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.

Saturday 1 September 2012

I'm fascinated by anything to do with Bletchley Park and the wartime code-breakers, so I couldn't resist ITV's new series The Bletchley Circle.
It's got all the ingredients ... Set in 1951, those clever women in frumpy frocks are now married to nice-but-dim husbands who haven't got a clue what the little woman did in the war. That's if you're lucky. The other career options are marriage to a brute or desiccated spinsterhood. (If you've got the looks, of course, you can be the token slapper who has rather more fun.)
Maybe that's how it really was ... one day you're saving submarines then, before you know it, you're out on your ear and knitting in suburbia. (There is lots of knitting.)
Unfortunately, being ITV, they took an interesting idea and turned it into a silly murder mystery drama.
Because you can't have a clever woman in a frumpy frock unless she's Miss Marple.

Final episode of this series turned out to be trash, and rather sleazy trash. The real lives of Bletchley women would have made a far classier drama.
If you are the kind of person who shouts,
'Don't use a bain-marie!' at Great British Bake Off contestants  -
It is shaming to have to admit
That your last four banana cakes have been total disasters.
I mean, banana cake. Everyone can make a banana cake.
(They should have ended up in the bin. But I ate them anyway.
Waist not. Want not.)
So when I saw this recipe in the paper,
I thought I'd have one last try ...
It is a perfect, light, fluffy cake as promised.
I didn't whisk the sugar, eggs and butter -
Because I'd scribbled down the recipe in minuscule shorthand
On a very small Post-it note.
And I didn't decipher that bit until I'd already tipped it all in.
Never mind. It appears to be foolproof.
Just don't use a bain-marie.
Or a pie dolly.