The leaves have turned, the nights have drawn in. The air smells different; peaty and smoky, suffused with the slight mustiness of mouldering leaves. Already I find myself wanting to hibernate; I’d rather be burrowed under blankets with books and biscuits and tea rather than out and about in the wet and cold, but as ever, there is far too much to do and see than allow myself such a luxury.
This time of year, I find myself drawn out of the centre of town and to the suburbs, where the air is fresher, the leaves are more coppery, and a slightly longer tube journey makes me feel like I’ve had a proper day out. A friend and I went to see Marble Hill in Richmond at the beginning of the month; newly renovated and reopened by English Heritage, it’s the last complete survivor of a group of 18th century grand houses that were once clustered along the Thames in this part of London. It’s quite compact, but beautifully decorated and furnished inside, with an excellent array of inventively displayed visitor information and very knowledgeable volunteers. The grounds aren’t much at this time of year, but there’s a nice bit of parkland to walk around that takes you down to the Thames, where there is an art gallery owned by the local council, the Orléans House Gallery, which tells the story of when the French royal family once lived there, and has a fascinating collection of work by local artists. They also have a fabulous cafe serving divine cake and very good coffee, and a quirky gift shop – highly recommended! If that wasn’t enough fun for one day, you can jump on the tiny passenger ferry that stops right outside, and be taken across the river in a couple of minutes, where you’ll get off in the gardens of Ham House, a gorgeous 17th century National Trust property that has also recently been renovated and has some outstanding interiors. And another very good café! I loved the fact that the original owner of Marble Hill – Henrietta Howard, who was a remarkable woman – was best friends with the then owner of Ham House – I can imagine they must have had many lovely afternoons together picnicking and messing about on the river. Best of all, most of this day out was entirely free – Marble Hill and Orléans House Gallery will cost you absolutely nothing to visit. Perfect in our times of austerity!
As the month has drawn on, the rain has become relentless, and on a hideously wet Sunday a couple of weekends ago, an American friend asked me to come and see the Winslow Homer exhibition at the National Gallery. To my shame I had no recollection of ever hearing Homer’s name, but I could think of no better way to spend such a miserable day, so I very happily went along regardless. However, once I was actually inside the exhibition, I realised I had seen plenty of the paintings before in American galleries, because evidently, he is incredibly well known and loved in his country of origin. My friend and I had a fascinating discussion afterwards about how much your knowledge of the world is shaped by where you grow up – one country’s cultural household name can mean nothing to someone else who may have grown up just feet away across a border. I loved watching the exhibition video (you can view it here), which explains all about Homer’s fascinating life and his explorations of the American and British landscapes, and his engagement with the debates around the Civil War and slavery. Homer has never had a solo exhibition in Britain, despite his fame in the US, and I think the paintings in this exhibition represent his very best work. If you can manage to see it, do; Homer has a remarkable ability to capture the movement of the sky, and sea, and make what might seem to be quite a humdrum subject extraordinary. The selection of paintings is very well chosen and displayed to tell the story of his development as an artist over time; perfect for someone new to his work. I might even go back to see it again, I enjoyed it that much.
Reading wise, I’ve managed to pack in a lot, as I was fortunate to have a run of excellent books on my to read pile that kept me reading at a cracking pace. I absolutely loved the genius that is Kate Atkinson’s new book, Shrines of Gaiety – I don’t think the title does it many favours, nor the jacket design, if I’m perfectly honest – but the contents are brilliant. Loosely based around the life of Kate Meyrick, who owned several of London’s most famous nightclubs in the 1920s and made an absolute fortune off the back of them, it’s a wonderful, kaleidoscopic dive into the underworld of the Jazz Age. Those of you who are familiar with Kate Atkinson’s work will find several threads from her oeuvre combining in this; her interest in history, in detective fiction, in women’s lives, in the exploitation of the vulnerable and in fractured and multi-voiced narratives. There are many characters, all of whom are wonderful, and I’ll say no more other than that you ought to read it, and soon. A very different novel was Elizabeth Jenkins’ Brightness – some of you may know her as the author of Harriet, reprinted by Persephone Books, or The Tortoise and the Hare, reprinted by Virago. Her other novels are very hard to get hold of, so when I came across Brightness going for a song on eBay, I snapped it up. I’m so glad I did; a quiet, fascinating novel about the rivalry between two suburban women in 1960s Britain, it says so much about post-war social upheaval, as well as about women’s lives, the gulf between generations, and the corrosiveness of jealousy. It’s beautifully written, very evocative of its time and place, and also horribly sad – I had a proper cry at the end. If you can get hold of a copy, I highly recommend it, and I must say I’m surprised it’s not been reprinted yet. I need to also say a big thank you to Barbara, who commented on my last post about reading The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey – you encouraged me to finally pluck it off my shelf and I loved every minute of it. It unravels the mystery of Richard III and whether he really did murder his nephews imprisoned in the tower – and now I’ve read it, I can understand why Philippa Langley, who was the driving force behind getting Richard III dug up from underneath a car park in Leicester a few years ago and reburied with dignity, developed such a passion for his rehabilitation. I am sensing a research project coming on! Perhaps I’ll start with watching The Lost King, though the reviews have not been that complementary!
Finally for the big news of the month, which is that I have now reentered the workforce, and it has been quite the adjustment; I had forgotten how tiring a whole day at work is, and have been collapsed on the sofa most evenings since, utterly drained of any energy. I am having to get used to a new rhythm, but I’m enjoying the challenge of my work, and the opportunities it’s presenting. For I am no longer in a classroom every day, but a theatre; still working in education, but in the extracurricular side of school life, managing part of the schools programming at Shakespeare’s Globe. I can’t tell you how thrilling it is to wander through the Stage Door in the morning, and wander in and out of the theatre all day. It’s such a privilege to work in a space which is, for many children, their first experience of a theatre, and to get to be part of a team who is working to ensure that experience is as exciting and transformational as it possibly can be. I feel very fortunate to be here!