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.

Tuesday 6 September 2016

Thank you to Rob for his comment drawing my attention to this very good Radio 4 adaptation of Gissing's New Grub Street. So much better than Victoria which - apart from the ooh factor of Rufus Sewell as the most drop-dead gorgeous PM in history - is proving rather plodding.

Monday 5 September 2016

My shameful secret was that, until yesterday, I had never visited Jane Austen's cottage at Chawton. It was on my 'one-day' list, for sure, but for some reason I'd persuaded myself that it was out of range for a day trip without a car even though I knew that Darlene had visited from Canada and managed perfectly well. But, hey, we're all more resourceful on holiday when it's 'today or never.'
Then yesterday I actually got up and went. (It helps to book the rail ticket the night before, then you can't roll over in bed and think, 'Another day!') Turns out it's an hour from London by train and the bus stops right outside the cottage. So how difficult was that?
Even from the bus, I'd been imagining Jane and Cassandra tripping - no, walking purposefully, I think - down every country lane. Could a lady novelist have been better situated than here at the crossroads  with all of village life passing by her window, with the inn across the road and the forge only a couple of doors away? Happily, the village is remarkably unspoiled; there's a Cassandra's Cup tea-room ... I looked at the menu, hoping for rout cakes or a seed cake from Mrs Rundell (historically bang on as Mrs R and Jane shared the same publisher) but, no, it was just standard 21st century tea and cake. But despite all the tourists (pilgrims?) who come here, that's it: there's no Ye Olde Lizzie Bennet Gift Shop or Pemberley Ice Creams, Chawton has retained a sense of decorum.
Perhaps I was lucky that it wasn't too crowded - so I got the chance to be alone for a few minutes in Jane's bedroom. (It must have been a tight squeeze when Cassandra's bed was there, too - so little privacy.) I tried the squeaky door that warned Jane of interruptions to her work and was impressed by her tiny writing-desk. It was rather poignant to see the page from her father's parish register (only a copy, not the original) where Jane, as a young girl, had doodled her name in the marriage banns, linking herself with a fictional Henry Frederick Howard (??? couldn't quite read her writing) Fitzwilliam of London. So she was already day-dreaming about her prototype Mr Darcy and marriage.
I knew that Jane was an accomplished needlewoman but oh, the daintiness of her embroidered muslin shawl. Then there was the patchwork quilt she worked together with Mrs Austen and Cassandra. Made from 64 fabrics and I guess mostly they'd have been bought specially for patchwork. But the tiny diamonds around the edges ... that pretty striped cotton, that dainty rose print, another print that looked like tiny thistles ... could I possibly have been looking at one of Jane's recycled summer gowns? Well, maybe, perhaps - who knows?
Somehow I hadn't been expecting to see so many personal items. The mourning brooch containing her hair. Her turquoise ring and dainty bead bracelet  and the topaz cross bought from her naval brother Charles's prize money for capturing a French ship. Jane's muff chains ... I imagined her fingers fidgeting with them, maybe during a boring sermon in church or a tedious visit. But, no, a lady wouldn't fidget. There were hairpins discovered under the floorboards ... could they be Jane's or a servant's? There was cousin Eliza's tiny rouge pot and puff ... how racy and French to wear cosmetics! How delightful to know that Jane was a tea-drinker and kept the keys to the tea cupboard ... but wasn't Cassandra's teapot tiny, no second cups!

Later I walked up the road to the village church and saw Cassandra's and Mrs Austen's graves. There was a sign on the door: 'Please close .. to stop swallows from entering the church.' Then one of the nicest things I've ever seen in a church - a bucket filled with beautiful bouquets of lilies and a notice inviting visitors to help themselves. So I did. And 'Jane's lilies' are scenting my study right now.

Finally I walked up the long drive to Chawton House, the 'big house' belonging to Jane's brother Edward - and felt as if I were walking in Jane's footsteps every step of the way, for how often she must have run up here with a message or a piece of news or visited for dinner or a party. As soon as I walked in the door, it came to back to me that I'd seen this room before - for this was where the BBC  filmed the Netherfield ball.

There was an exhibition of exquisite needlework inspired by Jane's novels. But more than anything, I was thrilled to have tea and cakes sitting by the range in the kitchen. Can't you just imagine all the bustle before a big party ... I mean, someone made cakes here that Jane Austen actually ate! Or white soup. They always had white soup at a ball. I'd have probably spilled it down the front of my best  muslin gown.

Thursday 1 September 2016

At 5pm, I couldn't decide if I really wanted to see a movie about two brothers robbing banks.

At 5.30pm, I thought, well, I'd better get a move on - but I didn't get a move on.

At 5.45pm, I ran a comb through my hair and ran out the door. At 6.25pm I emerged into the lights of Piccadilly Circus, and felt glad that I'd shaken off the can't be bothered lethargy of the suburbs.

I made it in the nick of time. And guess what? Hell or High Water turned out be one of the best films that I've seen in ages. Brilliantly scripted and far better than Anthropoid which I saw at the weekend.