Monday, 28 December 2009

Switch OFF for a Happy New Year!

Another Christmas, another year over: I just cannot believe 2009 has been spent. The sages among us say that it goes faster as every year goes by. But even the next generation – in my case the prodigal and the princess – say the same thing. So it’s not just that. It’s all to do with pace - the pace of our lives to be specific - that’s what I think.

And that pace is getting faster every year. Although out in the sticks here (where telephonic reception is pants) we are now on broadband and able to join the internet highway. Even if we can’t break the speed limit. If there is no reception for even ten minutes I get tetchy and panic. How will I be able to send photographs, transfer any copy, advise contacts of events, check my accounts, order my mother’s shopping and.....publish my blog!

‘Doing research’,well, with the internet it’s taken on a whole new meaning: plodding off to the library, rooting out museums, dredging up texts from all sorts of strange places? Dead. I used to argue that when digging about in books and journals, indexes and archives I would often come across stuff I would never have thought of looking for. The old argument that perhaps one doesn’t always know what one is looking for.

Forget it. Go onto the World Wide Web and you’ll get information up to your ears. Search engines will magic some web page or other and that will lead you onto something else. Although what is still needed is that gut instinct, inspiration and application. It remains basic detective work. But there’s no footwork, no travel costs, no having to fit your research into open days or opening hours: it can be done at 2am. Tonight, any night, every night if you want.

And as for snail mail: dead as a squashed gastropod. Gone are the days when ‘It’s in the post’ gave us a little time to get the task done. Here is rural Kent we were snowed in just before Christmas but was that an excuse to get out of the saddle - no way. Sorry, no post. 'Just email it,’ is the riposte.

If you’re sent an email this morning the least that person expects is a reply this afternoon. And worse. If it arrives in your inbox during the evening or over the week-end you can forget any lame excuse about out-of-work-hours. That’s a phrase as old hat as top hat. You better reply asap or you’ll get another one.

And it doesn’t stop there. It follows us about. My laptop is portable (well, it is if you call lugging the equivalent of a big bag or two of potatoes around with you) taken on every trip away from the home hub. And if there’s no wireless connection when I’m on the hoof, oh horror, what will I do. How will I cope without electronic communication. (Amazing how I survived before The Net concurrently holding down two jobs, bringing up a family and keeping house.)

Now my biceps have been given respite. I have a new phone – well mini computer really – that I had to work very hard convincing Best Beloved was absolutely essential to maintaining my lifestyle. Obviously I have to be able to telephone mates at all times and I have to be able to track down BB when he goes walkabout (which he does whenever we’re meant to be shopping or sightseeing). But I also need to make bookings, search the web, advise when a meeting is running late, pick up business emails, text the kids, etc etc etc.

Yet I’ve chosen these deliverers of the digital age: those gainfully employed expect them. Not only do they expect the latest gismos but their employers expect them to be plugged in to the things twenty four seven. (It may be that this turns out in time to be a poisoned chalice - I reckon it’s not long before employees start to sue employers for overloading their personal wiring)

What it means is that - for all of us - the passage of time has become something that can be manipulated but not slowed. And what this boils down to is that the pace of life is pacier yet: not allowed to do nothing, no time for vacuous thoughts or voluminous ideas. No time to stand and stare. For a happy new year perhaps we should simply SWITCH OFF.


Saturday, 19 December 2009

Shameful Sculptor Eric Gill

If you walked around the recent sculpture exhibition at the Royal Academy whom might you think was a sinister sculptor? Knowing no facts on the matter, you could be forgiven for thinking it Jacob Epstein, whose menacing iron sculpture Rock Drill, has been recreated. This piece, unbelievably constructed 1913-1915, is a prelude to every robot that we have seen in movies over 50 years later.

The work of Eric Gill (1882-1940), on the other hand, is beautiful in its simplicity. His works demonstrate the affinity between art and architecture perfectly. We know his pieces without ever knowing they are ‘pieces’, so well do they meld with the building.

The Art Deco façade of the BBC (Broadcasting House) incorporates Gill’s sculpture of Ariel & Prospero. This is a perfect example of how his artistic work integrates with the building: we perceive it as a whole, a part, of the architecture.

There was a talk at the RA entitled Saint or Sinner? Re-assessing Eric Gill. Now, I haven’t heard the talk nor have I read Fiona McCarthy’s biography of him. All I know is that Gill is guilty of some very unsavoury practices that have ruined his reputation as a godly man and an artist.

Gill’s behaviour was thoroughly reprehensible but he was also a genuinely talented artist and craftsman. He did some marvellous illustrations that remind me of Aubrey Beardsley and some of the artists who were doing lino cuts in the first quarter of the last century. An excellent letterer (he designed the typeface Gill Sans) he also carved the letters and designs on war memorials, gravestones and in churches.

I first became aware of him when I saw his linear two-dimensional sculptured panels not unlike the ancient friezes that decorated the buildings of Rome and Athens. Gill’s figures and animals, however, are simple, naïve and primal. And all the more striking because of this.

But when I visited this exhibition – which was excellent – I felt very uncomfortable. I like his work. I think he was a designer and sculptor of great talent. But I couldn’t help thinking about the dark side of him and this cast a shadow over enjoyment of his pieces.

I tried to tell myself that I must disassociate the artist’s predilections from his work. I must not let it cause a barrier between me and the pieces. I tried not to let my dark thoughts affect my enjoyment of his work. Unfortunately, they did. His talent is now tainted for me.

If only those of us who feel we have little natural talent could have one small piece of the gift that these artists display. We wouldn’t squander it, would we. We would revel in our gift, embrace our talent, nurture it and let it flourish. And it would be something pure, would it not. Or would it.

Could it be that the great creative force and superb style that a few artists have are only kindled by dark, sinister and wicked acts. Are these deeds and the shame of them, the price they (and sadly others) pay for the beauty of their art. I don’t know if it is a truth or a convenient excuse but I think, given the choice, I might just settle for mediocrity.


Sunday, 29 November 2009

Colourful Anish Kapoor

I’ve visited the Anish Kapoor's exhibition at the Royal Academy. I’ve seen the TV programme showing how the work was produced. Photographs of the pieces are in countless publications and the Turner prize winning artist has been given the whole floor of the RA in which to display it. Of course, anyone interested in art feels they should be there or be square. Hmmmm….....

Well, I’ve been there, so I guess I’m not square but I’m not quite sure how I do shape up. Did I like it, did I think it was brilliant: was it too avant-guarde for me to understand? Is it a bit of fun, something to challenge my conceptions about what art should be or is it in fact all a bit of a con?

Well, I think I now know where I am on Anish Kapoor. Yes, the exhibition is a piece of fun – well several pieces of fun actually – very colourful and kooky. The installations – because that’s what they are, produced to Kapoor’s design by a team of artistic craftsmen – are beautifully made and superbly finished. The ideas are great, the finished products skillful but…....

I liked his reflective shaped pieces - sorry, mirror-polished stainless-steel sculptures. The large rectangular concave/convex one is a great – so simple in form, so beautiful in finish. Set in a landscape (as it was shown on the TV) it mirrors the sky and the scenery in such a way that everything is better, bigger. It focuses ones mind on the movement of the clouds across the surface in a way that no-one would ever appreciate looking at the sky. Not without getting a terrible crick in the neck anyway.

Although…. I couldn’t but help think of the distorting mirrors in old-fashioned circuses and fun fairs. The ones where everyone stands there and says, Ooooh, Look at you all long and thin; Aaaah, Look at me as wide as a bus. Well these are a bit the same but different because these are ‘art’ of course. These are ‘stretching reality’. Those at the fun fair are just making you look very odd.

But a big wax loaf of bread squeezing through an arch (Svayambh) – a bit shaved off every time it traverses it – and the cannon (Shooting into the Corner) splatting out a lump of dribbly wax every half an hour is all a bit playschool playdough. I think we got a handle on what that stuff’s all about by the time we were five.

Then there are the worm casts. Again, little people will have no trouble with this one. They can be found down on their level on the wide expanses of wet sand at the seaside. The thought of a whole room of larger than life size ones would thrill them. They know all about wormy shapes and wiggly coils and building stuff from sand that sometimes collapses before it’s finished.

But I guess I can see how he’s getting us to embrace colour: all enveloping colour. Colour that is powerful and pure, invigorating and intoxicating (his words). There’s lots of clear red and bright yellow. Primary stimulation as every baby of 5 months knows. We do seem to be afraid of colour these days, in our tastefully bland beige homes and all white gardens,wearing our toning grey grunge.

And I can just about swallow how he’s trying to get the visitor to think about space – that physical space that exists between the viewer and the thing that he’s viewing – how you’re not quite sure when you are here and when you have entered there.

I know I stood in front of his big yellow piece (creatively called, Yellow) and thought Wow, this is fabulous. It seems to go into (onto?) infinity: where did it end? one can stare at it, get lost in it – meditation nirvana. But that was about it.

Well, I thought, that was a not inexpensive visit to see an inspiring big yellow basin on its side and a lot of congealed red wax everywhere. Fortunately, I felt I had got my money's worth after all when I went upstairs to sexy sculptor Eric Gill.


Monday, 16 November 2009

T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935) - a man to remember

With Remembrance Week just behind us my mind dwells on our soldiers and the great sacrifice they have made for our country. I’ve blogged about Europe and First World War soldier poets before but now I’m thinking of the Middle East and that reminds me of someone in particular.

Soldiers come in all shapes and sizes but one of the larger than life figures of the First World War in the Middle East must be that of TE Lawrence, more often than not referred to as 'Lawrence of Arabia'.

My grandfather’s favourite book was The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the book Lawrence wrote about his war experiences, and by co-incidence my Best Beloved also rates it as one of his favourites. The scope of it is vast – I must admit I’ve never got very far with it – but it is the man himself who fascinates me.

I won’t go into his army career – it is so well documented – but I must say his contradictory character is unusual. From the film Lawrence of Arabia one thinks of him as a tall man – Peter O’Toole played him so convincingly – but he was in fact only five foot five inches tall. But, even knowing this, he is still perceived as being a ‘big’ character.

Of course his intellect was large. He graduated from Oxford with First Class Honours: his thesis was entitled The influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture. He was interested in the Crusader castles of France and the archaeology of the Middle East.

Not only that but he spoke several languages: in addition to European and Classical tongues he also spoke Arabic. He knew the Middle East well from his research work. When he volunteered for the army in 1914 it was no wonder that he was recruited to serve with the Arab Bureau of the Foreign Office.

When we think of Lawrence we see him as a dashingly romantic figure wearing Arab robes and riding a camel. Because he adopted many Arab customs and traditions whilst in the Middle East it’s easy to forget that he was in fact a very English academic.

One of Lawrence’s favourite books was Morte D’Arthur and one can see how this story and his fascination with Crusader escapades may have fuelled his love of military glory, adventure and idealism. It was as if this capable, courageous and academic man was still a boy at heart. And a country boy at that.

When he joined the RAF after the war - fed up with his notoriety and under a pseudonym to protect his privacy – he landed up in Dorset. He had spent some happy years as a child in the nearby New Forest where his love for the simple outdoor country life was nurtured.

Lawrence bought a tiny, basic cottage, Clouds Hill, in the woods near Wareham. He preferred to live there than in more luxurious surroundings. Cramped and Spartan, it gives the impression of a weekend retreat for a boy scout.

His love of fast Brough motorcycles meant that he could get around the countryside and the speed of the machine probably fulfilled his need for an adrenalin rush. It was one rush too many when he crashed and died of his injuries aged 46. Lawrence left the cottage (and one of his bikes) to the National Trust. He was buried nearby in Moreton churchyard and dignitaries such as Winston Churchill attended his funeral.

If Lawrence was alive today he would probably agree with the saying that celebrity is not all it’s cracked up to be. Much has been written about his character flaws and even more about his possible sexuality. But, nevertheless, he was a dedicated soldier, an excellent writer and a remarkable man whose memory is still alive and well.


PS Visiting the cottage of Clouds Hill reminded me of another famous character who ended his days in a small cottage, quite at odds with his position or aura. Cecil Rhodes preferred to live (and die) in a modest cottage in St James, near Cape Town, than in the large mansion he had built.

Neither Rhodes not Lawrence started life with a silver spoon in their mouths, both suffered ill health as children which had a lasting effect and neither married. But both were adventurous and became influential. However, when their fame had waned they both seemed more comfortable returning to the simple lifestyle. Their names are still writ large, nevertheless.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

John Betjemen (1906-1984)

October 6th was National Poetry Day: newspapers published the list of the nation’s favourites, amongst which was John Betjemen. Betjemen counts as a national treasure. I think this is due to his combined love for the country and countryside and the fact that his poems rhyme…or perhaps it might, more correctly, be his use of rhythm.

But of course he didn’t love everything about England (his dislike of creeping suburbanisation and the urbanization of the countryside is made famous in his poem, Slough). And not all of his poems rhymed. Plus, he wrote many other things besides. However, he was passionate about so much – the countryside, architecture, women! – and these come through in his poems. As does his humour.

Betjemen’s poetry is, in short, accessible. Perhaps it is not so much humourous, as light: sometimes satirical, other times sentimental, his work is never stuffy, oblique or elevated. Anyone can read it without needing to be a literature student – a very important feature - and understand it. There is something so honest and simple in the emotions embodied in his poems that it appeals to all those who love similar things.

Trebetherick by John Betjeman

We used to picnic where the thrift
Grew deep and tufted to the edge;
We saw the yellow foam flakes drift
In trembling sponges on the ledge
Below us, till the wind would lift
Them up the cliff and o’er the hedge.
Sand in the sandwiches, wasps in the tea,
Sun on our bathing dresses heavy with the wet,
Squelch of the bladder-wrack waiting for the sea,
Fleas around the tamarisk, an early cigarette.

From where the coastguard houses stood
One used to see below the hill,
The lichened branches of a wood
In summer silver cool and still;
And there the Shade of Evil could
Stretch out at us from Shilla Mill.
Thick with sloe and blackberry, uneven in the light,
Lonely round the hedge, the heavy meadow was remote,
The oldest part of Cornwall was the wood as black as night,
And the pheasant and the rabbit lay torn open at the throat.

But when a storm was at its height,
And feathery slate was black in rain,
And tamarisks were hung with light
And golden sand was brown again,
Spring tide and blizzard would unite
And sea come flooding up the lane.
Waves full of treasure then were roaring up the beach,
Ropes round our mackintoshes, waders warm and dry,
We waited for the wreckage to come swirling into reach,
Ralph, Vasey, Alistair, Biddy, John and I.

Then roller into roller curled
And thundered down the rocky bay,
And we were in a water world
Of rain and blizzard, sea and spray,
And one against the other hurled
We struggled round to Greenaway.
Blessйd be St Enodoc, blessйd be the wave,
Blessйd be the springy turf, we pray, pray to thee,
Ask for our children all happy days you gave
To Ralph, Vasey, Alistair, Biddy, John and me.

When he was up at Oxford as a young man Betjemen was already writing poetry. His interest in architecture was strong, and churches and their bells were a particular passion even then. Over a third of his poems are about churches, not to mention prose pieces such as Blisland (yes, it’s a real place name) and St Endellion.

And these prose pieces – essays I suppose – are some of my favourite Betjemen work. He gives us such an appreciation – his of course but things that touch all those who know the place – of the landscapes. In Bournemouth and An Approach to Oxford for example anyone knowing the town and city immediately recognizes what is special about the place.

His fond portrayal of a visit to Kelmscott, the house built by William Morris, gives the reader a true insight into Betjemen’s appreciation and love of art and architecture. Betjemen was also a great conservationist. Along with a love of architecture was a fondness of railways.

His knowledge of, and admiration for, St Pancras, one of London’s great Victorian Gothic train stations, and for it’s architect, was well known. In the 1960’s it was his impassioned pleas and championing of the buildings of St Pancras railway station that finally led to the station being refurbished and not razed to the ground.

A larger than life statue of Betjemen staring up into the great glass roof stands in the station in honour of his efforts. A lasting monument to a poet who put his money where his mouth was.


Thursday, 15 October 2009

Sissinghurst in Autumn

There is only one thing worse than going on holiday and running out of books to read: visiting a scene of beauty, in an out of the way place, and finding your camera has run out of battery.

On Tuesday I visited Sissinghurst, the famous garden created by Vita Sackville-West. It was a glorious day, the sun shone, there was no wind, not a cloud to mar the cerulean sky. Amazingly there were lots of perennials in bloom – delicate Japanese anemones, asters, jolly orange and pink coneflowers - and so many grasses and leaves in rich autumn hues that it was as colourful as a summer bed.

I photographed what strikes the visitor first: the architecture. What an entrance! A wide arched opening between twin gabled buildings, all mellow rusty brick and buttery stone. From it stretched a vista through a tall, stately and impressive gate tower. Between the two a walled courtyard, green turf, clipped yew and, along the walls, stone sinks set on brick pillars under leaded light windows. Absolutely gorgeous

I was in my element: this was going to be a lovely visit. I would have such fun and afterwards thrill (bore) everyone with my photos of the plantings. I composed the perfect picture of the colourful border. I tried it from all the angles and when I had it just right I took a snap. Nothing happened. Was it turned off? No. Was it in the wrong mode? No. The b***** thing had run out of battery.

How could I have been so stupid not to have brought the spare battery. Why had I taken the old camera I keep in the car for emergencies out of the glove compartment. What an idiot. What a wasted opportunity. It was going to spoil the whole trip. And then in the middle of beating myself up about it, I took a deep breath. Hold it, hold it, I told myself. It’s not as if this is my one and only trip to Timbuktu. Get a grip, girl. Enjoy.

And that’s just what I did. I sauntered, I gazed, loitered and lingered. Unhampered by composing shots I actually savoured each garden room, absorbed the atmosphere and admired the plantings. As so many of the beds in the individual garden rooms are contained by low clipped box hedges it still looked surprisingly tidy.

Garden maintenance was underway. The tall yew hedges were being clipped and that in itself was interesting to watch. At the same time they are scarifying the grass and broadcasting grass seed in an attempt to fill in the worn patches before the weather gets too cold. A little reminder that every season has its task. And beautiful gardens don't just happen.

I wandered into the library – a lovely long room with deep, rich, old oak furnishings. But such a musty smell that it can’t be used much. Then I climbed up into the tower in search of Vita’s writing room. Half way up, there was the room, the walls lined with books and paintings, the surfaces covered in colourful glass and favourite objects.

The desk was large but the fireplace was small. No matter how romantic the setting, endurance and fortitude would have been required (and lots of winter woollies). It must have been absolutely freezing to sit and write there. But then that generation hadn’t been mollycoddled and gardeners are, on the whole, a hardy bunch. True ones don’t get upset by little things like camera’s not working.


Monday, 28 September 2009

Andrew Motion, poetry, harvest festival and pastoral heaven

I’m in a very bucolic frame of mind. Yesterday was so beautiful weather wise that it was a joy to be in the great outdoors.

This northern part of Kent is known as The Garden of England and for a very good reason. The land doesn’t lend itself to large fields of cereals and nor does the soil. But it is suited to orchards and nut plats.

The nuts have all been harvested – those that escaped the wily squirrels – but the branches of the apple trees hang heavy with red rosy fruit. These orchards are tucked away amongst rolling hills, small fields and narrow lanes, bordered by native hedgerows. Trees frame every view.

The colours of these are beginning to turn, from darkest green to soft butter yellow, ruby red, lime green. From a distance the landscape looks as if it’s still the ancient forest that existed when the Jutes invaded – long before the Romans – obscuring small hamlets and cottages.

Lunching with friends in their garden yesterday the scene was about as perfect as it can get. We walked up through their fields, between the trees, through the gate and there spread before us was an incomparable view.

Ah me! Why do I moan about British weather; what a traitor I am to rush off to sunnier climes and foreign lands when we have such temperate weather and gorgeous countryside.

The sun has lost its stridency and yesterday it bathed the landscape in such a soft golden light that it seemed to glow. Across the valley was a scene from a picture book: roads and towns were obscured, traffic was absent and all around us was such a bounty of produce that it felt like a paradise.

I think Friday night put me in the right frame of mind to really appreciate the simple things of life. Firstly, I went to a poetry reading my Andrew Motion – the ex-poet laureate. The tone was right: his poetry is not in your face, he’s a man who reads softly and speaks hesitantly.

A poem about his mother’s horse being shod during his childhood conjured up memories of my own. His description of the place, the dog, the blacksmith and lane were evocative. I was back in Hardy country - in Mayor of Casterbridge mode - unspoilt rural England.

Afterwards I had to collect Best Beloved from the harvest festival. And this event always fills me with pleasure: if a large group of unrelated folk can meet in an old agricultural barn, sit on spiky bales of straw, eat the simplest of home made fare off bare trestle tables and have a great time then there can’t be much wrong with village life.

Tomorrow it may be raining and I shall be as grumpy as usual about our weather but for now I’m not complaining about the summer being over. Instead I’m looking forward to harvesting fat leathery pumpkins from the veg patch and collecting apples to crush into the freshest juice.

I’ll collect shiny mahogany conkers for the little boys up the road and have promised a friend our golden quince and mushy medlars for her conserves so I shan’t be consumed by guilt for leaving them to waste. Come on, roll on Autumn, I’m ready.


Sunday, 20 September 2009

The Real Thing - Dream on

In the UK we’re spoiled for good home design: from top notch designers in chic city centres to humble high street stores, there’s something for everyone at every price. Years ago good design was only for the rich (we Brits had had a bit of a go at good design in the fifties but had priced it out of most peoples grasp) then along came Habitat. Terence Conran’s shop transformed the homewares design scene.

We went from drab or gaudy, gross or dreary stuff to simple, toning, well-balanced and stylish. Suddenly sofa’s were boxy, tables were cubed, kitchen utensils were coloured and fabrics were crisp. No more curlicues, no more reeded coffee table legs or velvet pouffes. Other shops followed. We were suddenly into ‘good’ affordable design.

But Habitat stuff was not cheap. Much of it came from Europe where design had been an important element in furnishings: in Germany throughout the 1920’s and thirties, along with cool Scandinavian stuff and glitzy Italian gear. British stuff lagged behind.

But after a decade or two of Habitat stagnation set in. The good stuff on offer was expensive, the cheap stuff rubbish. Until Ikea. Be as rude as you like about it – some things are tat but the majority is perfectly fine and excellent value - but Ikea offers decent ‘design’ to the masses.

Some of it is so cheap – who wants it to last – that anyone can afford it. Every student digs and Buy-to-Let flat is furnished from Ikea. There are copycat retailers and superstores now and even the big department stores offer economy ranges to try and tempt the closet Ikea shopper.

But still some are sniffy: the design snobs. I’ve just been reading a piece in The Times by Stephen Bayley decrying Homebase for copying a design classic: the Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe. Of course it’s not as good as the original, of course it doesn’t have the same panache.

The materials are inferior, the lines less fine, the proportions not as pleasing. Boy, would I love an original. But then an original Barcelona chair would knock me back £4,350: the Homebase one three hundred quid. And I’ve always drooled over an original Corbusier lounger, but I’ll never have the spare cash to buy one.

At the Museum of Modern Art in New York they had a great display of chairs when I went. The great names of Avante Garde and Modernist chair design - Corbusier, Breuer, Dieckmann, Thomas, Aalto – are in museums all over the world. But in New York there was the Butterfly chair. Years ago I bought one.

Yes, it was a copy of the original design. It was great fun. Everyone who came to our house wondered how to sit in it. No-one wanted to get out of it when they did. No-one could get out of it as it happens. Because I owned it I got to experience what the design was all about. Original Butterfly chairs are worth a lot of money now but they were too expensive for me even then.

But when I saw it lined up there at the MOMA alongside the classics I had a little smug grin. I had recognized a classic. I had bought into good design. Admittedly a rather lowly one compared to the Mies van der Rohe’s chair but nevertheless a classic in its own way. Now Starkey would deny me that.

I think it’s great to experience the real thing (admittedly even better to own one) to appreciate what good design is all about - back to those materials, lines and proportions – but if aspiration is all most of us can afford it’s really quite nice to go home, sit in one’s own humble copy, forget the design snobs and dream.


Monday, 31 August 2009

Laurence Whistler and etched glass

Funny how one thing leads to another. Some time ago I visited the lovely little church of Saint Nicholas at Moreton in Dorset. I’d gone in particular to see the etched glass windows by Laurence Whistler.

They are quite distinctive, being clear glass with the delicate etching standing out like white tracery. So when I came across another, miles away, I at once recognised the style and felt quite the historian.

The church at Moreton was originally built about 1400. Like most old buildings it has changed over the centuries being rebuilt more than once, the last time in 1776. The colourful stained glass windows were destroyed in 1940 when a bomb fell in the churchyard. In 1950 Laurence Whistler (1912-2000) was invited to submit designs to replace them.

Originally five were installed but as time went by funds were found or donated to add more. Now all twelve windows have been designed and installed and quite a stunning effect they create. Of course engraved glass was an old, traditional craft, but Whistler's revival of the art form is quite magnificent in its scope.

His style reminds me a bit of John Piper’s spidery sketchy lines. He was after all a contemporary of his. The theme of the windows design is Light – physical and spiritual – such as candlelight, starlight or sunlight. Even lightening is included! The designs include metaphor and emblems of either seasons, festivals or bible stories.

Others commemorate someone’s life (the church is close to an old wartime air base) or a happier event. Some are landscapes, a few mystical scenes, but all are beautifully and originally worked. Unfortunately, I can't track down my photos of the windows so please do look them up on the web.

We are so used to seeing the bright jewel colours of stained glass in windows that it is quite a surprise to enter a church where the glass is clear. The result is an interior flooded with light and a feeling of openness and modernity. Quite refreshing.

Whistler was a writer and poet as well as an artist and it seems to me that he combined both the poetic and the artistic in his window designs. The sensitivity of the designs suits the subjects so well.

Anyway, when visiting Stowe in Buckinghamshire, we crept into the small (rather spoiled architecturally) church in the gardens. Although it has been messed about with there are still some very interesting effigies and fascinating memorials there. Investigating every crook and cranny I was very excited when I noticed a tiny pane of glass with some etching on.

The style looked familiar and finding a bit written about it I was thrilled that my hunch was right: it was by Laurence Whistler! He had been to school at Stowe. Just goes to show, one thing can lead to another.


PS There is also a Whistler engraved window in Salisbury Cathedral: I don’t know if there are any more.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Butterflies Flutterby

There is something very cheering about a butterfly fluttering past me in the garden. It’s such a simple thing - such a transitory thing – yet I instantly feel better. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that they arrive with the sunshine.

They are not about too early in the day, nor too late in the afternoon. Like dragonflies, they need the warmth of the sun before they become active. Sheltered spaces are what they like best and they’re particularly attracted to some garden plants. Buddleias are not known as ”the butterfly bush” for nothing, whilst herbs such as marjoram and lots of perennials such as Sedum spectabile can attract every butterfly in the place.

Today, turning around after hanging up a bed sheet on the washing line I was amazed to see a large black butterfly had settled on it. I was surprised, firstly because I would have thought it would have chosen a background to match its colour and, secondly, because it opened its wings to reveal that it was in fact a beautifully coloured Peacock.

Butterflies have all round vision and yet I could stand quite close to this one and it didn’t move. It also very obligingly stayed put for long enough for me to get my camera. The beautifully crimped edges of its wings could be really appreciated when they were folded because they stood out against the white of the sheet like the profiled silhouette of a cameo.

Oddly enough, we’re warned that as many species of butterfly are at risk as ever, and yet there seems to be more butterflies in the garden this year. I suspect that it has something to do with the profusion of blossom that I’ve already written about.

In April there were lots of Orange-tips in those areas of the garden with meadow grass, especially around the pond. But they were not about long. Apparently they only have one generation because once their meadow flower food source no longer blooms their pantry is bare.

At the time the butter yellow Brimstone kept it company. Although they do have a second generation which hatches in July and August so they are still about now. Following them were a mass of Browns. I should like to think that some of them were rare Heath fritillaries but I find it almost impossible to identify the profusion of little Browns, they're so quick to make off.

I’m OK at telling the difference between the showier garden species – the Red Admiral, Tortoiseshell, Comma and Peacock - but many others are a mystery to me. The Whites are similarly confusing, with the exception perhaps of the Cabbage white because we have so many of those. And I have exactly the same trouble with the Blues.

Was that a Common blue or a Holly blue? A Short-tailed or a Long-tailed blue? The trick is obviously to know all about their habitat but that needs quite a bit of study. Many blues do like a chalky habitat and as my garden is on clay I tend to have more browns.

The only brown butterflies I have time to identify are those poor insects that die in my conservatory. The floor is littered with their corpses. I only hope I’ve left enough weeds and wildflowers out there for them to lay their eggs on. That may salve my conscious. And I shall make sure I leave their caterpillars a larder for next year. I really look forward to butterflies fluttering by.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Barabbas by Par Lagerkvist

This is a very slim volume. And the subject not exactly inspiring. I mean, who wants to read about the murderer who was pardoned in order that Jesus of Nazareth got to die in his place? We all know the story surely. After all, there’s not much to say about the robber and murderer, Barabbas.

However, Par Largerkvist manages to retell the tale in the simplest terms, with his fictional take on the fate of Barabbas written in such a way that one could believe it is all a true story. The novel is a spare tale, pared down to great effect.

Originally published in Sweden in 1950, it was published in the USA, by Random House Inc in 1951. Reprinted by Vintage Books in 1989, this book has become a classic. It’s been on the reading list of many an American university student since then, our book group host among them.

Lagerkvist was a poet and thinker, playwright and writer. Barabbas is a tale of morality. A parable. The characters show spiritual torment, questions about Man and his destiny are posed, and overall we are asked to ponder the meaning of this great drama.

The crisis of faith is the big question in this novel. There is faith (in this case a belief in God) and its opposite, doubt. Without faith in God (something to give our life meaning and direction) it can be difficult to know the difference between Right and Wrong. But a belief in God is difficult to prove.

Barabbas, on his way to be crucified, is aquitted: he is thereby condemned to godlessness. He then has a relationship with a poor disabled outcast. He shows signs of love and care – in spite of himself – when he buries her. But Barabbas soon resorts to his former life of murder and pillage.

Because of this he is caught; chained to another slave in a mine he learns that the name carved on his companion’s slave disc - Christos Iesus - is that of the man’s true master, his Saviour. Barabbas realises that this Saviour is the man who died in his place. He asks the slave to carve it on his disc. He says he wants to believe.

The slave is rescued by a sympathetic Roman and in turn saves Barabbas by insisting that his companion must accompany him. But, later, when this slave is asked (on pain of death) to denounce Jesus he refuses. But Barabbas does not support him: he denounces faith in Jesus. The slave is hanged. Because he does not support the slave, Barabbas is not condemned to die: he is saved again.

The character Barabbas never undergoes an illuminating conversion. The fact that he is a murderer - and the portrayal of him so believable - such a thing would not actually ring true. But Lagerkvist does have us thinking that Barabbas wanted to believe.

Barabbas does not believe, but neither does he disbelieve. Barabbas, in his own warped and misguided way, finishes up by doing all he can to help the Saviour when he rises again. Or does he just get the wrong end of the stick? You will have to decide for yourself: the book is a poser, the ending enigmatic.

So pack this book in your hand luggage: its a perfect size and length for holiday travel. It will add a little gravitas if you only have Aga Sagas or Chick Lit packed but if you're weighed down with fat biographies it may even seem like light relief!


Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Stowe - a wonderful landscape still

Once upon a time.....Stowe was the greatest English landscape garden: the incomparable Georgian forerunner of the English landscape style. A classical naturalistic landscape copied throughout Europe, inspiration for centuries to come.

Since the garden was begun in the 1680’s, the greatest designers of the Georgian age had their hand in the design: Charles Bridgeman (the ha ha), William Kent (serpentine streams) and Capability Brown (naturalistic vistas) made their mark. Architecturally, equally renowned men designed their ornamental buildings: among them Robert Adam, James Gibbs and John Vanbrugh.

Plonk yourself down in an English village circa 1700 - what would you have seen. Depending in which part of the country you lived, you would notice small rural buildings (roofs thatched or covered in slate or clay tiles), hedged or walled fields, the occasional field tree, perhaps coppices, forests or moors.

The small rural village consisted of mismatched vernacular buildings; scattered tenant farms dotted the scene. The local big house may have had a deer park, or straight paths and formal beds. The river would have supported a mill, bridges were practical, gates stockproof.

Roads at that time were unmade and impassable in very bad weather, farmyards mired in muck, houses lacked sanitation. Mess and mud were part of life. Everything was utilitarian. Life was hard.

For those lucky few - men of wealth and leisure - travel to Europe was de rigeur. On their return they were able to indulge their fancy and show off their education and wealth. They strove to impress society with their knowledge of the classics and superior taste. What better and more conspicuous a way than to improve their estate. And the owners of Stowe were no exception: they conceived the greatest idealised classical landscape of the time.

In the 1700’s the visitor to Stowe - unused to the wonders of world-wide travel - would have been enchanted to see a rolling landscape, a rural idyll, planted with trees on hill tops and a clear meandering river in contrast to their plainer, less ordered rural environment.

At each turn, they would be transported by a framed view of a beautiful classical building with - what a joy - yet another and another from every angle. It was a scene they could believe existed in Greece or Italy. Of course, most would never have seen anything like it except in the paintings of Claude or Poussin.

Today, one would imagine that the world-weary sophisticate would find this all very ordinary. But not at all. Strangely, in spite of the run-down complexion of the whole at Stowe (structures in various state of repair, lacking the statuary and embellishments that they used to boast) the casual visitor experiences much the same sense of surprise and wonderment that his 18th century forebear would have experienced, although for different reasons.

Sated with televised visions of beautiful landscapes, wonderful buildings, incomparable views, it's refreshing to find that we can still be impressed with the less than perfect, here and now. Stowe offers the visitor something we have all become rather unused to: a landscape that's not manicured. Buildings that are not finished to pristine Disney standards.

And so natural and realistic does this sort of manmade landscape look to us now that we're as surprised to find Grecian stone structures hidden around every corner as the original visitor most probably was over three hundred years ago. Stowe is a wonderful landscape still: those of us without a classical education may miss the all but most obvious allusions but it is still a delight, a pleasure to visit.


Tuesday, 30 June 2009

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid, is not – as one is likely to assume from the title – another novel about terrorists or religious fanaticism. It is the monologue of a young man’s infatuation with America, his successful career there, unsuccessful love affair and eventual disenchantment with it all.

Over a meal in Lahore, Changez, the protagonist, explains to an American stranger at this table how he won a scholarship to Princeton and secured a top job in New York. He had felt a bit of an outsider until he moved to New York in 2001, where he loved his new office job and the buzz and cosmopolitan mix of the city. Until he heard about the 9/11 attacks.

When he heard about the attack he smiled. This surprised him. He began to question his view of America. And he began to question the ethos of his employers business - one in which he had to ‘focus on the fundamentals’ – the bottom line (the irony of the title?). This led him to question how he could live in luxury in the USA whilst his fellow countrymen were living on the breadline with American soldiers in their midst.

Working on the valuation of a company, the owner likens him to a janissary. Already a little disenchanted with his role, the discrimination he encounters and the ignorance about world affairs, Changez finds himself in a quandary: is he too working against the interests of his own Pakistan community and culture.

He explains to the American how he gave up his job in America and now works for the university in Lahore organizing anti- American protests. We, the readers, feel at every point that the American is about to hear about the reluctant radicalization of Changez. In turn, Changez asks us to consider whether every Muslim who criticizes America is a fundamentalist.

Alongside the indoctrination of Changez into the corporate world is interwoven his love for Erica, a friend from Princeton. She is as obsessed with her past - the sweetheart who died young - as Changez is with her and his work. The novel would have worked just as well without this love angle: the character of Erica lends nothing to it, and is not quite believable.

Changez, the narrator, notes that the American is on a “mission”, is constantly on his mobile phone, has a holster-like bulge in his jacket and is uneasy with the waiters hanging around. I would be a spoil sport to explain what happens at the end of the book: will it end in the demise of Changez or the American? Hamid keeps the reader guessing.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is very well written as is to be expected from anything shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize. Our groupie host gave us a very full background to the novel, the slightly clunky allegorical references (America/Erica both look to the past, Changez/changes etc) and the author’s other rather obvious devices.

We all agreed that the theme was both moral and political. A few thought of it as a love story, most as a thriller. But two of the group found it trite, and one took exception to one message in the book that 9/11 brought home to America what the rest of the world had suffered so long.

When I noted that dates in the story did not quite add up – Changez’ time in the USA, the date of the World Trade Centre attack etc – it was interesting to learn that Hamid had started the book before the attacks and only incorporated the event later. It won’t be the last book to use 9/11 as a disaster to pin stories on, nor the last to examine East/West conflicts. But The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a thought provoking novel, and an enjoyable and easy one to read at that.


Thursday, 25 June 2009

Nature or nurture in the garden

So, if according to the press there are fewer butterflies, bees and garden birds than ever, how come my little slice of green heaven is bursting with them? The former may be due to the profusion of blossom I identified last blog, and the birds may be that I have finally managed to refill the feeders with peanuts on a regular basis. But, even so, how come? Is it natural or have I encouraged them?

I managed – in spite of being up to my ears in projects – to waste hours last week glued to the kitchen window watching my bird table. On a roll, I also spent my entire ‘coffee break’ chasing butterflies and ages (when I should have been filing) taking photos of bees.

My recent bird watching obsession is because there are woodpeckers in the garden. The Greater Spotted Woodpecker could be heard tapping away from January: sending morse signals out for a mate. Now they’ve reared their young. And pretty hungry and demanding young they are too.

Because of this the female woodpecker had been hogging all the nuts for some time. Then last week there she was, pecking away, and next to her on the leg of the bird table was her young: a fully fledged, fluffed up, beautiful young woodpecker. She pecked at the nuts then hopped to the fledgling and fed it!

I was mesmerised. I set up the camera and tripod by the window and spent the rest of the morning hiding behind the curtains, taking snaps whenever I happened to spot her. Woodpeckers are very nervous and easily scared off. This is my excuse for having so very few decent photos in spite of wasting so very many hours. Of course the infant woodpecker did not come back for an encore.

Not only did I get mum and dad woodpecker – each on a separate feeder – but I got nuthatches in pairs. These birds are the most elegantly attired. As tree creepers they feed upside down, usually searching out grubs in tree bark. It makes a fun show to watch on the feeder.

When the woodpecker family visited the weather was perfect – not too hot, not too cold. Neither windy or wet. So in between photo shoots I took a turn around the homestead. The garden looked great in the sunshine (the trick is to let your eye skim over the weeds in a grand sweep), positively glowing. There is blossom everywhere: trees are laden with it, and perennials and wild flowers are in every bed and border, each corner and crevice.

On the flowers in the herb garden – sounds very grand, is in fact very basic – there were dozens of bees. Pairs again! The great clumps of comfrey are a favourite, the chive pompoms a hit and the few rosemary flowers left still popular.

Most were bumble bees, but here and there Best Beloved’s honey bees were massed on a plant. They will travel up to three miles for their pollen but I think his find most of their goodies within the garden. If they are not on garden flowers, they are gathering pollen from trees or wild flowers in the grass.

And in those wilder bits of the garden butterflies were everywhere: little brown frittillaries fluttering around each other in a courtly dance, others settling on knautia, nettles or clover. Small blues and larger browns and middling oranges were flitting around the meadow grass.

But also nature at its most gross. Big fat caterpillars destroying verbascum at the rate of knots. What will they turn into: vampire butterflies? Some confused butterflies were caught in the conservatory – trying to get out through the glass. They will die if they don't get out. There went another half an hour trying to guide them out of windows and through doorways only to have their siblings take their place. Frustrated, I had to stop.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that the high incidence of all this wildlife in the garden is a combination of nature and nurture. The stuff I’ve planted – and the weeds I let stay - encourages wild life into the garden. Then nature does the rest.


Thursday, 11 June 2009

Glorious June

Well, not quite yet. We’ve had some lovely days, some very hot ones and some very cold ones. And, only a couple of nights ago, a torrential downpour, thunder and lightning. But, generally, ever optimistic, we expect a glorious June.

It’s not just weather that encourages us to think it’s going to be glorious: it’s the flowers. So far, this year, there seem to be the best bloom in years. The roses have never been more prolific and beautiful. Climbers that usually seem as if they had the Snow Queen treatment have produced beautiful and multiple flowers.

Shrub roses that are usually cursed with scabby, cankerous disease appear to be in the peak of fitness. Weedy, pathetic little rose bushes that knew they were for the chop have rallied and burgeoned thus winning themselves a reprieve for another year. Ramblers have more flowers on them than they usually produce in decades.

And it’s not just the roses. My cornus tree – Cornus kousa Chinensis – is a mass of dramatic creamy white waxy bracts. It’s a dream to behold. The wedding cake shrub – Viburnum tomentosum ‘Mariesii’ - has also been spectacular with its elegant tiers of white heads. In fact, all the viburnums have equally been at their peak. The garden smells like a veritable perfume factory.

And prennials look like they will be strong competition. The dark deep purple salvia, lime fresh alchemilla and striking foxgloves are as beautiful as any on the stands at Chelsea. And the colours! My first Day Lily has opened as rich as orange marmalade; the mauve of the geranium is as vibrant a violet as any painter could conjure up. Whilst purple heuchera is as plush as velvet, its flowers as delicate as lace.

So what’s it all about, this blooming bounty. I guess it could be that we had a very cold winter: killed off all the bugs. Or perhaps it was due to the infestations of ladybirds that we had in every window reveal of the house: when they hatched they had a ready prepared meal of greenfly and blackfly to feast on. Then again, we had a very wet and late spring: gave them all a good start and protection from frost.

Or, could it be that – although I was not aware of any sudden new ability - I am in fact now a gardener of exceptional talent blessed with the Midas touch. No? Oh. So it’s down to just luck, then. Well, what do I care. I shall just bask in the glory of the garden and graciously accept any compliments that come my way. Long live a glorious June.


Monday, 1 June 2009

Barack Obama, Dreams From My Father

Obama is the son of a white American mother, a black Kenyan father. He comes from two different worlds and feels comfortable in neither. With his mother and her parents (white folks) he is accepted and accepting but when he first goes to school in Hawaii he feels out of place. In Origins, the first part of Barack Obama, Dreams From My Father, he describes his early life.

Obama makes a point of aligning himself with the black population, the brotherhood, the dispossessed and disenchanted. He describes many white people as having a life “bought off the rack or found in a magazine”. Throughout the book he is trying to come to terms with being a Black American.

In the second part – after he has gained his degree at university – he goes to Chicago. He works as an organizer helping communities help themselves. He learns that to get people organized he has to plug into their self-interest. For example, a woman’s worries about her son’s safety might be the impetus needed to get her involved in a programme to make the community safer.

It is the beginning of his political career. He learns how to get people motivated, and about “individual advancement and collective decline”. As a student his friend told him “It’s not about you, it’s about people who need your help” and he learns the truth of this in Chicago. He finally relaxes into his skin and finds the people around him accept him for himself: not for whom he thinks he should be.

Finally, Obama comes to realise that he does not have to be part of the brotherhood, at the same level as everyone else in his sphere. He can further his studies and offer more to communities by doing so. The reader gets a glimpse of where Obama’s presidential speeches were nurtured, where such phrases as “the audacity of hope” were hatched.

He applies for Harvard and in the meantime visits Kenya and his father’s family there. In this third part of the book, Kenya, he is trying to find his roots. By trying to understand his dead father, and attempting to uncover his father’s motives and aspirations, he hopes to understand himself.

The life and family he experiences in Kenya opens his eyes to the fact that Africa is not his spiritual home. He is black, yes, but he is American. His sister, Auma, is a soul-mate, but some of his wider Kenyan family are as grasping as others are generous. They too are human. But his family and their life in Kenya does make him more committed to black empowerment.

Whilst in Kenya, to help find his true self, he searches for those things that had inspired his father: the dreams from his father. But he discovers that his father was not the paragon he thought. And by the end of his holiday in Kenya Obama is no longer in thrall to the romance of Africa, nor in the shadow of his father but accepting of himself and his American inheritance. He returns to law school, becomes the first black President of Harvard in 1995, and the rest is history.

This is a fictionalized autobiography – some of us liked the style, others would have preferred a factual account. But I can quite understand why he made it more chatty. To make the book more accessible, more alive, less the heavy hand of facts and incidents.

This version of his autobiography was first published 2004. At 442 pages the book is way too long. The first part, Origins, is fine. The middle section, Chicago, is three times as long as it needs. Much is repetitive - apart from sister Auma’s visit - and a lot of it boringly so. The section, Keyna, is twice as long as it should be. It’s a good book but, cut in length, it would be so much better.

But it is fascinating to see the seeds of Obama’s political awareness. Throughout the book – as throughout his life it seems - he asks philosophical questions and looks for practical answers. He has lofty principles and great aspirations. He talks about big issues: Community, Freedom, Hope. He has faith is in “participatory democracy” and he has “faith in other people”. If just some small part of these concepts and aspirations come to pass, we shall all be glad of his dreams.


Tuesday, 19 May 2009

The Chelsea Flower Show 2009

The Flower Show at Chelsea heralds the start of the social year for the glitterati. For the rest of us lesser mortals it reminds us that we better hurry up and get those plants in, and weeds out, if we are to have any planting even vaguely resembling a decent border.

Of course no gardener in their right mind thinks that the show gardens could be reproduced in their own modest plot. These are set pieces. Brought on, held back, hot-housed, frozen. Everything blooming in unison. Hedges and shrubs cut and clipped. Water without algae, plants without pests.

And the plants that the growers are showing – no doubt about it – are the epitome of perfection and beauty. Not one dead bloom, not one fading flower, not a scabby, scraggy leaf in sight. The best plantsmen in the country are showing at Chelsea.

One purpose of Chelsea in years gone by - when those living in their London properties visited the show to choose the plants for their country house - has long become a thing of the past. Chelsea is now for the gardening masses. And, yes, there are lots of us. All chasing our dreams.

But, nevertheless, for garden junkies like me it is an exciting and intriguing show piece. These are garden to imagine; there are wonderful new combinations to consider. They are, in short, inspirational. Occasionally amusing. Sometimes shocking. And so it was yesterday.

My favourite show garden was the Champagne Laurent-Perrier Garden. I liked the firm structure and clean lines, the architectural form of clipped hedges and the straight allee, the planting repetition, restricted colour palette, clean lines and water feature. And today I hear it did get Gold so my Landscape Architect antennae are still keen.

But the Daily Telegraph Garden also got Gold and Best in Show. I liked it, it just didn’t excite me. But then I like what the designer usually does with his plantings. Prairie plantings of grasses and daisy like perennials that associate well with them.

The third garden I liked was the Cancer Research Garden. It was a very striking, sculptural garden. All curving lines and geometric shapes, cool whites, black water, and lush green planting. It won Silver-Gilt. It dared to be different and I think it deserved a Gold.

The one that was truly different was the garden made of plastic plants. It was a joke. It should have stayed a joke and not been awarded any prize. This is a flower show, for goodness sake.

One of the most popular features of this years Chelsea was the pleached hornbeam hedge. Such an accommodatiing species, the hornbeam. And so versatile. It featured in all three gardens I mention. For flower colour, purple and claret were popular: in the Laurent-Perrier garden these were provided by a magnificent Paeonie ‘Buckeye Belle’, a glowing deep raspberry, and a darkest purple Iris ‘Superstition'. Fabulous.

And the plant of the moment that featured in so many of the show gardens? Well, there were plenty of 'living' walls but the real star was The Vegetable. There were rows of salad vegs, beds of brassica’s, canes of peas and beans. No poncy potagers, just sensible raised beds filled with beautiful, colourful, gorgeous crops. If only my vegetable patch could look so divine!

This year’s Chelsea Flower Show has given me ample room for thought: I shall spend the week-end pottering in the garden. Putting in the pots I haven’t planted yet, pulling out weeds and murdering pests. But in my mind I shall dreaming of Chelsea perfection.


Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Calender Girls and Critics

Don’t believe everything your read - critics don’t always get it right. The reviews for the play, Calendar Girls, were not enthusiastic. I suspect that some of the time critics – whether food, theatre or book critics – write negative reviews because they feel they have to justify themselves. I guess it can become tedious: watching yet another play, reading ones twenty-fourth book this month, eating out…again.

Perhaps they figure that there are only so many superlatives and so much praise that any reader wants to hear. They feel the need to be edgy, perhaps contentious. The press do love to shock, to stir things up. To get a reaction.

Of course I like to read reviews before I see an exhibition, go to a show or visit a restaurant. And they are often illuminating. But, as long as they are not thoroughly damning, I take them with a pinch of salt. I have learnt that critics don’t always get it right. And this goes for the reviews I read about the Calendar Girls, newly opened in the West End.

The reviews were either condescending or dismissive. We already had the tickets. Lynda Bellingham, Sian Phillips and Patricia Hodge were the lead roles. A first rate cast. Surely they would not want to in something second rate. We were going, it would be an outing, it would be alright on the night.

And guess what? It was. In fact it was good and it was funny, well scripted and well acted. So how come the reviews were less than complimentary. Well, I think it has something to do with sex. This was a play about women, with a (nearly) all female cast, and jokes that appeal to women. And women of a certain age at that.

Now, what young male critic would get that? All the poor reviews I read were written by male critics. And most – like many in the youth obsessed media – were probably only half way to their three score years and ten. Now, how many of them could appreciate a joke about the nitty gritty of women’s lives.

Two of the reviewers wrote that once the actresses had got their kit off there wasn’t much left to the play. For them that was obviously the raison d’etre of the play. That was to miss much that they probably thought derisive.

The play is based on the book. The story – as you probably all know – is about a group of Women’s Institute ladies. The husband of one of them dies of cancer, and they decide to raise funds for research. The calendar, on which they pose tastefully nude, raises a great deal of money and makes them famous.

But the play is as much about morals as anything – nothing to do with nakedness – that success can go to ones head, that jealousy is destructive and fame and fortune don’t equate to happiness. And that appearances are not everything, but life and the support of friends is all. And the message of the play works because it’s not preachy, or glum.

There’s a bit of pathos in the second act, yes, but like the best of messages it all goes down best with a good swig of humour. But obviously not the sort of humour appreciated by a jaded or sophisticated critic. Fortunately there are enough WI members and mature wives out there to appreciate the gentle jokes and connect in some way with the wider message. That alone should make Calendar Girls critic proof.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

The Reader, by Bernard Schlink

I may be the only person you know who hasn’t seen the film of The Reader yet. The week it was showing locally I was up to my eyes in other boring stuff. Then I heard that we were doing it in our book-group and decided to read the book before seeing the film.

Somehow that works best. Reading a novel you build your own pictures of a character. Very often it’s not down to the descriptions of characters. For me, building a picture of a character is more likely to be based on their behaviour, or a name, perhaps a mannerism.

So we don’t only have a picture in our mind of the character’s appearance but of the way they move, talk, smile. Then out comes the film: if it’s well cast we say, Ah, Just as I imagined them! Or perhaps – rather more often - quite the opposite. If the film is really good, the viewer can live with the difference between the personally imagined and the film-makers vision.

But to see a film then read the book does mean that the imagination does not kick in the same. The picture of the character is already there and it often jars with the description. And one of the things I love about reading is the pictures …and the suspense. See the film first – no suspense. Why bother reading it. The moving images have already been filtered and digested. The plot has been simplified and truncated.

Needless to say, there was so much in the press about the film, The Reader, that although I hadn’t seen the film I had seen clips. I knew that the central character was played by Kate Winslet, so I saw the character Hanna as her. She was well cast, fortunately, but it means I was denied my own image.

Bernard Schlink is quite a writer. The book is easy to read. Deceptively simple. Short chapters, large print, not (for a refreshing change) very long. And it was not, we all agreed in the book group, a holocaust novel. It was a novel about relationships, primarily, and shame.

A young boy, Michael, aged fifteen, is seduced by a mature woman, Hanna. He becomes totally besotted by her. She uses him. He is fixated on her to such an extent that when she has left he is unable to form other lasting bonds. He learns of her shameful past in the Second World War. But it is her other shame – that of being found to be uneducated – that informs her actions. Not the shame that should.

And we, the readers, are expected to believe that Hanna’s fear that her secret will be discovered is the prime reason for her hateful work in the war. Schlink leaves some points such as this unclear, questions not answered, things unresolved. Some found this annoying, others challenging.

But as the we never get under Hanna’s skin, never get to know her true motives, or any bar those rather tenuous ones, the character Hanna gets little sympathy from the reader. Certainly not those in our group. Although, at the end, one or two had begun to pity her.

For my part, I thought that Hanna was portrayed as someone who finally learnt about victims’ reactions to imprisonment, torture and death through their printed stories. Not as someone who instinctively came to realise that what she had done was wrong. She was amoral. If she had known that what she did was wrong then she could have done something about it sooner.

Michael was another of Hanna’s victims. Although not everyone agreed with that view either. Some felt that his actions were just too far fetched. Others that he loved her, simple as that, and continued to do so. Personally I think that’s over simplified. In my mind his personal life had been blighted by his relationship with her. And I did not feel there was any redemption at the end of the novel. The ending was not a surprise.

But, in spite of all this, it was a good read, an interesting story to discuss and it generated much talk about emotions – fear, shame, cruelty, love – and how a people come to terms with the sins of their fathers. Now all I have to do, is watch the film.


Sunday, 19 April 2009

Silence is Golden but Time is Short

It’s getting harder to find the time to write my blog. I started by writing every week. I decided that I’d do pieces with some meat – similar to the sort of pieces I do for publications – rather than just a paragraph. Now that I’m finding it hard to find the time to do them I wonder if I made the right decision.

Of course I can always change – adapt - which is what I probably will do but strangely enough it’s not the length of the blog that’s the problem. I think I would still have trouble if my blog was just a paragraph or even that stream of consciousness, just an-aside-sort-of-thing like a twitter.

Now there is something I definitely don’t have time for. Mostly because I’m not glued to my mobile phone. I am still trying hard not to rely on my mobile – I continue to do that old fashioned thing of using it just for emergencies, messages, appointments and liaising. I hardly ever use it unless use includes one of these.

This seems to be contrary to every other person under the age of thirty and almost every business body under the age of forty. The mobile phone is always there, in the car, on a quiet country walk, on holiday, at work, on the bus or in the train. We have all been bored and sometimes disbelieving about the “Hello, I’m on the train” conversation but this is now small beer.

One friend who travels regularly to work by train tells me that she is now privy to the lurid details of one of her fellow mobile phone toting passenger’s love life. The girl gets on her phone immediately she’s in the carriage and fills in her friends with all the details of her last passionate encounter. With sort of nitty gritty that would make a Lolita blush.

One would imagine that she would wait until somewhere private before baring all (!) but modesty, privacy and discretion seem to be defunct now we can speak to anyone, anywhere, anytime. Anyway, it seems the mobile phone is an extension of many an arm. It is positively scary that so many hardly seem capable of going anywhere without it. And I don’t want to go down that slippery path. And you know why? Because I love silence.

Silence: what bliss, no noise, a chance to think. I’m sure lots of people love silence but to do anything creative there’s just got to be some peace and quiet. Or, as the prodigal once said aged seven, ‘I need a piece of quiet’. Like many a child’s amusing malapropism it became a family phrase. Used whenever appropriate because, apart from the nostalgic sentimentality of it, it just happens to be right on the button.

I need a piece of quiet to work. There’s got to be room to think. There’s got to be big white spaces for ideas to pop up into. Silence is golden, golden. My ability to come up with fresh and original, deep or insightful ideas is impaired if I’m surrounded by chatter or clatter.

Apart from that commodity which is in such short supply it’s not the amount I aim to write for my blog that’s the stumbling block. It is simply the time to get the backside on the seat, time to get the mind in gear and time spent when I could be writing my book. And there’s the nub, or the rub in the words of the bard. Every minute writing my blog is time I could be writing my book.

When I started the blog I had finished my novel, it was about to be published in paperback, I still had things to do, talks to give, places to go all associated with it. So I thought a blog would be just the thing to keep my writing going. And that’s the trouble. It did, but it also stopped me starting the real thing.

And now I am into the book full swing. I still do design work so only have a limited ‘writing space’. Next time I write my blog I’ll explain how it’s going but at the moment, sorry, I just don’t have the time.


PS Hope you like the still and silent picture

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

The violet – a tiny treasure.

Spring has so many stunning flowers: bold brassy daffodils and delicate fritillaries, sunny bright aconites and elegant narcissi to name but a few. But it’s often the shy little numbers that lurk in the shadows that tweak at my heart. The violet – Viola odorata - is one of them.

Not for nothing is the phrase for a shy, modest sort, ‘a shrinking violet’. The shrinking violet was the one on the edge of the dance floor, the modest little woman who never pushed herself forward. Pretty, simple, not showy.

And it’s the same in the borders of the garden, under the hedgerows and on the banks by the roadside. Out walking, cast your eye down and at this time of year and you can be surprised by a little group of violets. But not all of them are violet: those in the garden may be deep mauve or pale lilac, or you may even find white ones wild in the verges.

The Victorians were heavily into the symbolism of flowers - white violets were for candour – and the violet is known as a symbol of love. A hundred years ago an admirer might buy his girl a small posy of violets to pin on her lapel.

Grown en masse in Dorset, Devon and Cornwall especially for the market these little corsage produced healthy rural businesses. They were gathered in the morning, tied in bunches, packed in boxes, transported by rail to London for sale that same night.

But many tiny bunches were gathered in the fields and hedgerows that bordered cities too. They were also sold the same day, on street corners and outside theatres. More often than not they were the only livelihood for many a poor soul.

And in the days before refrigeration such a tender little bloom had to be sold immediately, before it drooped and died. The simple small token of love would be unpinned at home and put in a vase to be admired the next day. I remember that my grandmother had a tiny crystal vase especially for putting violets in to keep on her dressing table.

But Violets have hidden depths too: they can be used in all sorts of ways we have lost touch with today. Candied or crystallized – dipped in egg white and coated in sugar – they were used to decorate cakes and make into sweets. The dark green, kidney shaped leaves can be added to salads and the flowers too are edible. As a salad garnish they add colour and interest, and the flowers can be used to make salad dressing.

In the past violets were used extensively in cosmetics and toilet water. The flowers and leaves were steeped in water until they had rendered up their colour and scent. Medicinally they were made into teas or syrups for coughs and colds, and used as ointments and poultices for a variety of ailments.

Because the flower was popular in Victorian times so the name Violet became popular too. But the colour violet was also considered a powerful symbol in Victorian and Edwardian England possibly because of its closeness to purple, the colour that symbolises royalty. The Suffragettes used violet as one of the colours of their flag and it came to stand for the word Vote in their motto, Give Women the Vote.

So, remember that the little shrinking violet is no insignificant flower. Like many a small thing, they can pack a punch. Choose a moist patch in your garden, in dappled shade, and plant yourself a few violets. The sight of these simple little flowers in spring will be something to treasure.


Sunday, 29 March 2009

A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah

This is not a book I would have chosen. I mean, who in their right mind would choose to read (which surely one does for pleasure) ‘The True Story of a Child Soldier’? Okay, Okay; sometimes we do want to read a book in order to be more informed about an issue.

Which is the reason our groupie said she chose this book. She said it deals with a subject about which everyone should be more aware. I don’t know about you, but I have a very fervid imagination. I can imagine only too clearly what atrocities there are going on in those African states. I can imagine how killing fellow beings can numb the senses and dehumanize the perpetrator of crimes. I feel incensed by both government and guerrilla fighters’ treatment of children and women. Appalled that the world lets this all continue.

So, what are we members of this book group for? I for one appreciate that it encourages me to read books I would otherwise not consider. I cannot therefore demur. This groupie is a younger member of the group - bright and socially aware. We bow to her awareness. We read the book about a child soldier in Sierra Leone in spite of the less than inviting subject.

I struggle through it. And so it seems did everyone else including our young groupie. The writing is not good. And it is a harrowing subject. We know that the author is young and not educated in prose but.... And does it seem that perhaps someone else had a hand in it? And then there is a lot of walking in this book. He walked, and he walked, and he walked. And he killed. And he was saved.

Ishmael is obviously an intelligent, articulate child who suffered horribly. But he had (has even now as an adult) the ability to survive. Everything in the story is testament to this. He had (has) a great capacity for love. He wants to belong, to be part of a normal environment, to live and grow. That should give hope.

But it was interesting that all of us had the same response to the book. It’s not often that we are in such agreement. We all hated the subject, we were not impressed with the style and we all found it odd in many ways. BUT. But we were glad that we had read it. We learned things. Things that even over-active imaginations don’t supply.

That children were conscripted to fight by the army as well as the guerrillas. Drugs were (are) widely used to numb the children mentally so they can commit the crimes. But also to keep the children awake with their adrenalin pumping so they are in a state of arousal. They need to be in order that they can run at a moment’s notice and kill at command. And, of course, by keeping them addicted the perpetrators keep them dependent.

We know that child soldiers have little choice but to fight. Many have lost their families and their ability to survive. They are used and abused. But from this story we learn that amongst all this horror, there are some caring individuals (and some aid) that makes a real difference to the rehabilitation of a few. More importantly, we learn that it is possible to rehabilitate child soldiers.

We also learn from our groupie that Sierra Leone was where the first slaves were sent to America – because they knew how to plant tobacco. It is the second poorest country in the world. That diamonds are now the main source of wealth and that the corruption surrounding this wealth accounts for much of the fighting. Those powerful foreign governments have contributed to this power struggle.

And we think about the shocking fact that there are over a quarter of a million children fighting in the world. If all these wars were in some major way associated with oil, we in the West would have waged a war by now to overthrow the leaders that carry out these atrocities and the resulting carnage. And the resulting destruction of societies.

Our groupie was right. This story reminds us above all that we in the ‘civilized’ West do not do enough to change these things: that we still have a Long Way to Go.