Dorothy, London, and a very good Brownie

I am currently lying on the sofa feeling excessively exhausted after a long day in London. I stayed at my friend Emma’s in Hackney last night, and we went to a wonderful independent cinema called the Rio in trendy Dalston to watch Penelope Cruz’s new film Broken Embraces. It was interesting and absorbing and very funny in places; if you don’t mind reading subtitles do go and see it.

Today we decided to go to St Paul’s as neither of us had ever been, and it was, while a bit overpriced (£11!!), an absolute delight. Stunning workmanship all round, with the most terrific mosaics on the ceilings and imposing marble sculptures on the monuments to long forgotten dead soldiers. We went up to the Whispering Gallery which was nearly 300 steps and my poor calves are certainly feeling it now, but it was well worth it for the view down into the cathedral floor; it was just magnificent. And it’s true that you can hear a whisper travelling round the walls – I don’t know how it works but it does, and Emma and I had far too much fun than 23 year olds should have whispering our names to each other across the dome! Then we went even further up to the outside observatory which has beautiful panoramic views across London. It’s such a higgledy-piggledy city from the sky, with old buildings jostling for space with huge new glass skyscrapers that are appearing as if from nowhere all over the place, but it has a beauty all of its own and I felt quite proud of my majestic city when I was up there, looking down over it.

After St Paul’s we went to see the ruins of Christ Church Greyfriars, which was bombed in the Blitz. Now only bits of the external walls, the tower and the empty windows remain, and it really is incredible to see this relic of wartime London nestling amongst modern office buildings. It was quite moving to stand there and look at the blank windows and think of the terror that must have been felt by ordinary Londoners as they watched their homes and buildings they loved destroyed in seconds around them by bombs that fell indiscriminantly from the sky.

After this and a spot of lunch we went to the Courtauld and saw the wonderful Beyond Bloomsbury exhibition, all about the Omega workshops. They had some gorgeous textiles on display, and I spotted a couple of Persephone endpapers – those for The Wise Virgins and William – An Englishman. The creativity and daring of these artists, among them Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, was really quite breathtaking, considering they were working in a pre war England that was still very Victorian in its design tastes. The fluid lines, geometric patterns, bright colours and plenty of nubile female forms were really so beautiful, and I wished I could bring some of the fabrics home with me. Of course at the time the Omega Workshop was very expensive to buy from – the accompanying leaflet notes that a small rug would have set its owner back £600, which would have put their products out of most people’s price ranges. This illustrates the contradiction in the Bloomsbury Group’s values, I suppose; they wanted to break away from the world of their wealthy, class conscious, Victorian parents, and enjoyed living in almost socialist communes, but they still could not do without maids and their work was not accessible to the lower orders of society; their novels and art might have been groundbreaking, but they were also designed for an implied audience of an educated, privileged, wealthy and cultured elite. Since reading Alison Light’s excellent Mrs Woolf and the Servants, I have seen the Bloomsbury Group in a new light; their snobbery towards those less educated and wealthy as themselves has made me look at their work in a new way. They might have wanted to shake things up a bit, but their desire for change and reform was never, it seems to me anyway, designed to help anyone else but themselves have more fulfilling and, certainly in many of the group’s member’s cases, more sexually free lives.

After the Courtauld I was inspired by Claire’s post about being invited for tea at Bea’s of Bloomsbury by Nicola Beauman to go to there myself for tea and cake, and so Emma and I trotted off down Kingsway to get ourselves something tasty. I had a chai latte and a delicious brownie, and Emma had tea and a strawberry vanilla cupcake, which was equally scrumptious. It is highly recommended, though if you go do reserve a seat first – we were ousted onto the pavement as there were no tables!

And, as we ended up very near to the Persephone shop (though we didn’t go to it today), now is the perfect time to make the seamless transition into a book review. For Persephone Reading Week, which is now literally last week’s news, I read Dorothy Whipple’s The Closed Door and Other Stories, and my goodness, was it a marvellous read. I knew I would love these stories as Dorothy can do no wrong in my eyes, and I actually want to be Dorothy Whipple (but an alive version) whenever I read one of her novels, because I want to be able to write in such a wry, well observed, compassionate and engrossing way myself. I simply can’t believe that her books have been left to languish out of print and forgotten for so long. It is sacrilege. But anyway, back to the stories. Each one is a magnificent, perfectly constructed gem. A couple are fairly long, about sixty pages, but the others are only a few pages each, yet within those pages, a whole world is unfolded before you. They are each about family relationships and most of them featured a suffocated child living with selfish parents, trapped within the walls of home and desperate to get out. Another, Wednesday, was about a woman separated from her children through divorce and the pain she feels at only getting to see them on a Wednesday, and the distance growing between her and the children who seem to care a little less each time that she is no longer a part of their everyday lives. The Closed Door, the opening story, was probably my favourite, but they are all so remarkably powerful and touching stories of the suffering ordinary human beings can cause others through their selfishness that I had to just sit back after reading some of them and goodness…this woman is a genius. It is easy for some to cast her off as a woman writing about mundane everyday things, but while she does write about the everday she also writes about the everyman; the secret selfish thoughts we all have, our desires, our despairs, our capacity to love deeply and selflessly when the spirit moves us…she saw people, the good and the bad, did Dorothy Whipple, and she wrote about life in a way that makes the ordinary extraordinary, and that is why I love her so. I am on tenterhooks waiting for Persephone to print High Wages…it can’t be long to wait now!

Photo accompanying is of my copy ofThe Closed Door and Other Stories, as well as a leaflet and postcard from the Bloomsbury exhibition.

*The photos of London are not mine – I forgot my camera today so they are substitutes from online. Just thought I should make that clear!


  1. Paperback Reader says:

    47 days to wait until High Wages is published!We live in such a fabulous city with so much to see and do. I am so pleased that you felt inspired to visit Bea's and gave it a glowing review.Persephone Week isn't last week's news – people will still be speaking of it for weeks to come (or perhaps just me)!

  2. Darlene says:

    St Paul's was one of the highlights of our trip in 2007. We were so lucky as to catch one of the few weddings conducted in the church itself, not the crypt where most are. The ladies hats were fantastic! We leaned over the railing in the Whispering Gallery to see the bride and groom exit along the black and white tiles below – exquisite. My husband and I then climbed all the way up to the top of St Paul's, it was scary and breathtaking all at the same time. There's not much room going up is there! I've pre-ordered my copies of High Wages and To Bed With Grand Music, now I wish that I had added The Closed Door and Other Stories as well. Thanks for the virtual visit to London!

  3. Danielle says:

    Lovely photos–I'm envious–such an exciting city at your fingertips. My favorite photo of St Pauls, and I'm sure you've seen it, is the one taken during the war–you can see the dome amidst the smoke–quite powerful to see it still standing despite all the bombing. I really enjoyed Alison Light's book as well–quite an interesting view of VW. She despised her servants yet I can't imagine she would have been able to survive without them. It seemed to be very much a love hate situation. And I really need to read Dorothy Whipple!

  4. Rachel says:

    Claire – 47 days! So long to wait! You will love Beas, the cakes looked incredible but I only wanted a light snack. And of COURSE we will all be talking about Persephone Reading Week for weeks and months to come…there is next year's to plan for yet!Darlene – I'm glad you got to see St Paul's, it really is magical! Get The Closed Door and Other Stories just as soon as you can, you won't regret it!Danielle – Yes, that photo is haunting, isn't it? READ DOROTHY WHIPPLE NOW! That is an order! Your life will never be the same again afterwards!

  5. Julia says:

    I also read this for Persephone week- I'm finding it hard to get those poor, suffocated daughters out of my head. Very good stories, but definitely disturbing.

  6. StuckInABook says:

    I want to go to the exhibition!

  7. jennysbooks says:

    Jealous…I miss London. Last time I was there, my mum and I got lost trying to find St. Paul's, and we stumbled on this little tower on Wood Street – same thing as your one, the tower is what's left after the Blitz. It's stood on this traffic island in the middle of massive office buildings. I'm glad y'all had a good time!

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