Saturday 30 August 2014

Was I a bit churlish to come away from the Tate's British Folk Art exhibition feeling unenthusiastic? On the whole, I agree with the Royal Academy's decree of 1768/9 that 'no needlework, artificial flowers, cut paper, shellwork, or any such baubles should be admitted.'

(I wouldn't admit Phyllida Barlow's bloody awful installation either, which looks like the contents of a builder's skip, but the Duveen galleries - one of the grandest spaces in London - have been a dog's dinner ever since they moved the sculpture out.)

But folk art ... I can see that some of it has charm, but a museum setting renders it lifeless. The goose lady collage is one of many churned out by an enterprising tailor to sell as tourist souvenirs. The chicken was skilfully made out of dinner bones by a French prisoner of war.

Then there is the truly dire ... like the crewelwork Old Masters worked by Mary Linwood who had an international reputation and whose gallery in Leicester Square was the first to be lit by gaslight. Think of the skill and the hours of painstaking work that went into stitching Rembrandt's mother or a portrait of Napoleon or a simpering Reynolds' maiden ... so much female effort to such banal effect. But at least she seems to have made a successful living from it.

It isn't a big exhibition, but by the end I was bored ... en masse it's just stuff. I caught it just before it closed at Tate Britain, but it's moving on to Compton Verney - where the folk art collection is beautifully displayed - and I suspect it will look better in a more domestic space.

On my way home, I stopped off at the Photographers' Gallery - for no particular reason, only that I was passing - and happened on this exhibition of early Russian colour photography that turned out to be  fascinating. Free to get in, with some unexpected insights into Russian history.

Wednesday 27 August 2014

This is a lovely book for this time of year and Diana Henry's recipes remind me that autumnal food is probably my favourite. I made her wheaten bread this morning, a sweeter crumb than my usual soda bread.

Last night's dinner was a veal chop with Nigel's pear, watercress and fennel salad an old favourite from here.

And this Victoria plum cake is in the oven right now.

On the autumnal downside, there is an enormous wasps' nest right on top of the trapdoor into the loft.

September 3, 1939: For a week, everybody in London had been saying every day that if there wasn't a war tomorrow there wouldn't be a war. Yesterday, people were saying that if there wasn't a war today it would be a bloody shame. Now that there is war, the English, slow to start, have already in spirit started and are comfortably two laps ahead of the official war macahine, which had to await the drop of somebody's handkerchief. In the general opinion, Hitler has got it coming to him.

Slowly reading Mollie Panter-Downes' London War Notes over the last couple of weeks has been like a daily war bulletin from the home front, with up to the minute news of what Londoners were thinking/ talking about, moaning about/cheerfully putting up with as the war progressed.

And as soon as I finished, I discovered that this book - none too easy to track down at present - is going to be one of Persephone's titles next year. (Mollie isn't as chit-chatty as Nella Last, though; there's quite a lot of politics and hard news as well as social history.)

But it's the interesting snippets that fascinate me most:

January 4, 1940: Old men and women call to find out if they can be evacuated to safe areas and the bureaus try to find billets for them, but it isn't easy. "Old and infirm people take a good deal of looking after and people grow tired of them" is the official explanation - a full-length tragedy in seventeen words.

August 19, 1941: Often chagrined customers, after pointing wrathfully to displays of Scotch and rye in a shop window, discover that the bottles are dummies. The resulting skepticism about the nature of things sometimes has unfortunate results as when a housewife stared coldly at a mound of lemons in her greengrocer's shop under the gloomy impression that they were hollow papier-mâché mockeries. She discovered later, after they were all gone, that they were part of a crate of the genuine article which had just come in that morning.

December 21, 1941: The shopping streets have been crowded with people who, however much Singapore is graven on their hearts, carry on their brows the unmistakeable lines of anguished worrying over what to give Aunt Ethel. They have been lucky if all they have had to carry were lines on their foreheads, since the shops require customers to take away their purchases, and this, coupled with a lack of wrapping paper, has made most shoppers look like harassed and cruelly over-loaded camels. Enterprising gift hunters have been toting suitcases around with them, and the resulting casualties among the young in crowded stores prompted a Times reporter to remark, "Many people have discovered how large a proportion of small children are in height just about suitcase level."

December 27, 1942: Mr Bevin's plans for a further call-up of employees in the retail trades are sweeping. Luxury shops, on which the Minister has naturally come down hardest, won't have a salesgirl under forty-five ... Perhaps the only Mayfair tradesmen who weren't gloomy about the prospects last week were the hairdressers, to whom Mr Bevin thoughtfully accorded easier terms for keeping their key operators out of the factories, since a neat head is held to be an invaluable booster of feminine morale, as much for factory girls themselves as for that now rare species, the lady of leisure.

Saturday 23 August 2014

I've been feeling deprived of Scandi-crime, but Crimes of Passion - the new BBCFour series of whodunnits by Swedish classic crime writer Maria Lang turned out to be rather different from what I was expecting. (Apart from a couple of stories available on Kindle, she doesn't seem to have been translated into English.) Set in the 1950s, it's been described as Mad Men meets The Killing.

Fabulous clothes, cars, colours, a feisty heroine who doesn't want marriage to turn her into a hemmafru, and that beautiful Swedish light and landscape. I've watched the first two episodes and I think I'm hooked.

Saturday 16 August 2014

Enjoyed this two-part documentary about the four Romanov princesses, based on Helen Rappaport's book Four Sisters which I've meaning to read for ages; her previous book Ekaterinburg about their last days in the House of Special Purpose was gripping - the very best kind of history writing that has you on the edge of your seat - even though, of course, you know how it's going to end. There's a review of Four Sisters on Lyn's blog; she's on the other side of the world but I know that if she likes a book, I'll more than likely agree.

Thursday 14 August 2014

All across the nation, we settled with dinners on our laps to watch Great British Bake Off.
But tonight I poured a glass of chilled wine, cut a wedge of homemade tomato tart, scattered with dill flowers and sprinkled with white balsamic ...
And although Mary Berry would have noticed that my pastry wasn't sufficiently rested and had shrunk-
It didn't have a soggy bottom.
So there!
On the other hand, I have never made Florentines. Or, for that matter, a 3-D biscuit ski resort.
Over to Simon, who will have his very funny commentary up soon.

Wednesday 13 August 2014

I wanted to like this more than I did, but I found it overlong and the writing style too mannered. As if he's looking over his shoulder at the reader, saying, "Look, how I'm crafting this story ... see how I'm juggling all the threads ... admire my skill with words which is going to add at least 100 pages to the length!"
Oh dear, I suppose I'm saying I'd have enjoyed this more if somebody else had written it. Preferably, a sparer, more restrained European instead of a Best Young American Novelist set on writing a war epic.
I'm sure others will disagree with me; Darlene, for one, loved it.
Certainly it's a cracking story, set in Germany and France from the early 1930s to 1944 and the siege of St Malo. Marie-Laure, who has been blind since she was six, is the daughter of the locksmith at the Natural History Museum in Paris. Her father creates a perfect miniature of their neighbourhood so she can learn her way around the streets.
Werner is a white-blond Aryan orphan whose talent for everything to do with radios lands him in an elite German military academy where he becomes part of a brutalising regime.
As Paris falls to the Germans, Marie-Laure's father is entrusted with a beautiful but accursed diamond.
This review sums up pretty well exactly how I felt about a novel that was trying too hard ...
In the end, I skimread great swathes of overwriting and enjoyed it for the story.

So one wartime volume went back to the library ... and another came home with me. I don't know why I waited so long to call this in from another branch, as I've been wanting to read it for ages and despite keeping a beady eye on Amazon, cheap secondhand copies never seem to materialise. (Although what's the betting that I find one in the Oxfam shop as soon as I've read it?) Mollie Panter-Downes covered the war for the New Yorker (what a fantastic job for a writer!), cabling letters to America at weekly or fortnightly intervals. CP Snow said: 'To anyone who lived through the period, [the letters] bring it all back, as though one caught a whiff of brick dust and was transported to the smell after an air raid.' No present-day fiction can ever match contemporary accounts like this. 

August 13, 1944: Londoners who are back with their holiday tans report that the old bomb snobbery which used to flourish in the blitz days is once more evident in rural districts. Residents of tiny southern villages where, perhaps, a bomb has blasted a field and killed a few hens are inclined to be proudly certain that they are the ones who are getting the really tough part of the battle and deflecting it from 'those cockneys.' What is really tough for country dwellers, though, is the job of getting house repairs made, because so many local work-people have been drafted up to London to assist in the rehabilitation of the severely hit districts. The most serious damage in some little English towns has been caused not by bombs but by modern armies negotiating streets more suitable for knights in armour riding on palfreys. The battered Saxon bridges and sagging Tudor doorways which record the progress of skidding British tanks and American trucks through the countryside will keep the local bricklayers busy for a long time after they get back from London.

Hollow laugh as, 70 years later exactly, I've spent all day waiting for London workmen who haven't shown up. I'm taking the philosophical view that at least the unpleasant leak in the bathroom wasn't caused by a bomb.

Sunday 10 August 2014

There's a lane where I walk occasionally which is very good for blackberries - and very good for lime blossom for tea, if you like that kind of thing, but I don't much. But on Friday I noticed a tree laden with golden mirabelle plums. They were literally falling from the bough ... what luck that I got to them before the birds! So now there's a mirabelle almond cake in the oven ...

And this will be a short post as I mustn't let it burn!

I've been experimenting recently with baking with flowers. First off, tiny lavender meringues which would be lovely as petits fours with coffee. Then I used lavender sugar to bake a batch of lavender shortbread.

Then I got braver and thought I'd make fennel meringues ... whoops, only after I served them I realised I'd picked dill flowers instead. I felt slightly crestfallen until I told myself that you'd pay a whack for dill  meringues in a swanky Michelin restaurant. Wouldn't you? They have a rather grown-up, astringent anis-y taste and I think I'm quite pleased with them.

I'm also planning apricot and lavender cake from this lovely book. And I'm eagerly awaiting this.

Thursday 7 August 2014

Finding Vivian Maier proved to be a fascinating documentary about the Chicago-based nanny who has been described as Mary Poppins with a camera. Intensely private, secretive, eccentric, she used to haul her young charges around with her as she captured post-war America on her Rolleiflex. Just like Mary Poppins, she seems to have had a menacing quality. Except that rather than dancing on the chimneytops, she took the children she nannied on outings to the abattoir in the meat-packing district. Some of her charges adored her; some were abused by her. You can't help wondering how she ever got a reference. As she moved from family to family, she accumulated 100,000 negatives and 2,700 rolls of undeveloped fim that only surfaced by chance after her death.

Now that I've seen the movie, I'm mad that I've missed several exhibitions of her work in London.

Did any of you watch Mrs Miniver on television this afternoon? First time it's been shown in seven years but for some reason it hasn't gone on iPlayer. Enjoyably dreadful, well, dire, really - but you can't complain that it massacres the book when it doesn't bear a scrap of resemblance.

Tuesday 5 August 2014

It's a bonus if kids' shows amuse the grown-ups just as much as the children ... but we all adored The Elephantom this morning, hilariously funny and brilliantly performed. It was the National Theatre's Christmas show last year, now returned to the West End. All new to me as I hadn't read the book.

But I can tell you that the Elephantom grows and grows - until he's much, much bigger than in this picture - and if you're sitting where we were, you'll find yourself squashed under his enormous blue bottom. And the bigger he grows, the worse he behaves - until he's about as welcome as an elephant poltergeist. 

The puppets were made by the same people who did War Horse.

It's a poignant story about a little girl who is ignored by her over-busy, self-obsessed parents. The choreography and sound-effects of their frantic breakfasts were quite brilliant.

And while I'm on the subject of sound effects ...

That elephant really wasn't house-trained.

Four enormous icecreams later, we headed off to the newly re-opened Imperial War Museum. All I can say in my own defence is that when we planned this trip several weeks ago, I didn't twig the significance of the date. It was heaving ...

Complete chaos. The main atrium with all the boys' toys now seems horribly cramped. We tramped up and down stairs, couldn't find the WW2 exhibit we were looking for - and felt sad that they've taken out    the Blitz experience which the boys would have loved.

As we didn't have timed tickets, it was 4pm before we made it into the WW1 galleries which I think are probably excellent if we hadn't been so frazzled. It would take at least two or three hours to absorb them properly. We were tugged along by the boys who couldn't wait to get into the trench - but it was nowhere near as interesting as the Trench experience that they had years ago.

But we'll go back, I'm sure. Just not in the summer hols. At least, not this year.

Sunday 3 August 2014

Summer, 1914 (JD Fergusson, 1934)
All weekend I've caught myself thinking, 'This time 100 years ago ... '

So this painting caught my eye when I went to Chichester yesterday for the last exhibition of the excellent Scottish Colourists series that has travelled down from Edinburgh.

It was painted 20 years later, as Fergusson looked back nostalgically to that last golden summer before the war - which must have been rather like this one.

His longterm partner, later his wife, was the avant-garde dancer Margaret Morris who recalled: 'The wonder of the summer at Cap d'Antibes passes all description. Fergus had everything organised, a good supply of charcoal for slow-cooking, omelettes and soups. He had hung a hammock on the big tree, so one could lie in it and pull the ripe figs - sometimes the early ones dropped on one, over-ripe: I remember standing on the tiny balcony and saying to myself - nothing can ever be as perfect as this.'

Fergusson's response to war was less than heroic, although I can't help feeling sympathetic towards someone who felt less than enthusiastic about being conscripted in his 40s.

But although his exuberant colours are so beguiling, there's a shallowness to Fergusson who always seems to trying on some other artist's clothes. Much as I've enjoyed the whole series, and here's my thoughts about Peploe last year, the Cadell exhibition (which I never got around to blogging) was definitely my favourite. Here's why.