and balding Blimp by WW2. It is timeless in that it is about age and experience feeling redundant in a young world and old men taking a back seat to give youth its day.

And when it was over, I stepped out into the sunshine - for the first time in weeks - and went for an amble through Borough Market for the best cheap lunch in London. Which is a £3.75 chorizo, pepper and rocket sandwich from Brindisa, followed by a stroll around the free samples. (At your own risk. I'm fine with the chorizo/Turkishdelight/Thaicurry/chocolatetruffle combo. But maybe you're not.)

Then I stood for a few minutes under the Shard, with all the other people looking up and marvelling ...
This feels unnerving as it seems to tilt towards you.
It is extraordinarily beautiful and delicate as reflections of clouds and planes pan across its surface.
And I can't wait to go up to the top. In 2013.

Sunday 6 May 2012

It's amazing how much you can see from a bus. Driving westwards out of London yesterday, we passed brutal

Trellick Tower - which I can't bring myself to love.
And the Hoover building, a little bit of the Jazz Age on Western Avenue. You can't not love the Hoover building.
Then to everyone's surprise, the driver went the pretty way, past the house where TS Eliot once lived (only caught that out of the corner of my eye) and a breathtakingly lovely bluebell wood (couldn't stop). Until we arrived in Oxford and St Catherine's College, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year,  where my eyes were opened to the harmonious dignity of Arne Jacobsen's wonderful Modern architecture. (Whoever would have thought that concrete could be warm and organic and
We had lunch in the dining hall. (On Arne Jacobsen chairs ... and look at those table lamps ... but the original cutlery has been pinched by previous generations of students.) The American architect who delivered a riveting lecture said, If Harry Potter went to Christ Church, then James Bond surely went to St Catherine's. The secret gardens, unfolding from one to the next like a puzzle,  made me think of a 20th century Alice in Wonderland. I've been to Oxford more times than I remember, and nearly always spend an hour or so wandering around the colleges but this was the first time I'd ever been to St Catherine's. If this was Denmark, somebody said, tourists would be thronging to see it ... and they'd be right.

Friday 4 May 2012

I said, 'You will have to find your answers without me,' which made him tap his fountain pen so hard in frustration that it left a large blot of ink on his compulsive little page of notes. If I had not felt so sorry for him, I would have laughed out loud at his desire to pin everything down, at his naiveté, at his childish desire to know. 

I was looking forward to reading Charlotte Rogan's debut novel The Lifeboat, which has been massively hyped. (Hilary Mantel calls it a splendid book, that 'rivets the reader's attention and ... seethes with layered ambiguity.') But that final sentence of the novel rather sums up why I found it an unsatisfying read.
Two years after the Titanic, another ocean liner sinks as passengers are fleeing from Europe at the outbreak of war. Grace is the last passenger to board lifeboat 14, perilously overloaded - and as the novel opens she and two other women are on trial for the murder of charismatic Mr Hardie, the crew member in charge of the boat. Grace had been on her honeymoon trip but she isn't quite the innocent young bride she appears; after the loss of her family's fortune and her father's suicide, she has schemed her way to marrying a wealthy young banker. The Lord, she feels, helps those who help themselves.
But during three weeks on the lifeboat, it becomes clear that some must die in order that others survive. When a power struggle develops between Hardie and the redoubtable Mrs Grant, Grace bides her time. Lord of the Flies meets Drownton Abbey? That's about the measure of it. How far will any of us go to survive? And how far must women go to survive in a man's world?
I'm sure this book will be popular with book groups but to me it seemed at risk of sinking under the weight of too many issues and ultimately I didn't care much whether the characters survived, either their trial at sea or their trial in the courtroom. Most of the passengers seem fairly indistinguishable and that proto-feminist power struggle didn't convince me.
The novel was inspired by a famous court case of 1884 after two shipwrecked seamen killed and cannibalised their cabin boy. Now that might have been gripping...

Tuesday 1 May 2012

I didn't mean to leave it so long before writing about the fascinating Elizabeth Taylor day last week at Battle library, Reading; the library that Taylor frequented as a girl, on the same dreary suburban street where she lived. Lined with shops, back then it would have been  'Home and Colonial, the International Stores, Lipton's, the kind of shops that had marble counters, rice and semolina displayed in open hessian sacks, big slabs of butter, fish and meat pastes in jars, broken biscuits sold in bulk.' Today, it's non-stop traffic, rundown charity shops, exotic Asian greengrocers and a mosque.
The event was sold-out, hardcore Taylor fans having travelled from all over the country. No surprise to find Simon there and it was lovely to meet Dovegreyreader who was leading the session on Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.
It could hardly have been a better day had Elizabeth Taylor - famously shy - been there herself. But how she would have hated it, said her daughter; there's no way she would have agreed to attend. The speakers included both of Taylor's children - her daughter Joanna Kingham and son Renny Taylor - and apparently there were grandchildren and even great-grandchildren in the audience. And how poignant it was to hear Elizabeth Jane Howard speak so movingly of her late friend. 'We never talked about our writing. Ever,' she said. 'I didn't dare to. I felt very much in awe of her. And she didn't want to.'
The family reminiscences were fascinating. Taylor wrote by hand in cardboard-covered exercise books. 'It didn't interfere with her being a housewife,' said her son. 'If we came home, she'd put the books away and start cooking.' If she overheard anything interesting when she was on a bus, she scribbled it down on the back of her shopping list. And whoever would have thought that the ladylike Mrs Taylor was a very good pub darts player? Her son bought her a workman's donkey jacket and daubed it with fluorescent paint so that she wouldn't get knocked down on the busy country road to the pub.
But the lumbering, great elephant in the room ... all the more evident for being unmentioned all day, to the point where really it was ridiculous not to acknowledge that it was there ... was Nicola Beauman's very affectionate, even hagiographic, biography The Other Elizabeth Taylor. Which was all too obviously not on sale on the bookstall. But I'm not afraid of elephants so I broached it with Joanna Kingham to ask whether she had mellowed towards the book since it came out. She hadn't. Nicola Beauman is 'that dreadful woman.'
The biography was originally authorised by Elizabeth Taylor's husband, but Nicola Beauman delayed its publication for many years until after his death. She acknowledges that Taylor's son and daughter are 'very angry and distressed' and want nothing to do with it. Joanna Kingham said that she felt the book was unfair to her father, and it's understandable that she would feel that way. She criticised what seems a fairly minor inaccuracy, if inaccuracy it is, claiming that the character Dermot, from In a Summer Season was not based on David Blakely who was murdered by Ruth Ellis; a difference of opinion that Beauman has freely acknowledged in a footnote. Of course, it is the family's prerogative not to cooperate with a biographer, but why complain about inaccuracy if you have refused to correct it?
Finally, Nicola Beauman stands accused ... and I'm afraid only politeness stopped me from laughing ... of 'digging around like one of those journalists,' (Elizabeth Jane Howard's words, in an aside; the only time the biography was mentioned all day) and had the temerity to have spoken to some of Taylor's old schoolfriends.
Poor Nicola Beauman ... she would make a very feeble journalist. Of Taylor's lover Ray Russell, she  wrote, describing what seems to have been a life blighted by the ending of their affair, 'It is impossible for the biographer to ask, cheerfully, and how did you feel in the late '40s and early '50s as you nursed your broken heart ... ? This one cannot do.'
For heaven's sake, I muttered, when I read this. (Okay. What I really said was, Bloody hell, you stupid woman, stop pussy-footing around.) Of course, you can ask - although 'cheerfully' is possibly not the best way to approach it.
It is sad, of course, that people should be angry and distressed. I felt that Nicola Beauman was very restrained and, at the very least, has written a long overdue biography of a brilliant and neglected  writer, tiptoeing or blundering - depending on how you view it - through a minefield of issues of ownership and control. (I do think that Ray Russell had every right to make his correspondence with Taylor available. It was his story, too.)
Well, I know what I'd have done ... publish and be damned.