Monday 31 March 2014

The Blue Bower, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1865
Even on the train up to Birmingham, I was dithering. Was it going to be the city art gallery - magnificent, but I've been there before, if not for many years - or the Barber Institute which had been on my 'one-day' list for ages? Could I manage to cram both into the day, around all the other things I had planned? (I tried. I couldn't.) Still dithering outside the station, I saw a bus heading towards the University ... decision made.

Rossetti's portrait of Fanny Cornforth is luscious ... her necklace of cabochon rubies and emerald, that splendid comb, the fluffy trim on her gown that you'd love to stroke, those wonderful blue and white tiles and the passion flowers and cornflowers.

But wonderful as it is, I felt more drawn to Gainsborough's Harriott Marsham - a lady of character.

The Hon Harriott Marsham, Thomas Gainsborough

Sunday 30 March 2014

There was a very good train tickets promotion during March: London-Birmingham (and vice versa) for 50p return, with no restrictions on setting out good and early to make a day of it. Wouldn't it be lovely if we could always travel for pennies?
It's not my favourite city - but it costs three times that to hop on a London bus for just one stop.
So last week I set out, seizing my chance to visit Birmingham's mega new £193million library.
I'm not sure what I think ...
Is that a library? To me it looks more like a flagship branch of Debenhams or John Lewis.
(Somebody else said it looks a like a big pair of lacy pants.)
But I love it that the city is prepared to make this big investment in libraries and books (and I do hope it hasn't been made at the expense of closing down branches in the suburbs).
As for inside ... it's stunning. (One quibble though. Wouldn't you think that a woman architect with a £193m budget would remember to put a coat hook behind the door in the ladies' loo? That's the kind of thing we blame men for!)
I spent an hour strolling around, from the old Shakespeare Memorial Room that has been relocated into the rotunda at the top ... and all the way down to below Centenary Square.
There are two terrace herb gardens - imagine a library with a herb garden, it sounds quite monastic - which must be a lovely place to sit with a book on a sunny day with views right across Birmingham (okay, not a city with a skyline, but never mind). From on high, the tiled piazza below looked like an Oriental rug. And I was very much taken by this very bling-y statue by a civic sculptor ...

Then, having visited the brand new ...
It was off down the road to the last back to back houses in the city. Where the stairs would kill you if you didn't die first of TB.

Saturday 29 March 2014

Interior, The White House, Joan Warburton, 1993

Early Summer Flowers in White Room, Joan Warburton, 1995

I've been gadding about farther afield lately and it was time for a day out in London. So yesterday morning, I headed to Cork Street to investigate a neglected woman artist I'd only discovered through this week's Persephone posts ... and was instantly smitten. (Exhibition closes today. Sorry.)
Why was Joan Warburton neglected? Was it because she was female/shy/tied down with children/not pushy enough to promote her career ... I don't know. I wish I was feeling flush enough at the moment to buy one because they are very affordable. Joan Warburton was part of the artistic set surrounding Cedric Morris at Benton End, so this would be the next best thing to owning Cedric's Irises.  Joan's bowl of eggs, too, reminded me ever so much of Cedric's which was on the cover of Elizabeth David's Omelette and a Glass of Wine. In fact, Benton End sounds a lovely place to be invited for a weekend of food, flowers and music - with guests like Elizabeth David, Beth Chatto and Benjamin Britten.

Bowl of Eggs, Joan Warburton, 1986

I was supposed to be meeting a friend so quick march ... but around the corner, I got distracted by this lovely FCB Cadell in a gallery window and then discovered another favourite artist inside.

Reflections, FCB Cadell, c 1915

I've done the sums. (That's half the fun of window-shopping on Bond Street.) You can buy 700 Joan Warburtons for the price of one Atkinson Grimshaw. 

Next a blast of saturated colour from Dale Chihuly's wonderful glass which reminds me of exquisite jellyfish and sea anemones. There were lots of people here. Remember that stunning exhibition at Kew a few years ago? More about him here. 

Now it really is quick march to Marylebone High Street and Daunt Books for a lunchtime talk about this book - and the chance to sample Bloomsbury Group Armistice Chocolate Creams and Banana Fruit Loaf. I've got the book out from the library. 

But the afternoon is still young. So onto the tube and on to the Fashion Museum. I don't wear scarves - but isn't this lovely? 
Scarf by French-Hungarian artist Marcel Vertes

And whoever knew that Picasso designed après-ski wear? The corduroy hostess culottes were possibly not his finest hour. He drew the line at designing upholstery fabrics, though: Picassos may not be sat on.

Princess cotton, Ben Nicholson

Fine and dandy if you're currently Ben Nicholson's 'Princess' - he worked the head of his lover Barbara Hepworth into this furnishing fabric. But I did wonder whether his wife Winifred ever had to encounter her on other people's sofas and curtains? Aren't artists ruthless?

Wednesday 26 March 2014

After 50 years in the spy business, John le Carré is now over 80 - and there can't be many more novels to come, so all the more reason to relish this, his latest. I'm late catching up because there was a long, long waiting list in the library.
I've read all of them, bar one or two, and he is back on masterly form in a world where the war against terror has been contracted out to mercenaries. A decent, old-fashioned Foreign Office low-flier, coming up to retirement, believes ingenuously that his participation as the British observer of an illegal American counter terrorist op on Gibraltar is the glorious swan song of his insignificant career. Three years on, it emerges that it was a tragic, venal cock-up ... but in this brave new world, men of conscience are impotent against government corruption.
Cynical, horribly persuasive, bang up to date and completely gripping.

Friday 21 March 2014

Froanna - Portrait of the Artist's Wife,  Wyndham Lewis, 1937

If you didn't know from the title that this was the artist's wife (and she is wearing a wedding ring), don't you think that your first guess would be that she's a slightly prissy-minded spinster school-teacher, worn out because it's near the end of term, in her dressing gown by 9.30pm because her evenings are filled with marking ... and just look how she's keeping up standards with that traycloth, even though she's alone.

I haven't been able to settle with a book lately - I keep starting and not finishing and nothing seems to be quite right. But I found this old Virago in the Oxfam shop last week - I'm Not Complaining, by Ruth Adam - and had a vague recollection that this was a Persephone author whom I've never read.

I haven't been able to put it down since. (And realised later that Darlene has been here before me.)

I was sorry for Jenny, and frightened for her, and terribly jealous of her. Hardworking, contented women like me get this longing, from time to time, for all the experiences that have passed us by. We do not go mad over it, as women do in psychological books, nor even get a little bit queer. It goes off after a few days and we are ourselves again.

Madge Brigson is a teacher in a deprived Nottinghamshire town in the 1930s. She is not particularly likeable, but she is so convincing that I could hardly believe that this is fiction not autobiography. Madge is 30 at a time when 30 meant 40; primly resigned to virginity, yet horribly fascinated by sex; cynical about the nit-ridden brats she teaches and their parents - and her misunderstanding of the plight of the school caretaker, still traumatised by his war experiences, has doubly tragic consequences.

The other teachers in the staffroom are likewise unmarried, as women teachers had to resign as soon as they got a ring on their finger. By the standards of the day, they are well-paid, but society despises them as old-maids and a bad report from Her Majesty's Inspectors could get them sacked.

There is Madge's friend, the lovely Jenny, who seized on teaching as a way out of her own squalid childhood in the slums; when the book opens, she is desperately trying to get rid of an unwanted pregnancy ... and she isn't consumed with guilt when she pulls it off. There is prickly, communist-minded Miss Simpson, Miss Thornby who got so desperate that she invented a man, Miss Jones who discovers that marriage isn't all it's cracked up to be. Also, the headmistress whose fiancé returned from the war as a limbless torso.

Yes, it's fiction, but it was drawn from Ruth Adam's own experience teaching in Nottinghamshire. It reminded me slightly of Winifred Holtby's South Riding, which was published two years earlier in 1936, but Adam's writing feels distinctly more modern. It's Call the Midwife, only with teachers ... and it would make a terrific TV series. I'm casting Olivia Colman as Madge.

Saturday 15 March 2014

There was a promotion for cut-price train tickets back in January, so I thought that I'd plan a day out and travel as far as I could for a £20 day return.
Of course, several weeks later, come 6am, on a foggy morning, I'd have happily rolled over and gone back to sleep. Never mind, coffee and a cinnamon Danish and I'll revive ...

Last time I went to Newcastle was about 10 years ago when I visited the once great Swan Hunter shipyard to see what sadly turned out to be the last ship they ever built on the Tyne.

But I'd only ever been there for work and I'd never gone sight-seeing.

It is a strange mixture of civic pride and splendid Victorian architecture, visible poverty and decay and trendy regeneration.

First stop, the historic Lit and Phil almost next door to the station, founded in 1793 as a 'conversation club.' Now, imagine a library that's still about books ...
Where somebody says hello as you walk in the door and shows you the counter where you'll get a proper mug of tea and a digestive for £1 ...
And it's still a conversation club for nice old men chatting about when their wives were alive.
I could happily have stayed there all afternoon. I settled into a chair with tea, Thomas Bewick's memoir My Life and a Tunnock's teacake ...
And thought that with a bus pass and membership of the Lit and Phil, I wouldn't mind retiring here.

But I couldn't sit around all day. I had things to see.

Lots of Victorian tiles, in the station bar that used to be the first-class refreshment room -

More tiles on pubs. Even if you don't much fancy going in for a drink.

And in this simply stunning Edwardian arcade.

There was bustling Grainger Market, one of those wonderful northern covered markets that have retained all their character, knocking spots off tourist traps like London's Borough Market (and its fancypants prices).
I sighed over fish stalls where you could tell that the fish had been splashing in the North Sea only the day before.
And although I've never been able to fancy tripe - yeeuugggh, I can still remember the smell of my Dad's favourite dish, simmering in milk - I'm glad that in a nambypamby age there's somewhere to buy it.
Oh dear, the temptations ... okay, I came away with a crab (£3), a lovely ham hock (£2) and lugged them around for the rest of the afternoon. (There is a corner of England where Green&Black's chocolate costs 60p a bar and it is probably just as well that I don't live there.)

Now for a stroll down Grey Street. 'I shall never forget seeing it to perfection, traffic-less on a misty Sunday morning. Not even old Regent Street, London, can compare with that subtle, descending curve,' said Betjeman, and he was right.

Nothing I love more than discovering the treasures of a provincial art gallery. The Laing was smaller than I expected. (Pronounced Lay-ng, who knew!) I knew there would be old friends. Just look at the lustre on that watering can.

Isabella and the Pot of Basil, William Holman Hunt

Then this caught my eye ...

Geordie Haa'd the Bairn, Ralph Hedley, 1890
Click on the image and you'll see the details better. The brown Betty teapot keeping warm, the rag rug on the brick floor, the Staffordshire dog and the iron on the mantel and the baby clothes drying over the fire.

I was so pleased to find a lovely little watercolour of my friend Thomas Bewick, 'As he stood at the fire (for a Wonder) with his hat off' - I've been rather smitten with him since reading Jenny Uglow's biography - but I can't find an image except for the tiny one here. (Scroll down.) So I set off on a little pilgrimage to find the site of his old workshop tucked behind the cathedral. Long gone but it was nice to think of walking in his footsteps down that quiet alleyway. And I wondered how he got on with his neighbour, the Vampire Bunny

Of course, I walked along the Quays, where lassies were already revving up for a hen night - those fake tans must put hairs on their chests because the wind was whipping up the river and they were only wearing T-shirts. Then over the Millennium Bridge to the Baltic Centre. Where the 5* ladies' loo with a view is a wee gem ...

And the art, though it wouldn't win the Turner Prize (I hope!) might win a Blue Peter prize for effort. Think collages of pasta/dried cat food/cushion foam/stickybackplastic ... and no, I'm not joking.

And then? Then it was time to go home.

Thursday 13 March 2014

It's Call the Midwife (actually, it's much better than Call the Midwife) with gangrenous limbs instead of babies ...
And hatchet-faced matron (brilliantly played by Hermione Norris) instead of nuns.
The VADs are Rosalie, pushing 30 and humiliatingly unmarried, who is terrified and disgusted by the sight of naked men.
Joan, who has a secret past.
And cheerful, dippy Flora who has to scrub her face with carbolic when matron chastises her for using a dab of rosewater.
Only a few weeks ago, I watched the old 1979 adaptation of Testament of Youth (there's a remake on the way), which was unmissable back then - but seems rather wooden by today's production standards.
And this afternoon I stole an hour to watch an episode of The Crimson Field, the new series about VAD nurses in World War One which definitely fills the Downton Abbey gap in my life.
It started me wondering whether I'd have joined up as a VAD had I been around in 1914. Not in a million years, I don't think. I'd have been all for seizing some freedom but I think I'd have been far more likely to go into a munitions factory which is what my granny did (and where she became one of the first women to be awarded the OBE in 1918).

Wednesday 12 March 2014

I wouldn't know where to begin reviewing the film that I saw this evening ... other than to say that it's a true story, it's as gripping as any thriller. It's fast moving and there was so much to take in that I wouldn't mind seeing it again tomorrow.
Director Mandy Jacobson came across this untold story - previously known only to a handful of presidents and movers and shakers in African politics, and even they didn't know it in full - whilst she was gathering material for the African Oral History Archive. Jean-Yves Ollivier was the shadowy Monsieur Jacques, a mysterious French commodities broker who used his diplomatic skills to manoeuvre the end of apartheid. Monsieur Jacques is a character who could have been invented by Graham Greene or John le Carré and - although he was initially reluctant to relinquish his anonymity - he was there tonight taking questions from the audience.
It is a powerful story of how one man can make a difference. The trailer is here. And a review here. Sadly, it seems to be on very limited release unless you're in London, Edinburgh or Dublin.

Monday 10 March 2014

This is a public service announcement ...

I've got my tickets for Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies ... and you know you'll regret it if you don't book now! Booking for the London run opened this morning.

Thursday 6 March 2014

I didn't notice through all the rain but now spring has crept up on me unawares.  I felt quite a shock when I noticed my neighbour picking armfuls of daffodils the other day ...
And today I came upon a magnolia, not quite in full bloom but almost there.
Those February torrents are bringing forth March flowers.
Now where are my sandals?   

Tuesday 4 March 2014

 Mondrian battenberg ... looks simply delicious.

Van Gogh ploughman's lunch ... might challenge my artistic skills.

 Wedgwood shortbread ... how elegant.

 Damien Hirst skull cake ... guaranteed no pickled shark in the ingredients.

Jackson Pollock rice krispie cake ... even I could manage this!

What a brilliant fund-raising idea from The Art Fund.
Is lunch at the garden centre a peculiarly British habit or do other nations do it, too? (Now I think of it, I've had some lovely outings to garden centres in Sweden.)
It was bustling with ladies here, even on a Monday ... and after a big bowl of pea and ham soup in the glasshouse, and a stroll through the fruit trees and (expensive) box topiary, followed by a browse through the seed packets, admiring aspirational Italian vegetables ...
We'd caught up on all the gossip - and so what if we can hardly keep a pot plant alive between us.
In another life, we will have £1000 box trees, lavender hedges and espaliered fruit trees.
And someone else to do the gardening.

Saturday 1 March 2014

There was a time - in the not so distant past - when I rarely watched television. I'm not saying I was doing constructive, cultural things instead, but I definitely read more ...
And then there was Scandi-TV.
I think it started with The Killing. Then there was Borgen and The Bridge and series 2 and series 3 and post-mortems with fellow addicts in the coffee shop about Saga's autistic blunders and Birgitte's realpolitik. And I began to think that I was watching far too much television and really ought to cut down.
Except that Salamander was very gripping, even though it was Belgian and half in Flemish and half in French, which is almost educational when you think about it.
But I promised myself that when Salamander was over, I was going cold turkey.
Only now I've started on Mammon. Norwegian.
The first episode got me hooked. Again.
And I suppose it will tide me over until Salamander series 2.