Cranford for the 1950s

It’s amazing the bargains I can find sometimes – three Barbara Pym novels in the local charity shop for a pound being only my latest. Barbara Pym isn’t someone I read on a regular basis, but her books did come recommended to me when I was looking for something easy to read. And on that count, I can’t get them on the trades descriptions. I do most of my reading on my commute home (about an hour and twenty minutes) and in that time, I can get through a hundred pages with relative ease.

I was trying to describe her first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, to a friend of mine and the best I could come up with was a cross between Cranford and Mapp & Lucia, but set in the 1950s. I still don’t think that’s doing it justice. The main characters are two middle aged sisters, neither of whom have married, but each of whom have “crushes” (for want of a better word) on members of the clergy – neither of whom reciprocate. They clearly have independent means as they have a maid and cook, although do a little cooking themselves, and regularly have people round to finish their upholstery or make clothes, and such like. The cast are hilarious. I especially love Miss Prior, the tartly bitchy seamstress – her backhanded compliments are delicious.

The second novel, Excellent Women, is (essentially) more of the same – life in a country village where the spinsters of a certain age involve themselves in Good Causes and get on each other’s nerves. They are comedies of manners, much like Jane Austen – I can see Emma Woodhouse fitting in very nicely – but with modern touches, such as professional women, motor cars and railways and, of course, the telephone. I don’t doubt that there are still people who live like this, but they are very much a dying breed and part of me thinks that’s a great shame.

The third one, Jane and Prudence, I haven’t read yet, but I’m reliably informed it’s very much like the others.

Barbara Pym isn’t for everyone, I’m the first to admit that. Her silly spinsters fawning over curates half their age can get annoying after a while – but it’s meant to. It’s meant to be silly. It’s meant to hold a mirror up to them and show their little foibles. That’s why it’s entertaining. I’m not sure I’ll read any more, but I’m pleased I’ve read these three and at a time when I was feeling a little burned out, they were the perfect easy reading on the train home.

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La Grande Odalisque – Ingres

I’m not sure if any readers would remember the Oscars ceremony from a few years back, when Angelina Jolie wore a terribly ill-fitting black dress and every time she stopped for photographs, her right leg stuck out? The reason I mention it is because for a short while afterwards, that leg was photoshopped into a variety of photographs to greater or lesser humorous effect. Looking at the highly dodgy anatomy of this painting, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that Angelina’s leg had been photoshopped here as well.

For an artist specialising in the human figure – he was well known for his portraits of society ladies – the proportions here are completely wrong. Her back is too long, there appears to be no structure to her arm and those legs – we may need Angelina’s for a spare. She seems to look like a blancmange sculpture, poured onto the chaise longue and left to slowly melt.

By contrast, the luxurious fabrics and her peacock feather fan are recreated in exquisite detail. This is an artist who knew his textiles – I’m in love with the dress worn by the subject of one of his portraits in the National Gallery, it’s so detailed I’m tempted to tear it off the wall and wear it home. So what went wrong?

Ingres would have argued that, although based on a real life model, the odalisque portrays an idea – as continental travel became increasingly fashionable and orientalism was all the rage, this was a European’s idea of an oriental concubine. She’s not meant to be real at all, she represents a fashion, a style, a mood of languid indolence and luxury. This also explains why the fabrics are so detailed – if they were not, we wouldn’t be able to differentiate between the velvet and the satin.

Is it a good painting? It’s not my favourite Ingres, but it is possibly his best known and it was highly influential on some later Impressionists – an interesting comparison would be with Degas’ Olympia, another reclining nude. If I’m honest, I’d rather have the fabrics.

Art Crime and Organised Crime

Anyone who reads this blog with any kind of regularity – that’s you two right there – will know that I have an abiding passion for art crime. I’ve come to the conclusion that I may have been Thomas Crown in a past life or something, but I can’t accept that it doesn’t have a glamorous side. Who wouldn’t want to have a Picasso under their bed in case of financial emergency?

I’m afraid Andrew Graham-Dixon – a man whom I would happily watch standing in front of a brick wall and let him tell me why it was modern art – went a long way to disabuse me of my assumptions. Art crime, as a general rule of thumb, is organised crime; and any mafia worth its protection money has its tentacles in the field, alongside the trafficking, gun running and whatever else they get up to. (I’m afraid I’m still in the era where Al Capone ruled the roost, so I suspect I’m a wee bit out of date when it comes to organised crime).

Graham-Dixon took as his focus the 2002 theft of two paintings from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. While neither painting was one of Van Gogh’s best known, they were historically very important; his first oil painting (Seascape at Scheveningen) and a picture of a Lutheran church which was dedicated to his mother. The latter painting, if I’m honest, reminded me an awful lot of his masterpiece Church at Arles, in its composition and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to find that he had one in his mind when he painted the other.

The fact is that even for criminals who wouldn’t know a Van Gogh from a Vermeer or a Rembrandt from a Raphael still understand that there is money in it; as Graham-Dixon himself points out, criminals trade using “the 10% rule”, meaning that if a painting is worth £100,000 they will trade it for £10,000. More importantly, under Italian law, criminals can return or sell their assets for a reduction in sentence; having a couple of Van Goghs under the kitchen floor (where the Van Goghs were found in 2016) could halve a sentence. So museum-quality art is considered quite the insurance policy for the criminal in the know.

Sadly, the overwhelming majority – almost all, in fact – of art thefts result in significant damage to the paintings, because they are simply not kept in optimum conditions. Fortunately, the two Van Gogh paintings suffered minimal damage – a small patch of paint had flaked off the seascape – but some are almost completely ruined by the damage suffered from endless trading and being kept in poor conditions. The fact that any are (a) recovered or (b) restored is frankly amazing.

Having learned all this, I now understand that there is nothing glamorous about art theft; it’s a nasty, vicious business and involves hardened criminals. The likes of Thomas Crown really are figments of the imagination.

The Strange Life of Dido Belle

The BBC really are earning their licence fee at the moment, in my opinion. Some of the drama is top notch and I’m yet to be disappointed by BBC4 (except for the reruns of Top of the Pops – I don’t need to be reminded how little taste I had growing up). In fact, it was on BBC4 that I learned the fascinating story of Dido Belle, the illegitimate daughter of a British naval admiral and an African slave.

There is much that is distasteful about British history and the slave trade is a significant part of that. What still irritates me is that people still seem unable to tell the difference between slavery and the slave trade, indicating that the former was abolished in 1807. It wasn’t. Slavery was abolished in England and Wales in 2015; it was the trade in slaves which was abolished in 1807. This means that you could still own slaves if you inherited them (as property, they could be bequeathed in a Will), but you couldn’t buy or sell them. If you are going to discuss history, please try and get it right.

This is an important point, because Dido’s great uncle was (at that time) the Lord Chief Justice of England, and some of his decisions were instrumental in the trade in slaves being abolished. Indeed, in his own Will, Lord Mansfield LCJ granted Dido her freedom (as she was otherwise still a slave, even though his own nephew’s child) – thereby ending her status as chattel and granting her, for want of a better expression, personhood. Although a servant, Dido was considered more a companion to Lady Elizabeth Murray, another (but legitimate) niece of Lord Mansfield, and also helped with the household accounts and occasionally as Lord Mansfield’s secretary – but she did not dine with the family and did not appear in society. She was in a difficult position, as she was the child of a nobleman (and so could not mix with the staff) but she was too different (being black) to be fully part of the family.

Lord Murray did his best for her; she was well educated, housed and clothed in luxury and given a very generous allowance; her portrait, alongside that of Lady Elizabeth, still hangs in Scone House, the Earl of Mansfield’s seat just outside Perth. It reflects her status perfectly; elegantly and expensively dressed yet standing behind her companion. As a portrait of an individual from an ethnic minority, it is quite unique for its time and it is that rarity that allows us to consider Lord Mansfield’s – and Dido’s – role in the abolition of the slave trade in Britain.

Mary Delany’s Botanical Collages

I blame the Savoy for this. In the atrium, just before you go into Kaspar’s restaurant, they have a room filled to the rafters with the most wonderful artwork. The large feature painting was a portrait of the Queen, but my eye was caught by five small pictures on the lintel above the entrance to the restaurant. I am ninety nine percent convinced that they were original Mary Delany botanical collages, made in the early 1770s out of coloured paper on a black background. The majority of her works – of which there are 938 in total – are in the British Museum and are incredibly fragile, so it is wonderful to see some “in the flesh” as it were.

Mary Delany was born in 1700 to an army colonel, and her uncle was Baron Lansdowne. She was married twice, firstly to a man over forty years her senior and, after his death, to an Irish clergyman, Patrick Delany. It was after becoming a widow for the second time at the age of sixty eight that Mary Delany started work on what she called her “paper mosaicks”, which she continued until her eyesight failed – by which time, she was in her late eighties.

As Mary and her late husband were both interested in botany, she made sure that her collages were as accurate as possible, using layers of sheets of tissue paper to create shades of leaf and petal appropriate to whichever plant she was trying to represent. It is thought that she dissected the plant to ensure her accuracy, but her collages are nevertheless incredibly detailed.

She also corresponded with many of the leading figures of the time, such as Fanny Burney, Jonathan Swift and Sir Joseph Banks – who created Kew Gardens – and her letters offer an equally detailed picture of polite society of the time as her collages do of polite society’s gardens.

Forgotten Old Movies

I’ve found a television channel that seems to show old black and white movies that have slipped through the historical net and ended up forgotten. In some cases, it’s quite justified but I’ve seen a couple of films lately that are absolutely remarkable, with well-known actors and good scripts. I’m baffled why they’ve ended up on some obscure satellite channel rather than being on mainstream TV, even if it on a weekday afternoon. I know I’d rather watch an old film than yet another run in with Jeremy Kyle.

The first film I caught was Suddenly!, a 1954 film noir starring Frank Sinatra as a gangster hired to assassinate the president (given the date, I’m assuming it’s Eisenhower). The majority of the action takes place in two rooms – and would probably be quite easy to adapt as a stage play – but the script is excellent. Sinatra and his henchmen have commandeered a house to set up the gun in readiness for the arrival of the President at a sleepy California town, as the house has a perfect view. It soon becomes clear that Sinatra’s character is a psychopath who kills for the fun of it, and the actual target is irrelevant to him. The script is taut, the dialogue is sharp and the acting is top notch. Given that Sinatra was nominated for an Oscar for this movie, it’s pretty criminal that (1) I’ve never heard of it before and (2) it’s only been shown on TV on this back of beyond channel.

The other film I’ve come across is also a film noir, a 1947 psychological thriller starring Edward G Robinson called The Red House. It’s not a gangster movie, but has some wonderfully gothic elements surrounding a derelict house in woods owned by a handicapped farmer. If you’re familiar with the genre, you could probably work some of the plot out, but given its age it’s actually really exciting. It’s a good story with an excellent cast who do extremely well with the relatively poor script. Again, this is a great afternoon film that seems to have been buried under the blockbusters, and it’s a great shame.

I’m hoping that I catch up with some other cracking old movies, because they really are worth watching if you like sparkling scripts, well-dressed actors and plots that don’t rely on special effects.

A Blind Spot for Feathers

I read somewhere that the US Government is trying to overturn the Migratory Birds Treaty Act, which would mean that corporations would no longer be penalised for harming wildlife. An exhibition to raise funds to mount a legal challenge opened in New York, and illustrates very clearly why the Act was passed in the first place. Many birds were pushed to the brink of extinction – and beyond – for their ornamental feathers, which were sought after by fashion houses and milliners. Steve Backshall made the same point when he wrote about the birds of paradise in Papua New Guinea; their numbers still haven’t recovered.

I do wonder if people have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to feathers and their origins. I find feathers almost everywhere – in craft sets (my daughter loves them), in bedding, in winter coats and jackets, in jewellery, in costume (feather boas are the most obvious, but shoes as well) – frequently dyed garish colours or marketed as “down”. Most eider, duck or goose down comes from the feathers of birds slaughtered for meat, which I suppose is better than being wasteful, but it’s hardly cruelty free. Craft feathers (for example) I know very little about the origins of, but I doubt very much they are from the average pigeon. Marabou feathers – often found in boas or on shoes or slippers – are from a species of stork that is rapidly becoming endangered.

I have a substantial collection of found feathers – mainly from pigeons, but with the odd magpie and crow for a bit of variety – but I’m reluctant to wear them in any way in case I’m seen as promoting this appalling practice. It’s a real dilemma, because I really like my feathers and I’ve tried very hard not to hurt any birds in the process (although I can’t talk for next door’s cat). For now, my feathers are staying in the feather pot until I can decide what to do with them.

Breakfast at the Savoy

Because, of course, one simply has to at least once in one’s life. I was fortunate that this was a birthday gift from my boss – and I liked it so much, I have resolved to go again, just to treat myself. It was, I think, a combination of factors that made this breakfast stick in my mind: my fiftieth birthday; a wonderful winter morning, bright and fresh; the fact that both my grandfather and aunt worked at the Savoy when I was very young; wonderful artworks on the walls into the restaurant; and simply amazing food. The service was exactly what you would expect from a major London hotel – absolutely spot on, nothing too much trouble – and the helpings were surprisingly generous.

I breakfasted in Kaspar’s, the seafood restaurant which now occupies the space previously home to the River Restaurant. The large windows on the far side of the restaurant (away from the door) have the most wonderful views of the Thames. The interior, like the rest of the hotel, is decorated in Art Deco style, and it wouldn’t surprise me to find out quite a lot of it is original. Between the restaurant and the main hotel foyer is a wonderful atrium with an Art Deco stained glass ceiling – I think this is where quite a few afternoon teas are served. I would certainly love to have afternoon tea there – it’s on my list of things to do, along with a round the world cruise and a trip on the Orient Express.

For breakfast, I had pink grapefruit juice, coffee, toast and preserves, and poached eggs Florentine on a bed of asparagus. It doesn’t sound like very much written out like this, but I can assure you, it was a very filling breakfast. This was just my choice – I could have had apple, orange, or cranberry juice, my coffee any which way – or tea if I’d preferred. My toast was granary, but I could have had white bread or a combination, the preserves were orange marmalade, strawberry jam and honey. The list of dishes for the main part of the breakfast went to two pages. Expensive, yes, but I personally think it’s worth every penny.

I really did fall in love with the experience of dining at the Savoy. It was a real treat, partly because it’s not something I do a great deal, but it felt so luxurious and special. I felt special as well (and not just because it was my birthday). It was a world away porridge and tea in my local Pret a Manger – and I loved every minute of it.

Hope Not Opium

Al Jazeera is rapidly becoming my news channel of choice if I want to catch up on global news (and weather – always interesting), since the BBC seem to be either Eurocentric – by which I mean France, Germany or Russia – or obsessed with Donald Trump; and if I’m going to be honest, I’m utterly sick of him. I was surprised that it’s not completely focused on the Arab world, although it does cover the area in depth, but I’ve learned more about the rest of the world lately than I have in ages from the BBC.

For example, I caught a wonderful piece about how villagers in rural Afghanistan are being encouraged to keep bees and harvest honey instead of growing poppies and harvesting opium. Since the start of the war in 2001, opium poppies have rapidly become the cash crop of choice, as the returns on opium can be lucrative – the British realised this when they conducted the Opium Wars against China in the late 1800s. However, there were a number of interesting points that I learned from this report.

Many Afghan women (especially in rural areas) are not allowed to work outside the home. However, it seems that many village elders consider beekeeping housework, and consequently, many women are starting their own businesses keeping bees and marketing the honey. One young woman interviewed started three years ago with a small loan and one hive; she now has five hives, repaid her loan in full after the first year and is now making twice as much money per annum as the average Afghan. No wonder they are taking to it with a vengeance. It is hoped that at some point in the future, Afghan honey will be available internationally.

Honeybees are globally endangered so I think anything that promotes their care should be encouraged – and anything that knocks a hole in the global opium trade can only be a good thing. I hope this is something that can be encouraged in other developing areas, as it would not only help the honeybees, but also promote global biodiversity and hopefully find a way to bring these rural populations out of crushing poverty.

Du Maurier – The Birds’ Other Stories 2

THE LITTLE PHOTOGRAPHER

One of the ladies with whom I work is obsessed with class. If someone annoys her, it’s all because of class and privilege. Like me, she is staunchly working class and to us it’s often obvious that the “higher classes” have a very different outlook on life. This story has a very strong class element but it’s the “just desserts” aspect that I found particularly pleasing, especially as it had an unpromising start.

The majority of the action takes place somewhere on the Riviera, at a beach resort where a Marquise is on holiday with her two children and their nanny. She’s wealthy, bored and attractive and although she doesn’t actively seek a lover, her husband is more focused on his business than his wife. The little photographer is club-footed (well, it didn’t do Byron any harm) and although he works as a semi-professional photographer, he also takes pictures in his spare time of the landscape, the sea and the local wildlife.

One thing leads to another and…

I’m not going to give the end away, because I have to admit I found it quite delicious. If you believe that all actions have consequences – no matter how remote – and that nobody is untouchable, you will love it. It reminded me a lot of The Talented Mr Ripley, despite not having any similarities of plot or location – it’s vintage, it’s glamorous, it’s exotic and very, very wicked.

KISS ME AGAIN STRANGER

I was amazed to discover that this short story had also been filmed, this time starring a young Leonard Nimoy – presumably before he gained immortality as Spock – in the lead role. The story itself is simple and takes place over one evening; a shy young mechanic, finding himself at a loose end in London, goes to the pictures and ends up on an impromptu date with one of the usherettes. Falling madly in love (at first sight), what he discovers the following day changes everything.

Which, if you’re a suspicious old bat like me, has probably given the game away – but there is very little in the story that actually does so until the last couple of pages. Unfortunately, like other stories in this collection, it hasn’t aged very well although I think the fact that it is set in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War actually works in the story’s favour – I suspect that the filmed version moved it to contemporary (early 1960s?) times and changed the location.

I must admit to guessing the twist wrong, although I got the suspect right – well, that was always going to be obvious really. It does make me miss the ice creams and orange juice I used to get at the cinema when I was a kid. Unfortunately the days of two features, an intermission, ice creams and drinks for less than a pound are long gone – you need a second mortgage for the cinema these days. I wonder if my obscure TV channel that shows old movies will think about putting this one on in the future. I’d quite like to see what they’ve changed.

THE OLD MAN

After reading six of Daphne du Maurier’s short stories one after the other, you would think I would have learned not to take things at face value. Clearly I haven’t, because the last paragraph of this wonderful short story completely took me by surprise. It really wasn’t what I thought it would be.

It is, essentially, the story of a family observed by a man who visits a riverbank regularly. The family live near the river, and he watches the couple as they bring up a family of four. He has given them names, but the son, in particular, is the focus of the story as his relationship with his family is much more dysfunctional. The story ends as tragedy strikes and the twist is revealed.

I really cannot say any more because that really will give the game away. It’s a beautifully dramatic little story, a perfect length and seductively told. Aside from The Birds, I think it is probably the best story of the lot. If you can, do try to pick it up and read this – and let me know if you worked out the twist before the end.