31 December 2011

Happy New Year

New Year's Greetings to everyone - may your 2012 be healthy, happy and prosperous - a fab year altogether, in fact.

We will be seeing in the New Year in the comfort of home, as is our custom: I shall toast it in Bacardi and coke, while Keith prefers gin and tonic. Earlier on we had a luscious lamb curry of his concocting, which should perhaps become another New Year's Eve custom, and I finally remembered to put out the hansel money (a custom inherited from my mother). This consists of putting outside the door before midnight on New Year's Eve a coin for every member of the family/ household, and fetching the money in after midnight: this is supposed to make sure that they have enough money for the year. Very much to the point in these times, I'd say!

Festive lights at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington

10 December 2011

The Stone Menagerie no 2

Two of my favourite creatures in all the vast collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum are these medieval lions, from Southern Italy (their museum numbers are 324-1889 and 324A-1889).

The lions currently reside in the recentishly opened Medieval and Renaissance Galleries (which being a V&A person, I still think of by the working title of Med and Ren), but when I started work they were in the sculpture galleries, and I walked past them most nights on my way out of the building. As the label comments, they are column bearing and likely to have been for an external window or door. While, yes, this no doubt accounts for some of the worn appearance, the fact that most of it is around their heads suggests to me that I am not the first person, nor the last, in the 900 years of their existence who has found them very tactile and wished to run a hand over the luxuriantly carved manes. And as with the dog in Chipping Norton church, ribs and claws are still visible, though in this instance unlikely to have been based on real life - these are more your heraldic or at least symbolic lions, with tails as long as their bodies.

04 December 2011

Re-reading: Georgette Heyer x 2

These days, where fiction's concerned, I do more re-reading of what's already on my shelves than anything newly acquired.

While that's very unadventurous of me, I'm not really being drawn to any of the new stuff - and I do still look, especially when I'm in South Kensington or Harrow. On the plus side, it's a significant economy of shelf space - I still have books stacked on the stairs for lack of anywhere else (despite having taken at least six boxes' worth to charity shops recently), and I'm still buying non-fiction.

So, what's been re-read recently? A couple of Georgette Heyer's 'Georgians' for a change: The Talisman Ring and Devil's Cub. And (always a test of re-reading) did I still enjoy them? Yes I did, despite having a preference for her 'Regency' titles on the whole. In fact I was surprised at just how much I did enjoy The Talisman Ring: it's a very adroit mixture of a lot of Georgette Heyer's interests , writing genres and favourite character types and situations, many of which she went on developing. The book was published by Heinemann in 1936 (to my further surprise, my copy is not only a hardback but a first edition), and somehow I can just see it sitting in a late 1930s sitting room, even if only as a library copy.

Anyway, to the book itself - a historical detective story, with strong elements of romantic and social comedy. The book opens with the last days of Sylvester, Lord Lavenham, who has been a most outrageous rake in his younger days and is now a most outrageous old man bravely giving death a hard time. In fact he steals the show, for my money, and I much regretted the necessity of his, er, departure so that the plot could proceed.

Sylvester's dying wish is that two of his young relatives, his great nephew Tristram and grand-daughter Eustacie, should marry each other, which looks unlikely to be successful if only because the characters have no real respect for each other. Tristram is one of Heyer's Corinthian heroes, dark, taciturn, intelligent, judicial and more than a bit handy with his fists and firearms - now that's a proper hero, as I and I don't doubt many other female readers have murmured while turning the pages. Eustacie is flighty, emotional, wilful and irritating, rather like her cousin Ludovic (see below) - Tristram would be wasted on her, so it's fortunate that he encounters Miss Sarah Thane, who is tall, venturesome, resourceful, and actually punches an assailant in the face at one point .

Most of the difficulties, however, arise from another grandson, Ludovic, tenth Baron Lavenham on Sylvester's death, whom I have to say I found rather a rather tiresome young person too. Ludovic is on the run from the law, accused of a murder two years previously and needing to prove his innocence and find his missing talisman ring which was the cause of the situation. As if this wasn't enough he is also a smuggler and has been injured in an encounter with the local excisemen. Naturally everything is sorted out in time for a happy ending, largely down to Tristram and Sarah's efforts, but also aided by Sarah's brother Sir Hugh (a marvellous comic character who is clearly related to Lord Rupert Alastair in Devil's Cub) and a supporting cast of The Lower Orders, notably the wonderfully lugubrious Mr Bundy.

Devil's Cub, sequel to These Old Shades, was written four years earlier than The Talisman Ring, and I think it shows. It's still a good enjoyable read, with an attractive heroine in Mary Challoner (set off to great advantage by her avaricious mother, frankly idiotic sister Sophia and spoilt friend Juliana Marling), but I feel it's a little less polished than The Talisman Ring; the 18th centuryisms, carefully researched though they are, I found a little intrusive in this book. The heroine spends most of the second half of the book repeatedly running away from the hero, which I got a little bored with in the end, and a certain amount of skipping set in. Once again the older generation are the scene stealers, especially His Saturnine Grace the Duke of Avon (dressed to kill, in silver lace over black cloth, oh my!), his lovely and volatile wife Leonie and his brother Rupert (whose enthusiasm for alcohol masks a dry wit).

At one point I had most of Georgette Heyer's historical novels, but there are some I found I didn't want to read any more, such as Bath Tangle, which seems to be written between exclamation marks. Those two titles are certainly for the keeping, though.

02 December 2011

The Garden Shed - Excavations

(A view of garden sheds in the area - ours is barely visible on the right, after years of growing things up it!)

OK, so Mrs Beeton's suggestion for the domestic work on a Wednesday was cleaning the best bedrooms and the windows, but this week we did something a little different. With help from our friend Tom, we emptied the garden shed: very exciting, not, surely? Well, no, but we were not without some trepidation about what we might find in the way of inhabitants...many rodents in this area, and quite a few foxes, for starters.

What's more, we knew there was a hole in the back wall of this historic edifice (complete with asbestos roof, natch) and over the last year the shed has filled up with some four or five inches of soil/compost, as though something were nesting within. Hmmmm. And as is the traditional way with garden sheds, it wasn't exactly clutter-free. We took out two bicycles (Keith's with a chunk out of one wheel!), two bookcases, tins and tins of old paint/ wood sealer/ paint stripper/ barbecue fuel, three thousand (well, that's what it felt like) flowerpots, an oil lamp, assorted bits of watering equipment, six (or was it seven?) defunct pond pumps, a pond hoover (yes, there really are such things), hanging baskets, a quantity (as the auction houses say) of hosepipe, an assortment of garden tools (including a probably 1930s rake we inherited with the house), wooden shelving, and a seemingly infinite supply of deteriorating bags of sand, gravel, grit, cement, cat litter etc.

But in fact all we found by way of creature was one dead rat - and quite enough too, I hear you say. Could have been much worse, of course - but the real acid test will be when we take the edifice down and find anything that may be nestling underneath (see rodents, foxes etc above). Tom's comment was "That was a good job we did there. Of course there's just one trouble with having started it - we have to finish it!".