Monday 28 July 2014

I'd been thinking that Robert Harris had rather gone off the boil. After gripping historical thrillers like Enigma and Fatherland, my interest waned after Pompeii and Imperium and I gave up on him after The Ghost which was nothing more than a mildly-enjoyable beach read.
But here he is back on top form, retelling the story of the Dreyfus scandal ... political machinations, establishment lies and a very dodgy dossier.
I thought I knew the story - but the fascination is in the paper trail, the sexed-up documents and wilful cover-up that made this one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in modern history.
None of the characters, not even the most minor, is wholly fictional - promises Harris - and almost all of what occurs, at least in some form, actually happened in real life.
He brings history jumping off the page - political corruption and the stench of corruption rising out of the Paris sewers like a putrid gas.
It's 10pm ... I really do need to put it down and make some dinner!

Saturday 26 July 2014

I only went in search of air-conditioning ...

I'd forgotten what a brilliant film this. (It is about to be re-released in cinemas.) Or rather, when I first saw it in 1978, I saw it as a different person.

Today, it doesn't seem to be a film about Vietnam so much as a film about all war and its aftermath and lives that are shattered.

At the end of three hours, I found myself shaking and almost in tears.

I'm proud to say, there are no special effects in this movie. There are no digital effects. When you see 9000 refugees in the night in a burning Saigon, that is 9000 people in the night. For real. When you see the actors jumping put of a helicopter, that's really the actors. When you see them floating downriver clutching a log, that's them. I know because I was there in the river with them, holding one end of the raft down because it was popping up and the log was so heavy that it was crash breaking it. Everything that I asked of the actors, they gave. Michael Cimino, talking in 2005. 

On a lighter note, this was only Meryl Streep's second film role ... she looks so young. And so beautiful. Still is, of course.

When I emerged from the cinema, it was sizzling, so I headed here - which seemed a sizzlingly appropriate location ...

To see this ...

The rebozo is the long shawl/scarf/wrap worn by Mexican women. Frida Kahlo used to ask her nurse to tie her to the back of her wheelchair with the rebozo that she made her fashion signature whenever she was in too much pain to sit up upright to paint.

I was intrigued to learn of the aroma de luto - the scent of mourning - when the rebozo became a death shroud infused with tarragon, sage, cloves, rosemary, Spanish moss, applemint, star anise, cinnamon, rose petals and calla lilies to scent the journey to the afterlife. Sadly, this tradition is dying out.

On my way home, I walked a different way back to the station than the street  I usually take - and was delighted to discover a pretty rose garden just across the road from the museum. One of those little corners of London that I never knew was there.

Tuesday 22 July 2014

How I wish I had this lovely copy with its jacket intact but mine is an old green Virago, 1p from Amazon.

And how thrilled I was to discover the original of Chatterton Square and that it looks exactly as I hoped it would. (Click on street view to see the houses.) Shabby-genteel before the war .. and I wonder what EH Young would make of today's £1million house prices.

I've been eke-ing out my EH Youngs as there will heartbreak here when I've read everything she wrote. (Here's a couple that  I read earlier.)

Chatterton Square was published in 1947 and what's fascinating about it is that it's a domestic novel set in 1938 against the background of the Munich crisis. A middle-aged generation bracketed by two wars.

On the home front, we have two families of neighbours living in the square. There's Mr Blackett who neatly wriggled out of WW1 and refuses to believe in another war. Pompous, self-centred, a domestic autocrat who micro-manages family life ... and is shocked when he discovers his wife - wait for it - buying her own newspaper.

How I hoped that his call-up papers would catch up with him this time. He's not too old.

Mrs Blackett - Bertha - is a brilliant character. On the surface the perfect submissive wife, she has been quietly loathing Mr Blackett since their disastrous honeymoon 20 years ago. She longs for a single bed.

Mr Blackett proved to be in a sentimental mood which she found much more disagreeable ... when after his usual spell of lying on his back, his beard like the ace of spades against the sheet, he turned on to his side and the gentle whistling through his nose had ceased .. How pleasant, she thought, gently moving nearer to her edge of the bed, to have a bedroom, even a bed, of one's own.

The Blacketts' neighbours are the delightful Fraser family. Rosamund Fraser appears to be a shockingly cheerful widow, with five children, until it emerges that she has been deserted by her husband and their seemingly carefree family life has been fractured by his experiences in WW1. The Frasers share their home with Rosamund's deliciously spiky spinster friend Miss Spanner whose greatest dread is that one day she'll find herself living alone.

And over all this hangs the threat of another war ... or the unbearable national shame of appeasement.

Munich is never specifically mentioned, but we experience the terrible tension of the 9pm news broadcasts through that September. (Mr Blackett, of course, won't have his complacency disturbed by having a wireless in the house.)

My only criticism of EH Young is that she can get ever so slightly repetitive, labouring her point about England's shame over too many pages. But her readers in 1947 would have remembered those weeks all too well. I'm racking my brain to think of any other novelist who has focused on 1938 rather than the outbreak of war? And I can't think why the utterly brilliant Emily Hilda Young isn't better known today.

Saturday 19 July 2014

Paolozzi window, from Joy of Shards Mosaic Resource

So many times I've walked past St Mary's Cathedral in Edinburgh and never been inside - but the other day I walked in out of curiosity and discovered this window by Paolozzi ...

Who, of course, also designed the mosaics on Tottenham Court Road tube station.

And, as one thing leads to another, from cathedrals to Manderley, now I'm going to have to visit here. This is a wonderful resource that I discovered by chance.

Friday 18 July 2014

Whatever I did today it had to be air-conditioned, so I skulked off this morning to see the newly-restored Lady from Shanghai ... convoluted plot, Orson Welles with a shockingly bad Irish accent, but worth it for Rita Hayworth's sheer glamour (and she was blonde!) and the brilliant Hall of Mirrors scene at the end.

Quick coffee here, then off to the National Portrait Gallery and Virginia Woolf.

I laughed when I saw Virginia and Leonard's succinct one-liner to Lytton Strachey, announcing their engagement. Ha! Ha! it said.
Next to it was Lytton's letter to his brother, three years previously - describing his own proposal to Virginia, which was briefly accepted. 'It was an awkward moment, as you may imagine, especially as I realised, the very minute it was happening, that the whole thing was repulsive to me. Her sense was amazing and luckily it turned out that she's not in love. The result was that I was able to manage a fairly honourable retreat.'
He wrote to Leonard, 'You would be great enough, and you'd have the advantage of physical desire. I was in terror lest she should kiss me.'
Ha! Ha! indeed!

Madge Garland, by Edward Wolfe, 1926 (Geffrye Museum)
I liked this portrait of Madge Garland, fashion editor of Vogue, 'the woman who dressed Virginia Woolf' ... a stylist, who would have thought! Virginia admired this outfit by a Paris couturier so much that Garland had one made up for her in a different colour. You can see her wearing it in photographs taken at Garsington, although the dress is actually brightly patterned. (Madge's portrait painter had toned it down.) Even so, Vita Sackville-West thought that Virginia 'dresses quite atrociously.'

But then, at the end, Virginia's walking stick that Leonard found by the river ...

And her last letter ...

Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times ...

I feel rather appalled that it should be read by gawping strangers.

Thursday 17 July 2014

Young Girl at a Window, Mary Cassatt c 1883-84 (Corcoran Gallery of Art)
 French mademoiselle, imprisoned on her balcony...

Sunlight,  Frank W Benson, 1909 (Indianapolis Museum of Art)

And Miss America some twenty years later.

From the American Impressionism exhibition in Edinburgh which I greatly enjoyed yesterday.
Wonderful opportunity to see some American artists who are less well-known over here.

Autumn, Mary Cassatt, 1880 (Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, Petit Palais)

Mary Cassatt also painted this portrait of her older sister Lydia who was already suffering from kidney disease and died in 1882 - although she looks so similar to the unnamed girl at a window (the puffiness of whose face could be a symptom?), that I wonder if they're the same person and it was finished after Lydia's death? In which case, of course, she's not a French mademoiselle and my caption, as well as my feminist art theories, are nonsense ...   but never mind, it's still a stunning exhibition!

Monday 14 July 2014

In the Orchard, Edmund Tarbell, 1891

Oh dear, has it really been a month? I went away for a weekend at the sea, stayed on for a week as the weather was so glorious ... and I haven't caught up with myself since.

Now I'm looking forward to a flying visit to Edinburgh and what promises to be a stunning exhibition of American Impressionism.