Monday 22 July 2013

Light romantic fiction isn't my thing, but it seems so much more appealing when it was published in 1947, and you can think of it as blessed escapism for housewives putting their feet up after the war. Washed down with a cup of still-rationed tea or a swig of Sanatogen Tonic wine or whatever ladies like me resorted to before Pinot Grigio was invented.
Noel Streatfeild dismissed the novels she wrote as Susan Scarlett as romantic potboilers and she was absolutely right. This is nowhere near as good as Saplings, and isn't even so bad that it's funny like The Whicharts.
But it has all the Streatfeild ingredients. Two theatrical families and a bit more than I needed to know about sticks of greasepaint. Spoiled Dulcie getting too big for her boots as the leading lady of a summer season concert show at a Hi-de-Hi holiday camp. Cheerful younger kids who are Thoroughly Good Sorts. And Nella, whose talents as a singer and dancer are disregarded by everyone as she's too nice to Push Herself Forward.
I don't think I'd have made it through to the end but for that always seductive period detail; the families struggling to gel again now that their men have returned from POW camps; nifty-fingered mother contriving clever costumes despite problems with coupons; the holiday-makers revelling in their first week's respite since 1939 from rationing and queuing and making-do. Even the grass was springing up again after years of being stamped on by soldiers.
But put it this way ... if books were on coupons, I wouldn't be squandering mine on this.

Sunday 21 July 2013

Did you ever see the same book in three more different covers and, sure enough, my charity shop find is the least attractive one at the top. If you squint at the green one, which was the original hardback, you can just about make out that this is a progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable ...

Which it is. But it's also my best summer read this year.

The quirky cover with the fox encapsulates the story. On an island off the coast of South Carolina - that declared its independence from America in the 19th century - the islanders revere Nevin Nollop, author of the famous pangram The quick brown fox etc etc

(Now don't get sidetracked Googling for Nevin Nollop. I already did. He didn't really exist. He's a fictional character.)

But when the lazy dog's Z falls from Nollop's monument, the island's rulers see this as a sign that Z should be outlawed from all written and spoken language.

Unfortunately, the cement has perished, so other letters soon start tumbling out of the language.

Which is when the lipogrammatic epistolist gets really inventive.

When I saw this on the shelf in the charity shop, I only picked it up because I had a dim and distant memory that it was one of Cornflower's book group choices a couple of years ago. It sounded too whimsical for me, and it wasn't in the library, so I gave it a miss. I was wrong. It's clever, original and anybody who loves word games, Scrabble or crosswords will love it.

Saturday 20 July 2013

Betty and William Jacklin, 1942, Private Collection
 There are bloggers who keep calm and carry on through hot weather and there are others who can only promise that normal service will be resumed when a whisper of cooler air comes through the window. But yesterday evening I pulled myself together and headed off to the blissful cool of the Laura Knight Portraits exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery ... hardly a soul there. It's quite a small exhibition, if anybody is thinking of coming to London specially, but who needs a midsummer blockbuster? I couldn't help being drawn to this lovely little painting of William Jacklin and thought how proud his mum must have been as she coaxed that curl in his hair. Wouldn't it make a wonderful book-jacket? I love the lumpy hand-knitted baby clothes and the Startrite shoes which was exactly the same kit as I'm wearing in baby photos 15 years later. But I also wondered if that cabbage-chomping bunny ended up in the wartime pot? I'm reading Anne Sebba's biography of Enid Bagnold, who kept so many rabbits for Victory that she was able to eat two a week and boasted that her fried rabbit was so good that nobody could tell that it wasn't chicken Maryland. (The missing fried bananas might have been a giveaway, but I'm digressing.)

The Nuremberg Trial, 1946, Imperial War Museum
The painting that really stood out, however, was this one although I've seen it before, but I stood and looked at it for a long time, thinking about Laura (who was 68 in 1946) looking down at this scene from the press box. Her diaries from the trial are exhibited nearby and it was fascinating to read about her locking eyes with Rudolf Hess (he's the one with the bald patch, second from the top on the middle row), how she wanted to smile (but why? some kind of excruciating social embarrassment?) but couldn't pull her eyes away from his 'cruel silk stare.'  She wondered if the prisoners would be upset that she was sketching them but was told that, quite the reverse, they were probably pleased. I got the impression that Knight only listened sporadically through headphones to the evidence but I'd love to  read more of her diary. How terribly ordinary those men look; immediately below her, she looked down on the president of the Reichsbank, silver-haired, suited, respectable, leaning his head on his hand ...  and you'd think he was one of the lawyers in the front row.

For those who don't live in London, this exhibition will eventually make its way to Newcastle and Plymouth. 

Wednesday 17 July 2013

After a hot and fractious day, a cool bath, clinking ice in a glass of lavender lemonade, and an (air-conditioned) evening listening to wonderful music ... and to think that at 5pm I didn't want to go out.

Thursday 11 July 2013

I can still remember the mind-blowing impact, when I was an idealistic 18-year-old, of reading Hannah Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism; it's still probably the most powerful book that I've ever read. So I'm looking forward to seeing this film later this summer.
On a less high-minded note, one of my shameful TV habits recently has been The White Queen, complete and utter tosh, I know. I notice that Janet McTeer, who plays the Queen's mother, is cast as Hannah Arendt's friend Mary McCarthy. I didn't realise they were friends but there's a interesting Vanity Fair article about McCarthy here in case you missed it.

Thursday 4 July 2013

Worth catching ...

An excellent documentary here about Don McCullin, one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century; unfortunately, it is also an obituary to British journalism.

Wednesday 3 July 2013

Now you have to think up a title. How annoying.

If only there was an award for the best prize marrows and spuds on the operatic stage ... 

Picture quality isn't great (you'll see better if you click on it) but if you look carefully, that's the Elizabeths' (I and II's) monogram spelled out in allotment veg. 

If I'm honest, I'm not mad about Benjamin Britten but a cheap matinée ticket and historical curiosity tempted me to see his rarely-performed Gloriana, written for the Coronation. 

Musically, I could take it or leave it. But what a spiffing production ...

The Queen arrived in a Dior New Look gown. (The young Queen Elizabeth II, that is, because Gloriana is a pageant within an opera. Or an opera within a pageant.) 

There were schoolboys in grey shorts and soldiers in khaki and bossy ladies in cardigans, looking like Nella Last. (And maybe she did take up am-dram when she was at a loose end after the war.)

It reminded me of the village pageant in Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts

It seemed unfair that everybody got thunderous applause at the end except for the set designer. 

I'm not sure that this was a very tactful choice for the Coronation ... would the new Queen really have relished seeing her predecessor bald, wig-less and schemed against?

I don't think she much likes opera. I've seen Prince Charles slip quietly into the royal box after the lights go down - and other royals occasionally in the posh seats - but never the Queen.  

So I don't know whether she's been back to see this again. But I'm sure she'd find it more heaps more fun than the original.