Thursday, 16 September 2021

The Barn, Charleston, in Winter: Vanessa Bell Off to the Royal Academy's Summer/Autumn exhibition yesterday - which could be subtitled Britain's Not Got Much Talent - and lord knows why they still bother after 253 years except I don't suppose anyone's brave enough to ditch it. I didn't stay long but strolled down to Pall Mall to a little gem of an exhibition about Charleston, hardly a soul there and it's free to get in.
The Kitchen at Charleston, Vanessa Bell Some I hadn't seen before and some old favourites like Grace Higgens in the kitchen. I think I must feel more energetic in autumn because we also went a few days ago to Shakespeare's Globe to see a rather rumbustious Twelfth Night; I don't know why I was so surprised that there were so many people there but it was a gorgeous day. On Sunday we went to a big band concert - and that really was packed. The band was terrific, the bassist looked the spit of Winston Churchill: they normally play the kind of seaside resorts that are god's waiting room and it's not often that the rest of audience is 20 years older than me! But our feet were tapping - you can't beat the old ones!
I thought this sounded promising but found it tedious in the end. It did make me take a look back at the excruciating 60 Minutes interview on YouTube - when Hillary says she's no Tammy Wynette and you wish she'd have the gumption to slap Bill round his smug chops and stomp out.
I'd never come across Mary Lawson until she was longlisted for the Booker Prize - and there's no way I'd normally have picked this up because to me the jacket says 'Old Lady's Large Print Library Book.' Well, don't judge a book by its cover. I only started it yesterday and now I'm nearly finished - because I haven't been able to put it down. I haven't been so engrossed by a book for ages.

Tuesday, 31 August 2021

Flopping around the house yesterday on a miserably grey bank holiday, I felt myself reverting to my inner teenager - but 'Mu-u-um, I've nothing to do' is a bit feeble coming from the over-60s, especially when you don't need a Mum to remind you that there's plenty of housework. So I decided a 'beguiling drama of war-torn young love' might do the trick, phoned my most reliable last-minute friend and off we set ... Ladies, it was truly awful. Like somebody else's off-springs' school play. Memo to self: sometimes it's better to stay in with a book. 4* from the Guardian. 2* from me. 0* from friend who hated every minute.

Friday, 27 August 2021

This is the most gorgeous book to browse and flick through - but I don't think I've ever read less enticing recipes! (The author warns that results can't be guaranteed!) To be sure, the famous boeuf en daube from To the Lighthouse sounds mouth-watering - 'its confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats, and its bay leaves and its wine' - and I'd happily lunch off soles and partridges and fine wines at a Cambridge men's college, if not off plain gravy soup, beef and yellowed sprouts and prunes and custard as offered to Virginia Woolf at Newnham in 1929. The Bloomsberries were a greedy lot - but this wasn't a high point in our national cuisine. I've a soft spot for a suet pud - made with proper butcher's suet - and I've no qualms about offal ... but Lydia Lopokova's boiled beef and brain in a wine sauce didn't have me running to the butcher (maybe I'm being unfair as I've never tasted brain) - and so much aspic and bechamel sauce with everything. I felt a longing for colour and crunch. Chocolate and Chivers' strawberry jelly mould, anyone?
Time travel, magical realism ... I'd normally run a mile, but I was very taken by this gentle Japanese story about the Cafe Funiculi Funicula where, if you sit in a particular seat, you can travel back in time - but only for the time it takes for your coffee to get cold. There's a film - but I don't know if it was ever released over here. It would be unbearably twee and sentimental if written by a British author, or god forbid an American - but its Japanese reticence saves it. A summer read that I finished in a day.
More radio! I can't seem to find anything I fancy on television - I'm soooo bored with murder! (Though I enjoyed belatedly catching up with the repeat of ITV's Lucan last night which, though first broadcast several years ago, offered an intriguing new explanation that hadn't occurred to me before.) The Fortnight in September is one of my favourite Persephone Books - so I listened to the first few episodes of the new Radio 4 adaptation over my dinner earlier this week. But wouldn't it make a great TV series ... the seaside boarding house and the bathing huts and the prom, I wanted to see it all! I'm not sure about the pace of this adaptation, though. I'm half way through - episode five - and it's still only the first night of the hols. Much better to re-read the book!

Tuesday, 24 August 2021

I've only listened to the first episode - with the Nazi top brass held in the Grand Hotel at Bad Mondorf, in Luxembourg, otherwise known as Camp Ashcan - and so far this Radio 4 series promises to be fascinating.

Saturday, 7 August 2021

'Mother, housewife, novelist, expert radio technician, spymaster, courier, saboteur, bomb-maker, Cold Warrior and secret agent, all at the same time ...' I'm soooo gripped by Agent Sonya and we've not even got to the Cotswolds where she made excellent cakes and sent messages to Moscow from the outside lav. Someone must be making a film!

Thursday, 29 July 2021

Blue plaque find of the day - spotted on a walk around Kensington this afternoon which also netted Terence Rattigan, Ivy Compton-Burnett and an SOE heroine who turned out to have had a very colourful life - even by SOE standards - when I googled her when I got home. Which just goes to show that no matter how long you live in London, there are always new discoveries to be made.

Tuesday, 27 July 2021

I don't think I'm the only one who, with all the time in the world for reading this year, perversely lost the urge - but it's creeping back, and the library has re-opened because - although I'm sure I could fill a bookcase with books I've bought, new and secondhand, and never got round to reading - nothing is ever as enticing as the book that's newly-acquired. This week I have romped through this book of essays that has left me feeling slightly sad that Ann Patchett isn't moving next door to bake cookies and be my new BFF - she just seems so nice! And I'm sooooo sorry, Ann, that I always get you mixed up with Anne Tyler! The essay of practical advice for would-be writers should be required reading for aspiring novelists - essentially, sit down and don't get up until you've written something. And the word game in 'The Paris Match' had me tearing my hair out - until I got it!
This was a real page-turner and the post-apocalyptic theme seems all too believable after a year that has proved that anything really can happen. The characters are cardboard - the American naval commander is such a stuffed shirt that no hot-blooded Aussie young woman would fancy him if he were the last man on earth! And 60-odd years after it was written, I can't imagine a world that would face obliteration with such stoic good manners. No looting - no orgies in the streets ... just planting bulbs for a spring that will never come, working one's way through the best port (I'm all for that!) and bizarrely signing up to learn up to shorthand and typing. Well, I've still got my certificate for 120wpm with the wind behind me - so I guess I'm ready for anything! It was a good read, though - and I do like a proper story.
This has been my most disappointing read recently - and I was so looking forward to it! It's one side of the correspondence between Eileen, a young Cambridge graduate from a wealthy and well-connected Jewish family and the boyfriend - eventually her husband - who has been posted to Egypt. There is very little of the Blitz in these letters .... it's all about Eileen, the neediest, whiniest, whingiest young woman and oh, how I longed to conscript her into the ATS or the Land Army which might have been the making of her. Reading between the lines, her darling solace - feel free to make sick noises - seems to have been lukewarm about her to start with - and I was rooting for him to chuck her and make his escape. Reader, she married him. Poor bloke. In fairness, the love letters turned up at a house clearance sale and were never intended for publication and I should think Eileen would have the grace to be mortified if she knew how her privacy been betrayed. In a way, the letters reminded me of the Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt - another plain-as-a-boot young woman yearning for love - but somehow a more sympathetic, if exasperating character.
This, on the other hand, was simply riveting - a compelling account of daily life on the home front through that summer of 1940, from Dunkirk to the start of the Blitz, when the phoney war became all too real.And how could I resist a book that has been described as 'Mrs Miniver with the gloves off?'

Monday, 26 July 2021

I have ventured to the theatre occasionally since lockdown ended ...but this was my first experience in a non-socially-distanced audience since I don't know when! You know, sitting next to a stranger! (Well, to be fair, we were at the end of a row, I sat next to my friend and she sat next to the stranger - but hey, we're both still alive!) And theatre feels so much more energising when you're part of a proper audience - I'd missed that feeling. As for Oleanna, it was a hot day - I dillied and dallied and couldn't decide if I were in the mood, then at 1pm phoned a friend who's very good at getting her skates on ... by 2.30 we were in the Arts Theatre bar with the windows thrown open on Soho, breathing in the curry fumes of the city streets with a cold beer. I'd seen the play back in the 90s - boy, was David Mamet ahead of his time! It was riveting. Afterwards, we walked - very slowly, via the ice cream shop and Fortnum's - down to Green Park to see herds of elephants under the trees. I'd been meaning to go for weeks - always some excuse, too rainy/getting too dark/too tired to walk/just forgot - and I'm so glad we seized our chance because I think they've migrated! They really were magnificent.

Wednesday, 30 June 2021

I'm enjoying the epic Hemingway series on BBC4, especially the contributions from Edna O'Brien whose beautiful voice I could listen to all day. She makes me wants to read the books again.

Tuesday, 29 June 2021

Spent a happy rainy afternoon today in the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre (where the seats are actually comfortable!) watching this very engaging play about Amy Johnson, about whom I realise I knew absolutely nothing other than that she was a flyer and died in mysterious circumstances. Who knew she worked in ladies'knickers in Peter Jones? Silks and satins! After my boring summer in knickers in British Home Stores many years ago - stretch cotton and saucy messages - I felt quite a bond. And I once had a flying lesson!

Thursday, 17 June 2021

I'm so looking forward to tomorrow and not only because it'll be my first ballet performance in more than a year ... but the thought of lovely air-conditioning at the Royal Festival Hall! For the first few days post-lockdown, I went everywhere - and rather wore myself out! You'd think it all had to be accomplished in a week! The Alice exhibition at the V&A was enormous fun, worth going for the Mad Hatter's tea table alone - and who wouldn't enjoy virtually tumbling down the rabbit hole - even if I did turn out to be completely rubbish at catching hedgehogs and hurling them through croquet hoops.
And Hockney's The Arrival of Spring: Normandy, 2020 was a joyous reminder that pandemic or not, life goes on and lovely things happen. But then came those days and days of biblical downpours - and the realisation that I wouldn't make it as far as the bus stop without getting soaked to the skin. And lethargy set in ... Still, that didn't last and here I am back again and moaning that I'm too hot! I spent a lovely afternoon here sitting under a tree with my book, watching the dragonflies and a family of six tireless ducklings swimming round and round -
And I've discovered a new-to-me ice cream stand on the river (outside Riverside Studios) which is very good indeed, if not quite as good as Gelupo. Marmalade and sour dough highly recommended, but not quite hitting the heights of Gelupo's pear and blackberry crumble. I am rather appalled at how much financial support I have given to the ice cream industry this week and wonder if Boris might consider a Slurp Up to Help Out initiative. Still, I felt I deserved ice-cream after a sunny afternoon on a very uncomfortable chair with Samuel Beckett. I've always been timid about dipping my toe into Beckett, assuming that he's 'difficult' but I saw Lisa Dwan some years ago in a shattering adaptation of this book - one of the best performances I've ever seen on stage - and she's the renowned Beckett interpreter, mentored by the famous Billie Whitelaw ... so this was my chance. Happy Days seemed almost topical, Dwan - who is six months pregnant - gave a virtuoso performance as Winnie, incarcerated up to her waist in a sand dune - and if I rose only partly to the occasion, it was only because I was too damn hot (and those chairs!). Didn't flag for a second though at The Father, which I knew would be good - but this wasn't just good, it was heart-wrenchingly terrifying as the audience is drawn into Anthony Hopkins's confusion, never quite knowing what is really happening, what happened in the past and what is a figment of Alzheimer's. Word of warning, though - if this is close to home, it could be very distressing. What a terrific run of post-lockdown films we're getting - and what a shame that, apart from a good socially-distanced turn-out for In the Heights, the audiences, at least in my experience, have been out-numbered by front of house staff.

Friday, 4 June 2021

London was buzzing last night. Warm. balmy evening - lots of people out and about - everybody in a sunny mood. It was our first night out in the West End since before Christmas - no point when everything was closed - and it felt quite exciting seeing the city lights again and just being out! In the Heights turned out to be a perfect summer movie. It's no West Side Story - the storyline is feeble - and to be honest, it's a good half hour too long: our interest was flagging by the end. But we wanted something lively and colourful and energetic and it hit the spot. How do you juggle popcorn, mask and a beer though????

Wednesday, 26 May 2021

It still feels a wonderful novelty to walk into a cinema - I like an afternoon screening before I do my supermarket shop - but there were only three of us in the cinema yesterday which seems a shame as this was such a lovely film about a Korean family in Arkansas, and the father's dream of swapping his joyless factory job as a chicken-sexer for his own small farm growing Korean vegetables. I'm resistant to cute kids in films but the cheeky little boy and his formidable granny (a well-deserved Oscar for best supporting actress) are a delight. Minari is water celery, a resilent herb that springs back undaunted.

Tuesday, 18 May 2021

Day 1 of freedom ...and by lunchtime I was getting fidgety because I hadn't got anything booked until today. How had I let that happen? The lure of the great indoors proved too much and I checked out the local cinema which to my delight was not only showing Nomadland but has also dropped its ticket prices considerably. That was a surprise! So I really have the hit the ground running and made it to the first screening on the first day! It must be almost a year since I was last in a cinema - and last summer there didn't seem to be many new releases - so I'm pleased to report that Nomadland proved to be a very worthy triple Oscar winner, that Frances McDormand is brilliant - well, she always is - and this is definitely worth saving until you can see it on a big screen. Most of the migrant workers in the film are real 'nomads' playing themselves. Swankie, Linda May, the 62-year-old widowed Fern played by McDormand - they're women much the same age as me - and most of you reading this - whose secure, middle-class lives have been recast into a 21st century update of The Grapes of the Wrath. They're Ma Joad with a cell-phone. There's a freedom and romance to being on the road, a sense of community when they run into each other for the beet harvest or a seasonal gig at the Amazon warehouse. But all I could think was how utterly weary they must be - how knees must ache - how cold it must be at night in a camper van - and how frightening when serious illness threatens - and what a complete and utter wimp I'd be in their shoes. First film of the year and I'll be surprised if anything tops it because it's definitely 5* from me.

Sunday, 9 May 2021

Uncle Matthew hated Huns, foreigners, sewers, the EU if only it had existed - and I can't abide Lily James and simpering Emily Mortimer. Even so, I was looking forward to The Pursuit of Love - oh, what a crashing disappointment. To start with - the actress who plays Fanny is sooo much much prettier than Lily James that it hardly seems fair that she gets Alfred and tweeds instead of a duc. And the anachronistic music is simply annoying. I read the book when I was exactly the right age - old enough to travel to Paris, daft enough to believe in coups de foudre at the Gare du Nord. Alas, the only man who challenged my virtue was the ticket collector on the night train from Milan - and I whacked him with a rolled-up copy of Cosmo and that was that. Perhaps I'm simply too old; I do feel Mitforded-out - but I far preferred the last adaptation of Love in a Cold Climate although I nearly passed out when I realised it was 20 years ago. I mean, I even remember the one before with Judi Dench as Aunt Sadie. I binge-watched to the end and the last clunky scene when - in the words of Emily Mortimer rather than Mitford - Aunt Emily tritely expressed the hope that Linda's and Fanny's great-grand-daughters would have more choices in life than simply to be Bolters and Stickers. Whereupon I let out a Matthew-worthy harumph at such heavy-handed womansplaining. . The clothes are nice. It's 3* from me.

Friday, 7 May 2021

The Arrival of Spring ... could there be a more a joyous title for an exhibition that's also the Arrival of Normal! I've booked and I can't wait!

Thursday, 6 May 2021

Still 12 days to go before cinemas reopen - and I've got a list of films in mind. (I'm not bothered about a shortage of blockbusters but I do hope there's more to choose from than last summer.) Meanwhile, this is a delightful Ethiopian film about a homesick boy, who has inherited his dead mother's cooking skills, and his lamb. Still on for a couple of days here; I've been meaning to watch it for weeks and only remembered tonight.

Thursday, 29 April 2021

Shamed by a comment from Pam, who was kind enough to say, 'Come back, Mary!' ... well, here I am, wishing that Boris prioritised theatres and galleries over pubs, but alive and kicking and although it isn't fashionable to say so, sick to the back teeth of slooooowwww living - lockdown feels like God's waiting room! - and willing London to open up again!
I did go into town last week to pay a farewell visit to Persephone Books - there was a little queue outside the door - as I'm not likely to be visiting their new shop in Bath anytime soon. It did feel a bit like the end of an era: those lovely grey covers and discovering writers like Dorothy Whipple, then a browse in Pentreath & Hall over the road (which was closed) and maybe an all-day breakfast and a mug of proper tea at Sid's café next door (which looks properly closed for good like so many other independent businesses around town). It still feels very quiet everywhere; the suburbs seem busier than the West End. But I did go for an amble around Mecklenburgh Square because I've been enjoying this book:
I celebrated the re-opening of book shops with a browse in Hatchards and bought this, which I've been meaning to read for ages:
And, happily, although all the big galleries remain closed, the smaller ones count as non-essential shops. So although I'm not always the biggest fan of Gilbert&George, it was a real treat to see their take on 2020 and the new normal: plus I only booked as I was putting on my coat and leaving the house, and when did I last do anything as spontaneous as that!

Saturday, 2 January 2021

Happy New Year! Anyone else holding off from buying a new diary? Let's just say that I'm not exactly having any difficulty keeping track of my social engagements/walks in the park. The V&A obligingly e-mailed yesterday to cancel next week's birthday outing to their handbag exhibition and invited me to make a new booking - but when? Were there any highlights of 2020? Oh, the years when I was spoiled for choice and couldn't decide! But looking back from the doldrums of Tier 4 at the heady freedom of summer and autumn in Tier 2, I should have been clapping on the doorstep for all those in the arts who went the extra mile to give us a bit of the old normal. Mrs Miniver's Rose-Bowl Award goes to the Bridge Theatre for a most inventive Christmas Carol and for the best-designed social distancing in a public space I've experienced all year. We don't normally have a music award and Mrs M has cloth ears but the Royal Philharmonic reduced me to tears of gratitude for being out at a live performance at this lovely concert. I'm splitting the visual arts prize between the National Gallery - I wasn't quite first in the door, but I was there on the first day! - and the V&A whose exquisite kimono exhibition would have been a winner any year. Not forgetting Feast and Fast at the Fitzwilliam, Cambridge - what a day that was, gilded peacock pies and a train ride out of London! Rather to my surprise, I see that I've been to the cinema 13 times, but that was a flurry at the start of the year. I think I'll give the cinema rose-bowl to London Film Festival for going ahead and to Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci for Supernova. But I don't know what's happened to my reading mojo this year. So much time ... so little to show for it. Hilary Mantel still gathering dust. No improving classics challenges. Some book-group stinkers (My Sister, the Serial Killer - more flat-pack literature from our creative writing schools). But I enjoyed Elizabeth Goudge's The White Witch - a good, old-fashioned historical novel that reminded me how much I loved her books in my teens; Dinner with Edward (Isabel Vincent)made me long for an Edward of my own and if he were still alive, he'd be the ideal vulnerable friend with whom to bubble with his perfect Martinis and apricot soufflés - an immensely cheering book if you're getting very tired of your own cooking! I enjoyed The Binding, rather to my surprise as I don't do fantasy but maybe this was the year for it; in the British Library women writers series, I couldn't resist Tea is so Intoxicating - wonderful title, but the book proved rather feeble (and there wasn't even much cake!). I'm appalled that I didn't even manage a book a week which isn't like me - but have binge-watched whole TV series in a single afternoon. But , hey, I bought my first bunch of daffodils yesterday - even if they do look slightly odd paired with the red roses that have lasted since before Christmas. I spotted several clumps of primroses the other day, though oddly no snowdrops yet. And on Lockdown Day 276 - I finally got around to clearing that cupboard. One hour to do the job; but I had thought about it very hard indeed for at least two years. Hope you are all well and hope that normal service will one day be resumed when I have something to write about!