Monday, 3 May 2010

Of Persephone Reading Week

I am very excited as today marks the beginning of Persephone Reading Week, co-hosted by Verity at The B Files and Claire at Paperback Reader.

As I mentioned a few days ago, I have three new Persephones to see me through the week, although sadly I'm not sure if my schedule will allow me to enjoy all three of them by the 9th of May. I currently have Miss Buncle's Book by D. E. Stevenson tucked into my bag to read over lunch or in other spare moments, and I hope to get on to at least one of my other two choices (To Bed With Grand Music and Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary) before the week is out. Miss Buncle's Book is the first D. E. Stevenson I've read, and if the first few chapters are anything to go by, it certainly won't be my last, as I'm loving it so far. The endpapers, based on a 1934 design by Vanessa Bell, are also charming:

I can't wait to check out posts by all the other people taking part in Persephone Reading Week, even if my wish list is likely to rocket sky high afterwards! Although I now have to get back to Sir W and his contemporaries, I am looking forward to returning to Silverstream and its inhabitants before long. I am already certain that -- in the words of Sir W in his 1600 essay 'Of Advise' -- Miss Buncle's Book will turn out to be (like so many Persephones),

'a sweete meditation, that may be often read ouer without tediousnesse'.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Of A Day of Delights

Last week, my mum and I had a trip to London to see Noel Coward's Private Lives, which is currently playing at the Vaudeville Theatre.

Rather than just heading to London in time for curtain up, however, we decided to go down a little earlier to make the most of being in the capital. We started off with a trip to the Victoria and Albert Museum, where we had hoped to see the exhibition of Grace Kelly's clothes which is currently showing there. As it was midway through a Monday afternoon, we hadn't expected it to be that busy, but we were sadly mistaken, and it turned out to be completely sold out for the rest of the day. Luckily the exhibition has only just begun, and there's plenty of time left for me to catch it before it closes on 26th September. I'll just make sure to book next time!

Instead, I went along to another exhibition currently showing at the V&A which I've been wanting to visit: Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill. I've been interested in Walpole (the son of our first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole) ever since I read his Gothic fantasy The Castle of Otranto, and he's even cropped up in the course of my research as he owned a manuscript version of a text of Sir W's (The Encomium of Richard III) which I've been working on recently. Walpole was one of the greatest collectors of the eighteenth century, and the exhibition was
filled with fascinating objects and paintings from his Gothic pile Strawberry Hill, such as this cabinet of curiosities:

Photo via the V&A website

Strawberry Hill, which stands on the outskirts of London in Twickenham, is currently being restored, and will be re-opening to the public later this year on Walpole's birthday: 24th September. I for one will definitely be going along to explore it!

After wandering around the atmospheric exhibition, my mum and I went for tea and cakes in the V&A's magnificent cafe, where I marvelled anew at the glittering chandeliers...

... intricately decorated ceilings and pillars ...

... and spectacular fireplaces:

I adored the entrancing combinations of patterns and textures all around me:

Once outside in the courtyard, I found much still to admire, both natural and manmade:

No visit to the V&A would be complete without a visit to their marvellous shop (I probably shouldn't admit this, but for some time my only experience of this fabled museum was the shop and the cafe. Oh, and the rooms devoted to historical fashions). I always love browsing there, and it's a great place to pick up birthday presents. This time, I managed to restrain my shopping impulses, although I did greatly enjoy the beautiful displays:

On the way out, I admired the combination of ancient and modern...

... before we made our way to Soho to enjoy a pre-theatre meal at Quo Vadis, a restaurant which has been recommended to us many times by skirmishofwit and ramblingfancy. I'm certainly very grateful for the suggestion, as my mum and I both had some excellent food there. I had began with a delicious sea bass cerviche

while my mum got to grips with these beauties:

I managed (with some difficulty!) to wangle a taste (in the name of research, of course) and can report that they were absolutely superb, and accompanied by a deliciously rich home-made mayonnaise. For the main course, I went for steak tartare, which I always enjoy. Quo Vadis's take on this French classic was good, and although I generally prefer it when the egg is already mixed in, I can't deny it looked very pretty:

After the meal, we managed to waddle our way outside and catch a cab to the Strand, nicely in time to buy a programme and settle down in our seats. I have never seen Private Lives performed on stage before, although I very much enjoyed a BBC Radio 4 dramatisation of it with Bill Nighy and Helena Bonham-Carter earlier this year. I was, however, in for a real treat at the Vaudeville. Matthew Macfadyen and Kim Cattrall were wonderful as Elyot and Amanda, and Lisa Dillon and Simon Paisley Day provided them with excellent foils as the long-suffering Sybil and Victor.

Photo via the Vaudeville Theatre website

The sparks simply flew between Macfadyen and Cattrall: the scene in which the two bickering ex-spouses count down the seconds during an enforced two-minute silence was filled with a bristling, hilarious tension, while the climatic fight scene between the supposedly happily reunited couple at the end of the second act was spectacularly well done. The leads did an excellent job of portraying the love-hate relationship between Amanda and Elyot, while the looks upon their faces during the spat between Victor and Sybil at the play's end said it all. Caroline Lena Olsson, playing Amanda's French maid in Paris, also displayed some great comic timing -- there was simply not a bad performance in sight.

All in all, a wonderful day, full of several delights. To quote Sir W (in his 1601 essay 'Of Popularitie'), it was one whose

'satisfaction rested as much in the varietie, as in the proffit'.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Of A Present from Persephone

A lovely parcel was waiting for me in my college pigeon hole (or 'pidge') the other day. Or rather, three lovely parcels, as I went into the post room to find a newly delivered stash of Persephone books. I had a Persephone book token from my aunt and uncle for Christmas, but only recently got around to exchanging it for some of those beautiful grey covers.

As always, the greatest difficulty was in deciding which ones I should choose from the many tempting options. So many of these neglected and rediscovered titles sound fascinating, but as I dithered, hovering my cursor over first one, and then another 'add to basket' box on the website, I was reassured by the thought that I've never yet been disappointed by anything that's come through the post from Lamb's Conduit Street.

In the end, I went for one Persephone I've been lusting after for a while: Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson, which sounds as if it is going to be quite as charming as the 1930s dress fabric used for its endpapers, which is filled with beautiful flowers and dancing couples:

Along with this, I plumped for two of Persephone's most recent publications, which I've been dying to read ever since they came out: Miss Buncle's Book by D. E. Stevenson, which sounds like great fun; and To Bed With Grand Music by Marghanita Laski. I enjoyed Laski's creepily atmospheric story The Victorian Chaise-Longue when I read it last year, and have heard fantastic things about To Bed With Grand Music. Happily, if I like it as much as I expect to, I have two other Laski titles published by Persephone -- Little Boy Lost and The Village -- to look forward to afterwards!

I'm particularly pleased to have received my Persephone parcels just now, as they've arrived nicely in time for this year's Persephone Reading Week, coming up in May:

Begun by Verity at The B Files last year, this year the reading week is being co-hosted by Verity and Claire at Paperback Reader. It's such a great way to spread the Persephone love and learn more about the various titles (to help streamline that wishlist), and I'm really looking forward to reading everyone's thoughts and sharing a few of my own. I love the way in which events like this really bring people together across the blogosphere. Indeed, we might say, along with Sir W in his 1600 essay 'Of Censuring', that we will be

'conuersing with bookes',

and I for one can't wait to begin!

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Of A Happy Purchase

This lovely lady expresses the feelings of joy I'm experiencing at the moment, thanks to my recent purchase (finally!) of a new camera. At the moment, Rose Dancer is adorning my bedroom wall, as she's the Miss April for my current calendar. This year I decided to go for the Erte calendar by Flame Tree Publishing. I adore Erte's designs, and this one from 1984 shows that he lost none of his talent over the course of his long life (Erte, or Romain de Tirtoff, lived from 1892 to 1990. The pseudonym came from the French pronunciation of his initials). I've been enjoying turning over the page each month to be greeted by another beautiful figure, and a quick glance down the Erte page at Flame Tree shows me that I might just have found a good place to buy my Christmas cards this year (it never hurts to be prepared!):

The only problem would be choosing which design to pick (and these are only a few of the ones on offer!), but at only £4.99 for a pack of twelve (plus postage), I might not be forced to stick at just one...

I am beyond excited to have a camera in my hot little hands once again, and can't wait to get out there and start using it. In fact, I think it will be having its very first outing this evening, as I'm off to London later to spend an evening with friends and particularly to catch up with one friend who is back in the UK on a flying visit from a six month work placement in Athens. My latest purchase is very well timed! I love having pictorial reminders of events -- large and small -- in my life, and although I've enjoyed a bit of retro chic with the odd disposable camera over the past few months, I have really missed having my digital camera constantly at my side. I'm looking forward to once again being able to express myself and share my experiences through photos here on my blog too. For (to quote Sir W in his 1601 essay 'Of Trappes for Fame'), sometimes

'my picture can doe this, better than I'.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Of Being Back In Time

Last Thursday, I went back in time. Really. Well, so nearly really that it actually felt like I'd stepped back a few decades, to a time when men wore smart hats over brill-creamed hair and women wouldn't step outside without a pair of gloves and a swipe of lipstick. In other words, I took a trip on a steam train along the Severn Valley Railway. The SVR runs sixteen miles, from Kidderminster in Worcestershire to Bridgnorth in Shropshire, passing through some absolutely stunning countryside along the way. Several years ago, during a camping trip to Norfolk, I went on the Wells and Walsingham Light Railway:

As you can see, it's very cute, but although I remember this baby steam train being a lot of fun, it doesn't have proper carriages, so hardly has the same power to transport one back in time like the SVR, which really made me feel like I was one of The Railway Children. If I'd been wearing red flannel petticoats, believe me, I'd have been tempted to tear them off and start waving them as flags.

Managing to restrain my impulses to follow Jenny Agutter's example and attempt some impromtu sephamore, I sedately followed my mother into the first class carriage (at £3 each way for the upgrade, it was well worth it to have a proper little compartment all to ourselves!) and settled down to enjoy the ride. A red-faced, white-bearded guard came and checked our tickets, offered us a toffee (this never normally happens to me on trains!) and we were off into the beautiful countryside, the rhythmic chug and puff of the train signalling our passage.

The SVR has several station stops between Kidderminster and Bridgnorth, but although some of them sounded tempting, we had decided to travel straight through, so that we could enjoy a leisurely lunch in the Shropshire town, and, as the weather was so good (it was a glorious, warm day with bright blue skies and hardly any clouds), a little stroll around after our meal. Nevertheless, we enjoyed peering out of the carriage at the towns and villages, fields and woods as we passed by...

I also found out what it really means to be smutty, as I wiped the little dabs of flakey soot from my hands after they flew in through the window as I stared out!

Apart from the lovely vistas (sadly I still had no camera, hence the reliance on stock photos from the SVR website), we were also thrilled by the variety of wildlife that was prancing around outside. From partridges to pheasants, lambs to galloping horses, we saw it all. And I mean all. There were even elephants, a couple of rhinos, and a herd of reindeer. I kid thee not. Well, we did pass by the West Midland Safari Park, after all...!

The journey to Bridgnorth took about an hour, but it seemed no time at all before we arrived at the station:

Here, however, it looked like our journey might end, with dreams of lunch and sunlit strolls being catapulted out of our minds thanks to a sudden confrontation with a Rather Large suspension bridge. As some of you might remember, I have a little problem called vertigo, and I could tell at a glance that this bridge and I were not going to be friends. A little fingerpost pointed across the bridge proclaiming 'Bridgnorth Town Centre', and the rest of the train's passengers were trouping merrily across. I, however, cowered against the wall and felt slightly foolish as I wondered whether I would ever manage to join them. From my position against the stones, however, with the quick eye of a vertigo sufferer (it makes you very fast at figuring out alternate routes, or, rather, escape routes!), I had already noticed the line of cars next to the platform. They had definitely not come across the scarily high footbridge, so I knew there must be another way across. I started to feel a bit more hopeful. My optimism was rewarded when my mum returned from a scouting expedition with a charming young porter, who led us towards a nice gentle path out of the little railway carpark and down the hill to the main road below, with no sudden drops or vertiginous bridges in sight. I breathed a sigh of relief, and we set off.

Although we were keen to explore the pretty town, the call of our stomachs was stronger, and our first stop was lunch at a nice little brasserie on the High Street. Suitably replenished, we set off to admire the local sights, such as the Town Hall on stilts...

... and the beautiful church hidden away down a winding little lane:

As we pottered around, my eye was caught (naturally) by a sign for a vintage clothing and accessories shop called The Looking Glass. Venturing inside, we found a veritable treasure trove of vintage and reproduction clothing ranging from the 1920s through to the 1970s, as well as some contemporary hats, gloves, and jewellery. My eye was immediately caught by some stunning reproduction 1920s dresses hanging outside the one little changing room. Long, thin, and black, they were intricately beaded with silver decorations in the most fantastic patterns. Some of the most spectacular designs were influenced by the Art Deco craze for Egyptian style designs that came after the dramatic discoveries of the archaeological expeditions of the 1920s and '30s. The reproduction dresses were beautiful, and had been hand-made in India by families using traditional techniques, and sold under Fair Trade contracts to ensure they were being produced ethically. Mindful of the upcoming white tie New College Ball in June, I tried some on. They were gorgeous, and made me feel as if I'd stepped straight out of a Poirot novel. I was deeply tempted. But which one to choose? Time was ticking by and we needed to be back at the station to catch the steam train back to Kidderminster. I ummed and aahed and tried three dresses on again in a bid to make my mind up (decision making is not always my strongest point). Just as I was considering trying the first dress on for the third time, the lovely lady whose shop it was re-emerged from the back of the shop where she had been rummaging through the rails, clutching a shimmering bundle of taffeta. 'I don't want to confuse you even further', she said, 'but I couldn't resist showing you this one'. I took the dress from her hands and slipped it on. Instantly, I knew it. It was too big, but still, I knew. I had found my dress. I won't describe it now, apart from to say it's an original evening gown from the 1930s, and -- of course -- that I think it's very beautiful. But a proper description (with photos!) will have to wait until the ball itself. I'm not always a great fan of vintage clothes, but I must say that with this dress I'm glad to have my mind changed. I'm ridiculously excited about getting the alterations done and trying it on again, and even more excited about wearing it to the ball itself. And it's fitting, perhaps, that a 1950s steam train should lead me even further back in time to a 1930s dress! I really hadn't had any idea of finding the dress in Bridgnorth, and had actually been planning to slog around the London shops to try to find something. Such unlooked for treasures are always extra-special, and I am at one with Sir W in his 1600 essay 'Of Censuring' when he says that:

'I like them the better because vnexpected'.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Of A Happy Easter

I hope you've all been enjoying as lovely an Easter weekend as I have! I'm at home for ten days of holiday at the moment, and have been indulging in some festive treats. I was very pleased to make the acquaintance of this little fellow yesterday, who is (almost) too cute to eat:

After a lovely Easter Sunday lunch at home with my mum and grandparents yesterday, today my mum and I made a trip up into the beautiful Peak District. Our destination was the charming estate village of Tissington in Derbyshire, about an hour's drive away, and a favourite place to visit when I'm at home. Crossing over the cattlegrid that marks the village boundary, it feels rather as if one has driven into a picture postcard. Pretty, grey-stoned cottages cluster at the head of the main street...

... a picturesque church perches atop a little hill ...

... and crowning it all is the stunning Tissington Hall, still privately owned by the Fitzherbert family, as it has been since the fifteenth century. The current Hall dates from 1609, and I can just imagine Sir W emerging from the gateway:

As we came into the village, Mum and I were pleased to spy signs directing us to a craft fair, and we wandered along past the duck pond towards the school house, which today was playing host to a variety of stalls selling hand-made gifts and local produce. Although I was tempted by a very cute little pair of turquoise and purple wrist warmers, I didn't actually buy anything, although it was fun to browse the tables and admire the workmanship on display. After exploring this unexpected little distraction, we were starting to feel rather peckish. Happily, the Hall's former coach house has been converted into a wonderful tea room...

... so we wandered back over the road to enjoy a lovely ploughman's lunch -- plates filled with delicious thick-cut ham from the village butcher, and yummy chunks of Stilton and Cheddar with a scrumptious home-made chutney for a bit of extra kick.

The Old Coach House was doing a good business, full of Bank Holiday visitors who were enjoying the Easter sunshine: walkers in their wax jackets and wellies with shiny-eyed dogs at their heels, and parents laughing with their children as they paddled together in the stream that runs through the village. This stream flows down the main street towards the pond, passing through the main well in the village on the way. There are six wells altogether in Tissington, and the village is known for its well dressing ceremony, which takes place every year in May. As you can see from these photos of the well dressing celebrations in 2000, the flower displays are often very intricate:

People come from far and wide to see the well dressing, and I remember going as a little girl, and loving the bright colours and beautiful floral pictures. Although there were no such works of art to admire today, the village was still looking very pretty, with its daffodils and snowdrops creeping through the grass. Sadly I still haven't got round to buying a new camera, so I can't share any photos of today's blooms, nor of the woolly little lambs who were frisking and gamboling in the fields across the wall!

Tissington is home to a couple of great little shops, but unfortunately neither of them was open today, which seemed like a bit of a missed opportunity. Normally I enjoy popping in for a look around the candle workshop, with its displays of beautiful wax creations, although as I have a couple at home already, it's probably no bad thing I couldn't be tempted by any more! I particularly like the hurricane candles, which have beautiful flowers trapped beneath the wax. With a little tea light popped inside, the effect is utterly charming. I have one quite similar to these two sitting just across from me in my bedroom as I type:

The other shop is a wonderful little treasure trove called Acanthus, which sells beautiful homewares, lighting, and gifts. I was rather disappointed not to be able to call in there today, but no doubt there'll be other opportunities!

All in all it was a lovely breath of fresh air, and I always enjoy the drive through Derbyshire, as the countryside starts becoming wilder and hills and peaks start appearing. After a rather hectic end to term, I was more than glad of a chance to blow the cobwebs away. I'll be sharing some more stories from the start of my break before long, but for the moment at least, Sir W may well say of me (to take a few words from his 1601 essay 'Of Natures pollicie') that I have:

'arriued at some good end of her trauailes'.