28 May 2021

The Selected Diaries Project....

The weather isn't being kind this morning; it's only 8C with grey skies and rain pelting the windows.  Until this morning May has been hot and dry, surely safe enough to pot flowers, stake tomatoes and plant sunflower seeds.  We can't seem to resist breaking the rule that says anything can happen before June 1 and Mother Nature has thrown us yet another curve.  As soon as I got home from work last night we pulled pots of flowers and herbs close to the house and my Meyer Lemon trees were brought inside.  We're crossing our fingers for everything else, poor things.

After visiting Monks House in Rodmell in 2019, I ordered a copy of Selected Diaries published by Vintage.  It's a title suggested by Hermione Lee on one of my favourite websites Five Books.  Type anything that interests you into the search engine and someone in the know, related to that field, offers their recommendations.  Be warned - you will spend more time browsing than planned.

The idea of having Virginia Woolf's diaries edited down to a single book was appealing but when it arrived I was so disappointed by the very small print.  It was set aside.  But that feeling would creep in every now and then, the thought avid readers with a few unread books on the shelf have, of being struck by lightening and leaving a good read behind.  The only thing to do was just get on with it.  A sunny patio makes all the difference so my goal is to read this collection of entries before being driven back inside to lamp light.    

Content-wise I could easily rip through all 503 pages but suspect the development of an eye twitch would begin by the halfway point.  Breaking this collection into thirds is probably the wisest plan, so rather than one overall review I am noting a few details from 1915 to 1923 that I found interesting for one reason or another....

The shop women are often very charming, in spite of their serpentine coils of black hair.  Then I had tea, and rambled down to Charing Cross in the dark, making up phrases and incidents to write about.  Which is, I expect, the way one gets killed.  (February 1915)

A day of fog in patches.  Last night the worst fog they say for thirty years, and old gents who escaped the raid walked in numbers over the edge of platforms and were crushed.  A cook stepped into the Thames, people walked by rapping our railings to keep the road.  (February 1918)

Monday was as usual a day for London and tea at the Club.  I was so foolish as to fritter three shillings - one and sixpence on the blue penholder with which I write, and when I don't write, suck; one and sixpence on paper, at a grossly extravagant shop in Pall Mall.  I justified these extravagances by the fact that you can get into the National Gallery for nothing.  (July 1918)

I had tea at Gordon Square; then dinner at the Isola Bella; talk with Clive and Duncan, Clive insisting that Eliot dislikes me, and further trying to convince us that Nessa, Roger, himself, Lytton and I are the most hated people in London; superficial, haughty, and giving ourselves airs - that, I think, is the verdict against the ladies.  I admit I hate not to be liked.  (April 1919)

There is little ceremony or precision at Monks House.  It is an unpretending house, long and low, a house of many doors, on one side fronting the street of Rodmell, and wood-boarded on that side, though the street of Rodmell is at our end little more than a cart track running out on to the flat of the water meadows.  (July 1919)

Oh the servants!  Oh the reviewing!  Nelly has vacillated between tears and laughter, life and death for the past ten days; can't feel an ache anywhere without sending for me or L. to assure her that aches are not certainly fatal.  Then she cries.  Never, never, never will she get over it, she says.  The doctor comes.  Innumerable pills and draughts consumed.  Sweats, sleepless nights, recur.  And nothing the matter save what one of us would call an upset inside and take a pill for.  This drives us to accept invitations, since if anyone comes here, the atmosphere lowers.  (July 1920)

To  change the subject, Rose Macaulay dined here last week - something like a lean sheepdog in appearance - harum scarum - humble - too much of a professional, yet just on the intellectual side of the border.  Might be religious though: mystical perhaps.  Not at all dominating or impressive, I daresay she observes more than one thinks for.  Clear pale mystical eyes.  A kind of faded moon of beauty: oh and badly dressed.  (February 1921)

I see I have said nothing about our day in London - Dr Sainsbury, Dr Fergusson, and the semi-legal discussion over my body, which ended in a bottle of quinine pills, and a box of lozenges, and a brush to varnish my throat with.  Influenza and pneumonia germs, perhaps, says Sainsbury, very softly, wisely, and with extreme deliberation.  "Equanimity - practice equanimity Mrs Woolf" he said, as I left; an unnecessary interview from my point of view; but we were forced into it by one step after another on the part of the bacteriologists.  I take my temperature no more till October 1st.  (August 1922)

Mrs Dalloway has branched into a book; and I adumbrate here a study of insanity and suicide: the world seen by the sane and the insane side by side - something like that; and to be more close to the fact than Jacob; but I think Jacob was a necessary step, for me, in working free.  (October 1922)

My diaries project next picks up in 1923, shortly after Virginia becomes acquainted with Vita Sackville-West.

Virginia Woolf's writing desk in the Writing Lodge at Monks House, Rodmell

10 May 2021

In the Kitchen: Essays on food and life - Various

"What's for dinner?" is bound to be asked by someone at work after 3 pm and usually that someone is  me.  Last week that particular question morphed into a conversation about condiments, specifically ketchup.  Our supervisor arrived at the meeting and offered her thoughts....she's not a fan.  At our house we go through it at a shocking rate but I blame lockdown and Friday night fish & chip suppers.  I digress.  At any rate, this charming collection of essays had me placing an order the moment I saw it.

A total of thirteen essays have been grouped into three categories: Coming to the Kitchen, Reading and Writing in the Kitchen, and Beyond the Kitchen, each flowing easily from one to the next.  As someone who finds the mention of a gas-ring in a story the height of kitchen drama pleasure, the first paragraph delightfully begins....

Gasfire cookers are not just heavy, they're awkward.  This one was a smooth, white box with nothing for us to hold onto except the sharp bottom edges.  It was an ordeal getting it up the stairs to our flat, our inability to cooperate exposed by a kitchen appliance.

In her essay A Life in Cookers Rachel Roddy writes about the many stoves that have occupied homes she has lived in.  A simple concept and yet utterly fascinating.  There was a even a moment in Rachel's history of stoves when my heart sank.  Her family moved from a home that had a red Aga into a new home with a Hotpoint.  Well, you just can't compare the two when it comes to character, can you.

Another essay that rated highly is Ella Risbridger's Cupboard Love about our level of intimacy based on how comfortable we are in someone's kitchen.  Knowing which cupboard door leads to the tea cups signals a relaxed visit with a close friend.  And they'll know how you like your tea without asking.

The stand-out essay because it felt tailormade for its subject matter is Brain Work by Laura Freeman, and now I have to track down a copy of her book The Reading Cure.  

Along the way I have become nosy about, if not downright obsessed by, what it is that writers eat.

Freeman goes on to share an entry from Barbara Pym's diary in which she notes drinks and a meal as she finished her novel Less Than Angels.  I can't remember the last time a cup of Nescafe crossed my path but it makes a comforting change from lengthy and comical Starbucks orders.  I laughed at Alan Bennett's petits fours of vitamins that accompany his healthy lunch, and was revolted by Lee Child's diet of cigarettes and coffee.  Thankfully the thought of a smoky lunch quickly wafted away with an entry from Virginia Woolf...

Words, words & now roast beef & apple tart....(30 October 1938)

Freeman then draws attention to Martin Amis's description of his writing day.  If he is lucky a cup of tea turns up.  The author ponders who is responsible for delivering these well-timed cups of tea as if by magic?  And better still, were female authors presented with cups of tea when they needed a lift or were they left to make their own. 

Shopping, preparing and enjoying food is universal and I've enjoyed expanding my food repertoire into other cultures.  Yemisi Aribisala's essay points out the differences food culture can create in relationships when the will to reach beyond your norm is weak at best.  In love with a young white man of British heritage, their ideas around entertaining were extreme opposites.  His parents were mortified that she would help herself to half a quiche in their fridge that was meant for lunch.  He was angry when her friend tucked half a loaf of bread from their kitchen, under her arm to take home.  Nigerians, as Yemisi tells him, would never insult their guests by imposing limits on guest lists or food.  Their relationship was doomed.

Daisy Johnson's essay Ritial about making pizza with family gathered in the kitchen on Christmas Eve was the reason we had pizza for lunch last Friday.

A lovely collection that pleased beyond my expectation and for anyone interested in a bookish gift for a friend, look no further.