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.