A few months ago my book pile was at the point of toppling over. Now it needs replenishing. (Nothing like browsing and buying books to reenergise the soul). A sense of achievement reigns over and I can look back and consider what I’ve read. Most were good; a couple excellent and there were a couple I could have done without. The latter were both psychological thrillers which, I’ve decided, are categorically not my preferred genre but were benignly recommended so I felt obliged to stick them out. I appreciate the plots are well thought through but in my humble opinion this over compensates for a lack of decent writing. Clunky descriptions, far too many adjectives, over sensational endings to each short chapter create a cartoon strip narrative without the distraction or excitement of comic book pictures. Suffice it to say, both titles were on the best seller list for ages so I accept I’m in a minority. (Nothing new there, then).

Here are three I’ve really, really enjoyed. I’d award each of them 📚📚📚📚📚 in my own book rating system.

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar
The childhood memoir of BBC Wildlife presenter, Chris Packham describes in vivid detail his early encounters and the obsession he has continued to have with the natural world. Chris, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at the age of 44 also details his excruciating school days, of not fitting in and how, at the age of 14, he took solace from the confusing world of people and escaped by hand rearing a baby kestrel. This obsessive association would affect the rest of his life, with almost devastating consequences. Packham’s prose sings off the pages. It is typically intense, brilliant and raw; in turns hilariously funny and desperately sad. It is both brave and honest. Whether he wrote this as an intentional cathartic experience or not, he gives the reader an insight into the extraordinary world of the autistic brain. Even though there are parts that make for uncomfortable reading, I loved every word.
Since I read his book, a documentary about Chris, “Asperger’s and me” has aired on the BBC. He is patron of the National Autistic Society and has raised awareness of this debilitating condition and its associated daily struggles in this completely frank glimpse into his personal life. Seeing him as himself instead of the presenter we all think we know was a sobering experience. It made me love him all the more, realising just how much effort he has to put into his working life when he’d much rather be walking his dog in the woods.

 

Walking Home 
Poet Simon Armitage attempts the Pennine Way in reverse; that is, walking from Scotland to his home town of Marsden in Yorkshire. Aficionados of this route travel from south to north so that the prevailing winds are following them. Armitage undertakes to complete the walk in a fortnight, taking no money with him, pledging to earn his keep en route by giving poetry readings.

His lugubrious progress, dogged by awful weather and slowed by folks who join him for parts of the route, is single-mindedly determined. There is no doubting that the 270 miles over tough terrain is a hard slog and then to spend his evening reading poetry to an assembled throng in return for his bed and board is often the last thing he wants to do but he relates his journey in a light, darkly humorous tone, which makes for easy reading.

 

The Optician of Lampedusa
A true story of an ordinary couple from a small island in the Mediterranean who get caught up in an international tragedy and how the repercussions of this affects the rest of their lives. Told in stark prose by award winning journalist Emma Kirby, the opening chapter with its description of six friends embarking on a much relished fishing trip and what they come across will stay with the reader long after the completion of the book. Originally attracted to what they assume is the sound of excited seagulls, the full horror unfolds as the fishermen draw closer to discover hundreds of terrified people threshing about in the water after the vessel which had promised to transport them to the safety of Europe capsizes. As the friends call the coastguards they desperately try to rescue as many men, women and children as they can but realise their attempts are futile; the coast guards are slow to arrive. The people they left behind will haunt them forever. The Optician of Lampedusa is not an easy read by any means but it is an  essential one.

Are there any books that you’ve read lately that you would award 📚📚📚📚📚? I need to go on a book binge.

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After the hiatus…

Haven’t been blogging much of late. You might have noticed. Due to major engineering works on my train line into London during the whole of my long summer holiday,  I was effectively grounded. They may well have been improving the platform lengths at Waterloo but this caused my cultural growth to be temporarily truncated. I wanted a break and I didn’t particularly want to write so I turned my focus homeward and spent my entire summer decorating, gardening and up-cycling old furniture. I had a thoroughly enjoyable five weeks, rolling out of bed straight into painting clothes, hair unbrushed and just getting on with it. More about that another time – I really must get back to some writing now the darker evenings  are drawing closer – but for now, here’s a post I found yesterday, semi-forgotten and half written in my WordPress draft box. 

And so it came to pass that, with temporary membership in hand, I left Sissinghurst (see previous post) and wended southwards to Lewes. Now Nationally trussed and fully paid up with guide book in glove compartment, I decided to check out Virginia Woolf’s house.

The journey took me through some stunning Sussex countryside and as I bowled happily along the A27, listening to my Rolling Stones compilation with my intended destination only a few miles away, I remembered somewhere else I needed to see first. A couple of years ago I visited Charleston – the beautiful home of Bloomsbury Group artist Vanessa Bell and, not so coincidentally, the sister of Virginia Woolf.  The place was so enchanting that I ran out of time to see nearby Bewick church, the interior of which was decorated by Vanessa, her son Quentin Bell and her lover, Duncan Grant.

I turned off the main road down a very narrow country lane and found the tiny church behind an old stone wall.

There was no one about; I had the place to myself.

From the outside, the building looks pretty much like any other small rural country church, but inside is a wonder to behold.

Not only are the walls adorned with these fantastic murals, the pulpit also retains its original Bloomsbury design. 

Pleased I’d made the minor detour, I sallied forth (I’ve always wanted to say that: it seems to fit in here) to the tiny village of Rodmell, just south of Lewes in East Sussex. It was devilishly difficult to find. Usually there are plenty of brown signs indicating a tourist attraction but there were none.  I’d consulted the map before I’d set off. When I say map, I mean a paper one. I don’t have or want a Sat Nav although I do use Google Maps to help plan a journey beforehand but on the road I stick to my trusted old, much thumbed, AA version that is unravelling from its spring binder. The old-fashioned way worked a treat. At the end of a narrow village lane, encrusted with soil deposited by recent tractor wheels, I discovered Monks House, the 17th century country retreat of Virginia Woolf and her husband, Leonard.

The house is small and unassuming, set in a garden which was a riot of colour when I visited. Bought by Virginia and her husband during the 1920’s as a bolthole from their increasingly busy London life, the couple added to and improved the house over the years until in 1940, they began living there full time after their London apartment was damaged during wartime bombing.

The living room is a mismatch of colour, pattern and styles…but it works.

 

The delicate painting on the backs of these dining chairs is the work of Virginia’s sister, Vanessa Bell.

And I can’t resist a jumble of plates and miscellanea on an old dresser.

Virginia’s bedroom is approached by its own door from the outside – an extension to the original building. One immediately gets the sense of her own private domain. It is a shame that none of the books filling the shelves actually belonged to Virginia – especially as the volunteer guide cheerily informed me that when the Trust took the place over the house was crammed full of the couple’s reading material: it literally was stacked all over the place, their shelves having long since proved inadequate. On closer scrutiny of the books  displayed, I discovered that most of them were titles printed after Virginia’s death. This kind of lack of attention to detail really infuriates me so when, later on, I was wandering around the garden and another kindly volunteer, dressed as who I can only assume was supposed to be Lytton Strachey, asked me if I’d like to listen to his reading of part of one of Virginia’s novels, I declined.

Above – two views of the stunning garden and out to the orchard behind. Beyond this is the river where, on 28 March 1941, Virginia drowned herself by wading out, her pockets filled with pebbles.

This painting of Virginia by her sister, Vanessa Bell, hangs in the living room of the house. I wondered what her state of mind was when it was painted. She has a troubled look doesn’t she? She struggled with depression all her life.

As I left the peaceful village of Rodmell and drove home on a glorious early summer evening, I pondered the link between depression and the highly creative. It seems to haunt so many people who have brought great art (in whatever form) to the world. I found this article which made interesting reading.

There is, it seems, a high price to pay for prolific creativity.

Now back to my furniture…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was half term a few weeks back. The SSF was away (on some sort of endurance test to northern climes, as it turned out) and I had unmitigated freedom to contend with. On a whim, I set about redecorating the kitchen. I like painting and I like orderliness. I was orderly. I was methodical. I wrapped my brushes in cling film every evening. Things were going surprisingly well until, after flicking through a few home design magazines, I had the brilliant notion of a ‘feature wall.’ I tried a few test pots out on designated wall, creating a Kandinsky-ish effect. The results were hideous. None of the shades I had chosen remotely resembled those advertised. This spontaneous need for colour injection had slowed my progress. Hastily I covered the mess with a calming neutral and decided an outing was required.

I have a list of Places-I’ve-Been-Meaning-To-Visit. Checking through this by now extensive directory, the thought occurred that several sites I had highlighted belong to the National Trust. So, quicker than you could spit at the mention of Michael Gove, our new Environment Secretary (latterly the destroyer of our education system as we knew it), I performed a complete moral U-turn and decided to sign up for membership. I can’t believe I’m even admitting this, so critical of this institution have I been in the past. And still am and probably still will be.

It didn’t start well.

To explain fully the signing up scenario I’ll have to confess to a recent personal event. I had a birthday. A fairly monumental one as it happens but one that comes with a few welcome perks such as free prescriptions and eye tests, a national rail card and reduced price entry to practically everywhere. Everywhere it would seem, except the National Trust.

After a lengthy drive eastwards to deepest Kent one morning, I arrived at my first planned property intending to join up there and then. However, wielding my driver’s licence as proof of age cut no ice with Miss Twinset who filled in my particulars. She very sweetly and ever so slightly smugly told me that to qualify for a Trust discount one has to have been a member previously for five consecutive years.

Unusually I held my tongue, bit my lip and whatever else most people do in situations such as this while thinking that with age must come acceptance. I imagine if I’d have had a membership of anywhere for five consecutive years then the chances are I’d have done everything on offer pretty much to death anyway: what would be the point of a monetary enticement?

I kept quiet. The new old me signed up meekly and, clutching my temporary pass in my gnarled old hand, I picked up a welcome pack which, I was horrified to discover, included an emblematic sticker for my car. I had now well and truly joined the ranks of those who frequent gift shops to buy local jam and tins of themed biscuits.

I had arrived at Sissinghurst Castle Garden, former home of poet and writer Vita Sackville-West and her diplomat and author husband, Harold Nicholson. The couple bought the place in 1930 and set about making a home for their family. Vita developed her love of gardening here and took delight in planting, designing and experimenting. She lived a fairly wild existence, had many liaisons with other women and a decade long affair with Virginia Woolf but always remained married to Harold.

 

 

When she died in 1962, Harold decided that her legacy should be preserved for us all to enjoy and left the place in the hands of the National Trust. I have to say, they’ve done a good job. The place is beautiful. It helped that the sun was shining and the day warm, but I spent two or three hours just wandering around the gardens and taking the long walk around the lake.

I even had time for a quick lunch in the ubiquitous cafe before heading off to the next place on my list. But that’ll have to wait for another day. This membership thing may well catch on.

 

I went to Woking recently. It’s not far by car and I’d read that there was a Henry Moore exhibition showing there. Now, Woking isn’t a place one immediately associates with culture – it has a mediocre shopping mall, expensive parking and a horribly stressful one-way system currently exacerbated  by complicated roadworks. There is, however, a decent theatre and cinema complex but you have to wade through a phalanx of overly large folk eating their way through super-sized meals in a ‘food court’ full of fast food outlets. It always strikes me as odd that these bulky types, noshing their way through zillions of calories, tend to favour sports clothing: tracksuits, leggings and t-shirts that must surely contain a Lycra percentage, so tight are they stretched across their ample stomachs. Why is that? I’m fairly certain that the sportswear isn’t fulfilling its intended function.

Sorry, I’m straying off topic.

I was headed for the Lightbox. This is Woking’s arts venue and it occurred to me that I’d been there once before, years ago, when I took Son (aged about twelve) to an exhibition about Surrey during WW2. Why I haven’t been back since is a mystery…the place is a light and lively proactive three story area stuffed full of ever changing exhibitions and workshops for school parties with a very acceptable looking cafe area in the foyer where any suggestion of chips with Lycra is thankfully absent.

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I was amazed that entry to the Henry Moore cost me just £3 – which also allows me entry into any exhibitions at the Lightbox FOR A WHOLE YEAR. While I couldn’t believe this my gob was even more smacked when the young lady behind the till mentioned apologetically that if I lost the entry card she had just given me, I’d have to pay £5 to replace it. This must be the best value exhibition centre IN THE WORLD.

The Henry Moore show ‘Sculpting from Nature’ concentrated on inspiration he drew from his surroundings– studies of shells, feathers and bones. The collection included drawings, maquettes, studio materials and working models plus three or four of his monumental sculptures, all loaned by the Henry Moore Foundation.

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From a very young age, Henry Moore was an avid collector of natural things and at the Lightbox show there is a central cabinet filled with some of his precious finds. It’s easy to spot how these organic shapes – from driftwood and shells to shards of flint – were transformed into his iconic work that is so distinguishable today.

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An informative archive black and white film, playing on a loop looks into the work of one of Britain’s most famous contemporary sculptors and there are shots of Henry walking around his garden at Perry Green – a place I visited several years ago with WF1 and which I think now requires a return.

But my tour of Woking’s Lightbox was far from over, for on the third floor was another fascinating exhibition. The Ingram Collection of Modern British Art was commemorating the one hundredth anniversary of the artist John Minton (a new name to me) who was inspired by the British Neo-Romanticism movement of which John Piper and Graham Sutherland were major figureheads. Alongside Minton’s works were those of his contemporaries, John Craxton, Julian Trevelyan and Alan Reynolds, none of which I was familiar. I love discovering new things.

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Two Fishermen, 1949 by John Minton (1917-1957)

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Thames Houseboats, The Weir 1963, by Julian Trevelyan (1910-1988)

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I am With Child, 2008, by John Craxton (1922-2009)

According to Art Fund’s director, Stephen Deuchar, Chris Ingram is one of the most active and thoughtful collectors of modern British art today. Well, I’ll agree with that – I had a bonus hour wandering around a virtually empty gallery, enjoying the work of many painters I’d never heard of. Thanks to Chris Ingram, I say.

And thank you, Lightbox. As I left, I snapped this statue outside the main entrance. It shows author HG Wells, who moved to Woking in 1895 and wrote his most famous novel ‘War of the Worlds’ while living in a house on Maybury Road.

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On the journey home I cogitated over other famous Woking residents and it came to me that the Modfather, Paul Weller, hails from here. If you’re in the dark as to who I’m talking about – remember The Jam from the early eighties? Remember one of their hit singles,  Town Called Malice? Paul Weller wrote that song about Woking, his childhood home.

Just how diverse can one town be?

 

Henry Moore Sculpting from Nature runs until 7 May

Ingram Collection runs until 26 March

Lightbox, Woking.

 

 

 

Only in England

I’ve recently been lamenting the lack of any decent blogging fodder so I cheered up no end when presented with a little gift this morning courtesy of breakfast news: the urge to share proved irresistible.

Steve Bloom, an independent second-hand bookseller from Hawes, a tiny village in the Yorkshire Dales, hit national headlines this week because he dares to charge people 50p to browse in his shop, Bloomindales. (Get it? Bloom–in–Dales? The story gets better).

Steve generously offers to refund the browsing fee should a purchase ensue but the local parish council are up in arms because, according to various media reports, they have had twenty complaints in four years (good grief, how do they cope?) about Mr Bloom’s rudeness when customers refuse to cough up. He even called one man ‘a pain in the arse.’ Amazingly, opinion on this earth shattering news is divided. Some folk seem outraged that a nominal fee is required – haven’t they ever been to a craft fair? Here in Surrey it’s quite usual for a £10 entry fee to be charged – and there’s no refund under any circumstances, not even if you clear the knitted animal stall right out.

Now dubbed the Basil Fawlty of booksellers and the rudest shopkeeper in Britain, Mr Bloom can probably look forward to celebrity status and a long line of customers just waiting to be insulted. After all, there are now Fawlty Towers themed events which command top dollar. Why not Bloomin’ Bad-tempered Books?

Should we be expected to pay-to-browse? Mr Bloom has conceded to a sign on his door detailing his 50p eccentricity. Is it eccentric? Perhaps he’s just brilliant at marketing and all this adverse publicity will get the punters pouring in.  I do hope so.

So – what do you think? While you’re making up your mind, here’s a bit of vintage Basil to remind us all of what it is to be British. Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

Tis the season…

I wonder why it is that, however carefully you pack away the Christmas lights each year, you end up wrestling with a tangled mass of wires before draping them over the tree to discover that they’ve decided not to work. They worked fine during the plug-in test in their jumbled state. This is one of life’s many little irritations and reasonably resolvable after checking the efficacy of each individual bulb but it is a seasonal time-waster.

I managed to avoid one of the stressful Christmas traditions this year – that of actually going out and buying the tree in the first place. For once, last year’s tree has been flourishing, potted up in the back garden, requiring very little maintenance other than the occasional watering. Because I have to have a real tree – and I’m very determined about this – nothing will incite me to unfold a fake tree from my attic – the task of selection and carriage falls to me. Many a year I have suffered scratches to face and arms as I force the shapeliest spruce I can find into my modest hatch-back.

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So with the tree decorated, all presents wrapped and cards written, unusually I had time on my hands so, as you do, I hemmed a pair of curtains. Now, this might not sound like much but let me tell you, my sewing box and I are distant acquaintances. It sees the light of day occasionally if a button goes astray but coming out as part of some sort of enjoyable leisure activity is, frankly, risible.

I put this down to the trauma I suffered as a child in my first year at secondary school at the hands of our sewing mistress, Mrs Gorrill. She was a sour-faced little woman, always dressed in black (I think it may have been taffeta – whatever it was, it rustled) and she would rap us over our knuckles with her pinking shears if the stitching on our gingham cookery aprons wasn’t neat enough. My knuckles that term were red raw and I spent much of the time in that sewing room unpicking my sub-standard effort gazing across to the adjacent hut where the boys were doing technical drawing, wondering why girls were excluded from learning about perspective.

We were relegated to ‘domestic science’ which I reckon was only a generation away from ‘housewifery.’ I wasn’t much better in the cookery room, either. I remember my Swiss roll unravelling and ending up on the floor and being told off for pointing a saucepan handle over a hot ring when, in my defence, I’d been taught at home to angle handles away from the edge so that smaller siblings wouldn’t reach up and tip molten liquid over themselves. I think the teacher burned her hand on that handle as she was reprimanding me…hadn’t she heard of oven gloves?

These days cookery is called ‘Food Technology’ and anyone is allowed to take it as a subject, although its current status has gone the way of many of the more useful subjects on the national curriculum and has been savagely down-graded in favour of the academic subjects. While students are still required to make (in my opinion) unnecessary culinary items – fresh pasta, for instance, whoever is going to make their own pasta in halls of residence? – for some pupils, creating dishes in the kitchen is what they excel at and should be given as much kudos as an A star in English or Maths.

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Little Mai from the Moomins looks just like my old sewing teacher

But what am I thinking? This wasn’t meant to turn into an education based rant. I simply wanted to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Have fun, enjoy yourselves – and cheers to another blogging year!

 

 

Funny Shorts

No, the title doesn’t refer to the wearing of hideously patterned Bermudas: just a couple of moments that amused me recently and which I thought were worth sharing.

I was on my way to lunch with WF1 when I spotted this. Other road users must’ve thought I was some sort of mad woman as I laughed away to myself, veering off the road when I could safely park up, walk back and take a snap.

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It’s great, isn’t it? There are definitely some cases where the absence of proof reading or checking is vital to our well-being. It certainly made me feel better. Thank goodness for illiteracy.

I was obviously in frivolous frame of mind that day because not much further on I saw a homemade poster taped to a road sign advertising a
‘Massive Rug Sale‘.
And I wondered how large a rug has to be before it’s a carpet.