Tuesday 22 December 2015

Agatha Bas, Rembrandt, 1641
Last week, after a trying morning, I was looking to escape for a couple of hours. So where's soothing and peaceful, no crowds, no phones allowed, just a handful of art lovers absorbing some of the most ravishing pantings in London ... let's aim straight for the top and spend an afternoon at Buckingham Palace where this exhibition of Dutch paintings is just one breathtakingly stunning work after another. (And yes, I do think they should be in the National Gallery, but there's no question that the Queen's Gallery - child-free, braying middle-class mother-free, school-trip free, and only the nicest kind of tourist - is a far more pleasing experience.)
So sail up the staircase, past the Christmas tree and look what's there ... Rembrandt's Agatha Bas for starters and, oh, this is simply exquisite close-up. You want to reach in and touch it, her fan, her locket, those folds of lace, and look at that mauve-gold petticoat she's wearing underneath. This was bought by George IV.

Then there's Rembrandt's mother, which was a gift to Charles I (the first Rembrandt ever to leave the Dutch republic).
A Girl Chopping Onions, Gerrit Dou, 1646
I loved this great dish of chopped onions ... and wondered if artist and model were weeping, it must have taken so long to paint such refined detail. (Actually, it's all about sex and onions were an aphrodisiac.)

An Elderly Couple in an Arbour, Adriaen von Ostade, c1670
I admit. I fell for the waffles. There are simply not enough waffles in European art.

Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman, 'The Music Lesson', Vermeer
And then Vermeer, and my favourite de Hooch ...

A Courtyard in Delft at Evening, A Woman Spinning, Pieter de Hooch, 1657
Can't you just feel the heat of this balmy evening?

Card Players in a Sunlit Room , de Hooch, 1658
And feel those rough tiles under your feet? Both of these were acquired by George IV.

An Old Man and a Girl at a Vegetable and Fish Stall, Willem van Mieris, 1732
And because I do have a penchant for cakes in art, look at these slabs of shiny gingerbread - because that's what I'm making tomorrow. (There's gingerbread figurines on the shelves, if you look closely, and I think those ducks/swans on sticks are gingerbread, too, which is giving me ideas.)

Monday 21 December 2015

I found this in a charity shop back in the summer, thought it would make a good Christmas read, and so it has proved. I haven't been smitten by other titles I've read from this British Library crime series - and I see that Rachel at Book Snob found The Lake District Murder quite as tedious as I did, because it might just as well be sub-titled The Garage Owner's Compendium to Everything You Want to Know About Petrol Deliveries. Although, having said that, I can think of some boring old blokes I've known over the years who would probably quite like droning on about cubic gallons of four-star.
However, I do love the covers in this series, which are irresistible.
Anyway, Mystery in White, originally published in 1937,  is far and away the best I've read so far and has been a nice brisk read over the weekend. (J Jefferson Farjeon was Eleanor's brother.)
It's a classic country house murder mystery with a twist, as a mismatched bunch of passengers (chorus-girl, bore, brother and sister, psychic, limp young man) find themselves stranded in a snowbound train on Christmas Eve - and struggle through the blizzard to take shelter in a deserted house where the door is conveniently unlocked, the fire is blazing, the table is set for tea ... and there is a creepy sensation that something horrible has happened - but when?
All jolly good stuff and it has put me in the mood for Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None.

Friday 11 December 2015

Should you be feeling inclined to seasonal gloom, you might be interested to know that as far back as 1420 the poet Thomas Hoccleve was suffering from SAD.

Aftir that harvest inned had hise sheves,
 And that the broun sesoun of mihelmesse
  Was come, and began the trees robbe of hir leves ...
And hem into colour of yellownesse
Had died and doun throwen undir foote
That chaunge sank into myn herte roote.

I'm finding myself fascinated by Alexandra Harris's exploration of English weather. And amazed by her scholarly versatility. (Her previous books Romantic Moderns and a delightfully short biography of Virginia Woolf are also excellent.)

Yesterday I bought a little bunch of daffodils which looks hopeful, if slightly odd against the holly. (I know, far too soon for holly but you've got to be quick around here before it all disappears from the lanes.)

Wednesday 9 December 2015

Only a few tell-tale crumbs left in the first box of mincepies (I knew I shouldn't have opened them) ... But I'm three mugs of tea and three episodes into Dickensian - and it is absolutely fabulous!
It's a murder mystery - who killed Jacob Marley, Scrooge's nasty business partner who is known to have been paying by the hour for the attentions of Nancy(from Oliver Twist)? Inspector Bucket (from Bleak House) is on the case.
It is enormous fun because everybody's in it ... young Miss Havisham, who has yet to be jilted, is seemingly BFF with the future Lady Dedlock (Bleak House) who is house model at the Mantalini gown shop (Nicholas Nickleby); young Peter Cratchit has a crush on Little Nell and Sairey Gamp is knocking back the gin down The Three Cripples. The set is simply wonderful. And if you occasionally find yourself wondering, errr... was that from Martin Chuzzlewit or Our Mutual Friend? it doesn't really matter. It is brilliantly clever and I'm sure Dickens would have loved it.

It has been a Dickensian week here as we had an early Christmas outing on Sunday to see A Christmas Carol. The ghosts were suitably spooky and scary - and the London backdrop was terrific, if not on the BBC scale. But it went on just a bit too long - a few too many warbled carols  - and if I'm honest I preferred the Muppets' version which was a Christmas treat a few years ago. I'm half expecting Kermit to pop up in Dickensian.

Monday 7 December 2015

Struggling to find something that I'd really enjoy reading over the weekend, I browsed my Virago shelf of charity book finds that I've yet to get around to reading. Was The Brimming Cup what I was looking for ... sadly, it wasn't. I've read The Home-maker - Dorothy Canfield's 1924 novel about a role-swapping husband and wife, interesting because it's so ahead of its time, even if the ending is a bit of a letdown as they let themselves be browbeaten by public opinion. I know I've read Her Son's Wife from 1926, though I can't remember much about it. But The Brimming Cup .... aaargh, how earnest, how preachy, how dull! It starts in 1909 when a young couple on the brink of married life vow always to be true to what's best in themselves .. then it's fast forward to 1920 when Marise, the wife - a sainted bloody Angel in the Home if ever there was one - begins to feel a nagging twinge that she has lost her own identity in nappyland. She feels a frisson of attraction towards the millionaire who has conveniently moved in next door and who unfortunately reminded me of that spivvy looking American who plays Mr Selfridge in that ghastly TV series. No, Marise, hang on in there - you will find true fulfilment in another few decades with the invention of Persil when your whites will never be whiter. You are so fine, so wholesome, such a perfect example of womanhood ... and such a crashing bore.

Middle-aged lady in bookshop (Shurely not me?) gushes encouragingly: 'Look at this lovely Christmas book ...'
Nobody looks at the lovely Christmas book. If she is being honest, lady privately admits that she wouldn't have thought much of it c1965 and probably would have preferred a Bunty annual.
We came away with a rather more enticing volume about turning your brother into a zombie slave.
And the really cool one about the 14yo spy being shot at by international terrorists. I think a shark came into it, too, but that may have been the next one in the series. ('This is a really, really rare book. It's not in the library.')
Anyway, I don't think I'd want to be friends with the kind of boy who reads lovely Christmas books. And a zombie slave might be useful to have round the house.

Tuesday 1 December 2015

Everybody is saying it, but I'll say it, too - Cate Blanchett is quite brilliant as Carol. One thing I really enjoyed about the film is the 1950s colour palette, those flashes of bright coral against the muted blues, the vibrance of a red and yellow cab in a sombre street scene. Director Todd Haynes also made Far From Heaven, his homage to Douglas Sirk and All that Heaven Allows. Interesting piece here about the photographers - many of them women - who influenced him.
Elevenses, Charles Spencelayh

Looking for something else entirely, I came across this painting yesterday and immediately thought, "I know that artist," although the name escaped me. But then I remembered seeing this at the Harris Gallery, Preston. A critic once described Spencelayh as a painter of old codgers, which seems exactly right - but he's a dab hand too at loaves of bread and everyday china. It's not what I'd spend £67,000 on    but I do enjoy all the clutter and detail.

Sunday 29 November 2015

Larkspur, August 1914, Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Can you spot the tiny birds hidden in the painting? This is one of the flower paintings made by architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh when he was down on his luck and staying on the Suffolk coast in 1914/15, only to find himself suspected by the locals of being a German spy.
Esther Freud has a house in Walberswick, which was once the pub where Mackintosh lodged. She fancied she saw the ghost of a young boy there and imagined he was the landlord's son, who developed an unlikely friendship with the artist. And this became the basis for her novel Mr Mac and Me ... which unfortunately turned out to be quite a tedious read. Sorry. (But that's the bookgroup 'homework' done for another month.)

The White Rose and the Red Rose 

CRM thought that his wife Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh was the genius, but she's far too fey and fanciful for my taste.

Friday 27 November 2015

There was a library sale this afternoon and I picked up a rather battered copy of The Man Who Loved Children for 25p. Then, when I got home, I read this and now feel slightly daunted. Has anybody else read it? I know I read The Puzzleheaded Girl but so many years ago that I can't remember a single thing about it.

Wednesday 25 November 2015

The trouble with Bridge of Spies is that it's just so American and Tom Hanks is just so - decent. It's a cracking true story - and I'm tempted to read the book - and Berlin in 1962 looks amazing. But despite what the Guardian says, I like my Cold War thrillers dark and cynical and messy and le Carré-ish - and I want tension not Hollywood optimism. So despite Mark Rylance as the Russian spy - and we turned out on a damp, chilly evening for him, not for Tom Hanks - we came out mildly grumbling that this was a 6.5 film ( well, I gave it 7, my friend said only 6). I kept thinking of the tension of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold - and thought the old ones are the best.

Monday 23 November 2015

I loved The Hare with Amber Eyes, read it twice and spent an afternoon in Paris walking the course. So I was looking forward to Edmund de Waal's second book, another quest, this time through the history of porcelain (even if I did feel cynical about the very brown sticker on the very white book as I thought EdeW would be too classy to shout, Buy me for Christmas).
Anyway, you don't need to buy this for Christmas because it will be lining the shelves in the charity shops by the end of January. There's lots of interesting material here and I'm not saying I didn't perk up now and then; I was interested in the Nazi porcelain works at Dachau, and fascinated to read about Wedgwood sending an agent into Cherokee territory in search of the whitest kaolin.  
But this isn't a gripping page-turner like The Hare when you're dying to know what happens and scared to find out. I'm afraid I found EdeW rather boring company on The White Road and got thoroughly fed up with his verbosity. (He switches the navel-gazing on and off and it's much better off.)
So on the very last page, when he answers the questions everybody asks ... Does he get bored making white pots? No, he doesn't. And is he still writing? I'm not writing. I have written. And I am making again. 
I'm afraid I thought, Well, that was the right decision.

Thursday 19 November 2015

After such a sombre week, it was lovely to enjoy an evening full of joie de vivre at Richmond Theatre. (Which is lovely, anyway, as I always think it's like sitting inside an old-fashioned chocolate box.) There's something about dance that replenishes the spirits and, now I think of it, in the week of 9/11 I went to see this which proved exactly the restorative I needed. Tonight it was the Richard Alston company - not in the same league, but it did the trick. And I do love this music.

Wednesday 18 November 2015

There's some exquisite objects in the V&A's Bejewelled Treasures exhibition but it does feel rather like a very slick PR exercise. I didn't come away any the wiser about Al Thani, who he was/is or how the collection came about but I googled when I got home and discovered the gossipy stuff that the V&A is too reverential to tell us. I do hope some of these lovely things get worn occasionally ... there were photos of the Spanish flamenco dancer who married a maharajah in 1908 - and her crescent-shaped emerald is in the exhibition - but I wondered if they ever get to a ball or a banquet today?

Wednesday 11 November 2015

I take a bus to the cinema, not a train. I go on my own, then do my shopping on the way home. And as I emerged from this nice, old-fashioned film this afternoon, there was a nagging thought at the back of my mind. The 1s9d's are now £8 (and that's without a ladies' orchestra in the intermission). I wasn't wearing a neat little suit, with a hat;  I was carrying a Bag for Life not a wicker basket, and I didn't go to the Kardomah, just grabbed a free, soap-suddy coffee in Waitrose (yuck, no wonder Trevor Howard isn't hanging around at the counter on the pull).
But have I really turned into this?

If anybody else likes some movie escapism with the weekly shop, Brooklyn is so much more enjoyable than the rather plodding Suffragette.

I'm not going to pretend this is an easy read; I was struggling for 100 pages before I got into it, and would more than likely have abandoned it if it weren't for book group - but I'm so glad I persevered (and it sparked off the best discussion we've had in months). It is about the Australian prisoners who built the Burma Death Railway, one of whom was Richard Flanagan's father ;  I hadn't heard of this family connection as I was reading, but Flanagan's devastating, visceral descriptions of beatings and disease are so terribly vivid that I guessed he had access to firsthand accounts. The central character is Dorrigo Evans, a young surgeon who survives to become lauded as a war hero ... and this is a novel about war and love and death and survival and decency and good men committing atrocities. It has its flaws; there's a few too many coincidences to be wholly believable and I'm guessing that Flanagan maybe struggled to create the framework to top and tail his war story. But in today's world, too much of it seems frighteningly topical. Highly recommended - but it demands a weekend of total immersion; this isn't a book to pick up and put down. There's a good review here, by Thomas Keneally, and a sobering interview with the author - how very sad that a writer of this calibre should be struggling financially. (And how far does a £50,000 prize go when it's taken 12 years to write the book?) On a happier note, a friend who read it on Kindle said she has now a bought a hard copy as it's the best book she has read all year and she wanted to own it. At least, own it in the way you own a proper book. I'm not a Kindle reader, but then I'm not a daily commuter either.

Friday 6 November 2015

Maggie, it goes without saying, is magnificent - a riper version of the Dowager Countess (that's ripe as in a wedge of Stinking Bishop) and just as withering in her ripostes. And it was fun to see that The Lady in the Van was actually filmed on Gloucester Crescent and in Alan Bennett's old house. Gloucester Crescent, of course, also features in the BBC adaptation of Nina Stibbe's book Love, Nina which is coming soon (but it sounds as if they've mucked about with the book and, unlike The Lady in the Van, it was filmed somewhere else). 
But can you imagine living on Gloucester Crescent - with AlanBennettMissShepherdClaireTomalinMichaelFraynJonathanMillerAJAyerDeborahMoggachDavidGentlemanGeorgeMellyUrsulaVaughan-WilliamsAliceThomas-Ellis ... and heaven knows who else for neighbours? You'd have to be feeling intellectually at the top of your game even to shuffle out to the corner shop for a pint of milk. You couldn't put out the recycling bin without The Economist and the London Review of Books at the top of the pile. Of course, the joke of Love, Nina is that they're all perfectly normal and watch rubbish telly and eat turkey bolognese. (I'd forgotten, until it was mentioned in the film, that Catherine Dickens lived at no 70, so I wonder if that's what inspired Claire Tomalin's biography? ) 

Maggie will undoubtedly get an Oscar. But having seen Brief Encounter last week - and come away  feeling sorry that it was over too soon - I wondered why films today always make you feel as if they've gone on half an hour too long. By the end, I'd had just a bit too much. And as for the ending ... I'd give Maggie her Oscar and the film 7.5. 

Saturday 31 October 2015

Julie de Thellusson-Ployard, 1760

After the film yesterday, I walked through Soho to the Royal Academy (passing Foyle's, where I finally gave in and treated myself to a very expensive book that I've wanted for ages). I ignored the throng milling around for Ai Weiwei, though I might go back - his tree sculpture in the courtyard looks wonderful. But I was more in the mood for the extraordinary pastels of Jean-Etienne Liotard. We don't know him better because it has only recently become possible to transport pastels without damaging them. This is the most engaging exhibition I've seen for ages. Not just the medium - what a master he was, you wouldn't think you could achieve such extraordinary detail with pastel - but the wonderful intimacy and liveliness of his portraits. Look at this bridal portrait of Julie de Thellusson-Ployard, aged about 20 (that's her husband's portrait on her wrist) ... Doesn't she look fun, and not likely to say no to a second slice of cake!

And this is Princess Louisa-Anne, aged five, the sickly delicate child of the late Frederick, Prince of Wales and Princess Augusta. He captures her alert, lively curiosity at the same time as her wan peakiness ... see how thin she is, that dress is so big for her that it's slipping down her chest below her nipple. I kept thinking that if you stripped off the expensive gown, she'd look like an under-nourished  slum child.

While I was there, I stepped in to the library to see Edmund de Waal's display White. There is nothing whiter than a white page, nothing quieter than a library, he says ... err, no, not any more, because the effect was rather spoiled by the constant clickety-clack of computer keyboards. It is beautifully hung with mirrors - and I was delighted to see the famous Hare with Amber Eyes - but this is a tiny display, you'll be in and out in ten minutes, and unless you're a member  I think you'd feel pretty miffed at paying a fiver. Don't think it would have killed the RA to make this one admission free.

Friday 30 October 2015

Bliss ... a morning in the cinema watching Brief Encounter. It gets better every time you see it - for the umpteenth time, as it's my favourite film of all time, but until today I'd only ever seen it on television. It looked splendid, high-def or digitally-restored or whatever it is they do to old movies these days - that stunning black and white photography so crisp and clear in time for its 70th anniversary next month.
And no matter how many times I see it, and though I know the script almost off by heart - there's always something I've never noticed before. Heavens, there's a goldfish bowl on the mantelpiece in that chilly service flat belonging to Alec's friend ... fancy never noticing that before!
I don't know why I love it so much. Laura's a terrible drip and I wouldn't fancy Trevor Howard in a month of Sundays. And I've never been convinced that he wasn't really the most awful cad, because he doesn't half chat her up quick in the Kardomah; bit too practised, don't you think? And he's got sticky-out ears. On the other hand, there's Fred ... licking his pencil and struggling over the Times crossword (such easy clues!) and calling her 'old girl' ... no wonder poor Laura is gagging for tea and buns with another man. (She wasn't exactly high maintenance, was she?)
As for noticing things for the first time, oh dear, has anybody ever noticed Celia Johnson's false teeth? I read a biography by one of her daughters recently, and apparently she lost her front teeth in her teens. And now every time she smiles, I think ... Celia's dentures! Just as well the romance came to nothing. You can only keep your teeth in a glass by the bed when you're married to Fred.
But it was a delight. I loved being able to see all the detail of her clothes - those ladylike tweeds, the fur collar on her coat and her crocodile handbag. (Celia Johnson, in 1945, was simply longing to keep her costumes, after all those years of coupons, but wasn't allowed to.) And then there's the book jackets in the shop window. (Walter Greenwood. Karen Blixen. But this is what Laura had from Boots' library.) And the railway posters to Llandudno and Gloucester Cathedral. Yes, it was bliss.
I could have watched it all again as soon as it ended. Looking on YouTube I found it in Spanish. Which just seems wrong.

Thursday 29 October 2015

 Discovered in cupboard. Months past its sell-by date.

+ One bag of jelly spooks, pumpkins and skulls.

+ Icing sugar ALL over the kitchen.

Lots of fun but when I saw this I could only reflect that it is a whole different experience working with boys. To be fair, I'm as messy as they are. Eventually we got the roof on. I never was much good with IKEA flatpacks.

So not worth the queue (although to be fair it moves quickly and by the time I emerged at 5pm, there wasn't a queue at all). But the Chanel exhibit at the Saatchi Gallery feels like a glitzy display of the emperor's new clothes and I came out feeling as if I'd seen a nicely-designed set for an exhibition that had yet to be installed. Was that it? ... apparently it was. It's not about Chanel, it's about a brand - it looks like a fancy shop window display - and it's completely of our time because it's an utterly vacuous 'experience' with no purpose, it seems to me, other than as a backdrop to selfies.
# Wish I'd gone here instead.

Tuesday 20 October 2015

I was dithering over whether to see Suffragette; it sounded a bit predictable. But then my neighbours' builders struck up this morning, hammering and banging and that decided me ... I needed to be out of the house and luckily there was an 11am show. With me and about two other people there.
It looks stunning. The costumes and the sweatshops are amazing. Carey Mulligan is on excellent form as Maud who works in a Bethnal Green laundry, her arms scalded by hot water... with heavy hints that she has been sexually abused from girlhood by her slimy boss. And I enjoyed location-spotting: that was Princelet Street in Spitalfields, for sure, and the bandstand in Arnold Circus and the Boundary Estate.
But, oh lord, is it predictable and the characters feel like composite types rather than real people. But what irritated me most was the feeling that audiences are being fed a line of kneejerk PC feminism that ignores the realities of history. How much money gets poured into a film like this ... is the research really so shoddy, or is it just glossed over for the sake of simplistic dramatic cliche? When Carey Mulligan's weedy little husband (Ben Whishaw, miscast) asks her what she'd do with her vote and she says, same as you ...
That's when we should remember that men didn't have the vote either! At least, not men who worked in laundries in Bethnal Green. If he didn't get killed at Ypres, Ben Whishaw would have voted for the first time in December, 1918. (If women had been enfranchised on the same terms as men, they would have outnumbered them because of wartime mortality but that would have been politically unthinkable - and so yes, of course, it's completely unfair that as a young, working-class woman Maud/Carey still wouldn't have qualified until 1928.)
So yes, the Suffragettes make great costume drama for the Downton generation (and I'm sure I'd have loved this film when I was in my teens, without sparing a thought for poor Ben Whishaw and his ilk). But the story of universal suffrage is a much longer, and more interesting story than Votes for Women.
Even if a movie called Chartist doesn't have the same emotional appeal.

On the other hand, I did enjoy watching the trailers - as I haven't been to the cinema for weeks and weeks - and Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn and Patricia Highsmith's Carol both look promising and coming soon.

Sunday 18 October 2015

I don't know how this book has escaped the perpetual culling of interesting fiction in the library to make room for computers/coffee bars, but perhaps one of the librarians had some affection for it - because survive it did in the reserve stock and I'm the first person to have checked it out in 25 years. It still has the little cardboard envelope from the days of old library tickets.
And I've been curled up in a ball with it all morning and thoroughly enjoying it. I know I've read one other Lettice Cooper novel The New House - which is a Persephone title - and I know I quite enjoyed it but it wasn't a favourite. (Lettice Cooper is the aunt-by-marriage of the more famous Jilly.)
But maybe because this is a perfect autumnal read for a chilly, damp day, I'm quite engrossed in it. Published in 1938, it opens a few years earlier when the worrying news of the day was the Abyssinia crisis and the politically astute recognised that another war was coming. Mary has escaped from her working-class background in Leeds to achieve a degree and a job on a Fleet Street newspaper, but has been forced to return to work on a provincial paper and care for her semi-invalid arthritic mother. (That's what daughters did, and already I'm thinking that the brother still at home might have pulled his finger out and done up a few buttons for her.) Mary's uncle and aunt are stalwarts of the Labour/trade union movement. There's two prosperous local families, linked by marriage, one solidly Tory, the other more easy-going, and both have lost sons in the war that was supposed to end all wars. Economically, things have picked up but there's still the shadow of the Depression when one family business failed and the nicest son was forced to go to work for a selfmade man whose home is made miserable because he hasn't achieved the same success socially. Sprinkle with snobbery - throw in some misunderstood children and wives ... and so far it's shaping up to be a cross between Dorothy Whipple and Winifred Holtby.
Even better, there's several more Lettice Coopers in the library system, including one set in the 1970s miners' strike which I'm quite old enough to remember. (Please miss, I haven't done my homework, we only had candlelight.)
Now ... should I make the first batch of Welsh cakes of the season? Tea, sugary fingers and a good book are my perfect recipe for Sunday afternoons.

Saturday 10 October 2015

The theatre looked - and smelled - fabulous, lit by dozens of real wax candles. I envied the people in the stage boxes for whom it must have been a magical, and intimate evening. I was up in the gods, unfortunately, kicking myself for being a £10 cheapskate because when you can't see Mark Rylance's expressive face, well, you've missed out.
Farinelli and the King (written by Rylance's wife) is about the melancholic Philip V of Spain (think Madness of George III but rather less heartrending) and the healing power of music in the form of the castrato Farinelli. It was simply entrancing to hear this lovely aria from Handel's Rinaldo in such a  setting.
I can see why the play got 4* from reviewers rather than 5*. Rylance as Philip V wasn't up to Rylance as Cromwell. (What pressure though, to face audiences expecting you to measure up to a role that was the peak of your career.) Now I think of it, I don't think I've seen him on stage since he played Cleopatra at the Globe, which I thought was a bit gimmicky. (Well, the previous Cleopatra I'd seen was Judi Dench and that was some act to follow.)
But I think Farinelli and the King is maybe like a miniature painting. If I'd been in a different seat, enfolded in the light from those flickering candles, close enough to reach out and touch ... it would have been quite a different experience. Sometimes I don't mind the £10 seats for the thrill of being there but this time it felt a bit like peeping through a window.

Sunday 4 October 2015

What happened to penny book reviews? Some few years ago, I remember people reviewing forgotten classics that they'd bought for 1p on Amazon - but I can't find them now and I suppose it must have fizzled out.  I think this must have been one of them because I was burning to read it. It's still 1p on Amazon but I came across my copy - sadly, without the John Piper book jacket - in a charity shop in Broadstairs. And like so many books that I must, must, must have ... it has been gathering dust on a pile for years!
But eventually its time came and I thought that autumn evenings demanded a wallow in the underbelly of Victorian England. (It was actually published in 1947.) Michael Sadleir was the author of the better-known Fanny by Gaslight, which I vaguely remember as a TV series that I wouldn't have bothered watching back in the Eighties. (I vaguely remember that I was never in on a Saturday night!)

Fanny by Gaslight was concerned with the amusements (predominantly vicious) of rich people in London during the seventies of the last century. Forlorn Sunset is a story of the same period, but presents the evil folk who pandered to those amusements, and the miseries (and therefrom arising vices) of their poor and helpless victims. Inevitably it lacks the glamour of its predecessor, and the characters encountered are for the most part disreputable.

Well, there's a touch of George Gissing and Grub Street about it (but Gissing is miles better). This is a book about London, and thank heavens there's a couple of maps because without them I'd have got terribly confused. (It starts in the vicious streets in the vicinity of Waterloo Station, then shifts to Marylebone.)
At the centre of the novel is a child called Lottie Heape who escapes from an establishment,  'this vile Dothegirls Hall, ' for grooming young girls for a life of prostitution; she does very well for herself in St John's Wood as a kept mistress until her protector is murdered and she falls in love with a brute. Apart from that, all human life is there - vicars and pimps, tarts with a heart, and characters who could have walked straight out of Dickens. I was interested to discover that the Moonlight Mission really existed.
When it works, this is a fascinating story of organised crime and vice on streets I often walk today ... but what a tangled web to keep up with! I got horribly confused by some of the business scams and share-dealings. And there are longueurs when Sadleir drones on and you're tempted to skip chunks. A good penny's worth? Certainly, but I doubt I'll be reading him again.

However, this postscript interested me:

London's street-plan was in most districts haphazard, complex and unsuited to through traffic. One consequence of this .... was that the areas of popular resort - whether fashionable, social, official, professional, commercial, pleasure-seeking or dissolute - were few and circumscribed, so that chance encounters between folk of a similar sort were much more frequent than is the case nowadays.

So perhaps all those unlikely coincidences in Dickens' novels aren't so unlikely after all?

Friday 2 October 2015

The trouble with blogging for any length of time is finding anything new to say when you do pretty much the same things again and again ... because you like them, so why not!
Compton Verney looked lovely today in this soft, autumn light - as indeed it did four years ago. I strolled around the lake again; I scrumped some apples again. They have a very nice shop and I even bought a C-word present because I knew I'd regret it if I didn't.
Their new exhibition is inspired by this book which I haven't read, science never having been my thing at school. Turns out that gilded kale leaves are rather beautiful.
And the periodic table is rather fun when it's Au-drey for gold, Cu-for John Thaw and Eu-for Jacques Delors. Which, of course, reminded me of this.

Thirty Pieces of Silver (Exhaled), Sugar Bowl (Cornelia Parker)

Wednesday 30 September 2015

The V&A's Fabric of India exhibition starts with an 'Oooohh,' as the first thing you see when you walk in is this enormous summer floorspread that must have been like sitting in a field of poppies. If I hadn't managed to lose the notes I took on my way home, I'd tell you all about dyes made from chay root bark and pomegranate husks, luscious reds and golden yellows, shimmering cloths of gold and silver and muslins so fine you could surely pass them through a wedding ring. I was aching to touch and stroke and throw bolts of fabric over my shoulder. Less interested in the contemporary designs towards the end; the zip-up sari does not seem an improvement in elegance on the original. I'm sure I'll be going back for a second look but it was a real treat today with hardly anybody there. The shiny trimmings on this dress fabric are jewel beetles' wings. 

I wasn't going to ... but of course I did, as soon as I noticed it was down to £9-something on Amazon. Had to be done? Even though I've probably only made about two recipes from Vol 2? Feeling a bit silly as I'd resisted the Honey&Co baking book which I actually wanted more.

Tuesday 29 September 2015

I like a big, fat book for autumn evenings, something to get lost in, a page-turner that's not too challenging after a wallow in Downton Abbey.
And although I don't normally care for sequels and prequels (unless they're as good as Longbourn, a rare exception),  I did enjoy Nelly Dean, the housekeeper's tale that fills in the gaps in Wuthering Heights. (You really do need to read the original first, or you'll get your Cathies in a twist. The story takes the form of a letter from Nelly to the former tenant Mr Lockwood and as she has already told him the story of Cathy and Heathcliff and the other inhabitants of Wuthering Heights, she isn't repeating herself - so you do need to know who's who. Alison Case is a professor of literature and she's assuming you've done your homework!)
This is Nelly and Hindley's story - and Nelly leaves the torrid lovers to get on with it off-stage. (If you  have ever felt impatient with grand passions on the moors, you might actually prefer this.)
Nelly is a battered child who comes to live at Wuthering Heights, sharing the childhood of the other children but not quite part of the family. It's ages since I last read WH; I'm sure I thought Nelly was boring, holding up the action when all I was interested in was smouldering passion. (It really is the perfect escapist novel for teenage girls.) But Nelly has her own secrets and passions ...
To be honest, you'll guess them well before the end but it's still an enjoyable read. I could have done with a whole lot less of the pages and pages of breast-feeding - but I'm not the maternal type. (Now I think of it, the only novel I can think of with so much action at the breast is Enid Bagnold's The Squire who was far too much of a Smug Sainted Mummy for me.)

Improvised comedy isn't really me. I used to hate Whose Line Is It Anyway? because they all looked so pleased with themselves. But this improvised musical was really clever.
Tonight was show no 619 and it was a love story (sort of) set in Marks and Spencer's in 1894, when the purveyors of Percy Pigs received a visit from Prime Minister Gladstone ... so, yes, it was topical.
The musical references, I'm afraid, passed me by ... I heard other older members of the audience muttering about this on the way home. It's no good referencing Dreamgirls and The Book of Mormon ...  we need Oklahoma and Guys and Dolls. (When did musicals stop having proper songs?)
But it was clever. A musical made up on the spot from suggestions shouted out by the audience. Tonight M&S Percy Pigs. Tomorrow it will be something entirely different.

Sunday 27 September 2015

It has been the most delightful weekend of golden, sunshiney autumn and this is where I was yesterday -

At a museum started by two elderly sisters ...

 In the old village school beside the duck pond in the artists' village of Ditchling.

 I was rather taken by these curtains for the Festival Hall dyed with madder, blackberry tips, indigo and weld. 

And wondered whether I'd be too precious ever to use a garden roller carved by Eric Gill.

I was very pleased to come across Tirzah Garwood's The Crocodile. Having a healthy schoolgirl appetite myself, despite having enjoyed a large breakfast (bacon, egg, sausage, mushrooms, black pudding and fried bread), I was by now just about ready for coffee and a large slice of carrot cake.

Later, in the afternoon, I strolled through an English vineyard, wished for the umpteenth time that I hadn't managed to kill off the grapevine in my garden - and enjoyed a sip of this.

Wednesday 23 September 2015

This week's bunch of gladioli, bought so tightly in bud that it was hard to guess their colour, turns out to be exactly the same shade as my collection of old orange Penguins.
For some reason, this pleases me greatly.
(Pink flowers usually go on the other side by the Persephone shelf.)
Matching books and flowers...
I am expecting a visit from Homes and Gardens magazine any day now.

Saturday 19 September 2015

It is Open House weekend. Forward planning not being my strong point, it was lunchtime before I looked at the brochure - so that's why I had to stay local and visit this suburban Versailles. It's six years old, built by a Polish millionaire as a tribute to his grandmother who was inconsolable after the loss of the family palace back home.
What can you say ... if you've got it, flaunt it. There's some pictures here. (Poky kitchen - but look at that fridge!) Somewhere underneath the bling there is what I imagine must have been a perfectly nice Arts and Crafts house in keeping with the rest of the street.
The owner is a balletomane and recently took up ballet in his 60s. He has danced excerpts from Swan Lake in his gilded salon, we were told on the tour - by a member of staff who has mastered the art of keeping a straight-ish face - clad in white tights, and partnered by a prima ballerina. (Cue: distressed looks from British visitors, especially the men, as it will take some time to expunge this image.)
It did make me think of Hyacinth Bucket's candlelit soirées.

Thursday 17 September 2015

The lion on Westminster Bridge ...

The caryatids on St Pancras Church,  one of my favourite London buildings ...

And the detail on so many houses around Bloomsbury ...

I took all of this for granted and just assumed that it was made of stone. In fact, it is Coade stone, a highly durable artificial stone that resisted corrosion by London's acid rain and still looks good as new today. And what I'd never have guessed was that it was manufactured in the 18th century by an entrepreneurial spinster Mrs (courtesy title) Eleanor Coade. Her factory was on the South Bank where the Festival Hall is today. 

And this is her own home in Lyme Regis, like a pink wedding cake with Coade stone icing, more recently the home of novelist John Fowles and now restored by the Landmark Trust. I am completely addicted to the Landmark Trust's website and when I win the lottery (I'll need to!)  I'm going to work my way around every single one of their properties, inviting all of my friends and some of my relations.   The story of the restoration - and Mrs Coade - is told on the new Channel4 series about the Landmark Trust. It's interesting, but I did wish they wouldn't keep skipping back and forth from one property to another; I'm sure the target audience has an attention span of longer than two minutes. And it means that so much of the programme is wasted on tedious re-caps.