As you may or may not know (or care) I am in France at the moment. I've got a house here, on the border of Normandy and Brittany, and I'm spending the month of July in it. When I first bought it, over thirteen years ago, I'd thought I would probably come and live here when I retired, but since I retired life has somehow overtaken me-- in the best possible way -- and the move has not yet been on the agenda. But I've always wondered if I should do it, if I'd like it if I did do it, and so on. So I was more than delighted when Sourcebooks kindly offered me a review copy of a book by someone who really did do it.
Karen Wheeler is, I think, a very brave woman. A successful fashion journalist and esrtwhile fashion editor of The Mail on Sunday, she found herself unexpectedly and unhappily single at the age of thirty-five. Increasingly sick of her empty life of handbags and designer shoes, feeling threatened by the twenty-something man-hunters who seemed to have sprung up while she was happily ensconsed with her lover, she decided to give up her Notting Hill flat and move to a small, unrestored house in rural France. Thus, the beginning of this delightfully readable book finds her with a car full of black bin-liners (mostly stuffed with designer clothes) on the road to the coast, and thence to the ferry, and thence to the peaceful village in Poitou-Charentes where her dream house awaits her. Even her departure from London is not without its problems.
As the car limped to the end of the road, its suspension several inches closer to the ground than usual, I realized I had forgotten something. Panicking, I reversed at speed, the sound of china rattling ominously as I hit the traffic bumps.
Fortunately Daisy and Jerome were still standing at the gate.
"How do I get to Portsmouth?", I yelled.
"The A3", Daisy shouted back. "Follow the signs to Hammersmith".
"I give it a month", said Jerome, shaking his head, "before you're back".
In fact, of course, Karen does not come back, or certainly not to stay. The rest of the story tells of her adventures during her first year in the village. The house, bought on a whim a year earlier, is almost uninhabitable. She has great plans, of course, involving Farrow and Ball paint, large comfortable sofas, a wood-burning stove and a courtyard filled with roses, jasmine, geraniums and herbs. But those plans are far in the future as she doesn't have any hot water, there's a huge hole in the kitchen floor, and everything in the house is brown -- wallpaper, paintwork, ceilings and bathroom tiles. Everything, that is, except one room which has been carefully painted in its entirity with white gloss paint by a willing but expensive French workman who misunderstood her instructions.
Slowly, of course, everything starts to come together, though not before Karen has spent a hideously uncomfortable week in a tiny designer tent on a very noisy campsite, a hideously expensive week in a grand and not particularly attractive hotel, and many weeks, even months, camping out in her own house and living on bread and brie. Not for the fainthearted, you will think, and I know this is true having lived in my own unrestored Oxford house for three months without a kitchen, bathroom, or heating, surrounded by builders and holed up in one grubby room. But of course, many ups and downs later, everything does come together as she had hoped and planned, and by the end of a year the house is totally gorgeous.
But this is far from being a house restoration book, or at least that's only a small part of it. This is also the story of Karen's own restoration, if I can put it like that. She has been literally devastated by the sudden disintegration of what she thought was a permanent relationship and her year in France is also the year of slowly healing her broken heart. There are plenty of ups and downs along this road too -- men who appear and then disappear, swear undying love and then return to their girlfriends or wives, or turn out to be gay (as does the gorgeous patissier). But Karen survives it all with enormous gaiety and humour. This is greatly helped by the friends she makes in and around the village, both French and English. Some of her stories of nights out with the ex-pat community, mostly over sixty-five and frequently extremely drunk, are truly and horrendously hilarious, but there are enough people of her own age and inclinations to make her social life, as she comes to realise, a lot more enjoyable than the one she had in London. As for the designer clothes and shoes, there's a wonderful moment when she decides she really doesn't need them any more and bags them all up to take to the depot vente (from which they are then bought by her friends, much to her amusement).
This is of course a perfectly true story, though she admits she has changed names and perhaps embroidered a little bit. But as you can see from her own blog, Karen's life does continue in France and she is still there now. Indeed there's a second book, Toute Allure, and I think a third is on the way. I shall certainly be reading these as I am definitely a fan now, and so would you be if you picked up this very enjoyable book. Highly recommended.
A thing of beauty is a joy forever, said Keats, and he never spoke a truer word. And how he would have loved the exhibition I've just been to at the V&A -- The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900. In fact, as well as enjoying the many luscious painted women on show, he'd probably have felt very much at home with some of it, because the Pre-Raphaelites, who figure largely here, were very much influenced by his late Romantic pseudo medievalism. (Sorry -- off with the mortarboard).
The V&A certainly knows what its doing when it puts on these major exhibitions. I've never been a huge fan of the Pre-Raphaelites, but after seeing the best of them on display today -- Watts, Burne Jones and many more -- and seeing them in context, with their intelligent, informative and mercifully brief descriptions attached, I felt like I'd got the point at last. The star of the show for me, as far as painting was concerned, was the wonderful James McNeil Whistler, many of whose delicate, subtle portraits are on display -- three of the series called Symphony in White, an extraordinary portrait of Thomas Carlyle looking, I thought, desperately sad, and many many more. The Museum has even rustled up a life-size digital replica of Whistler's famous Peacock Room, which I was lucky enough to see in it's full glory in the Smithsonian many years ago.
But there's far more here than just paintings. Photographs, sculpture, pottery, jewellery, wallpaper, household objects, books, furniture, clothes -- you name it, the whole world of the bohemian late nineteenth-century is here on display. If you stand still beside some of the exhibits you can even hear some poems being read -- my eyes filled with tears listening to Yeats' poem He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven.
In fact I found the whole thing an amazingly emotional experience -- I felt almost sick at times, if you can understand that, from the sheer glorious intensity of it all. And how I long now for a house to decorate in the style of the Aesthetic Movement -- how about a Peacock frieze, some William Morris wallpaper, a Christopher Dresser teapot on a little bamboo table...and me dressed in ivory silk, artfully draped so that I don't need my corsets...
I don't suppose this is going to happen in a hurry. But I am so glad I went -- and if you get the chance, please go too. You won't regret it.
The images comes from the exhibition website -- I hope the V&A won't mind.
As I'm a sucker for classic crime and can't resist any novel set in Oxford, I simply had to buy this when I spotted it in Blackwell's secondhand department a while back. Published in 1946 and dedicated to the author's great friend Philip Larkin, it's one of a series of nine novels and two short story collections featuring the fictional Oxford don Gervase Fen, a Professor of English at the fictional St Christopher's College in Oxford. But although Fen and his college may be fictional, they inhabit an Oxford which is very real, so reading the novel is a bit like a retro Morse/Lewis experience. And when you learn that Bruce Montgomery adopted the pseudonym Edmund Crispin from a novel the great Oxford crime writer Michael Innes (who was actually an Oxford don called J.I.M. Stewart), the whole thing becomes entirely irrestisible, to me at least. Montgomery was a celebrated musician and composer as well as a crime writer -- they don't make them like that these days, I'm afraid.
The plot of the novel is somewhat fantastic but just about falls within the realm of credibility. A poet, Richard Cadogan, sets off for Oxford in the middle of the night but gets stranded in Didcot when his train breaks down. He gets a lift in a lorry which drops him off at Headington roundabout, and sets off to walk into town. But he gets lost and ends up in Iffley Road (not, in fact, a very likely thing to happen but I suppose a bit of dramatic license is allowable), where he stumbles into a toyshop and discovers a dead body. However when he tells the police next morning, the toyshop has vanished, together with the body, and a grocery shop has appeared in its place. Cadogan seeks out his friend Fen, and the two of them set out to solve this apparently non-existent crime. This involves a great deal of dashing around the countryside in Fen's sports car, sitting in seedy pubs, gathering a set of eccentric side-kicks, and uncovering a series of complex but just about plausible happenings, including the reappearance of the toyshop in the Woodstock Road.
This is a novel of great charm and tremendous high spirits. It's also very literary -- everybody in the novel is constantly quoting poetry and Jacobean drama, even the pretty shopgirl Sally who is surprisingly keen on Marvell. Larkin gets his own private joke, when Fen picks up a student essay called "The Influence ofSir Gawain on Arnold's Empedocles on Etna", and comments: "Good heavens, that must be Larkin: the most indefatigable searcher out of pointless correspondences the world has ever known." And it's also rather ahead of its time in that the characters seem aware on occasion that they are taking part in a novel -- as for example when Cadogan alludes to the politics of the publisher:
"Let's go left", Cadogan suggested. "After all, Gollanz is publishing this book."
Everything speeds up and gets increasingly intense towards the conclusion, and the investigators end up in Botley, near Oxford Station. Here they first of all visit a flea-pit cinema (now alas long gone) where the film's dialogue is hilariously juxtaposed with the search for the murderer:
"Pa was a nice guy", said the film. "Who'd want to kill him?"
Fen got up and meandered down the gangway. An usherette, anxious to be helpful, approached and indicated to him the whereabouts of the gentleman's lavatory. He ignored her and continued peering about him.
"OK boys", said the film. "Take him to the morgue".
Finally everyone ends up in the Botley Fair (does this still take place? I never heard of it), the tawdriness of which reminds Cadogan of a scene from a Graham Greene novel: "somewhere there must be somebody saying a 'Hail Mary'...". In a terrific final tour de force, Fen and the murderer get trapped on the roundabout, which can't be stopped because the operator has been shot....
Altogether enormous fun. And the title? It's taken from the final lines of Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock, in which he says of women:
With varying vanities, from every part, They shift the moving toyshop of their heart.
For as long as I can remember I have had a passion for patterned textiles. I can't think of any reason why this should be, but so it is, and I can spend much happy time gazing at them in museums or fingering them in shops. Imagine, then, what patchwork does for me, and you will get an idea of the pleasure I've had today at the V&A Quilt Exhibition. There was so much to look at here that my eyes and brain were quite tired by the end of it -- I took an hour and a half to go round, much of it spent stationary in front of various intricate coverlets, trying to work out how on earth anyone ever managed to plan the thing, let alone actually make it.
I thought it would be the antique ones I would like the best and in general this was true, but there's an interesting mix throughout the exhibition of contemporary pieces using quilting and patchwork techniques, and some of these are lovely too. And, of course, the historical dimension is interesting, too -- people stitching contemporary political messages into their quilts, like the Wellington one at the top, or adding squares with uplifting moral messages for quilts to be used in hospitals. A glorious, huge quilt -- the Rajah Quilt -- was made by the women prisoners on a convict ship going to Tasmania in the mid-nineteenth century. And one of the most moving comes right near the end -- a quilt made specially for the exhibition by the inmates of Wandsworth Prison, who have their own embroidery class. Each of the members had designed and made their own square, some embroidered with messages or images of locks, keys and bars, others with delicate, intricately pieced floral motifs.
Of course the V&A entraps you with a most delicious shop through which you have to pass to get out. It would be a strong minded person indeed who did not succumb to the display of traditional printed fabrics (which you can buy online here). I strong-mindedly bought just one piece, which perhaps may form the basis of a patchwork to while away the long winter evenings. This is what is looks like -- the pattern dates from the 1830s:
And I'm afraid I also bought a book -- full price, and of course I could have got it for half on Amazon, but too late to worry about that. Kaffe Fassett, whose amazing knitwear patterns I used to follow in the 1980s, has published several books on quilts and quilting, and here is the one I bought:
So roll on the winter so I can get started (well, not really, but you know what I mean).
This is one of the books I got yesterday and very attractive it is. What I like about it is that it's not just a collection of patterns, though it does contain some good ones, seventeen of them, to be exact. But each of them is the creation of a different designer, and each designer has a chapter to herself. So you learn something about each of them: 'why I create', 'inspiration', 'workspace', as well as some biographical details and lots of very attractive photos. Only two of these women describe themselves as 'Craft Entrepreneur' -- others range from architects to teachers to scientists to stay-at-home mothers. I am intrigued by the instructions for making a bracelet by felting wool and forming it into pebble shapes, but though it looks like fun to do I doubt if I'd actually wear it afterwards. Being an inveterate haunter of charity shops I also like the apron made very simply from a vintage pillow case. Most use to me would be the fabric book covers, which protect the books while looking extremely pretty.