25 September 2019

London in September


It's been two years since my last visit but it could just as well have been a day.  Children running through the fountain in Russell Square, dogs playing in the park and people having coffee at Caffe Tropea.  There were places I wanted to see again and places to visit for the first time.  No matter how hard I try to keep my pace to a reasonable one, there are just too many fascinating things to do.

Joining a London Walk within a couple of hours of checking in at my B&B is my favourite way to acclimatize to the streets of London.  After a quick change of clothes I walked to the Holburn tube stop for a fact-filled two hour walk around the Inns of Court.  Simon was an excellent guide, pointing out the mock-Tudor architecture, telling us about Charles Dickens the clerk and student of Law, the Knights Templar and bombing raids during WWII.  London Walks are a great value for £10, but not if you try to pay with a note leftover from a previous trip.  Luckily I had a Jane Austen note and would be able to exchange my out-of-date money for new at the Bank of England. 

My email wasn't working properly so I stopped at the Apple store in Covent Garden for some help.  The staff were brilliant and have the patience of saints considering that sorting out my email issue had nothing to do with selling their product.  My provider no longer supports a server in the UK but I had a gmail account that came in handy. Thank you, Frederika!


Visiting the Guildhall Gallery has been on my list of places to visit since last year.  It's an intimate gallery with some pieces by Millais I very much wanted to see.  It was my good luck to arrive just as a tour was about to start.  I highly recommend taking the tour as your guide will point out small details and back stories.  One of my favourite paintings at the gallery is The Garden of Eden (1901) by Hugh Goldwin Riviere, of a couple in love despite class barriers.  Love triumphed in the end and this real-life couple did eventually marry.

Nearby is the Bank of England museum.  It would be easy to miss if you didn't know such a thing exists but this permanent exhibit is well worth your time if you're in the City.  I especially enjoyed seeing some of the first cheques ever written in gorgeous script and seeing ha'pennies, shillings and florins.  You can also hold a bar of gold that weighs worth almost £5000,000!  It's heavy, let me tell you!

Despite promising myself that I wouldn't be heaving a suitcase full of books back home, the way back to my room somehow ended up via Charing Cross Road.  A long and leisurely browse through Foyles, a quick pop into the second-hand shops before dinner and then an early night.


My visit to Charleston Farmhouse was the highlight of my trip.  The weather was blustery with a chilly drizzle but it made the farmhouse feel all the more cosy.  Once I arrived at the train station in Lewes I spied two young ladies getting off the train who had the look of being on a day out.  'Excuse me, but would you happen to be going to Charleston Farmhouse?'  Rachel said 'Yes, would you like to share a cab?'....my plan exactly!  With village bus routes and timetables being what they are it's the easiest way to just get on with your visit.  The first bus to the farmhouse was at 9:30 with the next being at 12:30.   I can't recommend Andrew Burt Taxi Services highly enough....he was incredibly nice and made our travels very easy by arranging to pick us up a few hours later.  The charge was £17 each way for anyone wondering how much to budget for this journey.


Rachel and Suzie bought their tickets for the House and Garden tour while I joined the Extended House and Garden tour that starts in the farmhouse's 16th century kitchen.  I remember our guide telling us to resist touching any of the furnishings but like a distracted student I was busy taking in the painted pantry, the charming geranium on the deep stone window ledge and the Aga.  Photography isn't allowed inside the house so once my memories of the house fade a bit I'll order a souvenir book.


As I went from room to room the overwhelming thought I had was of the people who had walked the floors, climbed the stairs, and sat in the chairs, slept in the beds.  And how peaceful the house was despite at least thirty of us on tours carefully slipping in and out of rooms while trying not to cross paths.  It's easy to see why Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, with children and friends in tow, would have been happy to call this beautiful space in the countryside their home.  Having Virginia just seven miles away at an equally beautiful spot at Monk's House must have been idyllic.

When Rachel, Suzie and I climbed into Andrew's cab for the trip back to the train station, I asked my cab companions if they were tempted to go home and decorate their wood furniture with art.  We all were!  It was such a memorable day made all the better for meeting Rachel, Suzie and Andrew.

Andrew pointed out that Anne of Cleves house (as part of a settlement with King Henry VIII) was within walking distance of the train station.  Well, why not?  The spell of twentieth century Bloomsbury was too fresh to absorb the building's Tudor charms but I am glad to have made the time to visit and the park I passed through on my way was beautiful. 


It was time for something to eat and this wasn't the day for light fare so I ordered a very hearty Hunter's stew at the White Hart Hotel.  If you're familiar with Virginia Woolf's diaries you'll recognize this as the spot where the Woolf's bought Monk's House at an auction.  The train to London was due soon so I made my way back to the train station but would have loved to stay on for another day in Lewes.


My first stop on Thursday morning was the V&A - my favourite.  It's been five years since my last visit so I found lots of fresh things to see.  I loved this woodcut by Gertrude Hermes (1935) called Autumn Fruits.  The art deco jewellery kept me in one spot for a fair bit of time *sigh*.



After lunch I caught the tube to Sloane Square and walked to Chelsea Physic Garden; a beautiful four acre space in London.  My luck for catching tours continues and I would highly recommend making time for one as you find out interesting tidbits about the history of the garden and medicinal uses for various plants.  There's also one or two capable of dispatching an unsavory character if you're planning to write a mystery novel.


 A very large reed sculpture just inside the main entrance gate.....


....and a gracious view for those residents lucky enough to overlook the garden.  One of the beds has a foundation of lava rock brought back from a voyage to Iceland in 1773 as the ship's ballast!  I was hoping an English robin would show itself, here of all places, but no sightings today.


There were no robins to be seen in St James's Park but there were plenty of swans, geese and ducks.


As I was making my way through the park on my way to Piccadilly, this bit of graffiti made me laugh.  After a quick stop at itsu for some sushi and a bit of gift shopping for friends I arrived at Hatchards for a book talk.  Carolyn Trant was in conversation with Maggie Humm about her new book Voyaging Out: British Women Artists from Suffrage to the Sixties.  For far too long we've accepted galleries filled with art by men while work by female artists languishes in storage.  I was speaking with a guide at the Art Gallery of Ontario this past summer.  They've made an effort to balance their exhibits so the tide is turning but how many galleries are actively addressing this issue?  I digress.


I'm waiting for a quieter time to dig into Voyaging Out so I can take it in properly.  Mark, a staff member at Hatchards, gave Carolyn's book a glowing review and loved the way it was written so I'm really looking forward to my read.  Coincidentally, Carolyn is from Lewes so we had a short chat about Charleston Farmhouse.


Friday was my day in Rye, Sussex.  From St Pancras I took the train heading to Margate but alighted at Ashford.  After a wait of around half an hour the train to Rye pulled in; plenty of time for a cup of tea at Costa.  There are lots of little shops in Rye, but for me the afternoon was about the architecture, history, and beautiful landscape.  I do remember thinking that if I got through the afternoon without turning an ankle on the cobbles I would count myself lucky!


For a mere £4 you can climb the clock tower at St Mary's Church.  The stairway leading up was barely wider than my shoulders and there's a small section of ladder to navigate so this won't be to everyone's liking, but if it is - the view is stunning!  I also paid a small admission to visit Lamb House and its pretty garden.  That Henry James was a former tenant is interesting but it was knowing that Rumer Godden lived there for several years that made me want to have a peek.


After spending around four hours strolling around Rye, I made my way back to St Pancras.  Just as I was about to make my way back to my B&B I remembered there was a second-hand bookshop on a canal boat in Granary Square.  Detour!  In less than ten minutes I was on board having a browse.  The prices are higher than those in Oxfam shops but it's not every day you shop for books on a boat.  Granary Square was heaving with people taking in the sunshine and having a glass of wine to kick off the weekend and there must have been twelve stalls selling street food nearby.  Keep it in mind!

After a non-stop week I was ready for a quiet night in.  There's a wonderful Turkish restaurant at the corner of Bloomsbury and Great Russell called Tas so I ordered the lamb kofta, bought a very pretty copy of Vita Sackville-West's Easter Party at the Oxfam shop a few doors away and called it a day.  Watching Coronation Street, An Extra Slice, and Gogglebox while drinking tea in my pyjamas was as welcome as any night out on the cobbles.


Saturday was a picture perfect weather day for my afternoon in Richmond with Mary (Mrs Miniver's Daughter).  Eight or nine years ago we were blog friends but now our blogs don't have much to do with it - we're very good friends.  We met at the train station and just started walking.  We found Virginia and Leonard Woolf's home on Paradise Road where they began Hogarth Press in 1917.

 I spotted a woman walking her twelve year-old Border Collie, a very pretty girl named Cordelia.  We could have chatted about our dogs for half the day but other places beckoned so after a final scratch behind Cordelia's ears, Mary and I were on our way to Petersham Nursuries.


Petersham Nurseries is exactly as I imagined it to be.  Sometimes places don't quite live up to the hype but this spot does.  The flowers and plants are beautiful, the food is delicious and the displays are a feast for the eyes.  The park and pathways leading to this oasis are beautiful as well so I'll definitely be returning to Richmond and Petersham during my next visit to London.


Despite a large section of dining area being off-limits due to a private function there was still plenty of space for the throng of visitors on a busy Saturday.


A bulb vase that resembled a rose hip caught my eye and I knew there would be no end of regret if it didn't come home with me.

After a lovely visit with Mary it was time to part ways until next time.  Once back in central London for a quick bite I walked to Rachel's (Book Snob) beautiful flat.  Having friends to visit really does make London feel like a home away from home.  With only a couple of requests for directions from obliging passers-by I rang the buzzer and was welcomed in with open arms.  Rachel showed me around and I marvelled at the changes she has made during what would have been quite a restoration project.  It's a beautiful, cheery space in a lovely neighbourhood.  And then I bullied my consummate host into entertaining me with something nice on her piano.  If only I'd brought along my pj's and toiletry bag....but sadly I didn't and the night was drawing in.  After a very nice visit Rachel walked me all the way back to my room.


 Sunday was the Northern Line to Hampstead and I purposely chose this day because the sound of the church bells in Hampstead village on a sunny day is a wonderful thing.  This is another oasis in London and an added delight was a painting by Duncan Wright above the mantle and a watercolour by Laura Knight not far away.  Entry is £9 which allows you to roam through the house, enjoy the views from the upper windows and relax in the peaceful garden.  Perhaps not too peaceful for the young mum whose toddler managed to grab an apple off the tree while on dad's shoulders only to have it plummet straight down on her head!  They couldn't stop laughing.....


After popping into the shops on the High Street, a quick turn around Burgh House and a sandwich I took the C11 bus to Primrose Hill.  It's one of those places I keep reading about but have never visited.  On my way to the hill I donated some money to the sweetest girls selling lemonade on the sidewalk for the World Wildlife Fund.  I asked them if I could have directions instead of lemonade.   Their parents couldn't get a word in for their three girls excitedly pointing the way!

 
I did venture into Primrose Hill Bookshop but more out of curiousity than anything.  It's a smaller shop than I imagined with more stock than they have room for so I was content with a quick look around.  Downton Abbey was playing at a cinema near my B&B just after 6 pm so it was time to head to the Chalk Farm tube station, which doesn't take a second glance to realize it's of a vintage....1907 and Grade II listed.


I've nearly always stayed in Bloomsbury but this is the first time I walked to Fitzroy Square to see Virginia Woolf's home at No. 29.  It's a beautiful square and well worth finding.  Hermione Lee's biography on Virginia is on my tbr list so it's helpful to be able to visualize various locations and homes.


 After Fitzroy Square I took the tube to St Paul's and boarded the Thames Clipper at Tate Modern to alight at Millbank for Tate Britain.  Tapping an Oyster card for a boat ride is a nice change from taking the tube and the air is fresher.


 I've cropped William Frederick Yeames painting Amy Robsart not to block out the fact that she's lying at the bottom of a staircase, but because the way he's painted her nightclothes is beautiful.


Gerald Brockhurst's Portrait of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll 1931, stopped me in my tracks.  I don't know anything about the real woman but if I were about to write a book, she would be an inspirational starting point for a central character.

Tate Britain is the gallery to visit if you enjoy twentieth century art.  I thoroughly enjoyed seeing works by Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Winifred Nicholson, Dora Carrington, Stanley Spencer and a familiar face from across the room....Malcolm Drummond's Girl with Palmettes (c1914).  The cafe does a very nice slice of cake and my pot of tea was delicious.  After a nice rest on the patio while watching the looming grey skies get darker by the minute I decided to skip exploring the area and board the next clipper back to Tate Britain.  But would I call it a day....not on your life.


 Not while there's still an hour and a half to explore the British Museum!  A couple of years ago I watched a documentary on the Lewis Chessmen and wanted to see them up close.  They are carved from walrus ivory and whales' teeth and date from approximately AD 1150 - 1200.  These beautiful chess pieces made me wish I could open their glass case and hold each one.  The wax death mask of Oliver Cromwell did not.


My energy stores were starting to wane so I left the keepers of the British Museum to lock up for the night and walked to Covent Garden for dinner.  My table at The Wine Place had a view of a chamber orchestra that were wrapping up their set and then an opera singer took their place.


The salad and wine were delicious!


 A perfect blue sky and warm temperature for my last day in London.  Greenwich is a terrific spot to head to when you want to be around people but have a bit of space as well.  Queen Mary's accommodating view of the Thames would have been even more stunning without the modern day buildings.

The' Polly Higgins ' Extinction Rebellion boat....I remember when this was in the news.


 A last look at Tower Bridge after a full afternoon exploring Greenwich.  I was puzzled by the people watching where the clipper was on the Thames by looking at an app on their phone.  You're missing the scenery!


This was the first time I've visited London and not had a play in mind that I was excited to see.  It did feel like a bit of a hole in my itinerary but then I saw The Souvenir listed at Curzon Bloomsbury.  Perfect!  As a location for art films the cinema room was arranged with fewer rows in a curved line and a small resting place for your glass of wine at each seat.  I loved the film; it wrapped up my last evening in London with a bow.

5 September 2019

Little by Edward Carey

A few months ago a book truck appeared in the staff room at the library with a sign that read 'Help yourself''.  Most of the titles were YA fiction with a spattering of Fantasy, but then I noticed an uncorrected proof copy of Little.  I've never read anything by Carey before but I remembered reading some favourable comments when it was published in 2018.  But does praise count for much if you're not all that bothered about the subject matter?  My personal opinion of Madame Tussaud's waxworks was that they're creepy places filled with spectacles and best avoided.  This book, on the other hand, held my interest from the first page.

'Anne Marie Grosholtz was the name given to that hurriedly christened child, though I would be referred to simply as Marie.  I was not much bigger, at first, than the size of my mother's little hands put together, and I was not expected to live very long.'

Marie was born in France in 1761, an era rife with pitfalls for children.  With her father's hawkish nose and her mother's prominent chin, village women commented that finding a husband wouldn't be easy.  At the age of six, her father is wounded by an ill-repaired cannon backfiring during a parade.  Taking the blast in his face results in the loss of his lower jaw and a decline that leads to his early death.  With no money, Marie's mother relies on connections made with a doctor.  A situation is found and the pair set off on a horse cart  to the home of Doctor Curtius.  Cautiously hopeful that once in a big city mother and daughter would find security, they arrive in Berne to find gloomy rising buildings, narrow and unlit streets.

Doctor Curtius is a tall, slim man with with moist eyes and greasy hair.  His home is spare and full of shadows, a few candles illuminate what looks like body parts on a table nearby.  For Marie's mother, whose mental health has been dangerously eroded, it's all too much.  But the little girl is curious about the figures she now realizes are merely wax models and delights Doctor Curtius by sleeping under his work table at night.  The two become mentor and protege.

Surgeon Hoffman is not at all pleased with Doctor Curtius's hobby of making wax heads and puts pressure on him to continue molding diseased features instead.  Threats are made.  With new light cast on a future doing something he enjoys, Curtius plans his escape with Marie to Paris.  A gentleman called Mercier supplies the name of a woman, recently widowed, who will put them up.

  'Somewhere toward the shrunken middle of the Rue du Petit Moine in the Faubourg San-Marcel was a grim house with a word painted on buckled boards suspended from rusting wires.  The word of this house was TAILLEUR.  In all the windows greasy black material hung; all was parceled up in darkness.  Here a tailor had died.  Mercier reached for the door.  As he pushed it open a bell attached to it sounded twice, a loud noise in all that hush.  It was a sad sound, two dolorous clangs, that seemed to say, That Hurts.'

From the moment Doctor Curtius and the eight year-old Marie cross the threshold of the Widow Picot's house the backdrop becomes slightly macabre.  The widow wallows in her grief, bullies anyone she deems beneath her and rules with an iron fist.   Her son Edmond prefers to keep to himself and out of her way.  Little Marie is send directly to the kitchen as an unpaid servant, something Marie vehemently rails against on a regular basis.  A feral hulking boy named Jacques, with a fondness for tales of murderous crimes begins to sleep on the doorstep.

From the beginning, one of Marie's greatest strengths is her powers of observation and dogged determination.  She bides her time, knowing when to keep quiet and when to demand.  There are also small acts of defiance that rile the widow, the greatest one being a growing friendship with Edmond.

By the time Marie is seventeen a growing number of curiousity seekers come to the house.  One day it's Princess Elisabeth, the younger sister of King Louis XVI, who comes to see the wax figures.  The teenagers bear a resemblance which sparks conversation and an eventual invitation for Marie to become Princess Elisabeth's art tutor at the Palace of Versailles.  You don't have to be a history buff to know of the misery that lies ahead for the King, his Queen and scores of citizens.  Marie bears witness to all of it.

Little was an unexpected fabulous read that would have passed me by if not for a chance offer in the staff room.  The horrors of the guillotine blended with Marie's incredible resourcefulness make this an excellent choice for an atmospheric October read.  And I would be remiss in not mentioning the  added treat of sketches throughout the book by the author.  Find a copy!

Edward Carey's portrait of Marie Tussaud