Sunday 29 July 2012

Our tickets were booked within an hour of them coming on sale. There was much fretting about travel arrangements when we belatedly realised that the date we'd chosen clashed with the first day of another big event. (Thankfully, London hasn't ground to a standstill - we didn't even have to queue for train tickets this morning -  possibly because everybody was at home in front of the telly.)

This was a pilgrimage ... to Dickens' house at Gad's Hill, which is hardly ever open to the public. (It's a boys' school.)
From the moment I arrived at Rochester railway station, I was walking in his footsteps because this was the spot where 10-year-old Dickens caught the mail coach to London, travelling alone, packed in damp straw to absorb the bumps ... on a coach that was melodiously named Timpson's Blue-Eyed Maid.
We walked past the theatre where he saw Shakespeare's plays and Grimaldi the clown.
We walked up the High Street to the house that inspired Miss Havisham's Satis House, almost expecting Estella disdainfully to invite us in.
We saw the Swiss chalet that Dickens constructed from a Victorian IKEA kit that was delivered in 58 boxes and where he worked on Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities and Our Mutual Friend and wrote the last words of The Mystery of Edwin Drood before he died.

I have put five mirrors in the Swiss chalet (where I write) and they reflect and refract in all kinds of ways the leaves that are quivering at the windows,and the great fields of waving corn, and the salt-dotted river.
My room is up among the branches of the trees; and the birds and the butterflies fly in and out ... 

We were tempted by the biggest secondhand bookshop in the country and a box of Victorian boot blacking bottles (£2 each, outside a charity shop) just like the ones Dickens pasted with labels in the blacking factory. We had lunch in the monastic herb garden of the Cathedral, dashed into the Guildhall to see an exhibit about the Hulks and the great chamber where Pip was apprenticed to Joe Gargery.

And then we caught a bus over the bridge (at least, a more modern version of the bridge) that David Copperfield limped across on his way to find his Aunt Betsey Trotwood.

And all that was before we even got to Gad's Hill ...
Where we had tea in Dickens' conservatory, from teacups decorated with Dickensian scenes.
Deciphered some of his letters, describing his traumatic railway accident in 1865, and another complaining that he was stuck for ideas for a Christmas book. 'I sit in the chalet like Mariana in the Moated Grange, and to as much purpose.'
Saw the mailbox in his porch, and the dumb-waiter that brought up his dinner,  and the corner of the dining room where he had a stroke and died.
But do you know what was almost the most exciting thing of all ....
You might call it an intimate connection with literary history...
It was going to the loo on Charles Dickens' own, original, Victorian lavatory. Still in working order.
(The curator said that they have similar ones at Buckingham Palace.
But I have never 'been' there.)

Wednesday 25 July 2012

I'm not sure what took me so long. I've been waiting and waiting for Mrs Miniver to turn up on daytime television, so I could abandon all pretence at being responsibly self-employed and put the kettle on ...
But she has never once turned up on those afternoons when I am so easily tempted to down tools for an old-fashioned movie.
But for heaven's sake ... the DVD was only £2 on Amazon.
I was so sure that I'd seen Mrs Miniver once before, years ago - but now I'm wondering if what I saw previously was the sequel The Miniver Story. (I was so convinced that Mrs M died.)
Who could resist lovely Greer Garson and her quizzical eyebrows? And those amazing false eyelashes. Well, Jan Struther could, apparently, and thought she was 'so damn ladylike.'
And it's hard not to shout at the television when you're introduced to Mrs M's strapping all-American son. Please ... couldn't they at least have given him an English haircut? (It does seem a bit creepy that Greer Garson married him the following year.)
It's not so much a wallow as a fascinating piece of wartime propaganda - with an appeal for cash at the end. And it's absolutely nothing like the book.

But how it must have tugged American hearts, no wonder Churchill loved it  ... from Mrs Miniver quaking in the bomb shelter, to Clem coming back exhausted from Dunkirk, the feisty little fiancée who dies in Mrs M's arms, the rousing sermon in the bombed-out church.

Rachel's review of the book reminded me that I'd never read Jan Struther's less well-known collection essays Try Anything Twice. I thought it would be just the thing for a hot, sticky afternoon after rather too much Virginia Woolf recently.
But although I could detect glimmers of a prototype Mrs Miniver, there's very little of her charm in this collection, and it all seemed rather laboured. And without a leavening of Mrs M's charm and joie de vivre, the snobbishness rather rankled.

Another 1p bargain from Amazon (rather more than slightly-foxed) arrived just in time to slip into my bag for a weekend by the sea. This was Wilfred and Eileen, by Jonathan Smith; a very slim novella, from 1976,  that is due to be republished by Persephone in 2014. I wanted to love it but I couldn't help thinking that it would have worked much better on television. (It was a BBC serial back in the early 80s, although I don't recall watching it. Probably because in those days I was rarely home from work before midnight.)
Wilfred meets Eileen in 1913 during his last days at Cambridge, before he starts training to be a surgeon. Their families don't approve and they marry in secret. It is substantially a true story and dedicated to the daughters of the real Wilfred and Eileen. But maybe because it seemed neither one thing nor the other, it didn't leap off the page as a novel, and there was too much missing from the biographical story. All the Persephone ingredients are there, but the recipe didn't work for me.

Tuesday 24 July 2012

I've just spent a lovely, sunny morning in the Old English Garden in Battersea Park, which has recently been transformed by a team of disabled gardeners with funding from Jo Malone.

It is ravishingly pretty, the perfect hideaway garden - and if it were on my doorstep, I'd be there every lunchtime.

Before you get any ideas, it was designed to be high maintenance ... they need to keep a large team of gardeners busy and occupied.

There's always a catch, isn't there. And I thought it was all about drifting around in an Edwardian picture hat.

Now ... the Olympic torch passes within 30 yards of my front door in just over an hour's time.
Three ladies were sitting in deckchairs outside the church at lunchtime. I have close to zero-interest in the whole event ... shall I put my shoes on and wander out? Or not?

NEWS FLASH Well, I had a very good view from my perch in the churchyard ... but what a damp squib the torch relay was. A few jolly-looking policemen on motorbikes. A few cars with grubby-looking soft toys waving from the back. (I assume these had some significance that escapes me.) And nobody around here is daft enough to cheer for floats sponsored by banks or drinks conglomerates ... especially when they were feeble enough to disgrace the tail-end of a village carnival.
Was it worth a five-minute wait? Honestly, it wasn't.
However, heavy-handed commercialism wasn't invented by London 2012 Trademark Protected Inc.
During the 1908 Olympics, the drinks sponsor was OXO. And rivals Bovril constructed a Bovril Palace right outside the entrance to the White City stadium.

Thursday 19 July 2012

I knew it would be a good day when the bus arrived as soon as I got to the bus-stop.
And a young man jumped up to offer me his seat on the Tube.
(This never, ever happens at 9.30am and I was flabbergasted. And delighted.)
And I finished my job in Hampstead at lunchtime, just as the sun came out.
So I bought a strawberry gelato here.
And a floaty velvet jacket the colour of champagne and roses from the shop where Kate Moss goes.
(Fancy me shopping where Kate Moss goes. It was one-size-fits-all before you ask.)
Then the nice lady in the shop said she knocks off 25% if customers are friendly.
(And I must have been friendly.)
So I bought a necklace as well.
Then I had tea and lavender shortbread sitting in a rose and jasmine-scented garden.
Went for a stroll and discovered the cottage that I shall buy when I win the lottery.
(Which will probably be on Saturday, seeing as everything's going so well.)
I found three Persephone books on a secondhand bookstall. (No. That would have been greedy. I resisted. I only mention it because that's how good a day it was.)
And the only thing that went wrong all day was getting on the wrong branch of the Northern line. But that doesn't matter, because I always do that.
And when I nodded off on the train, I woke up just in time. And jumped off in a flurry. But I didn't leave the bag with the floaty velvet jacket behind me. So that's all right.
So that is why I have been in a sunshine-y mood all day.
Or was it just because the sun came out?

Friday 13 July 2012

 I almost missed Picasso & Modern British Art at the Tate;
 I'd been put off by the lukewarm reviews.

 It was a strange exhibition. The strand that traced Picasso's work as it made its way to Britain was fascinating ...

 But there was another strand examining Picasso's influence  on a motley collection of British artists.

Duncan Grant's firescreen, forsooth ... Duncan Grant's firescreen is only fit for firewood. His name should not be mentioned in the same breath as Picasso.

(A friend who went a few weeks ago said to me, "Didn't it make you ashamed to be British!")

The Picassos took my breath away ...  

Monumentally powerful, sexy and tender, paintings to make you weep. As I walked around, I wondered why there has never been a great woman artist. When I was younger, I'd have blamed it all on men ... but I don't think you can. There always seems to be something lacking in women's art.

Cornflower recommends some blogs to brighten the day, much needed at the moment - including Charlie's whose elegant posts about food make me despair of my own slapdash efforts. (Memo to self: do not attempt blog-repairs when should be keeping an eye on paella.)
And Rachel has been canvassing to discover what her readers look for in blogs.
Perhaps because I'm more of a words-person, I'm drawn to blogs with beautiful pictures.
This is one that's been a favourite for years.
And I can't understand a word of it.

I am very drawn to Gracious Living blogs, both Aspirational/Posh and Insouciantly/Bohemian.
They provide a useful distraction from that first tentative step towards Gracious Living ... that involves running around with the vacuum cleaner.

Sunday 8 July 2012

Friday evenings, people get together
Hiding from the weather
Tea and toasted buttered currant buns
Can't compensate for lack of sun
Because the summer's all gone.

Tea and flapjacks here today but the song seems to catch the mood. Another dark cloud coming over ....

Friday 6 July 2012

Of course, it was the rainiest morning this week ... but when we walked into the Olympic Park, the wild flower meadows were a river of blue and gold, even if they should have been bathed in sunshine and buzzing with bees.

To be honest, I've never been to Stratford before ... and it says a lot about the state of the nation that visitors will teem out of the station straight into that god-awful Westfield shopping centre.

But maybe it won't look so grim if they hang a few flags. And once you're through security - cheerful, polite young soldiers - and you've stomped through the bits that aren't quite finished ... well, the flowers are going to be WOW. In two weeks time, when it matters.

There's cornflowers, and Star of the Veldt orange daisies, and California poppies, and corn marigolds and pot marigolds - and as they die down, the oranges will give way to more blue, then finally there will be a blast of yellow and gold.

I wasn't impressed by Anish Kapoor's Orbit sculpture which looks like a defunct rollercoaster.

But I loved the North American prairie garden ... randomly planted with echinacea and evening primrose, purply-pink mallow and prairie smoke (Geum triflorum) that grows in drifts of pink mist across the prairies, and so much else. 75,000 plants from 100 or so different species.

(Even if you don't have tickets for the Games, the park will re-open next summer.)

I loved Wes Anderson's quirky Moonrise Kingdom and was tickled when the credits rolled and book-jacket designers got a mention. When the young heroine runs away, she's lugging a suitcase full of stolen library books. With rather charming covers.
But my favourite film credit ever remains 'dog make-up artist' for Oliver Twist.
Ready for your close-up, Bull's Eye?
(Apologies for not replying to comments recently. Technical hitch and I haven't a clue how to put it right.)

Tuesday 3 July 2012

Renoir, Peonies

As soon as I walked into the gallery, I could have gasped with sheer delight ... because Renoir's peonies seemed to hold all the colour and light that's been missing from this summer. And I went four times around the Royal Academy's delicious exhibition From Paris: A Taste for Impressionism, Paintings from the Clark, wishing that I'd been born at the right time with a sewing machine fortune to spend like this. Can you imagine buying 39 Renoirs? I was fascinated by the dealers' invoices that came in quarterly like butchers' bills. Monet's Tulip Fields cost $10,000 in 1933, but look at it ... swathes of scarlet, vermilion and yellow tulips, and I never knew that Monet had visited tulip fields in Holland. Tulips 'drive[s] the poor painter crazy,' he said. The sight of them 'cannot be conveyed with our poor colours.' Here's the rest of the paintings that are in the exhibition, and you'll see what a treat it was. 
Monet, Tulip Fields at Sassenheim, near Leiden

Sunday 1 July 2012

I've been listening to the radio all afternoon, enjoying this discussion about Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont -
and a concert conducted by the wonderful Gustavo Dudamel. I had free tickets a few days ago for a rehearsal of his second Festival Hall concert (on Classic FM tomorrow night) and was swept away by the fabulous Rituales Amerindios. Despite a very un-fabulous audience of latecomers in squeaky shoes and squalling children whose mothers were impervious to death wishes from all around them.
So there's something to be said for listening in peace at home.