16 July 2017

London: A Trip Report


 Despite being back at home, my dreams are still full of faces rushing past as I walk along streets.  The busyness of London makes my home city feel like a calm village at the moment, but normalcy should resume any day now.  So what did I see and do while visiting London....make a cup of tea and settle in for an epic trip report.

Unpack and then head out into the sunshine is my best advice to avoid slipping into a nap after an overseas flight.  I joined a London Walks tour, with Claire as our guide, to learn more about Piccadilly.  The arcades, the shops, the Queen's chocolatier - Charbonnel et Walker.  And yes, we were gifted with samples!  We also stopped by Floris for a peek at the micro-museum at the back of the shop.  We passed around scent worn by Winston Churchill, Marilyn Munroe and Queen Victoria.


 On my first full day in London I took the tube to Highgate Village and then on to Hampstead, high on my list of favourite places.  I bought a copy of Elizabeth Jane Howard's Sea Change and a very breezy blouse because the weather was much hotter (and very muggy) than I had packed for.


 Strolling along the side streets of Hampstead will fill you with all sorts of ideas for things to spruce up the front walk to your house.  Back at home, I'm wondering how I can fit in a gargoyle without frightening the dog.


 I was beyond thrilled to learn that Professor John Mullan would be chairing a talk on Jane Austen at the British Library.  In less than one minute I was booking a ticket.  Also on the panel were authors Paula Bryne, Kamila Shamsie and Helena Kelly.  Each made a five minute speech about their favourite Austen novel, then there was a jovial debate before taking questions from the audience.  John Mullan's favourite is Emma, if you're wondering....


 I passed by this charming facade and thought I would pop in to say hello to fellow library staff members....only to find out it's a Gentlemen's Club.  They wouldn't have a thing to say about due dates, circulation stats, storytime, or reference items.  Or would they?


 On a very, very hot Wednesday I joined another walking tour, this time in Chelsea.  My umbrella was left behind but on my way to the tube stop I realized it would have been excellent for shade.  Thank goodness for Primark.  A mere £5 bought a very pretty floral brolly that made enough shade to share with a few of the ladies in my group.  We saw houses belonging to the rich and famous and some wonderful architecture.  The detail on this gate of a house near the Embankment was obviously well thought out.

My evening was spent at the Waterstones on Gower.  There was a book talk featuring Georgia de Chamberet discussing her latest book Far to Go and Many to Love, edited pieces by Lesley Blanch.  I knew absolutely nothing about any of the people involved but it was an interesting evening and an opportunity to learn something new.

                                                  

 Eltham Palace is unique in that it was the childhood home of King Henry VIII but was decorated to Art Deco period design by the Courtaulds in the 1930s.  A short train ride from Charing Cross station to Mottingham and then a ten minute walk has you on the grounds.  A short film is shown at the beginning of your tour around the house.  A clip of the Courtauld's pet lemur, Mah-Jong, playing with the dog made me laugh.


 Eltham Palace has been used as a set for various films and television such as I Capture the Castle, Home Front, Brideshead Revisited, and Bright Young Things.  


Virginia Courtauld's bedroom.


A very romantic-looking photo of her bathroom sink.  The tiles above her bathtub were in shimmering gold.


Stephen Courtauld's bathroom sink.  While not as extravagant, it's certainly very cheery!  A beautiful place to visit with its unusual combination of historic features, both old and new.  Don't hesitate to place this small palace on your itinerary.


 Once my visit to Eltham Palace was finished I walked to the bus stop near Eltham Church to make my way to Greenwich.  My first stop was the Queen's House which has recently undergone a renovation.   Inigo Jones's Tulip Stairs made me gasp - this aspect of spiralling staircases is always entrancing.  And so is the art on display here.


 One of the volunteers working at the Queen's House pointed me in the direction of a room and asked if I could point out his favourite painting.  It took me less than ten seconds to hone in on this sassy depiction of Herbert John Everett by William Orpen, whose artwork I keep stumbling across and always enjoy.

 After a full afternoon at Eltham Palace and Greenwich, it was time to head back into central London by way of the Thames Clipper.  A fabulous way to catch the breeze on another very hot day.  During this journey, a young teen sitting beside me had her first glimpse of Tower Bridge.  Her face lit up like a search light and her smile was almost the width of her face.  The very definition of a look of wonder.


 I am nearly a master of making the most of my time.  Well, while in London anyway.  I disembarked at Embankment so I could take in the Perfume exhibit at Somerset House.  Scent was everywhere in the rooms, which was very welcome and uplifting with the heat of the day.  Part of the exhibit was an interactive display meant to trick your senses but it didn't fool me....I won't give any more away.


 After a freshening up it was off to the Theatre Royal, Haymarket for Queen Anne, starring Romola Garai and Emma Cuniffe.  Excellent, riveting, educational, wonderful....see it if you can!


 A day I had been looking forward to for quite some time.  Visiting Virginia Woolf's home in Rodmell, Lewes.  The train from Victoria takes about an hour and you can catch a bus just outside the train station to Rodmell.  Walking down the lane, without another person in sight, is a memory that will last forever.


 Above, the doorway of the conservatory at the back of the house which leads into Monk's House.  Only small groups are allowed into the house at one time, but I was early so there was no waiting.  There was a coachload of people from Spain arriving at 2 pm.


Monk's House is as tranquil as people describe and made me wish I could move right in.  It's beautiful in a way that goes beyond bricks and mortar, lovely art, and colourful gardens.  Spiritual?  I would say so.


Pale colours on the walls, soothing views....


...but if the walls could talk.  Virginia's favourite chair near the fireplace in a room where she entertained Elizabeth Bowen.  Oh to be a fly on the wall.


Table designed by Duncan Grant


THAT painting of Virginia by her sister, Vanessa.  It had just come back from exhibit at the Dulwich Picture Gallery so I was pleased, and relieved, that I was able to see the original.  The postcard of this painting is going on my locker door at work tomorrow.



Virginia's bedroom, much roomier than I was expecting, with a view of the stars from a large window.


Although Monk's House is cosy in its dimensions, I could happily pass away a whole day in this room.


Virginia's writing table in the shed past the back garden.


After drinking in Monk's House and gardens, with a visit to the gift shop to buy a copy of To the Lighthouse (decorated inside with a Monk's House stamp, no less), I explored Lewes.


This doorway leads into the Fifteenth Century Bookshop.  I'm not very big but I had to duck and turn sideways a little to get through the door.  Books are piled everywhere, a bit to the detriment of finding anything.  But when I asked the woman working there if she had a copy of Chatterton Square by E. H. Young she knew exactly where to look, but came up empty.


Turning left out of the bookshop I walked down this steep hill towards the train station.  My Canadian sensibilities wandered to the idea of navigating down here on an icy day.  Does it ever get icy in East Sussex....I suppose it must.


Saturday was the day to get together with my favourite bloggers Mary (Mrs Miniver's Daughter), Simon (Stuck In A Book), and Rachel (Book Snob).  We met at the London Review Bookshop for tea and cake and it ended up feeling a bit like Christmas with everyone exchanging gifts.  One mention that the Oxfam shop nearby had some books by Rose Macaulay on offer and we were off.  Loaded down with gifts and books we then made our way to the Dickens Museum on Doughty Street.  Mary relaxed with a drink and book in the lovely garden café while Rachel, Simon and I had a look around the museum.  A very realistic-looking hedgehog placed near the stove in the kitchen made Rachel jump, and us laugh!  After a long lunch and chat in the shade of the café we said our goodbyes until next time.

In the evening I went mudlarking near the Millenium Bridge.  Watch the tide tables if you try this and keep an eye on your escape route!  After only forty-five minutes of eyeing the surface I found clay pipe stems, pieces of blue and white tile (one shows a small apple, while another a small pagoda), pieces of green and brown ceramic (most likely from tiles), and bits of coloured glass.  This is definitely an addictive activity!


Sunday was my day to travel to Winchester from Waterloo Station.  A friend's sister-in-law lives nearby so we arranged to meet.  Maggie met me at the station and we had a fabulous time touring the city.  Above is the Round Table in the Great Hall, first described in 1155.


You don't see hardware like this every day.


Jane Austen's grave in Winchester Cathedral, the inspiration for this day trip from London.  A beautiful spot, especially on a Sunday with the bells ringing.


With this July being the bicentenary of Jane Austen's death, I imagined throngs of people visiting the Cathedral but that wasn't the case at all.  Perhaps it was a lazy day for a lot of people, in any case...I was thankful.


Wouldn't everyone like to see a sunflower from their bedroom window?


Maggie and I had a poke around the Deanery Bookstall located near the Cathedral but neither of us bought anything.  There was a moment of disappointment, and then relief that we didn't have to carry anything.  Looks like fun though, doesn't it.


We couldn't resist marching right up to this house....and then a man opened the front door on his way out!  He was lovely about having two women gawk at his home and told us it was over five hundred years old.  The house came with his job as Headmaster at the boys' school.  Lucky him!


And then we passed the house in which Jane Austen lived towards the end of her life, and died.  As poignant a scene as it was, there was nothing left to do but head to a café.  This a day I'll never forget.


My time in London was coming swiftly to a close but when better to take a ride in a canal boat then on a hot July morning?  Alighting at Paddington station I walked the path towards Maida Vale and climbed aboard the first canal boat I found that was taking customers.  The fifty minutes it takes to ride this stretch of the canal was an excellent time to take in the vista without exhausting myself.


Ending up at Camden Market was a jarring experience from the leafy squares of Bloomsbury.  I was also feeling a bit hungry so once on the tube I made my way to one of my favourite spots in London...the Wallace Collection.  This painting by Joshua Reynolds (The Strawberry Girl) is also a favourite, sort of in the way we like to be scared during a movie or on a roller coaster.  Is she ill or frightened?  An eerie portrait that has stayed with me since I first saw it a couple of years ago.  Yes, Mary, she's as bilious as ever.

After a browse of the collection I had an excellent lunch in the sun-filled café...Mushroom and Gruyere quiche with a slice of elderflower cake for dessert, and the best cup of tea I've ever had.  The brand is Chash, try it if you get the chance.



 I've heard about cabbie shelters so I was thrilled to discover that this iconic (and historic) structure to buy a cup of tea and light fare has landed right outside Russell Square.


 My last full day in London was the day to visit the Geffrye Museum of the Home in Shoreditch.  Set in an eighteenth century almshouse, the museum features room settings from the 1600s to modern day and some lovely paintings of domestic scenes.  While interesting, the part of this visit I liked best was the garden at the back of the museum.


Oh for a cosy chair, a picnic lunch and a good book.  You could easily sit here for a couple of hours.


The Museum of London has added a new gallery since my last visit here. Alighting at the Barbican tube stop I looked forward to a wander around the People's City gallery (1850s - 1940s). Full of intriguing items from a fascinating era I took a ridiculous amount of pleasure from this mock shop front of a Lyons Tea Room.  I especially loved the waitress cap.  Items from the suffragette movement are another excellent draw for anyone visiting this gallery.

Finishing off my holiday in London was a third book talk, and second at the British Library.  Female Friendships and Creativity with Kate Mosse centred around a new book by Emma Claire Sweeney and Emily Midorikawa called A Secret Sisterhood: The Hidden Friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf.  An intimate gathering chaired by author Amanda Craig, it was just the sort of evening I read about from home and wish I could magically time travel across the miles.  A perfect evening, despite the rain, to cap off every desire during yet another fabulous trip across the pond.

A bookish photo will follow in a few days....



15 June 2017

A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf had much to say about women living in a man's world.  Women could be bought and sold, forced into marriage, work in slavery under the title of 'wife', have education and the vote beyond their reach.  Avenues and opportunity available to sons were nothing more than fantasy for their sisters.  When an aunt dies and leaves Virginia the sum of £500 a year, it's a key that opens a door.

'However, as I say, my aunt died, and whenever I change a ten-shilling note a little of that rust and corrosion is rubbed off; fear and bitterness go.  Indeed, I thought, slipping the silver into my purse, it is remarkable, remembering the bitterness of those days, what a change of temper a fixed income will bring about.  No force in the world can take from me my five hundred pounds.  Food, house, and clothing are mine for ever.  Therefore not merely do effort and labour cease, but also hatred and bitterness.  I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me.  I need not flatter any man; has nothing to give me.'

There were times while reading A Room of One's Own when I struggled to understand what Virginia was trying to say.  Sections rich with a stream of consciousness narrative can be difficult to wade through, but there were so many times when she expressed exactly how I feel.  That this book was first published in 1928, and I'm nodding in agreement in 2017, starkly illustrates there's still room for improvement.

Asked to deliver a paper on the topic of women and fiction, Woolf blends essay with fiction, She expresses the frustration of women who yearn to be educated as equally as their male counterparts.  Today, my contemporaries are still fighting for wage parity with their male colleagues - this in societies where women are 'allowed' to work outside the home.  The freedom to earn money still eludes many women around the world.  But Woolf has room to see the situation from another angle.

'Moreover, in a hundred years, I thought, reaching my own doorstep, women will have ceased to be the protected sex.  Logically they will take part in all the activities and exertions that were once denied them.  The nursemaid will heave coal.  The shopwoman will drive an engine.  All assumptions founded on the facts observed when women were the protected sex will have disappeared - as, for example (here a squad of soldiers marched down the street) that women and clergymen and gardeners live longer than other people.  Remove their  protection, expose them to the same exertions and activities, make them soldiers and sailors and engine-drivers and dock labourers, and will not women die off so much younger, so much quicker, than men that one will say, 'I saw a woman today', as one used to say, 'I saw an aeroplane'.'

I was also struck by Woolf's observation that much of the history of women was never documented because it was mundane.  While men were acknowledged for exploring, inventing, ruling, and acquiring medals in battle, women were raising children, cooking, and cleaning the home.  Raising the next generation to be contributing citizens is taken for granted.  I'm reminded that many women were not paid for the added responsibility and workload of taking in young evacuees during the Blitz in WWII.  Why, it's just women do.

In the last few pages Virginia expresses the importance of being oneself.  Despite outside influences no one holds the key to your mind.  Assigning a fictional sister named Judith to Shakespeare, the author wonders if her creative skills would be encouraged as her brother's were.  Women must continue to support each other and strive to be recognized.  Despite her statement that freedom to write comes with a room of one's own and £500 a year, Woolf acknowledges that 'to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while'.

A Room of One's Own is a book I'll return to again and again.  It's bold, sad, clever, and poignant.  And I was very impressed with Penguin for publishing this book with four blank pages at the back for jotting notes.

Virginia Woolf's desk

26 May 2017

Virginia Woolf by Nigel Nicolson

Visiting Virginia and Leonard Woolf's home, Monk's House, this summer is high on my wishlist.  It has been interesting to read the reviews of visitors who have already made their way to this area of the South Downs.  For some it was a pilgrimage, for others it was simply something to do.  It has struck me as odd to visit such a place and the only comment is about a lack of parking.  A couple of weeks ago I started reading A Room of One's Own, but by page 26 I found myself wondering more about Virginia as a person than concentrating on the words on the page.  There isn't time to read Hermione Lee's detailed biography but Nicolson's book hit the mark perfectly,  And being the son of Vita Sackville-West, the details feel warm rather than clinical.

'Nothing has really happened until it has been described.  So you must write many letters to your family and friends, and keep a diary.'  Virginia Woolf to Nigel Nicolson

I love the image of Nicolson as a young boy, catching butterflies with Virginia Woolf, while she shares her thoughts and ideals.  At one point, while visiting Vita at Long Barn, she questioned the boys in detail about their morning, not accepting short quips in reply.  Observing in detail was a lesson Nicolson never forgot.

Perhaps it was the lack of a smile in photos, her strong opinions, and intimidating writing style that created an image in my mind of a steely no-nonsense woman.  But reading descriptions of Virginia's personal anguish while waiting for reviews, her desire to be heard but shying away when asked to speak, and struggling with a 'constant roar' in the background of her thoughts, reveal the depths of her fragile nature.  Both Virginia and her sister Vanessa endured the loss of their parents, brother, and knowledge of a half-sister in a mental institution.  Left in a household with two stepbrothers who abused the girls, to what degree isn't clear, must have been incredibly unsettling, to say the least.

With a sum of money and property left to the Stephens adult children, they were finally able to cut familial ties with the Duckworth brothers and buy a home in Gordon Square, Bloomsbury.  Although, Virginia was far from ready to join the ranks of party-goers...

'She remained devoted to her few women friends, and only once did she consent to attend a party in the smart world she had renounced.  "I went to a dance last night," she told Violet, "and found a dim corner where I sat and read In Memoriam, while Nessa danced every dance till 2:30."'

Virginia eventual marriage to Leonard Woolf, and their creation of the Hogarth Press was a testament to commitment and perseverance.  I was surprised to learn that in four years of operation the company had a net profit of only £90.    Virginia's journalism was bringing in £100 annually and Leonard's wages as a writer on international affairs were meagre.  But somehow they managed to afford the purchase of Monk's House in 1919 for £700.

'Monk's House would never rate more than one star for bed and breakfast.  O remember it in the Woolfs' days as a simple place, rather larger than a cottage, rather smaller than a house, not shabby exactly, but untidy, with saucers of pet food left on the floor and books on each tread of the narrow staircase.'

I particularly enjoyed finding out the Woolfs referred to the WC as Mrs Dalloway, and Vita Sackville-West's opinion regarding Leonard's plans for the garden by stating 'you can't recreate Versailles on a quarter-acre of Sussex'.  Another wonderful discovery was that Elizabeth Bowen had visited Virginia at Monk's House.  Being slightly in awe of Bowen's writing, knowing she sat by the fire will make my visit there even more meaningful.

As the years moved closer to 1939, and Virginia's depression crept back, it's unbearable to imagine the 'constant roar' coupled with anxiety and uncertainty.  Bombs were collapsing homes in the blink of an eye, there was rationing, the evacuation of women and children, and bleakness.  But even through all this, Virginia uses poetical phrases to describe the scene....

'You never escape the war.  Very few buses.  Tubes closed.  No children.  No loitering.  Everyone humped with a gas-mask.  Strain and grimness.  At night it's so verdurous and gloomy that one expects a badger or a fox to prowl along the pavement.  A reversion to the middle ages with all the space and silence of the country set in this forest of black homes'.

Less than two years later, Virginia drowned herself in the River Ouse, not far from Monk's House.  Her ashes are interred in the garden.

Virginia Woolf, 1939
Photograph by Gisèle Freund

11 May 2017

Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill

'A book which is left on a shelf is a dead thing but it is also a chrysalis, an inanimate object packed with the potential to burst into new life.'

I remember the day this book arrived in the mail and can't believe it was 2009.  Not long after I found a group of people in this blogsphere who had years of experience with authors such as Elizabeth Bowen, Muriel Spark, Penelope Lively, Marghanita Laski, and Dorothy Whipple.  These were the authors hiding in plain sight.  While looking for something to read set in the English countryside there is any number of classics, at the other end of the spectrum, plenty of chic lit.  Once introduced to this Aladdin's cave of literature I ordered title upon title and bought more bookcases.  Now the books sit and wait.

Susan Hill imposed a challenge upon herself to read from her shelves for a year.  As she meanders through her home, browsing titles and pulling out books for a closer look, she recounts the memories associated with her acquisitions.  Being a well-known author, the people Hill comes into contact with take Howards End is on the Landing to a level higher than just a snoop around her shelves.  While on a sleeper train from London to Manchester in 1961....

'But this time is was only Manchester after all, in the company of Katherine Whitehorn, Elizabeth David and Elizabeth Jane Howard, grand-seeming ladies all, and terribly grown-up beside a student in a Marks & Spencer V-necked sweater.  Elizabeth Jane was very kind about my book, and then I talked about student-cooking-on-gas-ring, with Katherine, who had written a book about just that, and Elizabeth David, who had not.'

Like Susan Hill, I rarely read books featuring Australia or Canada, and laughed when just yesterday a customer at the library expressed the same view.  The fact that we were standing in a Canadian library meant we assumed the body language of people sharing a sordid secret, but...you like what you like.  At one point though, I took exception to Hill's broad statement about short stories...'Nobody reads them but people go on buying them'.  I love short stories and stock plenty on my shelves.  Hill mentions that she reads certain stories over and over again from her many volumes so perhaps she meant to imply they're not a popular item.  In any case, she had me reaching for the smelling salts.

Howards End is on the Landing is a book you will want to read with a notebook and pen nearby to jot down interesting titles.  Although, the author would simply underline anything she found interesting but this is something I would never do.  Marking a book, folding down a page, or leaving the book open while face down are activities that separate readers into opposite camps...I digress.   Hill considers The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen to be her masterpiece (which I've read) and The Last September as a favourite (which I haven't).  This also brings to mind one of the intricacies of stocking books - the act of saving books you desperately want to read, but don't, because you can't bear the thought of having an undiscovered piece of writing by an author.  Although, thinking back to a 'find' from Harper Lee's estate, as well as Stella Gibbons' Pure Juliet, perhaps I shouldn't be so precious.

Another behaviour we book lovers seem to have in common is the shelf of books that seemed like a good idea at the time, but don't get much attention after a week.  

'Small hardbacked books bought in the run-up to Christmas or Valentines's or Mother's Day are non-books.  They are about Everything Being Rubbish or how to microwave a budgerigar or where to go before you die, or why Slough is the armpit of the universe, they are little anthologies of love poems or things read at funerals or cartoons about politicians.'

This made me laugh and think of the books I bought on the art of tea, when what I probably wanted at the time was a nice hot cuppa.  There's also a small chapter called Things that Fall out of Books, as a case in point, hiding in my book was a ticket stub from a local theatre for See How They Run.  A reminder of a lovely day out on September 30, 2012.  I know my books will one day end up in someone else's home so I'm passing on the small thrill that comes from a bit of ephemera from the past.  Ticket stubs are tucked into random books on my shelves, read or not, and sometimes the person finding a surprise is me.

If you own a copy of Howards End is on the Landing consider taking it along with you while on holiday this summer.  It's a book lover's delight, particularly if you're a fan of twentieth-century literature.