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Exhibition: Charles Stewart at the Royal Academy

I’ve been having a mini-meltdown recently, as a rather on-off thing with my house sale takes place, with possible exchange and completion some time during the week beginning Monday 16th February… or possibly not, as all the negotiations and paperwork are still ongoing.

I have disappeared into a world of music and writing, which thankfully takes me away from everything, and also reminding myself to “just breathe!”  Which is why I’ve been quiet recently.

It wasn’t therefore great timing for one of my friends to mention that she’d curated an exhibition at the Royal Academy, and it was closing next weekend.  But I couldn’t not go (how often do people get to curate exhibitions at the RA??), and when Amanda said she’d be there this weekend, I thought what a great thing it would be to get my very own personal tour :-) considering I didn’t know anything about Charles Stewart.

Charles Stewart (1915-2001) was a graphic artist who became obsessed with the gothic Victorian novel Uncle Silas, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu.  The novel has been the basis for several film and TV adaptations, and follows the adventures of innocent heiress Maud Ruthyn.  Stewart ploughed his energies into extensive research on the settings and costumes, and into numerous sketches, finally producing dozens of incredibly detailed illustrations for the book in 1948.  Despite the illustrations being well received by the publisher, the amount of detail meant that it would have been ultimately too costly to include in the sale copies using the technology of the time, so it wasn’t until the eighties that an edition that included the illustrations could be made up.

I think the Victorian Gothic is very interesting, and channels a lot of sexuality and emotion in an acceptable way, which the Victorians wouldn’t otherwise have been able to express in public.  Amanda said that Charles Stewart had a terribly lonely and unhappy childhood, and was never accepted or supported emotionally by his family (although they managed to pay for an expensive school).  She said it was very sad that it seemed Charles Stewart never found happiness with a partner.

I said I thought it was a problem of a certain kind of upbringing – if as a child you are taught to repress everything emotional, it’s very difficult subsequently to work out how to cope with healthy adult relationships.  What you tend to do is hide the problems and deny them, and channel the things you really want into obsessions.  I feel really lucky that I’ve realised now in my mid-thirties that there is another, warmer way to live life than what I knew until that point, but every so often, I still feel enormous grief for all the friendships I was never able to build, at school, at University, during early motherhood.  I’ve been trying to deal with the feelings of loss by writing about how people cope when they’re not shown warmth early on in their lives, and how people come to realise it and change their lives, and what happens when people don’t realise it, and don’t change.

Amanda and I talked about the difficulties acknowledging these problems the older you get, and the more of your life you have to admit that you’ve lost if you do admit where you really are, which ties in with my current interest in the phenomenon of what I call “completeness”: in fiction, there’s a need to provide for the reader an emotionally satisfying closure.  Whereas in real life, quite often things are messy and don’t turn out as they “should”.  I’m interested in bringing “messy endings,” a bit like Charles Stewart’s lack of a happy ending, to what I write, and working out how to make something emotionally satisfying out of them.

If you are near the Royal Academy before next Sunday, the exhibition is only £3 and well worth a look.  One of the most stunning parts is life size blow up of one of the small pictures – the original is so detailed that it reproduces as if it could have been that size originally!  Make sure to get a free show guide – they’d all gone by the time I got there, which meant that before Amanda arrived and got some out of the store room, the exhibition made no sense to me at all!

freegle(Click on the image to enlarge.  The detail is fantastic!)

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Review: Some French books

Our school was very big on French.  And because I was in the top set, it was very intense indeed.  We had to speak French all the time during lessons, no English at all (which I admit is the only way to learn) and by the time we were 14 we were reading full length novels, reviewing them for homework, presenting on them in class.  We were supposed to choose our own from the library, and the popular ones were Camus, Sagan, etc.  Because I hated being like other people, I deliberately chose not to read these books, and as an adult, chose to rebel retrospectively by never again doing anything in French.

It was only recently, while I was reading the very informative Existentialism: A Beginner’s Guide, that I came across Camus again and got me curious.  That, and the fact that I was going to Paris for a couple of days just before Christmas.  So I ordered myself a copy of The Outsider to read on the Eurostar and completed a piece of my education that I’d refused to allow myself until then.

The Outsider is the story of a man called Mersault who has an odd viewpoint in the world, who sees things very logically and in a very detached manner.  He has a faultless internal logic, but cannot see others’ motivations, and is hypersensitive to certain physical situations – slightly as if he is on the ASD spectrum, but that is not the point of the book.  The book looks at many fascinating questions on guilt, responsibility, judgement, but the thing that I was most struck by was the creation of a person and a world that bore close relation to all the phenomena that make up our own everyday lives, yet was twisted to be ever so slightly different.  A sort of dream likeness and detachedness, which I would pinpoint down to the precise logic with which the narrator explains the reasons for all his actions, but a pointed omission of many events in his past life which we tend to think of as making up “a life” or “a character”.  For example, Mersault’s mother dies early on in the book, and he explains his responses to this death, but reveals very little about his past life with his mother.

This made me think of one of my favourite books ever, A Certain Smile by Francoise Sagan.  So this book entered my consciousness about ten years ago when it was broadcast on Radio 4.  It’s about a student who falls for an older man who is already married.  It mirrored so closely the relationship I was in (not the being married part, but other problems that stopped the relationship from being equal/accessible for both of us) that I almost memorised the whole book, I read it over and over so often as being an almost perfect representation of the longing I had for what I could not have.  Re-reading it ten years later, and being free from those emotions, I still wonder that Sagan was so precociously able at the age of twenty-one to describe the sometimes bold, sometimes self-conscious, naivete of a twenty-year old girl with the detached insight of someone much older.  The logic of the narrator’s feelings is, as in The Outsider, faultless.  Likewise, details of the narrator Dominique’s childhood are few (“grey” and populated by distracted, grieving, emotionally absent parents), but there’s enough there to make a mental leap into discerning how the hunger of the unnoticed child turns into the subconcious hunt for a relationship that will fulfil as an adult.

Lastly, it was Victoria who alerted me earlier in the year to the existence of this year’s Nobel Prize winning Patrick Modiano.  When I came back from Paris, I decided that, while in the French mood and stuck in a period of “empty time” while away at my parents’ house, it was time to finally get to grips with what sounded like a fabulous, and important, author.  Which was when I discovered that there were no Kindle editions of the books I wanted; the one Modiano that had been translated into English was three novellas, and I didn’t want three short books, I wanted one whole one.  I didn’t want to wait until I got home for the paperback, or come to that, to pay over ten pounds for it.  So I chose Voyage de Noces (Honeymoon) and downloaded it in French, and ended up reading French after all, twenty years after having decided never to do this again.

It was quite a different experience having to hang on to every word in the story in case I got lost, as I am so used to speed reading these days.  The book is about a man called Jean who hears of the suicide of Ingrid, an old acquaintance of his, and decides to go on the trail of Ingrid’s husband, M.; Rigaud, (in the present) as well as reminiscing about their meeting as a threesome twenty years ago (past) and then some more about episodes from Ingrid and Rigaud’s own past (which takes us all the way back to the Nazi Occupation.)  There was, again, lots of detailed and earnest explanation about why people felt certain things, or did certain things, and total omission of very important facts.  For example, as a young man, on discovering that he has been robbed of all his money, Jean decides there and then that he will henceforth give no thought to the future.  Or, during the war, Ingrid decides to leave her father and wander off into curfew-ridden Paris.

There were parts when I suspected that the dreamy sense of logic was just to do with me and my dodgy French, but overall, I think that was supposed to be the effect.  I found it very impressive that Modiano managed to convey mystery and suspense within this “backwards story”, which I think are harder to keep infused with a sense of dynamism than it appears on the surface.  My favourite play, Pinter’s Betrayal, also works on a backwards structure, and on reaching the end of Honeymoon, I experienced a similar, gut-wrenching sense of loss relating to the sadness of the passing of time, and the way that things which are so intense and important at the time inevitably erode into nothing.

On a more cheerful note, here is a dusk time picture of my trip to Paris :-) Taken from a window of the Louvre, from the Decorative Arts section, I think.


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Angel’s Carol by John Rutter

It’s getting very Christmassy at work.  I put up the office decorations on Monday.  They are white paper snowflakes like this

except the picture doesn’t really illustrate how big they are.  People keep coming in and going “Aaaagh” because they are so surprised to see them.

We’ve also been listening to Christmas songs almost non-stop at work since 1st Dec.  It was really exciting putting them on on the first day, but the trouble is, taking the Christmas songs off again seems a retrograde step.  So we’ve taken to bringing in lots of different Christmas songs.

The only ones I could find were my John Rutter collection.  I do feel that John Rutter verges a bit on the cheesy/easy listening side of classical, but there’s something really clever about his soaring melodies that’s difficult to resist.  I used to enjoy singing and while I don’t usually miss it, there’s something about a really beautiful Christmas song that makes me want to join in and be part of it.

So I found these on YouTube and cheered myself up this evening singing along:

Even if you don’t sing, the Cambridge Singers’ renditions are utterly beautiful.

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Film review: in directed by Céline Sciamma

The Picturehouse chain, which is where I see these weird and wonderful films I keep reviewing, gives you a tear sheet when you go in.  It has stars from 1 to 5, and you have to make a little tear on the one you think matches your movie. I gave Wild Tales a 5 without hesitation.

The following day I went to the cinema again, to see Girlhood, a coming of age film about a girl called Marième, set in les banlieues, or suburbs, of Paris.

Not much happens.  There are fights.  There is sex.  There is domestic violence.  Dreams die.  I was indignant at the lack of narrative structure.  Where was the goal, the conflict, the disaster?  What motivation did these characters have, other than to effect minor temporary escapes from their otherwise hopeless lives?  And then it ended.

“I didn’t get it,” I said to my friend Kate.

Kate, who has watched many more films than I have, explained that the film was subverting existing genres.  She saw it from a point of view of sexuality: you wanted more to happen, but it didn’t, until the protagonist’s realisation right at the end of what she wanted her future to be. I saw it as being more about class, the eternal problem of how art, which has a tradition and structure essentially dominated by middle class values, depicts the lives of the less privileged.  Sometimes lives are hopeless and dreary; is it artificial to pretend that they are not?

Anyway, I understood it then, but that still only gave it an extra star for me, up one from 2 to 3.  The issue I have is that if I am watching a “drama” as opposed to an action or comedy type film, I want it to tell me something more complex than the basics.  So, for example, I know that some men are violent towards the women in their lives, I know that when people are stranded without an education, they can be abandoned in a system without hope, I know that people form gangs to try to belong.  The film didn’t really tell me much more about these issues.

I am glad I watched it though, and it is a bit weird giving films a star rating.  It might not be the best film I’ve ever watched, but it still shows important things as they are, beyond the stereotypes, which are not often aired.

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Film Review: Wild Tales written and directed by Damián Szifrón

I told my daughter I was going to the cinema and she asked me what I was going to see.

“It’s Argentinian,” I said.

“Why do you want to see an Argentinian film?” she asked.  “We already saw a Saudi Arabian film.”

Clearly watching a foreign film, while being a nice experience, is not something she feels the need to repeat, which is a shame, because Wild Tales was fantastic.  It had everything: it was funny, it was surprising, it was tense, it was scary, it was uplifting.

The film comprises of 6 short films, all exploring the theme of conflict and revenge.  Conceptually, it is very thought provoking.  We see a range of conflicts and motives: one on one, individual vs system, long burning, spur of the moment, and also internal conflicts, where characters were made to question their own motivations.  I even felt that I was being invited to question my own reactions by some provocative scenarios.

Technially, it was beautifully shot, involving everything from mountain scenery, to complex fight choreography in the smallest space you can imagine, to scenes where you wondered whether they were real or special effects.

There was only one film out of the six that I was disappointed with, because it didn’t end as cleverly as the others.  There were some great twists, where a different point of view was revealed, and everything up until that point was revealed as being a different thing from what I thought it was.

I’ll take many things from this film, among them an appreciation that even the dullest of tasks, such as changing a car tyre, can be made into the tensest of scenes in the right hands.  And there was an amazing love scene.  I’m not so much into hetero stuff these days, and often find portrayals of male-female relationships in books and films rather ho-hum, as if the creator hasn’t really bothered, but just thought that the mere being of a male and female character is enough reason to pair them up.  But this one smouldered!  Sparks, explosions, and animal instinct, it was all there.


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Review: The Humans by Matt Haig

humansThe Humans by Matt Haig is one of those books that gets bracketed in with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time and The Rosie Project, all being told from the point of view of an outsider who doesn’t quite “get” society.  In The Curious Incident and The Rosie Project, outsider status is bestowed by Asperger’s.

The Humans, follows an alien who has journeyed to Earth from a far off, mathematically advanced world, who has been sent to Earth on a mission.  His first task is to killing and impersonate Cambridge Professor of Mathematics, Andrew Martin.  But by becoming “Andrew”, our alien (the book is told from the first person, so he has no name) becomes gradually more and more affected by his life on earth among humans, especially now that he he has acquired a sweet wife and a troubled but well intentioned son, causing him to question the emotional detachment he has been brought up with.

I had a similar reaction to this book as I did with the Rosie project – I found the alien/autistic viewpoint a little slow to get into, as it’s necessarily distancing, but I subsequently found the gradual acclimatisation of the protagonist to his new life both amusing and touching.

It’s not a deep or a serious read in either a mathematical or a literary sense, but is very enjoyable in both.  I was very taken by the mathematical jokes and had to read them out to the other two mathematicians in our data crunching office.  And I was going to offer it round, but one of our exam invigilators got there first – we all stick pictures of the cover and the blurb from the book we are reading on our doors, and this has a very appealing cover and blurb.

As well as enjoying the maths, I have to say that I also identify with the idea of being an alien, of not understanding what people desire from life.   Although it makes for a funny read, I also felt for “Andrew” as he went around saying and doing the wrong thing and unintentionally hurting people :-/

Thanks to Eva for the recommendation!

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Review: Made in India, Cooked in Britain by Meera Sodha

Much as I love exercise, one time when I really don’t fancy is the cold air rasping against my windpipe and into my lungs when I’m not feeling well.

I’ve been nursing one of those colds that hovers just below the surface, not quite coming out into the open.  Last week, the week just before half term, was phenomenally busy, with a Full Governors, meeting, two Meet the Parents evenings, and a County Governors get together.  So you can imagine how ill-disposed towards the world it made me feel that my sister had organised a “let’s go to Mum and Dad’s cook for all the family” on Saturday.

To be fair, it was a nice idea, as it was my parents’ fortieth wedding anniversary.  It is just neither of us have ever cooked for 12 people with varying dietary tastes before, so we had to work out what to do.

Luckily, I had heard about this book


on the radio a few months ago, Meera Sodha’s Made in India, Cooked in Britain.  It contains recipes for a whole variety of Gujarati dishes, which are all eminently cookable, healthy and tasty.  In particular, it covers starters, mains, desserts and drinks.

I have to say that I was too tired to learn how to make samosas for starters, but I figured that spring rolls were similar enough:


I’ve never made this many spring rolls before!  LD#2 helped by rolling them all up for me, otherwise I don’t think I could have done it.

One of the amazing things that the book has taught me is how to make rice!  Chinese people use a rice cooker, so it’s automatic… there’s also a bit of a Chinese attitude that plain white rice is the “carrier” for the food, and any sort of fancy rice is to make it a bit more palatable to Westerners.  Whereas I’ve realised that there are lots of different spices you can add to rice to make it more interesting, and the key to getting the softness/wetness right is a pot with a clear lid.



Everyone I’ve given Meera Sodha’s fennel seed shortbread says it’s the best they’ve ever tasted.  Also there’s a recipe for spiced chai which is very special to me now – it calls for one tea bag between two mugs.  And when you have a daughter like mine who often says No to what’s on offer, it’s really nice to say, “I’m making a chai… do you want one too?” and be able to give her something without making her worry that I am going out of my way for her.

The only thing that didn’t work out with the meal was my sister’s lamb curry, the recipe for which didn’t transfer well between her slow cooker and my parents’.  (Why she didn’t turn it up to “High” when it was clear that it wasn’t softening, I don’t know.)  Anyway, after she’d gone home on Sunday morning, we ended up with a lot of undercooked lamb leftovers for lunch.  “All it needs is more cooking,” I said.  So my dad said he would sort it out.  Now, my dad is a good cook, but he is not that experienced with a microwave.  Still, I assumed that he knew what he was doing when he put it in on low heat for 60 minutes and then went out to buy a paper.

About 45 minutes later, I smelled something strange, and went into the kitchen, where there were a lot of fumes and something on fire inside the microwave!!  I turned the power off and watched the flames dying down while we decided what to do.  We all found it quite funny, apart from my mum, who rushed around berating everyone.  In the end, when the flames were at a minimum, my dad threw the stew and cracked pyrex out into the garden.  The stew must have dried out and overheated, melting the plastic cover my dad had placed over the top of it.

I have to admit, it was a pretty good weekend, despite all my grumblings in the run up.

When I got home I downloaded St Vincent’s current album.  The tracks available on Soundcloud make it seem like it’s going to be a lot more hyperactive than it actually is.  It ranges from the beautiful:

all about the powerlessness of standing by and watching someone go into self destruct,

through to this kind of intensely searing commentary

on our emotional reliance on social and other media.