Sunday 30 November 2014

I'm not a big fan of Angela Thirkell - too smugly English upper-middle-class to be taken except very occasionally in small doses ...
But in a weekend of builders' chaos without a kitchen and the old fridge now apparently defrosting over the carpet, it has been pure escapism to sit drinking tea from an unwashed mug whilst pondering a domestic life made to run smoothly by parlourmaids, chaffeurs and cooks. As for 'snatching a hasty lunch of salmon mayonnaise, roast beef, potatoes, peas, French beans, salad, chocolate soufflé, charlotte russe, cream cheese, Bath Oliver biscuits, raspberries and cream ...'
If only I could. Curry or pizza?

Friday 28 November 2014

I didn't get round to mentioning Emlyn Williams' long-forgotten 1950s play Accolade when I saw it a couple of weeks ago, but it would be hard to beat this review on the Persephone website: Accolade has the same depth of moral insight, compassion and insight into human frailty as in every Dorothy Whipple novel.
Which might explain why we came out saying what a thoroughly engrossing, good old-fashioned play it was. I'd never been to the St James Theatre before; quite a find in that rather dreary, dirty bit of Victoria that's the Queen's back yard. 

This week I've been to this very engaging documentary about David Hockney. (Rattling around in an almost-empty cinema; rather dispiriting , too, that the audience was almost exclusively over-60.) Don't feel you've missed out on it being Live from LA: I didn't grasp who was doing the Q&A but he was an abysmal interviewer who interrupted Hockney before he got most of his answers out. Heaven forbid there should be a moment's silence before a famously deaf interviewee gathers his thoughts. Fascinating on perspective and painting water and heart-breaking when he talks about the dozens of friends who died of AIDS.
But sometimes I had to shake myself ... it was a bit like seeing Alan Bennett transplanted to Malibu.

Wednesday 26 November 2014

Now I know that a new decluttering guru is as seductive as a new diet. You always start out by thinking this time it really will work.
This book has pinged into my consciousness over the past few weeks. First of all, a friend mentioned that it was on her Kindle.
And then Lucille mentioned it too. I am deeply shocked. Lucille is the acknowledged expert on what is Useful or Beautiful. Her blog exudes calm and peace. I refuse to believe that Lucille has piles of stuff that require Japanese clutter-therapy.
When you organise your life according to this incredibly easy method, you will, of course, naturally, without a doubt, money-back guarantee, feel more confident, become more successful, lose weight and be transformed into the person etc etc
The book is due back to the library on December 24th. (Couldn't buy it without adding to the clutter, could I?)
Watch this space.
When I've cleared a space, that is.

I have just got to the bit where the author claims to have culled her books down to 30 volumes. I can't imagine living in a house with only 30 books. And I wouldn't like it.

Sunday 23 November 2014

It could be that I'm the wrong reader because I've never really cared for short stories. They're too short. You can't get engrossed in a short story, or hardly ever. (I make an exception for Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain which is the most perfect short story ever written.)
But I'm eagerly awaiting Hilary Mantel's next Thomas Cromwell instalment next year and so I hoped this might fill the gap, even though some of the stories are several years old. 1993, in one case, and it shows.
Wish I could say that the others are Hilary Mantel at the peak of her powers, but they're not. They seem stagey and contrived and only the first one rang true - about a Pakistani businessman who foists himself as an unwanted visitor on an unhappy expat housewife holed up in Jeddah. It feels autobiographical; Mantel lived in Jeddah for four years in the 1980s and said it was the happiest day of her life when she left.
I've still got a couple of stories to go. But I might just let this one go back to the library tomorrow as there's a waiting list for it. You can read the Mrs Thatcher story here, but it struck me as Mantel trying to be controversial for the sake of it.

Wednesday 19 November 2014

I thought I couldn't imagine any Mapp and Lucia other than Prunella Scales and Geraldine McEwan - but, on the strength of the first episode of the new series, Miranda Richardson and Anna Chancellor are absolutely brilliant and I simply love Richardson's face whenever Miss Mapp is thwarted.
Just in time ... my Sunday evening was quite ruined when I belatedly realised that the rather abrupt and unsatisfactory ending the previous week was actually the end of this series of Downton. I suppose they must eke it out ... because once Tom and Lady Mary walk down the aisle - which is my pet theory, so it's bound to be wrong - that has to be The End.

Tuesday 18 November 2014

Anyone else trying this book quiz?  I'm stuck with six to go ...
No, that's five to go, just had a brainwave!

Monday 17 November 2014

I'm enjoying this very much, especially with Alan Bennett's voice rumbling through it and admitting that he doesn't understand Auden. (If my mum were still here, this would have been her Christmas present.) There's Larkin and Betjeman, like old friends - MacNeice, learned by heart at school ...

Life in a day: he took his girl to the ballet;
Being short-sighted himself could hardly see it -

How I sympathise with that!

For me, the new discovery has been Thomas Hardy; I've read all the novels, but very little of his poetry.

Not a new discovery that I thoroughly dislike AE Housman ... what a posturing old fraud he was. Alan Bennett says that his poems don't appeal to women.  Auden summed him up exactly:

Deliberately he chose the dry-as-dust,
Kept tears like dirty postcards in a drawer. 

I think I'm with MacNeice:
I would have a poet able bodied, fond of talking, a reader of the newspapers, capable of pity and laughter, informed in economics, appreciative of women, involved in personal relationships, actively interested in politics, susceptible to personal impressions ... I write poems not because it is smart to be a poet but because I enjoy it as one enjoys swimming or swearing, and also because it is my road to freedom and knowledge.

Saturday 15 November 2014

Nina Stibbe's funny collection of letters  Love, Nina, was my Christmas reading last year and proved exactly right for those days between Christmas and New Year when you'd like to get stuck into a book but there's lots of interruptions for eating and conversation and playing silly games. I wasn't completely convinced that, as a 20-year-old nanny to the literati - Alan Bennett is a neighbour, often dropping in -  she was quite as naive as she makes out ... but it was a nice, funny, easy read.

I'm much less taken by her latest book Man at the Helm, a semi-autobiographical first novel about two impossibly precocious sisters trying to fix their flaky mother up with a man. (It's not actually a new book, it was written years ago and has only been published now on the back of last year's bestseller.)

I'm getting tired of all that breathless, self-conscious ditzy charm ... In fact, I feel as if I'm at a party that I was quite enjoying half an hour ago but now I'm getting desperate to escape. It's just too relentless. Aaarghh ... let me out! It's going back to the library!

Friday 14 November 2014

Dorothy Whipple fans will recognise Pauline with a Red Cushion (Sir James Gunn, c 1930, from some lucky person's private collection) ...

She was even more glamorous in yellow when I met her 'in the flesh' for the first time at the Harris Museum in Preston a few weeks ago. I remember admiring her painted toenails - so not a huge surprise to discover that she worked for Elizabeth Arden.

I'd love to visit this exhibition - and see the real yellow dress - but I doubt I'll be in Preston any time soon.

Thursday 13 November 2014

It was 1am before I headed stickily to bed having - as ever - started the whole project far too late in the day. The scent of quinces and rosewater wafted from the kitchen last night, spreading into
every room and I'm beginning to understand Sue's passion for quinces.

I only had half a dozen, rather small ones ... but now I have more than 70 little quince sweetmeats, to be sugared and layered in a tin as soon as I get tired of them cluttering my worktops! (Best hide them soon as I have a little nibble every time I put the kettle on.) They are loosely inspired by two historic recipes - 17th and 18th century - a dollop of Jane Grigson for common sense - and once you've achieved a gloopy, red mess, then wing it and hope for the best.  
I wish I could have tied them into lover's knots (any advice, Sue?) but they were too floppy and sticky so what I ended up with is the 17th century Rowntree's fruit pastille.

I'd love to display them in a little sugar basket. I might have a bash at something less ambitious tomorrow.

Now dusted with sugar and cinnamon and stashed away out of temptation and, though I say so myself, my quince sweeties are delicious. (Actually, everybody who's had a taste has been enthusiastic.) Now, if only I had some more quinces ...
Maybe I should to move to a house with a quince tree.

Tuesday 11 November 2014

Turner on Varnishing Day, William Parrott

Timothy Spall gives a terrific performance as Mr Turner and it all looks simply wonderful, as you'd expect, but, oh dear, what a very long film - I could have done with 30 minutes less - and I'm afraid I nodded off for a few minutes during dinner with the Ruskins.
Can't remember the last time, though, that I went to the cinema and it was completely sold out.
Okay, so I'm the last person in the world to catch on - but Serial is completely addictive and far more compelling than anything currently on television.

I'm fascinated by this innovative style of campaigning investigative journalism ...  Apparently,  there are 850,000 podcast downloads of Serial each week which means it is doing better than most national newspapers with their plummeting circulations. (I have an old-fashioned fondness for print so this makes me sad - but I've stopped them buying them, too.)

Serial, in case you don't know, is a re-investigation of a real-life crime story from 1999. These are real people - real witnesses - real interviews. Someone is really in prison, rightly or wrongly.  There may or may not be a real killer still at large.

It is gripping. It is brilliantly well-crafted. And yet it makes me uncomfortable.

It's door-stepping by the mob. Re-trial by podcast.

I'm not sure about the ethics but I confess I'm hooked.

Monday 10 November 2014

I was drawn to the lovely covers of this crime classics series and intended this for holiday reading when I was up in the Lake District a few weeks ago.
I've only just got around to it now but, to be honest, it hinges on rather too much detail about rural petrol deliveries - and I'm getting bored!

Sunday 2 November 2014

After a couple of bad reading choices in quick succession (The Shock of the Fall was almost unanimously disliked by the book group, only one of us having a good word to say for it, so it wasn't just me!) ... what a relief then to spend the weekend with my head down in a new Ian McEwan. The literary equivalent of sleeping on a good firm mattress instead of a cheap foam-filled futon. (Mattresses have been preying on my mind this week after a perfect night's sleep in a hotel bed that came from here. As mine needs replacing, I am sorely tempted.)

I haven't always been a fan of McEwan. Loved Atonement, loathed Saturday, wasn't entirely convinced by On Chesil Beach. But I do like his spare, elegant writing.

This is a compelling slim volume, only 213pp. Fiona is a High Court judge in the Family Division, fiercely intelligent, going through a midlife crisis in her own long, on the whole loving, but childless marriage. (Does seven weeks and a day without sex constitute a crisis worth leaving home for? Her husband thinks it does.)

To be honest, I didn't much care about Fiona's private life and whether or not she picked up the threads of her marriage with the history professor husband who was so vain of his silver-grey chest hair. But her working life is fascinating: the judgement she gave on Siamese twins - her ruling on educating the daughters of two divorced Orthodox Jews ... She is cool, dispassionate, a female Solomon. She wears Rive Gauche; a detail dropped in towards the end, but how exactly right for her.

And then she is called on to make an emergency court order in the case of a young Jehovah's Witness with leukaemia; almost 18 - but not quite - he is refusing a blood transfusion.

Often, when I finish reading McEwan I find myself stricken by doubts. Now that I've surfaced, I'm not entirely convinced by this beautiful, precocious, exceptionally-gifted 17-year-old poet. But I was completely engrossed while I was reading, right to the last page.

Saturday 1 November 2014

Persephone Books recently listed this as one of the 50 books they wish they'd published themselves, which is why I picked it up at the library despite the unpromising cover. They even said it should be on the Booker longlist.

Perhaps I should have trusted my instincts about the cover. It's chick-lit with pretensions. Topping my 2014 list of books I wish I hadn't wasted time on.

Unfortunately, it was the only book I'd shoved in my handbag when I was away on a work trip earlier this week. Although I suppose the advantage of not giving two hoots about silly plot or characters is that you can pick it up and put it down again without caring a jot when you're interrupted.