Wednesday 26 April 2017

The Promise Movie Poster

I realised that I know almost nothing about the Armenian genocide in the last days of the Ottoman empire, a massacre that Turkey refuses to acknowledge to this day. (No doubt that explains why The Promise was filmed in Spain, Portugal and Malta.) Despite pretty awful reviews, I went to see it last night; it's by the same Irish director who made Hotel Rwanda. To be honest, you'd have to be very generous to give this well-intentioned film more than 5/10. Wooden acting; Christian Bale was particularly bad. An unconvincing love triangle/romance tagged on for human interest as if the deaths of 1.5 million people weren't enough. (Look out for a bizarre cameo from Tom Hollander - could anybody look less like an Armenian clown ...  what on earth was all that about?)  And yet I'm glad I went. The film could have been better but it's a shocking episode of history that deserves not to be forgotten.

Thursday 20 April 2017

It's always interesting to see new Persephone titles, but I can't see either of these two latest books becoming anybody's favourite. I remembered that I'd bought an old copy of Earth and High Heaven some time ago, stuck it on a pile where it got buried and never got around to reading it - so last week I dug it out. Published in 1944, it was the first Canadian book to reach number one on the NY Times best-seller list.
I got off to a good start but my interest in Erika Drake - daughter of a prosperous, WASP-y Montreal family - and her lover Marc Reiser, a Jewish lawyer, was soon flagging. (Not least because Gwethalyn Graham is so repetitive: if she makes a point once she drums it home again and again and as a reader, I began to feel a bit hectored - bad editing maybe, but it made me lose sympathy with her characters.) Erika and Marc meet at a party at her parents' home where her father cuts Marc dead as soon as he realises that he is Jewish. Trouble is, I couldn't help visualising them as illustrations from an old-fashioned women's magazine serial ... Defiant Love - Trembling Passion (but no sex, please, we're middle-class Canadians!) - the handsome hero who could have stepped out of a Mills&Boon romance and the tearful heroine in evening dress, knocking back martinis. Honestly, you couldn't meet a more irritating pair. Erika, in her late 20s, with a good job on a newspaper, has to meet her lover on street corners because seemingly it would kill her parents if she were to do the obvious thing and leave home ... I mean, this is the 1940s, not the 1840s! She's a drip, he's a prig and it doesn't help the novel that you can't help feeling that - in 20 years time - she's going to be worn out from treading on eggshells around a husband who will be quiveringly on the alert to take offence. (Even Marc's far more likeable brother tells him that he needs 'a swift kick in the pants.')
As for Erika's rather incestuous relationship with her possessive father - who treats her more like a wife - and the way her mother colludes with this ... eeuurggh. There's more going on here than kneejerk anti-Semitism and it's clear that her father is always going to have a problem with any man who lays hands on his daughter - never mind whether he's socially acceptable at the country club.
Oh, dear - poor Erika. Perhaps another dry martini and a 'prescription of stuff' to make her sleep ...

But at least I managed to finish Earth and High Heaven. Effi Briest is already a Penguin classic so I'm not sure I see the point of republishing it as a Persephone; unless perhaps a different translation makes it  more readable? I found the Penguin edition in the library, made it to p95 and I doubt that I'll ever care enough to finish it. The introduction compares Effi with Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina ... but I'm afraid if a train came along now, I'd be tempted give this winsome child-bride a good shove.
One of the best tragic novels of the 19th century? Socially-ambitious Effi is married at 16 to a dull Prussian baron - my sympathies are entirely with the baron - and by p95, she's still behaving herself, though there's a caddish major whose intentions are clearly dishonourable. I don't feel there's going to be any surprises if I plod through to the end.

Wednesday 19 April 2017

Grabbing a book for a weekend at the seaside, I nearly left this behind ... wasn't I carrying enough without reaching for a hefty hardback! So glad I didn't because A Gentleman in Moscow turned out to be the perfect holiday read and, away from online distractions, I'm now two-thirds of the way through. Maybe it's true that a life without luxury can be the richest of all because all I've done over Easter is read, reacquaint myself with beach friends and eat hot cross buns. Perhaps with a sigh for the warm, sticky, gorgeously scented hot cross buns that came from the baker at the top of the road when I was a child - because Tesco's finest are a grim travesty of what a hot cross bun should be. And as for M&S carrot and mascarpone buns ... well, I'll try anything once if they're reduced to 10p but not again.

The gentleman in Moscow would have had some philosophical insight into man's compulsion to tweak a good bun to death. Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced to house arrest in an attic of Moscow's grand Hotel Metropol in 1922 and as the years pass (I've got as far as 1946) the hotel's lobby, restaurants and backstairs hideaways become his world. As I'm reading, I'm shooting the movie in my mind - it's a Soviet Grand Budapest Hotel where the labels have been removed from 100,000 bottles in the wine cellar to render them equal. Immensely charming, definitely recommended - and I'm going to feel utterly bereft when I finish.

Saturday 15 April 2017

So sad about the fire at beautiful Parnham House. I had friends who lived nearby and we spent many lovely afternoons here. I always longed for the pretty bedroom with the fresco of spring flowers.

Thursday 13 April 2017

Four centuries of the most gorgeous tulips at Ham House yesterday - and the wisteria is simply breath-taking. This spring is happening so fast. Bluebells and cow parsley in the woods already. I left them growing as I have jugs of lilac in every room.

Tuesday 11 April 2017

Everybody who's read it seems to be delighted with Ysenda Maxtone-Graham's book about girls' boarding schools - and so was I. (Much livelier than her Real Mrs Miniver whose company I tired of long before the end.) There's lots of bracing Malory Towers fun - but it's also rather sad when you read about homesick girls and unpopular girls who didn't fit in and were bad at games. And even though I was at a girls' day school - at the tail end of this period - gosh, did it bring back memories of foul  school food (we'd have thought a turkey twizzler was heaven!) and nuns and their stupid rules and, most of all, the aching boredom. By the early 70s it was assumed that most of us would go to university - but if you didn't, the options were nursing (I don't remember anybody setting their sights on being a doctor which was probably just as well given the abysmal science teaching), teacher training college or the civil service. At least we got out by 4pm. The day I danced down the street and thought, 'I'm never going back,' still glows in my memory.
This was a lovely book to read, no bigger than my hand - almost like a school hymn book. And at least my tweedy, twin-setted teachers were mostly kind. Reading reviews of this book, it seems that girls got off lightly.

Sunday 9 April 2017

I did a sleepover once at the Science Museum - never again! - but I could happily move into the Fashion Museum for the duration of the Josef Frank exhibition. I came away yesterday with serious fabric envy ... Wouldn't you just love this Italian Dinner fabric with all the ingredients for a fabulous summer dinner - lobster, mussels and squid, garlic, aubergines, tomatoes?

This one looks so fresh - and there was another tulip print that I coveted, too. Who knew that Swedes buy 1 million tulips a day? Well, for all I know, we do, too - not this week, I've got pink roses and lilies and some peachy coloured pinks that now I look at them need chucking out. Dead supermarket flowers ... so not Swedish! 

This Manhattan print is fun but I'd prefer a London version. Very Don and Betty Draper. On a Saturday afternoon, I was the only person in the exhibition after two other ladies left - and heaven, there  were signs inviting you to sit on the chairs. (Would they have noticed if I'd tried to escape with that chaise-longue?) 
I vaguely recall visiting the Svenskt-Tenn shop in Stockholm some years ago. (And blanching at the prices!) But I don't remember this simply gorgeous tea-shop.

Friday 7 April 2017

I suppose a novel about the making of a morale-boosting wartime film about Dunkirk was crying out to be made into a movie. I have to confess that I have only the vaguest recollection of reading this a few years ago and that last night I enjoyed the movie version rather more. But why has Their Finest Hour and a Half - quite a clever title - been changed to Their Finest (their finest what?) ... well, maybe because an hour and a half would have been plenty, thanks very much, and the two hours running time had me longing to shout, 'Cut!' Ironic,  as the scriptwriter character - played by Gemma Arterton - is told several times that her scripts are too long and to lose the half that isn't important ... if only they'd taken their own advice! I enjoyed it but I was fidgeting by the end. So 3.5* from me, which is better than the 2*from the chap in the Guardian. (This is so not a man's film!) It did have the feel of a rather good BBC Boxing Day drama.
Their Finest.jpg

What I absolutely loved was the set design and all the period detail ... the bombsites and old-fashioned typewriters and 1940s knitwear and John Craske-style embroideries in the pub. Bill Nighy is wonderful  as ever doing what he always does as the vain, flaky old has-been. Incidentally, this is a film made by women - female director and screenplay/book/artdirection/setdecorating/musical score all by women. The story is loosely inspired by the work of Diana Morgan at Ealing Studios.

Next week's movie - in case you need to time to brace yourselves! - is The Handmaiden, a Japanese/Korean take on Sarah Waters' Fingersmith ... Well, I'll report back and I'll let you know! 4* from the Guardian for a 'lurid, lesbian pot-boiler.'

Tuesday 4 April 2017

Wouldn't you think that I'd have read this before? But in fact I hadn't - and this biography of The Real Mrs Miniver by her grand-daughter had been on my list for simply ages.
I knew the outline of the real Jan Struther's life - but it was still kind of disappointing to discover that she wasn't her character. Worse still was the dawning realisation that if we'd met, I'm not sure we'd have been friends. Well, there was an awful lot of strumming guitars and singing folk songs and I'm afraid I've never been a Joiner In. And, oh dear, once you'd fallen out of love with your husband - who was a golf club bore - and fallen head over heels for a much younger Jewish refugee ... oh, Mrs Miniver-Struther you really were rather tiresome company, going on and on and on about being such soulmates. Partly, I got a bit bored because there's so much detail - your wartime sojourn in America was recounted almost lecture by lecture. And although I could see that it was a gruelling tour - and undoubtedly useful propaganda in the war effort - I still couldn't help feeling that Jan Struther had a very cushy war indeed and had legged it to America mostly because she was hotfooting it after her lover. Vera Brittain - whose children sailed on the same boat, but who remained in London herself for the duration - wrote in her diary that she loved Mrs Miniver the movie: 'But I think Jan Struther is a charlatan posing as a patriot in the safety of the USA.' So did I. I think Mrs Miniver might have Behaved Better.
I did enjoy the reactions of contemporary readers to the fictional character. Americans, of course, adored wise and plucky Mrs M. The British were more cynical. Fond as I am of Mrs Miniver, floating serenely as a swan thinking her Beautiful Thoughts ... it's still hard not to be snarky about one who was born not only with a silver spoon in her mouth but Georgian silver sugar-tongs, as well. 'She is always so smug, so right, such a marvellous manager,' bitched someone (male or female? surely female?)  in a letter to The Times. 'It would be so much more helpful if Mrs Miniver would tell us how she would behave if her husband had an affair with a pretty ARP worker, if her son refused to join up, and if some of the workers at the hospital supply depot rose up in revolt and told the lady where she got off. No, I think the only thing for Mrs Miniver is a direct hit from a bomb ...'
I'm sure that person would be highly amused to discover - as I was - that this twit is the real Mrs Miniver's grandson.

Saturday 1 April 2017

DH in Hollywood, 1980-84 by by Howard Hodgkin.
DH in Hollywood, Howard Hodgkin, 1980-84
It wasn't my intention to have such a packed day. But I'd already booked a concert ticket to hear some wonderful Sibelius yesterday evening and then I got a cheap matinée ticket for this Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie and that was clearly too good to resist. So, after grabbing a sandwich, that left me with just over an hour to fill in between - and I crossed the road to the National Portrait Gallery because where better to fill in an hour? I was only looking for somewhere to dawdle - but WOW, their exhibition of Howard Hodgkin's portraits is quite glorious.
And good fun. The thing about Hodgkin is that his paintings are always about something. But sometimes it takes a minute to get it. Pink, phallic David Hockney with a swimming pool splash and Hollywood palm trees made me smile ...

Mr and Mrs Patrick Caulfield, 1967-70

 And Mr and Mrs Patrick Caulfield was clever ... as long as you know who he is.

Chez Stamos, 1998
On the other hand, I haven't a clue who Stamos might be - but I'd love to be epitomised in a cascade of peacocky blues (and this was a huge painting).

Mr and Mrs Stephen Buckley, 1974-76
The Stephen Buckleys are sitting in frontof the fire in a holiday house near Rye. In autumn.

In Bed in Venice, 1984-88

Waking Up in Naples,  1980-84

Not sure whether I'd prefer to be In Bed in Venice or even more sensuously Waking Up in Naples.

Howard Hodgkin died a couple of weeks ago. What a gorgeous last exhibition.

And then ... there were magnolias in Sloane Square on my way to Cadogan Hall.

And that last movement of Sibelius's Fifth Symphony has been playing in my mind all day.