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)