Wednesday 31 January 2018

Makala means 'charcoal' in Swahili. This film won the critics' prize at Cannes. (A foreign film, for once, that's not just on in London. Dublin and Manchester, too, that's almost general release!) I nearly cried off this evening as I was swamped with work but I'm so glad that I just got up from my desk and walked out the door. (Sshh. Don't tell on me.)
It's a documentary but it's almost like a road movie. It follows a Congolese charcoal maker from the opening scene where we see him felling an enormous tree until he sells his load of charcoal at market. We see him sketching plans for his dream house, three rooms roofed with metal sheets - if only he can manage to save enough to buy 15 metal sheets. And then he wants to plant fruit trees, oranges and apples; he has been saving orange pips. You see his wife grilling a rat for the family meal.
But mostly the film is on the road as he pushes his bicycle, heavily laden with sacks of charcoal, on a dusty road, 30 miles to the market in town. You feel every backbreaking shove and push. Your heart is in your mouth for him as lorries whizz past him in the night; his life seems so precarious, and what will happen to his family if he suffers an accident? And then as he nears the town, you see all the others pushing similar loads. He makes this journey once a month. He is one of many.
There's no voiceover or commentary. But the director of the film was there tonight to answer questions. And reassure us that the young man has been able to build his house with the metal roof. I hope his orange trees flourish. There's a review here and a trailer here.

Wednesday 24 January 2018

If you only enjoy half of a novel, I suppose you can only give it 5/10 - but the half that I enjoyed, I enjoyed very much. This is a London novel and its characters tramp miles across its pages, far better walkers than I am. Past and present are intertwined. In 1851, Joseph Benson is hired as a researcher, interviewing prostitutes rather too thoroughly for Henry Mayhew's newspaper articles that will later become London Labour and the London Poor. Joseph and his family - he is married to the sister of his deceased first wife - live in a rented house in Lamb's Conduit Street ... heavens, could it be the site of Persephone Books? Or one of those houses by The Lamb pub? Joseph's researches lead him south of the river to Apricot Place where the exotic Mrs Dulcimer is running a lodging house for vulnerable girls and not, as Joseph assumes, a knocking shop. And in the 21st century, this is where Madeline has a basement flat and is sensitive to the lives that have been lived here in the past. And this I'm afraid is where I lost patience with the book because Madeline and every character in her social circle ... that is, every cardboard cut-out from the Guardian Book of Politically Correct and Desirable Neighbours (pregnant teen, gay best friend etc etc) ... are so boring that I couldn't have cared less what happened to any one of them. In fact, if you read the Victorian chapters and skip the modern stuff, you won't miss anything.
Yes, just whisk me back to 1851 ... the pies - the smells - the muddy pavements - the parlours - the alehouses ...
And one of these days I must seek out Cross Bones Graveyard. I'd never heard of it before.

Thursday 18 January 2018

Loved this sumptuous film last night - full of Provençal sunshine and colour - about the lifelong, but rocky friendship between Cézanne and Zola. But you do have to be up to speed on 19th century French history and who's who in artistic circles because if you can't keep up, it'll leave you behind. And now I really must get myself to the portraits exhibition before it closes.

I was much less impressed by Darkest Hour. I'd have given it the benefit of the doubt, for maybe I've reached saturation point with films about Churchill. (It doesn't seem two minutes since we had Brian Cox's interpretation last year.) But then came that much derided scene in the Tube carriage ... as Churchill uncharacteristically hops out of his official car to avoid a traffic jam and takes to the District Line for a one-stop journey from St James's Park to Westminster. In a carriage full of gor-blimey, salt-of-the-earth Londoners. What tosh. What complete drivel. And how many cinema-goers are now convinced that this really happened?

Tuesday 16 January 2018

Since announcing that I really must read The Masters ('the best academic novel in English'), I've discovered that the Strangers and Brothers cycle is being repeated this week on Radio Four. So that's my lunchtimes sorted. Timely, as I am forced to admit that I've rather lost the McMafia plot; anybody else losing track of who's who? All the younger characters look exactly the same!

Monday 15 January 2018

I'm suffering from a bad attack of January lethargy; not being a morning person, I never seem to catch the day before it's nearly over and it doesn't seem worth setting out. But at long last, having been scheduling a visit to Dulwich Picture Gallery pretty much every day since before Christmas, I made it to the Tove Jansson exhibition for the last hour or so yesterday afternoon ... and it was packed, busier than I'd ever seen it there before. Silly me, when I could easily have gone on a weekday. (It would have been a good idea to book.)

I have to confess that I've never read the Moomin books; I'm not sure that they'd have appealed to me as a child. Now I can see their charm.
But there's only so many Moomins you can take in one afternoon. I was interested to see her satirical illustrations from the 1930s - when, if you look closely, the Snork sometimes appears beside her signature ...

And her extraordinary illustrations for Alice in Wonderland.

This is her take on Gollum from The Hobbit, more like a startled woodland spirit than the slimy creature of my imagination.

For all that she wanted to be taken seriously as a painter, her paintings aren't terribly interesting - apart from a series of self-portraits.

On the way home I kept my eyes peeled for snowdrops - I still haven't seen my first snowdrop, possibly because I've barely been out in daylight. No luck - I'm desperate for a glimmer of spring - but I did pick a branch of catkins and they're now in a vase with a wonderfully garish bunch of tulips which makes me smile every time I look at them. First bunch of the year. There were sweet williams in Tesco but that just ain't right!

Saturday 13 January 2018

I opted for Dorothy L Sayers as an undemanding read over Christmas, thinking that I'd read Gaudy Night again - but I'd forgotten how terribly wordy it is, all those arch quotations from clever people.  And I still couldn't keep track of who's who amongst all those female dons. Then it struck me that I'd never read Strong Poison, the earlier book that explains how Lord Peter Wimsey saved Harriet Vane from the gallows. Much shorter, much brisker, and Harriet - who can be rather irritating - is safely out of action in Holloway Prison throughout. Funny how Lord Peter seems to have changed over the course of two books; is it spurned love? He seems much more urbane and sophisticated in Oxford and not nearly so much of a chinless but brainy wonder.

Friday 12 January 2018

The Sunday cinema ladies - both of us - reconvened for the first time this year and just to keep us on our toes, we chose a Friday evening outing instead. I'm never sure if it's worth posting about foreign films when they're on for one night only in London but there was a good turn-out for this Latvian film and maybe it'll show up again at a festival somewhere.  We've seen several films recently with outstanding performances by child actors (Soleil Battant, The Florida Project) and this was another, about a wayward 12-year-old whose mischief is tipping into delinquency; there's a trailer here (in Latvian, sorry).

Thursday 11 January 2018

I know almost nothing about the life of Jenny Joseph who died a few days ago. I'd have thought that she'd have merited an obituary in the Times or the Guardian, but I can't find one as yet. All that I've discovered is that she wrote her famous poem when she was 29 and that she hated purple - but I do hope that she learned how to spit. What I'd love to learn as an outrageous old lady is how to wolfwhistle very loudly with my fingers in my mouth ... you could have some fun doing that.

Tuesday 9 January 2018

I'm in two minds about this. I love the cover; it's irresistible. (Despite the aberrant apostrophe on the back. Praise for Howard's End is on the Landing! Sloppy.)
But 250-odd pages in the company of Susan Hill? She feels like a grumpy neighbour who makes you feel, 'Oh, god! How long am I going to be stuck?' as she's approaching. (I admit it. I can do grumpy old woman with the best. See that apostrophe grouch above? Typical.)
Anyway, Susan Hill ... She's great chatting away about books and I've made a note to myself that I really must get around to reading CP Snow's The Masters, which has lingered in a pile on Mary's Landing for far too many years, gathering dust.
But then she drones on and repeats herself. On and on, word for word, about the silly questions students put to her about The Woman in Black. And the weather. She doesn't like it when it's hot; she doesn't like the cold. Her opinions seem set in stone. She doesn't like Jane Austen and she's never read Jane Eyre. (We all have gaps in our reading but that's an odd one, and she sounds rather proud of it!) She would love to visit the Northern Lights, 'but I don't suppose I ever shall?' Well, why not? I wanted to shout ... all those royalties rolling in from The Woman in Black. Get out there. Live a life. Stop burying yourself in all those books. Her interest in Antarctica is extinguished once she realises that people go there on holiday and she takes 27 books about the white continent to the charity shop.
Normally I feel that reading is a Good Thing. But Susan Hill depresses me.
But then she's very good on Aelred of Rievaulx and she puts her finger on why I don't much like Barbara Pym and and she makes me want to re-read Olivia Manning's The Balkan Trilogy. Like I said, I'm in two minds. Perhaps Susan Hill is better dipped into and taken in small doses rather than read straight through. But Susan Hill is Due Back at the Library.

Friday 5 January 2018

Feeding the Fowls

We braved a truly horrible day for a bus jaunt to the Watts Gallery to see the Helen Allingham exhibition. When we've visited in spring, the woods have been full of celandines. anemones and primroses; yesterday it was torrential rain and muddy puddles. Straight into the cafe to warm up with tea and Welsh rarebit, then a whizz around the exhibition with two boys who, predictably, turned out to be vocal critics of the Hollyhocks and Cottages School of English Art. 'If I had money, I wouldn't buy that,' said one. Well, neither would I, though I'd be happy if one came to me in a will from a longlost relative. And on a grim, grey day, I enjoyed the riotous herbaceous borders, whilst thinking that those picturesque cottages were an insanitary health hazard for the rural poor. Expect they were delighted to be moved into council semis a generation later.

The Little Path, Kitchen Garden, Sharston Manor, Cheshire

I think I was more engrossed by Helen Allingham's illustrations in Victorian weekly magazines, especially those for the Cornhill Magazine serial of Far From the Madding Crowd. (Thomas Hardy said she was his all-time favourite illustrator.)

I also enjoyed her little portrait of Tennyson, especially after revisiting the whopping great plaster maquette by Watts in the sculpture gallery. Not a must-see exhibition but a pleasant start to the New Year. And it got me out of the house because two weeks of Christmas is too much!

Thursday 4 January 2018

Great cinematic start to the New Year with a brilliant performance by Frances McDormand in Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; there's a trailer here. Nearly, but maybe not quite as good as his rib-clutchingly funny In Bruges. Does anyone remember The Leenane Trilogy? I saw the three plays back to back one Saturday and it's one of the funniest things I've ever seen in a theatre.

Monday 1 January 2018

I'm guessing you need to be American born and raised (or perhaps a Pillsbury shareholder) to gaze upon this Hot Fudge-Marshmallow Monkey Bread without heaving but it made the finals in the 2010 Pillsbury Bake Off, the $1 million contest that makes GBBO look like a cranky health food promotion.
By chance this afternoon I came across this funny talk by Laura Shapiro at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, an event I would dearly love to attend. I particularly liked the sound of turkey eleganté (note the sophisticated accent!) made from frozen turkey spread with Spam and anchovy paste and baked in a pie. Pizza Wellington made with meatloaf - perhaps not officially recognised in Naples - was a homage to beef Wellington. Magic marshmallow crescent puffs from 1969 were a forerunner of molecular gastronomy and got a religious twist when they were adopted at Easter as Resurrection Rolls. Sadly, I am not immune to this kind of thing as Waitrose chocolate and ginger mince pies, a 10p bargain that a stronger woman would resist, are warming through in the oven as I write. But when they're finished, that's it - the season of indulgence is officially over!

My last exhibition of 2017 was actually some weeks ago; good intentions since then got overtaken by Christmas and horrid weather and a nasty cold. But although EH Shepard's Winnie-the-Pooh illustrations are delightful, the exhibition at the V&A is a damp squib. I was expecting something amazing as it's their first-ever family exhibition and it was designed by the chap who did the poppies at the Tower of London ... but honestly, Christopher Robin's nursery - I've seen better room sets in IKEA. The big, gaping hole in the exhibition, of course, is that the original toys are in New York and haven't been loaned.

One of the highlights of 2017 was the Vermeer exhibition in Dublin but for sheer enjoyment, I'd love to revisit the British Realists in Edinburgh. I was pleased I made the trip to Eastbourne to see Ravilious & Co , even though I didn't get around to writing about it. In London, I think I enjoyed some of the smaller exhibitions best, like Opus Anglicanum at the V&A and these lovely fabrics at the Fashion Museum. Of course, one reason why I look back over the year is to remind myself about lovely things I've forgotten ... no, not forgotten, but things do sink into the sludge of one's middle-aged brain! And as I did something quite thrilling on January 7th, it was good to revisit my literary experience of the year.

Out of all the 30-odd films I've seen this year, far and away the best was a golden oldie. Although I did enjoy The Florida Project, too.

Happy New Year to everybody who visits here. It's always a pleasure to hear from you and I'm touched that you stop by to read.