"It was imprudent of us, in the first place, to become authors. We could have become something regular, but we managed not to.
We were lucky, but we were also determined." Roy Blount Jr

"I don’t change the facts to enhance the drama. I think of it the other way round, the drama has got to fit the facts,
and it’s your job as a writer to find the shape in real life."
Hilary Mantel

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Fouquet Madonna

Somehow I don't think Jean Fouquet's 15th century rendering of the Virgin and Child will appear on Christmas cards...not in the US, anyway. It exposes too much of the female figure, whose figure is hardly realistic and whose skin is an unearthly, space alien white. Her baby isn't at all pretty. The tubby red and blue cherubs look more diabolical than angelic. It has a very modern appearance, despite having been painted in about 1450, because the entire thing is so wonderfully weird and so vivid coloured.

As well, the madonna is reputed to be the portrait of a fallen woman, Agnes Sorel, mistress to French king Charles VII.

Those who know their jewellery history will be aware that Agnes was one of the first females to wear diamonds on her person. And Charles was purportedly the first man to "put a ring on it," giving her a diamond ring as a token of affection, although she remained his bit on the side until her death.

The Chap and I were talking of this painting the other day. We saw it last year, at the Koninklijk Museum in Antwerp. It's a portion of the Melun Diptych. The other parts of it aren't as weird. Or as memorable.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Black & White Blizzard Beasts

We're not entirely sure how much snow has fallen here at the Lodge. By the time the storm subsides, we'll probably have a foot, at the far lower end of the prediction scale. But quite enough for the girls' snow-romping session this morning.

We have no idea what entices Jewel to dig beneath the snow, but she always does it as soon as she's outside. Ruth is as perplexed as I am. She'd rather be playing.

The little dog gets her way, and the romping begins. Snarling, body-slamming, chasing. Fun to watch!

Eventually they come racing up the stair, panting and tail-wagging.

At the moment, they are on the sofa beside me, soundly sleeping. Apart from the black & white markings, they bear absolutely no resemblance to the wild beasts pictured above!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Boxing Day

As we await the incoming Boxing Day Blizzard, already working its way up the East Coast, I'm reporting on our holiday festivities--thus far. We're still in the earliest days of Christmas: "Christmas Second Day," as they say in St Croix, where the Chap spent a few years. (Before I knew him.)

On Christmas Eve, I whipped up the fabled family custard.

Then we went to church, which was packed, for the annual Carol Sing followed by our Christmas Eve Eucharist.

On Christmas morning the dogs were easily distracted by the contents of their stockings: new rugged chew toys from the kennel-keeper, who takes such good care of them whenever we're in the UK and Montreal and elsewhere.

Jewel doing her impression of "Jaws".

Somehow wee Ruth manages to gain possession of all the toys.

But Jewel got her toy back again, with a little assistance from me.

The contents of the humans' stockings. Lots of consume-ables, and many surprises from London.

I received a little mirror--

--with the image of a favourite painting from the Wallace Collection in London. I took this photo of a few weeks ago.

So many amazing and wonderful gifts from generous family and friends. We were also generous to ourselves! Santa brought the Lodge a set of flannel sheets with dancing sock monkeys. Because I really, really love sock monkeys!

The Chap gave me some flannel jim-jams with doggies printed all over. Because I really, really love dogs.

I discovered that when you renovate your kitchen, new cookware is a popular gift item.

Ruth is telling me how much she likes Christmas, while Jewel cuddles.

The Chap roasted the duck to perfection, and we had simple sides of haricots verts sauteed with prosciutto, and wild rice with mushrooms and chestnuts.

After watching the film Joyeux Noel, about the 1914 Christmas Eve cessation of hostilities/fraternisation during WWI, we were ready for pumpkin pie.

I look forward to posting some snow photos soon, after a nearly snow-less December. Our blizzard is expected this afternoon and is supposed to rage all night and into tomorrow. The Lodge is located in the weather-map band forecasting 16 to 18 inches. We got out the yardstick and determined if true, the snow depth would level out somewhere near my lower kneecap. We'll see.

The Chap is walking the girls while we can still get about. Our near neighbours--German & German-American--are sweepting the surface of the little lake, clearing the scant half-inch of snow for their Christmas skating.

I'm enjoying the warmer delights of hot coffee and my soft new fleece-y zip-front shirt. Until there's snow to play in, I'm enjoying indoor pursuits--new books, DVDs, gadgets, and knitting.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Yuletide Decadance

Watching telly earlier, I saw an ad for Ferrero Rocher, the round Italian truffle-type chocolates with a hazlenut inside. (From the lovely folks who also make Nutella hazlenut spread!) The ad reminded me about the Ferrero promotion I recently witnessed in Covent Garden: a tree studded with gold or brown foil-wrapped chocolates. Such restraint I showed, merely snapping a photo, rather than joining the throngs of excited people plucking candy from the tree.

I was not so restrained, however, at a weekend party, when I confronted an English trifle concocted from the host's English mother's recipe:

Must admit, I had seconds.

The Lodge does not contain an overabundance of sweet stuff--yet. I did make chocolate cookies yesterday. They have been handed out to the angels who deliver our post, the newspaper, and all the Christmas parcels. Although I did reserve a few for the Chap. Tomorrow I shall whip up my family's Christmas custard, from a recipe that came over with some ancestor or other from either England or Wales 200 years ago. Give or take a year or a decade.

I wish my blog visitors a hearty "Happy Christmas!" Enjoy your holidays--

Friday, December 17, 2010

Christmas Cheesecake

An extremely silly photo, in which I exhibit my seasonal spirit in this time of parties and merriment.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Music, Words, & Pictures

As you can see, I've created my blog title banner with the "pearly" typewriter I spotted in a Curzon Street gallery a fortnight ago. There might be more tweaking before I get it exactly the way I want it, or I might leave it alone.

In London, we got by with only frigid temperatures and occasional flurries, when the rest of the country was blanketed with snow. So it is in New Hampshire. The ground around the Lodge is still bare of snow, although we've sometimes seen light flakes falling. Last night the mercury dropped to a single digit--I don't know exactly which one and don't much care to know! Meanwhile, the North Country is setting up for a very White Christmas. With 10 days to go, our hopes remain alive...typically by this time we've had significant snowfall.

Indoors it's plenty Christmas-y. Earlier this week, all gift-giving preparations were completed: purchasing, wrapping, shipping for all family and friends, domestic and overseas. The cards are in the post. Here I sit, a lady of leisure, stirring myself only for the intense schedule of holiday parties (3 in a row last Thurs., Sat., Sun. and more ahead!) For a time we considered resuming our defunct holiday party, but now we have these annual affairs crowding the calendar and no room for one of our own. That's all right, we're perfectly content to be Summer Party People!

With the novel on my mind, I'm immersed in 18th century England. I've got plenty of classical and even popular Georgian Christmas music, but this new acquisition is a wonderful compilation.

As for reading material, I find myself often delving into this recent purchase, Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail, 1700-1915.

Large-format and richly illustrated, it shows garments in their entirety and detailed close-up views of the fabrics and decorations and accessories. The sumptuous, vibrant colours worn by men and women leap off the page. Published just a few months ago, it's my favourite fashion reference book find of the year!

The novel I read most recently took me back to the 17th century, to the courts of Louis XIV and Charles II. I picked up The Empress of Ice Cream at Hatchards in London...it doesn't seem to be available in the US which is a great shame for lovers of fact-based historical fiction. The chief characters are an Italian confectioner and ice-maker and his patroness, Louise de Keroualle, the English King's French mistress.

I'm doing my annual holiday reading as well. Having polished off Nancy Mitford's hilarious Christmas Pudding, I'm presently re-reading--and giggling my way through--Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris. NPR listeners are familiar with "Santaland Diaries," his tale of slaving away as a Macy's Christmas Elf, but there's so much more to enjoy in this collection of wry, humourous, cynical essays.

Our first holiday visitor was a titmouse who flew into one of the Lodge's glass windows and stunned itself. I scooped it up, brought it inside to recover its senses--which it did--and inadvertently set it free inside the house. It flew about round our high ceilings...curiously, it never once landed on the Christmas tree! Here it is in the kitchen.

Eventually I was able to catch it in my hand and release it onto the deck. A few short hops, and off it flew, none the worse for the experience. I've since seen it and its mate at the bird feeders. We only have the 1 resident pair, so I'm confident it's the same one and it's in good health.

This morning I adorned Ruth & Jewel in their holiday kerchiefs for a photo session. First they had to do their "Rompin' around the Christmas tree" thing--

--but a short time later they were perfectly happy to pose.

I'm sipping my tea and watching the Berlin State Ballet's version of The Nutcracker on the Ovation channel--part of their "Battle of the Nutcrackers" series. It will be another afternoon with my head in the 18th century and my dogs napping on the sofa beside me.

Who's the working breed round here?

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Traveller's Update

I'm no longer in London. On the day of our departure, I believe Heathrow was the only airport open in Britain, due to the massive amounts of snow piling up. We felt fortunate that our flight was unaffected, and also felt a bit as though we were deserting a country under siege! London was scarcely inconvenienced, only a bit of snow on the ground on our last day there. Flying over the rest of the country, and Ireland, it was a beautifully wintry landscape--unless you needed to get about by car, van, truck, rail, or plane other than one leaving Heathrow!

Playing catch-up with the blog will be a bit of a challenge but I shall make the attempt.

Almost every evening, whether staying in Mayfair or in Bloomsbury, we returned to my favourite pub, a couple of blocks off Piccadilly. One night we dined there.

We spent a Sunday doing the art galleries--the National Portrait Gallery, where we toured the special exhibition on Sir Thomas Lawrence and the Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize, which was inspiring as always. From there we went next door to the National Gallery. I'd already been the previous week, with the honeymooners, but didn't see the full collection. The Chap and I separated to pursue our separate interests--and I did some shopping. My new mobile phone came in handy, enabling me to locate him when I was finished and needed to arrange a meeting point!

We were in a rush to get back to our Bloomsbury hotel before the scheduled 24-hour Underground strike began at 6 p.m. We succeeded in that, and trotted over to a favourite local Indian restaurant for dinner.

Monday took me back to Covent Garden. With the Tube strike still on, we debated taking a taxi or walking, and settled on the taxi. We got as far as the British Museum when we hit an incredible bottleneck of traffic which showed no sign of abating. So we ditched the cab--our cabbie didn't mind, in fact he suggested it!--and went the rest of the way on foot.

This was a second visit to that area, I'd previously gone in search of dwellings of characters in my novels. The most significant character lived in rooms in the topmost floor of the building that had been, earlier in the 18th Century, Button's Coffee House. To my considerable amusement, the site is now--quite appropriately--a Starbucks!

I lunched with a friend at the Covent Garden Hotel, our usual meet-up spot. Then I walked to the British Museum to meet the Chap. I rang him and learnt he was admiring the clock collection. So I did also. This one, with the milkmaid milking, is so sweet!

This one belonged to King William III, a character in my novel.

We returned to our neighbourhood and had dinner at The Balfour, which sounds as if it's would serve British fare but fact is a fantastic longstanding Italian restaurant.

The next day I went to a friend's house in Chelsea. After a cuppa and a chat, we had lunch at Bibendum, and I toddled off--through the snow flurries--to the Victoria & Albert Museum. Among the wonders I re-visited were:

Actor David Garrick's bed.

An 18th century silk court dress.

18th century jewels.

An atrium of statuary.

Bejewelled snuffboxes.

William III & Queen Mary.

The silver spirits flask belonging to the duke in my previous novel, engraved with his coat of arms.

While we were away, Old England was far colder and whiter than New England. But the bitter cold is finding it's way to us, although so far the snow has come in the form of flurries rather than flakes.

It has been an extremely busy time since our return. I've finally managed to sort through my extensive photo archive from the trip--so little of which has appeared here, and I have plans for sharing more of it.

Ruth & Jewel had their usual pleasant time at their kennel but are happy to be home.

We completed our Christmas decorating very swiftly and thoroughly, cutting a tree and decorating it and the rest of the Lodge. Most of the gifts are purchased and some are wrapped already. I've attended Handel's Messiah, an annual traditional start to the holiday season, and remebered that I stood gazing upon the firs draft of it at the British Library only days before!

The birds are busy at our feeders, but yesterday a kestrel came by and today a different hawk, hoping to snatch up the unwary!

Hope you are enjoying December so far!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Scholar's Journey

Our friends departed London a few days ago. Since then I've upped sticks from Mayfair to Bloomsbury and have devoted myself to scholarly pursuits and pubbing and dining in familiar restaurants.

On my way to one of the reference libraries I frequent when here, I passed Landsdowne Terrace where, much to my surprise, I found goats and a single black sheep grazing!

On arrival I submitted the necessary paperwork and became a card-carrying London historian. While waiting for document services to provide me with a real-life character's 18th century last will and testament, I took a quick pic of my new possession with the web cam on my laptop.

From there I went to the Museum of London. For several years all the exhibition space after the Great Fire of 1660 has been off limits for a major renovation and re-interpretation, and the Modern London galleries opened a few months back.

The Plague Rat, however, is still on view!

I have loads of photos of the 17th & 18th century displays and may do up some webpages. For the time being, here's a pair of shoes that I would dearly love to have in my possession. I'm wearing red rather often just now.

A highlight of the exhibition is now what I can only call the Vauxhall Gardens experience, a re-creation of the famed London pleasure garden. The layout throws the visitor into the midst of the action, which takes place on screens all round in the form of "you are there" film scenarios. Here's the young rogue, a hungry gentleman and his wife and his daughter. Of course the older fellow complains about the expence of the chicken and the thinly sliced ham, and of course the rogue tries to tempt the young lady into the dark alleys. All the while, nightingales pierce the night with their song.

The costume cabinets show the attire of Vauxhall visitors.

The Lord Mayor's coach.

I began my Saturday at the British Library, where I have long held a Reader's Pass.

I accessed some important primary research material for my book, tied up some loose ends from last year's visit. Then I went to see the delightful production of Sheridan's The Rivals at the Theatre Royal Haymarket (where one of my main characters often performed.) The cast included Peter Bowles and Penelope Keith--an ideal Mrs Malaprop--and a most talented and lively and comic group of younger performers. This production, directed and produced by Sir Peter Hall, premiered at Bath (the setting of the action) and has toured regional theatres to great acclaim. It's popularity is much deserved. This is the second time in recent years we've seen Bowles at the Haymarket; last time he was playing Beau Brummell in the waning days of his career, and his sanity.

I happened to be seated by a couple of women who both were positive clones of Sybil Fawlty from Fawlty Towers. Their voices, their comments, their attire. I was almost in stitches listening to their chatter before the curtain rose, and during the interval, and as we were departing the theatre.

Every night so far I've dined in Mayfair, very well if I do say so, and despite the transfer to Bloomsbury in the evening I return to the old neighbourhood. Last night I had Spanish food, tonight French at my beloved Le Boudin Blanc. If there was an equivalent of a "reader's card" I'd have one. All we have to do is give our UK phone number, and our names pop up on their reservation computer screen. Bit of a celebrity crowd there this evening, which added to the experience.

One of the art galleries on Curzon Street is featuring these remarkable glittery objects--everyday objects, cameras mostly, refashioned in a very bling-y way. I particularly liked the sparkly typewriters, and one of them might turn into a blog header whenever I get round to it.

So much of England is having extremly heavy snowfall. No sign of it here. I wouldn't mind a bit, but would prefer it visit us after the forthcoming Tube strike has ended. I expect to be getting about on foot more than usual for a while. Apparently it's snowing at the Lodge as well. Well, 'tis the season....

I've got a UK mobile phone and phone number now. Very convenient. The Chap's had one for yonks.