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.