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. 

Tuesday 15 September 2015

 I've just pulled my battered old copy of Cider with Rosie down from the shelf. It was a present from my mum for Christmas, 1971, and it has been with me ever since,  in my college room at university, through all the grotty cold-water bedsits and flats when I first started work and lived out of boxes. It has that musty vanilla smell of old books. 'Recalling life in a remote Cotswolds village nearly forty years ago,' it says on the cover ... but I've owned the book for rather more than 40 years. I've always loved the pen and ink illustrations by John Ward that so perfectly caught the mood of the book.

I can't remember what else we did that Christmas of 1971. I was just too young to be going out. (By the following year I'd acquired my first boyfriend and a taste for Babychams and Snowballs with a maraschino cherry. I'm still partial to a maraschino cherry!) But I do remember on Christmas evening we settled down to watch Cider with Rosie on BBC2 ... I'm not sure we even had a colour telly, if we did it would have been a great novelty. And that's the version - with Rosemary Leach as Laurie's mother - that stays in my mind after all those years. (I've just looked to see if it's on YouTube and it is, but over-dubbed in Russian! I watched a few minutes of it and it's exactly as I remembered it.)

And now I've just finished watching the new BBC adaptation. (This time with Samatha Bond as Mother, some very good children, and the voice of Timothy Spall as the elderly Laurie Lee.) I'm not saying it's not good but somehow it lacked the warmth of the original. There's some irritating tinkering with the story. (I'm pretty sure that in the book there was no romance between Laurie's sister and the WW1 deserter in the woods. And nor did Laurie witness the murder of the brash ex-pat who was flashing his cash in the pub.) And - of course, this is my own fault - but it's a completely different experience watching television on-line, stopping and pausing to check e-mails or Google something entirely unnecessary. We didn't even have a video in 1971. So we sat around the television, mum in the armchair, kids on the sofa, arguing over the big purple nutty ones in the Quality Street ... and if I'm still around in 40 years time, that'll still be the Cider with Rosie I remember. Not the one I watched this afternoon.

Sunday 13 September 2015

Good sculpture should be under cover and bad sculpture should not spoil gardens.  (William Robinson, often referred to as 'The Father of the English Flower Garden.')

A quotation that popped into my head looking at some truly dire examples on the sculpture trail at Wisley this afternoon, where it was the last day of Wisley Flower Show.

There was a preposterous Victoria sponge made from 1000 carnations, filled with roses and with a whipped cream topping of hydrangeas, that was sliced by Mary Berry earlier in the week. It looked like something that might grace the funeral cortege of an East End gangster's mum. 

The 'stunning floral art arrangements' in the glasshouse (theme: the circus) proved ... well, that the spirit of Joyce Grenfell lives on. In the words of Miss Jean Brodie, for those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like. Under the auspices of the National Association of Flower Arranging Societies. Aka CAMP-MA'am or the Campaign for Real Middle Aged Ladies. (President Mary Berry.) 

Floral art proved a little too earnest for me. But I did go home with a splendid bunch of peppermint toothpaste-striped dahlias. A wasp in my handbag. And managed to wrestle a sheaf of alliums and fox-tail lilies nearly as tall as myself onto two buses. Joyce Grenfell can say what she likes. But no middle aged lady walks away from all that for £1.50. It looks quite splendid ... perhaps rather tall for the kitchen windowsill, and rather precarious when opening the oven door, but splendid. 

Friday 11 September 2015

I have to admit that the taffety tart c 1660 that I made the other day looked nothing like Heston Blumental's, even though we both use the same cookbook. I like to think that he aspires to a more homemade look but can't pull it off. (Taffety tart is made from apple, fennel seeds, rosewater, lemon peel and lots of sugar and as long as you don't burn it, it'll taste pretty good, no matter what it looks like.)
This afternoon I made bean bread c 1670 which looks like this no matter who makes it. (Not the millefruit variety because I didn't have any candied fruits. Just slivered almonds, more rosewater, and a teaspoon of aniseed.) Hannah Woolley is my kind of cook: take it out of the oven, she says, and mend what is amiss. It is tooth-achingly sweet. I can't vouch for its keeping for several weeks because it's all gone.

Thursday 10 September 2015

It's been a while since I treated to myself to a new Persephone and Vain Shadow, by Jane Hervey, turned out to be a little gem; so well-observed and funny. It covers four days as a family gathers for the funeral of a wealthy, overbearing and not greatly mourned patriarch. His widow hopes for peace and a new peach bathroom suite. His sons jostle for position and status: who gets to sit - literally - in father's chair? Will his grand-daughter find courage to break free from her bullying husband? There's a wonderful scene when they divvy up the small treasures in a cabinet. In the end, Jane Hervey has you feeling a grudging admiration for the mean old bastard. Jane Hervey is 95, still writing - but has never published another book. Made me wonder if there's any more like this stuffed in her sock drawer?

Tuesday 8 September 2015

I'm settling right back into my autumn routine: an afternoon in the cinema (I hadn't been for months), then the Waitrose shop on the way home. (Three cinemas within a three-minute walk of Waitrose.) Yesterday it was 45 Years, a middle-aged film by definition (Too depressing if you're in your 20s and hoping to marry. Tom Courtenay in his underpants is not a sight to inflict on the young.)
The film is about a childless couple who are planning a party for their 45th wedding anniversary when they are shaken by the discovery of the perfectly-preserved body of his ex-girlfriend, 50 years after she fell into an Alpine crevasse. I'm in two minds about this film. Charlotte Rampling's performance is simply brilliant, as her face becomes tauter as the days pass in the run-up to the party. But I couldn't quite believe in this marriage. Tom Courtenay might have been inspired by Gogglebox Giles, who is officially the most boring man in England. I know men like this ... but they're not married to Charlotte Rampling! Still, it put a spinsterly spring in my step as I left the cinema ... thank God I'm not married to that!

Also, saw the trailer for Suffragette which looks promising.

Monday 7 September 2015

Beatrix Potter - Mrs Heelis as she was known in the Lake District - and in the background, you can see her flock of Herdwick sheep.

And a book that has become an international best-seller. There's even talk of making it into a film. (I hope not. They'll ruin it.)
I often find myself drawn to books about the countryside but, truth is, I'm a city girl through and through - when you're tired of London/Paris/New York, you're tired of life - and those country books often fall into that unloved heap down the side of the bed, which is where H is for Hawk is now gathering dust. (I got off to a good start but quickly realised I was far more interested in the author's Fleet Street photographer father than I was in birds. A friend who gave up after 50 pages said exactly the same, so it isn't just me.)
So when I say that I galloped through James Rebanks' account of a shepherd's year in the Lake District,   completely riveted ... that is a 5* review! (And here's another one.) It is a book that opens your eyes to a landscape, making you realise the depths of your ignorance about life behind those drystone walls when you drive through, or even ramble through, admiring the stunning views. (He's very good on the Wainwright-ification of the Lake District, and it's shaming that even those who appreciate it don't get it. It made me realise how much my response to landscape is a kneejerk emotional reaction to 19th century Romanticism, not reality.)
James Rebanks is my polar opposite. I went to university, desperate to get away from the place where I grew up. (And I was right!) He went away to Oxford, despite messing around and leaving school at 16, got a first in history, and was desperate to return to the farm, a man hefted to the landscape in the same way his sheep are. It hadn't even occurred to me that sheep have teeth (I know, I told you I'm a city girl), still less that when they wobble and fall out with age, the sheep's time is up because it can't chobble grass. It never occurred to me that a shepherd would know each individual sheep and its family tree. (I thought they came in multi-packs of 100.) And I hadn't a clue that Herdwick sheep have their slatey blue-grey fleeces coloured red for shows and sales. (One theory is that shepherds wanted to pick out their most valuable sheep on the fell sides with ease. Another that, way back in time, people worshipped their sheep and coloured them as some sort of ritual.)
I think the reason I struggle with books about rural life is that so often they get lyrical and wordy; but Rebanks is completely down to earth and unsentimental. (He does get a bit repetitive and a better editor would have ironed this out; I think it's because the book started out as a blog.) Here he is @herdyshepherd1 and here are this year's twin lambs (scroll down).

Saturday 5 September 2015

I'm almost at the point of embracing autumn. Can't bear to wear socks yet - but, despite battling with my conscience and putting on a cardigan, I cracked after half an hour and the heating went on last night. And yesterday I went to the cinema. Guilt-free. In the afternoon.
The film was In Cold Blood, the 1967 adaptation of Truman Capote's true crime story about the brutal murder of a family in Kansas in 1959. It's gripping: the black and white photography gives it a gritty, authentic feel. It was shot in the same house where the murders took place, featured the same courtroom and jail and seven of the original jurors played themselves. The more recent film Capote with Philip Seymour Hoffmann focused on Capote's manipulative ruthlessness getting his story. Now I feel I need to see it again to compare.

I love emerging from a cinema with nothing else to do with my afternoon but set out for an amble, this time through the streets of Fitzrovia - where to my astonishment I discovered the childhood home of Charles Dickens which I didn't even know existed. A bit of googling when I got home revealed that the ever reliable author of Spitalfields Life is rather better informed. And here's a glimpse of the rather dull interior, even if young Dickens really did dry his socks before that fireplace.

My other great discovery was this Brazilian cafe where I wavered over the array of cakes and pastries (and I'm definitely going back for a cheap and cheerful lunch) ...
But this was an amble with purpose as I'd promised myself lunch at Honey&Co if I could get a table. ( I was so, so tempted by their wonderful new cookbook.) You will never taste better meatballs - or better iced orange-blossom tea ...but does anybody else find themselves disconcerted by the tiny loo (handbags on your knee, ladies, or left outside the door) with its view over the kitchen sink?

The other good thing about autumn is sinking into something enjoyable on television. And although nobody will ever be as beautiful as Julie Christie, I thoroughly enjoyed the new BBC adaptation of The Go-Between - Lesley Manville is simply brilliant as the edgy, nervous mother ... watch her eyes! And who knew that Jim Broadbent, who plays the elderly, emotionally-damaged  Leo, made his acting debut in a deckchair in the original? Great casting: somehow he has the same wavering smile as the enormously engaging child actor who plays the young Leo. Not convinced by Vanessa Redgrave as the elderly Marian, though; she seems to have cornered the market in topping and tailing period drama, whether it's Atonement, The Go-Between or Call the Midwife ... all interchangeable but I suppose it's a nice little earner for not much more than a day's work.

Next up: The Dresser with Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins.