Monday, 16 January 2017

Pooky Alert

A piece I wrote about the extraordinary Linley Sambourne House (now officially 18 Stafford Terrace) has come up on Pooky, the splendid interiors and lighting website.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Found - and Lost

A while back, I passed on a comment from an alert reader who pointed out that, despite the evident Dutch love of flowers and flower painting, the painted interiors of the Golden Age are strangely lacking in flowers, with not so much as a bowl of tulips or a few blooms from the garden in evidence in any of the paintings any of us could think of. We kicked around a few theories about their absence, but no one came up with an exception to the rule.
 Well, yesterday I was in the marvellous Dulwich Picture Gallery and I found one - a Golden Age Dutch interior painting featuring a bowl of flowers. It was Gerrit Dou's Woman Playing the Clavichord, a lovely piece of work in which colours, textures and the fall of light are all perfectly harmonised - and there, on the windowsill, at the far left of the picture space, is a vase of flowers. It's a glass vase full of quite humble-looking white, blue, red and yellow flowers, catching the clear strong light of the world outside. Is it on the windowsill for artistic effect, or was this standard practice, at least on fine days? Who knows? The fact remains that Dutch interior paintings rarely show flowers on display - but I was glad to find this beautiful exception.
 After the Picture Gallery, I walked to the library where, in an earlier life, I spent the best part of fifteen years working in the reference department. I hadn't revisited the place in at least ten years, and was pleased to find that the library was still in business and apparently doing a brisk trade. The lending library was impressively full of books - something you can't count on these days - sensibly classified and well displayed, with thematic selections, recommendations, etc. The only staff to be seen were two dejected men and a 'Saturday girl', whereas in my day there would have been eight or ten dejected persons of both sexes - but that was before barcodes and scanners took over. Otherwise, this was still recognisably the same library I had known a quarter of a century ago.
 Upstairs, however, in what had been the Reference Library and was now a Study Area, all was changed, change utterly. What had been quite a complicated layout was now but one large open space, lined with books and filled with tables at which students toiled away, with no sign of the kind of people who used to haunt the old reference library, reading the papers, scanning encyclopaedias, muttering to themselves, snoozing, keeping warm... I could no longer work out the interior geography, not even where the desk had been at which I spent so many hours working (mostly, I must admit, on my various extracurricular projects). No need for an office desk now, in this unstaffed space.
 Somewhat disoriented and unable to work out quite what had been done to the old place, I made my way downstairs, and out into the chilly dusk.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Dabbler alert

A book review I wrote for The Dabbler is up today...

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Your 2017

Want to know what 2017 has in store for you? The smart way, I hear, is to reach for the book nearest to you, open it on page 117, and read the second sentence. That is your 2017.
 Naturally I had to try this latest form of bibliomancy, and here's what I found:

'Behind the stretch of wood, and about half a mile distant from Patrick's house, was a small property consisting of a comfortable little eighteenth-century dwelling house, to which had later been added a small byre and dairy, the cows of which pastured on what had once been the pleasure grounds of the house.'

Well, that sounds most agreeable - a nice little 18th-century house with dairy attached (and, as it turns out, a resident dairyman to do the work). The year is shaping up well.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

The Somerset Maugham Incident

Yesterday, in one of my local charity shops, as I drew near the book shelves, I heard a conversation going on between a man and a woman of a certain age (i.e. around my age, maybe a bit older). The word 'Landor' (as in Walter Savage) came into it - a name not often heard in these parts - so my ears pricked up. As the overheard conversation developed, I realised that the woman was on the phone to someone, perhaps her son, and was conveying the message from the man that he'd found a Somerset Maugham first edition, if he (the one at the other end of the phone) was interested. He wants to know what it's called, the woman reported back. As she couldn't catch the title, he held the spine of the book towards her. Ah, wait a minute, she said down the phone, it's A, H... A.H. King, it's a book about Somerset Maugham by A.H. King. No, the man with the book gently corrected her, it's a volume called Ah King. He turned to me at this point, having noted my interest. No, I've never heard of it either, I said...
 They bought it anyway - it was probably a bargain - and I bought a selection from Mayhew, edited by Peter Quennell, to replace my rather ugly edition from the Sixties. But that strange name - Ah King - stuck in my mind, so I duly checked it out. It's a collection of short stories about colonial life, and it really does sound rather good, especially the story called The Book Bag, which is rated by Maugham fans as one of his best. I'm beginning to wish I'd found it first, but at least it's reminded me of Maugham, a writer I've barely read anything of (and that a long time ago) - I think I'll seek out a selection of his short stories...

Monday, 9 January 2017

Drif Footnote

If you want to find out more about the enigmatic Drif and his infamous Guide, there's a fascinating piece here...

His Girl Friday

The other evening I watched the classic 'screwball' comedy His Girl Friday again. I've seen this adaptation of Hecht and MacArthur's The Front Page (with that one inspired change - a female Hildy) maybe half a dozen times over the years, and it still comes up fresh and funny with every viewing. The dialogue in particular is so rich, dense and phenomenally fast-moving that it just goes on giving - there's always going to be some little gem you missed the last time.
 Whenever Cary Grant (playing editor Walter Burns) and Rosalind Russell (playing Hildy Johnson, ace reporter and Walter's ex-wife) are together, the dialogue fizzes and crackles, careering along at breakneck speed, lines constantly overlapping or being left unfinished. Grant was often ad-libbing, while Russell would throw in lines she'd had written for her to liven things up, so both actors were on their toes throughout, and the exhilaration of working like this (encouraged by Hawks) brought out the best in them.
 It was in The Front Page that the comic persona Grant developed in The Awful Truth achieved perfection - and he had the perfect on-screen partner in Rosalind Russell. She, however, was far from first choice for the part (more like sixth or seventh), and director Howard Hawks initially seemed none too keen to have her. It surely can't have taken him long to realise that he had struck gold - Grant and Russell were a partnership made in movie heaven, and she was a revelation. Not only did the two of them give all-time great performances, they did it with effortless aplomb and masses of style, the latter enhanced by their quite fabulous costumes - Hildy's raffish hat, Walter's impeccable suits (Grant is one of those rare men who can wear a double-breasted suit with absolute conviction).
 In one of its most spectacular displays of obtuseness, the Academy entirely ignored His Girl Friday when Oscars time came round - not so much as a nomination, for Grant, for Russell, for Hawks, for anyone. Indeed Cary Grant, the finest comic actor of his generation, had only two Oscar nods in his entire career - neither of them for a comic role - and had to wait until 1970 for a belated honorary award, his only Oscar. He accepted it, of course, with good grace.