Saturday 31 December 2016

Self-Portrait, Vanessa Bell, c1915
I didn't go to many exhibitions this year but already 2017 is looking very promising. First up, there's Vanessa Bell ...

The lady with the umbrella, John Singer Sargent, 1911                                
Then Sargent's watercolours ...

Followed directly by the first UK retrospective of Tove Jansson. All three at Dulwich Picture Gallery before the end of the year. Happy New Year everybody.
Mysterious Landscape, Tove Jansson, c1930

Friday 30 December 2016

I enjoyed Andrew Marr's series Paperback Heroes a couple of months ago - especially the episode on spy fiction - and scribbled down several titles to be read later. So this was my not-very-Christmassy Christmas reading and a jolly good read it was, taken with a whiskey sour. (Give me the classic cocktails, not the fancy ones!) I even got to watch the 1943 film, seemingly made with a great deal of involvement, but not actually directed by Orson Welles. The film stayed fairly true to the book, until the ending went way over the top. I've never read Eric Ambler before but I'll definitely seek out some more.

Right now I'm belting through The Secrets of Wishtide, a thoroughly enjoyable Victorian murder mystery introducing lady detective Mrs Laetitia Rodd. To be honest, it's also thoroughly derivative and owes much to Steerforth and little Em'ly as well as the original female detective Mrs Gladden. But it's a nice easy read and a good excuse for not even thinking about venturing out into icy fog.

Saturday 24 December 2016

6pm:  I admit, the prospect of venturing out into the cold night air and drizzle - and frizzing my Christmas hairdo - was distinctly unappealing. So whose bright idea was it to book a last pre-Christmas night out?
But I'm so glad I went. Because the RSC's country house production of Love's Labour's Lost - set in the summer of 1914 - was a complete delight and I'm sure Shakespeare would love it.  It's a bit Brideshead (well, there's a very Aloysius-y teddy bear), a bit Downton Abbey, lots of laughs - and yet poignant at the end when the men go off, not to test their true love but to fight WW1. The lovely set is based on Charlecote Park. Now I really want to see the companion piece Much Ado, which has had even better reviews and is set when they return from the trenches. There's a trailer here. The most enjoyable Shakespeare that I've seen in years.

WHEN icicles hang by the wall,
  And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
  And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipped, and ways be foul,        
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
To-whit, to-whoo, a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

Actually, the quotation I like best is this one:
 He hath not fed of the dainties that are bred in a book;
he hath not eat paper, as it were; he hath not drunk ink.

Thursday 22 December 2016

You know when you read a review and think, 'I've simply got to read this book'? From the start, I was engrossed ... and then somehow it all went wrong, and dragged on too slowly, and I slightly lost interest. I kept reading, waiting for a twist/revelation that wasn't coming. What a shame, because there's so much to love in this - what should I call it? - historical why-dunnit? I was intrigued from the start by the similarity between the author's name and the protagonist. (but that's just a bit of tricksiness.) There is a wonderful sense of location - historical and geographical - in the Scottish highlands where life seems nasty. brutish and short, in thrall to the laird and his pecking order of representatives, the factor and the thuggish local constable. It is 1869. A crofter's 17yo son commits a bloody triple murder and doesn't attempt to deny it. The novel comprises a prison memoir written at the behest of his lawyer who is trying to plead insanity, followed by other documents: medical opinion, witness statements, newspaper reports of the trial. But I did find myself wishing that we could move along a bit faster. And I didn't quite believe that the doltish boy would really have written the articulate, sensitive memoir.

Wednesday 21 December 2016

No snow today at Fenton House but I loved my immersive visit to this silk merchant's house: upstairs and downstairs with my wee-willie-winkie candlestick (electric candle, not a real one!) - peeping through the keyhole at the daughter's opium habit - oh, no, she's seen me! - sucking on a sticky sweetmeat from the stillroom - sitting at the master's desk reading his letters. Touching is allowed ... Run your hands over a black silk mourning dress and you'll illuminate the richly-embroidered underclothes beneath. Then take a seat at the long dining table -  at every place setting, there's a clear box containing a napkin ... lift it out and you'll catch the aroma of each different course: leek soup, buttered asparagus, pork and chestnuts, lobster, tea and biscuits and port. This immensely clever and creative installation isn't quite as dramatic as Dennis Severs' house, but it's well worth a visit and it's only on for a few more days. (And it's free if you're a National Trust member.) This afternoon there were only about half a dozen people in the whole house. You can read more about it here. 

Sunday 18 December 2016

I braved Black Eye Friday - and yes, it was horrible, even at 5pm when they'd only been drinking all afternoon. (It's unnerving standing on an escalator behind a very, very large lady who's literally rolling drunk.) But it was worth it, because I was on my way to see two queens going head to head in an electrifying performance of Mary Stuart.
I tried to book tickets months ago, but it was sold out - then by chance I realised that some cheap tickets were released a few days ago. Thrilled? £10 to see Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams ...
The production starts each night with the spin of a coin, to determine which actress plays Elizabeth and who plays Mary ... it came up tails. Juliet Stevenson as Elizabeth, Williams as Mary.
Oh, it was riveting - and the toss of the coin really pointed up the fragility of Elizabeth's claim to the throne and how easily it could have fallen the other way. As for the dodgy courtiers, wriggling out of responsibility ...
Elizabeth's crown seems as lonely as Mary's prison.
Now, of course, I'm aching to see it again, the other way round. There's a review here.

Joan Plowright was just ahead of me in the ticket queue - so beautifully dressed! I thought how wonderful to be still going to the theatre quite alone at her grand age. Though I hope she got home all right. It was not pretty out on the streets ...

Friday 16 December 2016

Roses in Gold Vase, Ethel Susan Graham Bristowe, 1930s

Well, here as promised are my books of the year but it's going to be a quick whizz through as the nice long post I wrote this afternoon has mysteriously vanished into thin air.

I was thinking that this was a 4* year for reading, rather than 5* but when I looked through my reading list there are lots of books that I've enjoyed. Rather to my surprise, I found that I've read a few more titles than last year - possibly because I haven't blogged so much?

So let's start with one that was actually published in 2016. I loved Trio - by Sue Gee - and if it hasn't been selected for any of those newspaper book of the year lists, then it jolly well should have been.

But let's hurry on to Mrs Miniver's Rose Bowl Award for vintage fiction, as these are the books I really love reading. It's a tie between EH Young - a previous winner - for Celia, one of the best novels that I've ever read about disappointment in marriage, and Diana Tutton for Guard Your Daughters. I see that my first thought about Guard Your Daughters was, 'Why isn't this a Persephone book?' Well, it seems that they were already on the case and it's going to be republished as a Persephone title next autumn. A shout out to Persephone also for the book I most enjoyed re-reading for the umpteenth time: no matter how many times I return to it, Someone at a Distance remains my favourite Dorothy Whipple.

Perhaps not quite a contender for the rose bowl but I really enjoyed Hans Fallada's 1932 best-seller Little Man, What Now?

Now on to the Big Fat Book award for the book that I couldn't put down. And that goes to Conclave, by Robert Harris (also a previous winner for his gripping novel about the Dreyfus affair, An Officer and a Spy). This got a very sniffy response when I suggested it to ladies in my book group; you'd think I'd mooted Dan Brown! Since when did we get so stuck-up about books that are a gripping read, especially when they're as well-written and researched as this one? Conclave is on my Christmas list for men who are difficult to buy for.

I'm counting Allan Massie's Death in Bordeaux as another Big Fat Read as I went on to read my way through the whole quartet.

I don't set out to read a balance of fiction and non-fiction; it seems naturally to work out as 2:1. I didn't have to think twice about selecting my non-fiction book of the year because it's Helen Rappaport's Caught in the Revolution. History writing at its very best.

I was competely engrossed by Rappaport's book - as much as by any novel - and also by A Notable Woman, the Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt , edited by Simon Garfield. Jean Lucey Pratt wins my special award for the biographical subject I dearly longed to pick up and shake. Yes, I know I said this about Elizabeth Jane Howard, too - but Jean Lucey P was in a class of her own. Mrs Miniver's Throttle award for exasperating women? (That's not to say it couldn't equally be awarded to a man on another occasion!) I read both books in fascinated horror.

Finally, two big, beautiful art books that landed on my desk for work. Even though I've no great interest in things botanical, I found myself utterly absorbed in Plant for its stunning illustrations. I thought that this vast monograph on the Irish stained glass artist Wilhelmina Geddes might be too niche for me, but it turned out to be a fascinating and poignant account of a lonely and difficult woman, struggling to forge a career in the traditionally male world of stained glass. Now almost forgotten, she was described on her death in 1955 as 'the greatest stained glass artist of our time,' but much of her  energy was expended just in keeping body and soul together. Bizarrely, she is one of ten outstanding artists - Picasso another - to have a crater on the planet Mercury named after them.

And that's that: a year's reading whittled down to the highlights! Wishing everybody a happy year of books in 2017.

Thursday 15 December 2016

2016 Typography 7 by GDJ

Mrs Miniver's opinion has not been canvassed by any of the Sunday papers for her cultural highlights of 2016 and, as ever, when she pores over their books of the year, she's hardly read any of them ...

But I do enjoy a list so here's mine, and we'll start with film as that's easy - so here we go.

No dithering because far and away the best film I saw this year was Mustang. If you haven't seen it, I promise that you'd love it.

Runners-up because I couldn't choose between them were Rosalie Blum - which was on very limited release, sorry, but you can catch it again in London at the end of January - and I, Daniel Blake which I'm pleased to see is winning lots of awards.

Honourable mentions for Captain Fantastic and although it was way back at the beginning of the year, I remember being very gripped by Spotlight.

Not such a vintage year for exhibitions, though - and I've not been to all that many. I don't know why; 50% procrastination and 50% doing other stuff, I guess. (I need IV-Yorkshire Brew before I get going in the morning but I was like that when I was 20.)

But for sheer pleasure, it was easy to choose - Dulwich Picture Gallery for this delightful exhibition of Norwegian artist Nikolai Astrup. And no, I'd never heard of him either.

I think books will have to wait until tomorrow.

Tuesday 13 December 2016

Tis the season for Christmas baking, and I only hope I haven't peaked too soon as I was whacked this morning after spending all day Saturday and Sunday stirring and rolling-out. I kicked off last week with  this chestnutty-meringuey concoction from Ottolenghi that caught my eye in last week's Guardian, largely because I had most of the ingredients in the cupboard and chestnuts were £1 in Tesco. It was okay - it looked like the picture (well, it doesn't always, does it?) - but I'd never made meringue cuite before and I think I cuite-ed it a bit too far because it was a bit chewy. Oh, well.

I was far more excited about my mince-pies for the working-classes c1852 made from Francatelli's recipe. He was Queen Victoria's head chef and his recipe for the Queen was far more lavish. (I'm already planning mincemeat royale for next year's bake-off, so many recipes, not enough time!) The mystery ingredient in working-class pies was tripe. I had to order it from the butcher in namby-pamby London because Heston hasn't rediscovered tripe yet; my sister was laughing because where she lives, there's still a tripe stall on the market. (Anybody else remember UCP (United Cattle Products) butchers? They were old-fashioned even in the 1960s when I was growing up.) The hardest thing to find was proper butcher's suet which was ordered from a farm in Rutland and collected from Borough Market. (Not a good idea because I ate 10,000 calories worth of 21st century salted honeycomb doughnuts while I was there.)

I served my tripe pies with some trepidation ... and no, I didn't do the big reveal until everybody had tasted (and swallowed!) And you know what? They were delicious, though I say so myself. Honestly, everybody liked them. I got the idea from the Victorian Bakers Christmas programme, so I can boast that my pies will be on BBC2 on Christmas Day. (Well, not literally my pies!) Anyway, in the search for Christmas novelty, they were a heck of a lot better than star-spangled crisps (not good) and Heston's slimy banana and bacon trifle (a free taster in Waitrose, absolutely disgusting). Remember his Toilet Duck-scented mince pies a few years ago? Tripe pies win hands down Here's the original recipe: Ingredients, eight ounces of stoned raisins, eight ounces of washed and dried currants, one pound of tripe, one pound of apples, one pound of chopped suet, four ounces of shred candied peel, one pound of moist sugar, one ounce of allspice, the juice and the chopped rind of three lemons, half a gill of rum. First chop the raisins, currants, apples, and the tripe all together, or separately, until well mixed; then place these in a pan, add the remainder of the ingredients, mix them thoroughly until well incorporated with each other; put the mince-meat into a clean dry stone jar, tie some thick paper, or a piece of bladder over the top, and keep it in a cool place till wanted for use.

Wednesday 7 December 2016

Dinner in front of the telly with Alan Bennett ... well, actually it was spag bol that's an approximation of Anne Del Conte's (hold the tomatoes, slug in some milk, simmered for one hour not five because you're not an Italian mamma with nothing else to do, too much nutmeg, whoops, but definitely fettucine not spaghetti and watch it like a hawk because it only ever takes half the time recommended on the packet). Anyway, a bowl of that, a few glasses of wine and Alan Bennett's Diaries (there's a trailer here) were just right on a foggy-ish night.
Sometimes it's a bit too self-consciously Bennett-ish, and he's playing up as the nation's teddy bear: It's one of my life's regrets that we've never kept a donkey.
And sometimes you think his partner Rupert must be rather fun.
Rupert: You're rather like Heathcliff.
Me, gratified: Really?
Rupert: Yeah. Difficult, Northern and a **@*!

It's familiar territory, interwoven with Bennett's love of music. Still, there was something rather poignant about the wingless, 84-year old fairy, with a skirt made by his Mam from lampshade fringing (and what a terrified face) on his tiny Christmas tree. I wondered what Mam would have said had she known that Americans are willing to pay $100,000 for a table at an Alan Bennett fund-raiser. (That's a charity fund-raiser not his pension plan.)

He also spoke of not having much left of the religious belief of his youth. But where I do miss God is not having anybody to thank when I've had a deliverance or a stroke of luck. I just feel I want to be grateful to someone and there's no-one to be grateful to.

I remember once visiting the village in Yorkshire where Bennett has a cottage. I went into the church, just passing half an hour - it's very nice in Clapham, but there isn't much to do - and I flicked through the visitors' book, reading the comments. And somebody had written, 'Very clean.' Cleanliness presumably being next to godliness. And, in fairness, it was a very clean church. It tickled me so much that I've never forgotten it.

Tuesday 6 December 2016

Two films this week, both about inter-racial marriages. Loving is the story of Richard and Mildred Loving whose home state of Virginia refused to countenance their marriage in 1958. (Shockingly, it was 1967 before the Supreme Court ruled that this was unconstitutional, and sadly Richard was killed by a drunken driver in 1975.)
It is a very quiet, restrained film - perhaps a bit too restrained for dramatic effect. But it is a very tender depiction of a marriage that endured and a quiet, inarticulate man whose message to the court was simply, 'Tell the judge I love my wife.' Ruth Negga, who plays Mildred, is simply beautiful. Here's a bit more on the historical background and the trailer is here.

A United Kingdom Poster
But as a film, I think I preferred this one - A United Kingdom, the true story of the romance between Ruth Williams, a typist from South London, who fell for an African law student whose life was already mapped out to be King of Bechuanaland. The skulduggery of the British authorities is quite riveting - perhaps I'm naive, but I was shocked at Attlee's craven stance towards South Africa and gasped at duplicitous Churchill, though I suppose I should have seen that one coming. I think the romance of Ruth and Seretse must have captured the hearts of the nation - or at least feminine hearts - because I remember my mum still talking about them when I was a child. Another trailer here. (Look out for Downton's Lady Edith making a brief appearance as Ruth's sister.)

Tuesday 22 November 2016


Put the kettle on ... oh, all right, maybe the tiniest drop of Bristol Cream sherry if you must. This is such a treat and. although it's on very limited cinema release at the moment, it will be on television over Christmas. Ethel and Ernest is the story of Raymond Briggs' parents from 1928, when lady's maid Ethel (I'm not a skivvy!) first waved a duster at larky milkman Ernest, until their unbearably poignant deaths in the 1970s. It's also a social history of ordinary people's lives through the 20th century: their pride in buying a house on a £850 mortgage which must have seemed astronomical - through the war years when their boy was evacuated to the country - and just as well, as they were bombed out twice - to the new television that brought Dixon of Dock Green and the moon landing into their living room.
It's not cosy because there's nothing cosy about Ethel breaking her heart at parting with the five-year-old son she dotes on. 'Over my dead body,' she weeps. 'It'll be over his dead body. Is that what you want?" insists Ernest. There's nothing cosy about a Morrison shelter that seems a very flimsy protection against bombs dropping on your head. Nothing cosy about the terrible things Ernest witnesses as a firefighter down at the docks. But they soldier on, and there's nothing cosy either about the indignities of death on a hospital trolley beside a can of Vim.
There have been some snarky reviews from critics (2* in the Observer, 3* in the Guardian) who seem to want Ethel and Ernest to be a different, angrier film about different people, not this gentle, affectionate couple aimiably bickering and buggering on.
But most people will love it. The voices of Jim Broadbent and Brenda Blethyn, exactly right. The hand-drawn animation (64,800 drawings for the entire film). The memory-jogging period detail; that ubiquitous green paint. And no matter what life throws at her, there's Ethel's love of flowers - always a bunch of her favourite daffodils or anemones on the table. There's a trailer here.

Monday 21 November 2016

I have so enjoyed Helen Rappaport's very readable account of events in Petrograd, from the outbreak of revolution in February, 1917, to the Bolshevik coup in October, all told from the point of view of foreigners in the city - the diplomats and their wives, Red Cross nurses and socialites, Mrs Pankhurst meddling rather uselessly, journalists who sometimes took sides (but this book is so much more readable than John Reed's Ten Days That Shook the World, which when I plodded through it years ago was heavy-going) and one particularly engaging character, the American ambassador's black valet Phil Jordan who really merits a novel in his own right.
Helen Rappaport has the knack of making you feel that you're there ... smelling the fumes, as the Bolsheviks swill thousands of bottles of brandy and wine from the city's wine cellars into the gutters.
How I wish I'd been able to read this before my one and only visit to the city when it was still Leningrad, accompanied by a boyfriend who was rather horrified by my ignorance ... now I know why we had to make that detour to the Smolny Institute! The storming of the Winter Palace ... I was there! Oh dear, the opportunities that are wasted on the young. But I must have been absorbing it all, because I've rather surprised myself with the strong visual memories that have floated to the surface as I've been reading this book. Now I think of it, we were there in October coming up to an anniversary ... I remember looking out of a window in Moscow and seeing tanks rolling into Red Square.
Anyway, 5* for Helen Rappaport and this is a strong contender for my Book of the Year.

Thursday 17 November 2016

Was that really two hours ... it went in a flash. So enjoyed a long wallow in Haworth this evening, watching BBC's new Bronte drama To Walk Invisible which is exactly how you'd want it to be. Branwell does stocious exceedingly well, the three actresses who play the sisters look just right (I particularly liked Emily, so gauche and fierce) and Haworth looks suitably pestilential and damp. Written and directed by Sally Wainwright - and I think I might go back and watch it all again, but maybe tomorrow.

I could hum a tune, smoke a cigar and I'd have a novel written... I've had nine poems published in the Halifax Guardian.

Anyway, if we're writing novels, I imagine we'll need more paper.

Why is it that woman's lot is to be perpetually infantilised or else invisible and powerless to do anything about it?

They need to get married those three, only who'd have them?

Tuesday 15 November 2016

John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester
There couldn't be a better stage for a play set in Restoration London than the Theatre Royal, Haymarket: okay, not quite old enough to be precisely accurate but still one of our oldest theatres, with bawdy wenches selling oranges in the stalls as we took our seats. It looked fabulous by candlelight and there was the added excitement of seeing Ralph Fiennes a few rows in front of us ...
But, oh dear, the play ... now I can imagine that John Malkovich must have been terrific when he played the role of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester - The Libertine. But Dominic Cooper didn't really cut it - and the play was terribly long and wordy, could have done with losing a good half hour - and half the time you couldn't hear what they were saying - and that awful woman at the end of the row chomping through what seemed to be a packet of biscuits didn't help - I suppose noise from the pit is historically accurate but the crunch-crackle-slurp of all those plastic bottles of water drives me mad. It's SW1 not the Sahara and I don't imagine that dehydration will set in before the interval ...
Anyway, I'm afraid, the inevitable happened. I got a teeny bit bored, I rested my eyes ...
Don't think I missed much. The reviews for this play have been very mixed. We decided it was worth going for the ambience if not the play. And a preview of truly beautiful Christmas lights on Regent Street ...


Friday 11 November 2016

Not for me ... I really disliked NW, far too depressing and miserable and Guardian-ish. I haven't read Zadie Smith's book and now I don't want to ....
Stylish: Sebastian Armesto, Jim Sturgess and Charlotte Riley in ‘Close to the Enemy’

But I'm half-way through Stephen Poliakoff's Close to the Enemy and I'm engrossed. (Even if it does remind me rather of his Dancing on the Edge a couple of years ago.) Set in bombed-out London in the immediate aftermath of WW2 , it's a time of moral compromise ... do we let Nazi war criminals get away with it and sign them up to help us the win the Cold War?  There's long review here. And a piece by Poliakoff here. I want to know what happens next. 

Thursday 10 November 2016

I'm not the biggest Barbara Pym fan and I can't even remember whether I've ever read The Sweet Dove Died. But I noticed this today and thought I'd pass it on .... Barbara Pym the Musical! I had visions of dancing spinsters and vicars but this is one of her later books and not a social comedy, I don't think. Doesn't tempt me enough to take to me to NW8 on a cold night but for hard core fans it might be a fun excursion. Here's a link to the theatre and here's the songs.

I'm old enough to remember when we didn't have phones or internet and I've quite often existed without television ... so when did I get so dependent? By day four of my enforced abstinence from technology, I was wondering if I'd have to do something drastic like a bit of housework ...
So I took myself off to the cinema - alone, when I realised that I'd have had to walk round to the house and knock on the door if I wanted a friend to come with me. (No phone, no e-mails.) And I ended up at this French film Rosalie Blum which was showing - one night only - as part of this week's French film festival. I had no preconceptions. I'd barely heard of it. And I loved it.
It's a great shame that it's clearly going to have a very limited release in the UK. It is based on three   bandes dessinées, shifting to retell events from three points of view. Vincent is a painfully shy, 30-something hairdresser living with his domineering mother when his eyes lock with a frumpy, older woman in a corner shop and he feels that he's seen her before. He becomes a benign stalker - but who's stalking whom? It's hard to believe that this is a first film for director Julien Rappeneau because it's so deftly constructed. (His father directed Cyrano de Bergerac with Gérard Depardieu and I'm guessing from the large French audience in the cinema that the film has been well reviewed over there.)
It's sad and quirky and funny. Absolutely the nicest kind of French film. But it really is a limited release - I've just checked - Edinburgh, Newcastle and Chichester. Here's the sound track There's a review here, and the trailer.

Wednesday 9 November 2016

Gertrude in the Kitchen, Harold Harvey
A worrying week - and I know I shouldn't be sweating the small stuff but after five days without internet or a phone, there were times when I thought it was going to be Mrs Miniver RIP and that I was locked out of my own blog ... and, of course, suddenly I started feeling much fonder of the old thing and realised I'd miss her. It also made me realise how much time I fritter online because with no television, blogs, work, emails, it has been like living in the 19th century ... and I've done masses of reading. (I was going to cheer myself up and make a cake - but no, the recipe I wanted was online!)
So I was so pleased that I had this book at the top of my pile - and that it was absolutely the right kind of soothing escape into someone else's domestic life instead of my own. (And so pleased to be enjoying EH Young as much as usual after a disappointing time with The Vicar's Daughter.)
Why isn't EH Young better known today? I think this is one of the best novels I have ever read about the nuances of a marriage that's frayed around the edges. Celia married just before WW1 - her husband is a not very successful architect designing mean little villas that she despises - and they're living on a middle-class shoestring. The marriage works - they jog along together, quite good friends - but Celia hates sex and any physical contact with her pudgy, damply sweating husband (how she longs for the deep peace of a single bed) and fantasises about a very mild little fling she had briefly during the war. This seems overwhelmingly sad, the way she's allowed this daydream to become the central relationship of her life. But there are other marriages in Celia's immediate circle ... there's her well-heeled sister, May, whose husband fantasises about escape;  her snobbish, interfering sister-in-law Julia; a friend who has a secret tragedy. By the end of the novel, you feel you know them all intimately, their strengths and shortcomings and the self-deceptions that keep these marriages going but also stop them from becming anything finer.
Oh, don't listen to me rambling on ... find a copy in a charity shop. (Mine was in the library reserve and hadn't been stamped out since 1990 when it was republished by Virago.)

Thursday 3 November 2016

This book should come with a warning: Don't even allow it into the house if you're supposed to be working! I brought it back from the library at 8pm last night - only opened it for a peep, honest! - and now I'm so nearly finished, I might as well as carry on until we see the white smoke. Unputdownable. Now excuse me ... must get back to the Sistine Chapel.

Friday 28 October 2016

I got this most readable biography from the library after hearing Artemis Cooper speak at Kew Literary Festival a few weeks ago. I read it with a kind of fascinated horror, because you want to pick EJH up and shake her - I think she must have been a most difficult woman, although often a generous and loyal friend (unless she had her eye on your husband) - but, oh, the loneliness and neediness that seeps out of this book. And the awful sadness and waste of love, when you read Kingsley Amis's love letters and then a few years later he can't bear the sight of her. But how you want to yell at her, Stop being such a doormat, stop cooking all those fussy dinners, tell Kingsley it's cheese on toast and he can get it himself and you're not his chauffeur. Your toes curl with embarrassment for her when she goes shopping for a trousseau of silky lingerie - she's 73 - before her first meeting with the admirer who turns out to be a violent serial-conman. (He has targeted her after picking up on her loneliness after she appeared on Desert Island Discs.) At least she got a novel out of it.
Now, of course, I want to go back and read The Cazalets again and the earlier novels. I found the film adaptation of Getting It Right on YouTube - Helena Bonham Carter, Jane Horrocks, John Gielgud, Lynn Redgrave, and it's absolutely dire! Look out for a one-line performance from EJH herself, tippling on a party terrace with (I think) Alma from Coronation Street. Or don't. It's not worth an hour of your life.

Tuesday 25 October 2016

Guess who? Well, no, I wouldn't have guessed either. It's Picasso. (Self-portrait with Wig, 1900)
I stole an hour this afternoon to visit Picasso's Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery.

Woman in a Hat (Olga), 1935

On the page, this portrait of his first wife Olga looks whimsical; but when you see the actual painting, those big eyes - painted as their marriage ended - look terribly sad and bereft. 

Portrait of Olga Picasso, 1923
Olga again, looking so troubled - she worried about her family in Russia. I loved this portrait, and the wonderful bronze folds of her dress ...
Francis Poulenc
And was taken aback by this somewhat unexpected herringbone jacket.

Perhaps a bit too sentimental for me - but the friend I went with enjoyed a good blub - and it's ages since I've been to a real weepie ... even if the strongest emotion I felt, if I'm honest, was acute knitwear envy. There's a review and trailer here. And whoever knitted all those truly adorable 1920s baby clothes deserves an Oscar for best children's wear in a movie. Actually, the babies (and I counted seven in the credits, playing baby Lucy-Grace at different stages) should win a joint Oscar for cutest supporting children. There's a feature about the heartbreakingly lovely New Zealand island where the film is set here.

Monday 24 October 2016

Visited the famous giant pumpkin on Saturday, grown at RHS Hyde Hall in Essex from a pumpkin seed that cost £1250; if it's a bit pale and wan, that's because it has been kept out of the sun to make sure it didn't split. It's displayed in the Hallowe'en pumpkin graveyard where someone has had fun writing pumpkin epitaphs. Not being a gardener, the tombstone inscription Ms Belle S Perennis: Pushing Up Daisies had to be explained to me before I got the joke.

Thursday 20 October 2016

I went to a lovely little exhibition at Compton Verney last week of watercolours commissioned as souvenirs of Queen Victoria's visit to Paris in 1855, first time a British monarch had set foot there since Henry V - in rather different circumstances. The paintings are as fresh as if they were painted yesterday,    and it's the first time they've all been shown together.
And there's such a lovely sense of Victoria being away on a bit of a jolly and enjoying every moment (except the Opera which she clearly found a bit of a trial). These days she'd probably be posting it all on Instagram. But you can so imagine her showing the ladies back home ... Look, this was my dressing room, and wasn't it gorgeous and look at the clouds on the ceiling ...

But poor Albert had to dance with this frightfully plump Princess ...

Monday 17 October 2016

What a lovely cover (At the Piano, by Harold Knight, from Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne). But how disappointing to discover that there's a novel by EH Young that I haven't much enjoyed; haven't at all enjoyed, really. I've been ekeing them out - having so loved Miss Mole, William and Chatterton Square - but it seemed time for another second-hand treat from Amazon. (Oh, I'm high-maintenance!)
This one was published in 1928. I've been limping through it, because I can't bring myself to care much  about any of the characters, and especially not about the central character, the vicar's most unappetising cousin Maurice, a deservedly-lonely, petty-mindedly revengeful, blundering, sanctimonious clergyman. Maurice has been standing in as a summer holiday locum for the more attractive Edward, whom he hasn't seen for many years, but now Edward and his wife and daughter have returned home. Maurice - a most pathetic excuse for a man - has fancied himself in love for years with his cousin's wife. Not that she'd have looked at him in a month of Sunday sermons. (Although I couldn't understand why she hadn't done rather better for herself than marrying the vicar, when it's clearly rather tiresome being a clergy wife and feeling that one's husband looks a bit of a twit on Sundays in church.)
I suppose it is a comedy of errors, so many secrets and misunderstandings and to-ings and fro-ings that I rather lost track as I wasn't very interested. It's an odd book ... there's a feeling of building up to some moral tragedy, but then it all fizzles out.  Of course, the suspicion that a vicar might have had a 'past' would have caused more of a frisson in 1928 than today.

Sunday 9 October 2016

I like Anne-Marie Duff - heavens, for once in my life I'd booked weeks in advance - but her new play Oil at the Almeida is a bit of a mess.

It opens in 1889 on a grim Cornish farmstead that seems to have been modelled on Van Gogh's Potato Eaters, with a dash of Cold Comfort Farm thrown in for good measure. Not that anybody will be able to see anything nasty in the woodshed because these Starkadders are still dysfunctioning by candlelight -  when, as you can see, even the miserable Potato Eaters (1885) have embraced paraffin lamps that I'm pretty sure have been around for decades. Heigh ho ... well, you can see why pregnant Anne-Marie wants out when the Esso Blue man calls and turns on the lights. Before we know it, she's time-travelling through decades of squandered fossil fuel and global politics - until finally she and her daughter end up in a dystopian near-future where the lights have been switched off, they can't afford the leccy, and the Esso Blue man calls again but this time he's selling something nuclear. Oh, it's all very well-meaning - and there's a good dollop of Guardian feminism along the way - but sitting there for 2hours 40 mins felt like being hectored by an intense adolescent eco-warrior. Seemed like quite a few in the seats near me voted with their feet after the interval - and they didn't miss much, because with every time-change the play gets progressively less engaging. But I still like Anne-Marie Duff so I'll be generous and give it 6/10. When you've only paid £10 for a seat - and the Almeida's restricted view seats aren't all that restricted - well, that's less than a cinema ticket, so who's complaining?

Thursday 6 October 2016

Loving this gorgeous botanical art book that has just arrived here by courier. I want to stroke that cover ... those shiny patchwork petals have a lovely embossed feel under my fingers. Stroke or read?????

Read ... I'm fascinated by all the quirky details in the captions. South African artist Olive Coates Palgrave, who painted this gardenia, began painting on excursions into the bush in the 1920s. When her children were small, she mosquito-proofed the pram and took them along. Although - before any mums reading this start feeling inadequate - looking at the dates, Olive's children must have been long grown-up by the time she painted this one in 1956.

Wednesday 5 October 2016

Oh, how many years has it been since I was last at the Coliseum ... well, not since the stunning restoration of its Edwardian interior, that's for sure. Okay, I'm sentimentally attached to the Royal Opera House - it holds lots of memories of lovely nights out - and I don't think opera gains from being sung in English ... but, really, I'd left it far too long. My most exciting Coliseum memory was the time I sat next to Mick Jagger (yes, it was in the expensive seats!) but nothing doing tonight. I thought I saw David Mellor, but I think it was just another man who looked like a frog.
Tonight was the new production of Don Giovanni ... very different from last time I saw it. Don Giovanni is a sleazy sex addict; Donna Anna is playing risky sex games - and even the Commendatore is renting a room by the hour. And there's a twist at the end - I saw it coming - but it's not what Mozart wrote. It didn't quite work. Maybe in a secular world we've just lost any sense of horror at the gates of hell...
Also, when all the women are wearing almost identical black dresses ... I bet I wasn't the only one who kept getting confused between Donna Anna and Donna Elvira.
But the plus side (apart from lovely Mozart) ... oh it was bliss! I had neighbours who didn't fidget - or play with their phones - or require to be dripfed like hospital patients - they had all apparently had their tea before they set out... and there was a row of empty seats in front of me so I had a perfect view of the stage.

I'm among those who felt angry when a sanctimonious journalist took it upon himself to out the identity of Elena Ferrante a few days ago. But it did give me an early alert that the first-ever stage adaptation of her Neapolitan novels is coming to the Rose Theatre next year. Oooh, should I book now - forward planning into the new year goes against my nature!
Got last minute tickets for the Rose a couple of weeks ago to see a new play directed by John Malkovich. (The ticket lady said he'd scooted in and out quickly and we didn't see him.) But I couldn't help wondering what John Malkovich made of the London suburbs on a wet Thursday afternoon. Not to mention the matinee audience of pensioners without Hollywood facelifts!
But maybe he's charmed by Kingston - the swans on the Hogsmill river next to the theatre - four for £1 avocados on the market - and it's very handy for Wagamama for his lunch. I was half expecting to bump into him in Waitrose after the show.
The play, incidentally, was very good.

Tuesday 4 October 2016

'Anything can happen,' sighs Lord Carnarvon's daughter as she leans in to smooch Howard Carter. Well, clearly it can if it's on ITV. Is it a truth universally acknowledged that an archaeologist in search of a boy king must be in want of a love interest? Actually, there's two young ladies bickering over Mr Carter, that lifelong bachelor. Tutankhamun, alas, is getting very silly. And so far, they've only uncovered the steps of the tomb ...

Wednesday 28 September 2016

I like the Cadogan Hall. I like its glowing church windows as you walk down the road from the Tube.
I like sitting up in the gallery and looking down on the whole orchestra. It was a lovely concert. The young man beside me thought that the 1703 Stradivarius violin 'lacked soul.'  I wondered if he was just showing off to his mother. But what do I know ... It sounded fine to me.

Tuesday 27 September 2016

My heart was pounding. Really pounding. I think this was the scariest disaster movie I have ever seen. Although saying that, I don't think I've been to a disaster movie since the days when no plane took off without a singing nun.
Deepwater Horizon is about the BP oil rig explosion that caused the biggest oil spill in history in the Gulf of Mexico. I'd been aware of it as an environmental disaster - but the film is about the human cost of BP's greed and criminal negligence. You come out feeling angry. And also in awe of the technical brilliance of the film-makers.
On the way home, it struck me that I'd just bought a ticket for later this week to a classical music concert sponsored by BP. It's a bit of a moral quandary, isn't it? Sponsorship supports many of the cultural events that I enjoy, even if I rarely take much notice of the logo. I guess orchestras and museums might as well take whatever cash is going. But tonight I don't like the thought that I'm participating in BP's PR game.

Sunday 25 September 2016


Ken Loach's new film - can you believe, he's still making films at 80? - is a heartbreaking indictment of the callousness of the benefits system. Sadly, it's a film that probably won't be seen by the people who ought to see it. Daniel is a decent, ordinary man trying to claim benefits after a serious heart attack but deemed fit to work by dopey young women, sorry, that's 'healthcare professionals', ticking boxes in a call-centre.  Daniel is computer-illiterate but the system is 'online by default'; he's a man who is 'pencil by default.' There are dozens of free previews across the country over the next week or so as they try to drum up word of mouth for this film - just google it - but I do hope that there's a three-line whip screening for all the MPs and Orwellian bureaucrats who should be made to see it. There's a review here. And as a portrayal of frustrated middle-age, it's far more powerful than this bland, heart-warming bilge - unanimously loathed by my book group  - that has also been turned into a film. 

Highlight of my week has been a gloriously sunny day in Kew Gardens. If there's a literary festival happening a 10-minute bus ride from home, then it would be a shame not to be there - and in between enjoying the autumn colours, a visit to the Georgian kitchen (but sadly no time for Kew Palace), and a far too hasty visit to this exhibition of exquisite Japanese flower paintings - worth at least an hour that I didn't have - I fitted in two fascinating talks: Helen Rappaport, on the Russian revolution (that talk was  held in Museum No 1, which sounded suitably Soviet!) and Artemis Cooper, on Elizabeth Jane Howard. I've ordered both books from the library. (I know, you're supposed to buy them but who wants to carry hard-backs around Kew Gardens ... although I saw many intrepid ladies lugging heavy book bags.) EJH is clearly having her moment. I noticed someone in Waterstone's this morning buying The Long View - recommended by Artemis Cooper as her best. It must be 30-odd years since I read it, so that's on my autumn bookpile, too. And The Cazalets is being adapted for television which is something to look forward to. 

I remember listening to EJH at an Elizabeth Taylor event a few years ago, shortly before she died and shortly after the publication of Nicola Beauman's very good biography of Taylor. EJH was terribly scathing about biographers who went 'digging around like journalists' ... although quite what they're supposed to do instead, heaven knows - commune by seance? So I was amused when Artemis Cooper said that she seemed more than happy to be interviewed on several occasions herself - but then I guess that being the subject of a biography is the ultimate corroboration of being an Important Novelist.

Monday 12 September 2016

A nice Sunday morning walk on what turned into a glorious autumn day. But, no, that isn't Ham House - it's the most amazing miniature house that's on display there for the next few weeks. (Don't call it a dolls' house. There aren't any dolls.) It has taken two years - and 30 craftsmen from all over the world - to recreate the house as it was in its 17th century heyday, with candelabra blazing. In matters of extravagance, the clever couple who built the house asked themselves, 'What would the Duchess [of Lauderdale] have done?' and went for luxury. ... she was a big spender.
When the rooms swing open - no touching, though I longed to - it's as though the inhabitants have just left the building. I was entranced by the tiny pair of gloves on a windowledge, and the letters on a desk - even more so than by the Mortlake tapestry hangings, painstakingly stitched to a 48 count. (So nearly 22,000 tiny silk stitches, and each little tapestry took a year to make.) There's even a special fragrance for the house - wood smoke, polish, flowers, a hint of the Duke's tobacco - but I wasn't able to discern this; maybe it was too subtle in a crowd of visitors. But the real Ham is said to be one of the most haunted houses in the country and the strong aroma of tobacco is quite often discerned on the stairs, a sign that the Duke's ghost is wandering the house  ... so maybe he'll step into the parlour to see this wonderful toy. The miniature house has been built as a private commission for an Arab sheikh; I wondered if he'll ever pull out a tiny tea dish or a leather bound book and rearrange the contents, or if it's only for looking at? Here's a link to the website of the couple who built it.